William Randolph Hearst was born into a wealthy family. He attended Harvard College, but was expelled. In 1887 he took control of The San Francisco Examiner from his father, and from there went on to build the largest newspaper and magazine chain in the United States.
He moved to New York City with the intent of expanding his business to a national newspaper chain. While growing his newspaper business in New York, he became the bitter rival of two other major newspaper publishers - Joseph Pulitzer in New York City and Frank Gannett in Rochester and Albany. He engaged in bitter and costly circulation wars with them, sometimes resorting to bribing people to attract them as new customers.
Hearst's populist publishing method profoundly influenced American journalism. It was considered sensationalism because it relied more on human emotion and drama than most other publications of the times. His newspapers included more illustrations and comics such as Krazy Kat, which is now considered a classic. He also hired very talented writers, including Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Jack London, Stephen Crane and Julian Hawthorne.
Hearst was interested in politics, and served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1903 to 1907, representing New York.
In 1903, Hearst married Millicent Veronica Willson (1882–1974), a 21-year-old chorus girl, in New York City. Evidence in Louis Pizzitola's book Hearst Over Hollywood indicates that Millicent's mother Hannah Willson ran a Tammany-connected and protected brothel near the headquarters of political power in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.
Millicent bore him five sons: George Randolph Hearst, born on April 23, 1904; William Randolph Hearst Jr., born on January 27, 1908; John Randolph Hearst, born in 1910; and twins Randolph Apperson Hearst and David Whitmire (né Elbert Willson) Hearst, born on December 2, 1915. Hearst was the grandfather of Patricia "Patty" Hearst, widely known for being kidnapped by and then joining the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 (her father was Randolph Apperson Hearst, Hearst's fourth son).
Conceding an end to his political hopes, Hearst became involved in an affair with the popular film actress and comedian Marion Davies, former mistress of his friend Paul Block, and from about 1919, he lived openly with her in California. The affair dominated Davies's life. Millicent separated from Hearst in the mid-1920s after tiring of his longtime affair with Davies, but the couple remained legally married until Hearst's death. Millicent built an independent life for herself in New York City as a leading philanthropist, was active in society, and created the Free Milk Fund for the poor in 1921. After the death of Patricia Lake, Davies's supposed niece, it was confirmed by Lake's family that she was in fact Hearst's daughter by Davies.
His life inspired the lead character in Orson Welles' film Citizen Kane in 1941. A documentary, Citizen Hearst, was released in 2012 - the 125th anniversary of the Hearst Corporation.
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