In 1941, the lights dimmed at La Questa Encantada when the movie Citizen Kane, Orson Welles homage to newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst was first released. Welles was only twenty-four when he took aim at one of the most powerful men in history.
Hearst was king of a newspaper empire who had more insider umpires to detract offensive rumors then the NFL has players. But one very smart “boy genius” made an historic tackle that lives in infamy.
At the time, one of Hearst umpires was Hedda Hopper, the leading gossip columnist of the day. She hated the movie, calling it “a vicious and irresponsible attack on a great man.”
Soon the titans clashed armor. Vast wealth against tinsel’s town. The stuff of Hollywood when it makes or breaks legends or twists fate by revealing unrequited love affairs which disrupts the sanctity of the high moral ground; the place where personal ruination results. But religious ideologies did not hold Hearst harmless from rumor. Facts detonated, weakened and almost defamed Hearst and his empire. He literally became imprisoned in his own castle when the world viewed him as Charles Foster Kane and equated his power and wealth to be evil and his action immoral.
Citizen Kane was brutal as it defamed Hearst against his own ego. Self-conscious and righteous about his privilege for privacy when Hearst learned through Hopper of Welles’ film, he set out to protect his reputation by shutting the film down.
Back then the good old boys network got its roots. Hollywood executive Louis B. Mayer came to Hearst’s rescue. Money had an impact on the talkies. Forget about the artist, Welles, went bonkers when he learned that Mayer was attempting to buy Citizen Kane in order to burn the negative.
At the same time, Hearst’s umpires, (more moguls were getting paid under the table then starlets getting laid on casting couches) moved to intimidate exhibitors into refusing to show the movie. There wasn’t enough ink to print the smears in the newspapers or trace the handwritten threats of blackmail. Things got so wacky that the FBI pulled forces and guys like Jack Webb were used to investigate the crime.
Call it a revolting development for Hollywood and Welles. It was no life and a no go for Riley. With the added temperament of Jackie Gleason, Hearst’s rage coupled with his savvy political lobbying skills debunked the debacle of his somewhat true to life story and it would be nearly a quarter-century before Citizen Kane was revived and even more time before Welles would gain popular recognition for having created one of cinema’s great masterpieces.
It has been an ensuing battle ever since. There’s a great story and line from Hearst himself. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., remembers his father asking Hearst why he preferred concentrating on newspapers, with their limited, regional appeal, rather than spending more energy on motion pictures and their worldwide audience. Fairbanks recalls Hearst’s reply: “I thought of it, but I decided against it. Because you can crush a man with journalism, and you can’t with motion pictures.”
Hearst was a 76-year-old newspaper magnate whose daring and single-mindedness had made him a publishing legend. The son of a wealthy mine owner, he too had been raised to believe he could have everything. He built his empire selling newspapers filled with entertaining stories that were often scandalous and, occasionally, pure fiction.
But Hollywood could turn tales into film which would magnetize audiences beyond the written word. This became Hearst’s nemesis. But Welles would have found retaliation having discovered an insider’s take on a crime story published by an editor at the Herald-Examiner, a Hearst publication.
“We had a crime story that was going to be featured in a 96-point headline on page one,” remembers Vern Whaley. “When I found the address that was in the story, that address was a vacant lot. So I hollered over at the rewrite desk, I said, ‘You got the wrong address in this story. This is a vacant lot.’ The copy chief that night was a guy named Vic Barnes. And he says, ‘Sit down, Vern.’ He says, ‘The whole story’s a fake.”
Fast forward to San Simeon and the historic screening of Citizen Kane which will be shown for the very first time to press and the public at Hearst’s San Simeon Castle.
Steven Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s great-grandson and a Vice-President of the Hearst Corporation–gave his hearty endorsement to this showing circumventing what San Luis Obismo film festival organizers thought he might be resistant to; since the film is after all a scathing indictment of Hearst’s life as a press lord. But beyond the hidden architectural wonders of Julia Morgan’s masterpiece a haunting memory remains.
Both William Randolph Hearst’s companion Marion Davies and his son William Randolph Hearst, Jr. stated that Hearst himself never saw Citizen Kane. Nearly everyone else saw it, however. And seventy years after its 1941 debut, many people still form their opinions of Hearst, Davies, and La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill, Hearst’s formal name for his beloved San Simeon).
Steve Hearst feels it is time to give Citizen Kane an informed viewing at San Simeon, and place it in its proper context as a sketch of Hearst’s life drawn with considerable artistic license.
“Citizen Kane is a classic American film but is in no way a historically accurate depiction of William Randolph Hearst or his favorite place in the world, his ranch,” said Steve Hearst.
But what would the “boy genius” Orson Welles have said about his historic marker. He hardly had a castle and lived modestly in the Hollywood Hills.
But who was Rosebud? Was it the name of William Randolph Hearst’s fondest memory of a sled he enjoyed in his youth? Or was it the irresistible charm of the girl in the green hat?
Long live Kane’s snow flaked crystal and words “Rosebud,” knowing some memories have a shelf life beyond the grave.