Of the thousands of students attending the University of California-Berkeley in 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army targeted just one: Patricia Hearst. The nineteen-year-old may have looked and behaved like an average undergraduate -- but the Hearst family's wealth and media power made her a target, and turned her kidnapping into an international news event. In fact, Patty's family had been newsworthy for decades, ever since her ancestors struck it rich.
Overland from Missouri
Patty Hearst's ancestors, like many California settlers, had come overland from the Midwest. Her great-grandfather, George Hearst, was a Missouri farmer and prospector with a nose for minerals. He followed the lure of gold and spent years prospecting in Northern California, finding success and eventually returning to Missouri's Meramec River Valley at age 42 to be with his dying mother. While back at home, he married 19-year-old Phoebe Apperson, a much-admired local teacher. It was 1862, and the nation was at war, but the Hearsts turned their eyes away from the sectional strife of North and South toward the promise of the West.
Fortune Favors the Hearsts
George and Phoebe Hearst experienced the wild successes and setbacks associated with mining, but their fortune's trend was upward. George was shrewd in business, and lucky, too; his company expanded to invest in mines across the West and, ultimately, overseas. He also bought vast acreages of ranch land at San Simeon, California. The family started to live luxuriously. Phoebe was thrilled to see Europe in 1873, and took the attitude that she should make the most of it, in case she never went back. Of course, that trip became the first of many. The family had established itself in San Francisco society, and Phoebe doted on her only child, a son named William Randolph, who enjoyed a privileged life. "There's only one thing that's sure about my boy," George would say. "When he wants cake, he wants cake, and he wants it now. And I notice that, after a while, he gets the cake."
In the 1880s, George sought political office, ending up in the U.S. Senate in 1886 and again from 1887 until his death in 1891. Phoebe also became known nationally, as a philanthropist. As the widow of a multi-millionaire, she lavished money on a variety of charitable causes, notably supporting education and women's suffrage. She gave generously to and became the first female Regent of the University of California in 1897. When she died in 1919, the newspaper tributes included one calling her "a true woman of God who lived by the Golden Rule and not the rule of gold."
By the time of Phoebe's death, her son Willie was himself a national figure. Though his mother disapproved of it as a financial sinkhole, he had gone into the newspaper business in 1887. By the 1920s, William Randolph Hearst owned the first nationwide media chain, including properties like the San Francisco Examiner, Harper's Bazaar, the New York Morning Journal, and Good Housekeeping. His empire was notorious for its "yellow journalism," a sensationalist, lurid style of reportage. The product found its market: an estimated one in five Americans, including many of the poor and immigrant classes, read Hearst papers. Hearst used his media outlets to enter politics, and served in the U.S. Congress shortly after the turn of the century. But despite access to a nationwide publicity machine, his larger political bids failed, and by 1912 his nickname had become William "Also-Ran-Dolph" Hearst.
Luxury and Fame
Hearst's appetite for luxury matched his ambitions in business and politics. The owner of eight treasure-filled homes, he built a castle in the 1920s at San Simeon, which playwright George Bernard Shaw famously described as "the place God would have built, if he had the money." In his most avid collecting days, Hearst was said to account for twenty-five percent of the world art market. He had the largest private zoo in the world. Though Hearst had married a young New York chorus girl, Millicent Wilson, in 1903, his longtime companion was Marion Davies, another showgirl, whom he fell for in 1915, when he was 52 and she was a charming 18. San Simeon became a playground for Hearst, Davies, and Hollywood luminaries, including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Harpo Marx, and Greta Garbo. Today, the Hearst Castle is a major California tourist attraction.
Perhaps the best-known event of William Randolph Hearst's very public life was his effort to suppress Citizen Kane, a thinly-veiled, unflattering biography of Hearst produced by the young Orson Welles in 1941. Although Hearst's campaign against it was mostly successful at the time, the film would ultimately be revived and hailed as a classic of world cinema. William Randolph Hearst died in 1951 at age 88.
Hearst and his wife, Millicent, had five sons: George, William Randolph Jr., John, and the twins Randolph and David. The brothers worked for the privately-held Hearst Corporation and managed their vast wealth. Randolph had five daughters, including Patricia Hearst, born in 1954. Today, Hearst family members remain among America's wealthiest individuals, although the family's taste for publicity appears to have diminished.