Book Review: Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst by W.A. Swanberg; Introduction

This is one of those books that is going to compel me to write a review in multiple sections. The inspiration to read Citizen Hearst came to me as I was reading the science fiction novelette “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst” by Kage Baker, in which Hearst receives a visit from a pair of time travelers from the future who have a very unusual business proposition for him.

The story brought this book to mind. It used to sit on a glassed-in bookcase in our living room when I was a kid. Bookworm that I was even back then, I would take down the volumes, most of which had been obtained by a brief membership of my parents in the Book-of-the-Month Club, peruse them, imagine reading them, and put them back. Most of them were formidable histories and biographies like this one. I can’t remember if I read it back then, but I certainly remember going through the pictures.

Another association my family had with Hearst when I was young was a visit to his castle and vast estate at San Simeon on one of our summer road trips. We toured a portion of the grounds and houses of Hearst’s palatial complex and brought away a souvenir book with bright brilliant pictures of the main castle, the pools, the artwork, and other highlights.

So reading the science fiction story about Hearst and San Simeon stirred up the memories, and it gave me the inspiration that Citizen Hearst might be a fun and edifying read. However, obtaining a copy proved to be difficult. The King County library system, which is renowned as one of the best in the nation, didn’t have a single copy. I called up my sister, who had been handling a large portion of my recently-deceased father’s belongings, and asked if the Citizen Hearst book from our old house was still around somewhere. She looked and couldn’t find it. As a last resort, I conducted a search on Amazon. The book is out of print, but I found a used copy in good condition.

Somehow I remembered something about Citizen Hearst winning a Pulitzer Prize, but I wasn’t sure, so I did a bit of research and came across an interesting story. It turns out that the advisory board for the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography recommended that the award should go to Citizen Hearst. This did not sit well with the trustees of Columbia University who administered the prize. It was their opinion that the notorious Hearst was not a worthy subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. As a result, although Citizen Hearst ostensibly won, the listing in the category of Biography or Autobiography for 1962 reads “No Award.” Swanberg later made up for the snub by winning the 1973 Pulitzer for a biography about another notorious publisher: Luce and His Empire. This book highlights the career of Henry Luce, whose stable of popular magazines included Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. As for Citizen Hearst, once the news about the award debacle got out, the book’s sales significantly increased.

(To be continued.)

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1 Response to Book Review: Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst by W.A. Swanberg; Introduction

  1. Lawrence Reh says:

    More evidence that books — and maybe any conscious writing — are casques of memory.

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