American Experience

S33 E43 | CLIP

Chapter 1 | Citizen Hearst, Part 1

Explore the life of William Randolph Hearst, the pioneering media mogul and inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

AIRED: September 27, 2021 | 0:09:52

♪ ♪

NARRATOR: One by one,

Hollywood's biggest stars and movie moguls

paraded into a huge tent.

Clark Gable was dressed as a cowboy.

Henry Fonda and his wife wore clown outfits.

Cary Grant showed up as a trapeze artist.

As they crossed a special gangway,

a burst of air puffed up the ladies' skirts.

A full-sized carousel, imported from the Warner Studios lot,

swept the revelers in circles.

Presiding over the festivities, in a ringmaster's gaudy outfit,

was the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.

He had thrown the party in April of 1937

to celebrate his 74th birthday

at the Santa Monica mansion of his mistress,

the film star Marion Davies.

The theme of the evening was "The Greatest Show on Earth."

It was a fitting tribute to Hearst,

whose career had often resembled a three-ring circus.

By the strength of his personality

and a seemingly endless reservoir of money

from his family's fortune,

he had become America's most powerful

and controversial media tycoon.

DAVID NASAW: We live in a world that's dominated by media.

It's with us when we wake up in the morning,

when we have our lunch, when we go to bed at night.

It's the air we breathe.

♪ ♪

ANDIE TUCHER: He made journalism really important,

whether or not you believed that he was doing good journalism.

He made the act

of publishing news and intelligence

and opinion and sensation,

he made that act really important.

(typewriters clacking)

GREG YOUNG: I think in almost every form of media today,

you can see traces of this Hearst ideology:

the flamboyance, the fearlessness,

the sort of pushing right to the edge in a way

to make these direct contacts with the American people.

GARY KAMIYA: He brought narrative, he brought melodrama,

he brought variety--

the marketing, the hype, the sensationalism.

But I think at the same time

the lack of concern with objective truth,

the out-and-out lies, out-and-out fabrications,

out-and-out distortions were pernicious.

And we've seen them having effects on journalism

even today.

♪ ♪

(people chattering)

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

(horse trotting, trolley bells ringing)

♪ ♪

(horses trotting)

NARRATOR: William Randolph Hearst, at age 22,

was just another rich kid,

one of a hundred aspiring tycoons in New York City,

all hoping to blaze their name in history.

He was a senior at Harvard College,

and was yet again on the brink of expulsion.

He'd been sent down by his parents

to cram for his looming final exams.

But when, exactly, was Will Hearst supposed to study?

♪ ♪

(crowd cheering)

At night, a newly electrified Broadway called out to him

with endless shows and performances.

He loved the theater,

adored chorus girls,

and knew all the steps to the Vaudeville shuffle.

Then, in the morning,

there were the newspapers.

(people clamoring, horse whinnying)

♪ ♪

There was something for every taste and appetite--

papers that cost only a penny or two,

catering to the city's 1.5 million souls.

Every single edition hand set on rotary presses,

dashing off 24,000 copies an hour.

(press churning)

This was really an absolute golden age for newspapers.

The greatest concentration of New York publishers

were on one street called Publishers Row or Newspaper Row

and it was right across

the street from City Hall.

It would have been one of the busiest places in the city,

with the smell of ink, the smell of newsprint,

horse cars and newsies coming to pick up their newspapers

to go deliver them.

TUCHER: Newspapers would come out throughout the day.

There would be the 10:00 edition

and then something else at noon, then something else at 2:00.

So the presses were always going.

The staffs were always working.

Sitting atop this industry,

this vast effort to present news to the American people,

put the publisher in a very powerful position.

You could shape the opinions

and the interests and the desires of your readers.

You were a name people knew.

KAMIYA: Newspaper publishers and editors are truly kings among men.

There was no other communicative mass media.

So editors,

in effect, strode the earth like colossi.

♪ ♪

NARRATOR: The newspaper game was irresistible to Hearst.

Young as he was, he already knew he wanted to be a player.

He'd told his mother that he was searching for something.

"Something," he wrote, "where I could make a name."

In fact, he was already somewhat notorious.

(bell tolling)

In the three years he'd been at Harvard,

everyone on campus had definitely heard of Will Hearst.

VICTORIA KASTNER: Will Hearst was a phenomenon.

He had an alligator that he took on a leash into class with him

named "Champagne Charlie"

because it was a beverage that the alligator liked.

NASAW: He had an entourage that came with him.

He had a full-time valet at Harvard.

He had a huge allowance.

He had not a dorm room, but apartments

and enough money to entertain all his undergraduates.

NARRATOR: Hearst was great fun.

Though he stopped drinking in his junior year,

he was a spectacular host

and any excuse was a good one for a wild party.

Classmates described him as "a mixture of boyishness

and devilishness," and elected him to all the most

exclusive frats and elite societies.

He'd once released hundreds of roosters into Harvard Yard.

Then had commissioned several professors' portraits--

on chamber pots.

(distant laughter)

Hearst even took to the stage

as a member of the Hasty Pudding theater club.

KASTNER: Will Hearst was very bright.

But he was not particularly interested

in showing up regularly to class.

What really made him passionate

was when he became the business editor of the "Harvard Lampoon."

NARRATOR: The "Harvard Lampoon" was the college humor magazine

with the reputation of being "always late

and not always funny."

KASTNER: The business editor was the job that they always gave

to the richest boy on campus because it always bled money.

It was expected that he would be subsidizing the "Lampoon"

but actually, he made it a success financially.

He sold ads and that was the beginning--

you know, his first whiff of newsprint.

NARRATOR: He'd secured the support of Boston's finest tailors,

jewelers, and even carriage makers.

In just two years, he increased circulation by 50 percent,

advertising revenue by 300 percent,

and soon he had the magazine out of debt and turning a profit.

By the fall of his senior year,

he knew exactly what he wanted to do,

and he couldn't wait to get started.

"I am a man of business now," he wrote home.

"And I am convinced I could run a newspaper successfully.

I want to go to work."

"Stand in like a man and stick to your studies to the end,"

came his father's reply.

All it took to pass the final exams was a grade of 50 percent,

but Hearst never returned to campus

and he was expelled for good. (wind whipping)


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