Ben Procter. William Randolph Hearst: The Later Years, 1911-1951. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 325 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-511277-1.
Reviewed by David Spencer (University of Western Ontario)
Published on Jhistory (November, 2007)
There are times when one must question the widespread and popular belief that America rid itself of its nobility when the supporters of George the Third ran north across the 49th parallel just ahead of a few buckets of tar and a few bags of feathers. This can easily be dispelled by taking one of five two-hour tours through the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Although nowhere near as magnificent as it was in its heyday, it is truly the palace of a prince of the realm, although in this case only a fraction of the owners' fortune came from a family inheritance. But as Ben Procter pointed out in his earlier 1998 study of the first phase of the life of William Randolph Hearst, what a legacy it was.
As Procter himself notes, he never intended to write the sequel to his earlier work, which stopped exploring the impact that Hearst had on America and journalism after 1910. We should be thankful that he changed his mind although it was the untimely passing of his friend and colleague Robert Burke, the intended author and researcher for volume 2, that brought Procter back to the project. Throughout 249 pages of beautifully written prose, Procter takes us through one of the most productive and, of course, most turbulent periods in the tycoon's history. It is during this phase of Hearst's life, following 1910, that he has to cope with the death of his soul mate, his mother Phoebe Apperson Hearst. It is during this phase of his life that he meets and falls in love with Marion Davies, beginning a peculiar triangular relationship with the actress and his estranged wife that lasts right up to his last breath at his mansion in Los Angeles. And, of course, it is during the last phase of his life that he becomes the subject of the drama documentary Citizen Kane (1941), which spares no sympathy for what he has become in the mind of producer/actor/director Orson Welles.
It is fair to ask what kind of Hearst emerges in these well-crafted pages. There is something elementarily human about the man although Procter never lets his reader forget that there is a side to the unpredictable publisher that can lead only to trouble. Although advised and then outright warned not to deal with Adolph Hitler, Hearst cannot resist the temptation to spend an hour with the German dictator, much to the chagrin of the folks back home, not to mention his competitors' newspapers. It is during incidents of this nature that we see what Welles saw in Kane, an unstoppable force determined not only to get its own way, but to prove to the righteousness of a cause to the nonbeliever. And many of Hearst's campaigns, especially against his foes, bear this mark. As long as the publisher felt the justness of a crusade, the more the truth became a casualty of his actions. Hearst's victims not only received front-page attention, they often were "treated" to his supervision over a period of months.
It is Procter's literary agility in dealing with Hearst's complexities that makes this work sing. In Procter's account of the dealings with the tragedy that befell Millicent Hearst after Marion Davies arrived on the scene, Hearst emerges at some points as a pure villain but in others, as a weak, emotionally driven man who needs the same sense of exploration and conquest that was so much a part of his dealings in the world of business. His frailties, which, of course, he would never admit, become part of the study that allows us to explore in depth below the surface of his existence. And precisely what kind of person do we see beyond the stubbornness, the compulsive behavior, and the need to acquire? To be honest, I was fascinated with Procter's account of Hearst's social circle. He comes across as a man who constantly needs to surround himself with people of like mind and activity. The weekends at San Simeon are filled with train loads of individuals who were invited to the Hearst Castle for fun and frolic. Other than sleeping, Hearst is seldom seen without someone close by. This same approach is taken when Hearst decides to spend time in Europe. He is the master orchestrator, tolerating no input or interference with his ideas of what constitutes the perfect continental vacation.
This delicate balancing act, which persists throughout the study, is perfected by Procter. At one point, he leads his readers into perfect admiration for such a man. Nowhere is this more prominent than in Hearst's dealing with political figures. But as quickly as he takes us in this direction, he reverses course and we encounter the Hearst who will stop at nothing to get his own way. It is little wonder that at one time Hearst was America's hero, defender of the weak and dispossessed, and at the same time, as Procter describes him, the most hated man in America. There may have been only one William Randolph Hearst but like a nineteenth-century wall paper design, there was no "oneness" about the character.
As historians have shown in the past, dealing with the likes of Hearst can be a challenge for any researcher. In volume 1 and now in volume 2, Procter has more than lived up to the challenge of telling this man's life story. Each chapter leaves you wondering what he is going to do next--buy a newspaper, set up a radio station, get Marion Davies into the film industry, run for the presidency, or plan the construction of the Casa Grande at San Simeon.
Do I think Hearst would approve of this life's tale? Well, there have been no thunderclouds struck from on high as of yet.
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