The popular FX series Feud: Bette and Joan reintroduced the world to these two Hollywood harpies, who not only turned America into a celebrity-crazed nation but also presaged the careers of radio ranters and unhinged bloggers who dominate today’s media landscape
I am going to tell you a deep, dark secret. And if you tell anyone, I’ll swear you did not hear it from me. So, listen carefully. Ready? Here it is: gossip has been around since Adam kissed Eve and the snake told.
Fast forward a few thousand years, to 1920s in the USA, where and when Adam and Eve was everyone in Hollywood and Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper were the snakes.
For as long as Hollywood has existed, gossip has greased its skids. Who was sleeping with whom? Who was the father of whose baby? Who hated who and why? Who got the latest and best studio contract? And who knew how to keep a secret and who did not.
While women may have been Hollywood’s earliest sexual harassment victims, Louella and Hedda acquired money, fame, and power by pedaling gossip, the more salacious the better. At one point they had, between them, the largest readership in the country. In a nation of 160 million, their combined readership of 75 million was comprised of nearly half the country.
The history of Hollywood is replete with jaw-dropping narratives of slow-burning, mean-spirited and womb-to-tomb animosities between famous people. Many of these feuds occurred during Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” the period that lasted from the end of the Silent Era to the 1960s.
The most notorious sibling rivalry in film history, for example, was between Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. And then there was the clash of titans William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles, the lifelong fight between Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds—and even a rivalry between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! Today, because of the recent FX mini-series, Feud: Bette and Joan, most people know a lot about the never-ending battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, fueled by Louella and Hedda.
Ironically, though, one of the wildest, bawdiest, and most famous feuds in Hollywood’s history was between these two oracles of sleaze.
The Gossip Column: A Thumbnail Sketch
The word “gossip” means casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true. That is: whispers, canards, tidbits, scandal, hearsay, buzz, scuttlebutt, rumor, innuendo, and tittle-tattle. Linguistically, gossip originated in 12th century in Old English as a noun, “god-sibb,” meaning a godparent or other intimate at a christening. The word evolved, taking on the broader, more secular meaning of close friend or neighbor. During the early part of the 20th century, radio and motion pictures became powerful forces in America. They not only entertained the public, they also created a new class of Americans: movie stars. Because the public wanted to know every little thing about these stars, gossip columns were born.
Walter Winchell Paves the Way
“I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret.”—Walter Winchell
Before the 1920s, journalism was the product of strict, puritanical guidelines influenced by good breeding, morals and the upper class. Then, in 1924, a young, brash Broadway reporter, Walter Winchell, wrote about the sex lives the rich and famous in ways that had previously been taboo. The New York Graphic, gave Winchell a weekly column, “Mainly About Mainstreeters,” which ran on the tabloid’s front page.
While most newspapers had “soft” society pages, none printed “hard” gossip. Until Winchell arrived. He wrote about sex, extramarital affairs, and illegitimate children. Nothing was left unsaid; an individual’s privacy was of no concern to him. He became one of the most powerful figures in America, a friend of J. Edgar Hoover and an advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although he could make a person’s career, he could also—with a stroke of his poisonous pen—break it if he had a reason or a desire to do so.
Winchell’s influence on the East Coast was pervasive, laying the groundwork for Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, whose fame soon eclipsed his from their West Coast perches. What once was shocking soon became expected and, over the course of the century, gossip has become an integral component of mainstream journalism.
“Where’s the punch in sweetness and light?” — Louella Parsons
During Hollywood’s Golden Age, gossip columnists were used by movie studio moguls and talent agencies as publicity tools—emphasis on “tool.” The major film studios, known as the “Big Five” (Paramount, MGM, RKO, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros.) and the “Little 3” (Universal, United Artists, Columbia) maintained total control over the film industry. The studios had “stables” of contractually obligated actors, which meant that the studio had total control over the actors’ lives.
Well-timed leaks to a gossip columnist about a star’s purported romantic adventures helped the studios create and sustain the public’s interest in their stars. Louella and Hedda were the perfect tools. The studios’ publicity agents acted as their unnamed “well-informed inside sources” providing misinformation and rumors to counteract whispers about celebrity secrets — homosexuality, an out-of-wedlock child, etc. — that could have damaged the reputation of the movie star and his or her box office viability.
Louella Parsons was the first to feed at this trough. While Hollywood celebrities came to fear her—and maybe because they feared her—William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, adored her. Between 1915 and 1960, she was America’s premier movie gossip columnist and at the peak of her career, she had forty million readers. With an obsessive admiration for film stars and an unstoppable ambition, Parsons, formerly a small-town journalist, became a controversial and powerful personality in her own right. She made her living digging up and dishing out the secrets of Hollywood’s rich and powerful. She was the queen of Hollywood during the studio era despite her often turbulent relationships with stars, directors, and studio executives.
Parsons was born (most likely) on August 6, 1881, Louella Rose Oettinger in Illinois, the daughter of Helen (Stine) and Joshua Oettinger. The birth date needs to be qualified, as Parsons would later steadfastly claim she was born in 1893, pathetically subtracting 12 years from her actual age. In her 1943 book, The Gay Illiterate, Parsons gives August 6 as the date of her birth but glaringly neglects to reveal the year.
She grew up in Dixon, Illinois, the same hometown as Ronald Reagan. By age 10, she’d begun submitting stories to the local newspaper. By the time she was in high school, she’d landed her first job, as drama editor for the Dixon Morning Star, at $5 a week. In 1910, at age 17, Louella married John Parsons, a real estate agent. She moved with him to Burlington, Iowa. Her husband was—whisper, whisper—an inveterate skirt chaser and though the marriage was short-lived, it produced a daughter, Harriet. Whether or not she and her husband ever divorced—another long-lived, if unconfirmed piece of gossip—it all became moot when John Parsons conveniently died on a transport ship during World War I.
After her husband’s death, Parsons moved to Chicago and married Jack McCaffrey, a riverboat captain. That marriage also ended in divorce, this time because Louella was an inveterate pants chaser. Parsons expunged these divorces and affairs from her life history when, in middle age, she embraced Catholicism.
Before Hollywood captured the popular imagination, Chicago enjoyed a brief reign as the world’s film capital, from 1907 to 1917. Here, two of the leading studios were Essanay Film Manufacturing Co. and Selig Polyscope Co., attracting top actors and actresses like Gloria Swanson, Francis X. Bushman, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and Charlie Chaplin.
Parsons began working as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and writer for Essanay Studio. Parsons published her first book How to Write for the Movies a manual for would-be screenwriters based on her experiences at Essanay, In 1912, she sold a script to Essanay that was produced as Chains, starring Bushman.
Still considered herself more of a journalist than a screenwriter, she proposed a movie column for the Chicago Record-Herald in 1914. She moved to New York where she wrote a movie gossip column for the New York Morning Telegraph, attracting the attention of William Randolph Hearst. In 1923, after shrewd bargaining on both sides, she signed a contract and joined the Hearst newspaper, the New York American, becoming the newspapers movie editor. Hearst was impressed enough to make her movie editor for the Universal News Service in 1925.
At this point, Snake 1 (Parsons) came in contact with Snake 2 (Hedda Hopper). At the time, Hopper was an aspiring actress. The two future harpies briefly became friends. Operative word: briefly.
A Mysterious Death furthers Parsons’ Career…hmmmm
In 1924, Hearst hosted a party aboard his yacht, Oneida, to celebrate film producer Thomas Ince’s birthday. Also on the yacht was Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Parsons and fifteen other guests. This was Parsons’ first visit to Hollywood, a major coup for a still obscure movie columnist based in New York.
A big scoop landed right in her ample lap when Ince died at that party. The cause of death was said to be a heart attack, but privately the rumors flew around Hollywood that Hearst had shot Ince. Indeed, the headline in the first edition of the Los Angeles Times was “Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht” (later editions carried a more innocuous head). For the first and arguably only time in her life, Parsons kept silent about the murder she witnessed, earning herself a lifetime contract with the Hearst organization and nationwide syndication of her movie column.
In 1925, Parsons contracted a life-threatening case of tuberculosis in 1925 and moved to Palm Springs, California to recuperate. Within a year, she’d fully recovered. When the 45-year-old Parsons contacted Hearst to ask for her New York job back, he said, “Louella, the movies are in Hollywood-and right now I think that is where you belong.”
Hearst and Parsons recognized the growing influence of Hollywood on mid-20th-century American culture. Hearst continued to reward her loyalty by syndicating her column in 400 newspapers. This not only brought her millions of new readers, it enhanced Parsons’ influence in Hollywood. Her salary was increased to $350 a week; by 1929, she was making $500 a week (the equivalent of $7,200 in 2018).
Once Parsons settled in Hollywood, she became dependent on a group of informants who passed along tips, rumors, and gossip. According to Amy Fine Collins, in a Vanity Fair article titled. “The Powerful Rivalry of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons,” Parsons’ informants “could be found in studio corridors, hairdresser’s salons, and lawyers and doctors offices. Louella was the first to report on the biggest breakup in Hollywood—the breakup of the Douglas Fairbanks Jr./ Mary Pickford marriage, then the undisputed ‘king and queen’ of Hollywood.”
Further consolidating her power to ruin careers, Parsons turned to the new medium of radio. By 1934, her show Hollywood Hotel was a success. Sponsored by Campbell’s Soup, the show’s guests each got a case of soup for their appearance (nothing to sneeze at during the Great Depression). Repeat guests were allowed to specify the kind of soup they wanted. Hollywood Hotel introduced the “sneak preview” concept with guests being offered the opportunity to read parts of scripts about to become movies.
Louella’s interview with movie actress Dame Gracie Fields on her Hollywood Hotel (1937):
Here she is dishing dirt on Joan Crawford:
Parsons was the mystery guest on the television show What’s My Line with panelists: Dorothy Kilgallen, Steve Allen, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf and guest Danny Kaye:
Parsons also appeared in numerous cameo spots in movies and in 1944, her bestselling memoir, The Gay Illiterate, was published; her second memoir, Tell It to Louella was published in 1961.
Parsons wrote her column until 1965, and died in 1972. According to imdb.com, she was godmother to Mia Farrow; and she was described in her biography at that site as a “Smarmy-tongued Hollywood gossip columnist of the 40s and 50s who was often in imbroglios with not only her subjects but her professional rivals as well.”
The New Kid in Tinsel Town: Hedda Hopper
In the mid-1930s, a former actress named Hedda Hopper was hired to write a column to compete, straight up, with Parsons. The former friends soon became arch enemies. Their rivalry upped the ante and gossip flew from their competing pens. For almost 30 years, Hollywood was held hostage to these twin Snakes—as Hopper and Parsons made and ruined careers.
Hopper was an ex-chorus girl and “B” grade movie actress who didn’t start writing until age 50. Ironically, it was Parsons who introduced Hopper to Hearst, whose friend was looking for someone to write for the Washington Times-Herald. On Hearst’s recommendation, Hopper got the job. The Los Angeles Times bought the Washington newspaper and moved Hopper to Hollywood, where the rivalry began in earnest.
Parsons and Hopper were, at least outwardly, studies in contrast. Whereas Hopper was outgoing, known for her outrageous hats and stylish clothes, Parsons was almost matronly in appearance. Although they were fierce competitors, Hopper didn’t take their rivalry as seriously as Parsons, who considered herself Hollywood’s top gossip columnist and resented this second-rate actress moving onto her turf. Competing for every scoop, the Hopper-Parsons rivalry lasted for almost 30 years, Hollywood was held in their grasp as both middle-aged women built up, and then tore down, countless careers.
Hopper was born Elda Furry in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a butcher steeped in the German Baptist Brethren tradition. Stifled by the small-town, close-minded society of her youth, Hopper ran away to New York and began a career as a chorus girl on Broadway. Her chorus career stalled—Florenz Ziegfield called her a “clumsy cow” and rejected her for his Follies. So she joined a theater company owned by DeWolf Hopper, a former matinee idol. She became the fifth wife of “Wolfie” in 1913. His previous four wives were named Ella, Ida, Edna, and Nella. So when DeWolf accidently (on purpose?) called Elda Hopper “Edna,” she took it upon herself to pay a numerologist the whopping sum of $10 (in today’s adjusted dollars that’s $244) to give her a new name: “Hedda.” Two years later, in 1915, Hedda gave birth to a son, William DeWolf Hopper, Jr., better known as Paul Drake (later a fixture on the Perry Mason TV show). That same year, she divorced DeWolf because he’d wandered into someone else’s hen house.
Hopper made a name for herself as an actress, typecast as society women in such features as Holiday (1930), Alice Adams (1935) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936). She appeared in more than 120 movies and when her movie career dimmed, Hopper gambled on a career change from actress to gossip columnist. Her insider knowledge and a roster of highly-placed confidantes paid off in an instantly-popular platform, published by The Los Angeles Times in 1938 and syndicated nationally.
An interest in the private lives of public figures won Hopper the enmity of such secretive stars as Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Joseph Cotten, and Katharine Hepburn, while most of Tinseltown tried to keep on her good side in a bid to stay out of print.
Hopper’s column Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood, debuted on February 14 (St. Valentine’s Day), 1938. Hopper could not type, or spell very well, so she dictated her column to a typist over the phone. Initially facing stiff competition from Parsons, Hopper used her extensive contacts to gather material. Her first major scoop had national implications: in 1939, she printed that President Franklin Roosevelt’s son, James, was divorcing his wife, Betsey, after being caught in an affair with a nurse at the Mayo Clinic.
All stars had a “moral turpitude” clause in their contract and the studios were not above using this clause to keep them in line and away from scandals that could damage ticket sales. The studio bosses used Louella and Hedda as a weapon of intimidation to keep their employees in line. Hopper was aware of the fear she engendered and even christened her new Beverly Hills home, “The House That Fear Built”.
Actress Merle Oberon: “What inspired all the vicious things you’ve been writing about me?”
Hopper: “Bitchery, dear. Sheer bitchery.”
Many actors and actresses tried to exact revenge on Hopper, but she always had the upper hand. After she published a blind item (a column listing details, but not names) about the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn relationship, Tracy confronted Hopper at a Hollywood nightclub and kicked her in the ass. Another attempt to get even was made by actress Joan Bennett who sent Hopper a Valentine’s Day card which became known as the “$435” Valentine. It cost Joan $35 for the skunk carrying a note which read, “Won’t you be my Valentine? Nobody else will. I stink and so do you.” Hopper then wrote a column about the incident where she named the skunk, Joan. She gave the skunk to James Mason and his wife since they made the first bid for the “pet”.
The British actress Merle Oberon asked Hopper why she wrote such horrid things. Hedda patted her on the arm and said with a smile, “Bitchery, dear, sheer bitchery.”
After Hopper 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 she sat down. The next day, he received dozens of flower bouquet deliveries and congratulatory telegrams from others in the industry, thanking him for having the courage to do what everyone else dreamed of doing.
Hopper spread rumors that Michael Wilding and Stewart Granger had a sexual relationship; Wilding sued Hopper for libel and won.
“I wasn’t allowed to speak while my husband was alive, and since he’s gone no one has been able to shut me up.”- Hedda Hopper
Hopper became a booster for actress Joan Crawford whose career suffered in the early 1940s after she was labeled “Box-Office Poison“. In 1945, Hopper reprinted a press release for Mildred Pierce in her column, which described Crawford as a leading contender for the Best Actress Oscar. Such was Hopper’s influence that she was credited with swinging the decision in Crawford’s favor when she won the award.
In a 2015 column in Variety, Peter Bart said of Hopper: “The best news about Hedda Hopper is that few remember her. Hedda was a journalist (of sorts), who famously wore exotic hats and devoted herself to destroy the careers of anyone she identified as being communist, gay or otherwise reprehensible. Among her victims were Charlie Chaplin, Dalton Trumbo and numerous writers and artists caught up in the notorious blacklist era.”
Hopper, a rabid Republican, used her 35 million-strong readership to destroy the careers of those in the entertainment industry whom she suspected having Communist sympathies, being homosexual or leading dissolute lives. Her vicious gossip only fueled the Hollywood blacklist—that is, the practice of denying employment to screenwriters, actors, directors, musicians, and other American entertainment professionals during the mid-20th century because they were accused of having Communist ties or sympathies.
Salon.com writer Andrew O’Hehir said, “It was Hopper, more than self-appointed Hollywood patriots like John Wayne or Ronald Reagan and far more than any Washington politician, who drove the creation of the blacklist, an informal but inflexible policy under which actual or suspected Communists or “fellow travelers” were barred from working in the movie industry. There has never been a time, going back to the ancient Greeks, when culture was not an instrument of politics (or politics, to put it the other way around, a subset of culture). But in mid-20th-century America, the movie industry proudly presented itself as a business that provided wholesome entertainment for all but had no political agenda, overt or otherwise. Hopper was intelligent enough to see through this ideological fiction, and she strikes me as a central figure in the prehistory of the Internet and the contemporary culture wars. She was a blogger half a century before blogs; she was TMZ, Matt Drudge and Ann Coulter all rolled into one, a hatchet-wielding hit a woman with a ladylike hat and a chatty demeanor.”
Like Parsons, Hopper also moved on to radio, debuting her own program, The Hedda Hopper Show, on Nov. 6, 1939. Her various radio shows over the next two decades appeared, at various times, on all three major radio networks: ABC, NBC, CBS.
Hopper doing a typical radio broadcast, from 1942:
On January 10, 1960, a television special, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood, aired on NBC. Hosted by Hopper, guest interviews included a remarkably eclectic mix of past, current and future stars: Lucille Ball, Liza Minelli, John Cassavetes, Marion Davies (her last public appearance), Walt Disney, Janet Gaynor, Bob Hope, Hope Lange, Anthony Perkins, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, and Gloria Swanson.
She published two memoirs, From Under My Hat (1952) and The Whole Truth and Nothing But (1962). Unlike Parsons, she remained active as a writer until her death, producing six daily columns and a Sunday column for the Chicago Tribune syndicate, as well as writing articles for celebrity magazines.
Hopper interviewing Jimmy Stewart, Hope Lange and Don Murray:
In a story about Hopper for the New York Times, Ruth La Ferla described Hopper as, “…shrewd, glamour-besotted and, when it suited her, acid-tongued — not the sort of lady you would like to cross. In the 1940s and ’50s, at the peak of her career as a nationally syndicated gossip columnist, a word of praise or well-aimed dart from her pen could ignite a career or send it down in flames.”
“Two of the cruelest, most primitive punishments our town deals out to those who fall from favor are the empty mailbox and the silent telephone.” — Hedda Hopper
In Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism, biographer Jennifer Frost wrote that, like Winchell and Parsons, “Hopper joined the ranks of celebrity journalists who became celebrities themselves.”
In a New York Times story about the two women, Nora Ephron wrote: “Hedda and Louella were powerful women, the strong right arms of the tycoon system, the enforcers of morals clauses in the days when morals mattered. They had a combined readership of 75 million. Their readers cared about what they thought and cared not at all that neither of them could write worth a damn… But in their small way, they were important; and I have always thought that there was a book in them, always thought that such a book would tell us something—I’m not sure what, but something—about Hollywood in the old days.”