An obsessive admiration for Hollywood's film stars, unstoppable ambition, and a touch of deceit propelled Louella Parsons (1881-1972) from a small town middle American journalist to one of Tinsel Town's most powerful and controversial personalities.
Louella Parsons was a Hollywood gossip columnist who served as a personal link between millions of movie fans and the stars they went to see on the silver screen. She made her living ferreting out and publishing the secrets of Hollywood's rich and powerful, but ultimately fragile and easily manipulated, stars and moguls. Over time, Parsons came to resemble the people she wrote about. Like them, she worked hard to keep her own dirty secrets hidden.
Small Town Drama Editor and Teenage Wife
Louella Parsons was born Louella Oettinger in Freeport, Illinois, most probably on August 6, 1881. The birth date needs to be qualified, as Parsons would later steadfastly claim she was born in 1893. In her 1943 book The Gay Illiterate Parsons gives August 6 as the date of her birth but glaringly neglects to reveal the year. Parsons began writing at an early age. By the age of ten she had composed a short story entitled "The Flower Girl of New York." She proudly showed the manuscript to the editor of the Freeport Journal-Standard who read it but politely declined to publish. Undeterred Parsons continued to follow her journalistic ambitions. By the time she was in high school Parsons had landed her first newspaper job—drama editor for the Dixon (Illinois) Morning Star. This job paid her $5 a week.
In 1910, at the age of 17, Louella married John Parsons, a real estate agent. She moved with him to Burlington, Iowa only to supposedly become a widow four years later. Parsons would later claim that her husband died while traveling on a transport ship relating to his duty in World War I. The marriage, though short lived, produced a daughter, Harriet, who was born in 1906. Regardless of its ending, the marriage was never a happy one. Most unbiased accounts claim it ended in a divorce brought on by her husband's philandering. There is some evidence that, after John's death, Parsons moved to Chicago and married Jack McCaffrey, a riverboat captain. The McCaffrey marriage also ended in divorce after Parsons took up with one Peter Brady, a married New York labor leader. Brady would later be described as "the real love of her life." Parsons probably expunged these divorces and affairs from her life history when, in middle age, she embraced Catholicism and began practicing it with fervor.
Big City Journalist
1910 found Parsons working in Chicago as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and as a writer for Essanay Studios, an upstart motion picture production company. Based on her experiences at Essanay, Parsons published her first book How To Write For the Movies a manual for would-be screenwriters. Essanay also introduced her to the film community. There she made friendships which were to last a lifetime. In 1912 she sold a script to Essanay for $25 which was produced as the one reeler movie Chains starring Francis X. Bushman. Parsons, who suffered from financial woes for most of her life, soon priced herself out of a job with Essanay Studios. Still considering herself more of a journalist than a screenwriter, she boldly proposed a movie column to the Chicago Record-Herald . Decades later Parsons' assistant, Dorothy Manners, told Vanity Fair about the proposal. "All the movie stars of the day had to pass through Chicago on their way from New York to Los Angeles," she told the magazine. "There was a two hour wait in Chicago. Louella's idea was to go down to the train station and interview the stars while they waited." She was soon hired. While her column thrived, the paper didn't. Parsons, however, was establishing herself as a journalist and a budding movie business insider. This landed her a job at the New York Morning Telegraph.
Once in New York Parsons' career took a giant step forward in 1923, when she became the movie editor for the New York American. She so impressed it's owner, William Randolph Hearst, that he made her movie editor for the Universal News Service in 1925. It was at this time that she began writing about Hedda Hopper, then an aspiring actress, but eventually Parson's arch-rival gossip columnist.
Illness Turned Into Good Fortune
Parsons contracted a life threatening case of tuberculosis in 1925 and moved to Palm Springs, California to recuperate. By early 1926 she had made a complete recovery. Parsons, then 45, called Hearst and told him she was ready to return to her east coast desk at the New York American. Hearst, however, wouldn't hear of the move. "Louella, the movies are in Hollywood-and right now I think that is where you belong." Hearst and Parsons shrewdly recognized the growing influence of Hollywood on mid-20th century American culture. Both set out to exploit this glamorous, compelling, and economically rewarding phenomena. Hearst presented Parsons with another career boosting surprise. Her column would henceforth be syndicated and eventually would appear in over 400 newspapers. Syndication greatly enhanced Parsons' influence in Hollywood while shoring up her always flagging personal finances. Her salary was increased to $350 a week; by 1929 she was making $500 a week.
In 1928, as a sidebar to her column, Parsons began a radio show featuring interviews with film stars. The show soon ended, with Parsons blaming its failure on the inarticulateness of her guests. She disparagingly explained that many of them couldn't speak English "and I don't mean the foreign importations." Another radio program, five years later, also failed. However, in 1934 she effectively exploited the medium with another show called Hollywood Hotel. Sponsored by Campbell's Soup each guest received a case of soup for their appearance. 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.
Once ensconced in Hollywood, Parsons quickly laid down the law: "You tell it to Louella first." Necessary to a successful column, especially a gossip column, is the daily gathering of information. Parsons had a couple of assistants who helped her collect material for her column, but she was also very dependent on a cadre of irregular informants who passed along tips, rumors, and gossip. According to Vanity Fair : "Her informants could be found in studio corridors, hairdresser's salons, and lawyers and doctors offices." It was said that Parsons often knew of a starlet's pregnancy before the starlet herself did. Ever jealous of the "big scoop" Parsons was said to not be beyond "kidnapping" the subject of a big story and holding them "hostage" until she was sure her story and only her story was "speeding across the wires". Her reputation for getting the "big scoop" was cemented when she was the first to report on "the biggest divorce story in the history of Hollywood"—the breakup of the Douglas Fairbanks Jr./Mary Pickford marriage, then the undisputed "king and queen" of Hollywood.
With readership approaching 20,000,000 at the height of Parsons' popularity she wielded a pen that was sometimes entertaining and sometimes vicious. More often than not, she merged fact with fiction and reality with illusion. Parsons was often genuinely fond of the people she wrote about but was not above using them for her own ends. Her power and influence came from what she wrote about and, not surprisingly, what she chose not to write about. One major story Parsons kept from the public was the long-term love affair between Katherine Hepburn and the married Spencer Tracy. 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 at the box office. "The studio bosses used Louella and Hedda as a weapon of intimidation to keep their employees in line," Vanity Fair quotes one Hollywood insider as saying. "But if there was a real problem with a star they could always buy these women (Parsons and Hopper) off." Buyoffs could be in the form of information exchange or nefarious cash deals. Twentieth Century Fox, for instance, purchased the film rights to Parsons' 1943 memoir The Gay Illiterate for $75,000 with nary an intention of ever making the movie. At other times, however, Parsons could take a moralistic but manipulative and potentially destructive stand when writing about Hollywood love affairs. Parsons became outraged when she learned that Grace Kelly, "a well brought up Catholic" was having an affair with the married Ray Milland during the filming of Dial M for Murder. Parsons, who fancied herself as something of a mother hen, feared that if the affair continued and caused the break-up of Milland's marriage Kelly's honor and career would be forever be compromised. She reported the story forcing Kelly to quickly end the affair with her reputation still intact.
In 1930 Parsons married again, this time to Dr. Harry Martin, a urologist and a notorious but friendly drunk. Addressed as "Docky" by everyone in Hollywood from studio heads to parking lot valets, Martin had the unlikely sobriquet of "Hollywood's clap doctor" as he was particularly adept at curing venereal disease. He also had a well-deserved reputation for hitting the bottle. A party guest once pointed out the drunk and semi-comatose Martin to Parsons as he lay underneath their piano. "Let Docky sleep," Parsons replied, "He has surgery at seven tomorrow morning."
With Parsons' help Martin was soon made chief medical officer at Twentieth Century Fox where his job, according to one Hollywood observer, was to "shoot the stars with anything to make them perform."
Louella vs. Hedda
No article on Louella Parsons can be complete with some mention of the intense rivalry between her and fellow gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper. Unlike Parsons, who always wanted to be a journalist, Hedda Hopper was an ex-chorus girl and "B" grade movie actress who didn't start writing until she was 50. Ironically, Parsons introduced Hopper to William Randolph Hearst who had a friend who was looking for someone to write for the Washington Times-Herald . Hearst recommended Hopper who got the job but wasn't much of a rival to Parsons until the Los Angeles Times bought the Washington paper and moved Hopper to Hollywood. Parsons and Hopper were, at least outwardly, studies in contrast. Whereas Hopper was outgoing and known for her outrageous hats and stylish clothes Parsons was more introspective and almost matronly in appearance. Although they were fierce competitors Hopper did not take their rivalry as seriously as did Parsons, who considered herself to be Hollywood's doyenne and didn't take kindly to this second rate actress cum columnist. Nonetheless one observer characterized their 25 year rivalry as two scorpions flailing about at one another.
Her Last Column
Parsons wrote her final by-line in 1964. By then her column's post-mortem was long overdue. By the late 1950s her power along with Hollywood's "tinsel town" and "silver screen" glamour and allure had begun to fade. A new morality coupled with the advent of teen-age idols and rock-and-roll stars were emerging on the national scene, leaving Parsons moribund in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s. Parsons died December 9, 1972 in a Santa Monica nursing home following a long illness and a stroke. It is sadly said that she ended her powerful and influential gossip column career confined to a bed and spouting provocative questions to long dead movie stars flitting across her television screen in movie re-runs.
Eells, George, Hedda and Louella, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1972.
Notable American Women: The Modern Period, edited by Barbara Sicherman, Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.
Parsons, Louella, The Gay Illiterate, Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1944.
Parsons, Louella, Tell It To Louella, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1961.
Vanity Fair's Hollywood, edited by Graydon Carter, Viking Studio, 2000.
"Hedda Hopper vs. Louella Parsons," One Hundred Years Feuds,http://fp2.eonline.com/Features/Specials/Century/Oct/06.b.html (January 4, 2001).
"Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper: Hollywood's Gossip Queens," AMC Behind the Scenes: Pat's Grapevine,http://www.amctv.com/behind/patsgrapevine/pg-0499b.html (January 4, 2001). □