Hearst's father was a multi-millionaire miner named George Hearst. His mother was Phoebe Hearst, a school teacher from Missouri. At the age of ten Hearst and his mother toured Europe. He was enrolled in St. Paul's Preparatory School in Concord, New Hampshire at the age of 16.
In 1903, William married Millicent Veronica Willson (1882-1974), a beautiful 22-year-old chorus girl, in New York City; nearly 20 years her senior, he had been seeing her since she was 16. The couple had five sons: George Randolph Hearst (1904-1972), William Randolph Hearst Jr (1908-1993), John Randolph Hearst (1910-1958), and twins Randolph Apperson Hearst (1915-2000) and David Whitmire Hearst (1915-1986). Though the couple stayed married until Hearst's death -- they separated in 1926 -- he was devoted to his longtime mistress, the popular movie actress and comedienne Marion Davies (née Marion Cecilia Douras, 1897-1961).
William studied at Harvard University (1882-85), but left without taking a degree. He then took over the San Francisco Examiner in 1887 (at age 23) which his father, George Hearst, accepted as payment for a gambling debt. He nicknamed the newspaper "The Monarch of the Dailies" and acquired the best equipment and the most talented writers possible. Hearst then went on to publish exposes of corruption and stories filled with drama and inspiration.
In 1895, William Hearst purchased the New York Morning Journal and entered into a head-to-head circulation war with his former mentor, Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World. To increase circulation both started to include articles about the Cuban Insurrection. Many stories in both newspapers greatly exaggerated their claims to make the stories more sensational. Both Hearst and Pulitzer published images of Spanish troops placing Cubans into concentration camps where they suffered and died from disease and hunger. The term yellow journalism, which was derived from the name of "The Yellow Kid" comic strip in the Journal, was used to refer to this style of sensationalized newspaper articles.
Hearst was believed by many to have initiated the Spanish-American War of 1898 to encourage sales of his newspaper. His own political career suffered after the assassination of President William McKinley when a satirical poem by Ambrose Bierce he had published a few months earlier alluding to a possible McKinley assassination was unearthed.
A member of the United States House of Representatives (1903-1907), he failed in attempts to obtain the mayorship of New York City (1905 and 1909) and the post of governor of New York (1906), being defeated for the governorship by Charles Evans Hughes. An opponent of the British Empire, Hearst opposed United States involvement in the First World War and attacked the formation of the League of Nations.
His national chain of newspapers and periodicals grew to include the Chicago Examiner, Boston American, Cosmopolitan, and Harper's Bazaar, in addition to his own news agency, The International News Service.
In the 1920s Hearst built a castle on a 240,000 acre ranch at San Simeon, California where he lived with Davies (Millicent Willson, his wife, from whom he was long separated, lived in New York City, where she was one of society's grandest dames, an active philanthropist, and, in 1921, the founder of the Free Milk Fund for Babies). At his peak he owned 28 major newspapers and 18 magazines, along with several radio stations and movie companies. However, the Great Depression weakened his financial position and by 1940 he had lost personal control of his vast communications empire. Hearst died in 1951 in Beverly Hills, California. The Hearst Corporation continues to this day as a large, privately-held media conglomerate based in New York City.
Hearst upset the left-wing in America by being a pro-Nazi in the 1930s and a staunch anti-Communist in the 1940s. He also, according to hemp-industry proponents, was instrumental in publicizing and orchestrating a 1937 oil-and-timber-industry-led media campaignclass="external">[2class="external">[1 to discredit hemp (an inexpensive petroleum and paper substitute) and marijuana (then a commonly used euphoric), which led within months to the drug and the plant being outlawed in the United States. Hearst himself reputedly profited due to his interests in the pulp-and-paper business.
The life of Hearst was depicted in a thinly disguised portrait in Orson Welles' epic film Citizen Kane. Hearst was aware of this film's production and he used all his resources and influence in his attempt to halt it and prevent its release at least partially because he felt it insulted Marion Davies. RKO 281 is a pseudo-historical film about this attempt. Welles and the studio producing the film, RKO, resisted the pressure, but the fight dampened the film's release, produced poor box office numbers and the fight profoundly harmed Orson Welles' career. However, in the long run, Hearst's efforts were in vain considering that after his death, Citizen Kane's reputation rose to be considered one of the greatest films of all time and his connection to the film became inseparable.
In 1924, on a weekend boat trip with Hearst, Davies, and several other prominent Hollywood identities, silent film producer Thomas Ince ("The Father of the Western") died of a heart attack on November 19. Rumours that Hearst shot Ince and used his power to cover up the truth circulated. A 2001 film, The Cat's Meow, tells a tale based around these rumours. However, the general opinion seems to be that such a cover-up is highly unlikely.
In 1974 Hearst's granddaughter, Patty Hearst, became notorious after she was kidnapped by a left wing group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army. She subsequently joined the organization and became involved in criminal activities that eventually led to her arrest and conviction for bank-robbery.