In 1903 publisher and aspiring politician William Randolph Hearst married 22 year-old actress Millicent Willson, the daughter of George Willson and Hannah Murray Willson. Following in the footsteps of their father, a moderately successful vaudevillian, Millicent and her older sister Anita performed on the stage in 1897 as “bicycle girls” in Edward Rice’s The Girl from Paris at the Herald Square Theater on Broadway. The 16 year-old beauty caught the eye of the 34 year-old Hearst, a well known stage-door Johnny at the time. The couple’s first dates were chaperoned by her sister Anita, and after a lengthy courtship the couple married on April 28, 1903.
Millicent gave birth to five sons: George Randolph Hearst, born in 1904; William Randolph Hearst, Jr., born in 1908; John Randolph Hearst, born in 1910; and the twins, Randolph Apperson Hearst and David Whitmire (neé Elbert Willson) Hearst, born in 1915. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, was initially dismayed by Millicent’s humble origins, but with the birth of grandchildren she soon warmed to her daughter-in-law.
Millicent often visited the San Simeon area from 1906 to 1919 with her husband and children to camp and enjoy recreational activities on the Hearst Ranch. Family visits continued for several years after the commencement of the construction of Hearst Castle‚ on Camp Hill in 1920. During initial stages of the construction, Millicent offered design suggestions to her husband who dutifully incorporated many into the directions he gave to his architect, Julia Morgan. Millicent even had the title role in “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter,” a home movie of near theatrical quality filmed in 1920 on the Hearst Ranch. William Randolph Hearst produced, wrote, directed, and acted in the film.
Millicent Hearst became estranged from her husband in 1926 when his increasingly open liaison with film actress Marion Davies became intolerable. Millicent thereafter maintained a separate residence in New York City while her husband maintained several residences on the West Coast with his paramour. During the years immediately following the separation, Millicent continued to visit Hearst Castle with family and her personal friends. On the occasion of Winston Churchill’s visit to San Simeon in 1929, Millicent Hearst was present to host the distinguished English aristocrat. In later years Millicent rarely visited the estate.
Millicent Hearst maintained a strong relationship with her five sons throughout her life. All the sons were very solicitous of her feelings regarding her marital situation and the potentially scandalous situation of their father’s private life. In general the sons sided with their mother, but they relied on their father for their livelihoods. In public life, she remained Mrs. William Randolph Hearst.
Mrs. William Randolph Hearst established herself firmly in the social and political landscape of New York City through involvement in many philanthropic activities, often on behalf of the Hearst newspapers. Her social activism flowered during World War I when she was appointed by Mayor John Hylan as Chairman of the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense. The committee sponsored entertainments for servicemen, operated a canteen, encouraged enlistments, sponsored patriotic rallies and provided staples such as coal, milk, and ice to the needy. Millicent Hearst also served on wartime committees to raise funds for the rebuilding of France and the relief of French orphans.
Millicent Hearst is most distinguished for establishing the Free Milk Fund for Babies in 1921. It provided free milk to the poor of New York City for decades. Mrs. Hearst also hosted charitable fund raisers for a variety of causes including crippled children, unemployed girls, the New York Women’s Trade League, the Democratic National Committee, the Evening Journal – New York Journal Christmas Fund, and the Village Welfare of Port Washington. During the Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt joined Millicent Hearst at many of these charitable events.
Millicent Willson Hearst, generous philanthropist and devoted mother, died on December 5, 1974, more than two decades after the death of her husband, William Randolph Hearst. She is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Long Island, New York.