'THE CHIEF: THE LIFE OF WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST,' by David Nasaw, 687 pages, Houghton Mifflin, $35.
Even to open "The Chief," David Nasaw's wonderful new biography of William Randolph Hearst, is to be swept away by the narrative flowing through its pages. Hearst was one of those Promethean figures whose life was larger than life. Integrally involved, albeit often to corrosive effect, in everything from politics, the media and Hollywood to America's role in international affairs, his life makes a grand American story.
What distinguishes Nasaw's telling of it is the skill with which he has tapped a whole new watershed of sources. By drawing on hitherto unused archives — like the San Simeon Historical Monument's oral history collection, the Bancroft Library's Hearst papers at the University of California at Berkeley and a previously unplumbed warehouse of private Hearst Corp. papers in the Bronx, N.Y. — Nasaw has given his biography an immediacy that almost makes the reader forget that the author himself was not there as the story unfolded.
What further marks Nasaw's account is his evenhandedness, his refusal to trade on popular mythologies about Hearst, like the indelibly negative characterization of him in Orson Welles' film "Citizen Kane." Such images gave earlier works on this powerful but enigmatic American icon a polemical air. Instead, Nasaw tells Hearst's story: his neglected childhood with his rough-and-tumble father, George Hearst, a miner who ultimately parlayed his way into the Senate, and his doting but controlling mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who held the purse strings to the family fortune until her death; his ignominious flunking out of Harvard; his success in building the first media conglomerate; his repeated attempts at running for political office; his accumulation of luxury apartments, estates and castles around the world; and his ardent courting of almost everyone, from Mussolini, Churchill, Hitler, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, Irving Thalberg and Louella Parsons.
Nasaw also regales the reader with Hearst's celebrated love affair with the chorus girl and film star Marion Davies, with whom Hearst openly consorted for more than three decades, even though he was married and had a family. By telling this story with only modest embellishment, Nasaw grants his readers the pleasure of arriving at their own conclusions.
Nasaw's Hearst is an autocrat, spendthrift, bigot and egoist capable of being deluded by his own power and influence, but he is not entirely unsympathetic. "The Hearst I discovered was infinitely more fascinating than the one I had expected to find," he notes. He discovers him to have been a shy man who nonetheless "had never been comfortable with solitude." But Nasaw also observes that once Hearst "strutted onto the public stage," he was "impossible to ignore."
While H.L. Mencken could accuse Hearst of having "debauched journalism," he also acknowledged that Hearst "shook up old bones and gave the blush of life to pale cheeks." Despite the fact that Hearst was a grand progenitor of yellow journalism, Mencken still praised him for publishing exposs that "completely broke down the old American respect for mere money and paved the way for many reforms that are still in being."
What makes Hearst so interesting is the welter of contradictions at his core. He was a crusading, trust-busting, populist Democrat who could nonetheless become a staunch isolationist, an admirer of aspects of Hitler and finally even a supporter of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's witch hunts. After visiting Hearst at San Simeon in 1929, Churchill described him to his wife as being "a grave, simple child — with no doubt a nasty temper — playing with the most costly toys." But, he admitted, "I got to like him."
The kind of advocacy journalism that Hearst practiced — especially in his rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer — led him not only to play shamelessly to the mass market but also to view both the editorial and news sides of his empire as private preserves. As Nasaw writes, Hearstian journalism "was advocacy journalism at its most extreme. . . . There was no commitment to objective, both-sides-of-the-story journalism."
Hearst, Nasaw states, was also "the first publisher to understand that the communications media were potentially more powerful than the parties and their politicians." For Hearst, who aspired to political office during much of his early life, "access was power." But he was also not above using his media outlets to influence world events, even to manufacture news.
"Hearst was different," Nasaw tells us. He was not only interested "in reporting the news, but in making it." His most notable episode of news-making occurred during$the Spanish-American War, when after trying to manipulate events in Cuba to increase circulation, Hearst commanded his Morning Journal to run a bold front-page headline inquiring, "How Do You Like the Journal's War?"
It is a measure of how the debate over the need for fire walls between the business office and the newsroom has evolved that it is now considered a dubious practice (at least in principle) for the business side to intrude on the news side, much less for a media mogul to brazenly trade favorable coverage for political favors, as Hearst so often did.
As evidence of how much better established the precept of editorial independence has become since Hearst's heyday, one has only to recall the recent uproar involving the publisher of the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner, Timothy O. White.
Before a federal judge, White acknowledged that he had engaged in some political "horse trading" with Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. of San Francisco while discussing a complex business deal involvinG the wale of his paper and the purchase of The San Franciso Chronicle. In the Chief's day, no one would have batted an eye at insinuations of such collusion. In this case, howefer, the very corporation that William Randolph Hearst created felt obliged to suspend its publisher to protect its name.