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Forgotten Hollywood: Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons

When in the 1920s Hollywood studios created the star system which lasted till the 1960s, young men and women were plucked from obscurity, buffed and polished and transformed into movie stars with invented names and backgrounds to glamorize them. Every aspect of their lives was controlled by the movie studios with morals clauses inserted into their contracts, and ‘fixers’ hired to cover up scandals. Romantic dates were orchestrated for stars with photographers tipped off, ‘lavender’ marriages were arranged for gay stars, and favorable stories were planted in tabloids while unfavorable ones were killed or bought out.

For about three decades, two women ruled the town with powerful gossip columns and the ability to promote or destroy careers and lives. They were Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, alternately courted and reviled, but never ignored. Studios used them to keep their stars in line, often pitting the two against each other. Collectively, they reached 75 million readers. According to Bob Hope, “Their columns were the first thing we looked at every morning to see what was going on.” The two had a vicious rivalry that lasted till their deaths.

Parsons started in Chicago, writing for the Record-Herald in 2014 and subsequently moved to Los Angeles after a stint in New York where she worked for William Randolph Hearst’s The New York American after he saw her columns praising his mistress Marion Davies. By 1929, she was making $500 a week (over $7,000 in today’s dollars). Legend has it that she was rewarded by Hearst with a lifetime position as head gossip columnist of his newspaper empire because she kept mum after allegedly witnessing the death of director William Ince, allegedly shot in a jealous rage by Hearst himself on his yacht, though she always maintained that she wasn’t present. At the height of her career, she wrote seven syndicated columns, including a full-page Sunday spread, that appeared in 400 Hearst newspapers. Her column appeared in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner from 1925. In 1934, she would start a radio show, “Hollywood Hotel,” where she would summon the stars to read the scripts from their films for free.

Hopper started out as an actress in silent films, and despite having worked for a decade and a half in over a hundred films, never achieved stardom. (For a while, Parsons even promoted Hopper’s movie career.) What she did achieve was an insider’s knowledge of Hollywood, an entrée into Hollywood’s social life and powerful studio connections. She started writing her column for the Washington Times-Herald which was bought out by the Los Angeles Times in 1938. Her columns were initially dictated over the phone as she could neither spell nor type.

Mamie Van Doren, an actress hated by Parsons and therefore supported by Hopper, wrote on her blog: “If you were going to become anyone in Hollywood you would eventually have to pass muster by one of them and be favorably written about. If you were out of favor by them, you might as well get on the bus back to Podunk because you were never going to do more than wait on tables, pump gas, or become a hooker or a producer’s wife.” She knew from personal experience. Her manager, Jimmy McHugh, was Parsons’ boyfriend, and in a jealous rage, Parsons pressured Paramount to drop her impending contract by threatening to boycott all their stars and projects. The only reason she managed to get another is when Parsons was out of the country. “But this time fate was in my corner. Louella had left for Europe to have cosmetic surgery. While the evil bitch was getting her face lifted, her eyelids tucked, even her fat sucked, I was signed to Universal Studios.”

Van Doren dishes about Parsons’ third husband Harry ‘Docky’ Martin. (She divorced the first two for adultery.) “Her late husband had been a doctor with an interesting special practice. He took care of abortions and venereal disease cases for the movie studios. All very hush-hush. When I was a showgirl in New York as a teenager, one night backstage the other girls were all a-twitter with the news that “Doc Martin” was in town. When I asked who he was they said he was Louella Parson’s husband. He breezed into town occasionally looking for young girls to, um, date. “He pays!” the girls squealed. (My comment at the time was something like, “You mean you can get paid for that?” I was a late bloomer.)”

Hopper married an actor, William DeWolf Hopper, 27 years older than she, in 1913. She was his fifth wife and changed her name from the unfortunate Elda Furry to Hedda Hopper, trying to set herself apart from the wives who came before her – Ella, Nella, Ida and Edna. They split in 1922.

She distinguished herself with her trademark hats, reportedly spending $5,000 a year on them, which she was allowed to deduct from her taxes. Her house in Beverly Hills, next to the Beverly Hills Hotel, was called “the house that fear built” by her; she was making $250,000 at the height of her career, which would be about $2 million in today’s dollars.

Parsons had two houses, one in Beverly Hills and an estate in the San Fernando Valley. She was afflicted with incontinence her whole life. She became a devout Catholic in middle age and was godmother to actress Mia Farrow.

Both women were lavishly gifted by the studios that made a business of encouraging their rivalry. They had informants all over Hollywood, from hat-check girls and doctor’s office receptionists to florists and studio spies. Hopper would make unannounced late-night drop-ins to her victims’ houses, grilling and threatening them if they lied to her.

One of Parsons’ most damaging actions was attempting to suppress the release of Citizen Kane in 1941. Since it was a thinly veiled story of her boss, Hearst, she started labeling the director Orson Welles a communist in her columns. On Hearst’s instructions, she threatened to expose RKO, the studio that made Kane, with stories of misbehavior by its executives, and even got the Radio City Music Hall premiere cancelled. Welles’ career never quite recovered.

Parsons was the first to report on the breakup of the Fairbanks-Pickford marriage as well as that of Clark Gable and his wife Ria. She also exposed the affair of the married Ray Milland and Grace Kelly, co-stars in 1953’s Dial M for Murder, almost tanking Kelly’s career.

In 1950, Parsons spitefully broke the news above the fold in the Los Angeles Examiner that Ingrid Bergman was expecting a child with Roberto Rossellini. This created a worldwide furor – the news of her affair with Rossellini in Rome had already shattered her saintly image, one Parsons had helped build by advocating for her casting as a nun in The Bells of St. Mary and the title role in St. Joan. Bergman paid the price with her Hollywood career.

Hopper, the self-described ‘bitch of the world,’ hated Charlie Chaplin for suspected communist sympathies and for his predilection for young women. She turned against him as “a warning to others involved in dubious relationships” when she sided with an actress named Joan Barry who took Chaplin to trial in a paternity case in 1943. He ended up winning but still had to pay child support. She constantly castigated Chaplin in print, calling out his refusal to become an American citizen, and cooperated with the FBI to leak information about him in her columns and pass along any information she could about his private life, leading to his ban to re-enter the US in 1952.

Aside from appointing herself Hollywood’s morality police, Hopper was a rabid Republican, helping create and support the Hollywood blacklist. She allied with Senator Joseph McCarthy, helped Ronald Reagan’s political career, and had a longtime alliance with J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, as well. She named the names of those she believed were communists or communist sympathizers in her columns, and ruined many careers along the way. Dalton Trumbo was one that she particularly persecuted with relentless coverage about his ‘Commie’ party membership, going so far as to tell her readers not to watch Spartacus, for which he had written the screenplay for producer and star Kirk Douglas in 1960.

And the two women didn’t hide their racial biases. Parsons would talk about ‘swarthy Mexicans’ in her columns; both hated homosexuals and miscegenation and would expose anyone they suspected.

But some in Hollywood pushed back. In 1943, when Hopper wrote about Joseph Cotten’s affair with Deanna Durbin, at a Hollywood party he pulled out her chair from under her, letting her fall, an action for which he received universal if secret kudos from his peers. Spencer Tracy kicked her in the backside at a night club when she wrote a blind item about his relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Joan Bennett sent her a skunk on Valentine’s Day with a note that said “Won’t you be my Valentine? Nobody else will. I stink and so do you.” Michael Wilding sued her for $3 million for libel when she insinuated that he and Stewart Granger had a homosexual relationship in her memoir. He won and the case was settled for $100,000.

But Hopper made stars as well. She lobbied for an Oscar for Joan Crawford for her role in 1945’s Mildred Pierce, by printing the studio’s press release in its entirety in her column. Crawford won. Her column was used as publicity in the trade journals by Crawford’s publicist Warren Cowan, and became the forerunner of the studio campaigns for Oscars that go on to this day.

In the 1960s, Hopper and Parsons’ influence began to wane as the studio system was dismantled and a flood of gossip magazines like Confidential, Exclusive, Exposed, Hush-Hush, Inside, On The Q.T, Rave, Revealed, Side Street, The Lowdown and Uncensored. But they soldiered on, writing whitewashed memoirs and hosting television shows. NBC’s “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” aired against Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night program on NBC with guests like Lucille Ball, Marion Davies, Walt Disney, Debbie Reynolds and Gloria Swanson. Louella did a syndicated radio show with East Coast gossip columnist Walter Winchell.

In 1965, Parsons hung up her poison pen and moved into a Santa Monica clinic, at the Hearst corporation’s expense. Hopper died two months after Parsons’ retirement from double pneumonia. Parsons would hang on till 1972, a mute recluse who had detached from the world.

Parsons has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for radio and movies. Hopper has one.