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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 93-97

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Poor Little Rich Boy

William Deverell

David Nasaw. The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. vii + 687 pp. Photographs, notes, and index. $35.00 (cloth); $16.00 (paper).

Tucked away in the archives of the Huntington Library are a handful of photographs of William Randolph Hearst as a young man. He looks as though he is trying desperately to come across as an earnest scion of wealth and privilege, even in those pictures showing him clowning around at Harvard. Hearst peers intently at the camera and seems to want to be taken very seriously--by the photographer, by his peers, even by posterity. It doesn't quite work. He's trying too hard. Pictures of his mother, on the other hand, portray an entirely different persona. Phoebe Apperson Hearst looks every bit the strong-willed, socially prominent woman of Victorian America, a woman very much at home amidst the finery and trappings of extraordinary wealth.

Even if they weren't related, these two individuals would make fascinating biographical subjects. But related they were--though each likely regretted it at times--and their eccentric orbit around one another is a critical feature of David Nasaw's fine biography of William Randolph Hearst. Throughout the long and deeply researched book, Nasaw displays a keen sensitivity towards irony. This is on the one hand not a difficult task, for Hearst family history fairly drips with irony. But the biographer rightly lets the ironies of Hearstdom speak for themselves--they'd come across too loudly otherwise--and this is one of this book's many accomplishments.

Ironies do abound. Phoebe Hearst, so comfortably rich and so comfortable being rich, had been a schoolteacher in Missouri prior to marrying miner George Hearst. Her son, often so uncomfortable around wealth and desperately wanting the world to think of him as a bootstrap success story, milked a fat allowance as a schoolboy and at Harvard and exhausted the bulk of a huge inheritance through both business and luxury spending. Hearst then built his own empire, one that also toppled at least once before he lifted it up again, an empire fashioned largely out of stories and story-telling. And yet Hearst shied away from stories about himself, choosing to reveal his inner thoughts only to [End Page 93] his mother. A crusading journalist who loved jousting with entrenched power, Hearst switched sides in later years, turning his papers and writers, which by then included both Hitler and Mussolini, loose in an anti-Communist free-for-all. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that Citizen Kane remains the first and last word on Hearst (until now, one hopes), though that film is deeply flawed in its representation of the man and his life and times. Superficial resemblances notwithstanding, Charles Foster Kane is not William Randolph Hearst.

But this is getting ahead of the story. David Nasaw does his work gradually; he fleshes out his story of Hearst with appropriate attention to context and details. George Hearst was a miner, a workaholic, and, even after hitting the big strike (more than once) something of an itinerant, albeit a rich one, across the mining landscapes of the American West. He was also an indifferent father, content to leave most of the childrearing responsibilities to Phoebe Hearst and a collection of her relatives and assorted caregivers. Young William, born in 1863, came of age in San Francisco, coddled by wealth and his mother's attention. Perhaps as a way to fill an emotional gap left by his father's indifference, "Willie" became an inveterate collector at an early age, not unlike his almost exact contemporary in time and space, young Leland Stanford, Jr. It is interesting to think of these two progeny of California wealth spending hour after lonely hour quietly compiling their small museums of such things as bugs and birds, drawings and photographs, glass and coins.

When he came of age, Phoebe Hearst shipped her son off to prep at St. Paul's. He hated it. He missed...


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