Had it occurred, the legendary but unlikely exchange of telegrams between William Randolph Hearst and the artist Frederic Remington–in which Hearst supposedly vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain–would have taken place 114 years ago this weekend.
The uncertainty as to exactly when the purported exchange occurred is one of many signals the tale is apocryphal, a media-driven myth.
As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst anecdote is “perhaps the hardiest myth in American journalism.”
It lives on in part because it is a pithy and delicious tale. It corresponds well to the image of Hearst the war-monger, the unscrupulous newspaper published who fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.
As I point out in the first chapter of Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst tale is often retold “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”
Moreover, I write:
The anecdote “lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule—was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”
The sole original source for the “furnish the war” quotation was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences that came out in 1901. The author was James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to pomposity and exaggeration.
Creelman did not explain in On the Great Highway how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange. Creelman–who was in Madrid at the time Remington was in Cuba–recounted the anecdote a not as a rebuke but as a compliment to Hearst and the activist “yellow journalism” he had pioneered in New York City.
Nor did Creelman say exactly when the presumed exchange took place, writing only that it was “some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana” in mid-February 1898. The only time Remington was in Cuba before the explosion that destroyed the Maine was in January 1897.
Remington, an accomplished artist of the American West, went to Cuba in 1897 to draw sketches of scenes of the uprising against Spanish rule. He traveled with Richard Harding Davis, who then was burnishing a reputation as one of American journalism’s leading correspondents.
Hearst recruited Remington and Davis for a month, and the plan was for them to reach a force of Cuban rebels under the command of Máximo Gómez.
But Remington and Davis never reached the rebels. What’s more, they proved to be an oddly matched team. In Matanzas on January 15, 1897, they parted ways. Remington returned to Havana and the next day boarded a steamship bound for New York.
Legend has it that before leaving Havana, Remington sent Hearst a telegram that supposedly said:
“Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”
Hearst purportedly cabled Remington in reply:
“Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”
Had it occurred, the exchange would have taken place late on January 15, 1897, or early on January 16, 1897.
Remington disregarded Hearst’s purported instructions to “remain” in Cuba. The artist was one of seven passengers aboard the Seneca when it sailed from Havana on January 16, 1897. The steamer reached New York four days later and soon afterward, Hearst’s New York Journal began publishing Remington’s sketches drawn in Cuba.
“The work was given prominent display,” I note in Getting It Wrong. Headlines in the Journal hailed Remington as a “gifted artist”–hardly the sort of accolade Hearst would have extended to someone in his employ who had brazenly disregarded instructions to remain on the scene.
That’s further reason for doubting that Hearst ever sent a telegram vowing to “furnish the war.”
And yet another reason is that Spanish censors, who controlled all incoming and outgoing cable traffic in Havana, surely would have intercepted Hearst’s inflammatory message, had it been sent. It’s highly improbable that cables such as those attributed to Hearst and Remington would have flowed readily between New York and Havana.
Additionally, the correspondence of Davis gives lie to the anecdote.
Davis wrote frequently to his family, especially to his mother, Rebecca Harding Davis. His letters make clear that Remington did not leave because they found “everything is quiet” in Cuba.
In fact, Davis wrote on the day he and Remington parted ways:
“There is war here and no mistake.”
His correspondence offered detailed descriptions of what he called the grim process “of extermination and ruin” in Cuba.
More important, Davis’ letters make clear that Remington left for home not on the pretext that “everything is quiet,” but because Davis wanted him to go.
“I am as relieved at getting old Remington to go as though I had won $5000,” Davis wrote to his mother on January 15, 1897. “He was a splendid fellow but a perfect kid and had to be humored and petted all the time.”
Davis added that he “was very glad” Remington left “for he kept me back all the time and I can do twice as much in half the time.”
I note in Getting It Wrong that the Remington-Hearst tale was “Creelman’s singular contribution to American journalism.” The anecdote has proven to have timeless appeal, in part because it promotes what I call “the improbable notion the media are powerful and dangerous forces, so powerful they can even bring on a war.”
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