William Randolph Hearst was so filthy rich and powerful, they made a movie out of his life. During today’s movie-camera-in-every-pocket era, this is not so unusual. But when it is the golden era of filmmaking, and when the director is Orson Welles, and when the title reads Citizen Kane -widely regarded as the best film ever- the story is an event; so much so, that Hearst applied his considerable power to hinder the film’s release.
In reality, Citizen Kane was only loosely based on Hearst’s life, incorporating pieces of the lives of other magnates as story elements. With a touching irony of the sort that only afflicts those who try to suppress the media, a decades-later film called RKO 281 told the story of Hearst’s attempt to halt Citizen Kane. There is no word whether Hearst’s estate objected. The irony is further multiplied by Hearst’s own vocations. As the owner of an extensive portfolio of newspapers, he surely felt privileged enough to ignore others’ concerns about the contents of his own publications, particularly during the rise of yellow journalism, as his rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer grew.
So what made Hearst rebel against Citizen Kane? The movie was the story of a wealthy newspaper man, Charles Foster Kane, who ruthlessly sought power, engaged in yellow journalism and built an extensive estate away from prying eyes. This is a fairly accurate assessment of much of Hearst’s life, spent acquiring his array of publications to go along with a collection of mining and ranching operations. Hearst was also a two time member of the U.S. House of Representatives and an unsuccessful New York mayoral and gubernatorial candidate.
William Randolph Hearst had more than a fair start to life, born to the silver spoon of George and Phoebe Hearst. Expulsion derailed a fine Harvard education that included a bit of publishing experience with the Harvard Lampoon. A fabulous troublemaker, he was known for huge parties in Harvard Square and shipping chamber pots to his professors.
Hearst’s real exploits came with the 1895 acquisition of the New York Morning Journal. He went about business in his unique way, continuously innovating while hiring and promoting “stars” who might never have been famous elsewhere. Thirty years later he had amassed 28 newspapers to go with numerous magazine and book publishers. His influence allegedly propelled the United States into war with Spain. And while his circulation war with Pulitzer lead to yellow journalism, he also took to task corruptive influences, notably in San Francisco, and ran a blunt interview with Adolph Hitler.
Although the Hearst Corporation still runs the holdings of Hearst’s empire, William Randolph Hearst is familiar today chiefly through Welles’s depiction and through Hearst’s estate in San Simeon, California, donated to that state by the corporation. Regular tours lead visitors through the extensive and varied collection of art that Hearst amassed in his life, making Hearst Castle as much a museum as mansion.