Phoebe Apperson Hearst’s generosity and gentility earned her the moniker “Fairy Godmother” on both coasts of a recently settled United States. She and her husband, Senator George Hearst, gave original popularity to the term “good American citizen.”
In fact, despite an attempt to bury her legacy, Phoebe’s influence obscured because, with her husband’s support, she created institutions that instilled ideals that even today are at the heart of our American culture: family, community and church. William Randolph Hearst, their only child, was never such a citizen. Yet, “citizen” has been associated with his name since the 1941 release of “Citizen Kane.”
This immortal movie was the best thing that ever happened to William’s image and one of the worst things that ever happened to his parents’ images, and so most likely a movie that William admired, if not supported.
According to Ambrose Bierce (a journalist, famous for his candor), William was a shrinking violet of a man with a high, grating voice and a weak handshake [sic]. He yearned to have the bellowing presence of a“Charles Foster Kane.” Headline stories written in William’s papers detailed how much “The Chief” hated the movie’s depiction, and in doing so instilled in the public a symbiotic relationship between these two men. Yellow journalism has many angles.
His support of “Citizen Kane” is also visible in the treatment the film gives his parents, portrayed as abusive and flaky. He always depended on his parents for financial support, but he always spoke to them and about them in a very patronizing tone, always asking for “more” money. He resented having to ask for something that he felt should have been given. When his father died in 1891, along with his fortune, he left his son’s financial care to Phoebe. At the age of 28, William still needed his parents to bail him out of numerous legal and social dilemmas.
Despite William’s documented shenanigans and his lack of control of the finances until his mother’s death in 1919, Hearst Corp. continues to promote William as its visionary founder, and ignores his parents or gives them the yellow brush.
In the HBO series “Deadwood,” George Hearst, an original 49er; partner in Comstock, Anaconda, Homestake, etc.; U.S. senator and founder of Hearst Media; is portrayed as an ignorant, abusive tyrant (HBO is partially owned by Hearst).
In http://juliamorganproject.org/“The Julia Morgan Project,” an award-winning Berkeley production, Phoebe, as a bit character with a two-minute appearance, tells Julia that she “pinched a napkin” from a Parisian restaurant so she can “get some exactly like it.” Their beautiful relationship and Phoebe’s generous personality are portrayed so poorly, and Berkeley is a place where Phoebe’s benefactions are felt by the entire community every day.
The truth is that, while Julia was living in Paris (1896-1899), waiting to be accepted into L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, she became very homesick. It took three years for the centuries-old rule to bend and for the first woman student to gain admission. When Julia wrote Phoebe about missing home, Phoebe bought an apartment in Paris and stayed until Julia was accepted, months later. Phoebe had also encouraged her to enter the school and for the rest of her life remained Julia’s largest patron. Fluent in French since her youth, Phoebe thereafter spent an average of six months a year in the City of Lights entertaining famous friends, artists and students alike.
Seventy-two years after the release of “Citizen Kane,” Hearst Corporation is celebrating its 125th anniversary with its first biographical documentary and pushes yellow journalism into its third century. “Citizen Hearst” was made last year and ignores the fact that in 1887, William was 24 and had not come into ownership of his parents’ businesses.
Although “Citizen Kane” is a classic production and is still studied by serious film students today for its subtleties, such as the lighting and camera angles — it was fiction. The only real biographical value of the movie was delivered under the radar. Avid students of Hearst history have the key to pick up on the only literal connection between the Kanes and the Hearsts: the key is Rosebud. William’s parents were born near Rosebud, Mo., and Rosebud was Phoebe’s well-known nickname. Rosebud is the infamous word written on the sled that slowly burns in the most studied and misunderstood scene of Citizen Kane.
Orson Welles placed this word in Kane’s fireplace to represent William’s ongoing destruction of his family’s history, his mother’s in particular, and the only thing to which “The Chief” objected. Rosebud remains a confounding and memorable crux at the heart of one of Hollywood’s most studied films, symbolizing the still, quiet persistence of Phoebe’s legacy, the true Citizen Hearst.
Karen Harris, of Paso Robles, is an author and biographer of Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Learn more about Hearst at http://phebeappersonhearst.com.