The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst

BOOK: The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst
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Table of Contents
The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst
To my mother and father
The people who live in a golden age usually
go around complaining how yellow everything looks.
n 1895, William Randolph Hearst, the son of a wealthy U.S. senator and a celebrated Washington socialite, stepped out of his parents’ shadow with his purchase of a New York newspaper, the
Morning Journal.
It was a feeble money-losing daily, clinging to life in a city brimming with great newspapers and great newspapermen. Yet within a few short months, Hearst had turned it around and engaged Joseph Pulitzer, the undisputed king of the American press, in the most spectacular news - paper war of all time. They battled for three years, at enormous expense of energy, emotion, and money, through the thrilling presidential election campaign of 1896 and the Spanish-American War of 1898—a conflict that Hearst was accused of fomenting and that he covered in person. When they finally called a truce, Hearst had supplanted Pulitzer as the dominant force in American publishing. He was well on his way to becoming one of the most powerful and fascinating private citizens of the twentieth century, and the journalist with the worst reputation in the history of the trade.
I became interested in Hearst a full century after these events. I was leaving the magazine business to launch a new national newspaper in a relatively crowded Canadian market. In preparation, I read widely in the history of the North American press, paying particular attention to editors proficient in the almost forgotten arts of attracting readers and building circulation against established competition. That led me inevitably to the two masters, Hearst and Pulitzer; to their fabled clash in New York; and to the birth of what is known and regretted as “yellow journalism.” I glanced at a few microfilmed copies of the
and was impressed by some of what I saw, but not sufficiently so as to question the conventional view of Hearst: that his paper was commercially successful but otherwise a hollow spectacle; that he was a free-spending sensationalist and a tireless self-promoter who lowered the standards and tone of American newspapers; that he twisted facts and invented stories in the course of ruining reputations and promoting unnecessary wars.
Five years later, with a new appreciation of the dynamics and difficulties of newspaper competition, I returned to Hearst versus Pulitzer. I decided to weigh the opinions of Hearst’s many critics against the actual contents of his newspaper and those of his competitors, and to pay more attention to the records of the several impartial observers who followed his progress in New York. Instead of perusing the
for headlines proving that yellow journals were the nearest approach to hell in any Christian state, as E.L. Godkin famously declared, I tried to determine how Hearst was able to build, almost overnight, a publishing franchise with more than a million readers in a savvy newspaper city served by seventeen major dailies, some of them owned by the most talented and wealthiest editors the United States has ever seen. What emerged from my efforts was an entirely different Hearst from the cartoon figure of lore.
Nothing By Halves
t was not at all unusual at the end of the nineteenth century for an American newspaper proprietor to own a steam yacht. James Gordon Bennett Jr., sybarite publisher of the
New York Herald
and a two-time commodore of the New York Yacht Club, dropped the astonishing sum of $625,000 on his 285-foot
which he staffed with a crew of a hundred officers and sailors. Joseph Pulitzer, owner and editor of the New York
bought the
and took his delicate constitution aboard for a single sleepless night before selling it for a quarter of what he had paid. A few years later he would order the
a 300-foot vessel equipped with state-of-the-art soundproofing that allowed him many restful nights on his frequent journeys across the Atlantic.
William Randolph Hearst’s first yacht was relatively modest, a fifty-foot cruiser called the
He used it to shuttle back and forth over San Francisco Bay between his Sausalito home and the offices of his
San Francisco Examiner.
Though small, the
was the fastest speedboat on the Pacific Coast, and a delight for its young owner, who liked to run circles around the Sausalito ferry. But the
’s days were numbered after Hearst’s mother boarded it to visit family in Santa Clara County: the seas were choppy and she arrived soaked to the skin. Phoebe Apperson Hearst decided her son would have, instead, the largest steam yacht that could be shipped by rail from New York to San Francisco. An order was placed with the famed Herreshoff Manufacturing Company of Bristol, Rhode Island.
Most yacht builders in America and Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century were straddling the ages of sail and steam. More precisely, they were steeped in the physics and aesthetics of sail but slowly learning to incorporate into their craft the obvious advantages of steam technology. Their yards produced what were best understood as traditional sailing yachts with steam as an auxiliary source of power used to steady the boat or give it a push when conditions warranted. Their floating anachronisms were fine with their clients, the vast majority of whom shared their romance with sail. If a Gilded Age tycoon was going to blow a few hundred thousand dollars at sea, he wanted all the reassuring signatures of sailing-yacht elegance: a magnificent clipper bow, painted trail-boards, varnished deckhouse, and towering fully rigged masts.
The same tycoon wanted all that grace and opulence translated below decks as well, which is why so many Gilded Age yachts were tricked out like English country homes. The grandest of them were lined with floor-to-ceiling mahogany, oak, and walnut. The furnishings might be Chippendale or Louis XIV. There were fireplaces, pianos, gilded staircases, chandeliers, rich carpets and curtains, and horrid masses of Victorian objets d’art and bric-a-brac, not to mention modern conveniences such as ice and telegraph machines. On top of all this were the personal touches. Joseph Pulitzer ordered the
fitted with an extensive library and high sink pedestals so that the publisher, who was well over six feet tall, need not stoop to wash his hands. Bennett Jr.’s
featured a Turkish bath and padded stalls for the pair of Alderney cows that provided fresh ingredients for his brandy milk punch. On the
’s bow perched an immense carved wooden owl fitted so that its eyes blazed with electric searchlights.
The Herreshoff shipyard, where the Hearsts placed their order, had built its share of floating mansions. But Captain Nat Herreshoff was an engineer at heart, more interested in performance than in creature comforts or ostentatious display. What is more, while he and his blind brother John had produced a number of the finest boat designs in the history of wind power, they had embraced new technology without reserve. No yard anywhere built better seagoing steam engines. The Herreshoffs, in fact, may have been the only builder in the world confident enough to accept the order, coming as it did with Will Hearst’s single deal-breaking stipulation: if the new yacht wasn’t capable of twenty-six knots, making it the fastest steam craft in the world, delivery would be refused.
The Herreshoffs worked on the Hearst commission over the winter of 1890, loading it up with technology and design cues from the navy torpedo boat USS
which they had built a few years earlier. They installed their leading-edge five-cylinder quadruple expansion engines and threw in innovative lightweight hollow-steel crankshafts, similar in design to what Henry Ford would use in his revolutionary V-8s thirty years later. The new yacht’s power plant produced a thumping 875 brake horsepower and enough on-deck vibration to loosen a passenger’s teeth.
At 109.4 feet, the Hearst vessel was not large by the standards of the day; nor, at $65,000, was it particularly expensive. But it stood apart. Low in profile, narrow at the beam, with a single smokestack and a deck uncluttered but for a flimsy sun canopy, it had none of the traditional features of yachting elegance. Without so much as a faux mast, it could not be sailed under any circumstances. It was all steam and only steam. Its sleek and menacing appearance anticipated the next century far more than it echoed the age of sail. It was a bullet-shaped rebuke to prevailing tastes, radically designed to its own aggressive purposes. Below deck, it was so spartan that Hearst was advised he would need to renovate from stem to stern if he ever wanted to sell; no yachtsman with a wife or girlfriend would ever be permitted to purchase it.
BOOK: The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst
12.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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