As America shed its provincial nineteenth-century sensibilities and slowly entered the modern era, the media emerged as one of the twentieth century's most powerful forces. But until the early 1920s, journalism was still influenced by an older ethos of taste and good breeding—until Walter Winchell. An ambitious young New York newspaperman, Winchell brought gossip into the mainstream media, breaking longstanding taboos in favor of a press for whom nothing was sacred and no one was guaranteed privacy. During his heyday, two-thirds of the adult population of America listened to Winchell's radio broadcast or read his column, as America clamored to learn "the dirt" about the rich, the famous, and the powerful. The ultimate tool of a democracy, gossip became the great leveler, breaking down distinctions of class, race, and gender, in favor of a society where no one is above reproach and everyone is the subject of gossip. His influence was pervasive, spawning such hugely successful gossip mongers as Hollywood's Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, whose fame soon came to exceed even Winchell's. What once was shocking soon became expected and, over the course of the twentieth century, gossip has become an integral component of mainstream journalism from which no one has become exempt—not even, as the world found out in 1998, the President of the United States.
The emergence of gossip columns and columnists as powerful new journalistic forces and voices during the early twentieth century would not have been possible without the creation of a new class of Americans—celebrities. The invention of motion pictures and their consequent development into an immensely popular form of entertainment gave birth to a new kind of fame—celebrity. Where once fame had been the result of heroism, genius, talent, wealth, or aristocratic birth, the movie industry promoted their new personalities to bring in audiences. A truly democratic art form, movie actors may have been more beautiful, more ambitious, and sometimes even more talented than the average American, but they were generally no better born. Celebrities were thus tantalizing to the American public, who saw in them the breakdown of an old social order and new possibilities for themselves. The public clamored to know as much as possible about celebrities and the media tried to meet their demand. This reciprocal relationship spawned the mass media frenzy that has defined the twentieth century.
Gossip has always existed, but it did not become a big business until the 1920s in the United States. Although Walter Winchell made gossip a staple of the modern press, as his biographer, Neal Gabler, has written, the tough-talking Winchell "no more invented gossip than he invented slang." During the 1880s, Louis Keller, a New York patent attorney, published a rag called Town Topics, devoted exclusively to the goings on of high society and the nouveau riche—as Gabler notes, "the bawdier the better." Soon most of the major papers had society columns, but most stayed clear of hard line gossip. In the 1920s, however, Stephen Clow started Broadway Brevities and Social Gossip, on the premise that he could make money by getting people to pay him not to print gossip about them. Clow was later brought to trial, but the idea stuck and would continue to crop up throughout the twentieth century. Still, the traditional press tried to avoid engaging in libelous gossip, particularly after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote an important article in the Harvard Law Review condemning gossip and arguing for the legal right to privacy. But the tide was turning.
Neal Gabler writes that the media "were exerting an almost inexorable pressure toward gossip by engendering a fascination with personalities. In the movies, magazines and the tabloids, personalities were sales devices; once the public became aware of these personalities, its curiosity was insatiable. With the interest in place, all that was needed to cross the line to gossip was someone with the audacity and nerve to begin writing frankly about the various private doings of the celebrated—someone who would defy the taboo. That was where Winchell came in."
Although the "respectable" papers refused to have anything to do with reporting gossip, for the tabloids the line was a little blurrier. In 1924, a new tabloid called the Graphic hit the streets—a publication dedicated to the masses that would not be afraid to splash sex across its front pages. On the staff of the Graphic was a 27-year-old former vaudevillian named Walter Winchell, who had spent the past four years establishing his reputation as a Broadway reporter; Winchell loved gossip, and he longed to print it in his column.
Inspired by the Graphic's dictum to print "Nothing but the Truth," Winchell's Monday column, "Mainly About Mainstreeters," stunned the theater and journalism worlds. He printed straight gossip. Sex, extra-marital affairs, and illegitimate children all found their way into Winchell's Monday pieces. Nothing was out of bounds. And Winchell made it additionally juicy by printing the gossip in bold type, virtually creating a new gossip lingo composed of innuendo, double entendre, and slang. Gabler writes:
Not surprisingly, the journalistic Old Guard was enraged by the affront to privacy, but the avidity with which the Monday column was devoured by readers left no doubt that Walter had tapped into the American psyche, into something beyond voyeurism, even if it would always be difficult to define precisely what he had struck. Part of it was the general interest in anything that had to do with the new class of celebrities. Part of it may have been attributable to urbanization … As the twenties transformed America from a community into a society, gossip seemed to provide one of the lost ingredients of the former for the latter: a common frame of reference. In gossip everyone was treated as a known quantity … Like slang, gossip also made one feel knowing, ahead of the curve … The rich, the powerful, the famous and the privileged had always governed their own images. Now Winchell, with one act of defiance, had taken control and empowered his readers.
Walter Winchell once said, "Democracy is where everybody can kick everybody else's ass. But you can't kick Winchell." During the height of his power, Winchell was untouchable. He struck fear into the hearts of the rich, famous, and vulnerable, even as he delighted a national audience of millions. He became one of the most powerful men in America, a friend to J. Edgar Hoover, an advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and, later, a staunch supporter of McCarthyism. The puissance of his pen became the scourge of his enemies, for although he could make someone's reputation, he could also break it. Yet, as Alistair Cooke once wrote, his devastating power "was the promise of American freedom and uninhibited bounce, he was Americanism symbolized in a nose-thumbing at the portentousness of the great."
There were, of course, many others who jumped on the gossip bandwagon. Ed Sullivan began his career writing a theater column for the Graphic. Other major gossip columnists would include Dorothy Kilgallen, Sidney Skolsky, and, of course, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Hopper and Parsons would, in fact, come to rule Hollywood much as Winchell did New York.
More than 15 years younger than Winchell, Louella Parsons was a large, strong-willed woman who carved out a career for herself when she was in her thirties, working as a Chicago reporter on the fledgling movie business. When she moved to New York in 1918, she began campaigning to earn the attention of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, by inserting glowing praises and weekly mentions of his paramour, actress Marion Davies, in her weekly column. By the early 1920s, Hearst had given Parsons a job and by the mid-1920s, she had moved to Hollywood and had become globally syndicated. She quickly became the most powerful woman in Hollywood, demanding and receiving every scoop in the movie business. Like Winchell, she was unafraid to print the truth, to sniff out scandal, and to tell secrets.
In the mid-1930s, a former actress named Hedda Hopper was hired to write a competing column. Though she and Parsons had once been friends, they soon became arch-enemies, competing for every scoop. Their rivalry upped the ante immediately, and gossip flew from their dueling pens. For almost 30 years, Hollywood was held in their grasp—as Hopper and Parsons made and ruined careers. When Louella Parsons broke the story of Ingrid Bergman's illegitimate child with director Roberto Rossellini, the actress did not work in Hollywood for almost a decade. Neither Parsons nor Hopper were above being vindictive and destructive, and both could inspire genuine rage among members of the motion picture community helpless to fight them. When Joseph Cotten once kicked the chair on which Hopper was sitting to bits, after having an extra-marital affair announced in her column, his house was filled with flowers and telegrams from others who had been similarly maligned. But like Winchell, when Hopper and Parsons liked someone, nothing was too much to do to help—and their power could become a boon for someone struggling to make it in movies.
As the Golden Age of Hollywood ended and the studio system crumbled, Hopper and Parsons no longer wielded the clout they had once had when all the moguls were forced to kowtow to them. Winchell, too, began to lose his former hegemony, as his New York connections no longer gave him the edge on gossip in film and television. But the die was cast. Gossip had become an integral part of the media, carried on not only by actual gossip columnists such as Liz Smith, but also by mainstream journalists, eager to spice up the news to make a good read.
With the evolution of the Internet, gossip found another happy home. And when Internet gossipmonger Matt Drudge began to spread rumors of President Clinton's extra-marital affairs, it was not long before it became mainstream news. But the political and media crisis of 1998 has spawned a new debate. Has the media gone too far in reporting the private affairs of public people? Is the press telling the public more than it wants to know? Seventy-five years after Walter Winchell introduced gossip into the mainstream media, we are still reeling from the results. The public debate will undoubtedly continue. The fact, however, remains—American popular culture is saturated with gossip, and its effect will always be felt.
Collins, Amy Fine. "Idol Gossips." Vanity Fair. April 1997, 357-75.
Eels, George. Hedda and Louella: A Dual Biography of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. New York, Putnam, 1972.
Gabler, Neal. Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity. New York, Alfred Knopf, 1994.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Gossip. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.