The way we were: media moguls

Extracts from memoirs, letters and diaries on press barons
August 24, 2011
The dining hall at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s California estate

Journalist and spy Robert Bruce Lockhart records in his diary an account of a party given by Lord Beaverbrook at his Surrey country house, 25th May 1929:

Beaverbrook’s fiftieth birthday—he gave a large party to all his old friends of 15 years’ standing and a cheque for £250 [today worth around £12,000] to each guest. There was a lottery with numerous prizes amounting to £500 for the servants.

In a letter to a friend, PG Wodehouse, then a screenwriter in Hollywood, describes his stay at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s vast estate in California, 25th February 1931:

The ranch—ranch, my foot; it’s a castle… Hearst collects everything, including animals, and has a zoo on the premises, and the specimens considered reasonably harmless are allowed to roam at large. You are apt to meet a bear or two before you get to the house, or an elephant, or even Sam Goldwyn. There are always at least fifty guests staying here… The train that takes guests away leaves after midnight, and the one that brings new guests arrives early in the morning, so you have dinner with one lot of people and come down to breakfast next morning and find an entirely fresh crowd…

Meals take place in an enormous room… served at a long table, with Hearst sitting in the middle on one side and Marion Davies [actress and Hearst’s mistress] in the middle on the other. The longer you’re there, the further you get from the middle. I sat on Marion’s right the first night, and then found myself getting edged further and further away, till I got to the extreme end, when I thought it time to leave. Another day and I should have been feeding on the floor. You don’t see Hearst till dinnertime… He’s a sinister old devil, not at all the sort I’d care to meet down a lonely alley on a dark night.

In an Independent on Sunday article in 2003, Andy McSmith recalls becoming Robert Maxwell’s press officer in July 1990. He was the 18th incumbent in the seven years Maxwell had been chairman of Mirror Group Newspapers:

I was booked to see Robert Maxwell at 3pm, that Thursday afternoon. By now I knew better than to expect the interview to begin on time, but I had not mentally prepared for the possibility that it would take me 26 hours and 30 minutes, until 5.30pm on Friday, to advance through the wood panels from Maxwell’s waiting room into the vast office beyond.

He was sitting behind a monumental desk. On the wall behind him were mirrors from floor to ceiling, presenting me with a choice of viewing: Maxwell’s face, or the reflection of the back of Maxwell’s head.

After that long wait it was evident that Maxwell could not now think of anything to say. However, inspiration came after a moment’s silence. He announced that he was going to introduce me to everyone who worked on the ninth floor… [he] strode down the length of his huge office and opened a door leading to a side room, where three secretaries froze as he entered.

There was another moment’s hiatus, with Maxwell again seeming to be lost for anything to say. Then he pointed at the nearest of the three women and said: “What’s your name?” She replied, and the other two tactfully volunteered their names too, saving Maxwell the trouble of remembering. I assumed that he would then give up, but no, we marched staunchly on to the next office, which also was full of people Maxwell had difficulty recognising. They all introduced themselves. Soon, we came upon an office larger than the others where a meeting was in progress, chaired by a youngish man with a wide face and an amiable smile. Here, at last, was someone Maxwell knew instantly. “That’s Ian Maxwell,” he pronounced.

The favourable impression this left, of a man who recognised his own son, was spoilt a couple of days later when I was in a lift with Bob and Kevin Maxwell. We were on our way to a board meeting of one of Maxwell’s companies. Bob Maxwell was still in the mood to make introductions, so as the lift descended, he pointed at his younger son and announced: “That’s Ian Maxwell.”

Momentarily forgetting that I was in an environment where it was better not to contradict, no matter what the circumstances, I replied without thinking: “No it’s not, it’s Kevin.” The old man looked irritated for a moment then dismissed the problem from his mind. Kevin looked furious. Nothing more was said.