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« Government Help for the Arts | Main | Link-o-rama »

May 15, 2003

Behind Every Celebrity...


Did you ever notice that famous people often have parents or other ancestors who are as remarkable as they but who never got the publicity?

The most recent example I’ve run across of a famous person with perhaps even more remarkable parents was William Randolph Hearst. During our recent mini-hiatus, I drove up to see Hearst Castle at San Simeon. The tour took us through his private movie theater, which prompted a lecture from the docent on Hearst’s own activities as a movie producer, which were more extensive than I had realized. The docent also told us about Hearst’s ambivalent feelings regarding the film “Citizen Kane,” which was of course based loosely on his own life story. While owning a copy of the film that he would screen for guests (if they requested it), and being pleased with Orson Welles’ portrayal of himself, Hearst was nonetheless genuinely irritated at the film’s portrayal of his parents as a pair of “little people.”

In reality, Hearst’s father had lived a more mythical life than his son. The old man started dirt-poor in Missouri in 1820, educated himself in geology, earned a living mining in the Ozarks, and went out to California with the gold rush in 1850. After modest success in the gold fields, he discovered a major silver-mine in 1860 that made him a rich man. Hearst’s father went on to build an international mining and cattle-ranching empire. Not content with a life in business, the old man got active in politics and made California a Democratic enclave at the height of Republican triumphalism in the 1870s and 1880s. He ended his life as a U.S. Senator. Not bad for a kid from nowhere.

Hearst’s mother was a much younger school-teaching neighbor of his father's family whom he courted after he came back to Missouri a rich man. She was not only a beauty, but raised Hearst more or less on her own, took him to Europe to learn about and appreciate art and culture, and was obviously quite a sparkplug herself.

I, for one, can see how the portrayal of these two as nonentities would have been offensive to Hearst. These were people who didn't need to bask in their son's light. In fact, San Simeon actually makes the most sense viewed as a kind of tribute to his parents by Hearst. It combines the California landscape that his father seems to have loved (it was the first property bought with silver mine money) and the "culture" that his mother was crazy about (Hearst Castle is an amazing, if crazy-quilt, collection of tapestries, carvings, sculptures, paintings and mosaics from Europe.) The sense of a tribute is heightened when you consider that it was begun immediately after Hearst inherited the land at the death of his mother in 1919.

So now all I need is for my children to become world famous, and perhaps someday a credulous biographer will believe that I had something to do with it. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?



posted by Friedrich at May 15, 2003


While owning a copy of the film that he would screen for guests (if they requested it), and being pleased with Orson Welles’ portrayal of himself

Yes, for William Randolph Hearst so loved Citizen Kane that he tried to have the production shut down, banned his own newspapers from advertising the film, attempted to smear Welles by linking him to Communism (thereby getting the FBI to investigate him) and used threats and blackmail against other producers and exhibitors to make them condemn Welles and his film (Louis B. Mayer famously offered to buy all prints and negatives from RKO so the film could be destroyed). Actually, what pissed Hearst off more than anything was the film's presentation of his mistress Marion Davies; even Welles eventually admitted the Susan Alexander character was an unfair portrayal of her. Have you seen the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane? Some interesting stuff in that; there a transcription available if you haven't. Hearst's movie career was indeed a reasonably extensive one, and includes an item called Gabriel Over The White House, which is the only film I can think of to explicitly advocate fascism for America.

Posted by: James Russell on May 15, 2003 11:37 PM

Mr. Russell:

I'm sorry if I was a sloppy writer, but I wasn't intending to praise William Randolph Hearst's politics or his journalistic practices. For better or worse, mostly worse in my eyes, they speak for themselves. I was just trying to make the point that while Hearst--who during his San Simeon days was an elderly man struggling to keep up with a much younger mistress and who played fantasy games on the hilltop while his business empire collapsed--was a less "mythical" character than Charles Foster Kane, his parents were far more "mythical" characters than those portrayed in "Kane." (And the depiction of Marion Davies in the movie was so cruel that one suspects the screenwriter was a man scorned, or something.) Anyway, thanks for correcting any careless impressions I left, and for the link too.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 16, 2003 10:19 AM

But is it true he kept a copy of "Citizen Kane"? And that he allowed people to watch it? If so, that's amazing. Is there any indication how he finally felt about his own portrayal? I mean, it's perfectly clear he was displeased by the idea of it going out in public. But what were his private feelings about it? He might have been secretly pleased about certain aspects of it. Does anyone know?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 16, 2003 11:01 AM

According to the docent, Hearst claimed that he didn't mind his portrayal in the movie, uttering something like: "Kane is a rascal, and that's pretty much how I see myself." One other comment that sort of stuck in my head was a sample of Hearst's criticism: "If they mean that for a portrait of my mother, they are sadly mistaken."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 16, 2003 11:05 AM

I don't think I'll ever forgive the ghost of Hearst from his fairly well hidden, back room influence in getting the Drug War started.

He didn't just own the newspapers, he owned a large percentage of lumber and paper companies at the height of his empire, and felt very threatened by new industrial methods to process hemp into paper, which had before been to manually intensive of a process to be economically viable.

Which is how we ended up with Anslinger, and the madness of the drug war. He used racist feelings towards minorities as cover to keep his business empire intact.

So he turns out to have been actually more of a monster than portrayed in Citizen Kane, uck.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 17, 2003 7:29 PM

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