Book: The Chief

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The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst

Author: David Nasaw
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co

David Nasaw’s magnificent, definitive biography of William Randolph Hearst is based on newly released private and business papers and interviews. For the first time, documentation of Hearst’s interactions with Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, and every American president from Grover Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, as well as with movie giants Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and Irving Thalberg, completes the picture of this colossal American. Hearst, known to his staff as the Chief, was a man of prodigious appetites. By the 1930s, he controlled the largest publishing empire in the country, including twenty-eight newspapers, the Cosmopolitan Picture Studio, radio stations, and thirteen magazines. As the first practitioner of what is now known as synergy, Hearst used his media stronghold to achieve political power unprecedented in the industry. Americans followed his metamorphosis from populist to fierce opponent of Roosevelt and the New Deal, from citizen to congressman, and we are still fascinated today by the man characterized in the film classic Citizen Kane. In Nasaw’s portrait, questions about Hearst’s relationships are addressed, including those about his mistress in his Harvard days, who lived with him for ten years; his legal wife, Millicent, a former showgirl and the mother of his five sons; and Marion Davies, his companion until death. Recently discovered correspondence with the architect of Hearst’s world-famous estate, San Simeon, is augmented by taped interviews with the people who worked there and witnessed Hearst’s extravagant entertaining, shedding light on the private life of a very public man.


The epic scope of historian David Nasaw’s biography matches the titanic personality and achievements of William Randolph Hearst (1862-1951), who built “the nation’s first media conglomerate” from a single San Francisco newspaper. Based on previously unavailable sources, including Hearst’s personal papers, Nasaw’s long but absorbing narrative gives a full-bodied account of the often contradictory mogul: “a huge man with a tiny voice; a shy man who was most comfortable in crowds … an autocratic boss who could not fire people; a devoted husband who lived with his mistress.” Wife Millicent Hearst and actress-inamorata Marion Davies also emerge with more complexity than in previous portraits like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, whose factual inaccuracies Nasaw dissects. The author tempers the usual simplistic account of Hearst’s political evolution from fire-breathing leftist to red-baiting conservative, calling him “a classic liberal” who believed in less-is-more government and deplored fascism as much as communism. Fresh insights and elegantly turned phrases abound in Nasaw’s depiction of Hearst’s activities as newspaper publisher, movie producer, and politician, but what’s even more intriguing is the poignant personal drama of a man born “in the city of great expectations on the edge of the continent” who was buried 89 years later in San Francisco, “the place he used to know.” —Wendy Smith

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