Weekend: Books: Book Views; Overweight Tale of Power and Decadent Arrogance; the Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. by David Nasaw (Gibson Square Books, Pounds 20). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

The Birmingham Post (England), June 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

Weekend: Books: Book Views; Overweight Tale of Power and Decadent Arrogance; the Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. by David Nasaw (Gibson Square Books, Pounds 20). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds


Byline: Richard Edmonds

As Orson Welles showed us in his brilliantly satirical movie, Citizen Kane William Randolph Hearst was a gigantic figure, a larger than life tycoon involved in the media, Hollywood and international affairs.

A comparison with Howard Hughes is not invidious in the context of a life which began with a rough and tumble father, a miner who made it to the Senate via the gift of the gab and a doting mother on another social level, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who kept tight control of the family fortunes until her son was in his mid 50s.

David Nasaw's remarkably fascinating book uses fresh material drawn from Hearst's private papers stored in a large warehouse in the New York Bronx, archive details which provide a story more complex than even a media makeover could have come up with when Hearst almost ran America with his newspaper empire which was never particularly bothered about respecting the truth.

And it is a story we get here that was never previously accessible since the FBI also held a secret file on Hearst assembled during World War One.

But Nasaw is an intrepid writer and he has delved deeply to come up with this fine book and so it is at Yale he located the papers relating to Than von Ranck, the New York editor who served during the 30s as Hearst's intermediary with Hitler and Mussolini, monsters he admired.

A year ago, I visited San Simeon, Hearst's immense estate built high up in the Californian mountains. It was in this magnificent palace (satirised by Welles as Xanadu) that Hearst turned a Broadway showgirl, the undeniably pretty Marion Davies, into America's most famous dirty joke.

She was his mistress, there was almost 40 years between them, but whatever Davies said went. The parties, the profligate spending, the skittish uncontrolled behaviour of Davies herself, have already been written about by Cecil Beaton in his frank diaries kept in 1931.

Although Nasaw's book pictures Hearst at the heart of American politics, it is his colourful relationship with Davies which always dominates one's picture of the man and provides the most compelling parts in a book which can verge occasionally upon the overweight, since not everyone finds American politics as fascinating as Americans themselves.

It was Hearst's newspapers, of course, which promoted a girl of only minor talents. Davies had a lifetime battle with a pushy mother and a stammer. When she became a Ziegfeld girl, she lost the battle with public speaking. But the Hearst publicity machine was always ready to control those whom it was promoting and her stock rose in the public eye - or at least, those eyes which read the things which Hearst's columnists promulgated.

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