Louella Parsons & Hedda Hopper
The Queens of Hollywood Gossip
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Who are Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons? In short: They are the original Queens of Hollywood Gossip! They can be credited with the establishment of celebrity magazines and gossip culture around the stars and starlets of Hollywood. So .. Kim Kardashian should be grateful to them 🙂
We actually have to start with Louella Parsons – she was the first and most important figure in this.
Louella Parson's beginnings
She trained as a writer and became the first female journalist in her hometown of Dixon, Illinois, and gossiped about the social circles there, and got her toes into the movie industry as a scriptwriter. She even penned a book called “How to write for the movies”.
At the age of 33, Parsons started to write the first movie gossip column in the US for the Chicago Record Herald but once William Randolph Hearst bought that paper, she lost her job. Because Hearst was not aware of the draw of the movie industry back then (which, spoiler would change). So, Parsons moved to New York City and wrote another gossip column for the New York Morning Telegraph. And that’s when Hearst got curious.
Because his girlfriend or mistress Marion Davies, an actress and former chorus girl, was praised by Parsons although most critics did not think much of her. The two women bonded and Hearst finally appointed Parsons to motion picture editor of the New York American for a whooping salary of 200 dollars, which is equvilant to about $3.5k today. Not bad, right?
There is some speculation that Parsons just got this position for this wage because there was a scandal which she did NOT write about. This involves the death of movie pioneer Thomas Ince whose death is closely related to Hearst. Some speculations even go as far as to claim that Hearst himself shot Ince because of a rumoured affair with Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress. But actually, all claims can be disputed – although both Parsons and Elinor Glynn told that there have been sworn to secrecy about anything that had been going on on the yacht that they all met at. So intriguing, right? The Cat’s Meow from 2001 starring Kirsten Dunst actually is a film based on these happenings – and its director Peter Bogdanovich had been informed about the happenings of the night by none other than Marion Davies’ nephew, Charles Lederer. Ah, it is all so secret and intriguing, right?
So, Parsons is on top of her writing game with Hearst, when she got the diagnosis to have contracted Tubercolosis, which back then was rather deadly and she was told she was left with about half a year to live. So, what’s a girl to do? She went to Palm Springs, which actually made it the prime spot for celebrities to flock to to cozy up with her, than she moved to Arizona for the climate and finally to Los Angeles, where she stayed put.
Syndication and readership
She continued working for Hearst and became a syndicated Hollywood columnist for his newspapers. That resulted that she had a weekly readership of about 20 million people in over seven hundred newspaper around the world. These are numbers newspapers and journalists these days can only dream about! She even had radio programs sponsored by SunKist and Campbell’s Soup Company, but they were scrapped because of payment issues with the Screen Actors Guild.
Parsons was the First Lady of Hollywood. She knew everything and heard everything and published everything. It is rumoured that her husband, a physician in Hollywood passed some information on. Also, she had actresses on her payroll and asssistants. And apparently three telephones in her office. For those belonging to the new generation: Back then, we just had landlines. And if you wanted to be available for many people, you needed many phones. Because if you talked on one, nobody else could reach you.
Her biggest scoop: The divorce of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., which actually she got the news of from Pickford herself. And – this is really great, I think, really human – Parsons did not publish the news right away, because she hoped they would reconcile. In the end she published when she heard someone else would cover the news also. And apparently, she held the wife of Clark Gable virtual hostage when she wanted to be the first to announce the separation. Crazy right? Was a tough business back then. I’m wondering: is it still like this today?
And that last bit about Mary Pickford: She really was a nice columnist. She was described as writing sweet and light and was not overly concerned about dates, places and facts. She herself said that she wanted to get news out fast and not be challenged by fact-checks or polishing of texts.
After Hearst’s death, Hopper’s star began to decline and her assistant, Dorothy Manners, who had helped her write the column for quite some time already, took over
Who is Hedda Hopper? Where did she come from?
Hedda Hopper was originally an actress. And when she came to Hollywood, she and Parsons had a great relationship and Hopper would ring up Parsons to give her the scoop of some stories she had heard on the sets she was working on. In return, she would get some lines under Parsons byline. She made a major splash when she starred in Virtuous Wives in 1918 – and cemented her image for playing flamboyant society ladies. She did so by spending her salary, which today would be about $100k on clothes from the boutique Lucile by Lady Duff-Gordon and wore it in the movie. Thus, she upstaged Anita Stewart who in theory would have been the real star of the movie.
And this eccentric and flamboyant dressing style would be her trademark image with extravagant hats. She was even allowed to deduct them from her tax as work expense. A short two years later she was earning about $15k a week and become a contract player for Louis B Mayer, so MGM. In the mid 1930s, when Hopper was nearing 50 years of age, her star started to fade and she agreed to write a weekly Hollywood gossip column first for the Washington Herald, later for the Los Angeles Times. It was called “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood”. As she had been in Hollywood for quite some time, she had great relationships and lots of contacts and got information quickly. So the column was easy for her.
But when did the feud with Louella Parsons start? And why?
Gossip Queens Fighting
It all started with Citizen Kane which Orson Welles produced and starred in.
When rumours started about a movie about Hearst’s life, Parsons had lunch with Orson Welles and he denied and evaded her questions. Long story short: Parsons believed him that there was nothing coming that would be of any concern. Too bad though that Citizen Kane actually IS about Hearst. And it was Hedda Hopper who attended a prescreening of the movie and wrote a scathing article of it. Hearst was infuriated that he got the news about this movie from Hopper and not from his longtime employee and protege Louisa Parsons. Parsons, then, went to a prescreening and was horrified that she had been lied to and threatened the producing studio RKO with a lawsuit and with exposing all the scandals she had held back. When the studio told her and Hearst that they would go ahead with premiering the movie, Parsons contacted the Radio City Music Hall, which the premiere was scheduled to take place at.
The second incident was about Ingrid Bergman, a celebrated actress and a rumoured pregnancy. Parsons published the scoop that Bergman was pregnant with Roberto Rossellini’s baby. Hopper loved Bergman and believed the actress’s denial and and published a denial of the rumour. In the end, she was pregnant. And Hopper was destroyed by the news and launched a PR campaign against Bergman – because she was pregnant out of wedlock with another married man’s baby.
Hopper, actually, was was not as lovely and sweet as Louella Parsons. Hopper was snarky, had an opinion and was not afraid to make enemies. On one occasion, Joseph Cotton pulled out her chair to have her sit down, but continued doing so, when Hopper actually sat down. Cotton apparently got mail and bouquets thanking him for this. Joan Bennet, also one of the great Hollywood actresses apparently sent her a Valentine which was a skunk with a note and the note said: “Won’t you be my valentine? Nobody else will. I stink and so do you.” How funny is that? And the best part – when that story made the news, James Mason was the first one to come forward and made a bid on the skunk and Hopper gifted it to him.
Hopper was a proponent of the Blacklist that would make it basically impossible for Communists or those affiliated with communism, homosexuals or those who did not live up to American ideals to get work in Hollywood. Hopper was one of the driving forces behind it and with her 35million readership she sure could wield the public image of anyone in anyone direction. Ingrid Bergman made it on the list, Charlie Chaplin, because Hopper did not like that he remained a British citizen and that he married much much younger women, which she deemed immoral. And she also tried to discourage people to go view Spartacus, which Kirk Douglas starred in because of the alleged Communism affiliation of screenwriter and director. That movie though was a blockbuster and success – financially and critically.
She used her power of the public image making to get Joan Crawford back from box office poison to an Best Actress Award for Mildred Pierce.
Later on, she had a career on Radio and on television where she hosted gossip and Hollywood magazines.
This is just so great – even the gossip columnists in Hollywood are worth a gossip story.
With all my love!