Anyone hoping to redeem the reputation of William Randolph Hearst must overcome a long-established prejudice. Most people know him mainly as the character played by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane -- a vicious, selfish and pathetic egomaniac.
Hearst did all in his power to bury that film when Welles finished it in 1941. Instead it buried him, in the public imagination. The most admired of all Hollywood movies, it's probably the most effective hatchet job in the history of entertainment. Playing steadily on TV around the world, it endlessly renews the opinion Dorothy Parker expressed when she called Hearst "the world's worst son of a bitch." By the time Hearst died in 1951, his New York Journal-American was a McCarthyite parody of a newspaper, with nothing left but a touch of flash.
Now Kenneth Whyte, editor of Maclean's and founding editor of the National Post, has produced a work of historical revision, The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst (Random House), in which Hearst's reputation turns upside down. In Whyte's hands, he becomes a generous visionary, a great newspaper publisher who deserves a place of honour in history.
This is a daunting project for a writer's first book, but Whyte carries it off with a deft combination of persuasive writing and impressive scholarship. Everyone who writes about Hearst in future will have to consider Whyte's perspective.
The key is that his Hearst is a much earlier version, the 19th-century Hearst, far more attractive and interesting than the tired, pompous press baron who became a target for Welles. Except for a brief summary of the later life, Whyte's narrative draws to a close early in the 20th century. The Uncrowned King celebrates a dashing young Harvard graduate with a handlebar moustache who arrived in New York in the 1890s with nothing but brains, a dream and a large sum of the money his father George made in gold and copper mines.
In that far-off day, as mass newspapers were still being invented and one copy usually cost one cent, New
York had 17 dailies. It was a time, Whyte argues, when American papers "were far more vital, innovative and engaging" than now. By prodigious energy and relentless attention to detail, by a natural sense of what stories would interest readers and a willingness to hire the best writers and illustrators, Hearst established the New York Journal as the most successful and the best of them all. The flourish with which he did it turned him for a time into perhaps the best-known individual in America.
All this he accomplished in his thirties --and as a progressive Democrat. In his papers, he fought the machine politicians and the trusts, believed in the revolutionary idea of an eight-hour day, showed sympathy for unions and demanded better schools, roads and hospitals. Lincoln Steffens, the prince of journalistic reformers, thought Hearst "a great man, able, self-dependent and clear-headed."
Whyte describes the 1896 presidential election (Republican William McKinley vs. Democrat William Jennings Bryan) as possibly the most exciting in American history. The issue was adopting silver as well as gold as the basis of U. S. currency. America was cash-poor because its currency depended on the gold standard and there wasn't enough gold. Bryan advocated the monetization of silver to bring more liquidity to the system. He won the nomination with his oration on using silver at the Democratic convention, a speech that is still quoted even if most people have little idea what it meant: "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
Bryan lost the election, despite Hearst's cheerleading, but Hearst's circulation improved anyway. Hearst has often been called a warmonger who pushed the United States into the Spanish-American war. That, too, sold papers but Whyte argues that Hearst honestly believed in arousing U. S. opinion to save Cuba from the vicious tyranny of Spain.
Hearst's mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a ladylike ex-schoolteacher, turns out to be a great gift to a biographer. Her lavish cultural donations enhanced her social position but she was mortified by her whisky-swigging, tobacco-chewing husband--although, as Whyte says, she was "a champion spender of her husband's cash." As she said, "I do love the prestige that filthy lucre gives to one." George left Phoebe the fortune, so for many years she tried to keep her son Will from exhausting it on the purchase of more newspapers. Their struggle provides a sideshow in the life of the young Hearst -- a sideshow that Whyte, as an expert journalist, exploits with delight.