Monday, March 19, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE CHIEF – The Life of William Randolph Hearst” by David Nasaw (first published 2000)

Reading a piece of polemic written by a journalist, and in part concerning the self-censorship of newspapers, reminds me of the biography of a press tycoon from the past, who was very adept at censoring his hired editors when it suited him.

There are some larger-than-life American figures who are best known through the medium of fiction.

Many postings ago [see index at right], I gave an account of T. Harry Williams’ big biography of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana, the politician probably best remembered now as the model for the fictitious Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men.

Similarly, and fairly or unfairly, the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) is now best remembered as the model for Charles Foster Kane in Herman Mankiewicz’s and Orson Welles’ brilliant but historically questionable movie Citizen Kane. Some readers might also know that Hearst was the model for the millionaire Jo Stoyte (Joseph Panton Stoyte) in Aldous Huxley’s last really good novel After Many a Summer (although I note that the Wikipedia article on Hearst isn’t aware of this fact.)

Hearst was somebody worth writing about, even by people who couldn’t stand him.

David Nasaw spent ten years researching and writing his detailed biography The Chief, which runs to more than 600 pages of closely printed text. But it’s hard to read any of it without mentally comparing Hearst to Kane (and Stoyte). Fittingly, Nasaw devotes a whole chapter to chronicling the impact of Citizen Kane on the real Hearst, and gives at least some of his longer endnotes to After Many a Summer.

Parts of the story are familiar through the fictions. Hearst inherited his first millions – he didn’t earn them. His father George was largely absent from his life. His mother Phoebe was over-protective and manipulative. When he broke into journalism and began buying newspapers, young Hearst was a political progressive, as so many Republicans were in the age of Teddy Roosevelt. He was a trust-buster, a champion of labour unions and the friend of the new European immigrant masses who were pouring into 1890s America. Later, as his millions piled up, he became an obsessive collector of art, animals and literary lions, whom he hosted in his many castles and mansions. All this is true of the fictional Kane, too.

Hearst’s early journalism was vigorous, sensational and muck-raking. Unlike most of his circle and social class, Hearst wasn’t an anti-Semite and had many Jewish friends. (The fictional Kane is given a Jewish friend called Bernstein.) But even in his early progressive days, the jingoism was there. It was Hearst more than anyone else who stirred up Americans to fight the unnecessary Spanish-American War and acquire an overseas empire while pretending it wasn’t an empire at all.

As Hearst got older and his newspaper empire became more embattled by rivals, his politics moved further to the right and became quite cranky. He spent much ink telling the world that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was just creeping Communism. Like so many Establishment Americans in the 1930s, he preached isolationism and gave Hitler the benefit of the doubt until the very last moment. Towards the end of his life he was an ardent supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy.

For these reasons, he came to be regarded by the liberal-left as Public Enemy Number One. The movie Citizen Kane was structured as flashbacks after the funeral of its Hearst-like eponymous character. In fact, Hearst was still very much alive when it was made, and at least part of the purpose of the film was to take his reputation down a few pegs and suggest that he belonged to a past age.

Apart from his public life, there was also the peculiarity of his private life. His 50-year marriage to Millicent Hearst was amicable and produced five sons who all seemed to get on well with both their parents. But Hearst broke with convention by separating from his wife without divorcing her, and spending 30 years living with his mistress Marion Davies.

All this was an open secret. Not even Hearst’s newspaper rivals ever mentioned the fact in print. The polite fiction was kept up that Hearst and Davies were “just friends” who happened to be together whenever Hearst was hosting parties at his North California castle San Simeon (often starring guests such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells or Winston Churchill). One later commentator called Davies “America’s best-known kept woman.” Davies had been a reasonably talented comedienne in silent and early talkie movies. Hearst created a production company called Cosmopolitan Pictures specifically to promote her, and spent many millions trying to build her up as a major film star - but with very limited success. This was like the fictional Kane’s attempt to build up his second wife as an opera star; but the film’s depiction of the woman as an amiable but talentless bimbo was not a fair representation of Davies, who was a reasonably bright and witty woman.

Nasaw’s book is a real biography, not a hagiography. He chronicles Hearst’s colossal arrogance, political stupidities and bullying of perceived enemies. Hearst clearly ran a blacklist, giving instructions to the editors of his newspapers on which public figures they should boost, which they should lampoon or otherwise write about negatively and which they should never mention. Nasaw covers both the implosion of Hearst’s newspaper empire in the 1930s, and Marion Davies’ embarrassing descent into alcoholism.

Having noted this, though, there are times when Nasaw seems to be as kind to Hearst as he possibly can be. He rather too hastily dismisses the unsavoury rumours that surrounded the death of the film producer Thomas Ince. In 1924 Ince died suddenly while part of a party enjoying Hearst’s hospitality on board one of Hearst’s luxury yachts. Ince’s body was hastily brought ashore and cremated before a memorial service was held. Rumour had it that Hearst had gone berserk when another guest, the notoriously randy Charlie Chaplin, made a pass at Marion Davies. Protecting exclusive rights to his 27-year-old mistress, the 61-year old Hearst got a revolver and accidentally shot the innocent Ince dead, mistaking him for Chaplin. He had the money to cover this manslaughter by bribing a coroner to sign a death certificate before the hasty cremation. Apparently he also had the money to pay Ince’s widow a fabulous sum for life, and send her off on a very long holiday.

This story became Californian legend. It provided part of the plot of Huxley’s After Many a Summer and all the plot of the 2001 film The Cat’s Meow. Nasaw skids over it very quickly, which is odd, given that he is prepared to make detailed comparisons with other fictional versions of Hearst’s life.

There is, however, one thing about The Chief which is both chastening and instructive. Fictional versions of Hearst present him, in old age, as lonely, unfulfilled and miserable. This depiction is very consoling for those of us who are not multi-millionaires. It’s so comforting to think the rich can’t buy happiness. Even Citizen Kane runs with this popular mythology. The reality appears to have been that Hearst, secure egotist that he was, suffered no doubts about himself, was quite a cheerful old man in private, and died happy.

How very annoying.

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