William Randolph Hearst, Pt. 1
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?"
"'I am from the San Francisco Examiner,' the youth explained in a voice like the fragrance of violets made audible, and backed a little away.
"'Oh,' Bierce said, 'you come from Mr. Hearst?'
"Then 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 term.
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 require."
Now it was time to conquer New York. Hearst had paid $180,000 for the New York Morning Journal. 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 IS QUIET. THERE IS NO TROUBLE HERE. THERE WILL BE NO WAR. I WISH TO RETURN. -REMINGTON. Hearst replied: PLEASE REMAIN. YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES AND I'LL FURNISH THE WAR. -W.R. HEARST.
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 ahead.
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...
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