What most of us know about William Randolph Hearst is the myth. Orson Welles gave us Hearst as Citizen Kane, a man bloated with importance and delusion whose lover Marion Davies was portrayed as the talentless dipso Susan Alexander, who spent her time doing jigsaw puzzles in the vast, lonely mansion, San Simeon, that Hearst built. "A monument to himself," Nasaw writes, "a visual representation of his place in the world."

San Simeon was, like Hearst's quest for control, never deemed finished. He interfered with its construction, driving contractors and architects mad, just as he interfered with the daily construction of his newspapers - driving his editors mad.

We know that, as a newspaper proprietor (that old-fashioned word seems scarcely large enough to contain Hearst's influence), WRH was power-hungry, and power to Hearst meant influencing the political climate through the editorials he wrote for his papers - and placed on the front pages.

Nasaw estimates that Hearst's editorials, during the 1920s when he owned 28 papers, reached one in four American families.

He was The Chief; he could, and did, change his mind. He ran an anti-commie campaign in his papers from 1934; he backed away from supporting Joe McCarthy. He campaigned for labour reforms; he campaigned against Roosevelt's New Deal. He once employed Hitler as a columnist.

How interfering was he? Down to the details of his personal life: wife Millicent's (they never divorced) career as a charity worker could not be mentioned in the same edition as mistress Marion's movie career.

Nasaw gives us a picture of a complicated man who never learned to handle money or to understand the nature of power - let alone objectivity.

This is solid biography, short on flamboyance, big on using the facts to unravel the so much more alluring fiction of a man who loomed large over the American landscape from the 1880s until his death in 1951. Nasaw had access to Hearst's previously unavailable private papers. What emerges is a portrait of a man frustrated at his reliance for much of his life on his strong-willed mother, Phoebe, for cash flow. His desire for power and more power, one might surmise, stemmed from this frustration.

His politics were fickle. He never changed his mind about Marion. Welles portrayed their affair as loveless on Davies' side, as deluded on Hearst's. Neither of them ever saw Citizen Kane. Marion is here revealed as a far from talentless actress who overcame a stutter (The Chief determined she would) so that she could star in Hearst-financed talkies. She wasn't the mega-star Hearst believed her to be - but she wasn't the off-key, warbling Susan Alexander, either.

And Nasaw leaves us in no doubt about her loyalty to Hearst (she did have an affair with Charlie Chaplin but, hey, it was Hollywood). When Hearst was declared broke in the late 1930s, Marion sold up everything she owned to give him money.

What is Hearst's legacy? There is Citizen Kane, of course. The man who exerted such control over the American political landscape, and the American reader's mind had no control over the way that his myth lives on in a film he never saw.

His legacy as a publisher, Nasaw writes, was noted by the columnist H.L. Mencken in 1927: he had "changed the face of American journalism. There was scarcely a newspaper in America, in 1900 that did not show his influence, and there is scarcely one today that has quite got rid of it".

A decade after Hearst's death in 1951 most of his 18 papers had been liquidated. His major assets were those which stood outside his politics: Cosmopolitan magazine, Good Housekeeping, and King Features, his syndicated feature service.

Throughout his life as media magnate supreme, he went head to head with one Joseph Pulitzer. Hearst recognised that Pulitzer's Sunday supplement success was because of Morrill Goddard, his editor. Goddard came up with the idea of the "spectacular pseudoscientific article", as in the mind-bogglingly absurd: "The Suicide of a Horse".

Goddard was also the master of the scandal story, particularly those involving "men of wealth in tuxedos and chorus girls in underwear". Both Millicent and Marion had been chorus girls.

Hearst seems to have been a man who lacked a sense of irony (still lacking in much mainstream American journalism today): he poached Goddard. Pulitzer poached him back - "for 24 hours, until he received Hearst's counter-counter-offer". Hearst won that round. Today, the most prestigious prize for excellence in journalism is called the Pulitzer.

Gibson Square Press


* Michele Hewitson is a Herald feature writer.