William Randolph Hearst, Pt. 2


Make text smaller Make text larger




Nearly a century ago, one of William Randolph Hearst's editors was summoned to the Chief's residence at the Clarendon apartments, 137 Riverside Dr. He found Mr. Hearst fully dressed, in the sober statesman's garb he then favored, but barefoot. They strolled into the kitchen. On the tile floor lay copies of the Manhattan newspapers. Hearst stopped every now and then to turn the pages with his toes. "It gives me a better perspective of typographical makeup and layout," he said.


W.R. must have been in a quiet mood: usually, he danced between the pages while snapping his fingers like castanets.


Hearst had originally occupied the top three floors at the Clarendon. The more than 30 rooms were not enough for his collections of art and antiques, and he asked permission to make some alterations. The landlord hesitated, much to Hearst's irritation, and so the publisher solved the problem by purchasing the entire building for $950,000. He then took over five floors and the penthouse, creating several two-story Gothic reception halls, complete with stained glass and baronial fireplaces, to display his collections of armor, tapestry and silver salvers. This was barely enough room for Willie, his wife Millicent and their sons, but somehow they made do.


In 1900, William Randolph Hearst stood 6-foot-1, with cold, sharp, pale blue eyes. His dark blond hair was parted down the middle. He weighed 200 pounds, he nervously tapped his fingers while making a decision, he was painfully shy and he spoke in a high tenor. His demeanor was misleading: he had tremendous inner strength, a genius for organization and a determination to lead others. His New York Morning Journal now had the highest circulation of any newspaper in America, even Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Yet he now had another world to conquer, and an ungovernable ambition to be president of the United States.


In 1896, two years before Hearst and his newspapers fomented war with Spain, W.R. dipped his toe into national politics. His New York Morning Journal and Evening Journal became the only major Eastern papers to endorse that year's Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. The outcome was immediately profitable: Democrats all along the Eastern seaboard subscribed to his paper.


To the Establishment of his day, Bryan embodied radicalism, largely because he meant it. His program for monetary reform and government regulation of capitalism was important: he preached a body of ideas about economic and social justice that won the minds and hearts of nearly half the country. But ideas alone would not have carried him so far. It was his endurance, his amazing capacity for reiterating his ideas from town to town in his endless whistle-stop tours, his charisma and his amazing eloquence, the rhetoric drawn from the King James version, Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.


In May 1900, Hearst announced he would establish a new daily newspaper in Chicago to support Bryan's second presidential campaign. He insisted, with a straight face, he was doing it for the party's sake, not for money. S.S. Carvalho, Hearst's business manager, rented an old winery and began renovating it with 800 men working around the clock in three shifts. Carvalho found he could not hire freight cars to carry the presses from New York to Chicago, so Hearst hired luxury Pullman cars instead. As when he broke into New York journalism, he raided his competitors for their best talent by paying better salaries.


On July 2, 1900, Bryan wired Hearst: "Start the presses." July 4, at the Democratic National Convention at Kansas City, hundreds of delegates waved copies of Hearst's Chicago American. Meanwhile, he bought a special color press for the Sunday edition of the New York Journal to turn out 16-page comics sections or color supplements about the harems of East Indian potentates. Then he began publishing a Sunday magazine supplement, The American Weekly, the typical story of which, as Stewart Holbrook wrote, could support its classic headline: NAILED HER FATHER'S HEAD TO THE WALL. Hearst's house intellectual, Arthur Brisbane, sanctified this as best he could by using Bible texts whenever possible and good substantial doses of what he called "science."


Amid all this, Hearst exposed the Ice Trust scandal. Before refrigeration and air conditioning, many people bought ice to cool their food and themselves. Charles W. Morse founded the American Ice Company, which soon obtained a monopoly over the ice supply in New York. He doubled the price of ice from 30 to 60 cents per 100 pounds. On May 15, 1900, Hearst's Journal exposed that Mayor Robert Van Wyck, who had prevented competitors from shipping ice into the city, owned 8000 shares of American Ice and that the city's political leadership all seemed to have received free stock in the company in exchange for their services in preventing competition. The exposure was damning. At a time when most New Yorkers paid no direct taxes, stealing from the city treasury was considered a venial sin. Denying poor people cheap ice in the summer was something else. Van Wyck never ran for office again.


Willie had no particular regard for most politicians, even those he supported. He decided to enter the arena himself. On Oct. 2, 1902, the Democratic Congressional Convention of the 11th District nominated Willie for Congress. Four days later, he accepted the nomination. He called for direct election of U.S. senators, government ownership of certain public utilities and the destruction of monopolies. He flooded the district with posters, fliers, brass bands and demonstrations. He even held a rally in Madison Square Garden, during which he spoke for 10 minutes. His voice could only be heard by a tenth of the audience, but the crowd applauded whenever they saw those within earshot applauding. He was interrupted only once, by a man with a foghorn voice who roared, "Oh, how I wish you had my voice." On Nov. 4, 1902, he defeated his Republican opponent, 26,953 to 10,841.


He immediately began setting up Hearst for President clubs throughout the United States to prepare for 1904. And he married a statuesque 22-year-old dancer, Millicent Willson, whom he had dated for nearly six years. In the meantime, he took his seat in Congress. The party leadership mistrusted him and denied him the committee assignments where he felt he might be useful. He hated the experience. This is understandable: a man who has worked for a living, after all, has better things to do than wait around listening to speeches and answering roll calls.


In 1904, when he was barely 41, he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. Bryan had lost two campaigns in a row and had taken himself out of contention. The party leadership had settled on a colorless judge from New York, Alton B. Parker. Hearst mounted a nationwide campaign with a ready supply of cash. The convention opened on July 6, 1904, and Willie put on the usual show: posters on every available surface, fireworks, brass bands, masses of literature, buttons and flags.


Hearst had hoped for Bryan's support. Instead, the Nebraskan nominated a hopeless candidate, Francis Marion Cockrell of Missouri, with a 45-minute speech of soaring eloquence. Hearst felt betrayed, given his investment of $7 million in publicizing Bryan's 1896 and 1900 campaigns. Hearst received 194 votes on the first ballot. On a later ballot, he received 263 votes, which would be as close as he would ever come to the presidency. Some later suggested he would have done better by bribing delegates, many of whom resented his refusal to pay them off.


Although Tammany had elected him, Hearst felt Tammany could be overcome. In 1905, he announced his independent candidacy for mayor. He made the Tammany machine and Charles F. Murphy, its taciturn and powerful boss, the issue. Hearst's papers attacked Murphy as a modern Boss Tweed. Hearst's campaigners sang: Everybody woiks but Murphy; He just rakes in the dough. They also sang: Hoist, Hoist, he's not the woist; We are for Hoist, Last and foist. Oddly enough, despite his shyness and high voice, Hearst had made himself an enormously powerful campaigner. He appeared to enjoy charging into crowds, shaking hands. His speeches were short and well-crafted. He had learned to project his voice, keeping it at a low pitch.


Two nights before the election, he held a huge rally at Madison Square Garden, with 20,000 people jammed into the hall and another 20,000 standing in the street. After brass bands and chants and songs, Hearst delivered a fighting speech, calling on the voters to throw out "the corrupt corporations, the thieving bosses, the impudent puppets in power" as the crowd erupted in wild cheers. His wife stood with him, and he grinned, and he would remember the moment as long as he lived.


Election Day was an orgy of election fraud, with repeaters voting in the names of "dogs, Chinamen, and dead men." Tammany sluggers attacked Hearst's poll watchers and voters. Ballot boxes were stuffed, and many others, filled with Hearst ballots, were simply tossed in the river. Hearst probably won the 1905 election as the ballots went into the boxes, but lost it as they came out.


Hearst created a new party, the Independence League, and prepared to run for governor in 1906. It says a great deal about Hearst's ambition and Murphy's skill that within a year of Hearst's 1905 mayoral campaign, the Democrats came to terms with a bolter who had published cartoons of Murphy in prisoner's stripes and nominated the publisher for governor of New York. Gov. Frank W. Higgins, the Republican incumbent, was hopelessly tarred by scandal, stemming from abuses in the state insurance department and public utility price gouging. The Republican Party, with its amazing instinct for survival, dumped Higgins and nominated the lawyer who had exposed the insurance scandals, Charles Evans Hughes. "The Bearded Iceberg," as Roosevelt nicknamed him, was utterly incorruptible, untainted by corporate wealth and without Hearst's reputation for radicalism. Hearst was beaten by 50,000 votes.


Willie continued as if nothing had happened. The Independence League became a nationwide party and at its national convention in 1908 Hearst was both chairman and keynote speaker. He selected Thomas Hisgen, a Massachusetts businessman, for president, and John Temple Graves, who was on Hearst's payroll at the New York American, for vice president.


Hearst dominated the party's campaign. He received far more publicity for his campaigning on behalf of the Hisgen-Graves ticket than did the candidates themselves. His speeches exposed Standard Oil's corruption of the leaders of both major parties, quoting extensively from letters stolen from the oil company's files at 26 Broadway. His oratory destroyed politicians' careers, but obtained few votes for his nominees. They polled just over 83,000 votes out of 15 million cast.


Hearst ran for mayor again in 1909. He initially supported Judge William J. Gaynor until the Democrats nominated Gaynor. Then he publicly demanded Gaynor reject the nomination as Tammany-tainted. Gaynor, understandably, refused. In mid-October, a new party, the Civic Alliance, nominated Hearst. Once more, the brass bands and fireworks and massive publicity made him a factor but not a player. He polled 26 percent of the vote to come in third.


William Randolph Hearst would never run for office again. He turned his energy to creating and buying newspapers and eventually published 28 newspapers in 17 cities and nine popular magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, Town and Country and House Beautiful. He produced motion pictures, including the first cliffhanger, The Perils of Pauline.


The will to power expressed through politics was channeled into his private life. Some suggest his personal spending on beautiful things was a late-blooming mania, reflecting his political frustration. This is nonsense: Willie had always spent money. Perhaps politics had distracted him from the lust of the eye. If nothing else, his 127-room castle at San Simeon proves the Chief lacked the good taste and restraint of, say, King Ludwig of Bavaria. The man spent $15 million a year on himself. He spent some $35 million on art and antiques in his lifetime.


Late in life, Hearst wrote of his political career in New York, "Those were the wonderful days and the happy achievements of youth... Life was not 'one damned thing after another' then. It was one wonderful adventure after another."


He died in 1951.


Make text smaller Make text larger

Comments