Born on April 29, 1863, William Randolph Hearst was the only child of George Hearst, who had accumulated one of America's largest mining fortunes. Hearst's mother Phoebe adored and spoiled her son. According to his mother, young Willie understood the power of wealth at a very young age, proclaiming that he wanted to live in Windsor Castle one day.
In 1887, when he was 24 and close to being thrown out of Harvard, Hearst begged his father to allow him to run a failing San Francisco newspaper. Making good on his goals, Hearst turned the Examiner into a must-read with his brash and scandalous form of journalism. He knew exactly what his readers wanted and was more than happy to give it to them, even if it meant bending the truth. William Randolph Hearst transformed the way newspapers are published. He "adored sensation, he knew the power of lurid detail, of photographs, drawings, and if need be, manipulation" (PBS). In the late 19th Century, Along with Joseph Pulitzer, Hearst started publishing human-interest stories about the atrocities the Spanish Army were committing in the Cuban fight for independence, thus leading to American involvement in the conflict. In his quest for power, he did not care about ruining people as long as he got his way. For example, Hearst papers published pieces rife with fantasies of President McKinley's violent death six months before he was assassinated; some thought the articles encouraged the killer. The public turned on Hearst, but the power he wielded is still unprecedented.
Over the next 30 years, as more and more people became literate, Hearst grew his media empire to include 30 newspapers and 50 magazines. He was undeniably the most powerful journalist in the world. He is credited with bringing comic strips into newspapers and is considered the father of "yellow journalism". He was known for purchasing statues and immense treasures from all over the world, filling up his castle at San Simeon, a property "half the size of Rhode Island" (PBS).
Hearst quickly caught the eye of Hollywood in the 1920s, when one in five Americans were reading a Hearst paper every week. He entertained the Who's-Who of Hollywood at San Simeon, including Charlie Chaplin, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Irving G. Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, and Jack Warner. He had the power to sway public opinion on films, and therefore, Hollywood's top brass was properly respectful.
However, after the Depression hit America hard, Hearst "became a Depression-era symbol of all that was hateful about the rich." His empire began to crumble, especially with the high taxation on the super-rich that came along with FDR's New Deal, leaving San Simeon teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
The major point of contention between Hearst and Welles over Citizen Kane was Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress. Hearst had fallen madly in love with Davies, when she was only 18, even though he had a pregnant wife at home. Douglas Fairbanks, who spent time at San Simeon claimed, "Marion was absolutely enchanting. Everybody loved her. She was cheery, jolly, generous, and full of humor and wit. She was just a glorious gal" (PBS). In watching Citizen Kane, nobody would ever describe Susan Alexander Kane, who was supposedly based on Marion, as any of those things. Susan is shrill, whiny, untalented, and "a pitiful drunk". By the time Citizen Kane went into production, William Randolph Hearst was 76 years old, and he and Marion were quite honestly in love. Even Orson Welles said, three years before his death: "I thought we were very unfair to Marion Davies...what we did to her...was something of a dirty trick" (PBS).
William Randolph Hearst, whose reputation continued to deteriorate, died at Marion Davies's home in 1951 - though she was not allowed to attend the funeral for the sake of the family's reputation. For better or worse, Hearst lives on in Citizen Kane, the film he tried desperately to destroy.