American Experience

S33 E44 | CLIP

Chapter 1 | Citizen Hearst, Part 2

William Randolph Hearst’s media empire included 28 newspapers, a movie studio, a syndicated wire service, radio stations and 13 magazines.

AIRED: September 27, 2021 | 0:09:45

♪ ♪

NARRATOR: On May 1, 1941,

a dense crowd of movie moguls, photographers,

and celebrity-seekers jostled outside the premiere

of one of the most talked-about films of the year.

They had come to see the director,

Orson Welles, star in a thinly veiled portrait

of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.

VICTORIA KASTNER: "Citizen Kane" was, in a way, the perfect irony.

It was definitely based on Hearst's life

but played up certain things, ignored other things,

and fabricated many things.

And in a way that's not an unfair description

of Hearst's journalism as well.

NARRATOR: The film would become a classic of modern cinema,

but at the time, Hearst was the most powerful

media mogul the country had ever seen,

and he was determined that his private life

would not be ridiculed in public.

Not a single one of his 25 newspapers

even acknowledged "Citizen Kane's" existence.

It was a vivid demonstration

of Hearst's ability to control what Americans saw, and heard,

and believed.

JEET HEER: For Hearst,

news was not reporting the facts.

News was creating history-- making history.

You don't report history, you're a participant in history.

ANDIE TUCHER: Hearst made it

almost impossible not to pay attention to journalism,

not to think about journalism, not to,

quite possibly, be drawn into journalism--

either in support of him or against him.

GREG KAMIYA: He would force presidents

and heads of state to deal with him as if

he was, like, a secretary of state,

or had that kind of level of power,

and it makes him into this god-like figure.

DAVID NASAW: Everybody has an opinion on Hearst, and no one is neutral.

He is vilified,

he's idolized, but he's on everybody's mind.

NARRATOR: Hearst built his corporate colossus

with the help of his family's vast fortune

and his unerring sense

of what the working man wanted from the news.

His appetite for power was limitless.

So were his arrogance and his hubris.

But the scale of Hearst's empire,

and the increasingly strident nature of his politics,

would lead Americans to question just how much influence

one man should rightfully command.


♪ ♪

(birds squawking, waves crashing)

(birds chirping, waves crashing)

NARRATOR: In early April of 1919,

two people were wandering around on the top of a hillside

in an isolated section of the California coast.

One of them was the publisher William Randolph Hearst;

the other, his architect, Julia Morgan.

They made an unlikely pair,

but they were a powerful combination.

He was used to getting exactly what he wanted,

no matter the cost.

She was used to solving almost any design challenge,

no matter how daunting.

Hearst had once suggested that he wanted to build a "bungalow"

right where they were standing.

They had both laughed at that.

Now, as they looked around at the extraordinary vista,

they knew he had something entirely different in mind.

♪ ♪

NASAW: Only a madman

would have ever dreamed

of building a castle on the hilltop.

They chose together a spot

that was on this enormous slope,

a spot that had to be cleared,

roads had to be built.

And not just little roads, but big roads.

Everything had to be imported.

The lumber had to be imported.

The stone had to be imported.

The topsoil, the shrubbery, everything.

A port had to be created

so barges could bring the building materials.

Only a man who didn't estimate costs in advance

would have dreamed of building on this hillside.

But they worked brilliantly together.

He never raised his voice to her.

He never shouted or yelled or gesticulated.

He knew that she would

fulfill his dreams.

NARRATOR: Fulfilling Hearst's dreams was a full-time job.

It had been that way for decades.

Through his relentless drive,

Hearst had become the undisputed king of American journalism--

known within his empire simply as "The Chief."

Beginning in 1887 with the lowly "San Francisco Examiner,"

his newspapers and magazines now reached

millions of Americans every day,

in cities all across the country.

♪ ♪

His still-growing empire had been built

by a willingness to spend whatever it took

to crush his competitors.

And spend he could.

His father George had struck it rich in the Gold Rush

and left the equivalent of half a billion dollars

to his mother, Phoebe.

Now, in 1919, she too had passed away,

and at the age of 56,

Hearst was finally in control of the family fortune,

and one of America's richest men.

George Hearst took the very first money he made

in the Comstock Lode,

and with that money he bought land at San Simeon in 1865

when Willie Hearst was only two years old.

So it was very important to the entire Hearst family.

And George went through several financial reversals

but they never sold San Simeon.

He always hung onto it.

One of the things that George Hearst said was,

"I'm saving it for the boy."

♪ ♪

NARRATOR: It was a working cattle ranch, 97,000 acres,

along a stunning stretch of the California coast

230 miles north of Los Angeles.

Hearst and his father could hunt

and ride horses through the canyons.

At night the family stayed

in fully furnished tents pitched by the ranch hands

on a place they called "Camp Hill."

Meals were delicious affairs, prepared by a team of cooks.

The view was spectacular.

♪ ♪

Now, "Camp Hill" was to be the site of a monument

to Hearst's boundless ambition.

He was building a castle because he, literally,

had a castle's worth of treasures with which to fill it.


(bangs gavel)

NASAW: Limits,


restraint-- these were not words

in the Hearst vocabulary.

He was possessed by a collecting demon.

The people he commissioned to buy things

were told, "the Chief wants this."

And they would say, "But the bidding's gone too high."

And they were told, "Well, get it, the boss wants it."

He was like...

a two year old, who sees something

and wants it and grabs it and won't let go.

NARRATOR: Only months after Phoebe died,

Hearst's desire to acquire things went into overdrive.

He could have easily furnished

all the planned rooms at San Simeon

from his own and his mother's collections,

but instead, he bought new art,

furnishings, and antiques

before the foundation had even been laid

at the top of the hill.

The nations of Europe were on their knees

following World War I,

and Hearst and other wealthy Americans happily preyed

on impoverished nobles in one of the great fire sales in history.

He snatched up suits of armor... (gavel bangs)

paintings... (gavel bangs)

tapestries... (gavel bangs)

a large 15th-century Italian sideboard, (gavel bangs)

matched doors with Renaissance panels, (gavel bangs)

and Moorish columns from the 12th century. (gavel banging)

He needed a complex of warehouses

just to hold it all.

♪ ♪ Hearst told a story about a man


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