Critics generally agree that Citizen Kane’s protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, is based on William Randolph Hearst, who built a media empire in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Though Citizen Kane is fiction, the number of parallels between Kane and Hearst make the connection between the two undeniable.
William Randolph Hearst was born on April 29, 1863, in San Francisco, California to multimillionaire George Hearst and Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Hearst was an only child, and his mother adored and indulged him. Mother and son often traveled to Europe while George stayed home to oversee his empire. Hearst went to Harvard but never applied himself seriously to his studies. On the verge of flunking out for his rowdy behavior, he decided he’d like to try his hand at the newspaper business. George had taken over a small paper, the San Francisco Examiner, as payment for a debt, and Hearst was determined to run it. He greatly admired Joseph Pulitzer and wanted to emulate his sensationalist style of journalism. Hearst went on to purchase the New York Journal and wooed much of Pulitzer’s staff away from him, much as Kane purchased the staff of his paper’s rival, the Chronicle, in the film. On this foundation Hearst built a national media empire.
Hearst let neither money nor the truth stand in the way of his quest to be the most successful newspaper publisher of all time. For him, the Cuban Revolution of 1895 offered a perfect opportunity to sell more papers. His sensationalist and often false reports from Cuba are widely credited with pushing American intervention and sparking the Spanish American War. One famous anecdote, which made its way into Citizen Kane, tells of Hearst ordering the legendary artist Frederic Remington to send dispatches about the war from Cuba. Remington sent Hearst a telegram saying there was no war. Hearst replied that if Remington furnished the pictures, Hearst would furnish the war. Hearst made up stories about politicians, advocated political assassinations in an editorial just a few months before McKinley was assassinated, staged crimes so his reporters could write about them, and generally took “yellow journalism” (sensationalist journalism) to new depths of irresponsibility.
Around 1918, Hearst met silent movie actress Marion Davies and began what would become a life-long affair. At the time, Hearst was married and had five sons. He and his wife, Millicent Veronica Willson, a former showgirl turned society matron, separated in 1926. Hearst and Willson never divorced, and Hearst and Davies lived together openly even though they never married. Hearst built the magnificent castle San Simeon for Davies, which was the inspiration for Xanadu in Citizen Kane. Hearst's estate differed from Kane's—unlike the lonely fortress Xanadu, San Simeon was full of laughter and parties. Like Kane, however, Hearst was a rapacious collector who filled his castle with possessions, without regard to aesthetics or suitability. When Hearst began to suffer financially in the late 1930s, Davies saved his enterprises by selling off a million dollars in jewelry and real estate and turning the money over to Hearst. Her actions leave no doubt about the strength of their relationship, unlike the shaky bond between Kane and Susan Alexander.
Hearst and Welles probably never met, although each certainly knew of the other. Welles surely felt that Hearst had tried to crimp his early theatrical career. The two men occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum as well. Hearst was wealthy and conservative, hated minorities, distrusted Jews, supported the Nazi party, was an isolationist and an anti-communist, loathed President Roosevelt, and hated the New Deal. Welles’s first big directing job, meanwhile, was with the New York Federal Theatre Project, which was part of the New Deal and supplied acting jobs for unemployed black actors. Welles tended toward liberalism and was accustomed to accepting people for their talents rather than their religion or ethnicity. However, although Hearst and Welles were polar opposites politically and socially, both were smart, egotistical, and indulged by those around them. Welles both loathed Hearst and identified with him, and portraying Kane required him to reconcile these conflicting feelings.
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