William Randolph Hearst was one of the most powerful men of the 20th century.
By the 1930s, Hearst controlled the largest media empire in the country – 28 newspapers, a movie studio, a syndicated wire service, radio stations and 13 magazines.
He used his communications stronghold to achieve political power unprecedented in the industry, then ran for office.
This is part of the reason filmmaker Stephen Ives jumped at the opportunity to co-direct the docuseries “Citizen Hearst.” The four-hour documentary is presented under the “American Experience” umbrella for PBS and airs at 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 27 and Tuesday, Sept. 28 on New Mexico PBS, channel 5.1 and the PBS Video app.
“He was complicated, brash and exciting,” Ives says. “He was really an avatar for a media world landscape that we now live in. I think he is both an inspiring story and also a cautionary tale.”
Hearst’s life served as the model for Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and his castle, Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, California, was a monument to his extravagance.
While married to his wife Millicent, with whom he had five sons, he also conducted a decades-long affair with actress Marion Davies, his companion until death.
By the time Hearst died in 1951 at the age of 88, he had forever transformed the role of media in American life and politics. In his will, he left Davies the voting rights of the Hearst Corporation controlling stock, worth well over $100 million. She sold it back for one dollar to Millicent Hearst soon after.
Ives pored over documents during the more than a year working on the project.
During that process, he was able to learn something new about Hearst.
“I didn’t know the degree to which he veered off into the crazy, anti-communist hysteria near the end of his life,” Ives says. “He didn’t understand what Hitler and the regime represented. He had blinders on when it came to those foreign affairs. I think it’s a much darker chapter in his life.”
Ives describes Hearst as a “gigantic roller coaster of a narrative.”
“There’s never a moment where he’s not interesting and where he’s not trying out new things or plunging into a new business or buying new houses,” Ives says. “The biggest challenge in this project was to separate the mythic Hearst to the actual man. He was in fact a progressive in his early days. There was tension in his life the whole time.”