On The Air:
Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst,
And The Battle Over A Mercury Theatre Radio Play
By Chris Oakley
In the fall of 1938, as Europe teetered on the brink of war, a full-fledged blood feud was already underway between two of the most influential men in America: radio producer Orson Welles and newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. The Fort Sumter for this particular civil war was Wellesí broadcast of the Mercury Theatre radio play "Citizen Kane", which a paranoid Hearst was convinced had been meant as an attack by the young genius producer on Hearstís life and career. "Kane" touched off one of the most bitter court battles in American history, and when the smoke had cleared one manís reputation would be left in tatters while the other man would become a demigod...
No one has ever actually proven with any degree of certainty that "Kane" was specifically meant as an allegory on Hearstís life; Welles, in fact, went out of his way in press interviews and in his testimony during his court showdown with the newspaper tycoon to emphasize the point that the radio playís title character was not based on any one particular person. Hearst may not have been sold on this argument, but it certainly managed to sway the courts and most of the public.
In fact, Welles got the inspiration for "Kane" in November of 1937 while reading a biography of another legendary press tycoon, Joseph Pulitzer. He thought that the story of a fictional newspaper magnateís rise and fall might make for splendid drama or at least an interesting morality play, and by January of 1938 heíd completed the first draft of the "Kane" script. In addition to producing the radio play, Welles would also voice the title character, Charles Foster Kane. The playís supporting cast would be headed by Joseph Cotton, performing the role of Kaneís business partner-turned-chief critic Jed Leland.
Welles, notorious for his perfectionism, spent most of the next six weeks polishing and revising his script; he completed the final draft of "Kane" in March of 1938, by which time he had recruited veteran stage and screen performer Lionel Barrymore to play the role of Kaneís guardian and mentor Warren P. Thatcher. Although it had first been written as a single piece, by the time Welles finished his final draft of the play it had evolved into a three-chapter saga with with the first two parts chronicling Kaneís early years and rise to fame and the third chapter chronicling the tycoonís downfall.
Rehearsals for the broadcast of the first installment of "Kane" began in late April of 1938 and continued until the first week of June. There were many nights that Welles went home late, and a few when he didnít go home at all, but he was determined that the show would go off without a hitch when the day came for its premiere. To keep details of "Kane"ís plot from being inadvertently leaked to the press, Welles imposed a number of airtight security measures on his cast and crew-- not the least of which was keeping all copies of the first episodeís script locked up in a safe inside his office when the cast wasnít in rehearsals at the Mercury Theatre studios.
He also had the entire production crew sign non-disclosure riders to their CBS employee contracts. His cast had already long since been sworn to secrecy, and he certainly wasnít to give anything away if he could help it...
....so in the absence of any concrete information about "Kane"ís storyline, the outside world was left to make do with conjecture and rumors. One of the most frequently mentioned rumors was that Welles would use the program to take potshots at William Randolph Hearst, who he passionately disliked and who disliked him. When Hearst was asked at a Hollywood party if he thought the rumor was true, he is reported to have answered: "For Wellesí sake I hope not, because if it is true and he puts that trash on the air, Iíll personally see to it that the son of a bitch never works in radio again." Whether he actually said those words is a matter of some dispute, but the story still reflects the degree of distaste with which the newspaper magnate viewed Welles.
Hearstís girlfriend of the time, would-be actress Marion Davies, urged him to file a pre-emptive injunction against Welles to keep the radio play from being aired. A nice idea in theory, but it had a small drawback in practice: making allegations against the radio wunderkind was easier than proving them. Since Hearst was as much in the dark as everyone else about the storyline of "Citizen Kane", he might be-- to coin a legal phrase --assuming facts not in evidence. So Hearst had little choice but to wait along with the rest of America for the night of Mercury Theatreís broadcast of "Kane"ís first episode.
At 7:30 PM on the evening of June 10th, 1938 millions of radio listeners across the United States and thousands in Canada heard a low voice rasp out a single word: "Rosebud." To most of the listening audience for Mercury Theatreís premiere of the opening chapter of "Kane", it was little more than a first line of the play. But for William Randolph Hearst, sitting by his radio inside his San Simeon estate, that word became the proverbial red flag in front of the bull; ĎRosebudí was a nickname given to Hearstís mother Phoebe by one of his closest friends, and during the rest of the broadcast Wellesí dialogue made allusions to some of the less savory aspects of Hearstís personal and business life. By the time Mercury Theater signed off and the CBS announcer reminded viewers to tune in next week for the second chapter of "Kane", Hearst was literally screaming bloody murder. The day after the broadcast he phoned his attorneys and ordered them to immediately begin legal proceedings against Welles.
Hearst didnít have much of a case, and his attorneys tried to tell him as much only to be threatened with losing their jobs (at the very least) if they didnít comply with his instructions. Not that Welles was particularly bothered by the prospect of a court showdown with the press tycoon; if anything, he relished the additional publicity such a high-profile case would bring. "You may inform Mr. Hearst," Welles said to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter two days after Hearst had contacted his lawyers, "that I am greatly looking forward to our first meeting." He then met with CBSí own lawyers to discuss the possibility of countersuing Hearst for attempting to abridge his First Amemdment rights.
Sure enough, when the second episode of "Kane" aired on June 17th, the audience for that broadcast was even larger than it had been for the first episode; the uproar over Hearstís threats to sue Welles and Wellesí stated intention to countersue Hearst had piqued the curiosity of millions of listeners throughout America, and even those who hadnít known the first thing about either man before the first part of "Kane" was broadcast were getting hooked on the real-life drama playing out parallel to the scripted theater transmitted over CBSí airwaves. There were very few people indifferent to the Welles-Hearst feud; a sizable number of Americans, however, took a disapproving view of both sides in the quarrel. One of Hearstís fellow tycoons, Howard Hughes, grimly confided to a business associate: "Those two deserve each other....I hope they choke on their own bile."
The third and final chapter of "Kane" poured fresh gasoline on the fire of Hearstís hate for Welles. While the character of Susan Alexander wasnít specifically intended to be a facsimile of Marion Davies, she resembled Davies closely enough that Hearst became enraged at what he was convinced was nothing less than a deliberate insult of his paramour. Whatever slim chance might have existed of averting a court Armageddon between the newspaper baron and the young Mercury Theater auteur was effectively dead and buried by the time the CBS announcers read the closing credits for the cast and production crew of "Kane"ís final episode.
On June 26th, two days after the finale of "Kane" was broadcast, a New York City civil court judge agreed to hear both Hearstís suit and Wellesí countersuit. Opening arguments in the case of W.R. Hearst vs. Orson Welles et. al. were scheduled for the first week in September. A legal war for the ages was about to begin, and neither plaintiffs nor defendants would hesitate to use their weapons of mass destruction if it meant gaining victory in the courtroom...
To Be Continued