The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearstby David Nasaw
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David Nasaw's magnificent, definitive biography of William Randolph Hearst is largely based on private and business papers and interviews that were unavailable to previous biographers. Newly released documentation of Hearst's interactions with Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, and every American president from Grover Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, as well as with movie giants Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and Irving Thalberg, completes the picture of this colossal American.
Hearst, known to his staff as the Chief, was a man of prodigious appetites -- for politics, for women, and for personal possessions. By the 1930s, he controlled the largest publishing empire in the country, including twenty-eight newspapers, the Cosmopolitan Picture Studio, radio stations, and magazines. Hearst used his media stronghold to achieve unprecedented political power. Americans followed his metamorphosis from populist to fierce opponent of Roosevelt and the New Deal, from citizen to congressman, and remain fascinated today by the man characterized in the film classic Citizen Kane.
Nasaw's portrait also addresses Hearst's relationships, including those with his mistress in his Harvard days and for years after; with his wife, Millicent, the mother of his five sons; and with Marion Davies, his companion until death. Correspondence with the architect of Hearst's California estate, San Simeon, is augmented by taped interviews with the people who worked there and witnessed Hearst's extravagant entertaining, shedding light on the private life of a very public man.
The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review
"Nasaw's "The Chief" works on a large, even heroic, canvas and, thanks to Nasaw's exhaustive research, moves on a level of detail that would satisfy even Theodore Dreiser." The Los Angeles Times
"[Nasaw] has given his biography an immediacy that almost makes the reader forget that the author . . . was not there as the story unfolded." --Orville Schell The New York Times
"...the Hearst whom Nasaw portrays...is still the fascinating figure we've known for years: the self-absorbed genius equally addicted to power and possessions..." Publishers Weekly
"...absorbing and sympathetic portrait of an American original, the first full-scale biography of the publishing giant and politician in nearly 40 years." The Chicago Tribune
"In this exhaustively researched biography [Nasaw] has allowed us finally to understand . . . the father of the modern media conglomerate." The Chicago Tribune
"Nasaw's judicious and comprehensive biography sensibly seeks to understand its subject, not to judge him." The New Yorker
"Unlikely to be surpassed as the definitive study of its subject." The Wall Street Journal
"A highly readable portrait of a fascinating individual." The San Francisco Chronicle
"Nasaw keeps his subject human and believable, no easy task when writing about such a colorful and forceful man." The Seattle Times
"The large and in-charge William Randolph Hearst's flirtations with Hitler, Mussolini, and Louis B. Mayer are documented in David Nasaw's utterly absorbing bio." Vanity Fair
"The Chief is both an informative piece of scholarship and a pleasure to read." The San Diego Union-Tribune
"Nasaw's intriguing study is a must-read." The Nation
"A thoroughly researched volume that must be regarded as the definitive work...It's hard to imagine a more complete rendering of Hearst's life." Business Week
"Mr. Nasaw makes Hearst a regular guy . . . and often likable or sympathetic, if far from a universal hero." The New York Times
"...the best biography I read in 2000." -- Jonathan Yardley The Washington Post
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Read an Excerpt
A Son of the West
WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST did not speak often of his father. He preferred to think of himself as sui generis and self-created, which in many ways he was. Only in his late seventies, when he began writing a daily column in his newspapers, did he remind his readers - and himself - that he was the son of a pioneer. In a column about the song "Oh Susannah," which he claimed his father had sung to him, Hearst recounted the hardships George Hearst had endured on his thousand-mile trek from Missouri to California in 1850. There was a pride in the telling and in the story. His father had been one of the lucky ones, one of the stronger ones. While others had "died of cholera or were drowned by the floods or were killed by the Indians [or] tarried by the wayside under crude crosses and little hasty heaps of stone," his father had stayed the course, braved "the difficulties and dangers" and "at length . . . reached California in safety."1
The moral of the story was a simple one. Nothing had been given the Hearsts. There were no "silver spoons" in this family. They had scrapped and fought and suffered and, in the end, won what was rightfully theirs.
William Randolph Hearst grew to manhood in the city of great expectations on the edge of the continent. He was a son of the West, or, more particularly, of Gold Rush San Francisco. The child and the city grew up together in the second half of the nineteenth century. San Francisco's population in 1870 was nearly three times what it had been in 1860. By 1880, San Francisco had a quarter of a million residents, was theninth largest city in the nation and the premier metropolis of the West. The city's riches expanded even faster than its population. California's gold boom of the late 1840s and early 1850s had been followed by Nevada's silver boom in the early 1860s, and wherever riches were mined west of the Mississippi, they found their way into San Francisco. Money from the mines went into San Francisco's stock markets or real estate; it was deposited in its banks, and spent in its brothels, hotels, theaters, saloons, and gambling halls.2
With the constant influx of new people and capital, the city on the hills never had a chance to grow old. The Gold Rush mentality, permanently fixed in narrative form by storytellers, historians, and mythmaking adventurers, would dominate the culture and sensibility of San Franciscans for generations to come. There was gold in the hills - and silver and the richest agricultural land the world had ever seen - but that wealth did not sit on the surface ready for picking. It took sweat and savvy and years of labor to pull it up out of the earth.
George Hearst was one of the tens of thousands of adventurers lured to California by the promise of gold. He had been born in 1820 or 1821 - he wasn't quite sure when - to a relatively prosperous Scotch-Irish family with American roots reaching back to the seventeenth century. George grew to manhood the only healthy son (he had a crippled brother and a younger sister) of the richest farmer in Meramec Township, Franklin County, Missouri. He was virtually unschooled, having acquired no more than a bit of arithmetic and the rudiments of literacy in classrooms.
Franklin County, Missouri, was rich in copper and lead deposits. George's father, William Hearst, owned at least one mine and was friendly with a nearby group of French miners and smelters. On his trips to their camp, which he supplied with pork, Hearst was often accompanied by his son George. "I used to stay about there a good deal," George recalled later in life. "I naturally saw that they had a good deal of money. I think that that was what induced me to go into mining. Farming was such a slow way to make money. You could make a living at it and that was about all."3
William Hearst died when George was about twenty-two years of age. George took over the family farm, did some mining, for a time even ran a little store out on the public road, and then, as he recalls, "this fever broke out in California." Rumors of gold strikes near San Francisco had begun to drift east in the winter of 1848. In his December 1848 message to Congress, President James Polk confirmed that the stories, though "of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief, [had been] corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service." By January of 1849, every newspaper in the country was carrying front-page stories about the gold rush. "Poets, philosophers, lawyers, brokers, bankers, merchants, farmers, clergymen," reported the New York Herald on January 11, 1849, "all are feeling the impulse and are preparing to go and dig for gold and swell the number of adventurers to the new El Dorado."4
George Hearst read the newspapers and dissected the rumors. He almost went West in 1849, but was deterred - temporarily - by mining colleagues who warned him that there was nothing new in stories of Western gold. "Next year, however, I made up my mind sure to go. . . . I recollect talking over California with my mother. She did not like it at all, but when I told her they were making $40 and $50 a day there and that it seemed to me it was by far the best thing to do, as it was pretty hard pulling here, she said that if they were doing that, she had no doubts I would make something, too, and she agreed for me to go."
In the spring of 1850, George Hearst left Missouri for California with a party of fifteen, including several of his cousins. His mother and sister rode with him for the first few days, said their final farewells, and turned back. He would be gone for ten years.
Like many who traveled to the gold fields, George caught a case of cholera. He recovered with the help of "a little bit of brandy which I gave $16 a gallon for in St. Louis . . . and some pills which a man in St. Louis gave me." He was still shaking with fever when, in October, he crossed over the Sierra Nevada mountains through Carson Pass south of Lake Tahoe.5
By the time he reached California, the earliest strikes had been played out, the richest claims bought and registered. George Hearst and his companions spent their first California winter within miles of John Sutter's original strike on the American River. After months of shoveling wet gravel, living in leaky cabins, eating salt pork and beans, and finding little or no gold, they moved north to Grass Valley and Nevada City where a new lode had been discovered.6
There are two different ways to mine for gold. Placer miners look for it in riverbeds or streams, collect it in pans or sluices, wash away the sand, and sell the gold dust left behind. Quartz miners dig shafts into the ground in search of rock formations that have gold embedded in them. George Hearst arrived in the digging fields too late to cash in on the early placer mining bonanza. He had, however, invaluable experience in quartz mining. In Missouri, he had taught himself to read rock formations and, more importantly, to estimate the cost of bringing ore to the surface and refining it. Within a year of his arrival in the Grass Valley/Nevada City region, he was locating, buying, and selling claims in quartz mines.
For the better part of the decade, George Hearst would remain in and around Nevada City. Although one of California's largest - and most prosperous - mining towns, Nevada City was little more than an extended miners' camp, with a primitive residential section, a few storefronts and churches, and dozens of saloons, brothels, and gambling halls. The vast majority of the town's residents were male, most of them newly arrived. Hearst prospered in this environment. He was at home at the poker table, the saloon, and probably the brothel as well. He was not among the town's merchant, mining, or professional elites, but after years of prospecting, buying, selling, and trading claims - and for a time, running a general store - he was making a decent living and building a reputation as a good judge of rock formations and a relatively honest businessman.7
In 1859, word reached Nevada City of a new strike in the Washoe district on the eastern ledge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, about 100 miles away. It was rumored that a group of placer miners had found an extraordinarily rich vein of gold mixed with heavy blue-black "stuff" on property owned by a crazy old miner named Henry Comstock. The first sample, secretly shipped across the mountains to Nevada City, had been found to be rich in silver as well as gold. A second sample was transported by mule over the mountains and assayed by Melville Atwood, a close friend and sometime partner of Hearst. It proved to be so rich in gold and silver that Atwood doubted the veracity of his tests. Though the Washoe district was a mule trip of four or five days, across the Sierra Nevada mountains, Atwood and Hearst with two other partners rode across the mountains to inspect the lode for themselves.8
By the time they arrived in the mining camp that would later be known as Virginia City, Nevada, the original claims had changed hands several times. The new owners, like the old ones, still had no idea of the value of their holdings. Hearst did. He contracted to buy as large a portion of the available claims as he could and then rode back across the mountains to raise funds to pay for them.
Proceeding at a feverish pace, Hearst and his hired hands dug forty-five tons of ore out of the ground that spring of 1859, loaded it on pack mules, and trekked across the mountains to smelt and sell it in San Francisco. The ore appeared so worthless that it took days to find a smelter. But it was, as Hearst had believed, the "find" that every miner dreams of.9
While most of his colleagues in Virginia City had, in the first flush of excitement, sold their claims outright, Hearst not only held on to his, but poured every penny he earned back into his mines. He invested in new hoisting and pumping equipment, in underground timbering, and in a small private army of toughs to protect his property from claim bandits. By the spring of 1860, when the last obstacle to fortune was removed with the arrival of the U.S. Army and the defeat and removal of the local Paiute Indians, George Hearst was on his way to becoming a millionaire.
After ten years in the digging fields, George Hearst returned to Missouri in the fall of 1860 to comfort his sick mother and display his newfound fortune. His mother died soon after his return, but George remained in Missouri for two more years, taking care of family business and looking for a wife.
It was not uncommon for miners to marry late in life after they had made their fortunes. Hearst had already proposed to a woman in Virginia City, but been turned down by her family who considered him a poor match. He was forty years old - much older than the women he courted, but he was in perfect health, which was rare for a miner, stood tall and straight, with a muscular build and a full blond beard.
The woman he chose to court in Missouri was Phoebe Apperson, a schoolteacher twenty years his junior. Like George, she came from a Scotch-Irish family of small farmers with American roots stretching back over a hundred years. It is quite possible that Phoebe and George had known each other earlier - though she had been only eight when he left Missouri for California. They were both from the same township and were in fact distantly related. Still, these similarities notwithstanding, they made a rather odd couple. Phoebe was small and delicate, with grayish blue eyes, fair skin, an oval face. She was a plain-looking woman but not unattractive, a Southern lady in bearing, and a church-going Presbyterian. George stood a foot taller and weighed twice what she did. He was uncouth, loud, and semiliterate, seldom changed his shirtfront, wore his beard long, bushy, and ragged at the edges, spit tobacco juice, liked nothing better for dinner than what he called hog and hominy, and had not seen the inside of a church in decades.
Though, like her beau, Phoebe Hearst had begun her formal education in a one-room schoolhouse, she had actually graduated and gone on to a seminary in the next county. She had worked as a primary school teacher of factory children at the Meramec Ironworks in nearby Phelps County and as a tutor and governess in the home of a successful miner and smelter.
The marriage took place in June 1862, in the midst of the Civil War. The couple had planned to leave at once for California, but because Missouri was a Union state, and George was not only not in the army but so outspoken a supporter of the Confederacy that he had already been jailed once for uttering seditious remarks about secession, it took him almost three months to get the "passport" he needed to cross the Union lines. Finally, in late September he and his now pregnant bride boarded a train for New York City, where they met a steamer bound for Panama. In early November 1862 they arrived in San Francisco and moved into a suite at the Lick House, the newest and most luxurious hotel in the city.10
In his absence, George's mines had been incorporated and stock offered on the San Francisco exchange established to handle the Comstock claims. Although a frenzy of silver speculation had driven share prices to astronomical heights and made Hearst a millionaire, the legal challenges to his claims had multiplied as rapidly as the price of his stocks. Mining law gave the owners of a claim property rights to the entire ledge of ore that branched out from it. But because only the courts could determine if bodies of ore at a distance from the original claim were pieces of it or separate lodes, Hearst, like every other mine owner in the Comstock, found himself embroiled in one suit after another.11
George Hearst could have remained with his wife in San Francisco while his associates ran his mines, his lawyers fought his legal battles, and the exchanges traded his mining stocks. But he chose not to. Within weeks of arriving in San Francisco, he sent and paid for Phoebe's parents to come west to be nearer their daughter, moved his bride of six months into new quarters in the Stevenson House, a hotel with accommodations for permanent guests, and left San Francisco for his mining camp across the mountains.12
Six months later, on April 29, 1863 - with George still away - Phoebe gave birth to William Randolph Hearst, a robust baby boy named for his deceased grandfathers. Sonny, as his absentee father referred to him, was doted on by his mother, his grandmother, and Eliza Pike, his Irish-Catholic wet nurse, who, according to Hearst's first biographer, worried so much about his immortal soul that she took him to be baptized.
"'But Eliza,' protested the mother, 'I am a Presbyterian.'
"'No matter, madam, the baby is a Christian.'"13
Soon after the birth, Phoebe, the baby, and Eliza Pike moved into a solid brick home on Rincon Hill. George remained hundreds of miles away, in a region of the West still not connected with San Francisco by railroad. Husband and wife communicated with letters hand-delivered across the mountains by George's business associates.
For the next twenty years, George and Phoebe Hearst would be apart far more than they would be together. Both, if we can believe their letters, suffered from the arrangement, but Phoebe had the more difficult time, at least at first. George was at home in the West and had become accustomed to the predominantly male world of the mining camps. Phoebe was new to the West, new to city life, and a young mother - she had been eight months shy of her twenty-first birthday when her son was born.
Perhaps to compensate his wife for his absence, in the spring of 1864, as their son celebrated his first birthday, George bought Phoebe an elegant new home on Chestnut Street, north of Russian Hill, overlooking San Francisco Bay. With her husband hundreds of miles away and her parents preparing to depart for the new farm in Santa Clara which George had bought for them, Phoebe was left to make the move on her own. In early June, she sent Willie away with Eliza Pike to the baths at Santa Cruz so that she could devote her attention to the move.
"It seems a month since you left," she wrote Eliza in mid-June. "I am terribly lonely, I miss Baby every minute. I think and dream about him. We all feel lost. . . . I have had another letter from Mr. Hearst . . . he expects to be home soon, but don't say what he means by soon, a week, or a month . . . Kiss Willie for me and write me how he is. I hope you will wean him. . . . I am going to telegraph Mr. Hearst to know what to do about moving up on the hill, we have only two weeks more. I don't think I can come down to see you I will be so very busy. Write often. I feel anxious to hear from you. Oh dear what am I going to do."14
eft on her own by her husband and by her parents who had moved south to their new farm, Phoebe adjusted to life as a single mother. She learned to make decisions by herself, run the household, and raise Willie. She was assisted of course by her husband's wealth, which provided her with a household filled with servants and the incentive and leisure to educate herself - and her boy. She visited San Francisco's art museums, studied French, prepared herself for her first grand tour of Europe, and made the acquaintance of Bay Area artists and writers, inviting many of them to tea.
Her major project was her son. As he grew up, she taught him to read and write and ride a horse. He became her escort and her cultural partner. Together they learned French, visited the museums, attended the operetta, and traveled up and down the California coast. All of this was communicated over the years in long, carefully handwritten letters to Eliza Pike, who by now had left the Hearst household but for years remained Phoebe's close friend.
In the summer of 1865, Phoebe took her two-year-old son for an extended trip to visit her parents at Santa Clara, then to resort hotels in Santa Cruz and San Jose. Phoebe wrote Eliza Pike a long letter from San Jose: I have been out of town four weeks. We are having our house made much larger, it will be yet a month before it is finished. You know me well enough, to know that I will be glad to get home again, although I have been having a very nice time. The first week I was at Ma's . . . I enjoyed the drive over the mountains to Santa Cruz. The scenery is beautiful. I think it is a lovely place. I only stayed two days. The fare at the hotel was so wretched that I could not stand it, baby ate little or nothing, if we had not taken some chicken and crackers with us I don't know what the child would have done. I felt so uneasy about him for they have colera-morbus so badly in San Francisco and in fact everywhere that we hear of. I was so afraid he would take it, I thought it best for me to leave. I went to stay there three or four weeks, the place is crowded with people from the City . . . You will wonder where Mr. Hearst is all this time. He has been on several little trips and the rest of the time in the City. He did not go to Santa Cruz but comes to see us once a week when he is in the City. I am very well this summer. Willie keeps well and fat though he grows tall. He is as brown as a berry and so active and mischievous, he is a very good boy - you have no idea how much he talks. You would be astonished. He seems to understand everything. He often talks of you. He likes his books so much. Can tell you about Cocky Locky and Henny Penny, knows more of Mother Goose than ever . . . Before I came away we had been going out a great deal, there was a splendid operetta troupe at the Academy of Music. We went six or eight nights (not in succession), saw the best operas. I enjoyed it very much. . . . I think we will go to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] sometime. It must be a delightful climate, but you know how foolish I am about leaving Mr. Hearst. . . . I have been doing splendidly in French, am sorry to lose all this time being away, but I read some every day so as to not forget. I have just finished a French novel which was very interesting. Willie knows several words in French. He is so cunning . . . Accept my love and wishes for your success and happiness and a great many kisses from Willie, if he could see you, he would have marvelous things to tell you. He is such a chatterbox.15
With the departure of Eliza Pike, the only person besides her parents whom Phoebe trusted entirely with her son, Phoebe assumed full-time care of the boy. Willie responded to his mother's attention as children often do: by being absolutely charming, like a puppy wagging his tail. He learned his letters, showered his mother with kisses, and grew jealous of the time she spent with her brother Elbert, who had joined the rest of the family in California. Willie - or Billy Buster, as his father had taken to calling him now - was a handsome boy, tall for his age, with light brown, almost blond hair, and clear blue eyes. Though he seldom saw his father, he quickly adjusted to life in a household filled with women - family, friends, and servants - all of whom participated in superintending his childhood. Their new home on Chestnut Street was located on top of an embankment that looked down on the Bay. Willie grew up in the sunshine, surrounded by lots of land, pets, and a beautiful hanging garden. From a distance, it seemed to be an idyllic childhood and as an adult William Randolph Hearst would describe it as such to his chosen biographer, Cora Older. But there were tensions, most of them having to do with George's extended absences and his enveloping financial problems.16
Like most miners, even the most successful, George Hearst's fortunes fluctuated wildly. Since it was virtually impossible to determine accurately where one claim ended and another began, mining entrepreneurs could spend half their lives - and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the courts - protecting their claims, bribing judges, hiring experts, and keeping armies of lawyers on retainer. Claim dispute cases took years to come to judgment - and until they did, it was difficult, if not impossible, to raise money by selling stock.
As a mining entrepreneur, George made his money not from getting ore out of the ground, but from buying and selling stock in mines. This all took capital - and connections to capital. When silver prices were high, he had no difficulty raising money to finance new ventures and pay off his old debts. But when prices fell, as they inevitably did, opportunities vanished and debts accumulated. George was a gambler, firmly convinced that in the long run everything would come out all right. He refused to plan with any other outcome in mind.
In the middle 1860s, he extended his investments - and his debts - from mines and mining stock to real estate. He bought commercial real estate in San Francisco in anticipation of the completion of the transcontinental railroad and purchased, for $30,000, forty thousand acres of ranch land two hundred miles to the south, near San Simeon Bay in the Santa Lucia Mountains. The land was in a coastal region rich with mineral deposits. It was also valuable for agriculture.
In 1865, George Hearst was in his mid-forties, past the age when most successful miners return to civilization to enjoy the fruits of their labor. In the fall, he returned to San Francisco to accept the Democratic nomination for the state assembly. He had a young wife, a young son, sufficient business dealings and court cases in San Francisco to keep him busy, and close ties to the local Democratic party clubs which he had been supporting for several years. It is unlikely that he had intended to retire from mining entirely. The state legislature was in session only a few months a year, which left him with long stretches of time to return to the digging fields.
The Democratic party in 1865 was in the midst of a revival brought about by the arrival of large numbers of German and Irish immigrants and Southerners from border states like Missouri who, like Hearst, were Democrats and opposed the Civil War. It was their votes that elected George Hearst in November.
Though Sacramento, the state capital, was closer to San Francisco than the digging fields of Nevada and Idaho, Phoebe and George still lived apart most of the time. "Mr. Hearst is at home now," Phoebe confided to her diary on New Year's Day, 1866, but "he will return to Sacramento on Wednesday. I will be lonely again. He is absent so much. . . . Times are hard. My husband has lost a great deal of money lately. He is feeling low spirited and I feel like encouraging all I possibly can. This is the beginning of a new year. May God help me to do my duty in all things."17
When George was unable to come home to San Francisco for the weekend - which was most of the time - Phoebe and Willie were left with no choice but to take the overnight steamer to Sacramento. They stayed with George at the Brannan House on Front and J Streets. "He misses his big playroom and many toys," Phoebe wrote in her diary on January 9. She was every bit as miserable as Willie in Sacramento. She felt out of place among the politicians' wives and lost in the whirl of social events. She was also worried about her "perfect" son's increasingly imperfect behavior.
On January 4, Willie, almost three years old now, had put castor oil on her handsome moiré antique dress "so I had to dress twice." On January 10, when Governor Stanford's wife and her sister came calling, he misbehaved again. On February 11, he was "very full of mischief and I always feel anxious for fear he will act badly and disturb someone." On February 15, he misbehaved so badly that she had to remove him from the table. On February 16, back home again, she confided to her diary that she was no longer "comfortable anywhere else. When Willie is with more children he is so much harder to control."18
Many years later, Phoebe would confess to her grandson, Bill Hearst, Jr. that his father hadn't been "easy to discipline" as a child. "His forte was an irrepressible imagination."19
In adulthood, Hearst would take pride in his boyish misbehavior. In 1941, at the age of 78, he devoted several of his "In the News" columns to stories of childhood pranks - setting his room on fire, hurling a cobblestone through his dancing instructor's window, tying a string tight around the tail of a neighbor's cat, shooting at pigeons out of a hotel window with a toy cannon loaded with real gunpowder. Though he wrote these articles to recapture a lost childhood and to show his readers that he was much more of a "regular" guy than the tyrant and tycoon he had been portrayed as for half a century, what is most striking is that each of these vignettes tells the same tale of a small boy trying desperately to call attention to himself.
In one of the stories, little Willie sets off fireworks in his bedroom after the grownups have gone to bed. "Then he opened the door and shrieked down the silent halls of the sleeping house: 'Fire! Fire! Fire!' Then he shut the door, locked it and awaited events." As smoke filled the hallway, his parents tried to break down the door to his room, while the cook called firemen who pried open his window and "turned the hose on Willie and his fireworks." The story ends with Willie being "warmed" good-naturedly by his father. "But, with all his pretense of severity, Willie's pap never did warm Willie as he deserved. If he had done so Willie might have grown up to be a better - columnist." What comes across is the story of a little boy trying to establish some connection with his parents. The joke at the end covers the child's astonishment - and perhaps disappointment - at not being severely reprimanded and thereby taken seriously.
In another column on youth and child-rearing, Hearst cited a Professor Shaler who "once told his class at Harvard that he did not mind boys being bad as long as they were not wicked." Hearst concluded with a veiled retroactive explanation of his childhood misbehavior. "Sometimes boys are bad just because they do not want to be considered sissies."
Did Willie worry, as a child, that he was a sissy? Probably. It must not have been easy living up to the image of his tobacco-chewing, millionaire miner father. Though Willie was big and, despite Phoebe's constant worries, healthy, he was neither athletic nor particularly rugged. When Willie's father questioned whether the small private school he attended was doing him any good and suggested that he might instead go to the public schools, Phoebe asked if the public schools were not "rather rough-and-tumble for a delicate child like Willie?"
"'I do not see anything particularly delicate about Willie,' replied Willie's father . . . 'If the public schools are rough-and-tumble they will do him good. So is the world rough-and-tumble. Willie might as well learn to face it.'"
Before ending this particular story, Hearst paused to correct his mother's characterization. "Willie was not delicate at all, but he was something of a 'mother's boy' - and has always been mighty glad of it."
What are we to make of these stories? They are a strange amalgam of apology and pride, a plea for understanding combined with an arrogant self-defense. They are, as well, an attempt by an old man to make sense of his history by mythologizing his less than idyllic childhood.20
Phoebe Apperson had married a rich man and had expected to live as a rich man's wife, but by early 1866, only three and a half years into her marriage, she was forced to retrench. The Ophir mine in the Comstock region had played itself out sooner than expected, George had suffered a disastrous loss in the courts, and, as he later told an interviewer, "lost all the loose money I had" in San Francisco real estate ventures. Nothing was hidden from Phoebe. Though his investments would eventually pay out, he did not know when. Nor could he predict when friends and partners like William Lent - whose son Gene was Willie Hearst's best friend - would pay back the money they owed him.
"I feel that we must live more quietly and be economical," Phoebe wrote in the diary she kept in early 1866. "I have sent the horses to Pa's. . . . We have sold the Rockaway [carriage] for two hundred dollars. The coachman goes away tomorrow. By doing this we will save $100 every month." That Sunday, she was forced to miss church. "Have no carriage and the mud is terrible." Two weeks later, after waiting nearly an hour for her hired carriage to arrive, she complained in her diary that she missed her "own team very much, but I must not complain for we must live according to our means."21
Had financial woes been the only family problems in the Hearst household, young Willie might have been less affected by them. But Phoebe and George were in the midst of what appeared to be an extended argument. Though George was now far from the mining camps, he continued to live as though he were a single man. He may have been seeing other women. He drank and smoked too much, paid little attention to dress and deportment, did not even keep his boots clean. He refused, for one reason or another, sickness or weariness or simple stubbornness, to accompany her to church. "My husband is not a member of any church, and comes so near to being an infidel it makes me shudder," she had written on February 4. "It is hard for me to contend against this influence on my boy. He will soon be large enough to notice these things."22
There were other difficulties as well. George wanted to stay out late at social occasions, but Phoebe worried too much about Willie to have a good time. After the Legislative Ball in Sacramento in 1866, she wrote, "Instead of enjoying myself I cried until I was almost sick. I felt uneasy about Baby and wanted to go home before Geo. was really ready. He was angry etc., etc. . . . Oh! I wish I never had to go to another party."23
In the spring of 1866, after the assembly session had recessed, Phoebe took a vacation from her troubles - and her three-year-old child. She sailed away to the Hawaiian Islands for a month with her brother Elbert, who was sixteen. George spent the spring and summer in Idaho investigating new mining properties. Willie was shipped off to his grandparents' farm in Santa Clara.
In June, Phoebe returned to California, but then left Willie again in September to visit George in Idaho. This time, she was gone for over a month. She wrote a letter to Eliza Pike after she got back to San Francisco:
I went on up the country to Walla Walla and from there took the stage and went to a valley on the Lewiston road. There I waited three days until Geo. came. He was so glad to see me. It repaid me fully for the long trip. He had been sick and looked worse than I ever saw him, he was not ready to come home, was obliged to return to the mountains away out on the clear water above the Columbia River. So after staying there about twelve days I left for home. I could not go with him to the mines or be near him, but I was glad I went to see him. I enjoyed the trip very much, saw some of finest scenery in the world. . . . I was gone just a month . . . I was glad to get home again to see Willie. He was well and fat. He has grown tall too. . . . Willie is sound asleep. I wish you could see him - he is a great comfort to me. He talks to me sometimes when we are alone like an old man, he understands so much. He does not want to go to his grandma's again, seems to be afraid all the time that I will go away and leave him again. He says he likes this home best, and loves me as big as the house and sky and everything.24
Phoebe accepted the burden of being a miner's wife and went out of her way to visit and spend time with her husband in the mining camps, but he never quite reciprocated. His visits to San Francisco were always abbreviated, often unannounced, usually stopovers on longer journeys from one mining camp to another. She learned to live without him and to concentrate her attention and affection on her son. George arrived in San Francisco in November 1866, then left for a new mining camp almost as soon as he had arrived. "He was absent from the City a long while, his trip was by no means profitable," Phoebe wrote Eliza, and went on:
I don't think of going there this year with him - you know he can't stay at home long - I have made up my mind to not fret about it. I cannot help feeling lonely but may as well take things quietly. I am so well and fleshy you would be quite surprised. I was obliged to alter two or three of my closest fitting dresses, isn't that funny? But no signs of a little sister yet . . . Willie is not so fond of [Elbert] as he used to be. I scarcely ever leave Willie with anyone now - he can't bear to stay when I go down town and he is very good usually when he goes visiting with me. I don't think Alice [the new nanny] is cross to him, but she is very careless and I dislike for him to learn any of her habits. He being with me so constantly has made him perfectly devoted to me. He is a real little calf about me, he never wants anyone else to do anything for him, as I think I love him better than ever before, some days I do very little but amuse him. He knows several of his letters and will soon learn them all. He is very wise and sweet. I have wanted to have his picture taken, but he has had a small ringworm on his face and I have been waiting for that to disappear entirely which will soon be the case.25
Phoebe's disappearances (two of them, each a month long, in a four-month period), coupled with George's extended absences, may have taken a toll on their son. Phoebe confided to Eliza that Willie had been "very much put out when his father came home because he could not sleep with me. I talked to him and told him when his Papa went away again, he could sleep with me. He said, well, he wished he would go."26
Willie took sick early in 1867 - he was a few months shy of his fourth birthday - and Phoebe put aside everything to nurse him back to health. "Being with me so constantly, he became very babyish, and wanted his Mama on all occasions, when he was sick," she wrote Eliza. "He would say so often day and nights 'Mama I want to tell you something.' I would say - 'What Willie.' His answer would be, 'I love you.' His Papa laughed at me a great deal about it, saying Willie waked me up in the night to tell me he loved me, bless his little heart. I delighted to have him well again. . . . Willie talks a great deal and in that manly way. He asks reasons for everything and when he tells anything he gives his reasons. He has improved very much. Has fine ideas. Thinks a great deal. I have taught him most of his letters. He loves books and play both. . . . I have taken him with me when I go out, so that he thinks I can't go without him and it is almost the case. . . . He is a great comfort to me, and I hope he will be a good man, they are scarce. . . . Mr. Hearst has been home all this winter. Has been very well. We begin to feel more like married people than before, we have been very quiet, have not attended a single party and only been to the theatre once and to see the Japanese jugglers once. Took Willie both times those jugglers are splendid. . . . Willie tried to turn summersetts, climb poles."
George's continuing financial problems had brought an end to their social life. "The finest party ever given in California will be at the Lick House . . . the dining room so surpasses anything I have ever seen . . . We have an invitation," Phoebe wrote Eliza, "but are not going. I would have to get a handsome dress. It would be both troublesome and expensive and often after all would not pay. I don't care about all the furbelows and vanity. . . . We have a good home and enough to live on. That is much to be thankful for. If our little man is spared to us we will try to give him a fine education if nothing more. . . . I am still studying French, one lesson per week. Will soon be through. I can speak very well now . . . A great many are going to the world's fair [in Paris]. I wish I could go, but I can't, and it does no good to think about it."27
In 1867, after one two-year term, George retired from the state assembly. His financial problems were more serious than ever. While they were able to hold on to their home in San Francisco, their land at San Simeon, and some of their stocks, there was very little left over. George returned to the digging fields, this time as adviser or partner in mines up and down the West Coast, from Idaho to Mexico. He and Phoebe renewed their separate lives. There was no talk of his returning home to stay now. He was a full-time consultant and entrepreneur, on the road twelve months a year.
Phoebe's and George's correspondence was marked by a strange competition as each tried to convince the other that he or she led the more difficult life, Phoebe particularly, because George's extended absences made it difficult for her to have the second child she so fervently wished for. In her letters to Eliza, she reported regularly that there were "no signs" yet of a little sister for Willie, but that she kept hoping next month might be different.28 George's letters were filled with worries about his health, his homesickness, and the trustworthiness of his companions. Each insisted that the other did not visit often enough or, having visited, did not stay long enough.
In the spring of 1867, with George in Idaho - and money still very much an issue - Phoebe decided to rent out her San Francisco house and move south to her parents' farm for the summer. Everything was so uncertain, she wrote Eliza. She didn't see a bright future. The following summer, she rented her house again, but this time for six months, and with Willie, who was now five, traveled East on free railroad passes which George had secured during his tenure in the state assembly. Worried that during her absence George would abandon all the "civilizing" she had brought to the marriage, she wrote him constantly with reminders to change his clothing regularly.
"I do hope you will have respect enough for yourself and me to keep yourself well dressed and clean," she wrote him in mid-July. "Nothing can make me feel worse than to think you are going about shabby and dirty . . . Please write me if you have any new clothes and if you have your washing done and be sure not to forget to pay for it. I know how care[less] and forgetful you are, though you don't intend to be so."29
It was not easy for anyone to travel across the country in the middle 1860s, especially a young woman and a five-year-old boy without family or servants to assist them. Phoebe was undaunted. After visiting her relatives in Missouri, she traveled to Reading, Pennsylvania, where she deposited Willie with Eliza Pike, then set off with family friends to tour the East Coast. Phoebe and Willie's great adventure did not go entirely as planned. In her letters, Phoebe complained about Willie's wildness when they were together and about missing him when they were apart. Their first extended separation was so painful that she wrote Eliza an urgent letter from Baltimore where she was visiting, begging her to bring Willie on the next train south for a short visit.30
In September, while she was enjoying one of her side trips without her son, he came down with a serious case of food poisoning and she had to return to Reading to be with him. Willie begged to be taken home. Phoebe instead took him back to Missouri for another visit with his cousins. Unwilling to ride the railways again without a male escort, Phoebe asked George to come and fetch them. When he refused, citing the demands of his Idaho mines, she booked passage on steamers from New York to California via Panama.
On the second steamer leg of their long journey home, just outside Acapulco, Willie fell ill again, this time with typhoid fever. George met their ship in San Francisco and stayed with Phoebe and Willie at the Lick House until the boy was healthy. When he had recovered from his illness, Phoebe, worried not only about his health but about her own, took him to Santa Clara for the rest of the winter. Though she had been vaccinated more than thirteen times, she was particularly fearful of contracting smallpox in the city. Willie did not return home to Chestnut Street until March 1, 1869. He was nearly six years old now and had been away for almost a year.31
Willie should have begun school in the fall of 1868 when he was five and a half, but Phoebe had instead taken him with her on their Eastern tour. The following September, she kept him at home again. Finally, when he was seven and a half, she enrolled him in a small private school on Vallejo Street, only to withdraw him two months later to accompany her on an extended visit to her parents' ranch in Santa Clara. "I did not like to have him out of school even for such a short time," she wrote to Eliza Pike, "but the weather is or has been so lovely I thought it best to come down here before the rain commenced. I have heard Willie's lessons every day so he will be able to go on with his class." Early in the new year, Phoebe let Willie return to school to complete the grade.32
When Willie switched to a public school the following year, Phoebe instructed the servants to keep steady watch on the boy's whereabouts and companions. According to Cora Older, who was later chosen by Hearst to write his biography and given access to family papers, Phoebe was so worried about the "toughs" in his class that she sent her coachman to fetch him after school. Only after Willie pleaded with her for permission to walk home like the other boys did she relent.33
"I take great pleasure in amusing and interesting him at home," Phoebe informed Eliza Pike in May of 1871, just after Willie's eighth birthday, "so that he may be kept as much as possible from bad children. Of course, I must allow him to have company often but I manage to watch them closely. So far he is a very innocent child and I mean to keep him so just as long as I can. . . . He is a great comfort to us. Mr. Hearst is so proud of him and too indulgent to try to keep from spoiling him. . . . Mr. Hearst often says he would not like to have Willie on a jury if his Mama was concerned, for whether it was justice or not, he would decide in my favor. . . . I am so sorry we have no other children. We love babies so dearly, why we are not blessed I cannot understand . . . I have had the dressing room adjoining my bedroom all fixed up for Willie, a nice bed put up. It is a pretty little room and so near me, he is very much pleased."34
At age nine, after he had had only two years of classes, Phoebe removed Willie from school once more, probably so that he could spend all his time with her. The following spring, she rented out the Chestnut Street house for a year, secured from George a ten-thousand-dollar bill of credit, and deputized her ten-year-old son to take her on the grand tour of Europe she had dreamed of since her marriage.
For the next eighteen months, mother and son visited every important museum, gallery, palace, and church in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Austria, and Germany, most of them more than once; they perfected their French and Willie learned German; they met the pope in Rome and had dinner with the American consul; they read Shakespeare in the evening and travel books all day long; and together they acquired an education in European art, culture, and history.
Phoebe had originally planned to return to California in the fall of 1873, but soon after arriving began talking about extending her stay. "If you are fully decided you cannot come, I shall not feel contented to remain away many months longer," Phoebe wrote to George in August of 1873, still early in their tour, "though as we are here, and never likely to come again, we ought to see all that it is possible to see and try not to be homesick. I want you to write me what you think. I am sure you are lonely and need us to cheer you. I feel conscience stricken about having so much enjoyment with you at home worrying and working. Does my love and my society when with you compensate for all? I hope we will yet have many happy years together. Willie certainly will have great benefit by this trip. It is in many respects better than school."35
Phoebe had long planned for this trip, though she had envisioned traveling with her husband George at her side, not ten-year-old Willie. Left to her own devices, she booked trains, hired carriages, located and negotiated the fee for room and boarding in appropriately priced and respectable hotels, found interesting people to travel with, arranged for Willie to have drawing, French, German, arithmetic, and English lessons, organized guided tours and day trips, and found time every evening to write several dense but legible twenty-page letters without errors, ink smudges, or spelling mistakes - and all this on relatively modest resources.
Their trip unfolded into a journey of epic proportions. While George complained of being "ill" and "blue" and missing his wife "and the Boy" more than ever, he never hesitated to send Phoebe the letters of credit she requested with permission to extend her stay. Unlike most American tourists who traveled straight to Florence or Rome, Phoebe began her trip in Scotland, Ireland, and England, toured Germany and the low countries, wintered in Italy, and then traveled north to Paris where Willie temporarily attended school with Eugene Lent, his friend from San Francisco.36
Willie, Phoebe reported, had been a bit homesick early on, but he was as energetic and enthusiastic a tourist as she was. From Florence, where they spent much of November and December, Phoebe wrote Eliza with a description of their daily activities. Willie had three hours of lessons in the morning and then went out with his mother "to the galleries, palaces, churches, etc." In the evenings, while Willie prepared the next day's lessons and read books on Italy, Phoebe wrote her letters or studied. She had, in mid-December, "just finished reading 'Notes on Italy' by Hawthorne." On the weekends, mother and son went on "excursions to the various places a little in the suburbs or on the surrounding hills where we have grand views of the city and surroundings. Sundays we go to church, in the afternoon, take a delightful drive around the city or in the beautiful park. So we are always busy. . . . I wish we could stay another year."37
The financial news from home continued to be bad. The bankruptcy of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the failure of Jay Cooke and Company, one of the nation's largest investment houses, had turned the American economy upside down. Businessmen like George Hearst, already heavily in debt, were squeezed even tighter in the Panic of 1873 as 1800 American banks folded and those still solvent scrambled to call in outstanding loans. Though George managed to hold on to his real estate, he was forced to dispose of most of his remaining assets.38
Phoebe suggested that they sell their Chestnut Street house. "We can board in Oakland and live much cheaper," she wrote her husband from Paris in April of 1874. "Let the money for the place be invested or put at interest for Willie and I. It may be all we will have to educate him."39
When Willie Hearst returned to San Francisco in October of 1874, he found that his childhood home and all that was in it had been sold to pay his father's debts, as Phoebe had suggested. Willie and his mother were forced to board with family friends and then move into rented quarters.
Willie Hearst would spend the rest of his boyhood moving from school to school and from rented quarters to rented quarters. He had, however, already begun to find an antidote to the continued disruptions in his daily life. While in Europe, Phoebe had written George that their son was becoming a collector. He was intent on surrounding himself with objects that belonged to him and could not be taken away. "He wants all sorts of things," she wrote on July 28, and then, a week later, added that he had developed "a mania for antiquities, poor old boy" and enjoyed, above all else, talking about all the wonderful things he and his mother were going to bring back home. In London, he tried to convince his mother to buy him the four specially bred white horses that pulled the English royal carriages. In Germany, he collected the colorful comic books the Germans called Bilderbücher, and coins, stamps, beer steins, pictures of actors and actresses, and porcelains. In Venice, he bought glass objects. Phoebe tried to persuade him that they could not buy everything they saw, but, as she confessed to George, the boy "gets so fascinated, his reason and judgement forsake him."40
Werner Muensterberger, the author of Collecting: An Unruly Passion, has observed that many great collectors suffer as children from the sudden and unexplained absence of their parents. To alleviate feelings of vulnerability, "aloneness and anxiety," he says, they invest their favorite objects with magical qualities; those objects, in turn, provide them with the sense of permanence, affirmation, and security that is missing from their lives. Young Willie Hearst at age ten had already begun to invest an inordinate amount of energy in accumulating and possessing "objects," in some part, we might suspect, because, in Muensterberger's words, they could "be relied upon to satisfy a demand instantly. Their essential function [was] to be there always."41
Hearst's childhood was defined by impermanence. He had, by the time he was ten years old, lived many different lives: the rich boy in the mansion at the top of the hill, the new kid forced to attend public school because his father had run out of money, the pampered child who toured Europe, the boy who boarded with his mother. There was no center, no place that he could call his own. His parents and grandparents were transplants from Missouri. He himself had been born and raised in San Francisco, but had lived almost as much of his life on the road. School had provided no continuity, not even from grade to grade. He was shifted and shunted, withdrawn and newly enrolled in school after school, without rhyme or reason. It was hard to keep friends or feel that you belonged to a place - or it to you - when you were always being pulled away.
His father he seldom saw and never knew. The one fixed point in his life was his mother, to whom he was devoted. But she too had disappointed him, disappearing too often and too early. And it was she who was always uprooting him from Chestnut Street, the only home he had ever known: to Sacramento and Santa Clara, to the East for six months, and Europe for eighteen.
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Meet the Author
David Nasaw is the author of Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements and two other books. He has served as a historical consultant for several television documentaries and teaches at City University of New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Condé Nast's Traveler and other periodicals. He resides in New York City.
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Lot's of info, but ultimately frustrating. One learns a great deal about the 'Chief's' editorial posturings and political leanings, but let's face it, the Hearst legacy today is all about profligate spending. And that's what this book fails to explain: where did this money come from. The first half of the book repeatedly states that Hearst had to borrow from his father, then later, his mother and that his papers were not profitable. Then, basically not another word about where the money came from. When his inheritance was spent, how did he finance the purchase of additional papers if the existing ones were loosing money? Late in the book, the author states that Fortune magazine at one point estimated Hearst's fortune at $140,000,000 but that that was most certainly wrong. But why, and what was he worth. Not a word. Hearst was three things: a political force and opinion maker a highly successful businessman and a profligate spender. Way too much emphasis was put on the first virtually none on the second and a smattering on the third. Finally, at the end, it seems like the author just got tired of writing. For instance, he says that Hearst was sick and whithered to 128 pounds. What was the disease. The only reason I finished the book was that I'd read so many pages and was so close to the end, that I wouldn't give up. I'm now left seeking another biography that can fill in the glaring and broad gaps in this biography. While not a bad book, this was far from being in the top echelons of biographies I've read.
This book is extensively researched and the compiling of that research is admirable but it falls down as a biography because it doesn't explain or expand upon it's subject. As a business book concerning Hearst's massive publishing empire it works brilliantly but as a biography of a man that was larger than life it fails. I didn't feel that I learnt anything about Hearst that I already didn't know. He was a huge figure during his lifetime but what drove him to be the man he was? His views on politics and the social welfare of America are well known but where did they come from and why did he espouse them so passionately? What was his relationship with his children and their abandoned mother and why did a man who lived so large have such a seemingly reclusive life? There are a lot of questions about Hearst as a man and none of them are really answered in this lengthy bio. This is a wonderfully written book that covers a mans life from the Civil War to the 1950's extensively but still leaves too many holes.
Seems like a great deal of info about Hearst that I didn't know. His ties to many other people, businesses and other celebrities, world leaders of his time were extremely interesting to me.
Excellent biography about a very fascinating person