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On The Air:

Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, And The Battle Over A Mercury Theatre Radio Play


By Chris Oakley

Part 2



Summary: In Part 1 of this series, we explored the circumstances that led to the celebrated libel case between newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and Mercury Theatre producer/creator Orson Welles. In this chapter we’ll follow the course of the case itself and how its outcome would radically change the lives of both men.


In the weeks between the day W.R. Hearst and Orson Welles filed suit against each other in June and the day opening arguments were heard in the matter of W.R. Hearst vs. Orson Welles et. al. in early September, the media of the day reported every trivial statement and action by the principals in the case as if it were a Nazi declaration of war on the United States. So eager was the press to publish any tidbit about the opposing sides that Life magazine actually devoted two entire pages to a photo essay of Welles’ chief attorney in the case making his morning coffee. Radio comedians of the day seldom if ever passed up the opportunity to make a joke about the Hearst suit or the Welles countersuit; Bob Hope, for instance, said of Hearst’s libel suit against Welles that "this is the most expensive suit I’ve ever heard of other than my wedding tuxedo".

Gossip columnist Louella Parsons was Hearst’s point person in his public relations campaign to discredit Welles before the trial began; not surprisingly Parsons’ archrival, Hedda Hopper, took Welles’ side in the impending court battle and devoted much of her column space to defending the young auteur. Radio commentator Walter Winchell joined Hopper in her anti-Hearst crusade, and with that the Hearst and Welles camps were engaged in a vicious war of words by proxy. The constant sniping made it hard to find unbiased jurors to hear the case...


...but somehow the New York court system managed to do it, and on September 2nd, 1938 opening statements were heard in the case of Hearst vs. Welles. The press wing of the spectators’ gallery was, as you can probably imagine, crowded; the New York print media alone had over 40 correspondents in attendance as the attorneys representing Welles and Hearst gave their respective opening statements. There was also a vast number of foreign journalists present-- Hearst was, after all, one of the world’s most well-known business tycoons and it was inevitable his legal blood feud with Welles would pique the interest of readers and listeners abroad. The foreign press contingent included correspondents from France, Brazil, England, Mexico and even the Soviet Union.1

While Hearst might have been getting on in years, he was still physically fit enough to be able to knock a man down with the right punch; thus, to minimize the risk of a physical showdown between him and Welles, both men would enter and leave the courthouse by way of separate doors under considerable police escort. Both men were also given police protection outside the courtroom in order to deter cranks from taking potshots at them. Marion Davies was uneasy about having so many cops watching her movements, but Hearst privately felt grateful for their presence.

Welles’ legal team decided to fire its big guns early on by having Welles himself be the first witness to take the stand. To the dismay of Hearst’s legal team, the young radio auteur was unflappable on the witness stand, crisply and concisely answering questions from his own counsel and refusing to flinch even in the face of the Hearst attorneys’ harshest queries during cross-examination; he left the stand looking, as Walter Winchell would later put it, "like the cat that had just swallowed the canary with a glass of champagne".

Hearst’s attorneys didn’t have much better luck with CBS head honcho William Paley; indeed, some spectators in the courtroom would come away with the distinct impression that the attorneys were more scared of Paley than he was of them. The glare which Paley shot in the direction of the Hearst legal team’s table on his way to the witness stand might have done something to encourage that impression....


...as perhaps did his growling tone of voice in responding to their questions on cross-exam. In later years, those who’d been in the spectators’ gallery or in the press box that day would recall that Paley seemed to be visibly struggling to control his anger as he parried the Hearst attorneys’ queries about whether or not Welles had told him that the main character in "Citizen Kane" was directly based on William Randolph Hearst. Paley himself admitted in a 1979 TV interview: "I had all I could do not to jump up from my chair and tell those Hearst SOBs to go to hell. I hated their guts more than I can say...if there hadn’t been cops in the courtroom, I think I might have even taken a swing at those guys."

Then, one by one, the cast members for Welles’ production of "Kane" took the stand on Welles’ behalf. Much to their frustration Hearst’s attorneys couldn’t shake the actors’ composure on cross-examination; John Barrymore, in fact, succeeded in verbally cutting those attorneys to ribbons with his responses to their questions. By the time Barrymore left the witness stand, the Hearst legal team was trembling and even Hearst himself couldn’t suppress a slight flinch. In the spectators’ gallery, Marion Davies secretly glared daggers at the back of Welles’ head, blaming him for the miseries she and Hearst were going through as a result of the Hearst vs. Welles case.

The final witness to testify for the Welles legal team was the script editor for the drama department at CBS Radio. For Hearst’s lawyers, this was their last best hope of getting an open admission from the Welles side that the title character in "Citizen Kane" had in fact been specifically and intentionally pattered after Hearst in a blatant campaign to slander the press tycoon. To the dismay of the Hearst attorneys, the editor refused to play into their hands; he was cool as the proverbial cucumber on the stand.

Then it came time for the defense to call their first witness: William Randolph Hearst. When his own attorneys questioned him, he was the very picture of calm. During his cross-examination by the Welles legal team, however, it was a different story altogether-- his oh-so-carefully maintained composure began to weaken as Welles’ attorneys found and picked at inconsistencies in Hearst’s testimony. It dwindled still further when the second chair on Welles’ legal team confronted the newspaper baron with a copy of the final draft for the script for the first episode of "Citizen Kane" in which a disclaimer was typed on the first page explicitly stating that the program’s portrayal of the title character should not in any way be interpreted as a comment on Hearst’s personality or business dealings.

It disappeared altogether when Welles’ legal team sprang on on the jury a surprise witness who remembered hearing Hearst tell Marion Davies in a rare moment of self-doubt that he might have been wrong about "Kane" being directly based on his life. When that little bombshell was revealed, you could have heard a pin drop inside the courtroom. One certainly heard a fair share of jaws dropping in the jury box. At the defense team’s table, there were hushed and worried whispers about what to do next and whether there was any possibility of salvaging Hearst’s case.

After two weeks of testimony, the case of Welles vs. Hearst went to the jury on September 17th, 1938. It took the jurors precisely one day, four hours, and twenty-seven minutes to decide what most people had been telling William Randolph Hearst all along-- that he didn’t have a case against Orson Welles. When the verdict in favor of Welles was announced, it took the combined efforts of Hearst’s attorneys, the court bailiffs, and half a dozen New York cops to restrain him from trying to rush across the courtroom and throttle his young adversary. Whether Hearst was simply frustrated at not getting his way or if a  part of him sensed he’d ruined his reputation, only God and Hearst himself would ever know for sure; it was immediately apparent, though, that the public would never look at him the same way again.

Or at Welles either.


William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies both went into seclusion in October of 1938. The onetime power couple had become the national butt of all manner of unflattering jokes, and they were getting tired of it; Hearst in particular was fed up with constantly seeing rival newspapers and magazines print irreverent caricatures of himself and Davies. But he wouldn’t be going from the spotlight entirely, as he’d already announced plans to appeal the verdict in Welles vs. Hearst.

Predictable, Hearst’s appeal was rejected, making him even more of a laughingstock than he’d been before. One Boston newspaper columnist waggishly renamed the tycoon "William Randolph Cursed"; radio comedy shows had a field day taking potshots at the once-unassailable press baron. President Franklin Roosevelt, long a favorite target of Hearst newspaper editorial attacks, couldn’t resist the opportunity to poke fun at his nemesis shortly after Hearst’s appeal was rejected: "The wolf huffed and puffed, but this time the house stayed up and he got blown down."2 Louella Parsons, the tip of the spear in Hearst’s anti-Welles PR campaign, didn’t fall quite as far from the mountaintop as Hearst himself did but was finding people more willing to stand up to her than they’d been in the past. In February of 1939 one aspiring film starlet, after reading a Parsons column that accused her of being involved in an affair with an MGM executive, confronted Parsons at a Hollywood nightclub and-- in full view of waiters and patrons-- threw a martini right in the gossip columnist’s face. Parsons flew into a towering rage and had to be physically restrained from going after her assailant.

As for Orson Welles, he moved from strength to strength following his courtroom triumph over Hearst. In late October of 1938, two weeks after Hearst and Davies went into seclusion, the young radio producer chilled listeners all across the United States and Canada with Mercury Theatre’s Halloween-eve dramatization of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel Frankenstein. In the spring of 1939, he delighted fans at Yankee Stadium on opening day of the baseball season by reciting Casey At The Bat during the seventh inning stretch; in August of that same year he made his maiden voyage into the movies when Warner Brothers released his adaptation of the Booth Tarkington book The Magnificent Ambersons. The movie drew widespread critical acclaim and reinforced Welles’ new reputation as a major player on the American cultural scene.

But what may have been his greatest accomplishment was still to come. In May of 1940, as Nazi panzers were smashing their way across western Europe, Welles and his Mercury Theatre players began filming on a movie version of the H.G. Wells science fiction epic War of The Worlds; Mercury’s depiction of a fictional extraterrestrial attack on Earth would powerfully resonate with cinema audiences understandably worried about the real and increasingly bloody conflict raging on the other side of the Atlantic...


To Be Continued


[1] No doubt because Stalin wanted to remind his subjects about the decadence of the capitalist system and saw the Hearst-Welles case as the perfect opportunity to do so.

[2] From an address given before the Gaithersburg, Maryland chamber of commerce on January 8th, 1939.


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