Grave Sightings: William Randolph Hearst

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt / Stacy Conradt

When Charles Foster Kane died in Orson Welles’s 1941 film Citizen Kane, complete with a snow globe tumbling out of his hand and shattering on the floor, he uttered what is arguably the most famous line in the history of cinema: “Rosebud.”

Kane, of course, was infamously based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst—though Welles denied the connection, saying, "It is not based upon the life of Mr. Hearst or anyone else. On the other hand, had Mr. Hearst and similar financial barons not lived during the period we discuss, Citizen Kane could not have been made."

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Nice lip service—but Hearst didn't buy it for a second, and Welles didn't do much to dispel the rumor when he came face-to-face with Hearst himself. On Citizen Kane’s opening night, Welles was in an elevator in San Francisco when, by incredible happenstance, William Randolph Hearst walked in. Welles invited him to the premiere, but Hearst refused to acknowledge the invitation. When Hearst exited the elevator, Welles said, "Charles Foster Kane would have accepted."

He may not have felt particularly chatty that day, but Hearst certainly let his feelings be known. He had his journalists, his critics, his gossip columnists, and probably even his typesetters spread vitriol about Welles’s character and personal life, calling him out for communism and questioning his patriotism. Hearst managed to get the movie blocked from most theaters by getting bigger studios to book them. And, of course, none of Hearst’s vast media holdings would advertise or even mention the movie. When it was unavoidable, they referred to it only as a “new screen attraction.”

Stacy Conradt

But now, 75 years after the release of the movie, it seems Orson Welles has had the last laugh. Though it may have bombed at the box office, today, Citizen Kane is widely regarded as the best movie of all time. However, Hearst’s reputation hasn’t aged so well—fair or not, he’s mostly known today as “the mythical bogeyman of American journalism.”

After being in poor health for a few years, Hearst died of a heart attack on August 14, 1951, and was buried in the Hearst family mausoleum at Cypress Lawn in Colma, California. Were his last words as famous as Charles Foster Kane’s utterance of “Rosebud”? It doesn’t seem so—there’s no record of them.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.