ARCHIVE LIBRARY

WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST AND ALEXANDRIA: PART 1

by Michael D. Wynne

Many great men over the decades at least knew of Alexandria Louisiana, if not having themselves personally visited here. We know of the visits of many well-known movie stars, military generals, and governmental leaders. But did you also know that the great 20th century newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), best remembered as being portrayed by Orson Welles in what some consider the greatest movie of all time, “Citizen Kane,” had a direct connection to our Alexandria and may have visited here?

Here is that story:

William Randolph Hearst’s third of his 5 sons was John Randolph Hearst, Sr. (1909-1958). John R. Hearst Sr. was best known during his life as the Assistant General Manager of the Hearst Newspaper organization and a philanthropist. John met and married Gretchen Wilson (1913-1996) who was born and raised in Alexandria! After much research, this writer has mostly been able to determine how this monumentally wealthy and influential California man and a Central Louisiana woman met. This is what I have found.

By 1931 at age 18, Gretchen Wilson had moved to New York City with her cousin, Margaret Wilson, both seeking fame and fortune, initially working towards stage careers. In 1932, Gretchen was actively appearing in local productions there, but was also modeling for national newspaper advertisements, including for Lux soap.

In December of 1932, Gretchen moved to Hollywood with the RKO circuit and obtained a contract to be in actor Richard Dix’s newest unnamed picture. In January of 1933, Gretchen had formally signed to be a stock player with the RKO Corporation and was then expected to soon star in a series of short comedies. Her career was soon put on hold after her arrival in California as she met wealthy John Randolph Hearst, Sr. at a party.

In the March 6, 1933 Town Talk, Gretchen’s wedding to Hearst was reported in great detail. This lavish affair was held at what is now known as William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon castle, then known as “Lacuesta Encantada” (“enchanted hill”). The wedding ceremony was attended by then-Hollywood royalty, including Marion Davies, the actress/girlfriend of Hearst, as well as the state’s governor and many other notables. Afterwards, the newlyweds traveled by ship via the Panama Canal for their honeymoon and set up residence in New York City.

This writer has not yet determined the names of Gretchen’s parents. This writer has found no clear reference as to their named identities, even after having researched many sources. But her stated paternal grandparents, Dr. John Luther Wilson Sr. (1869-1926) and his wife, Pearl R. Faust Wilson (1868-1951), both of Alexandria, had five children (as listed in Dr. Wilson’s extensive obituary), but only two sons to carry the Wilson name. The two sons are John L. Wilson Jr. (1894-1950) and Rivers Faust Wilson (1900-1964). But Gretchen is not listed in either of their obituaries. All references to Gretchen’s early life prior to and after her marriage to J. R. Hearst, Sr. only associate Gretchen specifically with her paternal grandparents Wilson, and later her widowed paternal grandmother Pearl Wilson.

Her grandfather, Dr. John Luther Wilson Sr. of Alexandria, was a prominent local physician here in Alexandria. A native of Mississippi, he moved to Alexandria in 1899 and was a founder of what was to become Rapides Regional Medical Center, then called the Alexandria Sanitarium.

Writer’s Note: In next month’s edition, I will talk about the Hearst family’s many visits to Alexandria and to other central Louisiana locations. I will also include interviews with Ed Caplan and others who remember the Hearst family coming here and enjoying themselves.

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