William Randolph Hearst ~ Boulevardier of the Year

by Kim Steele






Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, your readers might like it. ~WRH



Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA, photograph by Kim Steele

One of the most telling descriptions, for better or worse, is the fact that his Senator father, George Hearst, willed his entire fortune upon his death in 1895 to his wife, Phoebe, stating that his only son, William, was a “hopeless spendthrift.” He was not entirely wrong. He in fact assumed the control of his mother’s property in Pleasanton, California in the same year, to begin his first major construction project, the Hacienda del Pozo de Verona. He was twenty-seven at the time and building his career in newspapers, radio and film. She “re-possessed” it from him soon there after.

William (WRH) was born into wealth. His father was a gold miner, U.S. Senator and engineer. His great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland to South Carolina to acquire a land grant. He was properly reared at the best of schools, St. Paul’s in New Hampshire and then Harvard College. He was expelled for sending chamber pots painted with his instructor’s faces inside, and sponsoring beer hashes in Harvard Yard. He floundered for an occupation, and landed on publishing. His father owned the San Francisco Examiner, which he gained in exchange for a gambling debt. He poured money into modern equipment and had the good sense to hire some of the best writers of the time, including Mark Twain and Jack London. He succeeded in dominating the market.

The Examiner printing exhibit, at San Francisco's 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition

The Examiner printing exhibit, at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition

Although William Randolph Hearst already owned the San Francisco Examiner, inherited from his father, he was intent on tackling New York. With $7.5 million from sale of Anaconda Copper stock, he purchased the New York Morning Journal. Sold for a penny a sheet, therefore called a ‘penny paper.’ Hearst tackled the challenge with his usual zeal –  competing head-on with Joseph Pulitzer, owner and publisher of the New York World, from whom he “stole” Richard F. Outcault, the inventor of color comics, and all of Pulitzer’s Sunday staff as well. (The Press: The King Is Dead, Time, August 20, 1951)

There were sixteen competing papers in New York at the time. Hearst succeeded in trumping the others by his generous pay scale, providing bylines for the writers for the first time, and maintaining a dignified manner.


The art of the deal, William Randolph Hearst, Winston Churchill, Louis B. Meyer, Boulevardiers and Freemasons, 1930

Hearst changed the face of journalism. He created ‘yellow journalism’ which denotes scandalous headlines, spurious sources and lavish illustrations to capture the readers’ imagination. The name was derived from a cartoon starring bald babies in yellow nightshirts, titled Hogan’s Alley. Circulation peaked at 150,000. His sensationalism reached the height of audacity by allegedly starting the Spanish American War, when after receiving a telegram from the artist Fredric Remington claiming there was no war in Cuba, he responded: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst even sailed there to report on the mistreatment of Cubans by the Spanish in an exemplary manner.


It was at this time that Hearst dove into Democratic politics. He ran for mayor, Senate (even backed by Tammany Hall), Governor of New York, and even President. He did succeed to hold two terms as a Congressman from New York’s 11th district. His empire grew to Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, and Seattle with the ownership of the Seattle Post Intelligencer. By mid 1920s he had twenty-eight publications under his leadership. In 1924 he opened the New York Daily Mirror, a racy tabloid boldly imitating the New York Daily News, Among his other holdings were two news services, Universal News and International News Service, or INS, the latter of which he founded in 1909. He also owned INS companion radio station WINS in New York; King Features Syndicate, which still owns the copyrights of a number of popular comics characters; a film company, Cosmopolitan Productions; extensive New York City real estate; and thousands of acres of land in California and Mexico, along with timber and mining interests. (Wikipedia) The Hearst empire still owns a popular magazine, Cosmopolitan, and created a now dead publication Connoisseur in which this author published an article on the famed Aubusson tapestry.

Hearst did return in frustration in 1919 to the West Coast, and began to expand his empire in Los Angeles as well, with a Julia Morgan designed Examiner Building there. This began his life-long relationship with Ms. Morgan as his lead designer, culminating in the tour de force of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, along the central coast of California on a ranch his father had acquired years before. He was a very mercurial and demanding client. The project began in 1920, and was never really ‘finished’ but work was halted in 1938. Hearst left there in ill health to reside in Los Angeles, and sadly never returned to his beloved residence. Morgan visited almost every weekend, a distance of two hundred miles from San Francisco by train and car. She returned by night train on Sundays and appeared devotedly to her office every Monday morning. Her engineer was not as stout. William was eventually forced to move to Los Angeles by his health.

In 1903, Hearst married Millicent Veronica Willson (1882–1974), a 21-year-old chorus girl, in New York City. He envisioned a place where his family of five sons could enjoy the great outdoors. This was his greatest enterprise, and remains to this day one of the magnificent homes in the U.S. His propensity was for frequent mind changes, often to aggrandize the properties, sometimes lacking the necessary immediate funds. WRH collected antiquities voraciously his entire life, concentrating on Medieval Spanish design which formed the core of San Simeon. Most notable in his collection were his Greek vases, Spanish and Italian furniture, Oriental carpets, Renaissance vestments, an extensive library with many books signed by their authors, and paintings and statues from all over the globe. He took frequent trips to Europe to acquire his beloved objects, sometimes beyond his means.


Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA, photograph by Kim Steele




















Hearst Castle pool, San Simeon, CA, photograph by Kim Steele





















Hearst holdings included a million acres in Mexico, the Babicora Ranch. Hearst’s father, U.S. Senator George Hearst, had acquired land in the Mexican state of Chihuahua after receiving advance notice that Geronimo – who had terrorized settlers in the region – had surrendered. His mother expanded the holding as early as 1886. He wrote to his mother,  “I really don’t see what is to prevent us from owning all Mexico and running it to suit ourselves.” (David Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph, Hearst, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001)


The Hearst Building, San Francisco, CA

The Hearst news empire reached a circulation and revenue peak about 1928, but the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the vast over-extension of his empire cost him control of his holdings. He never recovered nor did his holdings. He carried on as Publisher even visiting Berlin to interview Adolf Hitler. When Hitler asked why he was so misunderstood by the American press, Hearst retorted, “Because Americans believe in democracy, and are averse to dictatorship.” Hearst’s Sunday papers ran columns without rebuttal by Hermann Göring and Dr. Alfred Rosenberg.

Meanwhile Hearst had purchased the Welsh Vale of Glamorgan property, St. Donat’s Castle, and revitalized it in 1925 as a love gift to Marion Davies, the Hollywood comedic actress who became his life long mistress. This included building thirty-nine green and white marble bathrooms. Hearst and Davies spent much of their time entertaining and held a number of lavish parties, the guests at which included Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Winston Churchill, and a young John F. Kennedy. Upon visiting St. Donat’s, George Bernard Shaw was quoted as saying: “This is what God would have built if he had had the money.” Hearst’s wife never visited the castle.

Late in his life, WRH planned another project, originally the Milpitas Ranch near the Mission of San Antonio de Padua, to be an elaborate hunting lodge to accommodate his romantic idea of guests riding on horseback, about thirty miles inland to Jolan. Today, it’s located inside Fort Hunter-Liggett and operated as a hotel. It was a great concrete reinforced Mission style hacienda complete with massive columns. The apartments linked to a grand dining room and a spectacular second floor domed receiving room.


The Hacienda, Milpitas, CA




Morgan continued to work for the family after his death, including for son George, who requested her to rework the Hillsborough home just south of San Francisco. But her most memorial work for him, aside from the Castle, was the corporate headquarters of Hearst Publications in San Francisco which begun in 1937 and stands to this day on a prominent intersection.  His spirit  lives on to this day with twenty-nine titles, including the important imprints of  Esquire and Town & Country, receiving nine nominations for the National Magazine Awards in 2015.


Marion Davies











 In suggesting gifts: Money is appropriate, and one size fits all. ~WRH


William Randolph Hearst was a Boulevardier in the truest sense of the word. He followed his beliefs, creatively shaped an industry and exhibited gorgeous taste while leaving behind a legacy that lives to this day. His eccentric tastes included a world renowned armor collection housed at his residence at 137 Riverside Drive, just up the street from this publisher’s NY home. The stately mansion, titled The Clarendon, had a Mansard top floor to present the pieces which he eventually bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum which displays them dramatically today.

William Randolph Hearst… a legend, and an inspiration to us Boulevardiers…

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