AJR  Books
From AJR,   September 1991

Hearst Jr. Remembers "The Old Man"   

The Hearsts: Father and Son
By William Randolph Hearst Jr. with Jack Casserly
Roberts Rinehart Publishers

Book review by Ron LaBrecque
Ron LaBrecque is a freelance writer based near Boston.      

The Hearsts: Father and Son
By William Randolph Hearst Jr. with Jack Casserly
Roberts Rinehart Publishers
450 pages; $29.95

"I lived in my father's shadow all my life," writes 83-year-old William Randolph Hearst Jr. in a memoir intended to demystify and cleanse the tainted family legacy. Forty years after the death of the man he calls "Pop" and "the old man," Hearst admits that he is a reluctant author, finally persuaded by his wife to answer "numerous inaccurate accounts, false judgments and unfounded riddles" about his father. But The Hearsts: Father and Son , not surprisingly, fails to deliver its promise of fresh insights.

The author boasts that "my father's angry headlines...virtually ignited" the Spanish-American War of 1898. The senior Hearst did inflame an incendiary newspaper duel in New York City in the late 1890s between his New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World with a sensationalistic approach dubbed "yellow journalism," a term that still defines unethical newspaper excess.

William Randolph Hearst was a larger-than-life character of immense accomplishment — whether one views it as good or evil — and biographers have made a number of attempts to capture his mercurial personality. W. A. Swanberg, in his far superior 1961 biography Citizen Hearst (for which WRH Jr. is a credited source), called Orson Welles' classic film, "Citizen Kane," based on Hearst Sr.'s life, a "brilliant attempt to explain the inexplicable."

But Hearst sweepingly discredits his father's biographers, and one does not learn in his uneven book that "Citizen Kane" won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His harsh attack on Welles, who painted a brutally sad portrait, is understandable. What seems inexcusable is that Hearst criticizes the film based on what his family's lawyers have told him of it: "I have never seen 'Citizen Kane,' out of principle and deference to the old man." His father, Hearst says, also never saw the movie.

Hearst Sr.'s business excesses were exceeded only by his gargantuan personal indulgences. He built a "castle" in San Simeon on central California's rugged coast of such overdone richness it would take many millions today to duplicate. Hearst explains why his father built "the ranch":

"In Pop's own words to me: 'I just wanted to. Period. I loved the place.' The endless project became a magnificent obsession...It was...his heartbeat."

While the tale is couched in familial loyalty, one sees a son with his nose pressed against the glass — distant and, to some degree, shut out. The author was 10 when he learned in 1918 about his father's affair with the actress Marion Davies, an affair that lasted until Hearst Sr.'s death in 1951.

"I loved him. At times, however, that love was like trying to hold onto a hurricane. I was swept along in a career of 150-mile-an-hour winds. I desperately reached for safe ports much of the time."

He reduces his analysis to this: "Pop was simply a man of his times...[who] stressed...stories of basic human appeal."

Other family members get short shrift. His brother Randy, father of Patty, is treated respectfully though briefly. His description of family suffering during Patty's hostage ordeal is, however, eloquent and moving.

Hearst is at his best writing of those experiences farthest from his father's grasp. His reminiscences of combat reporting in World War II Europe describe a maturation: "Life became very basic — fear, courage, death, and perhaps a laugh or good time now and then...I reflected mostly on decency and caring."

Hearst's strongest literary passion is reserved for his New York days at the Journal-American , where

"Pop" made him publisher in 1936, and his association with the likes of Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell and others. His description of the run-down reporters' saloon next door is delightfully raunchy:

Moochie's was a bucket of blood straight out of Eugene O'Neill's or central casting's waterfront. Inside the seedy entrance, dirty sawdust covered the cracked tile floor, and the smell of stale beer mixed with that of musty walls, creating a sour odor...

Customers walked up to the wooden bar to order. Initials and other knife-markings were carved across its face from one end to the other. Hard-boiled eggs were lumped in bowls before high wooden stools. The eggs, once a nickel, had risen to a dime each. Most guys ordered boilermakers — a glass of beer with a shot of booze on the side. They were forty cents or so.

The author shared a 1956 Pulitzer Prize with two colleagues for exclusive interviews with Nikita Khrushchev and other Kremlin leaders but, unfortunately, Hearst still celebrates "Front Page" journalism in which reporters impersonate officials to get stories and otherwise unethically insert themselves into the action.

A reporter-in-training when Charles Lindbergh's baby was kidnapped, Hearst masqueraded as a Western Union deliveryman in an effort to interview Lindbergh. Failing that, in a phone call to Lindbergh he threatened that if an interview was not granted reporters would "come bundling out of bed and chase you like a horde of bloodhounds."

Writing that wouldn't pass muster elsewhere abounds here. "I remember an unforgettable yarn along those lines," the author tells us. At San Simeon, he informs us, "Local folk still walk the beaches to watch the Pacific tide rise and fall as it has for centuries."

His writing is locked in another era with ill-considered phrases — "two little black boys," "scatterbrained starlets" — that most now view as unacceptable. One wishes that Hearst's commendable admonition that Americans read more did not follow such consistently weak and baffling prose.

The book also displays an embarrassing disregard for continuity and structure. Phrases, facts and whole scenes are repeated in a confusing chronology. How many times must we be reminded that Marion Davies referred to one Hearst home, called Wyntoon, as "Spittoon?" We are first told that the author became editor in chief of the Hearst newspapers in 1953, later that it was in 1955.

Unfortunately, this book by one influential editor in chief about another could have used better editing.