William Randolph Hearst was a complex individual who left a complicated legacy. In his time he was one of the more famous men in America. Respected for his wealth and influence but reviled for his unscrupulous ways of doing business, Hearst was a controversial figure who engendered both praise and contempt.
An only child born to wealthy parents, William Hearst inherited a huge fortune and lived a life of prestige and leisure known to few of that era. He used his vast inheritance to build a media empire and exerted a great deal of influence through his publications. Whether attacking his competitors, furthering his own political ambitions or inciting the public mob, William Randolph Hearst is credited with bringing the profession of journalism to a new low. In fact the moniker “Yellow Journalism” was invented to describe the sensationalist nature of the Hearst press. It’s arguable that his biased press coverage helped push the nation into the Spanish-American War and led to the assassination of President McKinley. Essentially he was the Rupert Murdoch of the early 20th century for lack of a better analogy.
The movie “Citizen Kane” was based loosely on the life of William Randolph Hearst. Often credited as the greatest film in American History, its enduring popularity is a big factor in how Hearst is perceived and remembered. The protagonist in the movie is spoiled brat who grows into a greedy, egotistical robber baron and eventually ends up a crazy recluse. Most people who watch the film assumed that the movie character and the actual man are pretty much one and the same. I know that I was guilty of that and had a rather unsympathetic attitude toward Hearst after seeing the movie.
I recently visited Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California and it was an amazing experience. The trip helped me gain a better understanding of who this man was and what motivated him in life. If nothing else it helped me shed some of my misconceptions about William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst Castle is an architectural masterpiece that is a wonder to behold in person. It is situated on top of a large hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Central California with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. William Randolph Hearst used it as his primary residence for the latter part of his life and it was here that he entertained guests and socialized. Celebrities, movie stars, captains of industry, all of the famous and important figures of that era passed through the gates.
The style of the house is Mediterranean but not really specific to a particular country. Walking the grounds you get the sense of a heavy European influence, definitely a lot of Italian, Greek and Spanish architectural styles blended together. The pool actually kind of reminded me of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The Castle also has a distinct California feel to it, lots of palm trees and flowers, beautiful landscaping with sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean.
As far as the Hearst legacy is concerned, the Castle represents the more positive side of this complicated individual. It is a beautiful monument that is enjoyed by millions of people and it is also a repository for a vast collection of rare artwork. Despite the fact that it was financed by Yellow Journalism, Hearst Castle was constructed in a rather progressive manner. I was impressed by the fact that Hearst commissioned a female architect named Julia Morgan to design the Castle. Given his reputation as a Racist and an Anti-Semite I naturally assumed he was a chauvinist as well. The selection of a woman, especially at a time when men dominated most fields of work, definitely made me reexamine my beliefs about who Hearst was.
Another thing that struck me on the tour was the fact that Hearst built the Castle to accommodate the natural features of the landscape. The location where it was built was originally a campsite for the Hearst family. Before they were ridiculously wealthy they would take family camping trips to the property. Hearst tried to preserve as much of the natural features of the landscape as possible. There are a number of gigantic Monterrey Oak trees on the property that were spared destruction during the building phase which could have just as easily been uprooted. Learning that Hearst had an open mind toward feminism and was a conservationist of sorts kind of flies in the face of all the negative assumptions I had about the man.
As I left the Castle after completing the tour I found myself pondering legacies. How and what are people remembered for when they die? Are they remembered for their actions in life or what they leave behind after death. William Randolph Hearst did not lead a virtuous life but he left behind a beautiful monument when he passed. It’s a fractured legacy for a complicated man.