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The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst Paperback – September 6, 2001

4.3 out of 5 stars 108 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The epic scope of historian David Nasaw's biography matches the titanic personality and achievements of William Randolph Hearst (1862-1951), who built "the nation's first media conglomerate" from a single San Francisco newspaper. Based on previously unavailable sources, including Hearst's personal papers, Nasaw's long but absorbing narrative gives a full-bodied account of the often contradictory mogul: "a huge man with a tiny voice; a shy man who was most comfortable in crowds ... an autocratic boss who could not fire people; a devoted husband who lived with his mistress." Wife Millicent Hearst and actress-inamorata Marion Davies also emerge with more complexity than in previous portraits like Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, whose factual inaccuracies Nasaw dissects. The author tempers the usual simplistic account of Hearst's political evolution from fire-breathing leftist to red-baiting conservative, calling him "a classic liberal" who believed in less-is-more government and deplored fascism as much as communism. Fresh insights and elegantly turned phrases abound in Nasaw's depiction of Hearst's activities as newspaper publisher, movie producer, and politician, but what's even more intriguing is the poignant personal drama of a man born "in the city of great expectations on the edge of the continent" who was buried 89 years later in San Francisco, "the place he used to know." --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

It has been 40 years since the last major Hearst biographyAthus this new volume has inherent value in portraying anew the great forerunner of Rupert Murdoch and other modern-day media moguls. This long-winded tome, however, often bogs down in trivial details of Hearst's tangled personal and professional life. Nasaw (Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements) is the first to have had access to the formerly closed Hearst archives, but he doesn't really offer any surprises. On the big questions, the author only confirms what we already knew: that it was a lack of academic diligence that lay behind Hearst's failure at Harvard; that, like countless other well-heeled young men of his generation, he kept a mistress before marriage; that he was na?ve in his dealings with Hitler. Neither is it a revelation that Hearst's financial collapse in the late 1930s was the result of spendthrift habits combined with the dour economic climate of the times. But the Hearst whom Nasaw portrays in such extraordinary (and excessive) detail is still the fascinating figure we've known for years: the self-absorbed genius equally addicted to power and possessions, the press baron interested not just in reporting news but in making and manipulating it. Photos not seen by PW. BOMC alternate selection. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (September 6, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618154469
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618154463
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 2.1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,117 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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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.
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