An American Poppa

The Hearsts: Family and Empire--the Later Years By Lindsay Chaney and Michael Cieply Simon and chuster; $16.95

SOMEBODY OUGHT TO WRITE a great book about the Hearsts; an epic that has everything. The saga cries out for one: the mining baron who provided the wealth; the son who created the papers and made a fool of himself in print for years; the five overshadowed sons and their spasmodic attempts to claim their heritage; the splashy comic-tragic climax of Patty spitting a debased radicalism in the family's face. They move from "Pop", as William Randolph Hearst is still called by his son, to pop radicalism, bank jobs, and Tommy guns in 50 years. Such a book would be one of the great melodramas of the American imagination, with all those American Squirms and disgraces, with all the soap-opera, hucksterism, and sleaze.

So where are Halberstam and Wolfe and Talese when we need them? Probably deterred by the work it would take to pry the secrets out of the Hearst fortress, perched pretentiously on a mountain over the Pacific just south of San Francisco, and probably too offended by the vulgarity of the story. Instead we have a new book by two California writers, Chaney and Cieply, a mere outline for the possible investigative epic of family and corporation. One almost always feels as if the door to the closet with all the skeletons were only opened a few inches. It's too short, rarely pausing to give us the feel of the newsrooms--and what madhouses Hearst newsrooms and editor's offices usually were!--or to analyze in any depth the downward course of the American daily as exemplified by the Hearst empire.

Only a few of the magnetic figures of the Hearst saga ever come to life: Randolph; who was spurred into trying to improve the San Francisco Examiner when critics convinced him of its awfulness and who then faded away amid the flames and communiques of the Patty kidnapping; Bill, trying time after time to grab hold of a paper or to understand how his father had betrayed him; young Will, trying to break out of the circle by joining Jann Wenner in a new magazine called Outside, and discovering Wenner as disappointing a publisher as assorted Hearsts had been. Despite a faithful recording of the tensions within the Corporation, Chaney and Cieply never probe very deeply, never confronting the intra-familial demon wrestling the Hearst dynasty.

Even so, it is a careful book, sustained by a measured and sympathetic tone and full of important new information about a well-guarded subject. Oddly, left without the intrigue, the incestuous passions and jealousies, one may find the business documentation fascinating. The book reveals that the privately-held Hearst Corporation is doing very well, laying to rest rumours of its failure in many cities. The book also demonstrates that the corporation prefers its more respectable and more rewarding magazines to the newspapers; it would rather let the latter drift towards dissolution, sale, or merger, than try to figure out how to revive them. Exceptions to this doctrine occur only if an energetic family member--Randy in San Francisco, George Jr. in Los Angeles--wants to seek out the lost formula.

IT IS NOT READILY REMEMBERED that the patriarch Hearst did have a formula, not a bad one at that, and Chaney and Cieply do a fine service in tracing that idea through its subsequent incarnations and devolutions. Hearst started urban dailies at a time of populist politics, and he thrived on these crusades.

But the papers never grew up. When readership moved to the suburbs and became more respectable, the Hearst papers couldn't follow. The domineering Hearst had made his sons unfit to lead by spoiling them, pulling them out of college, putting them in jobs over their heads, dashing their confidence, and sealing the insult in his will by contriving to strip them of command and money. So the company fell into the hands of a riskless, unimaginative class of managers who kept the family at bay, sold off half the papers from 1956-67, and turned a turbulent enterprise into a bottom-line operation.

The papers held on somehow, anachronistic, silly sheets put out by oddball reporters working for befuddled editors, until one day, out of the blue, the paper would be sold out from under them. The editorial thrust grew nostalgic and bitter, full of red-baiting, rigid middle-class values, and Hearst-like pretensions towards social and political prominence. And as the papers wandered along in permanent adolescence, the family drifted away in their cars, mansions, clubs, and sports.

Oddly enough, the book discovers a kind of happy ending. After many chastening trials of decline and near-demise, the Hearst organization has emerged with a sort of hard-won wisdom. Since 1975, the company has been intelligently run, and neglected properties like Cosmopolitan have beet rediscovered and made profitable. A modus vivend, with the ghost of Pop Hearst has finally beer achieved: concentrate on magazines with simple formulas, buy dailies in single-paper small cities, keep the family occupied in harmless jobs with impressive titles, and avoid stirring up the old snakes by trying to revive the big city dailies. In short, lie low or they'll start laughing at us again. It's a fatal doctrine for a publishing company, but in its drift from impetuous pioneering to cautious money-grubbing, the Hearst saga is just a more vivid version of the history of most American business families.

Soon someone will finish telling the story that Chaney and Cieply only sketch out in pencil, and it will be one of the great tales of the American Scuffle. It will have everything the success, the swagger, the rootlessness, and the closeted passions.