As an art form, gossip was invented shortly after the digging of the first village well. People hung around, swapped news of who was seen outside whose cave and traded quips about tenants who drew pictures of animals on the walls. ~ Jon Anderson, A Fanciful Look At Gossip In Hollywood, Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1985
Born as Elda Furry in 1885, Hedda Hopper was the daughter of a butcher in Hollidaysburg, Pa. At the age of 18, she ran away to New York to act on Broadway. She was a moderately successful actress of stage and screen for years before being offered the chance to write the column Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood for the Los Angeles Times in 1938.
Hedda’s large, flamboyant hats became her trademark–she reportedly bought about 150 new hats a year. Hopper also acquired a reputation for journalistic bitchiness, which actually made her more popular. She took on anything or anyone who went against her set of “American” values. She doggedly spoke out against the threat of communism, real or imagined, in Hollywood. During the infamous “blacklisting” era, she destroyed the reputations of many people with hearsay.
After she published a “blind item” on Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s relationship, Tracy confronted Hedda at Ciro’s and kicked her in the rear. In a similar event, after she had printed a story about an extramarital affair between Joseph Cotten and Deanna Durbin, Cotten ran into Hopper at a social event and pulled out her chair, only to continue pulling it out from under her when proceeded to sit down. Joan Bennett sent Hopper a skunk along with a note that read: ‘Won’t you be my valentine? Nobody else will. I stink and so do you.’ She badgered Charlie Chaplin about the way he used women and America. She blasted Louis B. Mayer for lacking generosity. Her 10-year feud with her rival columnist Louella Parsons was the stuff of legends.
Born Louella Rose Oettinger in 1881, Louella Parsons was the first American movie columnist. She delivered Hollywood “excloooseeves” (as she pronounced it) for the Hearst publishing empire and its Los Angeles Examiner flagship. Her columns were read by 20 million people in 400 newspapers worldwide.
It wasn’t until high school that Louella decided to become a writer or a reporter. After high school, she enrolled in a teacher’s course at a local college. While still in college, she got her first newspaper job as a part-time writer for the Dixon Star.
In 1914, Parsons began writing the first gossip column in the United States for the Chicago Record Herald. She caught the attention of William Randolph Hearst years later while writing a movie column for the New York Morning Telegraph. Hearst signed Parsons to a contract in 1923 with New York America. She eventually became a syndicated Hollywood columnist for Hearst, whom she associated with for the rest of her career.
Parsons saw herself as the social and moral arbiter of Hollywood. Her judgments were considered the last word in many cases, and many feared her disfavor more than that of movie critics. Her unofficial title of “Queen of Hollywood” was challenged in 1938 by newcomer Hedda Hopper, to whom she was initially friendly and helpful. But they became fierce rivals, Hopper being classed as the more vicious and unforgiving of the two.
* * * * * * * * * * *
These two powerful, unconventional women were the undisputed Gossip Queens of classic Hollywood. Together, their daily reports of studio coups, production snafus and star indiscretions reached some 75 million readers. Thriving amid glamour and wealth, they could make or break the career of an aspiring actor, writer or director and influenced Hollywood mores for almost three decades. As actress Mamie Van Doren once said, “If Louella Parsons was the Bitch Goddess of my career, Hedda Hopper was my Guardian Angel.”
Their views and news were often whimsical, wrong, or both, but that didn’t seem to matter as they reported marriages and births that never happened. In the 1950s, Louella assured everybody that Ronald Reagan was without political ambitions, and Hedda once soured on a young actress because didn’t wear a had to a wedding. They unabashedly took on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart.
During WWII, even the Axis followed them: German propagandists showed photos of Hedda’s extravagant hats as examples of American decadence. Their social views were often appalling: Louella’s columns were sprinkled with “swarthy Mexicans” and “pickaninnies,” and she once called Mussolini her favorite hero. Hedda decried racial intermixing, was a feverish Commie hunter and led the attack that drove Charlie Chaplin from America to Europe.
They both swore like troopers, demanded and gave loyalty, and feuded with each other, if for no other reason than it was good for business. Hopper, who couldn’t type, dictated her column at the top of her lungs. Parsons called herself “Mrs. Malaprop” and one writer said she could ‘spell anything right but words’. Both reveled in their cattiness. Hedda often described her home as “the house that fear built.” John Barrymore called Louella “that old udder”.
As much as Hopper and Parsons were alike, they were very different. Louella was short, dumpy and unattractive, a three-times married Catholic who wrote her first movie columns for newspapers in Chicago and New York before she took on Hollywood in 1926 at age 45. Hedda was better looking; tall, thin and elegant in appearance, she barked out questions like a county prosecutor and appeared in well over 100 movies before she became a gossip columnist in 1938 at age 53.
Their chief difference was style. Hedda dressed well and was sure she knew best most of the time. In 1963, at a screening of his Under the Yum Yum Tree, Jack Lemmon sat in front of Hedda. “When the lights came on, Hedda leaned forward and whacked me on top of the head, and I mean really hard,” Lemmon recalls. ” ‘How dare you make a film like that?’ she demanded. ‘It’s filthy!’ ”
By contrast, Louella was full of guile under what even childhood friends called a “gooey” personality. “We weren’t ever sure we wouldn’t have another opening, another show,” Debbie Reynolds remembers. “She had this little, whiny voice and talked slow and lured you into thinking she was a polite little woman. She drank straight vodka in a tall glass and she’d pretend to nod off and people would say, ‘Oh look, the old bat’s asleep,’ and then they’d start talking.”
It was once said that gossip columnists had the power to make or break pictures and careers and the evidence says Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons could help or harm careers considerably, but only because the collective fears and egos of the movie world begged them to. They were created and fawned over by Hollywood, then feared and despised by the same people who gave them the power. They were tough; they had spirit, loyalty and a loony sort of vision; and they could be kind. They knew, better than anyone, the limit of their influence: When the lights went down and the real make-believe of Hollywood began, they could only sit and watch, lonely and powerless. Is it any wonder, then, that when the lights came back up, they sometimes gave somebody a good, hard whack?
Hedda died in 1966 at the age of 80. Louella outlived her, dying at the age of 91 in 1972.