The Ambrose Bierce Site


Final Days with William Randolph Hearst

First Days with George Sterling

It wasn’t easy to avoid Ambrose Bierce, but god knows Our Willie did his best. Bierce had turned into a pest and an oddball, so full of himself. He was, by far, the best writer and the sharpest wit among William Randolph Hearst’s stable of writers, and the expanding newspaper empire’s solitary claim to intellectual pretension. But when he could, the chief foisted Bierce off onto the Journal’s top editor, Brisbane, although when Arthur was unavailable—often away counting up his investment income—Hearst, polite to the core, felt compelled to humor his leading, but difficult, columnist on his own.

Our Willie

     Since returning from his latest European and African tour—loaded down with so much statuary, mummies, paintings, ceramics, and other artwork they had to be stored in a warehouse in the Bronx—Hearst had moved from his bachelor digs on East Twenty-fifth Street to a four-story brownstone at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-eighth. The house had once been owned by President Chester Arthur, although Hearst found no particular romance in that. His valet, George Thompson, although unfailingly courteous to visitors and servants alike, ran the place like a plantation overseer.
    “It’s Mr. Ambrose Bierce on the phone, sir,” Thompson told the chief.
    “Tell him I’ll call him back next week.”
    “Sir, he’s up from Washington.”
    “Here in New York? He’s such a nuisance. What does he want, George?"
    “He simply says he wants to see you, sir.”
    “Please direct him to Brisbane.”
   “I’m afraid Mr. Brisbane’s out of town. Besides, Mr. Bierce insists on an audience with you personally.”
    Hearst got an idea. Like most of his brainchildren it was brilliant, only this one would cost him no money. “George, tell Mr. Bierce he’s invited here for tea tomorrow afternoon.”
    “But, sir, you’re having tea with your mother and the Misses Willson.”
    “Precisely. I figure the sight of all those women will have a calming effect on him.”
    Hearst was decidedly unhappy with his star columnist, although he never directly took him to task, which wasn’t Hearst’s way. The Journal’s editorial page of February 4, 1900, had run a quatrain, a cynical, tasteless sentiment, written by Bierce.
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Cannot be found in all the West
Good reason: it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.

  William Goebel, governor-elect of Kentucky, was shot dead in an election feud. Bierce commemorated the murder in doggerel by linking it to his own distaste for McKinley, which seemed to endorse a similar fate for the president. Hearst was angered by it—reflecting as it did on him—not to mention the avalanche of incensed criticism it produced.
   The chief would have yanked the poem, but the day it appeared Hearst was on the Nile River reclining on a steamer’s deck, tallying the various cultural treasures he had horded. With him as his guests were two young sisters and their parents. Hearst was partial to both girls, Millicent and Anita Willson, but it was Millicent he was actually sweet on. Now, Hearst read Bierce’s odious quatrain again and shook his head. There was nothing he could do about it except to hope the furor would die down and not be used against him politically. He had many enemies. To sack Bierce would only have made it worse. In any event, Hearst hated firing people. He let his underlings handle those minor details.

Almighty God Bierce

Bierce, who always stayed at the Navarre Hotel and Importing Company on Seventh Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street, had reason enough to visit New York. He planned an audience with Hearst, of course, but he also wanted to see his son Leigh, a cub reporter on the Morning Telegraph. Leigh was hanging out with the former Western gunslinger Bat Masterson, now a would-be sportswriter for the paper, a second-rate rag. Also, Bierce hoped to catch Edna Wallace Hooper and Fannie Johnston in Florodora at the Casino Theater. He’d heard that pictures that actually moved were somehow being projected on a screen at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, two shapely strumpets performing an umbrella dance, whatever the hell that was. He was somewhat intrigued, although he’d always considered pictures as representations in two dimensions of something wearisome in three.

   The year before, Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner announced triumphantly that Bierce had been assigned permanently to Washington to cover the various malfeasances of the United States Congress. So Bierce was in the East to stay. He rented rooms at 603 Fifteenth Street, then found permanent lodging at the Olympia Apartments, Euclid and Fourteenth. He settled in quickly, dining regularly at Coppa’s and Harvey’s. His favorite watering holes were Roche’s and Dennis Mullany’s. Each evening, he went to the Army and Navy Club for a nightcap or three. His relocation from California had no effect on his drinking patterns.
   Called “The Passing Show,” Bierce’s first column since returning East endorsed America’s occupation of the Philippines after the easy victory over Spain, puzzling because he had been muted about Hearst’s trigger-happy crusade all along. Meanwhile, Putnam’s published a collection of his short cynicism, Fantastic Fables, which sold five-hundred-four copies. One of those copies was purchased by a young Baltimorean named Henry Louis Mencken. Another by an erstwhile publisher, Walter Neale. Still another by William Randolph Hearst, who put it aside without reading it.

George Thompson met Bierce at the front door.
   “May I take your hat and coat, sir?"
   Bierce handed Thompson his outerwear.
   “And your walking stick, sir.”
   “I’ll keep that.”
   “I think you’ll be more comfortable if I take your walking stick, sir.”
   “I said I’ll keep it.”
   “Sir, if you’ll hand me your walking stick.”
   “I said...”
   “And I said, Mr. Bierce...”
   Bierce, his ears red, ceded to Thompson the walking stick.
   “This way, sir.”
   Bierce was steaming by the time he reached the drawing room. He intended to tell the chief precisely what he thought about that bug-eyed Mick of a servant. But to his shock, the parlor seemed to be filled with women. Hearst walked over to Bierce, hand outstretched. The publisher’s handshake was limp for such a big man, and just as slack as it had been when the two first met in Oakland in 1887.
   “My dear Mr. Bierce. Delighted you could come. I believe you know my mother. And may I introduce sisters Miss Millicent Willson and Miss Anita Willson.”
  “The pleasure’s mine.” Bierce said it although he didn’t mean it, but he was always far more personable than his poisoned pen would suggest.
   Millicent tittered, “We read your columns, Mr. Bierce, and always wondered what you looked like in the flesh.”
   Anita gushed, “You’re quite striking. For an older man.”
   “Harrumph.” Bierce’s cheeks flushed. “Mr. Hearst, the reason I came—”
   “Tea, Mr. Bierce?"
    “Certainly, Mr. Hearst, but frankly I wanted to—”

Bierce sat awkwardly in an effete French chair balancing a teacup on one knee and a pastry on the other. He listened to mundane chitchat about the automobile versus the horse and buggy. Hearst had recently bought for himself a flashy French motor car, all red and grill and tailpipe. But Millicent, fearful the internal combustion engine would explode, refused to ride in it, so Hearst hired a coachman and bought the girls their own hansom cab and a horse. Following dinner and the theater, and after the Journal was put to bed, Hearst and the Willson sisters took nocturnal rides in the hansom cab through Central Park with Hearst’s auto, driven by his chauffeur, trailing discreetly behind. The sisters, neither quite twenty, were members of a dancing troupe called The Merry Maidens, which performed in The Girl from Paris at the Herald Square Theater, and their father was a vaudevillian. So the talk naturally turned to music and the songs the young people were singing nowadays, melodies Bierce hadn’t heard of: “When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” “Always,” “My Wild Irish Rose.”
  “I confess, ladies,” Bierce said, “I’m not familiar with the songs you’ve mentioned, which demonstrates I’m at that stage of usefulness consistent with general negligence.”
   The girls giggled. They thought he was cute. No, more than cute. A little old fashioned, yes, but appealing in an uncle-like way. Handsome. Anita sat at the piano. Millicent stood next to her, hand on her sister’s shoulder. They sang about a bird in a gilded cage, a beautiful sight to see, her beauty sold for an old man’s gold. Hearst was pleased, proud, even moved. Bierce was put off by the maudlin sentiments of the song, and no less by the rather ordinary voices of the young women, but he politely applauded when the song was over.
   “Mr. Hearst,” he muttered when he at last got the chance, “may I—”
   “More tea, Mr. Bierce?"
   “Another slice of cake?"

After an additional agonizing hour, Bierce managed to corral Willie, alone, in his office on the second floor.
  “Mr. Hearst, I came here to talk about—”
  “Please do have a seat, Mr. Bierce. Now that Collis P. Huntington has died, our victory over the railrogues, as you so aptly described them in your column, is complete.”
   “Mr. Hearst, the railroad baron lived for seventy-nine years enjoying a stellar reputation. As a thief.”
   “Did you know Huntington’s primary heir is a nephew who’s putting part of his inheritance to work by founding a library in California? Perhaps some of the money stolen from the taxpayers will yet accomplish good.”
   “Actually, sir, I’m here to discuss the direction of your newspapers.”
   Hearst smiled sweetly. “So good of you to be concerned, Mr. Bierce, but, with all respect, I can only spare a few more minutes. I’m speaking before Tammany Hall tonight. At the age of thirty-seven, I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve decided to engage in elected service before it’s too late. I’m thinking about running as a Democrat for congress. Perhaps the mayoralty. Governor. Then... Well, there’s more than the mere state of New York. We currently have a government led by Republicans. A Republican government will never take the lead in responding to national disasters or dealing with poverty or health or any of the nation’s social ills. The Republicans know only four things. How to keep money in their pockets, how to keep capitalists prosperous, how to keep the impoverished invisible, and how to find weaklings to push around.”
   “Weaklings such as Spain?"
   “Did you like my little tussle, Mr. Bierce? You were circumspect regarding the war in your columns, which I appreciated.”
   “To speak too harshly of the conflict would only embarrass my employer.” Bierce shifted uneasily in his chair. “But frankly, Mr. Hearst, it’s a scandal that you actually wired Remington to furnish the pictures while you supplied the war. These things get around.”
   “It boosted the Journal’s circulation to a million and a quarter.”

Crime and Underwear
click to enlarge

   “There should never have been a war.”
  “Nonsense, Mr. Bierce. The action liberated Cuba and gave the United States a stronger voice in the Caribbean. It made us a force to be reckoned with. And, I should add, it sold a lot of newspapers.”
  “Mr. Hearst, when the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor the headlines in our papers—your papers—screamed about Spain’s secret infernal machine, Spanish treachery, Spanish insults. Sir, the explosion might have been the result of an accident.”
   “In my opinion the Spanish bombed that ship to provoke us.”
  “Really? Provoked by a nation as vulnerable and weak as poor, wretched Spain? The newspaper even promoted some silly novelty item called The Game of War With Spain.”
   Hearst rose from his desk. “Our war with the Spaniards was no game. I donated my own yacht as a military vessel and even went to Cuba myself as a Journal correspondent. I captured twenty-nine Spanish prisoners on my own. The conflict ended precisely the way I envisioned it. As a result, circulation’s booming, which is allowing me to expand the number of Hearst newspapers nationwide. Your column’s about to be read by thousands of new Hearst readers in Chicago and Los Angeles.”
   “Sir, that’s the problem. The name Hearst is under the mastheads. It’s on every copyright notice. It’s in every headline. Almost like an epithet. I pick up a copy of the Journal or the Examiner and there’s the name W. R. Hearst, ten, fifteen, twenty times in a single issue.”
   “Whereas your name’s there only once, isn’t that correct, Mr. Bierce? Under the title of your own column.”
   “My name has nothing to do with it. It’s the self-aggrandizement that disturbs me. The taste or lack of it.”
   “You speak about taste?” Hearst reached into a desk drawer and withdrew a copy of the offending Journal editorial page. “Here’s a poem written by you that seems to suggest President McKinley should be shot. And you lecture me on the subject of propriety?”
  “Sir, I’ve been assured by your Mr. Brisbane that no matter how rebellious my pen there’s commercial profit in it.”
   Hearst shook his head. “All of my papers are committed, not to profit, but to the public good.”
   “The way you promote the papers...”
  “Putting out a newspaper without promotion is like winking at a girl in the dark, Mr. Bierce. Well-intentioned but ineffective.”
   “The hyperbole, the violence.”
  “Newspapers must print murders and mayhem as part of the news. Readers want the fundamentals. Love, romance, adventure, tragedy, mystery. Why, your own excellent fiction, much of which has appeared in my newspaper, is filled with bloodshed. You and I both know the world’s not all sunshine, that there’s little light and not much sweetness. Life consists of darkness and storms and suffering and death.”
   “You’re not content with mere words. Your illustrators create drawings that bear no resemblance to reality. Your photographers take pictures of bodies in the morgue and your artists paint eyes on them as if the dead could see.”
   Hearst paced in a circle around his desk. “Mr. Bierce, the dead can’t see but people can see the dead. They want visual images of the news. Words are secondary. We give the readers the images they crave. They’re titillated by them over and over. People don’t think. They react. Someday, that’s all the news will be, images.”
   “I call it pandering.”
   “There’s an old newspaper recipe called crime and underwear. It means violence and sex. That’s what successful newspapers are founded on. The vast majority of Americans may be ignorant, little more than dullards, I dare say, but it’s to those people I speak, and to their pennies and dollars. The public wants entertainment and emotion, not information and enlightenment. I give them what they want.”
  “And there’s another thing, Mr. Hearst. Too few men own too many newspapers. It’s an outrageous concentration of power that can influence impressionable minds.”
   Hearst went to the window and gazed across Lexington Avenue. “The force of the newspaper is the greatest in civilization. Newspapers form and express public opinion. They suggest and control legislation. They declare wars. They punish criminals. They reward good deeds. I’ve declared my papers as instruments for decency and progress and the common man. And I’ve asked Pulitzer and the other publishers to join with me in proclaiming the same principles. What do you say to that?”
   There was a lot Bierce wanted to say but couldn’t. And he didn’t believe a word of anything the hell Hearst had said.
   “If two men were born to be enemies they’re you and me, Mr. Hearst.”
  “Do you really believe that? Mr. Bierce, until now we’ve never had a serious argument. Nor have I ever told you what to write. You might remember that when I first employed you, you were the only columnist in my paper who enjoyed his own byline.”
   Bierce rose from his seat. “I’m afraid each of us stands for everything that’s most disagreeable to the other.”
   “I truly admire your candor, which is why I hired you in the first place.” Hearst weakly shook Bierce’s hand in dismissal. “Mr. Bierce, I think it’s time you have another raise. I’ll be in touch with Brisbane about that.”
   Bierce was almost disarmed. Almost. On the ferry to Jersey City to catch the Pennsy’s Congressional Limited back to Washington, he reflected on his boss. Such a reprobate, but ever so nauseatingly polite. And ambitious, too much so. What if Willie ran for high office and imbecile America actually elected him? God help the U.S. of A.

Hearst purchased Cosmopolitan Magazine and, through Brisbane, reassigned Bierce to write a regular column for it rather than for the dailies, which effectively marked the end of Bierce’s newspaper career. A demotion with full pay, but in a way he was glad he was out. Daily journalism was not only drudgery, but sickening and bloody. He defined “dispatch” as a complete account of all the murders, outrages, and other disgusting crimes that take place everywhere, disseminated daily by the press for the amelioration of the world in general. Writing for Cosmopolitan gave him more time to think—and therefore to think that he thought.

Cosmopolitan, September 1905

  Bierce spent most of his days in his Olympia apartment, which was draped and carpeted in red. He sat for hours sipping cognac, Martell VSOP, sitting on a Turkish couch piled high with pillows next to a sideboard filled with curious glassware, decanters, and a chafing dish. A nearby table overflowed with books. He vowed insincerely to a fawning reporter from the Washington Times he’d never again publish another book, that outside of canoeing, his only interest was in collecting arrowheads, a hobby he began many years ago when he and his brother were boys in Indiana. He exaggerated.
    A new edition of The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter and Bierce’s cautionary words about proper English, Write It Right, were both published by Walter Neale, who had become a friend; a collection of Bierce’s essays, The Shadow on the Dial, was published by A. M. Robertson; and The Cynic’s Word Book was put out by Doubleday, Page. Occasionally a royalty check would creep into the mail, but Bierce doubted he’d earned a grand total of five-hundred dollars from all the books he had written in his lifetime. Love/hate relationship as it was, his paycheck from Hearst made the difference.
   When the earthquake hit San Francisco, Bierce tried to wire George Sterling but the lines were down. He wanted to know how the young poet was doing, of course, but mostly he craved the ear of a sycophant, and there was no one better for that role than his acolyte. Bierce remembered when he first met the aspiring poet. Must have been—what?—fourteen years ago.

As a mostly absent father hoping to make amends with the surviving of two sons, Bierce took Leigh on a camping trip to Lake Temescal in California. The campers set up their tents on the lake’s eastern shore. Yellow violets, wild geraniums, and clover stretched to the water. His brother Grizzly was there with his son Carlton and a new acquaintance, a young man from Sag Harbor, Long Island, George Sterling. They swam, hiked among the black oak, laurel, sumac, and California buckeye, and ate trout fished from the lake. Grizzly had secreted some hooch in the stump of a tree, which served as a makeshift bar.
   The night was warm and well past midnight when Bierce slithered from the tent he shared with Leigh to lay by the smoldering campfire where he gazed upward at the stars. Sterling, who had just read Bierce’s collection of ghost stories Can Such Things Be? joined him by the fire. The younger man was curious but wary, knowing of Bierce’s fierce reputation and his incendiary temper. But on this camping trip Bierce had been nothing but a gentleman.
   “You were unable to sleep, Mr. Bierce. Like me.”
  “Sterling, sleep’s a nasty and overrated pastime. It’s the dreams that do me in. Ugly, violent, disturbing dreams. I’ve had ’em all my life. One of the worst is about a horse. A white one. Seemingly benign. And then it says to me... Well, I can’t tell you because I don’t understand a damned word it speaks, but I know it’s something horrifying. I’m tired of nightmares, sick of ’em. For once I’d like to sleep undisturbed by bad dreams and bad lungs.”
   Even in the night shadows the younger man could see Bierce’s eyes, piercing under shaggy brows.
   “It’ll be dawn soon,” Sterling said.
   “Dawn’s the time when men of reason go to bed.” Bierce stretched his arms and yawned.     “Ah, the luxury of leisure. Do you know what leisure is, Sterling? It’s a lucid interval in a disordered life. And what disorder we have. Here it is, eighteen ninety-two. Grover Cleveland’s about to become president. Everyone’s talking about an axe killer named Lizzie Borden. Pinkertons, under the protection of the state militia, are slaughtering striking steel workers in Pennsylvania. The boll weevil has invaded Texas from Mexico. And the most popular song of the day is 'After the Ball is Over.’ Is it any wonder I question my own sanity in the way I do that of any inmate of any madhouse in our felonious land?”

Sterling, Poet of the Skies

The two men lay silent, thinking about faith and madness, which were much the same. Then Sterling spoke tentatively.
   “They say you may be going to Washington.”
   “If my lord and master so desires. William Randolph Hearst wants to make himself known on the East Coast. He’s gone to New York City to start up a new newspaper called the Journal, and is expanding his Washington Bureau.”
   Sterling heard a harrumph. At first he thought it was Bierce. Then he realized it was the voice of a bullfrog at the water’s edge. Strange, how similar Bierce’s voice was to that of a bullfrog’s.
  “I recently read your book of supernatural stories, Mr. Bierce. I was raised a Catholic, so superstition’s inbred in me. But does a man like you really believe in ghosts?”
   “I believe a ghost is the outward and visible sign of an inward fear. One must truly believe in ghosts to encounter them, which rules me out. Let me cite one particular  obstacle to a  belief  in ghosts. A ghost never

appears naked. He always comes either in a winding sheet or in the type of garb he wore when alive. To believe in ghosts is to believe that not only do the dead have the power to make themselves visible after nothing is left of them, but that textile fabrics have the same power. This would indicate to me the apparition of a suit of clothes should be able to walk around without a ghost in it, although I’ve personally not seen one. Speaking of clothes, young man, or the lack of them. I’ve noticed you tend to parade around in the buff.”
   “Only when gentlemen are present, Mr. Bierce. Otherwise, I wear a bathing suit.”
  “That’s another thing. Don’t you think that the bathing costume you only occasionally wear is immodest?”
   “I’ve never been asked that question before.”
   Bierce snorted. He was, at heart, a Victorian. “I suppose it’s the latest thing, men baring their chests, displaying their nipples. In my day, men—as well as women—wore fabric above as well as below the waist. Personally, Sterling, I believe you err.”
   “How so, sir?”
  “Because, in exposing your epidermis, you’re acting in a way contrary to my beliefs and actions.”
   “I think you’re joshing me, Mr. Bierce.”
   “I never josh. In fact, I’ve never heard of the term.”
   Sterling’s father, a doctor, had been a zealous convert to Catholicism, and George’s brother became a priest. But Sterling, despite his religious studies at St. Charles College in Maryland, found himself unsuited to the priesthood. As a boy, he once climbed to the roof of his church in Sag Harbor to hang a pirate’s flag from the steeple. Now, Sterling worked as the personal secretary to his Uncle Frank, a real estate agent in Oakland, while scribbling verse on the side.
  “I desperately desire to become a poet, Mr. Bierce. Joaquin Miller has been my inspiration.”
   “Miller, you say? The old reprobate. Sterling, don’t you know inspiration is literally the act of breathing into, just as an enemy of mankind blows into a flute. It would be an engrossing sight, watching you breathe into the mouth of Joaquin Miller.”
   Sterling chuckled. “Humbly, may I ask you to help me to become a poet?”
  “Love. Dove. Shove. Bliss. Kiss. Miss. June. Moon. Loon. Those are all the words you need to become a poet in the mode of Joaquin Miller. Find yourself a copy of Miller’s Poetical Works for inspiration, since you’ve adopted him as your model. Spit on your hands and get to it.”
   “But, Mr. Bierce, I’m terrified of rejection.”
   “Sterling, if rejection wounded, all writers would bleed at every pore.”
   Sterling was not yet twenty-five. He was nervous, excitable, impetuous, and a tad idealistic. “For humanity’s sake I’d like to raise both consciousness and conscience in my work.”
   “I think not, Sterling. I don’t believe in dallying with the demagogic muse.”
   “But the poor...”
   “Leave the poor alone. They’re oppressed by nobody but God. Nobody hates them. In fact, the rich love ’em a lot better than the poor love themselves.”
   “Shouldn’t someone speak for them?”
   “Not the poet, young man. A good poet’s not altogether the creature of his place and time. He’s got to be better than that. Nevertheless, I recognize the temptations of our world, and how young men such as yourself are often swayed by current issues. We live, after all, in a paradise of ignorance, anarchy, and general yellowness. I currently have two young poets under my wing. Edwin Markham and George Herman Scheffauer. I've reserved judgment on Scheffauer, but let me tell you about Markham. He’s a school principal in Oakland, and he’s been working on a poem I particularly detest. Wants me to help get it published in the Examiner. He calls it ‘The Man with the Hoe.’ It’s a maudlin tract that tends to blame the sorrows of the humble on the selfishness of the great. Barnyard seepage is what it is. Sandlot socialism. Sterling, don’t fiddle-faddle with such tiresome trivialities as the immemorial squabbles of rich and poor. Write about the dawn.”
   “Are you talking about actual sunrise?”
   “Indeed, Sterling. If you write about the dawn you shall become the poet of the skies and the prophet of the suns.”

Now, years later in Washington, something in the Hearst papers suddenly whipped Bierce into a froth, although he quickly forgot exactly what. Laying aside the latest issue of Cosmopolitan, in which his column appeared, he mailed for the umpteenth time his resignation to the publisher at his new home on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Bierce expected Hearst to follow the usual pattern and beg him to stay, sweetening the plea with another raise. Instead, Bierce was stunned when Hearst returned a one line response accepting the resignation. Bierce had not only become a reactionary he had simply outlived his usefulness to the newspaper magnate. Bierce fell into a deep depression, worn down by the demands of a long career in journalism and the frustration of penning stories he felt were unappreciated. Maybe it was time to rejuvenate himself, perhaps take himself to some awful place like Mexico. There was always some sort of revolution down there, and he imagined himself in the thick of it. Who would miss him? With pen and paper, he wrote:
Mark how my fame rings out in every zone,
A thousand critics shouting: He’s Unknown.

© 2016 by Don Swaim

Don Swaim is the author of The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story
published in 2016 by Hippocampus Press, New York

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