William Randolph Hearst, Pt. 1

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

In the late
winter of 1887, Ambrose Bierce heard a knock at his door. As he was among the
West Coast’s most vituperative journalists, he probably had his revolver
in one hand as he turned the knob with the other. In the doorway stood, as Bierce
later recalled, "a young man, the youngest young man, it seemed to me,
that I had ever confronted. His appearance, his attitude, his entire personality
suggested extreme diffidence."

Bierce glared
at his visitor. Then he barked, "Well?"

am from the San Francisco Examiner,’ the youth explained in a voice
like the fragrance of violets made audible, and backed a little away.

Bierce said, ‘you come from Mr. Hearst?’

that unearthly child lifted his blue eyes and cooed, ‘I am Mr. Hearst.’"

Years later,
Hearst wrote of himself: "His mother wanted him to grow up and be a gentleman…
Willie did not want to be a gentleman. He wanted to be a pirate… Willie never
realized his ambition to be a pirate, but he got to be a newspaperman, which
is in the same general category."

George Hearst,
his father, had struck it rich in Virginia City, NV, and later acquired interests
in the Homestake gold mine in Lead, SD, which would produce nearly $715 million,
and the greatest copper find in American history, Butte’s famous Anaconda.
He was a state assemblyman from 1865 to 1866, and once he had struck it rich,
the political bug bit him again. In 1882, he was an unsuccessful candidate for
governor of California. He was delightfully candid: in a speech to the Democratic
state convention, George said, "My opponents say that I haven’t the
book learning that they possess… They say I spell bird, b-u-r-d. If b-u-r-d
doesn’t spell bird, what in hell does it spell?"

Nearly four
years later, however, his party loyalty was rewarded by an interim appointment
to the U.S. Senate from March 23-Aug. 4 1886, followed by election to a full

By contrast,
Hearst’s mother, Phoebe, had a passion for knowledge and a powerful intelligence.
Willie, born April 29, 1863, was the focus of his mother’s love and attention.
But he didn’t know what he wanted to be until his third year at Harvard,
when he became business manager of the Harvard Lampoon. The staff
probably elected him because he could underwrite the magazine’s deficits
from his allowance. Instead, he sold advertisements and subscriptions. He was
so successful that the Lampoon began making money, much of which was
spent on editorial banquets to keep profits down.

He briefly
reported for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, the first modern
American newspaper, and then he returned home. Among his father’s souvenirs
was the San Francisco Examiner, a weak Democratic evening daily. Willie
asked his father for the paper. The Senator exploded. "I took it for a
bad debt and it’s a sure loser… I’ve been saving it up to give to
any enemy." Willie persisted. In early 1887, Willie wrote to his father,
"I am anxious to begin work on the Examiner. I have all my pipes
laid, and it only remains to turn on the gas." On March 4, 1887, a small
notice appeared on page 2: W.R. Hearst, Proprietor.

The new
publisher was more than 6 feet tall and solidly built, with brownish hair, pale
skin, a long, straight nose, thin lips and close-set blue-gray eyes. His voice
was soft and high: someone suggested he sounded like Truman: both Harry S. and
Capote. Though reserved, Willie wore expensive, flashy clothes: loud checks,
showy plaids and flamboyant ties. The effect was politely described as "chromatic."

Willie knew
that as stupefying events do not happen every day, someone has to make them.
So he did. At first, exaggeration: his reporters transformed an Oakland insurance
murder plot into a vast Renaissance stewpot of dark secrets, conspiracies and
secret poisonings. Circulation began rising. Then he began crusades: when he
forced the water monopoly to cut its rates by 16 percent, Willie put money in
every San Franciscan’s pocket.

Willie was
on to something. He sponsored grizzly hunts and weddings in balloons, and one
stormy night Hearst and his staff commandeered a tug and steamed beyond the
Golden Gate to rescue a fisherman shipwrecked on a rock. The Coast Guard had
thought it too rough to go out. Not the Examiner. There were contests,
exposes, scandals, puzzles and funny stories. Willie was not so much a newsman
as a promoter, huckster and showman, who imagined wonderful stories and then
created them, sometimes out of whole cloth.

The Examiner
was simply an exciting place in which to work. Willie paid well, loved a good
fight, always sought a new injustice to attack and had a sly sense of humor.
And sometimes the place was simply insane. Assistant City Editor Jake Dressler,
weary of reporter Alfonso "Blinker" Murphy, fired him. Murphy replied,
"That’s all very well, but you cannot fire me." "The hell
I can’t," Dressler replied. They marched into the publisher’s
gorgeous, antique-furnished office. Willie looked up from his desk. Each man
gave his version of the story. Hearst looked at Murphy. "Mr. Murphy, it
has always been my understanding that it was the right of the editor to discharge
a man if he felt it necessary. Do you have any reason for suggesting that we
make an exception?" Hearst asked. "I have, Mr. Hearst," Murphy
replied. "The reason is that I refuse to be fired." Hearst’s
jaw dropped. He gazed at Murphy for a moment. Then he turned to Dressler and
shrugged. "Under the circumstances, Mr. Dressler, I don’t see what
we can do about it."

For a man
who neither smoked nor drank, Hearst claimed he suffered more from alcoholism
than any man he knew. His best editor, Sam Chamberlain, had widely spaced but
determined bouts with the bottle, often vanishing for weeks on end, with a preference
for a particular waterfront bar in Antwerp. Mr. Hearst had to send people to
get him. The business manager once wired W.R. that Chamberlain had been in the
office and in full possession of his faculties on only one day during the past
month. Hearst replied, "If he is sober one day in thirty that is all I

Now it was
time to conquer New York. Hearst had paid $180,000 for the New York Morning
. Under Albert Pulitzer, Joseph’s brother, the Journal
had been a spicy gossip sheet, called "the chambermaid’s delight,"
with a circulation of 135,000; John McLean, an Ohio publisher, had transformed
it to a Democratic party rag with an official circulation of 77,000 and a real
one of 30,000. Hearst had imitated Pulitzer in San Francisco, transforming the
Examiner into a great paper. Now he would take on the master here. "William
Randolph Hearst," as James Melvin Lee wrote in his history of American
journalism, "broke into New York with all the discreet secrecy of a wooden-legged
burglar having a fit on a tin roof."

Having worked
out the formula for success in San Francisco, Hearst applied it in New York.
By the end of 1895, the Journal’s circulation was over 100,000.
Now he began raiding Joseph Pulitzer’s staff. One day, Willie noticed a
wonderful front page on the Sunday World. Apparently, Stanford White,
the architect, had given a party in his studio in the tower of the old Madison
Square Garden. When the time came for dessert, Sally Johnson, a lovely 16-year
old girl, burst from a pie and danced down the banquet table. Of course, she
was naked, or as the World put it, "covered only by the ceiling."
The World’s cartoonist presented this event with a seven-column
drawing of Sally, most of her nudity concealed by a convenient protoplasmic
blur. Hearst was impressed. His second response was, "I must hire the man
that did that." Hearst summoned Morrill Goddard, the Sunday World’s
editor. Goddard refused, saying Hearst would be bankrupt in months. Hearst handed
Goddard a certified check for $35,000. Goddard then said he would be handicapped
without his writers and artists. "All right," Hearst replied. "Let’s
take the whole staff."

That afternoon,
the entire Sunday World staff marched from the World Bldg., crossed Frankfort
St. and walked up two floors in the Tribune Bldg. to Hearst’s office. Pulitzer
sent S.S. Carvalho, his right-hand man, after them. Carvalho made an offer.
The staff marched back to the World Bldg. They remained only one day. Mr. Hearst
made another offer. This one stuck. Pulitzer promoted Richard Farrelly to be
managing editor of the World and announced a banquet in Farrelly’s
honor. It was canceled on the day of the event. Hearst had hired him. Willie
then twisted the knife. He hired Carvalho.

A handful
of Cuban rebels were fighting a guerilla war against Spanish rule. Most Cubans
favored Spanish rule; the rebels used terrorism to cow the people, and their
leaders preferred working for American intervention to fighting for independence
themselves. The Spanish mistrusted American reporters and kept them from entering
the interior of the country. Consequently, most American news on the rebellion
was written from Havana or Key West, or cobbled together from the revolutionaries’
press releases.

Hearst sincerely
favored Cuban independence. That was as far as his sincerity went. He sent Frederick
Remington to illustrate the fighting. Remington wired the Chief: EVERYTHING

So he did.
He published imaginary atrocities and massacres. He sent Richard Harding Davis
to Cuba, who earned every penny of his $3000 monthly salary when he sent out
the cable about three girls stripped naked by the Spaniards aboard an American
steamer in Havana harbor. DOES OUR FLAG PROTECT WOMEN? read the headline, complete
with a half-page illustration by Remington showing one of the girls stark naked
on deck, surrounded by policemen who were searching her clothing. It was a lie:
the girls had been searched by police matrons in their stateroom.

By early
1897, Hearst’s morning and evening Journals had a combined circulation
of 700,000; Pulitzer’s morning and evening Worlds were only 100,000

On Feb.
15, 1898, Hearst went to the theater and then home. A message was waiting for
him about important news. Hearst telephoned the paper. The U.S.S. Maine
had blown up in Havana harbor. "Good heavens, what have you done with the
story?" "We have put it on the first page, of course." "Have
you put anything else on the front page?" "Only the other big news."
"There is not any other big news," Hearst said. "Please spread
the story all over the page. This means war."

On April
11, 1898, Hearst furnished the war. He hired the steamer Sylvia, loaded
her with a staff of newspapermen and printers with a press and sailed for Cuba.
Hearst published the first issue of his special war newspaper, the Journal-Examiner,
in Siboney, Cuba, on June 23, 1898. He covered the war in person, scribbling
dispatches as bullets whizzed about him. On July 4, 1898, Hearst was viewing
the burning hulk of a Spanish warship when he noticed some of her sailors on
the beach. Willie had a launch lowered from the Sylvia and headed for
shore. The Spaniards waved a white handkerchief in surrender. Willie swam ashore,
drew his revolver and took them prisoner. Guerillas usually mutilated their
prisoners before killing them. The Spanish rejoiced at their capture by Americans.

Later that
day, Willie delivered his prisoners to the USS St. Louis. Its captain
gave him a receipt: "Received of W.R. Hearst twenty-nine Spanish prisoners."
Now his morning-evening circulation tied the World’s. But he wanted
another world to conquer.

To be continued…