‘Citizen Kane’ Fosters a Contrived Fiction of William Randolph Hearst

Henrietta Rae’s oil on canvas Psyche Before the Throne of Venus, 1894, once owned by William Randolph Hearst, sold for $324,500 at a May 2017 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The American Film Institute consistently ranks Citizen Kane at No. 1 on its list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, closely followed by The Godfather (1972) … my favorite … and Casablanca (1942). Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards and snagged the one for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).

Despite the critical success, the film flopped at the box office, failed to recoup its production costs and gradually faded from view. William Randolph Hearst’s ban of any mention of the film in any of his vast network of newspapers was no doubt a contributing factor in its mediocre financial performance. Hearst (1863-1951) had a valid rationale for this unusual level of censorship, since the film was a thinly veiled biopic covering his entire life (using an effective, flashback technique) and his long-standing relationship with actress Marion Davies.

In addition, his architectural masterpiece at San Simeon on the sparkling California coastline was parodied in the film by a castle called Xanadu, located in Florida as an added insult.

Hearst

After Hearst’s death in 1951, the film underwent a remarkable resurrection … rivaling Lazarus of Bethany being restored to life by Jesus four days after his death. Citizen Kane’s revival trajectory is so persistent that it’s probable that the next three generations of movie fans will be transfixed by two dramatic scenes in the movie. The first is a dying Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles) literally gasping the word “Rosewood” as a sled is tossed into the fireplace with the voiceover “throw that junk in.” And Susan Alexander Kane (Marion Davies) alone in a dark cavernous room – jigsaw puzzles scattered around her.

Hearst’s beloved hilltop home, which he called “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill), was cast by the spooky Xanadu, a forbiddingly deserted pile filled with meaningless junk. In the scholarly world, Hearst Castle is the name most commonly used for the estate since the 1930s, although Hearst is only recorded once as using it.

Of course, the real lives of Hearst and Davies differed in many important ways. Welles had never been to San Simeon or even met Hearst or Davies. The film’s images were conjured up by Welles, his collaborator John Houseman and screenplay co-author Herman Mankiewicz, a writer who had been a guest at San Simeon.

Yet historians, critics and the general public have been content to rely on the lore of a two-hour film for their insights into Hearst and Davies … to no great harm other than fostering a contrived fiction. It is the crude Xanadu, which mars the splendor of the real California coastline with the amazing Hearst Castle’s 360-degree view from 1,600 feet above the Pacific Ocean peeking through the morning fog, that rankles many (including me).

Little thought has been given to the probability that Hearst’s buying methods were by his choice rather than the side effect of money and ignorance. His omnium-gatherum approach to collecting was personal rather than the critics’ inaccurate assumption that it was all purchased in a dealer-inspired grand pillage of a Europe desperate for cash to rebuild after WWI. Just consider the letter to his architect Julia Morgan to capture his other love, animals: “How about a maze in connection with the zoo. I think getting lost in the maze and coming unexpectedly upon lions, tigers, pumas, panthers, wild cats, macaws and cockatoos would be a thrill for even the most blasé.”

He was a generous man and I suppose if you had a particular yen for an ibex, one would have been provided to take home! They actually had 50 dachshunds in the kennels as gifts for animal-lover guests. Also, consider the extravagant excesses: One year, on Easter Sunday, guests awoke to find the castle surrounded by Easter lilies in bloom – planted during the night by a battalion of gardeners working under floodlights.

This is the marvel of the American West, if not the Western world, that I saw on tour.

So what if the man had an Edifice Complex. He could afford it.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Cal Rodgers’ Bizarre Flight Mostly Forgotten to Aviation History

the-wright-brothers-original-fabric-from-the-vin-fiz
Calbraith Perry Rodgers made the first transcontinental airplane flight in the Vin Fiz Flyer.

By Jim O’Neal

Before Ben Sliney made the decision to close all the airports in 2001 (see yesterday’s post), most aeronautical efforts were focused on inventing flying machines that would go faster and higher.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were brothers from Ohio who worked on printing presses, motors and bicycles. On Dec. 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, N.C., they made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft. Two years later they perfected controls to make fixed-wing powered flights feasible.

Less than eight years later, William Randolph Hearst offered a prize of $50,000 to the first flier to cross the United States between New York and Pasadena (going either way) within 30 days.

Three men actually tried. One was a race driver, another a jockey, but both failed. The third aspirant, a flamboyant, cigar-chomping showman named Calbraith Perry Rodgers, decided to try despite just learning how to fly. His only lesson was a 90-minute session with Orville Wright, but it was enough for him to receive the 49th license to fly.

By chance, the Armour Meat Co. had developed a soft drink called Vin Fiz that was wildly unsuccessful. In desperation, they hatched a marketing plan to sponsor Cal Rodgers’ flight and it was equally bizarre.

They named the plane Vin Fiz, plastered it with advertising signs and put an oversized bottle between the two wheels. Then they designed a special train to trundle beneath the plane’s flight, loaded with every possible spare part, and Cal’s wife!

cal-rodgers
Cal Rodgers

People all over the country would be exposed to the Vin Fiz brand.

One minor detail was that the offer had a one-year expiration clause and by the time all the preparations were complete, Cal only had 43 days to make the entire trip. Undaunted, on Sept. 17, 1911, Rodgers climbed aboard, shorted the magneto, pulled the choke cable, released the brake and took off. Within 10 minutes, the speck in the sky was gone from view.

In the end, he failed. He made it to Pasadena 19 days too late to win the prize money. However, he pressed on and dipped his wheels in the water at Long Beach, thereby becoming the first man to fly from one coast to the other in just 19 weeks. Thousands more would follow this true adventurer’s aerial footsteps, until Ben Sliney issued his famous order to all aircraft 90 years later. One opened the skies and the other closed them, yet neither are well known.

The Vin Fiz Flyer is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and 12 Vin Fiz 25-cent stamps are known to exist. One sold for $88,000 in 1999. The Vin Fiz grape drink finally fizzled out.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Hearst Built an Empire that Included Newspapers, Magazines, Comics

A rare nine-issue, complete run of Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid humor magazine, 1897, sold for $20,315 at an August 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The first multi-page newspaper published in the British North American colonies was Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, printed on Sept. 25, 1690 in Boston. After a single issue, it was suppressed because it was unlicensed and criticized public policy. The British tried to find and destroy every copy, but one is believed to be in the British Library.

Two centuries later, the newspaper industry was thriving. The 1880 census recorded 11,314 different papers and soon, the first circulations of a million copies were recorded. One of them was the New York Journal, which William Randolph Hearst purchased to have a presence in this important market. His first newspaper was The San Francisco Examiner, courtesy of his wealthy father.

William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) became a powerful figure as he built a communications empire that included newspapers, magazines, radio stations and motion picture syndicates. He influenced both domestic and foreign policy and believed he had pressured the United States to free the Cuban people from Spanish colonization via the Spanish-American War. At one point, he owned eight newspapers in five of the largest cities, with a combined circulation of 3 million. Ultimately, this would grow to 28 newspapers.

In New York City, he enticed cartoonist Richard Outcault to join the New York Journal and this triggered a war with Joseph Pulitzer and his New York World. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid comic fueled a daily war of words as both newspapers featured bold headlines, fake stories and salacious comments about prominent individuals. Perhaps if the strip had been printed using purple ink, we may have adopted “purple journalism” as the pejorative for sleazy stories.

Hearst’s political career included two stints in the House of Representatives and failed bids for both senator and governor of New York. No doubt a run for the White House would have followed if he had been successful.

Hearst was elected to Congress in 1902 and 1904.

WRH also had an insatiable appetite to acquire. It extended to art objects, mansions and women. He owned at least eight houses, each stocked with priceless antiques and works of art. There were also warehouses filled with acquisitions from Europe. His favorite was Hearst Castle in San Simeon, just north of Santa Barbara, where he hosted parties with Hollywood stars and other important people. It is now an official U.S. National Historic Landmark.

Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane is a thinly veiled parody/drama of Hearst, his castle and other aspects of his life. Hearst had so much power he was able to drive it into a box-office failure and relative obscurity for over 20 years. However, by 1998, the American Film Institute ranked it No. 1 on the list of greatest movies … ever.

Hearst Castle is now a popular tourist attraction and open for paid tours all year. George Bernard Shaw once commented, “San Simeon was the place God would have built … if he had the money.”

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].