Will Hearst eventually gave up on the Calhoun engagement, no doubt influenced by his mother’s pressure. Phoebe was greatly relieved at the outcome but she had only created a larger problem for herself. Shortly after Eleanor Calhoun left town, and just as Will was settling in at the
he transported Tessie Powers from Massachusetts to California.
Almost all that is known of Tessie comes from hostile sources, in particular Anne Apperson Flint, Phoebe’s niece and occasional confidante. Mrs. Flint, as a young woman, had traveled as a member of the Hearst household. She was in her early eighties when W.A. Swanberg interviewed her for his 1961 biography of Hearst, discussing events that had occurred when she was fifteen. By the time of the interview, she was nursing a financial grudge against her cousin Will, and it is obvious from her comments that her memory was shaky and that she was a reasonably good match for Phoebe in her ideas about social propriety and the stiff requirements of filial devotion. Anne Flint’s story as relayed to Swanberg was that Tessie was a Cambridge waitress and the kept woman of Jack Follansbee, Will’s closest friend at Harvard. When Follansbee’s family suffered a financial reversal, forcing him to leave the university, he recommended the girl to his friend. Flint seems to have gathered all this straight from Phoebe, who was prone to exaggeration on her son’s affairs. It does appear that Will took Tessie everywhere, including to the Harvard-Yale game and on trips to New York and Europe.
For most of the time that Will edited the
Tessie shared his house across the bay in Sausalito, much to the displeasure of their straight-laced neighbors. He commuted daily to San Francisco aboard the
The two parted for a time at the height of the war with the
“I have sent my girl away,” Will wrote his father, “and I am working at the paper all the time.”
He suggested to his mother that he was reforming his lifestyle, promising her that he would be “a highly respectable citizen and a credit to my family.”
Nevertheless, Tessie was soon back on the scene.
Phoebe, outraged at the resumption of their relationship, challenged Will on his finances and accused him of wasting money on the girl. “I do hope you can induce Will to change his manner of living,” she wrote George late in 1889. “I suppose you hear from him occasionally. I never do. How is it possible for him to devote his time and attention to a prostitute and utterly ignore his mother. He will surely have his punishment.”
That Phoebe and Anne Apperson Flint considered Tessie a prostitute is indisputable, but then so is their hysteria on the subject. Will himself treated Tessie as his girlfriend. He lived with her and gave every impression of being in love with her. Given that he was consistently attracted to beautiful, talented, spirited women, it is unlikely that she broke that mold. Elsewhere in her interview, Flint admits that all who knew Tessie considered her “very lady-like,” “a very nice girl, well behaved, quiet,” and as devoted to Will as he was to her. One of Will’s friends suggests that she drank and that he was determined to straighten her out.
In any event, Will expected everyone in his life to treat Tessie with the same respect and consideration he received. Flint considered it preposterous of him to believe “that the world would accept [Tessie] because he said so. And because he could place her in that position.” He was a bad man, Flint insisted, for refusing to listen to his mother and for not caring what the world thought.
Because his mother now wished to avoid the embarrassment of running into her son’s “prostitute” in some European restaurant or hotel, Hearst steered clear of Phoebe during his 1892 travels and promised that he would be alone when he caught up with his mother in Munich for his portrait painting. He did eventually sit for Orrin Peck. The resulting portrait now hangs in the Gothic Study at San Simeon; it shows the young proprietor seated in a vested suit and bow tie, the ends of his mustaches curled gently upward. He looks quite pleased with himself. Judith Robinson decribes the painting as an “inspired work,” a remarkable likeness capturing Hearst’s self-confidence and “his way of fixing his cold blue eyes on whomever he was looking at, seemingly without emotion.” Like the man, she writes, “the portrait was unsettling but riveting. He did not avert or waver, he did not lie, even to his mother and even when he knew that she was unhappy with him.”
While the Peck portrait was one reason for Hearst’s tour of Europe, his primary motive was to indulge a new hobby. George Pancoast, an accomplished amateur photographer, had recently made a study of San Francisco Bay with ships’ masts and the peak of Angel Island rising above a fog bank. It had fascinated Hearst. Within twenty-four hours of seeing the picture, he had located the best photographic equipment in San Francisco and placed orders in the East for what else he required. Hearst and Pancoast toured the Continent, their trunks filled with photographic plates and duplicate parts for all their cameras. They photographed wildlife, celebrities, battlefields in France and Italy, and the mountains of Switzerland. To cap their adventure, they departed Paris for an expedition up the Nile. They photographed the temples of Karnak and Luxor, and the Island of Philae. For the first time in history, they flash-lit the tombs of the kings of Egypt, demonstrating the awe-some depth of the carved rock. When the British government learned of their activities, cameras were banned from the tombs, but not before Hearst and Pancoast had produced 3,200 negatives.
Also tucked into Hearst’s luggage on the voyage home was a collection of mummies, two of them as perfectly preserved as any in existence. On the whole, however, Egypt seems to have made little impression on him. “The Nile is pretty fair,” he wrote his mother, “but a little too much like the Sacramento. I don’t think I’d enjoy it much if it were not for the queer types of people and the opportunity it gives me for photography.”
NOTWITHSTANDING THAT IT WAS the most significant transaction of Hearst’s life—the single move that allowed him to emerge as a national figure and make a fortune on his own—the story of his acquisition of a New York paper has never been properly told. His most recent biography has Phoebe storming back from Europe and taking up rooms in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, determined to run her son’s mistress out of town without his knowledge. She or an intermediary offers Tessie money to leave San Francisco, and threatens her with criminal action if she does not accept it. Tessie takes the bribe and skips town. A despondent Hearst abandons Sausalito and moves into the Palace with his mother and Orrin Peck, who has arrived from Europe to console him. “Instead of fighting to get Tessie back,” writes David Nasaw, “Will took [Tessie’s] departure as a
fait accompli. . . .
[H]e accepted the implicit bargain that Phoebe offered him. He gave up his girl and expected something in return.”
The “return” was his mother’s financial support for his New York venture.
That Phoebe was upset at her son’s behavior is clear from her letters. That she traveled to San Francisco determined to send Tessie packing is the uncorroborated witness of the unreliable Anne Apperson Flint. The rest of the story was simply made up by W.A. Swanberg. In his 1961 biography, Swanberg speculates that Phoebe might have threatened Tessie with criminal action for “illegal cohabitation.” He admits in his text that he has no evidence to support his conjecture. He credits a “private source” for the rumor of the $150,000 payoff and then dismisses it himself as an obvious exaggeration.
Nasaw’s more recent biography presents Swanberg’s imaginings of threats and payoffs without reservations (and without new evidence.)
Phoebe was eminently capable of meddling in the affairs of her own child’s heart, but there is no reason to believe that Will traded Tessie for a paper. The couple returned from Europe to San Francisco in 1892 and parted the following year when Hearst’s New York ambitions were off the boil: the vicious economic depression of 1893 had hurt the
’s returns and limited his financial options. Worse, the newspaper competition in San Francisco had reached a new and still more expensive pitch. De Young’s new building for the
was, as Hearst had feared, the wonder of San Francisco. Even Phoebe’s doddering father, with whom Will was close, could not stop talking about it, much to his grandson’s distress. Fully electrified, the new building boasted the world’s largest clock face, visible as far away as Oakland. It terrified Will. Year after year, brick by brick, prestige and momentum had been piling up on his competitor’s building site. He had never persuaded George to advance him the million or two to build his own “great big magnificent building.”
But he did move the
to a new site in 1893 at considerable expense, with an additional thirty thousand in cost overruns. Meanwhile, he had learned that both the
San Francisco Call
had ordered new presses double the size of his own new press, forcing him to contemplate further investment on printing equipment. “The times are dull,” he wrote his mother, “and the
is doing badly, so that with this thirty thousand to be paid . . . and some other minor indebtedness there is a most disheartening prospect confronting me.”
Phoebe was sticking to her guns and refusing to bail her son out of his financial difficulties, and in this regard, her efforts to shape his behavior had creditable effect. So desperate was he to dig out of his hole that he devised a plan to save money. He would “lay aside, not to spend but to invest[,] one half of all income from the paper, the ranch and all property that I may have or acquire.”
By 1894, the economic prospects for newspapers were somewhat improved. Hearst’s spirits lifted and he began to talk again, urgently and optimistically, of expansion: “I have made up my mind to work very hard on the paper from now on. I must positively build myself papers in Chicago and New York and, if I have the ability, in London, too. I am beginning to get old and if this great plan is to be carried out I have no time to lose, and I am going to devote myself to business, first putting the
on so satisfactory a basis that it will get along without much attention from me and will produce enough to enable me to buy my first paper elsewhere.”
Hearst wouldn’t have been thinking of self- financing a New York acquisition in 1894 if, a year earlier, Phoebe had implicitly or explicitly promised to finance a paper in return for his dumping Tessie. What’s more, Flint and other evidence suggests Will hooked up again with Tessie in New York in 1895.
It is unlikely that he would have dared to resume the relationship if funding for his next newspaper was contingent on his ending it. Finally, Flint, in another part of her interview with Swanberg, says that Will was unaware that Phoebe had intervened with Tessie until long afterward. How could there have been an “understanding” with his mother if he wasn’t aware of what she’d done?
It is more likely that events in Phoebe’s own life paved Will’s way to New York. Early in 1895, at age fifty-three, she suffered a heart attack and was treated by William Pepper, a famous surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania.
Will wired her from New York: “Doctor Pepper says you’re all right. Be up in a few days. Says you need better son and better business manager, that’s all.”
By spring, Phoebe had recovered enough to tour Europe, but as often happens in the wake of traumatic events, she reorganized her affairs. She asked her business managers to consider the sale of her stake in the rich Anaconda copper mine. She had some minor debts she wanted to clear and she did not trust the men who had been George’s partners in the Anaconda. She also believed she could get a good price for her shares. Perhaps seeking to lessen her burdens, perhaps admitting defeat in her struggle to drag him down the social path she had marked for him, she also took seriously a request from Will that he be made less of a dependent and more of a partner in the family businesses. Both matters—the Anaconda and Will’s status—would be decided in an odd sequence of events through the summer of 1895.
Specifically, Will had requested that half of the net income from his mother’s investments flow to him; Phoebe went a step further, asking her personal accountant (and cousin) Edward Clark to look into dividing her property, making her son an equal partner. By August 1, Clark was able to inform Phoebe that legal counsel had declared it “unwise and dangerous” for her to sign any agreement making Will a partner in the estate or formalizing an arrangement allowing him half or any part of the income from it. She would be exposed to any claims that might arise against Will and his newspapers. She would also put in jeopardy her right to use the family money as she saw fit during her life time and to will it to whomever she chose. As things stood, Will had not “the slightest legal claim in any way” and Phoebe’s professional advisors urged her to keep it that way.
She needed no further coaxing. Will may have been dear to her heart, but Phoebe still had a hard head. She would find another way to do right by her son.