Raising Citizen Kane

By Corry, John | The American Spectator, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Raising Citizen Kane


Corry, John, The American Spectator


The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst David Nasaw Houghton Mifflin / 687pages / $35

William Randolph Hearst was an American original, as much maligned, in death as in life, as he was admired. He was the most powerful newspaper publisher we have ever known, but he was more interested in making news than reporting it. He probably was right more often than he was wrong, but his timing was bad, and the obsessiveness with which he promoted his views made him look foolish. He was very rich, and a prof ligate and irresponsible spender, but he thought of himself as a tribune of the people. He was often spiteful, and he excelled at invective, but delicacy prevented him from exposing the private lives of his enemies. He was limitless in both his talents and the resources to pursue his ambitions, but he habitually over-reached, and in the very best circles he was judged disreputable. As Winston Churchill once noted, after visiting him at San Simeon and in Los Angeles, "Those California swells do not of course know Hearst. He dwells apart.... They regard him as the Devil."

In David Nasaw's The Chief, however, Hearst, who died in 1951 at age 88, finally gets a fair hearing. Much of what was written about him in the past was either nasty or silly. In 1997, an article in Vanity Fair accused him of having accidentally stabbed a movie director to death in 1925 with Marion Davies's hatpin. Davies, of course, was his mistress. They met when he was 52, and she was i8, and they were together 35 years. In his eighties, he still slipped poems and notes under her door every night. At the same time Hearst and his wife, Millicent, with whom he had five sons, maintained a civilized relationship. She liked to travel, and she acted as his roving ambassador. In 1930, she commissioned Mussolini to write for the Hearst newspapers at $i,5oo an article. In Orson Welles's dark and talky Citizen Kane, regarded by many critics as Hollywood's greatest film, Marion, who in real life was an accomplished light-comedy actress, is caricatured as a charmless, graceless, untalented bimbo; Millicent is depicted as a cold, anti-Semitic, social-climbing snob. Hearst, or Kane, is treated more sympathetically, although he dies alone, empty and defeated, crying out only for "rosebud," the sled he had as a child.

But Hearst, according to Nasaw, "never regarded himself as a failure, never recognized defeat, never stopped loving Marion or his wife," and indeed when he died, ten years after Citizen Kane was first released, he died not in the tomb-like place Welles had envisioned, but in Marion Davies's house in Beverly Hills. Clearly he escaped the just deserts that Welles, an old lefty, had thought appropriate. Hearst was supposedly our leading American fascist, and he should have been punished for his sins.

Hearst was born in San Francisco in 1863. His father, George, was a tobaccochewing, generally uncouth, semi-literate miner, who struck it rich in the Comstock Lode, and later entered Democratic politics. His mother, Phoebe, 20 years her husband's junior, was a former schoolteacher with a yearning for life's finer things, and the determination to obtain them. She doted on her son. Together they studied French, and attended operettas, and when he was 10 she pulled him out of public school-she worried about the "toughs" in his class-and took him on an 18-month tour of Europe. Mother and son perfected their French, learned German, and visited museums, galleries, palaces, and churches. At night they rummaged through Shakespeare. Meanwhile young Will felt the first fluttering of what would become a life-long passion. As Phoebe wrote to George; who had remained in California, "He wants all sorts of things."

Indeed he did: German porcelain, Venetian glass, and the four white horses that pulled the British royal carriages, among them. Phoebe told him they could not buy everything he saw, but as she also told George, their son "gets so fascinated, his reason and judgment forsake him. …

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