The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst

By Siegel, Sally | National Forum, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst


Siegel, Sally, National Forum


DAVID NASAW. The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. 687 pages. $35.00.

The intersection of money, media, and politics in the recent presidential election is a perfect backdrop for a leisurely read of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. David Nasaw, chair of the doctoral history program of City University of New York, has mastered an enormous amount of information to lucidly and gracefully recount the complex life of a media mogul whose companies still exert a powerful influence on our culture.

Nasaw's biography of Hearst's eightyeight years spans a century of American political and cultural history. He writes of Hearst chronologically - expertly weaving the personal, political, and financial aspects of his life. Quoting liberally from Hearst's memoranda to his editors and letters to his family, Nasaw often allows the man to speak for himself. The portrait that emerges is far more interesting than the character portrayed in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane or reflected in the outsized opulence of San Simeon, Hearst's palatial California estate, which is now a state historical monument.

Born in 1863, the son of a self-made millionaire miner and his much younger wife, a school teacher, Hearst found his life's work early, loved it, and succeeded in multiplying his family's money and influence in ways that would have mystified his working-man father and did mystify his mother, who lived in fear that her son's prodigious appetite for newspapers, movie productions, and radio stations (as well as chorus girls and actresses) would exhaust the family fortune.

Money was the least of Hearst's concerns - not because he was born to wealth, but because he appears to have had no idea of prudent money management. An only child, he inherited nothing upon his father's death in 1891 when Hearst was twenty-seven years old. Consequently, he was tied to his mother's purse strings until she died in 1919, when Hearst was almost fifty-six.

Although his businesses were, in the main, profitable, Hearst's relentless expansion of his empire combined with a spending extravaganza that lasted his lifetime, created an unremitting series of financial near catastrophes. At one point during the depression, he floated a twelve-million-dollar bond issue to pay down debts. During that same period, items from his extensive collections were sold in department stores or auctioned. Eerily echoing his mother, Hearst wrote his wife Millicent in 1930 regarding the spending habits of his five sons: "These nincompoops are never satisfied and are being ruined by living far beyond their means and mine. …

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