Phoebe Apperson Hearst Biography

Phoebe Apperson Hearst (1842–1919) was the mother of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. She was a philanthropist and art collector. Very passionate about education, she was instrumental in making the University of California at Berkeley the illustrious institution it was at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Born to Farmers in Missouri

Hearst was born Phoebe Apperson on December 3, 1842, in Franklin County, Missouri, to Randolph Walker Apperson and Drucilla (Whitmire) Apperson. They were relatively affluent farmers, and Hearst's childhood was a happy one. Prior to the Civil War, Hearst went to school six months a year and earned her certificate to teach all age groups, becoming a teacher in the Missouri school system.

Married George Hearst

Not long after Hearst began teaching, she met George Hearst. Although George was 41 at the time and she was just 19 years old, the two were married on June 15, 1862. The gap in their ages never bothered them, and they had a long and happy marriage together. The pair honeymooned in Panama. For the young girl from Missouri it was quite an experience, and her love of travel grew.

After their honeymoon Hearst and her husband moved to San Francisco. The next year, in 1863, George and Phoebe Hearst had a son, William Randolph. He was their only child and they doted on him, teaching him a love of everything that was classical and artistic. Hearst made certain her son was educated to the best degree, including traveling to faraway countries. When her son was only ten years, old Hearst took him touring through Europe, visiting many museums, castles, and other cultural sites. They traveled for more than a year, and she showed her son much of what would later inspire him to build and decorate Hearst Castle in California.

In 1887 George Hearst became a United States senator, and the two moved to Washington, D.C., so he could take up his duties. Hearst took to political life and enjoyed entertaining and mingling with the people her husband worked with. Her life in Washington, however, was cut short when George died in 1891. As his widow, Hearst was suddenly thrust into being the head of the family as she took over his estate.

The first thing she did was move back to California. Her son was still there, having built a thriving newspaper empire by that point, and he had begun plans to build a mansion in Pleasanton, California. Now that the elder Hearst was dead, Phoebe Hearst decided to help her son out. To run the project Hearst hired Julia Morgan, who became the architect of the famous Hearst Castle. Hearst focused her abundant energy on the building and designing of Hearst Castle, decorating the place with items she had collected over the years traveling the globe.

Built Up the University of California at Berkeley

Not only did Hearst occupy herself with her son's house, but she also turned her attention back to education. Now that she had the finances to do so, she gave generously to several different organizations. One of her favorite institutions was the University of California at Berkeley, and that was where she gave her first contribution in 1891. The money was in the form of a scholarship to help women attend the university. At that time a college education was not automatic for most women, and Hearst wanted to make it easier for women to better educate themselves. She was, however, not content with simply setting up scholarships. Women in the 1890s were not allowed to enter the social and extracurricular structures that men had available to them. Because of this, in 1900 Hearst created a Women's Student Center in her own home, turning her large pavilion into a place for women to congregate and socialize apart from men.

Hearst often held teas and other social events at her house for the women of the college. She made certain she was kept aware of all new female students so that they could be added to the roster of women invited to her house. She also helped women obtain the necessary funds to continue their education. When she found out that a lot of the women going to school were working for families in the area, she set up Hearst Domestic Industries. Women students who worked for that company sewed for a living, but were only allowed to work a certain number of hours a week, enabling them to find more time for their studies and take advantage of other campus activities. She also hired a part-time doctor, Mary Bennett Ritter, who helped with the women's health matters and instructed them in the use of the gym facilities.

The University of California at Berkeley was still small and not built up yet in the 1890s, so Hearst initiated a building competition to create a plan for the University. The Hearst Memorial Mining Building and Hearst Hall were two buildings that were constructed to her exact specifications. They ended up being among thirty buildings and six campuses that Hearst helped create. Another building on that list was the Bancroft Library, and Hearst made certain it was stocked with the best educational texts, funding the entire collection herself. As of 2006, Hearst's personal papers were at the Bancroft Library. She served on the board of regents for the University of California and became a voice for females in the male-dominated school. She was the first woman to serve on the board, and she did so until she died.

Built Schools and Libraries Across the Country

Hearst also built several libraries around the United States and filled them with books and other necessities that she purchased. And she continued to support education, especially for women, everywhere she went. She started and funded the National Parent Teachers Association, helped with such organizations as the Young Women's Christian Association, Mills College, and helped fund the women's suffrage movement. She also gave support to kindergartens around the country, setting up a training school for teachers who taught at this level. Eventually she started the first free kindergarten in the country, and set up the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association along with eight other kindergartens. She also gave money to the National Cathedral School for young boys and girls.

Hearst always maintained her interest in other cultures. She helped fund archaeological expeditions, including one to research an ancient site in Florida, and she had a museum built at the university to display the artifacts found during the excavations. She founded the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology where, according to the museum's website, "People can learn about the people of the world through artifacts from nearly all geographic regions and cultures across the span of human history. Special exhibitions and public programs draw upon the Hearst's vast collections to highlight aspects of the Americas, Asia, Africa, Oceania, Ancient Egypt, and the Near East."

Improved Mount Vernon Historical Site

Along with Ann Pamela Cunningham and Frances Payne Bolton, Hearst raised money to restore Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington's home. She served on the board there from 1889 to 1918, and during that time she paid to build a seawall to help stop the erosion of the shoreline that could eventually harm the mansion itself. She helped purchase furniture and art of the historical period to display in the house and give it a more realistic feel.

She belonged to the Bahá'í Faith, and traveled to Akko and Haifa in Israel on pilgrimage, arriving on December 10, 1898. She stayed there for three days and has been said to have named those as the three most memorable days of her life. Hearst continued to travel all over the world with her son until her death in 1919 of Spanish Influenza. After her death an elementary school was named after her in San Francisco, and her son had the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Gym Memorial commissioned in her honor. At the University of California at Berkeley there is a street named after her. A log cabin in Missouri boasts a sign that says Phoebe Apperson Hearst went to school there. The Phoebe Apperson Hearst Society Museum was built in 1972 with help from the Hearst Foundation. The St. Louis Dispatch wrote that the Society considers the museum to be "a memorial to the modest beginnings of a bright, serious, pioneer girl."


Dictionary of American Biography , Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928–1936.


Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), October 18, 2005.

San Francisco Chronicle , July 17, 2000; May 10, 2000.

Seattle Times , October 20, 2002.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch , April 12, 1999.


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