The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst

Article excerpt

The Chief The Life of William Randolph Hearst. David Nasaw. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 752 pp. $35 hbk.

Few figures in journalism have been the subject of as many biographical and historical works as William Randolph Hearst (18631951), whose influence on everything from yellow journalism, to political populism, to prewar isolationism made him a public figure both beloved and reviled for six decades. It is pleasantly surprising, therefore, that David Nasaw's massive, definitive biography, The Chief, contains so much that is new.

Four decades after the appearance of W.A. Swanberg's Citizen Hearst, the last fulllength biography, Nasaw expands Swanberg's portrait of the newspaper, radio, wire service, newsreel, and motion picture baron with a host of never-before-examined sources, including archives at Hearst's Bronx warehouse and San Simeon, his California castle. Nasaw's list of other primary sources seems complete and includes material from Joseph Kennedy that sheds light on Hearst's financial troubles in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as Hollywood and presidential documents detailing forays into movies and politics. Nasaw also conducted extensive interviews, including a series with Randolph Hearst, the Chief's last surviving child, who died in December 2000.

New material includes details of Hearst's micromanagement of motion pictures made with his financial backing, particularly those starring his mistress, Marion Davies; his contacts with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, whom he initially admired and hired to write for his publications; and his playful, if sometimes exasperating, suggestions for the construction and decoration of his homes.

The image that emerges is that of a far more emotionally complex man than previous scholarship has suggested. Nasaw's Hearst, despite his wealth and power, is more of a sympathetic character than the devil or clown he sometimes is portrayed to be, so much so that readers may find themselves caught up in the easy prose, rooting for Hearst and against his enemies, who cheated him out of at least one election victory in New York, organized boycotts of his media, and personally blamed him for the assassination of William McKinley. …