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William Randolph Hearst “Yellow Journalism, sure – but murderer?”

William Randolph Hearst “Yellow Journalism, sure – but murderer?”

By garywomble

No coroner’s inquest into the producer’s death was ever held. The fact that Ince’s remains were almost immediately moved from the yacht to a funeral home was in question. Upon arrival at the funeral home, Ince’s remains were immediately cremated which further muddied the waters. The cremation prevented any possibility of an autopsy or later exhumation and examination.

How did Ince come to be on the Oneida? A little nautical trip from Los Angeles to San Diego was planned in celebration of Ince’s 42nd birthday. As well as Hearst, his lady-love Marion Davies, the ship’s crew and a jazz band, there were fifteen guests on the yacht that day, including Charlie Chaplin and Louella Parsons. This was Louella’s first visit out to Hollywood, and at that time she was a mere Hearst employed movie columnist in New York. Due to pressing commitments in Hollywood, Ince did not make the trip down to San Diego on Hearst’s yacht as everyone else had rather he took a train down the next day and joined the party already in progress.

The first stories in Hearst’s newspapers about Ince’s death were out-and-out fabrications it was claimed Ince had taken ill while visiting at Hearst’s ranch and had been rushed home by ambulance, dying in the bosom of his family. This story was quickly determined to be a fabrication, for too many people had seen him board the Oneida in San Diego. Rumors were further fueled by a secretary claiming to have seen a bullet hole in Ince’s head as he was removed from the ship.

In time the rumors reached a high enough pitch that the district attorney for San Diego could no longer ignore them. His investigation was curiously incomplete in that only one person was called to testify namely Dr. Daniel Goodman, a Hearst employee. Goodman claimed that he had traveled by train with the doomed producer, that Ince had suffered heart pains during the trip, and that Ince had admitted to having had these attacks before. This was apparently enough to satisfy the district attorney who then immediately closed the investigation without pursuing it any further. No one else who had been on the Oneida was ever interviewed.

One possible reason for the D.A.’s reluctance to do more than the absolute bare minimum was the potential role alcohol might have played in the affair. Remember, this was the era of Prohibition, and drinking alcohol was against the law. It was openly known that there had been booze aboard the Oneida. If the investigation had been pursued any further, charges against someone or other would have had to been levied. And how big a fool would a D.A. have to be to bring William Randolph Hearst, one of the richest men in the United States, up on a liquor charge?

Hearst was not a drinking man. He tolerated the activity in others, but even then, only so far. Weekend visitors to his fabled castle in San Simeon (La Cuesta Encantada) quickly learned that they were allowed maybe all of two pre-dinner drinks, and that one of the fastest ways to get dumped back at the train station was to be caught boozing in the mansion, on the grounds, or even in the privacy of the individual guest houses. As previously stated, Hearst’s tolerance of alcohol was extremely limited indeed.

Thomas Ince was a member of the very earliest Hollywood elite. In 1918 he founded Culver Studios and has always been considered the “father of the Western.” He still has a street named after him in Culver City which is Ince Boulevard. Culver Studios is one of Hollywood’s most historic studios. It was the site of filming for the movies “Gone with the Wind,” “Citizen Kane by Orson Welles” as well as several other classics.

The studio was owned by RKO Radio Pictures during the “Citizen Kane” production and postproduction. It is important to note here that Hearst believed that the character Charles Foster Kane was based on him. One only has to review his biography and then watch the movie to see the connection. Hearst fought to have the movie never released but lost and it became one of the greatest classics of all time. Over the decades the studio has been home to names like RKO, Howard Hughes Productions, and in 1957 Desilu Studios. Any number of great TV shows had their home there including “The Andy Griffith Show” “Lassie,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “Batman.” Subsequent to Ince, owners of the studios also included Cecil B. DeMille and Howard Hughes.

Ince’s mysterious death will forever be linked to Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst, at that time America’s greatest newspaper baron and one of the most powerful men in American history. George Hearst, an industrial gold mining multi-millionaire and U.S. senator from California, gave his only child the San Francisco Examiner in 1887 in hopes that he would settle down. His son had been expelled from Harvard University for raucous behavior and worked briefly for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. In the next decade William Randolph Hearst spent more than $8 million of his family’s money making the San Francisco paper a success. He then challenged Pulitzer by buying the New York Journal. In their battle over Richard Outcault’s comic strip "The Yellow Kid" (the first to be printed in color), these publishers acquired the nickname "yellow journalists," referring to their sensationalism.

William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) built his media empire after receiving the San Francisco Examiner from his father. Hearst entered politics at the turn of the century, winning two terms to the U.S. House of Representatives, but failing in his bids to become mayor of New York City as well as governor of New York. He wanted personally to lead the Democratic party to the White House, but the radicalism of his papers was a liability. They had endorsed political assassination as a "mental exercise" and printed a poem by Ambrose Bierce that joked about the death of the president. When William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901, Hearst was blamed.

Hearst later lost much of his holdings during the Great Depression and fell out of touch with his blue-collar audience, but still headed the largest news conglomerate in America at the time of his death. In his quest for the presidential nomination on one ballot at the Democratic National Convention in 1904 he received 40 percent of the votes. This was, however, not enough to carry the day for Hearst’s presidential bid. Earlier in 1898, Hearst championed the Cuban rebels and welcomed the U.S. declaration of war against Spain. At the height of the crisis more than a million copies of the Journal were sold each day. Hearst ordered a reporter to scuttle a ship in the Suez Canal to stop the Spanish fleet and waded ashore in Cuba to accept the surrender of a group of Spaniards. In Hearst’s egomaniacal thinking, a publisher and a president had equal right to act for the nation.

A short time later with the assistance and guidance of Julia Morgan, an architect, William Randolph Hearst built one of the most extravagant estates in the United States. Morgan, an architectural pioneer was America’s first truly independent female architect who had studied at the School of Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. She would later be the first female to win the Gold Medal awarded by the American Institute of Architects. Building began in 1919 and continued intermittently until 1947 including Hearst buying antiquities from all over the world. Shortly after starting to build “La Cuesta Encantada” (which means Enchanted Hill), Hearst began to conceive of making the castle a museum. Among his numerous purchases were architectural elements from Western Europe, particularly from Spain. Hearst purchased over thirty ceilings, doorcases, fireplaces and mantels, entire monasteries, paneling, and a medieval tithe barn and had them shipped to his Brooklyn warehouses and transported from there to California. Much of this was then incorporated into the building of Hearst Castle. In addition, he acquired collections of conventional art and rare antiques; his collection of ancient Greek vases was one of the world's largest.

Hearst initially envisioned the estate to become home to his family including his five sons and wife, Millicent. Although by 1925 he and Millicent became separated based on his affair with actress Marion Davies which reportedly began in 1917. Millicent (Willson) had been a vaudeville performer in New York City whom Hearst admired, and they married in 1903. Millicent became tired of her husband's longtime affair with actress Marion Davies which had become public knowledge.

Millicent established a separate life from William and had a residence in New York City as a socialite and philanthropist. In 1921, she founded the Free Milk Fund for Babies, which provided free milk to the poor of New York City for decades. She also hosted charitable fundraisers for a variety of causes, including crippled children, unemployed girls, the New York Women’s Trade League, the Democratic National Committee, the Evening Journal - New York Journal Christmas Fund, and the Village Welfare of Port Washington, New York. Eleanor Roosevelt, a close friend, joined Millicent Hearst at many of these charitable events during the Great Depression. The Hearst’s remained married until William’s death in 1951, she was always close to her five sons throughout her life and they generally sided with her. Millicent (Willson) Hearst died on December 5, 1974, more than two decades after the death of her husband, and was buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Hearst financed Davies' pictures and extensively promoted her career via his newspapers and magazines. He founded Cosmopolitan Pictures to produce her films. By 1923, Davies was the #1 female box office star in Hollywood partially due to the popularity of “When Knighthood Was in Flower” released in 1922 and “Little Old New York” released in 1923. The films were both among the biggest box-office hits of 1922 and 1923.

In the Roaring Twenties and into the 1930s Hollywood parties were thrown frequently at Marion’s beach house mansion in Santa Monica and they were very extravagant. Hearst, Davies, and their San Simeon Castle were all at the center of Hollywood society. The guest list for the unending parties at either estate was comprised by most of the Hollywood stars of the period; Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable all visited, some on multiple occasions. Political personalities Calvin Coolidge and Winston Churchill while other notables included Charles Lindbergh and Bernard Shaw. Visitors gathered each evening at Casa Grande for drinks in the Assembly Room, dined in the Refectory and watched the latest movie in the theater before retiring to the luxurious accommodation provided by the guest houses of Casa del Mar, Casa del Monte, and Casa del Sol. During the days, they admired the views, rode, played tennis, bowled, or golfed and swam in the most glamorous swimming pool on earth.

While Hearst and Davies entertained, Morgan built; the castle was under almost continual construction from 1920 until 1939, with work resuming after the end of World War II until Hearst's final departure in 1947. In May 1947, Hearst's health compelled him and Marion Davies to leave the castle for the last time. He died in Los Angeles in 1951. Julia Morgan died on February 2, 1957 in San Francisco, California. The Hearst family donated the castle and many of its contents to the State of California. It has since operated as the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument and attracts about 750,000 visitors each year. The Hearst family retains ownership of the majority of the 82,000 acres wider estate and, under a land conservation agreement reached in 2005, has worked with the California State Parks Department and American Land Conservancy to preserve the undeveloped character of the area. George Bernard Shaw is said to have once described “La Cuesta Encantada” as "what God would have built if he had had the money.”

Davies claimed in her memoirs that she and William Randolph Hearst began their sexual relationship when she was still a teenager. Although they lived together for the next three decades in opulent homes across Southern California and Europe, they never married as Hearst's wife refused to give him a divorce. At one point, Hearst reportedly came close to marrying Davies, but decided his wife's settlement demands were too high. Although he was a notorious philanderer, Hearst was extremely jealous and possessive of Davies, even though he was married throughout their relationship.

Despite their jealous attachment to one another, both Davies and Hearst had many sexual liaisons with other persons while living together in San Simeon and elsewhere. Davies had sexual relationships with fellow actors Charlie Chaplin, Dick Powell, and others. Hearst had a sexual relationship with a blonde chorus girl named Maybelle Swor. According to Davies' friend Louise Brooks, Davies was particularly incensed by Hearst's indiscreet relations with Swor. By the late 1930’s because of the Great Depression, Hearst was suffering financial problems. Davies sold her jewelry, stocks and bonds and wrote a check for $1 million to Hearst to save him from bankruptcy.

There was speculation since the early 1920’s that Davies and Hearst had a child together sometime between 1919 and 1923. The child was rumored to be Patricia Lake, who was known to the public as Davies' niece. On October 3, 1993, Lake died of complications from lung cancer in Indian Wells, California. Ten hours before her death, Lake requested that her son publicly announce that she was not Davies' niece but rather Davies' biological daughter with William Randolph Hearst as her father. Lake had never commented on her alleged paternity in public, even after Hearst's and Davies' deaths, but did tell her grown children and friends. Lake's claim was included in her death notice, which was published in newspapers including those once owned by Hearst.

Lake told her friends and family that Davies became pregnant by Hearst in the early 1920s. As the child was conceived during Hearst's extra-marital affair with Davies and out of wedlock, Hearst sent Davies to Europe to have the child in secret to avoid a public scandal. Hearst later joined Davies in Europe. Lake claimed she was born in a Catholic hospital outside of Paris in 1921. Lake was then given to Davies' sister Rose, whose own child had died at birth, and passed off as Rose and her husband George Van Cleve's daughter. Lake stated that Hearst paid for her schooling and both Davies and Hearst spent considerable time with her. Davies reportedly told Lake of her true parentage when she was 11 years old. Lake said Hearst confirmed that he was her father on her wedding day at age 17 where both Davies and Hearst gave her away. Neither Hearst nor Davies ever publicly addressed the rumors during their lives. Upon news of the story a spokesman for the Hearst family commented that, "It is a very old rumor, and a rumor is all it ever was.”

Marion Davies film career declined during the Great Depression as did the career of others. This even though the Great Depression brought with it the first movies in color. Some movies from this era like “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” have become classics that are still in vogue today. That period was ironically similar in some ways to today’s Pandemic environment limiting what movies are being made, as well as when and where to show them. The Great Depression just like today’s Pandemic brought about a need for an escape from societal circumstances which the entertainment world provided. Fortunately, both periods have shown innovative methods for both movie production and release formats.

Following the decline of Davies’ film career, she struggled with alcoholism retiring from the screen in 1937. Davies’ problem with alcoholism seemed inappropriate due to how Hearst felt about alcohol. Although this was after the adoption of the 21st Amendment which repealed the 18th Amendment making the manufacture and sale of alcohol legal in the United States. After her retirement she devoted herself to looking after an ailing Hearst and to charitable work. She was Hearst’s steadfast companion in his declining years until his death in 1951. Twelve weeks after Hearst’s death Marion Davies’ married Horace Brown, a sea captain. They stayed married until Davies’ death due to cancer in 1961 at the age of 64.

At the zenith of his career Hearst owned 42 daily newspapers, five magazines, two news services, and a film company. At the pinnacle of his wealth prior to the Great Depression Hearst was worth approximately $40 – 50 billion in 2020 dollars. In 1903 the trade unions of Los Angeles asked Hearst to begin a paper there so that workers would have a voice. He was praised by many socialists, including Upton Sinclair who compared him to Abraham Lincoln. But Hearst ultimately failed both as an entrepreneur and as a leader. He had rarely been an innovator in publishing, and others now beat him at his own game with more pictures, livelier writing, and more appealing politics. He lost touch with his blue-collar readers, denouncing the New Deal and mounting impulsive assaults on communists. He had overexpanded in the 1920s and spent recklessly on art and real estate. By 1937 he had lost control of his holdings and was forced to sell part of his art collection and he stopped construction on his fabled San Simeon estate.

Back to Ince’s death, if you accept that Ince was shot, you also must accept that it was by mistake because as the story goes Hearst had been attempting to shoot someone else. Always very possessive of his beloved Marion Davies, this extremely wealthy yet terribly insecure man had invited Charlie Chaplin along so he could observe the two together. There were rumors throughout Hollywood which Hearst had heard indicating Marion and Charlie were more than platonic friends. Chaplin's Japanese valet allegedly witnessed Ince being carried from Hearst's yacht and claimed that Ince's head was "bleeding from a bullet wound.” Screenwriter Elinor Glyn, a fellow guest at the yacht party, claimed "that everyone aboard the yacht had been sworn to secrecy, which would hardly have seemed necessary if poor Ince had died of natural causes." Years later, Chaplin's wife Lita Grey repeated claims that Chaplin had sexually pursued Marion Davies aboard Hearst's yacht and that a violent altercation of some kind had occurred. However, for whatever reason there was never any investigation or substantive evidence to support these allegations.

The rumor mill had it that Hearst found the two lovebirds in a compromising position, and that Marion’s scream brought other guests running as Hearst ran the other way to get his gun. Then in an ensuing scuffle Ince, not Chaplin, was shot and dropped dead with a bullet in his brain. It was widely known that Hearst kept a gun aboard the Oneida. Also, as D.W. Griffith remarked in later years, “All you have to do to make Hearst turn white as a ghost is mention Ince’s name. There’s plenty wrong there, but Hearst is too big to touch.” An interesting side note to this tale was that in 1996 a novel was published entitled “The Murder at San Simeon,” co-written by Patricia Hearst (William Randolph’s granddaughter) and Cordelia Frances Biddle. It is a fictionalized version of this murder, presenting Chaplin and Davies as lovers and Hearst as the jealous, insecure old man unwilling to share his lady love with anyone else.

What of the visiting movie columnist from New York Louella Parsons? Many did not find it much of a coincidence that soon after this incident she was awarded a lifetime contract with the Hearst corporation, and that her syndication was quickly expanded nationally. Louella was always one to know how to be on hand for a breaking story, as well as how to turn such knowledge into her own best interests.

A Long Beach columnist named C.F. Adelsperger wrote, “At the risk of losing something of a reputation as a prophet, the writer predicts that someday one of the scandal-scented mysteries in Hollywood will be cleared up.” “A District Attorney who passes up the matter because he sees no reason to investigate is the best supporter the Bolshevists could have in this country.” A strange fact about the cruise was that no accurate list of the guests on board the ship that weekend has ever been found. Thomas Ince’s funeral was held on November 21, 1924 attendees included of course his family, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Harold Lloyd.

Almost immediately following Ince’s funeral William Randolph Hearst discreetly provided Thomas Ince’s widow, Nell, and their children with a generous trust fund. Although a few years later it was wiped out by the Great Depression leaving Nell and the children penniless. Nell Ince lived the remainder of her life as a taxi driver in the greater Los Angeles area. As for Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst the entire affair eventually was reduced to a caustic joke in Hollywood as his 280 ft. yacht the Oneida became known as “William Randolph’s Hearse.”


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11 Jan, 2022
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