Biography of Hearst a study in contradictions
With the mind of an academician and the heart of an investigative reporter, David Nasaw began delving into the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst almost 10 years ago.
A history professor at the City University of New York for more than two decades, Nasaw knows a thing or two about the scholarly approach. But it was his persistence as much as his analytical faculties that enabled him to shed new light on a larger-than-life figure who was an enigmatic American legend.
Nasaw learned of the existence of thousands of Hearst's letters and other correspondence that no one had seen since the family stored them in a Bronx warehouse in the 1920s, as well as other material that had been locked up in a bunkhouse at the Hearst Corp.'s warehouse near San Simeon, Calif., after Hearst died in 1951.
If he was going to write a meaningful biography of the man whom filmmaker Orson Welles immortalized in his 1941 classic "Citizen Kane,'' Nasaw knew he would have to get his hands on those papers.
In January 1992, Nasaw wrote to William Randolph Hearst Jr., the famous publisher's oldest living son, as he began his attempt to gain access to the material in storage. But the son, who had written his own book the year before, "The Hearsts: Father and Son,'' declined to cooperate and died the following year.
He then met with Randolph Hearst, who was reluctant to share his father's papers. Two years later, following multiple meetings and letters, Hearst gave Nasaw permission to proceed.
That was only the first hurdle. Hearst's papers, Nasaw discovered, were owned not by the family but by the Hearst Corp., the largest publisher of magazines in the world and the owner of 26 TV stations and 12 daily newspapers, including the Times Union.
Nasaw first met with Frank Bennack Jr., president and CEO of the corporation, in the spring of 1994. Access was not granted right away. It took Nasaw more than four years of prodding and lobbying before Bennack finally agreed to let him see the complete papers of William Randolph Hearst.
The result is "The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst,'' an almost 700-page book published earlier this year to considerable critical acclaim. Nasaw will read from and discuss his biography tonight at the University at Albany.
With "The Chief,'' Nasaw has produced the first substantial biography of Hearst since W.A. Swanberg's 1961 book, "Citizen Hearst,'' and the first biography of the American icon that is based on primary sources rather than anecdotal information, rumor and innuendo.
The papers document Hearst's interactions and correspondence with the leading political figures of his day, including Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini and every president from Grover Cleveland to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Also featured is Hearst's love-hate relationship with Hollywood, informed by documentation of his relationships with move czars Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner.
"I think I knew from the beginning I was going to have something special,'' Nasaw said during a recent telephone interview. "In a funny way, everybody thinks they know Hearst from 'Citizen Kane,' but we don't know Hearst, even though we think everything's already been said about this man.
"I realized nobody understood the guy. Certainly Orson Welles didn't. Welles was a great filmmaker but a bad biographer.''
The Hearst who emerges in "The Chief'' is a far more complex and contradictory individual than Charles Foster Kane, who ends up as a monstrously unhappy man living in total isolation in his Xanadu in Welles' movie.
As Nasaw describes him in the opening pages, "Hearst was a huge man with a tiny voice; a shy man who was most comfortable in crowds; a war hawk in Cuba and Mexico but a pacifist in Europe; an autocratic boss who could not fire people; a devoted husband who lived with his mistress; a Californian who spent half his life in the East. He was in all things defined by contradiction, larger than life.''
In addition to being the first American media mogul, Hearst served two terms in Congress and would have won the New York gubernatorial election if Teddy Roosevelt had not personally organized a smear campaign against him. Hearst also came in second in the balloting for president in the 1904 Democratic nominating convention.
Nasaw suggests that Hearst is as important a figure to the 20th century as Thomas Edison was to the 19th century. Two days after the first presidential election of the 21st century, Nasaw believes a more complete understanding of Hearst has never been more important.
"Two of the hot topics being debated through the primaries and into the election season were campaign finance reform and the role of the media in electing political candidates,'' Nasaw said. "One of my interests with 'The Chief' was to look at the man who in some ways started it all. Hearst controlled the nation's largest publishing empire and used that empire to try to elect himself president. I think his story resonates loud and clear today.''