Citizen Kane: A Portrayal Of William Randolph Hearst


Many have called "Citizen Kane" the greatest cinematic
achievement of all time. It is indeed a true masterpiece of
acting, screen writing, and directing. Orson Welles, its
young genius director, lead actor, and a co-writer, used
the best talents and techniques of the day (Bordwell 103)
to tell the story of a newspaper giant, Charles Kane,
through the eyes of the people who loved and hated him.
However, when it came out, it was scorned by Hollywood and
viewed only in the private theaters of RKO, the producer.
Nominated for nine Academy Awards, it was practically booed
off the stage, and only won one award, that for Best
Screenplay, which Welles and Herman Mankiewicz shared
(Mulvey 10). This was all due to the pressure applied by
the greatest newspaper man of the time, one of the most
powerful men in the nation, the man Citizen Kane portrayed
as a corrupt power monger, namely William Randolph Hearst.
One cannot ignore the striking similarities between Hearst
and Kane. In order to make clear at the outset exactly what
he intended to do, Orson Welles included a few details
about the young Kane that, given even a rudimentary
knowledge of Hearst's life, would have set one thinking
about the life of that newspaper giant. Shortly after the
film opens, a reporter is seen trying to discover the
meaning of Kane's last word, "Rosebud." He begins his
search by going through the records of Kane's boyhood
guardian, Thatcher. The scene comes to life in midwinter at
the Kane boarding house.
Kane's mother has come into one of the richest gold mines
in the world through a defaulting boarder, and at age
twenty-five, Kane will inherit his sixty million dollars
(Citizen Kane). His mother is doubtful of the quality of
the education her son will receive in Colorado, and
therefore wishes to send her son to study with Thatcher.
Hearst's parents came by their money through gold mines
(Swanberg 5), so both Hearst and Kane were raised with
"golden" spoons in their respective mouths. Kane is
unusually devoted to his mother, as shown when he turns
away from his father to listen to his mother, and when he
only pays heed to his mother's answers to his questions
(Citizen Kane). Hearst likewise was completely devoted to
his mother. He was sheltered from the real world by his
mother and her money for most of his young life, rarely
even seeing his traveling father (Swanberg 25). Also,
Kane's dying word and the name of his childhood sled,
"Rosebud," (Citizen Kane) was the name of a town twenty
miles east of where Hearst's parents were born and grew up
(Robinson 13). Everything from the newsreel at the start of
the film on Kane's life matches Hearst's almost perfectly.
Kane ran over thirty newspapers, radios, and syndicates,
had a well publicized romantic affair, tried in vain to be
elected to public office, was totally and completely
careless with his money, (always expecting there would be
much more coming), and built himself a pleasure palace
called Xanadu, which included a gigantic collection of
statues and animals (Citizen Kane). Hearst also did all
these things over the course of his life, which further
served to convince movie viewers of Welles' libelous
intentions in the making of the movie. (Swanberg).
After the opening newsreel on Hearst's life, the movie goes
through the boyhood scene where Thatcher takes Kane away
from his parents. It then quickly shifts to a point twenty
years later, when Kane is about to inherit the sixth
largest private fortune in the world. Thatcher is concerned
that Kane won't know his place in the world, and his fears
are affirmed when Kane sends a telegram saying that he has
no interest in gold mines or banks, but, rather, he would
like to take over a small newspaper of which Thatcher has
taken possession, the Morning Inquirer, because, "I think
it would be fun to write a newspaper." (Citizen Kane) The
circumstances under which Hearst entered the newspaper
world were very similar. Hearst's father, a nearly
illiterate mining tycoon, owned a newspaper in San
Francisco, The Examiner, which he used as nothing more than
a political organ to further his candidacy for a seat in
Congress (Swanberg 26). Against his father's wishes for him
to enter the world of mining, young Hearst took control of
the paper to try to reverse his father's enormous losses on
it (Swanberg 47).
Both Hearst and Kane immediately began to revolutionize
everything about their respective papers. Kane literally
moved in to the office so that he might be constantly
around his paper, constantly able to redo it at any hour,
night or day. He makes it quite clear that, from now on,
The Examiner was going to do more than just report what the
current editor considered "newsworthy." It was going to
report all news, large or small, especially if it could be
made into a sensation and sell newspapers. And if there was
no current sensation, Kane would create the news. Hearst
did the same thing, revolutionizing his paper to take on
"undignified topics" to gain circulation, sporting shocking
headlines and stories of "crime and underwear." In a
classic example of similarity, Kane nearly quoted Hearst
exactly: "You supply the prose and poems, I'll supply the
war," (Orson Wells, Citizen Kane) as Kane discussed what to
telegram back to a man in Cuba. Hearst was very much
anti-Spanish dur ing the Cuban revolution, and if not for
his efforts, it is probable that the war would not have
even been fought. But Hearst, who would do anything for a
headline, cooked up incredibly falsified tales of Spanish
brutality. As stories of Cuban injustice became old news to
the public, especially as there was no real war, a reporter
telegraphed Hearst that he would like to leave. Hearst
replied, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I'll
furnish the war." (Swanberg 127) Such an obvious similarity
can only have been deliberate, as Kane practically quoted
In the movie, Thatcher was furious with Kane's success in
attacking trusts in defense of "the people" and providing
false headlines such as those about the Spanish Armada
being anchored off of the Jersey coast, a headline printed
with virtually no proof to substantiate it. Kane even used
his paper to attack a company of which he himself, along
with Thatcher, was the major shareholder. As Thatcher
prepared to leave after his discussion with Kane on what
new is, he mentioned to Kane his enormous losses, which
totaled one million dollars for the year, a staggering sum
to have been lost by one person, especially at that time.
Kane,. however, laughed it off, joking that, at that rate,
he'll have to close down in sixty years (Citizen Kane). All
these things were characteristic of Hearst as well. He
attacked the trusts in favor of "the people" (a favorite
phrase of Hearst's) and hired lawyers to try to get
injunctions against the trusts and eventually destroy them.
He supported the eight hour workday and the labor unions
(Swanberg 235). He made up headlines preying on people's
fear and hatred of Spain and Japan which, not
coincidentally, he had aroused by previous articles in The
Examiner and other publications of his about Spanish
atrocities in Cuba and the "yellow menace" of Japan
(Swanberg 122, 352) Hearst threw money away as though to
him it literally grew on trees. A man with an income of
fifteen million dollars a year at the height of his power,
he had almost no savings and sometimes had to borrow money
(Swanberg 88).
Right after taking over The Inquirer, as told now by
Bernstein, Kane ordered the editor to play up less
"important" stories for the paper, the kinds of things that
the nation wanted to see and read about, not just boring,
plain "news." He became very involved in the editorial
content of his paper, constantly trying to make it better
that the rest, staying up late, thinking of headlines and
ideas for scoops. Kane went to the office of The Chronicle,
his main competition, to admire the best newspaper staff in
the world and its gigantic circulation, and soon after he
bribed those same men with large sums of cash to move from
The Chronicle to his newspaper, achieving in six years what
it took The Chronicle twenty years to accomplish. He
married the president's niece, Emily. (Citizen Kane)
These were very Hearst-like maneuvers in many ways. First,
as stated before, Hearst loved to embellish and exaggerate
the news to get circulation. Second, Hearst was constantly
stealing talented newspapermen from other newspapers, a
practice which annoyed such men as Joseph Pulitzer to no
end. (Pulitzer's World was Hearst's favorite publication)
(Swanberg 95). Hearst paid any salary he had to without a
care, for he had millions his disposal, since his father
was still funding the enterprise. Hearst married young
Millicent Willson, a parallel to Kane's Emily (Swanberg 246)
Bernstein's narration ended with a telegram from Kane
announcing his purchase of the largest diamond in the
world. Bernstein commented to Leland, Kane's best friend,
that Kane was not collecting diamonds, but collecting
someone else who was collecting diamonds (Citizen Kane).
This is an early hint at Kane's belief that one could buy
love like anything else, which is one of Welles' main
criticisms of Hearst, and is shown as Kane's fatal flaw. It
is certainly one of the main reasons Welles made the movie
about Hearst in the first place.
The next scene opens with Leland, one of Kane's only
friends. Leland continued Bernstein's stories of Kane's
belief in the ability to purchase love, and hinted at the
one overwhelming thing about him, the absolute enigma he
posed to even his closest friends. Leland explained how no
one could understand Kane because of the contradictions in
his beliefs and life. He said that, "Maybe Charlie wasn't
brutal, he just did brutal things," (Citizen Kane)
explaining how Kane, while a firm believer in the
government and law, couldn't see how it applied to him.
Hearst, who was an incredible egomaniac, shared the same
beliefs. He was in constant conflict with himself. For
instance, he supported the coal strikers while being backed
by Tammany Hall, the very head of the Democratic party
machine with close ties to big business (Swanberg 238-245).
This trait is the one which Kane played out to full effect
in his movie. Once the audience was sure that they were
seeing Hearst up there, Welle s could explain the problems
of a man like Hearst, a man who had to have his own way.
His want at the moment was the largest paper in New York,
but that would soon change.
Leland told of Kane's arguments with his wife, which
climaxed with Kane's ultimate statement of his belief in
his own omnipotence. When Kane's wife begins, "People will
think," he completes the sentence for her with, "What I
tell them to think!" (Citizen Kane) Everything about
Hearst's manner of speaking and his beliefs pointed to that
fact that he was an egomaniac as well, a firm believer in
his own power.
The one thing Kane wanted in his life, Leland explained,
was love, but it was the one thing he never found. He
wanted the people to love him just as his newspaper staff
did, and he went about making sure that it occurred by
entering the world of politics. Right before his campaign
for governor, Kane met a pretty, young opera singer named
Susan Alexander and entered into a relationship with her.
Then he made his incredible bid for governorship on an
independent ticket, an office which, for him, would have
been the easy first step to the White House (Citizen Kane).
Once again, the detailed similarities to Hearst's life were
astounding. Hearst sought public office after his dominance
over the newspaper world was assured. The key office he
sought, and which was denied to him by attacks by Theodore
Roosevelt, was the governorship of New York on an
independent ticket. Both of the men used dirty and abusive
campaigning methods, portraying their opponents as
jailbirds in their publ ications. Had Hearst been elected,
he would most likely have become president soon after.
Here, however, both in the movie and in Hearst's life, the
family obsession about the newspapers began to dissolve.
Kane left the running of his newspapers to other men, not
taking as much of an interest in them anymore. Hearst did
likewise, ending his earlier practices of obtaining good
men at any cost. A man had to work to keep his job, and it
could be snatched away at any moment by "The Chief"
(Swanberg 263). Hearst also met a beautiful young actress,
Marion Davies, and took her as his mistress (Swanberg 402).
At this point, however, the two tales differ.
Kane was defeated in the election when his affair with Ms.
Susan Alexander was exposed by his opponent, Jim Gettys,
who basically ordered Kane and Emily to come to see Ms.
Alexander. Again Kane's towering egocentricity showed
through when he completely disregarded everyone else's
wishes and declared that only he decided what C.F. Kane
did. As Gettys left, Kane flew into a rage and screamed,
"I'm Charles Foster Kane, and I'm going to send you to Sing
Sing, Gettys, Sing Sing!" The next day, the papers were
filled with the story, and Kane lost the election. (Citizen
Kane) Hearst, on the other hand, was defeated by the
president himself and people using his own newspapers
against him, but it served Welles' purpose better to have
Kane defeated by his own greed.
Kane went on to divorce Emily and marry Susan. Having
failed in his own right, he heaped his ambition on Susan.
This was most clearly seen with his statement, "We're
(italics added) going to be a great opera star." (Citizen
The movie then shifted easily to Susan Alexander's
portrayal of Kane as her own personal ambition factory.
Whatever she was lacking, he supplied it for her and threw
his papers heart and soul into backing her, even though she
was a terrible opera singer. Hearst did the same for
Davies, each movie of hers a greater triumph than the last,
according to his reviewers. Although Marion Davies, unlike
Susan, was a genuinely talented individual, there were
enough similarities between the two women. Both women loved
jigsaw puzzles (Reflections on Citizen Kane), both were
singers, both were well publicized affairs. However Kane
married Susan, while Hearst never divorced his wife. Both
men pushed and pushed and pushed their mistresses to the
breaking point and ran their mistress's lives (Swanberg
585), at which point Susan attempted suicide and Kane found
her lying in bed unconscious. Davies never went to such
lengths, but found the pressure somewhat hampering. When
Susan awoke, Kane was so grateful, he let her have her way;
she would not sing again even though it meant the end of
Kane's hopes for greatness. Kane began to build Xanadu for
them, a gigantic castle with a gigantic collection of
animals from all over the world (Citizen Kane). Hearst
built San Simeon for Davies, to whom he was truly devoted
(Swanberg 447), unlike Kane and Susan. The latter couple
eventually divorced after Susan's speech in which she says
that Kane had never giver anything to her, he had just
tried to buy her into giving him something.
Finally, with the point of view of Kane's butler come two
more similarities. Kane flew into violent rages when he
didn't get something he wanted, as when Susan left him and
he said that fateful word for the first time, "Rosebud."
Kane was also a collector of everything, he threw nothing
out, and was always buying something. (Citizen Kane) Hearst
had the same bizarre practice. He would destroy thousands
of dollars worth of antiques in a fit of anger and then
spend one hundred thousand dollars on a passing whim. He
never, however, threw anything out (Swanberg 585).
The movie closed on the scene of the resolution of the
Rosebud puzzle. Among all the junk Kane had collected, lay
a tiny wooden sled, the one from the day when Thatcher took
him away from his mother, which was hauled off and thrown
into the fire. Upon closer examination, the word "Rosebud"
can be made out as it is slowly incinerated.
Having taken into account the evidence presented above, it
was clear that Orson Welles had based his movie around the
life of William Randolph Hearst, a fact which upset Hearst
to no end. In fact, a representative of the Hearst
Organization offered eight hundred and forty two thousand
dollars to RKO, the film's producer, if they would burn it.
This plot having failed, RKO was blacklisted by the
gigantic Hearst press and had to show the movie in private
theaters. And yet, Welles still claimed that his movie had
no intention of being biographical. He said, It is not
based upon the life of Mr. Hearst or anyone else. On the
other hand, had Mr. Hearst and similar financial barons not
lived during the period we discuss, Citizen Kane could not
have been made." (Zinmen 238)
In his life, Hearst ran many newspapers, as of course, did
Kane. When he was still beginning, he owned four, and at
the time he committed all of them to warring with Spain, as
mentioned above. This singular, small event was the turning
point in the life of a brilliant man and indeed the turning
point of a nation. He had almost single handedly, using his
power of the press, sent one of the most powerful nations
in the world to war. The people of the United States had
been manipulated wonderfully by the press to believe that
Spain was such a menace that they must rally for war, even
though it was all an invention by Hearst and his
constituents to promote the newspaper's circulation. If the
press could do that, he believed it could do anything, even
send a Mr. Hearst to the White House who had not the
slightest experience as a political leader. And it very
nearly did (Swanberg 245).
When he realized that his newspapers were a source of
infinite power, that he could manipulate the people to get
what he wanted, Hearst changed. His goals changed. His
fight went from one for larger circulation to one for
personal power, as much as he could get. He stopped being
physically involved in his papers, as mentioned before,
instead directing from his throne at San Simeon. He entered
the political arena, where the ultimate prize lay, the
ultimate investment of power in a single individual, the
presidency. And yet again and again, by the voters or the
corrupt bosses at Tammany Hall or by his many political
enemies, he was defeated. His, like the story of Kane, was
a story of constant personal failure due, as often as not.
to his own faults
However, things for Hearst were not always as bad as they
were for Kane. Hearst did actually win public office once.
He became a state representative of New York. This he
accomplished with the backing of the Tammany Hall bosses
and a Democratic constituency in the district. Beyond that
he hurled his newspapers and money into the effort, earning
a colossal victory over his opponent. However, Hearst was
not content to be a Representative. He wanted to be
president, had wanted to be president ever since he
realized that he had a chance. He had wanted to be the
biggest newspaper publisher in America, and he was. He had
wanted Ms. Davies, and he had her and was devoted to her
and spent millions for her entertainment. Everything which
he had wanted he had received, in any way that he could
think of at the moment.
Orson Welles' criticism of Hearst was the way in which he
went about getting what he wanted, using his immense power
over the people of the country simply to gain personal
power. This is the overarching theme, portrayed so
powerfully, in Citizen Kane. When Welles disclaimed any
biographical intent, he did not pretend he was not
depicting the forces that governed Hearst's life. His
newspapers changed drastically, and men spoke to him with
reverence and fear, for his darker side had come to light.
He enjoyed being king over his empire, watching his
subjects squirm. With the building of his palace at San
Simeon he only made concrete what many had known for a long
time: William Randolph Hearst sat on a throne as the king
of an empire which controlled the country's information.
As brought out explicitly by the movie, Hearst wanted love,
but not just the love of a few, the love of all. He needed
whatever he wanted, and he wanted the people's love. While
Hearst was not the loveless monster Kane is portrayed as,
he had many faults, the main one being that he often seemed
to believe he could buy love. Welles attacked this belief
heart and soul, claw and tooth in such scenes as when
Leland returns the check with which Kane had hoped to
preserve their friendship, now torn into shreds. Kane
simply cannot fathom why he returned it, because he doesn't
realize that there is more to loving that gifts. (Cowie 37)
Hearst gave lavish parties and demonstrations to try to win
people over to his side, and it often worked. He assailed
his political opponents with his newspapers, attacking them
in whatever way he could, transforming the newspapers from
something he thought he loved into a tool with which he
could get things, a bat he could swing at his opponents, a
way to quench his thirst for money and power. Hearst was a
man who discovered the power he controlled and then
proceeded to abuse it, a practice Welles found intolerable.
All in all, Orson Welles directed, starred in, and helped
to write possibly the greatest film of all time, all to one
purpose, to denounce William Randolph Hearst and all men
who were abusive of power and the public trust. Why did he
spend all this effort on this one man, an apparent crusader
for the people, for the working man? Simply, it was because
Hearst, for all his apparent love of the people, was only
trying to get love and power for himself by abusing the
most potent weapon and shield of his day, the free press.
"If I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really
great man." (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane) 
Works Cited
Bordwell, David. "Citizen Kane," Focus on Orson Welles.
Cowie, Peter. The Cinema of Orson Welles. De Capo Press,
Citizen Kane. dir. Orson Welles. With Orson Welles, Joseph
Cotten, Dorothy
Comingore. RKO, 1941.
Mulvey, Laura. Citizen Kane. BFI, 1992.
Reflections on Citizen Kane. dir. Unknown. Turner Home
Robinson, Judith. The Hearsts: an American Dynasty. Avon
Books, 1991.
Swanberg, W.A. Citizen Hearst. Scribner, 1961. Bantam
Matrix Edition, 1967.
Zinman, David. Fifty Classic Motion Pictures: The Stuff
that Dreams are
Made Of. NY Crown Publishers, 1970. NY Limelight Editions,


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