The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst (5 page)

BOOK: The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst
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George had purchased the
San Francisco Examiner
in 1880 in part to further his political ambitions but also with his son’s future in mind. “I hope the Boy will be able . . . to take charge of the paper soon after he leaves college,” he wrote Phoebe, “as it will give him more power than anything else.”
50
Will rose to the bait. When his friend Eugene Lent ran into trouble running the
Harvard Lampoon,
Will pitched in to keep the chronically indebted humor magazine afloat. He rented a room for the magazine in Brattle Street and supplied its contributors with subscriptions to the French comic papers, which he rated the best in the world. He competed successfully against rival university publications for the advertising business of Cambridge merchants. “I am a man of business now,” he wrote his mother. “Eugene and I are business managers, or managing editors; we drum up subscriptions and advertisements, keep the books, send the exchanges, and attend to all the business of the paper.” Phoebe soon found herself enlisted to sell
Lampoon
subscriptions to the San Francisco Harvard Club. The results of Hearst’s efforts were impressive: circulation doubled to 450 and the magazine cleared a $650 profit after all debts were paid. “Show this to Papa,” Will proudly instructed his mother, “and tell him just to wait till Gene and I get hold of the old
Examiner
and we’ll boom her in the same way she needs it.”
51
 
It is telling that Hearst’s successes at Harvard occurred outside the classroom. He was not an intellectual, one for whom ideas are living things, of interest for their own sake. He had a strong mind engaged on many intellectual matters and was a great learner, able to process huge amounts of information, but he had little time for anything he did not consider to have at least the potential for practical application. What’s more, a university’s requirement of steady application to a disciplined course of inquiry ran against his nature. He was powerfully self-directed. He needed to learn and live by his own interests and enthusiasms. He had a visceral attraction to action and conflict, to new sensations and experiences. He hated routine, as his St. Paul’s experience had demonstrated, and he tended to ignore externally imposed standards and timetables. It is not that Hearst was incapable of discipline; he quit drinking and smoking during college, and he worked with ferocious concentration on projects that interested him. The discipline simply had to be in service of his own autonomous aims and ambitions.
 
Self-direction and independence go to the essence of Hearst. His great contemporary Lincoln Steffens studied and interviewed him not long after the events described in this book and decided that the most notable thing about Hearst wasn’t his money, his talent, his intelligence, his choice of lieutenants, or his command of public attention. Rather, it was his “dogged determination to get done the things he wants to do.” The man, concluded Steffens, “has a will. His very ability seems to be that of will, rather than of mind.” And his will was harnessed to his own purposes. Steffens mentioned repeatedly Hearst’s “independence,” his “absolute self-sufficiency,” his “self-reliance,” his indifference to what others might think.
52
 
George Hearst might have been an absent parent but he, too, had given his son’s character some thought, reaching the same conclusions as Steffens would. “There’s one thing sure about my boy Bill,” he wrote. “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.”
53
 
 
 
IN THE AFTERMATH OF HARVARD, cake was the
Examiner.
While still at school, Will had arranged to receive regular shipments of the paper. He spent countless hours in its pages, applying to it the same hard artisan’s intelligence that his father had once applied to the study of mining. He would read the paper, tear it apart, study its architecture and its individual parts, and compare it in great detail to the New York dailies—the
Evening Post,
for instance, and Pulitzer’s
World,
which he read obsessively. He would send the senator packages of clippings to illustrate arguments about page layouts or the proper use of typography. He developed his own sense of the
Examiner
’s worth. He began complaining in letters to his father of “our miserable little sheet” and the “imbecility” of its managers. He offered advice on improvements. “I will give you the benefit of my large head and great experience on this subject,” he teased, “and not charge you a cent.”
54
 
When George asked him to take time from his studies to assist in the search for new management at the
Examiner,
Will made the rounds of editors in New York and pumped them dry of knowledge. He shocked his mother with his anxiety over the task; she had seldom known him to take anything seriously. “He says it seems dreadful to stay another year in college,” she wrote George ruefully, “when he might be at work doing something to help you along with all the business you have.”
55
 
Journalism, long a refuge for intelligent individuals who by nature are wasted on the academy, was a natural home for Hearst. Journalism was an open field where his broad-ranging mind could indulge his political interests or whatever else happened to catch his eye. Journalism was an opportunity to make a difference, which mattered to Hearst; despite his carefree poses, he had absorbed some of Phoebe’s noblesse oblige and passion for a cause. Journalism supplied fireworks too—action, conflict, unpredictability, novelty, spectacle. A newspaper was a great thundering enterprise in itself, involving hundreds of people in the hurly burly of newsgathering and the massive manufacturing operation required to print and deliver hundreds of thousands of copies daily. Although somewhat shy and aloof, Hearst had shown at Harvard, with his Democratic club and the
Lampoon,
that he was drawn to enterprises larger than himself.
 
Hearst knew the
Examiner
was a perfect fit for him. His father knew it as well and was quite pleased to think that his son might be a newspaper editor.
56
His mother considered it beneath him. She fought his involvement in the paper and seems to have brought the senator around to her way of thinking with the practical argument that Will should be directed to a profitable branch of the family business: ranching, say, or mining. As a consequence, he was shipped for three months to the 900,000-acre Babicora ranch where he enjoyed the weather and managed to work up some romantic notions of what it meant to be a pioneer in Mexico, but his only real achievement was maintaining regular delivery of the
Examiner
240 miles south of the border. When his parents suggested he take over operations at the ranch, he turned them down.
 
At George’s urging, Will made stagecoach tours of some of the Hearst mining properties, accompanied on occasion by friends from school. As he wrote his mother, they made an impression on the locals:
All the inhabitants of this town who look upon life as serious and upon labor as an undesirable necessity are tonight collected in groups discussing the mysterious conduct of the Eastern dudes. They are in doubt how to explain the actions of four eccentrics who will deliberately and with malice aforethought push a heavy freight car up a steep grade some two miles in length for the mere pleasure of sliding down on the said car at the risk of their necks and who moreover not satisfied with having once imperiled their lives and insulted the dignity of labor repeated this performance for the second time. We are, for this imprudence, for of course it was we, objects of great interest not wholly unmingled with pity or contempt.
57
 
 
 
Will enjoyed these adventures with his friends, but mining was another matter. He could work up an enthusiasm for the investment side of the business, an enthusiasm he would maintain well into middle age, but he was never cut out for prospecting, digging in the ground, and frontier life. Will’s attachment to civilization was a clear victory for Phoebe. He found the mining towns grubby and dull, and the travel arduous. Worried about germs, he stockpiled Listerine, a new product as yet marketed only to the medical community. “Listerine,” he wrote his mother, requesting a large bottle be shipped to him, “is a kind of disinfectious tooth wash, cholera cure and sore throat preventative.”
58
His halfhearted efforts to learn the business that had made his father rich came to an end at the Anaconda:
After having been thoroughly soaked with dust, choken up by the Narrow Gauge, and prostrated by the heat, I am now, at last, safely arrived at the Anaconda Mine. . . . Pa this is the damnedest hole I have ever struck. As far as one can see—which isn’t very far because of the dust and smoke—there is nothing but reddish yellow leprous looking hills with an occasional splotch of dead-grey sage brush that rather serves to heighten the dreariness of the scene.
 
In the town below . . . stands the bank, the church, the hotel, a few dwelling houses, saloons innumerable and the jail—and next to the saloons I have no doubt that the jail is the most frequented and best patronized place of the entire neighborhood.
 
. . . I would just as soon live in a jail as anywhere else in this country and I am sure the four walls of a prison could not present any greater or more melancholy monotony than one obtains from the summit of the Anaconda mine. . . .
 
You see, the trouble with me is that I don’t know anything about this mining business. I don’t know a drift from a vein or a dump from a tunnel and as a consequence, it is difficult for me to display any extraordinary interest in the proceedings.
59
 
 
 
Through all these travels, wherever his parents sent him, Hearst’s attentions returned time and again to the
Examiner.
He continued to send George critiques of its performance and suggestions for new editors. Eventually he tired of railing at the paper’s myriad flaws and wrote his father proposing himself as the solution. This letter pleading for a chance to run the newspaper is in stark contrast to the one Will wrote from the Anaconda:
Now, if you should make over to me the
Examiner
—with enough money to carry out my schemes—I’ll tell you what I would do. In the first place, I would change the general appearance of the paper and make seven wide columns where we now have nine narrow ones. Then I would have the type spaced more, and these two changes would give the pages a much cleaner and neater appearance. Secondly, it would be well to make the paper as far as possible original, to clip only some such leading journal as the New York
World
which is undoubtedly the best paper of that class to which the
Examiner
belongs—that class which appeals to the people and which depends for its success upon enterprise, energy and a certain startling originality and not upon the wisdom of its political opinions or the lofty style of its editorials. And to accomplish this we must have—as the
World
has—active intelligent and energetic young men; we must have men who come out west in the hopeful buoyancy of youth for the purpose of making their fortunes and not a worthless scum that has been carried there by the eddies of repeated failures. Thirdly, we must advertise the paper from Oregon to New Mexico and must also increase our number of advertisements if we have to lower our rates to do it. Thus we can put on the first page that our circulation is such and our advertisements so and so and constantly increasing. And now having spoken of the three great essential points, let us turn to details.
 
The illustrations are a detail, though a very important one. Illustrations embellish a page; illustrations attract the eye and stimulate the imagination of the lower classes and materially aid the comprehension of an unaccustomed reader and thus are of particular importance to that class of people which the
Examiner
claims to address. Such illustrations, however, as have heretofore appeared in the paper, nauseate rather than stimulate the imagination and certainly do anything but embellish a page.
 
Another detail of questionable importance is that we actually or apparently establish some connection between ourselves and the New York
World,
and obtain a certain prestige in bearing some relation to that paper. We might contract to have important private telegrams forwarded or something of that sort, but understand that the principal advantage we are to derive is from the attention such a connection would excite and from the advertisement we could make of it.
 
Whether the
World
would consent to such an arrangement for any reasonable sum is very doubtful for its net profit is over one thousand dollars a day and no doubt it would consider the
Examiner
as beneath its notice. Just think, over one thousand dollars a day and four years ago it belonged to Jay Gould and was losing money rapidly.
 
And now to close with a suggestion of great consequence, namely, that all these changes be made not by degrees but at once so that the improvement will be very marked and noticeable and will attract universal attention and comment. . . .
60
 
 
BOOK: The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst
12.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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