For the 66th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke to Chris Daly and Mary Levkoff in the second of two episodes on the newspaper titans who transformed American journalism.
Historian Chris Daly (Boston University) returns to discuss the career of Joseph Pulitzer’s rival publisher, William Randolph Hearst, and we take a virtual tour of Hearst Castle in California with former curator Mary Levkoff.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Chris Daly: You know, where Pulitzer had an instinct and an aspiration to try to improve journalism, elevate the standards, you know, illuminate, educate the next generation, Hearst is a much darker figure. He represents, you know, what we might think of as the dark side of American journalism.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
They were two larger-than-life publishers who transformed American newspapers. In the late 19th century, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed to win over readers with screaming headlines, eye-catching pictures, and escalating stunts. They embodied the new age of yellow journalism, marked by sensational reporting that played up crimes and scandals, exaggerated events, and sent circulation numbers soaring.
Today, we unveil the second of our back-to-back episodes on the lives of these newspaper titans. On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we review the controversial career of William Randolph Hearst, the ambitious Californian –
who took on Pulitzer’s New York World in the pages of his own New York Journal, initiating what is remembered today as the greatest newspaper war.
Once again you’ll hear from Chris Daly, a journalism professor at Boston University, who has written extensively about both Pulitzer and Hearst. And then we’ll head to Hearst’s home state of California for a conversation with Mary Levkoff, the former curator at Hearst Castle, the home that Hearst built for himself in San Simeon, and where he entertained guests from Charlie Chaplin to Clark Gable.
Well, thank you, Chris, for returning for our second episode on the newspaper titans. Yesterday we talked about Joseph Pulitzer and today we will discuss Pulitzer’s main rival, William Randolph Hearst, the publisher of the New York Journal, the main inspiration for one of the most memorable characters in all in cinema, Charles Foster Kane, in the classic 1941 movie Citizen Kane. So are you ready to dive in here, Chris?
Chris Daly: Absolutely, yes.
It’s a treat to be with you, Nick, and to be with your listeners.
Nick Hirshon: So, yesterday, since we were talking so much about Pulitzer, and obviously Pulitzer and Hearst are always compared. You talk about this in Covering America, your book. But immediately here early in life we see some stark differences between Pulitzer and Hearst. So Pulitzer was born on April 10, 1847, and Hearst is not born until April 29, 1863, so he is more than sixteen years younger than Pulitzer. Uh, Pulitzer, as we said yesterday, was born in Hungary and immigrated to the United States, while Hearst was born in this country, in San Francisco.
And I mentioned yesterday, that Pulitzer’s father was a successful grain merchant but he died when Pulitzer was only eleven. And Pulitzer had almost no money when he arrived in the United States. You were talking about how that shows his daring, his willpower. Hearst, meanwhile, is born the son of George Hearst, a millionaire mining engineer who became a United States senator when his son was twenty-three.
So early on, Chris, it seems that Hearst has the advantage in life over Pulitzer, huh?
Chris Daly: Oh, absolutely. Uh, you know, Hearst came from one of the most pampered backgrounds in America in the middle of the 19th century. The only thing that you could say William Randolph Hearst was lacking, perhaps, was the pedigree of some of the really old families who had been wealthy for a long time, like the Astors or you know, some of the families around Boston and Providence and places like that.
But no, even, you know, as a newcomer from the far west, Hearst came with just multiple, multiple advantages: money, political connections, and as I think we’ll want to discuss, you know, an entree into the newspaper business as well.
Nick Hirshon: Well, exactly, that leads into what I was going to be asking you next.
Both Pulitzer and Hearst did share something in common: a relative who preceded them in the newspaper business. Pulitzer’s brother was the founder of the New York Journal and Hearst’s father bought the San Francisco Examiner. And in fact, while William Randolph Hearst was attending Harvard in the early 1880s, he wrote a letter to his father saying that he had developed a “strange fondness for our little paper, a tenderness like unto that which a mother feels for a puny or deformed offspring.” Uh, but Hearst did not share the same passion for his studies at Harvard. So how does he end up in the family newspaper business?
Chris Daly: Right. So it’s a great story because George Hearst, the father had this, you know, fantastic fortune based on mining and then he diversified into real estate. And in those days U.S. senators were not elected by the people, they were named to the position by their home state’s legislature. So in most cases –
very wealthy men simply bribed their state legislators to give them one of each state’s two Senate seats. And that’s, in fact, what George Hearst did. He bought that seat fair and square. Uh, and having launched a political career, it occurred to him that it might be advantageous to own a home state newspaper. So he bought the San Francisco Examiner, and that’s the paper that William Randolph Hearst was speaking about when he was writing those letters home.
He had been sent East to Harvard for his college education so he was away from the family enterprises there in San Francisco, but it’s important to note that while he was a student at Harvard he was not the best student by any means. Spent a lot of time off campus, you might say. Uh, he would take the train to New York and spend a lot of his time going to Broadway shows and –
you know, trying to meet the chorus girls.
Uh, and in that setting he discovered a new kind of newspaper that caught his eye. That would be Joseph Pulitzer’s World. And on his trips to New York, Hearst became a big fan of the World and the Pulitzer style of making news exciting and making the newspaper itself a source of interest and conflict and attention.
So Hearst became, you know, really what I would say is like an understudy to Pulitzer, particularly in those earliest years. Um, and he kept bugging his father about going into the newspaper business and finally George Hearst relented and said, “All right, well, come take over the Examiner here in San Francisco.” So that’s where Hearst first got to try his hand at being the owner, publisher, and editor of a city paper.
Nick Hirshon: And eventually, like Pulitzer, he is going to set his sights on the media capital of the world, or at least in the country at that time, New York. As you write in your book, Covering America, Pulitzer paid $346,000 to buy the New York World from Jay Gould in 1883. And then Hearst purchased the New York Journal for $150,000 in 1895. Hearst needed at least another $250,000, you describe, from his mother to invest in improvements to make the newspaper competitive. So in this sense, Pulitzer had a head start in the New York newspaper business: He came in twelve years before Hearst. And in 1895, the year that Hearst bought the Journal, Pulitzer debuted a comic strip character in the World named the Yellow Kid. And we talked a little bit yesterday about yellow journalism. Of course, the Yellow Kid inspired the coining of that term “Yellow journalism” referring to sensationalizing stories for the sake of selling newspapers.
And the Yellow Kid also represents one of the first blows in the newspaper war we’re about to get into between Pulitzer and Hearst.
So I understand, Chris, that Hearst – you mentioned he was already reading Pulitzer’s World newspaper and he lures away the cartoonist behind the Yellow Kid to come work for him at the Journal. So could you tell us that story?
Chris Daly: Yeah. So this is this is one of the great episodes in this period, where Richard Outcault, who had been drawing the Yellow Kid cartoon featuring that very odd, young person wearing a bright yellow nightshirt and inhabiting a kind of prototypical crowded, tenement-filled alleyway in New York City called Hogan’s Alley. Uh, and this was quite popular, and you know, Pulitzer liked to use colored ink in his special supplements on Sundays.
So the Yellow Kid would always appear in the cartoon wearing a bright yellow nightshirt. Uh, and he looked a little bit like an idiot but he often –
made very shrewd comments on the events in the alleyway or sometimes even on, you know, national politics.
And once Hearst entered the competition with Pulitzer, he started raiding Pulitzer’s staff for talent, both the reporters but also cartoonists, editors, anybody who he could who he could lure away. And there’s a little bit of controversy over whether it was, you know, a matter of push or pull or both. That is to say Pulitzer was not a very easy person to work for, incredibly demanding always expecting more, piling on work ordering things to be done over again. Uh, and so a lot of people were kinda you know, had one foot out the door and then along came Hearst, shopping for talent and willing to pay for it.
And so within a matter of a few years, he had you know, recruited somehow a heck of a lot of the top people from Pulitzer.
Nick Hirshon: And this is a very fitting kind of instance during this newspaper war to have the Yellow Kid, the inspiration for the term yellow journalism itself that is going to kind of define the Hearst-Pulitzer relationship. And as we get right into that, we come now to the most notorious episode in their competition. Both men have been accused of whipping up war fever against Spain in the late 1890s for no other reason than a cynical ploy to increase circulation. But you argue in the book that it is an overstatement to accuse the two publishers of “causing” the war. So how did Pulitzer and Hearst cover the leadup to the Spanish-American War and then the war itself?
Chris Daly: Good question, Nick. You know, I think it’s easy to compress this story to a point where a lot of the important details are sort of missing.
You have to really begin at least as far back as 1897 and see the way the coverage of events in Cuba, which was then a Spanish colony here in the New World how the Spanish crackdown and occupation of Cuba was covered by these two New York papers. Uh, and, you know, they played up the drama of the cruelty and violence of the Spanish occupiers and tried to arouse sympathy among their readers back in New York for the downtrodden Cuban people.
And you know, a notorious case involved the arrest of Evangelina Cisneros, a Cuban whose family was involved in trying to fight and resist the Spanish occupiers.
And Evangelina provided really like the perfect device for teeing up this conflict in terms of yellow journalism, because she was young, she was by all accounts very attractive. She was mistreated badly by the Spaniards. They really bungled the whole public relations part of that. She was even, at one point strip-searched, which caused a sensation all by itself. And the Hearst graphics department got busy trying to imagine what that strip search looked like and putting line drawings in the paper and such. Uh, and playing up the pathos of the raven-haired Evangelina Cisneros and her mistreatment by the cruel Spaniards.
And so a conflict that, you know, might have –
seemed distant or might have seemed to involve, you know, traditional issues of colonialism, economics, militarism, is suddenly personified in this very appealing young woman. And, you know, that is the kind of coverage that I think people are referring to when they say that Hearst and Pulitzer shaped public opinion in the direction of favoring U.S. intervention against Spain. But you also have to weigh that against the large number of other people in the country who had – in this country – who had their own motives for wanting to go to war with Spain. Uh, there were militarists, you know, inside the Army and Navy. There were imperialists among the big business class, and there were plenty of people who, you know, for one reason or another were amenable or actually supporting the idea of war with Spain.
Now, Hearst and Pulitzer certainly contributed. They, uh – I think it’s fair to say they fanned those flames, but they couldn’t really, even as powerful as they were, they couldn’t, you know, make America go to war. They couldn’t create a war just out of their own front pages.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and one of the probably most prominent parts of that episode is, of course, the famous quote that is attributed to William Randolph Hearst, that, and I want you to kind of, uh – I’m sure you know what I’m about to say here, Chris, and I want you to kind of weigh in here and tell us, to separate the myth from the reality of this, but supposedly at one point Hearst dispatches a photographer to try to show what’s happening in this leadup to the war and the photographer goes there, doesn’t really see much going on and writes this back to Hearst, who then responds –
“You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.” So is that true that something that so many people, so many school kids have heard about William Randolph Hearst, maybe the only thing that a lot of our listeners even know about William Randolph Hearst. So can you give us some background on that story?
Chris Daly: Yes, sure. So in the runup to war, this was in the pre-, you know, pre-U.S. intervention phase, Hearst did indeed send two very noteworthy journalists to Cuba. One was the writer, correspondent, Richard Harding Davis, a dashing, handsome you know, certainly epitome of the glamorous side of war correspondence, and at the same time, he also hired and sent Frederic Remington, the great Western artist who was expected to draw, you know, sketches that could be relayed quickly back to the newspaper and put into print.
So Remington was hanging around there in Havana and got kind of bored. You know, there was, actually at that point, no war to cover. And he conveyed that message back to the boss in New York. And Hearst may or may not have sent that fateful telegram. We know – the version that we have of that comes from George Creelman, yet another Hearst employee who was in Cuba as a reporter, but Creelman was the only source. He didn’t publish that until, I think, 1901. There is no physical evidence. No such telegram has ever surfaced in an archive. Hearst also denied it. Um, so it’s a little – it’s quite dubious, actually, whether such a telegram was ever sent.
However, it does kind of fall into the category of, like too good to check.
That is, it so aptly and succinctly summarizes Hearst’s viewpoint and that, of course, is undeniable. Hearst couldn’t walk away from that. He did favor war. He did want war. He hoped that his coverage would encourage U.S. intervention. So it’s part of that era’s mythmaking, as you say. So I, you know, I remain a little skeptical about it, but it does capture the essence of the mentality of the Hearst paper.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and even myths come about for a reason, right? So it sounds like what you’re saying is that it may not be accurate, but it’s true, in a sense –.
Chris Daly: Right.
Nick Hirshon: telling us, you know, what William Randolph Hearst was known for. It says something about his character or the ways that his employees knew him.
Chris Daly: Yes.
Nick Hirshon: Um, so I mentioned before that Hearst was born into wealth, or as you put it in Covering America, –
his success was “a tale of riches to riches.” His father, George, was a miner who staked an early claim to a lode of gold and silver in Nevada and he bought vast tracts of land in Mexico and California. But you also mention in the book how William Randolph Hearst was a man of many contradictions, including the fact that he was rich, but he also sought to speak for the common man. So how did that – speaking for the common man or all of these different contradictions – come through in his newspapers?
Chris Daly: Yeah, that’s an important point, too. Hearst is a complicated figure in terms of politics and his editorial outlook. And I think you have to look at it at least in terms of two or three phases of his career. So when Hearst was young and beginning this competition with Pulitzer, he was considered something of a progressive and he earned that title really for two major reasons.
One was his support for labor unions. And the other was his support for municipal ownership of certain kinds of enterprises, businesses that were what economists would consider natural monopolies. And therefore, instead of, you know, endlessly trying to break them up and police them, why not have, for example, like one company that would provide electricity to a whole city or region and have that under municipal ownership and have like a public board of directors keeping an eye on it and running it in the public interest.
Now, that was something that Hearst did endorse and editorialized in favor of. The older he got and the longer he was in the newspaper business, the less attention he paid to that particular issue. It really faded from his agenda.
And as far as his support for working people, it’s very – is a very, very important qualifier that has to be attached to that, and that is that Hearst supported the people who were in the labor movement of European background. So he was a supporter of the white working class especially the workers in the trades, not just, you know, day laborers right off the boat but more or less the elite of the American labor movement.
He disrespected, disliked, and abused in his pages workers from Asia and workers from Africa. So all the former slaves, all the free blacks in America, all the Asian immigrants who had come to this country –
to build the Transcontinental Railroad and other things, they got the back of the hand from William Randolph Hearst even when he was a young editorialist.
Now, in later years, the arch of Hearst’s political thinking is steadily rightward. He was more and more conservative with each passing decade to the point where he had some major conflicts with Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the New Deal, resisted U.S. engagement in World War II and became really, you know, a prominent, prominent conservative figure.
Nick Hirshon: Well, as we’re talking about this, you know, and of course, Hearst and Pulitzer are compared so often to each other William Randolph Hearst died on August 14, 1951, having outlived Pulitzer by forty years. You close your chapter in Covering America by pointing out how Pulitzer –
and Hearst are often lumped together in histories of their times, as you say, like mischievous siblings or codefendants, as we are essentially doing here, ’cause these two episodes of the Journalism History podcast, we said they’re both newspaper titans, both associated with yellow journalism, so that’s why we decided to do this on back-to-back days.
But you say that that’s not quite fair. So there’s a few different angles I’d like to maybe explore with this and maybe I’ll ask you another question after I ask you the first one here. But just first off, in life, what was the relationship between Pulitzer and Hearst? Did they have this kind of admiration for each other and get together now and then and kinda laugh about what was going on, or were they such fierce competitors that they wouldn’t dare, they hated each other or just never interacted?
Chris Daly: Wow, that’s a bit of a stumper. You know, I can’t think of a single moment when they were in the same room at the same time. Uh, I would refer your listeners to a great biography of Pulitzer –
by Jamie McGrath Morris, and to an equally great biography of William Randolph Hearst by the historian David Nasaw. I have studied both books and raided them and rely on them extensively and I can’t recall a time when these two men actually crossed paths. They did not like each other. They were bitter, bitter rivals in that sense, and I can’t think of a time when they ever cooperated or, you know, otherwise helped each other.
I think too there’s some important differences between them, and I think, you know, if I were putting this on a final exam it would have to be like a compare and contrast question. Because while there is a lot in common that links the two men, Hearst is also, aside from, you know, living much longer becoming more conservative, he also went off in a very novel, innovative direction on the business side.
So, you know, to just go back a bit. When Pulitzer left St. Louis and entered the New York newspaper market in 1883, he kept the newspaper in St. Louis. So he was an owner of two papers simultaneously. That in itself was unusual at that time. The typical arrangement was that one person or one family owned one newspaper. Now, Pulitzer broke that mold, but he stopped there. Whereas, Hearst just kept going. He held onto the Examiner even as he bought the Journal, and then he started adding more newspapers, either buying them up or launching them in other cities around the country. And this was in part in service of his own great ambition to one day be president of the United States. He wanted to have a network of newspapers all around the country to which he could dictate the editorials, and of course, you know, promote himself.
And that this would help him, you know, in his grand master plan for his life.
So that’s one difference. Then Hearst also branched out into other media. He bought magazines. He was an early and dominant figure in the newsreel production business. These were, you know, things that sorta looked like movies to us but were meant to function a little bit more the way that we now rely on television news. They were a way to provide the first kinds of moving images of things that were not exactly news but topical and current.
Later, Hearst also, you know, kept branching out into book publishing, film production in Hollywood and radio as well. So that the Hearst Corporation became really the first I would say, multimedia empire in the United States.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and to that point, as we start wrapping up here, yesterday we discussed how Joseph Pulitzer’s legacy in journalism, even though he was maybe associated in life with yellow journalism, and you said that some of that’s unfair, you know, he had some higher-minded ideas about journalism. But now he is mostly remembered as the namesake of the Pulitzer Prizes and the founder of the Columbia Journalism School. So he’s associated with a lot of high-minded things. Uh, what do you think is William Randolph Hearst’s legacy in journalism?
Chris Daly: Oh gosh. Well, I mean one thing I would mention, you know, you have to give credit where it’s due. He is the primary inspiration for the great film Citizen Kane. Now, it’s also typical classic – typical Hearst move that he tried – he didn’t like the film and tried to suppress it, and he used his entire media empire to threaten publishers, threaten
movie houses, threaten anybody he could get his hands on to try to shun and censor and shut down that film, which he found unflattering.
But I think, you know, another legacy of Hearst is that the Hearst Corporation remains privately held. It is not publicly traded. It’s not answerable to anybody. And I think, you know, where Pulitzer had an instinct and an aspiration to try to improve journalism, elevate the standards you know, illuminate, educate the next generation, Hearst is a much darker figure. He represents you know, what we might think of as the dark side of American journalism. A cynical, conservative figure who did not believe that the purpose of journalism was to improve American society or comfort the afflicted.
His idea was a much more ruthless and personally ambitious approach, and I think in a way, you know, he kind of creates a template for a figure like Rupert Murdoch you know, conservative, multimedia kingmaker in politics, a manipulator of public opinion. You know, Hearst, because of his long and successful career and his nonstop meddling in politics gives us a lot of reason to be concerned about the, you know, the connection between media and politics, and I think he stands as a, you know, a kind of a warning of what can go wrong.
Nick Hirshon: Well put. Well, we are so excited that you came here for the last two days to talk to us about the lives of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. But before we let you go, we ask all of the guests of our podcasts the same question that I’d like to pose to you now.
Why do you think journalism history matters?
Chris Daly: Oh gosh. Uh, you know, the answer seems so clear to me. You know, with every passing month, we are now seeing the very unwelcome, you know, destruction of a lot of local journalism around the country. The newspaper that serves the small town and the medium-sized city is cratering in a way that is really, I dare say, unprecedented.
So, you know, we have to look to the history of journalism to ask why is that so? I think it can help us answer that question. It can help us answer related questions. What kinds of experiments might be productive at this time? What has been tried before and failed?
What have other countries done? This is something that I think is a problem throughout the historiography of American journalism. We, you know, tend to suffer the American disease of myopia. We, most of us scholars in AJHA, speak only English. We focus only on American topics. I think we could, you know, look at the rest of the world with some benefits.
And to me, I think also, I find the history of journalism just an endless supply of inspiration. When I think of the things that, you know, people have overcome or have imagined or have created out of nothing, you know, just a figure like Joseph Pulitzer, a penniless immigrant coming to this country and rising to great heights, or, you know, if you think of the impact of careers like those of Frederick Douglass or Ida B. Wells or –
W.E.B. Du Bois, you know, there is a tremendous legacy there. And I find over and over again, my students will say, “What? I never heard about this person, or I never thought of Douglass as a newspaper person, I thought of him as” – what? – “an activist.” You can’t just live on activism. You know, a lot of these people we admire actually had careers are reporters, photographers, editors, publishers.
So I think that’s a, you know, a second great reason for you know, the continued scholarship in this area and the sharing of that with our students and teaching of history journalism, I think, is more important than ever.
Nick Hirshon: And again, the two major figures that we associated with, or that we’re talking about, you know, William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, you’ve done such a great job over these past two episodes of introducing or maybe reintroducing some of our listeners to them. So just thank you, Chris, for taking all of this time the last few days.
Chris Daly: Oh, and thank you, Nick. It’s been a pleasure, and I think this is a great service, this podcast. I look forward to it.
Nick Hirshon: Well, we appreciate it. And right now, I’m sorry, Chris, but I’ve got to run because we’re gonna be taking our listeners next to San Simeon, California, and to Hearst’s former home, Hearst Castle. I’m joined now by Mary Levkoff, the former director of Hearst Castle, the primary residence of William Randolph Hearst for many years. And she is the author of the 2008 book Hearst the Collector, which explores Hearst’s large art collection. So Mary, welcome to the show.
Mary Levkoff: Well, thank you, Nick. I really appreciate the invitation. My formal title was museum director, Hearst Castle. I always like to point out that Hearst Castle is an accredited museum. It’s a house museum but –
probably also one of the most interesting art museums in the United States.
Nick Hirshon: And we’re grateful that you’re taking the time here to give us a little bit of an audio tour of it. We have just heard the historian Chris Daly discuss the career of William Randolph Hearst, and now we want to learn a little bit from you about Hearst’s home life at the castle. So I know that Hearst hopped around many homes over the years and he had many residences at the same time, as wealthy people are wont to do, but where did Hearst live during the time that we are focusing on in this podcast, from 1895 on when he ran the New York Journal?
Mary Levkoff: He was, of course, a native Californian, born in San Francisco, and as a young man he lived in Sausalito and used a fantastic yacht to go to his office in San Francisco.
But once his focus really moved to New York, he was a New Yorker. He had successively two different townhouses of which we only have one description. And then finally he moved into a rental apartment block, which was on Riverside Drive at the corner of 86th Street. He eventually bought the building and took over a total of five floors, as well as removing the roof and creating a mansard roof at the top. That building still survives. Hearst’s five-floor apartment was probably by square feet the biggest apartment in the world at the time. The apartment, since then, has been cut up back into more normal-size spaces.
But it’s important to remember how much New York mattered for him in terms of his business. The apartment was very well photographed –
around 1927, so we have a good idea of several of the interiors and how richly they were furnished. For example, his collection of Spanish lusterware ceramics was housed there, and most of those lusterware ceramics are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So any of our listeners can get a sense of what that collection comprised just from seeing almost a hundred examples of Spanish lusterware at the Metropolitan.
The apartment also, according to his valet, featured a Greek room, an Egyptian room. It had stained glass windows, custom-built display cases, rooms for tapestries that are now mostly in the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums. So it was really palatial.
Hearst’s real estate holdings were all across New York. He controlled most of Columbus Circle. He oversaw the erection of the Ritz Tower, which is still in existence as a luxury apartment building. He built the Warwick Hotel, also which still functions as a hotel with a lot of Hearst memorabilia in it, and he had his movie studios and other offices in New York.
And he was, as you know, even elected to the House of Representatives from New York. He ran for mayor of New York and governor of New York, and those campaigns were unsuccessful. And that was really when his shift of perspective began to take him back to the land that he really loved in California to the ranch that his father had begun to assemble around San Simeon.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and that’s a great place for me to pick up here because I know that Hearst had this dream of building a dwelling for himself similar to those that he had seen on a European tour when he was a boy. And for any of our listeners who are undertaking a home renovation and forming a bond right now with their interior decorator, you’ve got nothing on Hearst because he connected with an architect named Julia Morgan and they collaborated together on what would become Hearst Castle and is this right, Mary, they were collaborating on Hearst Castle for twenty-eight years?
Mary Levkoff: Well, it was a true collaboration. That’s absolutely right, Nick. Hearst already knew Julia Morgan. She was only nine years younger than he was and she was a native Californian. She had attracted the attention of his mother, who was the first female regent of the University of California at Berkeley, when Morgan was a student in the engineering school.
She really wanted to go into architecture and because there was no formal architecture training she was then finally accepted into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris as the first female student in the architecture school and the first to get a certificate in architecture from the school.
Their collaboration would have lasted forever if Hearst’s health had not begun to decline seriously right after the end of World War II. And he had very grandiose visions about what he wanted on the hilltop overlooking the Port of San Simeon, which was small but a deep water port midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
His parents had taken him camping in a very luxurious way on that hilltop with tents that were stretched over structures with wood floors,
probably Persian carpets, a central tent for entertaining and food service, as well as other tents for household staff to help them on their vacation. And it was really only after his mother passed away in 1919 that he was able to take control of the ranch and begin to build a permanent structure there. He said at the age of fifty-six he was just tired of camping out and he wanted something more comfortable. And Hearst Castle was the result. He called it “La Cuesta Encantada,” which is Spanish for “The Enchanted Hill.”
Nick Hirshon: And Hearst Castle, I understand, eventually came to comprise 165 rooms, 123 acres of gardens, terraces, pools, walkways. What are some of the defining characteristics of the castle?
Mary Levkoff: Well, I think the structure that most people think of as the castle is the main building that was erected in the shape of a Spanish cathedral, and it was supposed to hold only a socializing room, the grand dining room, a kitchen, and one very luxurious bedroom suite along with some other services. But as Hearst’s interests grew, the whole hilltop began to be changed.
In the beginning, he wanted what was probably just a Japanese or Swiss-style craftsman-type lodge, but his decision changed in a matter of weeks and he decided he wanted something that was Spanish in keeping with California’s Spanish heritage. On the practical side, Morgan and Hearst decided –
that one small cottage, about four thousand square feet, would be built for him, and then a guesthouse for other friends opposite it.
The groundbreaking started in 1920, and that date is inscribed in the house that he used, which he used a code name for, “House A.” The guesthouse was “House B.” There was another guesthouse built between them which was “House C,” which was the biggest one of all. And then “Casa Grande,” the building that people mostly think of as the castle, was being erected primarily from 1922 to ’24. Then there were swimming pools that were added, tennis court, and the north and south surface wings were begun in 1929.
“Casa Grande,” alone, for example, has more than forty thousand square feet with twenty-six bedrooms and thirty-two bathrooms.
And, of course, you need more bathrooms than you have bedrooms because the socializing on the ground floor, including the movie theater, would necessitate restrooms for all of the guests.
But Mrs. Hearst, Millicent Hearst, was very influential at the beginning and she and her husband both agreed that all the bedrooms should have their own bathrooms because guests had to be treated in a civilized way. And if anyone’s had problems with contractors, believe me, Hearst had his own problems with the building superintendents, the construction superintendents and just getting enough construction workers to perform their jobs and do this incredible project in a very remote location.
It was up to Julia Morgan to figure out how to bring water to that hilltop for plumbing, along with electricity. So one of the first things she had to do was regrade a ranch road just to bring the machinery up to the hilltop. Then there were generators that had to be organized on the hilltop before electricity could be brought from the neighboring town, which is the town where I live, Cambria, about six miles to the south. It was an enormous project.
Nick Hirshon: Well, certainly. And Mary, I have to say, what Chris Daly told us in the first half of the podcast about Hearst wasn’t entirely flattering. Hearst was cynical and one of the main perpetrators of yellow journalism, and I suppose that that gives us an impression of him as somewhat unsophisticated, maybe unromantic. So our listeners may be surprised to learn –
that he had amassed such a large art collection that I know you have researched and know very well. So can you tell us a little bit about this art collection and what sort of art did William Randolph Hearst like to collect?
Mary Levkoff: I suppose the first thing to point out is that Hearst was not a bumbling fool with a voracious appetite, running around and buying everything in sight. He was extremely sophisticated. His mother had home-schooled him. She hired private tutors for him. She took him on two grand tours of Europe with private tutors on the second tour when he was a teenager. He did get into Harvard.
He liked cultivating the image of himself as the California maverick. He did not like conforming to East Coast tastes at all. His descriptions of a dinner party at the White House with Teddy Roosevelt actually is hilarious, um –
where he derides what he sees as un-American taste in terms of copying phony Gothic architecture. And in fact, what he wanted to do was to build a framework where he could add as many old architectural elements as he could.
So, for example, at Hearst Castle, one can think of it as a museum of architecture as well simply because of all of the historic elements, like doorways, window mullions, carved and painted wood ceilings that were incorporated into the structure. He also had a great sense of humor, and I think Morgan appreciated that. Some people see the humorous touches at Hearst Castle, like the little smiling angel heads or seraphim –
as examples of kitsch but it was really, I think, to underscore the estate as a place for enjoyment and amusement. Hearst wanted his friends and guests to have a wonderful time there.
It’s important to remember that in the public perception Hearst Castle looms very large because it’s one of the six residences that he owned and decorated which remained intact and then opened to the public. His apartment in New York, as I mentioned, already had a tremendous collection in it. He bought a castle in Wales called St. Donat’s, which he transformed and modernized with most of his arms and armor collection and British paintings.
Then there was the Georgian-style mansion, which he masterminded on land that Marion Davies already owned in Santa Monica –
and that was decorated primarily with18th-century French art, as was his wife’s estate on Long Island that had been Alva Vanderbilt’s estate.
And each one of these estates had a different historical character to it. It was not randomly thrown around or decorated and – sorry, that’s a pretty ungrammatical sentence. Each one of these had a particular style that was very well defined. And then there was also the estate that remained the property of Hearst Corporation, which was in a kind of German Gothic style in very far north California, almost at the Oregon border. That’s still private property so most people have never seen it except for Hearst Corporation and Hearst family members and their friends.
You asked – I’ll return to your original question, Nick, sorry. Um, his –.
Nick Hirshon: No problem.
Mary Levkoff: Major collections were ancient Greek vases. His mother probably had fostered a taste for antiquities. She collected Greek vases. That’s why there is a Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Archeology at Berkeley, but her son outdid her in buying really spectacular vases, sixty-five of which – the best ones – were selected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1956 for its collection.
Hearst Georgian silver mostly wound up at Williamsburg being purchased by John D. Rockefeller as the first collection to launch Colonial Williamsburg.
And that brings me to the fact that most of Hearst’s collections were disbursed beginning in 1937 –
when he could no longer hold out during the Depression. His corporation was under threat of being overtaken by trustees who would oversee it because they had issued bonds. And that meant that there was a threat that the Securities and Exchange Commission would take control of the corporation or insist that trustees take control if it missed a bond payment.
So the art collection began to be liquidated very rapidly and really in a way that Hearst derided. In 1937, there were not many people who could buy what Hearst owned. I mentioned one of them, John D. Rockefeller. And some of the collection was still being liquidated in the ’50s after he died.
You can find Hearst masterpieces in major museums across the United States as well as in Europe, –
and that’s also a reason why Hearst’s reputation as a collector was damaged. Some of the best things were sold off privately so that the best things could be protected in good museums, and Hearst did that deliberately because he knew what he had.
He worked with some of the best dealers in Europe and the United States. He was extremely sophisticated and the people who worked with him were very sophisticated. And I think, in the history of journalism, there are records of people who witnessed him getting a telephone call at Hearst Castle listening to his reporter or his editor on the phone in the middle of a cocktail party and then dictating a fully-fledged editorial that would be run the next day.
He was an extraordinary man.
He was a genius. And I’m not holding anything back. I’ve repeated several times over the past several years that Hearst really was a genius, I think, at the level of Steve Jobs probably combined with Walt Disney, and if you want to throw in a third genius in architecture, you would probably be just beginning to understand who William Randolph Hearst was.
Nick Hirshon: Wow. Certainly a renaissance man, then. And throughout the years, Hearst Castle hosted many famous guests from political leaders to journalists, to entertainers. I’ll read a partial list here: Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, Hedda Hopper, Howard Hughes, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Mary Pickford, almost everyone who was someone in the first half of the 20th century seemed to pass through. Do you have any favorite stories about some of these many celebrities who visited Hearst Castle?
Mary Levkoff: He liked surrounding himself with many varied people, and I think one of my favorite anecdotes came from the wife of the head of his Rome bureau, Prince Pignatelli. The marriage failed, and Principessa came back to California. She was actually a Californian. And she brought her two young daughters with her. Somehow, Hearst found out that the daughters were fixated on a rising young heartthrob named Van Johnson. And so Hearst had his housekeepers tell the girls to get ready to go to church on a Sunday morning and look their very best and be dressed impeccably, and to meet him in the main social room called the “Assembly Room.”
He had secretly invited Van Johnson to come to the hilltop, also had instructed Van Johnson to lie down on the sofa facing the mantelpiece. And when the girls came in, Hearst welcomed them and asked Van Johnson to stand up. And so he rose from the sofa. The girls had only seen the back of the sofa. And there was their heartthrob standing right in front of them, and Hearst had engineered the whole thing. I think that is my favorite story about celebrities at Hearst Castle, and it was told to me by one of those young girls herself, Carlotta Pignatelli Chapman.
Nick Hirshon: As we get back to Hearst here, he moved out of the castle in 1947. Kind of an unfortunate situation there. So Mary, can you tell us a little bit about why did Hearst finally have to leave the dream house that he had built for himself?
Mary Levkoff: Well, he was well over 80 years old by 1947. He was probably suffering from congestive heart failure. And when you imagine that the five-mile-long hillside road, which twists and turns with many hairpin turns, was not even paved during his lifetime, you can understand that Marion Davies was very concerned about him being in such a remote location if he had a health emergency. And it was Davies who really insisted that he had to be closer to full-fledged hospitals and full fully staffed medical care. Doctors explained to him that even if they stayed on the hilltop, the hospitals were far away. Um, it was just not practical for him to stay there.
As a consequence, Davies bought an enormous mansion, which is just north of the Beverly Hills Hotel and she redid part of it to give it the allure and – of Hearst Castle with an arcade. She expanded the swimming pool. The bridal paths and fruit trees were beautiful. It was a huge estate, and that was where Hearst lived and died.
Nick Hirshon: And the Hearst family gave the castle to the state of California in 1957. It became a historic house museum and it attracts about 750,000 visitors annually. We encourage our listeners to plan a trip there. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, tours of many historic homes have been temporarily suspended and so you should check the Hearst Castle website in advance, that’s http://www.hearstcastle.org, to make sure it’s open whenever you are planning to go.
But before we let you go, Mary, I’d like to pose to you a question that we ask every guest on the Journalism History podcast as we wrap up.
Mary Levkoff: Go ahead.
Nick Hirshon: Why does journalism history matter?
Mary Levkoff: Well, I think that’s become a very hot topic these days. There is a debate in academia and probably also among journalists and reporters themselves, and I was privileged to have this great friend in Washington, someone who had been the White House bureau correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. So I’m very aware of some of these issues.
But now more than ever, the debate has become, is it history versus memory? Are we going to discard history based on facts and say that memory based on impressions and intuitions is just as important or more important?
And I think as an historian, I will always vote for the facts. I am appalled, I’ll be honest to say, by how many hours are devoted to commentary on television news as opposed to what C-SPAN does, which is to give you the whole speech of the person who is the subject of the inquiry. The reason we know so much about Hearst is that we have what he actually wrote and said. I tried not to draw too many conclusions from it, but based what I was writing on what he said himself.
I think memory and perception are important. Even Hearst’s own memories and perceptions suggested that he felt that he had really been very instrumental in bringing on the Spanish-American War, but as W. Joseph Campbell and others have pointed out, practically everybody –
in the United States was riled up about getting into that war. I think facts are really important and we have to be very careful about keeping our biases aside and looking at what is actually said, written, and done, and I hope that your listeners will take that to heart, now more than ever.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor & Francis. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”