When Hearst met Welles

first encounters: Illustration by Edward Sorel Text by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Next week: Captain John Smith and Pocahontas;
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Orson Welles always denied that Citizen Kane was the story of William Randolph Hearst, but of course, it was. The parallels are obvious. Both Hearst and Charles Foster Kane were born in 1863, were symbiotically attached to their mothers, were kicked out of Harvard, and went on to amass newspaper empires. Both ran for political office and lost, although Hearst ran and lost more often (including a bid for the Democratic presidential ticket in 1904). Xanadu was a carbon copy of San Simeon, and Susan - with her blonde hair, artistic aspirations and addiction to jigsaw puzzles - a caricature of Marion Davies. Hearst was not amused.

No time was lost mobilising forces against Welles and RKO. The studio, harassed by the Hearst press - 30 of the most influential papers in the country - found its position vulnerable. A word in the ear of Nelson Rockefeller, and Radio City Music Hall became unavailable; the same thing happened at theatres all over the country. Financial disaster loomed. Hollywood itself was hostile: at 25, Welles was already a daring and successful director/producer/star both on stage and in radio, and was far from humble about it. His arrogance made it easy for Louella Parsons to attack the man who attacked her boss. Louis B Mayer, Hearst's old buddy (MGM produced many Marion Davies films), offered to buy the negative and prints of Citizen Kane and destroy them, but RKO finally permitted the film's release, on 1 May, 1941.

By chance, the old lion and the cocky cub crossed paths not long afterward. On the day of the San Francisco opening (as Welles told the story later), the two adversaries found themselves alone together in the lift of the Fairmont Hotel. Welles could not ignore such potential for drama. Oozing charm, he introduced himself as the son of the publisher's old friend, Richard Welles, and invited Hearst to the premier. His overture was met with stony silence. As Hearst got off at his floor, Welles, rebuffed but unrelenting, delivered his final shot: "Charles Foster Kane would have accepted."