William Randolph Hearst was one of the pioneers of mass media, creating an empire of newspapers, magazines and radio stations. The antithesis of a the bland corporate leader, Hearst put his personal stamp on everything he did and every business he owned.
Hearst's father was George Hearst, who brought his training in mining engineering to California in 1850 and became a millionaire investor in mining concerns, particularly in gold and silver. Hearst served for a time in the California Assembly and later ran unsuccessfully for governor California. For the last few years of his life, he was a United States senator.
At the age of 40, George Hearst married 19-year-old Phoebe Apperson, who in 1863 bore George his only child, William Randolph Hearst. Phoebe Hearst's life included many achievements, among them a role in establishing what became the national Parent-Teacher Association, and becoming the first woman regent of the University of California.
William Randolph Hearst attended Harvard but did not graduate. He went into the publshing business in 1887 by taking control of his father's newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. Showing the audacity for which he would remain famous, Hearst upgraded the paper's printing plant as well as its stable of writers and within a few years was the dominant force in San Francisco journalism.
By 1895, the New York Morning Journal was failing. Using the financial resources of his mother Phoebe, who now had control of the family fortune after the death of George Hearst in 1891, William Randolph Hearst took control of the paper and launched a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. He did not endear himself to Pulitzer by hiring away many of his best employees. The battle for circulation involved sensational reporting of questionable veracity, which became known as Yellow Journalism. Hearst exploited, and perhaps distorted, events in Cuba and his newspaper's sensational reporting was a contributing factor to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.
William Randolph Hearst dabbled in politics throughout his career with mixed success. He was a member of Congress for four years from 1903 to 1907, but his attempts to become New York City's mayor and New York state's governor failed. He hoped to become a U.S. Senator from New York in 1922, but Al Smith blocked him.
With additional financial backing from his mother, Hearst expanded his newspaper empire. At its peak in 1928, he had 28 newspapers. He added radio stations and magazines, but during the Great Depression, his overexpansion brought him into financial difficulty. Eventually, he was forced to cede control over the operations of his many properties.
Hearst married a New York showgirl, Millicent Willson, in 1903. She bore him five sons, including a pair of twins. Eventually, Hearst became enamored with the Hollywood star Marion Davies, with whom he lived openly. Millicent eventually grew tired of tolerating his affair and moved to New York City, where she lived into old age as a noted philanthropist.
Hearst's great physical legacy is Hearst Castle in San Simeon in the California coast. Building on land originally acquired by his father George Hearst, William Randolph Hearst indulged his fantasy of the ultimate castle by purchasing works of art and sometimes entire architectural features and bringing them to San Simeon. After his death, the still incomplete castle was donated to the state of California, which operates it as a major tourist attraction.
The life of William Randolph Hearst was the inspiration for the movie Citizen Kane by Orson Welles. Although loosely based on Hearst and incorporating features from other industrial giants, Hearst viewed the film as an attack on himself and used his influence on movie theater operators to keep distribution as low as possible. Despite his success in damaging Welles movie and subsequent career, Hearst could not prevent the movie from establishing his reputation in the public mind, in a largely negative way. The movie has been frequently named one of the best of all time.
William Randolph Hearst died in Beverly Hills, California, on August 14, 1951, at the age of 88.