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4.3 out of 5 stars
The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst
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87 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I read W. Swanberg's 1961 biography of Hearst when it came out and have reread it several times since then. I just finished Nasaw's new biography and have concluded it is superior to the latter in depth and overall content. Superbly written, it is much more dazzling coverage of arguably the most fascintating public and private person outside of Washington D.C (excluding Hearst's brief role as a Congressman). Hearst lived a life that undoubtedly will not be experienced again by anybody, due to the era in which he lived and the opportunities and circumstances that era's environment presented him. I've been reading autobiographies and biographies since my childhood and this one of Hearst is the best to date. The life of our current wealthiest citizen, Billy Gates, vastly pales in comparison with that of Hearst. Highly recommended!
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52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on May 27, 2000
Format: Hardcover
David Nasaw has crafted in "The Chief" a brilliant portrait of one of the most important figures in twentieth century America. With the help of never before seen documents, and privileged access to the Hearst family archives, Nasaw closely follows Hearst's life and times through his young life, his Harvard years, and the subsequent rise, fall, and recovery of his publishing and movie empire. It is rare to find an academic work of this caliber. Nasaw combines the serious and diligent research of a distinguished historian with the story telling ability of a novelist to make The Chief a worthy read for anyone interested in Hearst, whose life formed the basis for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Nasaw's biography of William Randolph Hearst is an easy read. That alone is quite an accomplishment. Like many biographers, you get the sense that the author is in sympathy with his subject, too much so for great chunks of so large a book. We hear detailed accounts of Hearts' continuous aquisitions, from art to newspapers to newspapermen, but Nasaw rarely seems to question Hearsts' grander motives. Was this really a man with a mission, or simply a rather large, intelligent brat? At the root of Hearst lies this question - How could one of the richest men in America declare that he only ever acted in the people's interest. Nasaw appears to swallow Hearsts' own political claims without a problem, that he was free from political affiliations and therefore free of obligations. Yet Nasaw ignores his own evidence. Again and again, we are confronted with Hearst acting out against individuals, corporations and governments with nothing but his own interests at stake. This degree of hypocrisy and selfishness are fascinating aspects of Hearsts' character, but barely addressed by an author more concerned with staking a strong claim for his subject among the crowds of 20th century historical figures.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2010
Format: Paperback
Generally, I like a person better after reading their biography. Jean Strouse's excellent biography of J.P. Morgan left me with more respect and admiration for the man than I'd thought possible. But I did not experience the same warm fuzzy feelings after finishing David Nasaw's "The Chief."

That's not to say that "The Chief" isn't good. It's splendid, actually. Scholarly without denseness, readable without glibness, it moves along at a great pace, and gives readers probably the most complete view of Hearst that's ever been provided, with an excellent utilization of both Hearst's own voluminous correspondence and the reminiscences of hundreds of others who encountered the Chief.

But it sure doesn't make you like him any better.

The Hearst that emerges from Nasaw's scrupulous research and masterful writing is a cheap demagogue whose dime-store populism mutated into self-interested conservatism as his own fortunes grew (in Nasaw's own words, "Hearst grew more conservative as he acquired more to conserve). William Randolph Hearst was, it turns out, precisely what his early detractors, including Theodore Roosevelt, E.L. Godkin, and Joseph Pulitzer, said he was: a pathologically self-interested spoiled brat.

It's impossible to say whether the young Hearst, whose papers championed so many progressive ideals, was genuinely on the side of the angels, or whether he was simply appealing to the working classes (and pretty successfully) in hopes of parlaying his pandering to their discontents into political power, but his subsequent actions suggest the latter. Hearst ended up betraying his original high ideals, neglected his five sons (some of whom eventually lost themselves to obesity and alcoholism), and humiliated his long-suffering wife by embarking on a blatant long-term affair with chorus girl-turned-actress Marion Davies, and then blowing zillions on her career. He bought and bullied his way into Hollywood in order to foist his girlfriend on first MGM and then Warner Brothers before her lack of talent outweighed the money he blew on her, even as she made a habit out of cheating on him (she had a good fling of her own with Charlie Chaplin, among others).

But Willie Hearst wasn't only good at burning gelt on a mediocre actress's career. He was remarkably good at blowing fortunes on himself, too. Detail by nauseating detail, Nasaw chronicles the orgy of self-indulgence that Hearst enjoyed his entire life. I say "nauseating" because the parade of yachts and palatial mansions--including a place in Florida, a walled estate on Long Island, an entire apartment building that served as his New York residence, a German village in northern California, a medieval castle in Wales, a "cottage" for his girlfriend bigger than the White House, and the over-the-top estate at San Simeon that he looted the stately houses of Europe for--leaves one sick to one's stomach. Especially considering he kept glutting his appetite for luxury during the Depression, while the working classes whom he once championed were standing in breadlines and selling apples.

What makes all this even more gut-turning is that he had to wait until the death of his mother (when he was fifty-six), who controlled the purse-strings of his father's estate before he no longer had to ask permission to do whatever he wanted with his daddy's money.

I'll admit that Hearst was no slouch. He was a genius for promotion, a fearless businessman, and a true business visionary. The communications empire of newspapers, magazines, book publishing, radio, and movies that he built is, for better or for worse, the template for modern media conglomerates (so I'd say his influence there was more pernicious than beneficial). But Billy Buster, as his father called him, always remained a petulant little boy. He continually turned on the Democratic Party every time the Party decided that it didn't want him as a dictator. And by bullying, intimidating, and smearing his opponents in his papers, he did precisely what he railed against the turn-of-the-century trusts for doing: using money and privilege to get one's way. David Nasaw does a uperb and highly recommended job of telling the tragedy of how a man of so much ability, vision, and genuine talent was never able to rise above what he was: a textbook case of that revolting blend of arrogance and insecurity that characterizes so many rich men's sons.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"The Chief" a wonderful and well balanced portrayal of the rise and fall of one of the past centuries greats. The book does an excellent job of clearly documenting the source of W.R.'s wealth and his manner of spending it. For nearly 5 decades he ruled his publishing empire with an iron hand when necessary and a velvet glove other times. This book documents the dichotomy of preaching family and morals in his newspapers while openly keeping a mistress (the movie star, Marion Davies) for many years. On the one hand it shows his vision as the initial advocate for the 40 hour work week in both private and public service and on the other his total naivete on the actions of Mussolini and Hitler. For example, he thought he'd altered Hitler's views (in both print and during face-to-face meetings) toward the Jews in the 1930s. The author, David Nasaw, was given access to boxes and boxes of correspondence between W.R. and everyone inside and outside his circle. Correspondence which was very blunt by even today's standards. This goes a long ways in providing a clear and documented trail of W.R.'s successes and failures in both his private and public life. For example, he writes to his oldest son George when he was 36, "Somebody had to be in charge of the station. You have not yet demonstrated the ability to run a station... Just remember, George, you have never demonstrated anything in you life yet. You have not even demonstrated a willingness to work."
Sadly, his power base was substantially altered by near rabid attacks on the far left during the 1930s, the depression, and the graduated income tax structure in this country. In other words he failed to anticipate nor recognize the culminating points through life's journey and as a result suffered accordingly. In general this book is well worth the read if you can get through the 600 pages.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2005
Format: Paperback
Nasaw has written an excellent biography of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst's father George was a self-made man who made millions in the gold and silver mines of the West. He also had been a Senator from California and had founded the San Francisco Examiner. When George died, he left everything to his wife Phoebe and nothing to his only son William. William was in his late twenties when his father died, and had nothing to show for his age (he was a prep school and Harvard dropout), except for running up expenses when he worked on his father's paper. But he had big ideas and an interesting philosophy to go with them: "There is no shame being in debt. Debt, on the contrary, was the magic ingredient to build and buy whatever [one] wanted. A penny saved might be a penny earned, but a penny borrowed was worth even more."

With this philosophy driving him he began building his publishing empire, buying newspapers, new equipment, "stealing" writers and editors from his rivals. His mother was his early source of "borrowed" income - whatever he wanted she gave him (though she kept careful records).

But the publishing business (which, in addition to scores of newspaper around the country, eventually would include ownership of many magazines, which proved even more lucrative) was just a stepping stone to other adventures: politics (he was a US congressman from NYC for a couple of terms and ran for governor and then President, unsuccessfully), the incredible mansions and art collections he spent millions on, and his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, whom he lived with openly for the last three decades of his life though he was still married to his wife Millicent.

Hearst was a man of idea, though, and strong opinions, and his newspapers allowed him a platform from which to air them. He was a strong advocate for unions early on and against the trusts; he was against the US getting involved in WW I and hated Wilson; he hated communism and lashed out violently with his pen against Roosevelt's New Deal proposals (especially the NRA), which he viewed as too left-leaning; again when WW II seemed imminent, he believed the US should stay out in Europe (though he felt a strong threat from Japan).

Nasaw is an excellent writer and recounts Hearst's life in a compelling and authoritative manner. Perhaps he spends a bit too much time on Hearst's life with Marion - it takes on a sordid quality, especially when combined with all the space devoted to the mansions, the parties in them, and the seemingly maniacal need to collect artifacts, regardless of price. But he makes it plain that Hearst was more than that, and that he influenced public opinion and was a world shaker greater than most newspaper editors even dare to dream. A fascinating book. Highly recommended.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Very entertaining, well-written and (rare these days) well-edited true story of WR Hearst's life (as opposed to the various stories and personas promulgated by his employees and enemies, not to mention Citizen Kane). I appreciated learning the truth; I held many misconceptions, as it turned out. But in the end, Hearst was four things: Newspaperman, wealthy American, businessman and builder of San Simeon. Nasaw covers the first two topics in depth, but tends to gloss the details of the latter two. I would have preferred more details of how San Simeon was arranged, how large its rooms were, and that sort of thing. And I suspect Hearst's capitalization structure and the details of his finances would have been interesting as well. But Nasaw quotes heavily from Hearst's editorials--he was a very persuasive writer--and describes the man's expensive habits and his courtiers completely. If you enjoy biographies, this is one, well-done.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2003
Format: Hardcover
WRH had interested me as a lesser (and later) addition to the robber baron lists. After reading Nawaw's work I have different picture - that of a man dominated by his mother yet domineering of others, at ease with maintaining a wife on the east coast and mistress on the west, obsessive with his material belongings yet neglectful of his children, never mindful of money yet never short of it, and a defender of personal privacy yet addicted to the spot light. A robber baron? Not so sure about that, but WRH was a baron (in the monarchial sense) no doubt. He lived like a medieval king - constantly pointing out flaws in others and ruling on those where he could, seemingly ignorant of his own contrary ways.
The book can be a battle - Mrs H senior was tiresome and WRH did take a long time to reach his stride, but it is never dull and at the end I realised I had finished the most amazing story, all the more so as it is true.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2001
Format: Paperback
I enjoyed reading this book and thought it was really well-written. Having grown up in Cambria, just a few miles south of San Simeon, I have always had an interest in William Hearst. Out of all the books published on Hearst, this one really seems to be the most comprehensive and the most credible. As a young adult, I have spent many times sitting on the beach at San Simeon cove reading a Cosmopolitan. How ironic to finally know more about the castle that soared above and the man behind it. I invite anyone to read this book and if you get a chance, take a trip to the Central Coast of California and visit Hearst Castle. It is truly an amazing place!
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
For most people who know Hearst only through "Citizen Kane," this will be an informative book. Thankfully, Nasaw keeps his discussion of "Kane" restricted to a somewhat brief chapter towards the end of the book. In the larger context of Hearst's life, the "Kane" episode is a minor chapter at best.
I suppose enough bad things have been written about Hearst that Nasaw did not feel the need to write about all of the warts. He seems more sympathetic than is necessary towards a man who, among other things, was not a particularly good father, held whatever political views were convenient for him at the time, and who was wastefully excessive to a stunning degree. When writing about Hearst's bankruptcy and subsequent re-organization of assets under a trustee, Nasaw almost seems to feel that Hearst is being treated unfairly at times.
The one thing missing from the book that I would have enjoyed is a more thorough discussion of the competition between Hearst and men such as the Pulitzers, McCormick, and Ochs. The source of the man's influence was his newspapers, after all. A more in-depth discussion of the newspaper industry would not have been out of place.
All in all, this is an informative book, as Hearst becomes more a part of history.
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