Hearst was obsessively competitive. He treated every strategic choice at the
as a matter of life or death. Half measures were out of the question: “We have either got to go in and win,” he once wrote his father, “or we have got to go out of the business.”
He pushed himself and his operation for every possible advantage in his fight with the
He mastered printing technology in search of crisper pages and faster press times. He was a nuisance about headlines, treating each one as though it alone would tease another hundred readers from the competition to his own sheet. He leaned on his father to call in political favors to bring in advertising and promote the paper’s distribution, and was furious when the senator’s friends patronized the
’s rivals: “As these sons of bitches are principally indebted to you for whatever they have, I think this is the goddamdest low down business I ever heard of. I don’t apologize for the swear words for I think the circumstances excuse them.”
Every advance by the
threw a chill into him. After the competitor hired a phalanx of new reporters and arranged for the rights to content from Pulitzer’s
Will wrote home, “The newspaper business is no fun. The
is fighting tremendously hard, and it does not hesitate to adopt any idea we bring out. . . . It has altered its make-up until it is almost exactly like ours. . . . [I]ts matter is so similar that we are not allowed to reap much advantage from our moves. . . . You bet your life those
people are smart and they are not retarded by any false pride.”
Certain that Mike de Young was throwing every cent he had into the
Will drew heavily on the family accounts, investing as much as $200,000 a year in his paper’s growth.
But however difficult the fight, Hearst soon met most of his goals. Circulation did increase by ten thousand within his first year on the job. The paper did turn a profit, though in three rather than two years. And by the time of George’s death, theExaminer
was indeed the biggest paper on the West Coast. Will Hearst was a bona fide newspaper success. No one was prouder than the senator, who put his thoughts on record before he died:
I tried all sorts of people to make [the
] a success. . . . I had not time to attend to it, and could not pretend to run it. After I had lost about a quarter of a million by the paper, my boy Will came out of school, and said he wanted to try his hand at the paper. I thought it was the very worst thing he could do; and told him so, adding that I could not make it pay. He said, however, that the reason that the paper did not pay was because it was not the best paper in the country. He said that if he had it, he would make it the best paper in the country . . . and then it would pay. I then put him in it, and made him a deed of the whole property from top to bottom and agreed to stand by him for two years. Now I don’t think there is a better paper in the country.
The senator estimated the paper had cost him as much as $700,000 before it broke even with his son at the helm. He placed its value by 1890 at upward of a million dollars. He wrote, “My son Will is one of the hardest workers I ever saw, and he thought at the time that he would tire of it as there was so much drudgery in it, but he did not.”
FIVE MONTHS AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH, in the sweltering summer of 1891, Hearst was still toying with his New York project, notwithstanding his mother’s financial disciplines. He made the rounds of Manhattan newspapermen to see if any papers were on the market, and wrote Phoebe that he had visited John Cockerill, the former Pulitzer editor, now a principal at the one-cent
Cockerill offered him a share in his sheet, but Hearst politely declined, hoping instead to acquire a quality two- or three-cent daily—the
for instance, or the biggest prize, Pulitzer’s
Hearst’s tour of New York occasioned a great deal of gossip on newspaper row and speculation as to his intentions. The
fired a shot across his bow by attempting to hire his best men from San Francisco. “I think the
people made their offers to Palmer and Chamberlain largely to hustle me off home and prevent me from going in with Cockerill whom they hate and fear,” he told Phoebe. “Chamberlain acted splendidly and Palmer didn’t.”
It apparently cost the
a tidy sum to keep its team intact.
Hearst continued to spend more of his time in New York. His
now boasted the largest East Coast bureau of any western paper. Its offices, paneled in California redwood, were in Pulitzer’s magnificent building on Park Row. Hearst used them as his base. He joined several clubs to improve his business contacts. He played on his yacht, frequented the musical theater, and continued to shop for newspapers, to no avail. The right property didn’t come up, at least not at the right price. Though his mother couldn’t be counted an ally to his expansion plans, Hearst kept her apprised of his activities. It is unclear whether that represented the usual candor he brought to their relationship or some understanding between them that he could expand at his own expense or with some form of limited financial assistance from her.
Phoebe was never keen on journalism as a vocation, but she was impressed by her son’s hard work and his achievements. His professional life, however, was of less concern to her than his social activities. She still held out hopes for her son’s career as a gentleman, and she was particularly interested in his marital prospects. She understood his options to be limitless: he was intelligent, handsome, good natured, and polite; he had made a tour of Harvard Yard; he had acquitted himself well in the field of journalism; and he would also be the eventual sole heir to one of America’s largest private fortunes. In the fashion of the day, a young man with Will’s prospects would be expected to effect a merger with European nobility or, at worst, a prominent American family. Phoebe thus directed any number of attractive and well-born women his way. The society pages reported that Will’s choice of a wife “will make [Mrs. Hearst] a happy woman, or his marriage may prove the greatest sorrow, so much is her heart wrapped up in his future.”
In the meantime, Phoebe continued to encourage Will to travel and to mix with men of culture and leisure, particularly Englishmen. In 1891 she embarked on one of her extended European tours and invited Will to meet her early in 1892 in Germany, where family friend Orrin Peck would paint his portrait. Hearst agreed and, as he often did when at his leisure, sent her long and chatty letters. “[S]omething has happened to the weather in these parts,” he wrote from Capri. “Somebody has been monkeying with the machinery and the whole thing is off the center. In the north it rained every day. It didn’t just rain some days or even nearly every day. It rained every day. Of course, that wasn’t all it did. It snowed quite frequently by way of variety, and also quite frequently it hailed large hails about the size of marbles. The fruit crops and vine crops are supposed to be ruined and undoubtedly the tourist crop was very seriously interfered with.”
Hearst also met with snow in Paris and with rain and hail in Nice, Geneva, and Florence. “I don’t know what is the matter with the weather but I know I can’t fix it. I see there were ninety thousand emigrants to America last month. I don’t wonder. I wish there had been ninety thousand and one, and that one had been, Your affectionate son, Will.”
To a mother whose sense of well-being could be made or broken by her son’s disposition toward her, these words must have been musical. But other letters Will sent Phoebe could only have caused distress. One in particular, written from theLuciana,
underlined the ludicrousness of her ambitions for her son:
Lady Cunard is on board. She is at my table. She spoke about you and asked how you were. She is a nice little thing but kind of lightheaded and chatters loudly with a sort of turkey gobbler by the name of Guiness [sic] who makes the stout and a gibbering idiot by the name of Van Allen who doesn’t make anything except a holy show of himself. Lady Cunard asked me why I didn’t go into society and I could have told her that if I had no other reason the present company would furnish enough. She isn’t bad, though, she certainly shines intellectually when compared with the men.
In deference to your wishes I took Thomas the Jap along as valet. He has been very valuable so far as keeping my mind occupied looking after him. He comes in every morning about seven o’clock and wakes me up when I want to sleep and I don’t see him anymore for the rest of the day. Fortunately, I am a natural born American citizen able to look after myself and a valet too. All I object to is the money he is costing me. He will foot up a thousand dollars before the trip is over and that would enable me to bring home an Egyptian mummy—something intrinsically valuable and which would make fully as good a valet as Thomas in a pinch. Anyhow it wouldn’t wake me up in the morning and would stay put.
Short and light as it is, the letter reveals much of Hearst as he entered his thirties. Lady Cunard asked the obvious question: Why not take a position in society? There were no barriers to his entry. Indeed, given his fortune, a social berth was more or less reserved for him. But Hearst had made up his mind about the swells long before. As early as college, he had written his father expressing disdain for “wealthy boors” and “aristocratic imbeciles.” He and Orrin Peck had exchanged correspondence mocking a mutual friend who had suddenly developed a long line of “dookal” ancestors in Europe: “Think of those bare feet that used to patter around Virginia City, now nearing Queen quality . . . and carrying around a pudgy descendent of a line of imaginary Kings.”
In social matters, Will was very much George Hearst’s son, and a child of the bumptious, egalitarian American West. The same society writer who noted Phoebe’s desire to see her son well married noted that Will was “hopelessly American,” by which he meant “hopelessly democratic in theory and practice, and uncompromisingly down on aristocratic tendencies.”
Will was well aware of the cultural superiority of Europe: on this trip, as throughout his life, he would buy up great chunks of continental culture (including a collection of paintings and statuary, and a five-ton stone wellhead from a courtyard in Verona). He simply had an abiding preference for American ways and a sharp sense of America’s ever-growing economic and political influence in the world.
The manner in which Will was traveling in Europe that season offered only further discouragement to Phoebe. She herself had ramped up her touring style after George’s death. A newspaper reported that she “never allows expense to interfere with her disposition to travel by land or sea in the most luxuriously comfortable manner. She has a saloon railway carriage and state cabin on the channel steamer when she goes from London to Paris, or vice versa, and on the Continent, when obtainable, special and exclusive traveling facilities usually associated with royalty.”
Will, meanwhile, was scampering around Europe demonstrating his relative independence and lack of pretense. In addition to the valet, his odd little retinue included George Pancoast, a cheerful man of remarkable talents—printer, photographer, mechanical genius, song-and-dance performer—none of which would have impressed Mrs. Hearst. The fourth member was Tessie Powers, Will’s girlfriend from Cambridge, where she reportedly worked as a waitress.
Tessie Powers is an obscure figure, but she did have one thing in common with all the other young women in Hearst’s life to this point: she was not what Phoebe wanted for her son. As a general rule, Will’s tastes ran to the stage. His first experience of romance was an adolescent crush on the teenaged actress Lillian Russell. He attended her performances in San Francisco so frequently that the ushers came to know him by name. At nineteen, before his freshman year at Harvard, Hearst summered in Monterey and fell head over heels for Sybil Sanderson, a glamorous and talented San Francisco opera singer. It is said that he proposed to her and was talked out of following her to Paris, where she was to study.
As his Harvard days were ending, Hearst had begun courting the aspiring dramatic actress Eleanor Calhoun, one of Phoebe’s protégés. The newspapers described her as a beauty of the highest order, with a promising career to that point “unmarred by vanity, by affectation, by any other taint.” Phoebe admired her as a talent but not as a prospective daughter-in-law. The actress, she declared, was “erratic, visionary, indolent, and utterly wanting in order and neatness with extravagant tastes and no appreciation of values. All she cares for is to spend money, enjoy luxury and receive admiration.” When Miss Calhoun told the press the young couple was engaged to be married, Phoebe rallied George to announce the family’s opposition to the match. She told friends she would die if Miss Calhoun got her hooks into her son. She was shocked when Will, rejecting her guidance, became “ugly and cruel” toward her: she decided he must be in the “toils of the Devil fish,” as she now called Miss Calhoun. She worried that her son was becoming as “selfish, indifferent, and undemonstrative as his father.” The senator was heard to mutter that his wife was going crazy.