Hearst Jr. on himself and his more colorful father

November 10, 1991|By Jeffrey M. Landaw | Jeffrey M. Landaw,Mr. Landaw is a makeup editor at The Sun.

THE HEARSTS: FATHER AND SON. William Randolph Hearst Jr. with Jack Casserly. Roberts Rinehart. 372 pages. $29.95. Seeing World War II, says William Randolph Hearst Jr., made him want to be "a street version of a good GI Joe." And Bill Hearst -- heir to a gigantic media company, namesake of one of the most admired, feared and hated men in the history of the news business -- seems to have meant it. This helps explain why the Hearst story is an endless temptation to practice psychology without a license.

It's hard to decide whether to laugh or groan at the pages of correspondence Bill Jr. quotes from his father -- who got 10,000 pre-World War I dollars a month from his own mother even after he married, in his 40th year -- trying to badger his sons into taking work and money seriously. But Bill Jr. concedes flaws in his father only under extreme pressure. In this book, William Randolph Hearst Sr. never loses his genius; gets into politics reluctantly (though Bill admits that "if he was greedy, it was for power, not money"); treats his employees kindly and tries in his own way to be true to both his mistress and his wife, who "loved him until the day she died."

What may say everything about the elder Hearst's relations with his sons is that, meeting George S. Patton in Italy, Bill "felt instinctively that he was a great man. He was the only individual I ever met in my life who reminded me of my father."

Ten years ago in "The Hearsts: Family and Empire -- the Later Years," Lindsay Chaney and Michael Cieply portrayed the old man as a castrater, although perhaps an unconscious one, who discouraged the boys from going further in college than he had, gave them fancy titles and salaries but no real power, and ridiculed their ideas for the business. For all Bill's protests, his account differs more in tone and emphasis than in content.

Bill admits that his father's failure to spend more time with his family "left an emptiness in all of us," but if the boys' lives were troubled (brother George married five times and "never settled down to hard daily work"), that was their fault. That's almost refreshing in an age of discount Freudianism and "Mommie Dearest," but when Bill writes that "none of us . . . could have filled the shoes of our father," you wonder what the old man did to drive home the point.

It seems a little harsh to complain that a regular guy, even a regular-guy newspaper magnate, isn't a philosopher, but a touch more reflectiveness would have lent some weight to Bill's case, and far more appeal to his narrative. With two generations' newspaper experience, and with a veteran correspondent to help him, he writes in a style like cold oatmeal and shows about the understanding you'd expect from someone who says of Nikita S. Khrushchev, "Being a Ukrainian, there was a lot of the Russian people in him." That doesn't rise to the level of my all-time favorite column of his, describing the Spanish Civil War as a Communist uprising against a constitutional monarchy, but it would get Bill's lights punched out in parts of East Baltimore.

Still, some stories survive even Bill Hearst's telling. His story comes to life when he recalls chasing murders, fires and Broadway gossip; getting slugged by Ernest Hemingway, a fellow war correspondent; and his fight to save his beloved New York Journal-American. He finds good words for practically everybody -- even such nasty and, toward the end, embarrassing characters as Walter Winchell and Westbrook Pegler -- with one conspicuous exception. That's Richard Berlin, the man from outside the family who became president of the Hearst Corp. when it nearly collapsed in 1936-1937, shifted the company's focus to magazines, and ruthlessly disposed of its weaker newspapers.

Bill denies Berlin any credit for saving the company and insists that more committed management might have kept its newspaper side from dwindling from 32 papers at its peak to eight by 1967. (The chain grew again in the 1980s.) But Berlin has been gone a long time, and the Hearst record since he left inspires little confidence. Where is the News American now, or the Los Angeles Herald Examiner?

Bill Hearst seems a nice enough man who has written an impressive work of filial piety and, perhaps, shown that one of his father's offspring could do something with his life. But for insight into the financial, journalistic and psychological tangle of the Hearst saga, the best advice may be D. H. Lawrence's: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale."

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