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The Uncrowned King

The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst

by (author) Kenneth Whyte

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2009
General, Business
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2009
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“I’ve been watching him, and I notice that when he wants cake, he wants cake; and he wants it now. And I notice that after a while he gets his cake.” –Senator George Hearst, on his son, William Randolph Hearst

A lively, unexpected and impeccably researched piece of popular history, The Uncrowned King reveals how an unheralded young newspaperman from San Francisco walked into the media capital of the world and created the most successful daily of his time, pushing the medium to an unprecedented level of excitement and influence, and leading serious observers to wonder if newspapers might be “the greatest force in civilization,” more powerful even than kings and popes and presidents.

About the author


  • Short-listed, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
  • Short-listed, National Business Book Award

Contributor Notes

Kenneth Whyte is the editor-in-chief of Maclean’s, Canada’s weekly current affairs magazine. Over the course of two decades he has become one of Canada’s premier journalists, also having served as editor of the monthly Saturday Night magazine at the peak of its popularity and as founding editor-in-chief of the National Post.

Excerpt: The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst (by (author) Kenneth Whyte)

Chapter One
It is difficult to say precisely when William Randolph Hearst first hit on the idea of breaking into New York publishing, but it is clear that by 1889 he would not be satisfied until he did. He was twenty-six years old and already a minor newspaper phenomenon. Three years earlier he had been handed the San Francisco Examiner by his father, who had owned it for six years, accomplishing little beyond a string of annual losses. With no more than a few months of professional journalistic experience, the younger Hearst announced himself as proprietor and editor and promptly established the Examiner as the most attractive, intelligent, and exuberant daily on the Pacific coast. Its circulation more than doubled. Its losses evaporated. It rivaled the mighty San Francisco Chronicle as the leading newspaper in the West. The trade journals credited Hearst with a “masterstroke of enterprise.” It seems everyone who knew the Examiner was impressed by it, save Hearst, who was keenly aware that whatever he had accomplished in San Francisco, he had not done anything in New York.

His expansion plans were in fact larger than one city. Hearst envisioned a chain of newspapers, the individual titles of which would share content, management, and other resources, reducing costs and magnifying the proprietor’s voice and influence. But a chain was unthinkable without New York. It was the liveliest and most competitive newspaper city in the world, and the center of media and commercial influence in the United States. New York was a goal in itself.

Out of the blue, on Thanksgiving Day 1889, Charles M. Palmer, an experienced midwestern newspaper executive specializing in circulation, received a telegram from Hearst inviting him to join the Examiner and asking what salary he would expect. Palmer signed on, excited at the comprehensiveness of Hearst’s expansion plans and the prospect of an imminent break into the New York market. He was also impressed by Hearst’s manner, a curious mixture of deference and self-assurance. George Pancoast, Hearst’s private secretary and frequent companion, also learned of the New York initiative around this time. As they were crossing San Francisco Bay on a ferry, Hearst took from his pocket a railway timetable and drew circles around the names of several large cities, saying, “George, some day a paper there, and there, and there.” New York he circled twice.

Hearst’s plans were made public that autumn when the New York Press revealed that he had been “trying to induce his father to set him up in business here, either by buying some old paper or establishing a new one.” A staggeringly wealthy senator from California, the Honorable George Hearst had cheerfully spent his best years in frontier mining camps and scrappy western towns, exercising an uncanny ability to charm metal out of rock. Before taking up politics, he had been instrumental in the development of four of the richest mines yet discovered in America: Nevada’s Comstock Lode, Utah’s Ontario Mine, Montana’s Anaconda, and South Dakota’s Homestake. The Press guessed George Hearst was worth $20 million. It reported that the senator had been in upstate New York over the summer to watch his thoroughbreds run, and that he had this to say about his son’s New York newspaper ambitions: “There ’s plenty of money if the boy really has his heart set on it. But I am in hopes he will conclude after a while that one big paper is enough for one man to run.”
It’s unlikely that Will Hearst viewed his father’s caution as a serious obstacle. The old man was a soft touch. Will also had himself to blame for his father’s “one big paper is enough” reservation. He had been complaining incessantly to the senator about his competitive difficulties in San Francisco. He had started a newspaper war with the Chronicle and, to his surprise and consternation, its owner, Michael de Young, was fighting back. De Young had announced a series of new investments in his paper, including the construction of an impressive new headquarters and Will had pleaded for more paternal support to keep pace. “I am working awfully hard and getting a little bit tired and a little bit discouraged,” he wrote his father. “That damned Chronicle building is a tremendous advertisement and helps them immensely. Everybody talks about it and everybody thinks it is pretty fine and there is great difficulty getting subscribers away from a paper that is doing a big thing like that. The effect upon the advertiser is even worse. Mr. De Young told a friend the other day that since he had started his building his income [from the paper] had almost doubled. . . . How long do you suppose it will be before we can put up a building – a stunner that will knock his endways and make him as sick as he is now making me[?]”

George Hearst’s hesitancy about his son’s New York plans may also have been lip service to Phoebe Apperson Hearst. The senator was constantly reminded by his wife that he had lost hundreds of thousands on the Examiner before it had begun to pay, and that was on top of the hundreds of thousands he was throwing away on his ponies. Though one of the richest families in America, and a small one at that, the three Hearsts were diversely ambitious and variously extravagant; there was not enough money to go around. At the start of 1890, they were spending at a pace of almost $1 million annualized. Phoebe was generally the voice of restraint, seeking to rein in her men not out of prudence so much as out of concern for her own spending and philanthropic priorities. Sometimes the men listened to her; more often, as in this instance, not.

The senator’s misgivings appear to have lasted no longer than it took the Press to get them in print. He was soon reported to have made unsuccessful bids for the New York Times and the New York Sun, as well as a $5-million play for the mighty New York Herald. The accuracy of these reports is uncertain, but any discussions toward the purchase of a New York title would have made Will’s dream seem tantalizingly close. And just then everything changed.

Late in 1890, Senator Hearst was diagnosed with “a complication of diseases” rooted in “a serious derangement of the bowel” – in a word, cancer. He received first-rate medical attention and fought bravely against the illness, but it advanced quickly. Around seven o’clock on the evening of February 28, 1891, he slipped into a coma. Phoebe was called from dinner and was joined at his bedside in their Washington mansion by Will, a family friend, and the household staff. All were present when George died at 9:10 p.m, with Phoebe holding his hand. “So quickly and easily did he pass away,” said one report, “that Mrs. Hearst did not know he was dead until so informed by Dr. Ward.”

George Hearst was remembered fondly as a tall, rumpled man with a great beard, a constant smile, and kindly, genial ways. Eulogies played up the incongruity of his humble origins and lack of formal education, and his spectacular rise to riches and high political office. There was much amusement at his love of horses, card games, and drink. It was said that “only such an amount of culture had attached to him as would necessarily be forced upon a man whose household was presided over by a model wife, who was a society leader having practically limitless wealth at her command.” That characterization of George Hearst has persisted over the years, with much of the warmth wrung from it. He is portrayed in his son’s most recent biography as an “uncouth, loud, and semi-literate” hick who drank too much, neglected his family, and bought his way into the Senate. The recent HBO drama Deadwood presents him as a sociopathic tycoon who murders his way to riches.

Senator Hearst was indeed a child of the Missouri frontier, but he hardly grew up wild. The family was patrician by local standards. George Hearst’s father was a man of means, the largest slave owner in Meramec Township, and a force in local politics. His mother had some education and was known for her cashmere shawls and leghorn bonnets. George did not spend a lot of his childhood in the classroom, mostly because there was no schoolhouse nearby, but he had a good head and he eventually completed enough of grade school to graduate from the Franklin County Mining School in 1838. He was expected to study for the bar, but then his father passed away, leaving debts that George took upon himself to clear. Sufficiently literate to teach himself geology and mineralogy from borrowed texts, George earned his first financial stake by applying the efficient lead-mining practices he learned from books to mining properties considered worthless by experienced Missouri operators.

George Hearst took his knowledge west, made and lost several fortunes, and gained an international reputation as a mining analyst. He also became expert in the bewilderingly complex legal dimensions of his trade (the protection of a single claim could require litigation of twenty or thirty separate suits). His colleagues marveled at his shrewdness and cool judgment, which seemed only to improve in times of uncertainty or crisis. They also valued his personal qualities: he was cheerful, open, unaffected, honest, sensible, independent of mind, and innately dignified. He was a beloved figure in the mining belt. Colleagues sought his advice on personal as well as commercial matters. He dispensed his counsel in “wise, original and homely thoughts and phrases,” flavored with the musical drawl of his native Missouri. His personal magnetism kept him in some of the best company available in the western states. His business partners included California attorney general and U.S. senator William Morris Stewart, U.S. senator James Graham Fair, and Nevada City mayor Hamlet Davis. Among his friends were U.S. Supreme Court justice Stephen J. Field, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California Niles Searls, and Ninth Circuit judge Lorenzo Sawyer. Mark Twain was a drinking buddy, a business associate, and an admirer of George’s self-reliance and political judgment.

Senator Hearst’s “model wife” might not have registered the precise moment of his passing, but she knew exactly what to do once he was gone. Phoebe was a formidable woman in her own right. Tiny, dark-haired, and handsome in a severe manner, she was given to lavender gowns, antique lace, tight corsets, and show-stopping rubies and diamonds. She was Washington’s most celebrated hostess, the “philanthropic grande dame” of the capital and its “arbiter of unsullied elegance,” by one newspaper report. Just two years prior to her husband’s death, she had opened their Dupont Circle mansion with a costume ball to commemorate Washington’s birthday. TheWashington Post deemed it “by far the most brilliant event of its kind” ever held in the city. The flowers alone were rumored to have cost $25,000 (the reporter who wrote the story would have been lucky to earn $25 a week). The party favors included “reticules of flowered silk, amber and tortoise shell combs and clusters of three ostrich tips for the hair. Those of the gentlemen were silver medals cut with colonial cocked hats and shields, pen wipers of white kid embroidered in flowers and tiny buckets of California redwood in the form of pin cushions.” So never mind that the humble senator might have been perfectly content with a quick drop in a pine box. Phoebe ’s reputation demanded she give him a glorious send-off.

The ceremonies began with George Hearst’s body lying in state for the better part of a week. A memorial service was held in Washington at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, the president and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison in attendance. Afterward, the casket, Phoebe, Will, and a large party of senators, congressmen, friends, and retainers boarded a special train, dyed Titian red, for the week-long ride back west. George ’s body was displayed for four more days at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, attracting thousands of mourners, even in hard rains.

The funeral service was Phoebe ’s main event. The governor of the state and the city’s mayor were among the honorary pallbearers; the widow’s society friends sat in assigned pews. She transformed the church into a garden, with palms and evergreens crowding every niche, and a pair of seven-foot white flower crosses bracketing the altar. Great streams of blossoms hung from every arch and rafter. It was an exhibition of “gems and treasures of the florist’s art such as have rarely been brought together to do honor to the dead,” gushed the Examiner. Will’s daily had made its own contribution to the display. Sitting like a billboard in front of the casket was a blue and white floral representation of the paper’s front page, featuring a portrait of the senator.

After the service, Phoebe left the church on Will’s arm to lead a slow ten-block procession to Laurel Hill Cemetery. The hearse was drawn by four jet-black horses. “The strains of the dirges and the long roll of the muffled drums were the only sounds above the patter of the rain,” reported the Examiner. Fifteen thousand people gathered in the steady drizzle to watch the cortege pass. The crowd at the cemetery gates had to be cleared to permit the family to enter. Sixteen days after his last breath, the senator was finally laid to rest. Pheobe and Will were last to leave the casket.

If Grace Episcopal had been to Phoebe’s taste, the funeral train’s return east sans casket was nearer to George ’s style. An Indiana temperance crusader whose own train happened to be trailing the Hearst party complained that its passengers engaged in a coast-to-coast debauch, fueled by wines donated by California vineyards. The front page of the starchy New York Times reported that privately marked cases of wine and hundreds of empties were loaded on and off the train near El Paso, Texas. Witnesses declared that tier upon tier of wine cases were stacked in the dining car and that the Hearst party “did not have a drip of water on their train but drank wine altogether, using orange wine to quench their thirst.” Congress was indignant at the allegations, especially as it was obliged to pick up the tab. The cost of the trip was a record $21,322.55, which led to legislation limiting government spending on congressional funerals to the costs of embalming and transporting the body home (the bill was never enacted).

In the weeks before the senator’s death, newspapers had speculated as to the settlement of the Hearst estate. Valued at between eighteen and twenty million, it included several outstanding mining properties and perhaps a million acres in land. The betting was that Will, as the only child, would be the sole heir. In fact, he was shut out. Everything regarding the ownership, management, and disposition of the assets fell to Phoebe. The senator had written, “I commend my son, William R. Hearst, to my said wife, having full confidence that she will make suitable provisions for him, but in the event of the marriage of my said wife after my death, I hereby give and bequeath to my said son all of my said property that may remain in the possession of my said wife at that date.”

Will Hearst now had a lot to absorb. Notwithstanding that his father had been away in mining camps for much of his life, there had been a bond between them. Will was his father’s boy in many respects. There was a physical resemblance: the fair hair, the long face, the tall stature and sloped shoulders. Each possessed cool judgment and a powerful mind with a practical bent. Will also had some of George ’s gentleness and amiability (although little of his freewheeling charm). They had drawn close as Will had matured, primarily through their shared interests in publishing and politics. Many people, starting with Phoebe, had held the senator’s simple ways against him, but Will had not. He favored competence and accomplishment over manners and appearances, an attitude he had adopted from George. He loved and admired his father, and his bereavement had to have been profound. It would have especially pained him that George had doubted his maturity and financial abilities, and had not seen fit to leave him an independent legacy. He must have cringed to recall his panicked pleas for another “million or a million and a half or two million” with which to fight the Chronicle.

Will appears to have blamed himself for his father’s decision (a verdict echoed by his biographers), yet odds on a full inheritance had always been slim. The senator’s relations with his son were far less important to the disposition of his estate than were his relationship with his wife and the unorthodox terms of their marriage.

Editorial Reviews

“Incendiary, intoxicating…. Remarkable and captivating.”
The Globe and Mail

“Whyte accomplishes his mission, achieving the same conclusion that Hearst himself also reached: those were the days.”
The New York Times

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