Hopper, Hedda and Louella Parsons
Hopper, Hedda and Louella Parsons
Driven, sometimes ruthless, Hollywood rivals whose gossip columns wielded considerable power in the entertainment industry of the 1940s and 1950s.
Hopper, Hedda (1885–1966). Name variations: Elda Curry; Elda or Ella Furry; Elda Millar. Pronunciation: HED-da HOP-per. Born Elda Furry on May 2, 1885 (she used June 2, 1890), in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania; died on February 1, 1966; daughter of David Furry (a butcher) and Margaret (Miller) Furry; studied at the Carter Conservatory of Music, Pittsburgh, around 1903; married William DeWolf Hopper, on May 8, 1913 (divorced 1922); children: William De-Wolf Hopper, Jr. (b. January 26, 1915, an actor).
Sherlock Holmes (1922); The Women (1939); Breakfast in Hollywood (1946); Sunset Boulevard (1950); The Oscar (1966). Appeared in more than 100 films; hosted radio gossip program (1936).
From Under My Hat (1952); The Whole Truth and Nothing But (1963); wrote syndicated gossip column (1938–66).
Parsons, Louella (1881–1972). Name variations: Louella Oettinger; Louella O. Parsons. Pronunciation: Lu-ELL-ah PAR-suns. Born on August 6, 1881 (she used August 6, 1893), in Freeport, Illinois; died of a stroke, after a lengthy illness, in a Santa Monica, California, rest home, on December 9, 1972; daughter of Joshua Oettinger (a clothing store owner) and Helen (Stine) Oettinger; graduated from Dixon (Illinois) High School, 1901; attended Dixon College and Normal School; married John Dement Parsons, on October 31, 1905 (divorced, date unknown; died 1919); married Jack McCaffrey, around 1915 (divorced, date unknown); married Harry Martin, around 1942 (died 1951); children: (first marriage) Harriet Oettinger Parsons (b. August 23, 1906).
Hollywood Hotel (1937); Without Reservations (1946); Starlift (1951).
The Gay Illiterate (1944); Tell It to Louella (1961). Wrote one of first U.S. movie columns, for the Chicago Record-Herald (1914–18); wrote a movie gossip column for Hearst Publications, syndicated in 400 newspapers (1922–65).
There are two Hollywoods: the fantasy that exists in the mind of every moviegoer and the harsh realities of the motion-picture industry. Particularly in the first 50 years of film, these worlds had no intersection. The beauty, glamour and goodwill imagined by the audience had nothing in common with the secretive, ruthless business that created these dreams. That is why two aggressive, ambitious gossip columnists, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, yielded so much power. Their newspaper columns, read at their peak by 75 million every day, continually threatened to expose one world to the other.
Louella Parsons seems to have had as many secrets as the tycoons she covered. She claimed to have been born in 1893, but courthouse records in her hometown show her to be 12 years older. Her father, who died when she was not quite nine years old, owned and operated the Star Clothing House in Freeport, Illinois, a town of 15,000. She was the oldest of five children, three of whom died in infancy. The family was Jewish, although Parsons never recognized herself as such and was later to become a deeply devout Catholic convert.
After graduating from Dixon (Illinois) High School, where her new stepfather had moved the family, Louella attended the local college, then
taught school and worked as a reporter. It is probably through her newspaper work that she met her first husband, John Parsons. The Dixon City Directory of 1900 lists him as a reporter for the Evening Telegraph. Louella, at the time, was a part-time employee of the Star. When they married in 1905 and moved to Burlington, Iowa, she was 24 and he was 32. Their daughter, Harriet Parsons , was born the following year. In later years, Louella claimed that her husband died aboard a transport ship in World War I, which may have been true, but there is strong evidence to suggest that they were divorced before his death. Unhappy in small-town Iowa, she moved to Chicago with her daughter, where she met and married her second husband, Jack McCaffrey, probably in 1915. It is not known how long they were married; once in Hollywood, she never mentioned his name and always called Dr. Harry (Docky) Martin, whom she married in 1931, her second husband.
Parsons combined her romanticism with a practical tenacity. During her years in Chicago, she worked in the syndication department of the Chicago Tribune and wrote film scenarios at night for a small movie studio, which later hired her as a story editor. When she suspected, accurately, that she was about to be fired from that job, she wrote a book, How to Write for the Movies, that sold well and was serialized. In 1914, she started a gossip column in the Chicago Record-Herald. When the paper folded four years later, she moved to New York and took a job with the Morning Telegraph and, later, the American.
Hedda Hopper took a more circuitous route to her gossip column. Born Elda Furry in 1885 (not 1890 as she later claimed), she was the middle child in a family of nine children, seven of whom survived infancy. Her Quaker parents worked in their butcher shop in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, and had little time to coddle their children. As George Eells writes in his biography, Hedda and Louella: "It was not by chance that Elda grew into a woman who found it difficult, if not impossible, to express any kind of tenderness … and who gloried in a reputation for bitchiness."
Hopper left school in the eighth grade to become a bill collector for the by-then-defunct butcher shop. Her parents squelched her early theatrical ambitions; in 1903, at age 18, she ran away. She is thought to have attended the Carter Conservatory of Music in Pittsburgh at some point during the next five years. In 1908, she moved to New York, telling everyone she was 18.
It did not take long for Elda Curry, as she had begun to call herself, to get a job as a chorus girl. She first appeared onstage in New York on December 3, 1908, in The Pied Piper, where she met her husband, actor DeWolf Hopper, who, at 50, was five years older than her father. She became his fifth wife in 1913. A son, William De-Wolf Hopper, Jr., who would be known for his role as private detective Paul Drake on the "Perry Mason" television series, was born two years later. She continued a stage career, with moderate success, and began to get screen roles, four of them in 1917 alone. She had been calling herself Elda Millar but, in 1919, decided another new name might be the career boost she needed. She went to a numerologist who, for $10, recommended "Hedda Hopper." Hopper was apparently pleased, because it was the final name she gave herself. Indeed, it seemed to work. In 1926, Louella Parsons dubbed Hopper "Queen of the Quickies."
Parsons, already well established as a gossip columnist by that time, was dogged by a persistent rumor that she kept her job by blackmailing her boss, William Randolph Hearst, about a murder she had seen him commit aboard his yacht off the California coast in 1924. It was nonsense. She was a dogged reporter who worked longer and harder than her colleagues; Hearst was her career-long supporter because her columns sold newspapers.
In 1926, Hearst sent Parsons to Los Angeles to recuperate from lung problems. She regretted leaving her daughter, who was a Wellesley college student, but she could not resist the chance to become motion-picture editor for Hearst's Universal News Service, where her work would appear not only in the New York American but in six other newspapers, including the Los Angeles Examiner. Her timing was fortuitous. The era of the silent film was coming to a close and, with it, an industry recession. The advent of "talkies" posed the first serious threat to the legitimate theater and gave Hollywood a much-needed boost. Parsons' personal life, as well as her career, benefitted. In 1931, she married Dr. Martin and finally found a measure of marital happiness.
Hedda Hopper had moved to Hollywood, too, but did not fare as well. After her 1922 divorce, she was the sole support of herself and her son and was working hard to give him the social and educational opportunities she never had. But she lost her savings in the 1929 stock market crash. During the Depression, her film career ended. She had no offers, though her price had dropped from $1,000 per week in 1917 to $1,000 per film in 1935. Hopper resorted to selling real estate and cosmetics and at times was
nearly destitute. Then in 1935, at age 50, a friend who admired her vivid speaking style offered her a job writing a weekly Hollywood fashion article for a Washington, D.C., newspaper. As Eells notes: "That a washed-up, middle-aged actress represented a potential challenge to the uncrowned queen of Hollywood was beyond anyone's wildest dreams."
But not for long. By 1938, Hopper was writing a Hollywood column for the Esquire Features Syndicate that was carried by 13 newspapers, one of them the Los Angeles Times. With a local outlet, she could no longer be ignored. A year or two later, her style became more caustic, and more successful. As Eells observed: "It is a devastating comment upon our society that not until Hedda resorted to bare-nailed bitchery was she able to put her career into orbit."
Meanwhile, it was said that Louella was beginning to see herself more as a star than a fan. She took some film roles, with disastrous results. In 1939, she suffered three major setbacks: Hedda scooped her on the James Roosevelt- Betsey Cushing divorce; the Saturday Evening Post published a scathing profile of her; and she found out about Clark Gable's marriage to Carole Lombard no sooner than other members of the press. In her line of work, these were catastrophic events, and she was devastated.
In comparison, Hopper was getting more readers every day. Her column had been acquired by other syndicates and was carried by 85 metropolitan papers and 5,000 smaller ones. A feud was inevitable. Parsons still had the power of the Hearst organization behind her, but people now had a choice. (Everyone in Hollywood, of course, read both columns.) As Louella said, "She is trying to do in two years what took me thirty." Their public and private sniping continued for two decades, despite a highly publicized but short-lived reconciliation.
In a society where everyone was either on the way up or on the way down, Louella and Hedda shared a determination not to lose footing.
Hedda had always been the more glamorous of the two, with a famous collection of kooky hats, and she was becoming more feared as well. Parsons had always been pro-Hollywood. As Eells writes, "Whether the problem was drug addiction among stars, manslaughter or murder … Louella was sympathetic, and the industry welcomed her public relations work." Her staples were births, marriages, and deaths. But Hedda was tougher. Always a Quaker at heart, her columns often were didactic and moralistic. In the 1950s, she was virulently anti-Communist, at a time when a casual mention of someone's name in the wrong context could ruin a career. She had become the self-appointed guardian of Hollywood's moral life, and people hated her for it. All of the things that people had disliked in Louella for so long—her disregard for the facts, her favoritism—seemed suddenly benign.
For Louella, the 1950s were an "Indian summer," writes Eells. CBS ran a favorable, hourlong drama of her life in 1956. She enjoyed a romance with songwriter Jimmy McHugh after her husband died in 1951. But by the early 1960s, her health had badly deteriorated. When her retirement was announced in 1964, at 83, she was already in a nursing home.
Hedda Hopper had outrun her best rival. She had accomplished in old age what she had never quite managed as a young actress: she was at the top. But in 1966, she was 81, five years older than she admitted, and, like Louella, she could never acknowledge her own advancing age and failing health. When she died on February 1, from kidney damage due to medication for pneumonia, it was after only two days in the hospital; she had written her last column just a few days before.
Louella Parsons died in a nursing home in 1972. By that time, Hollywood was a different town: the secretive, dictator-driven studio system that had allowed these two women such puzzling power no longer existed. There would never be anything quite like them again.
Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography 1940. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940.
——. Current Biography 1942. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.
Eells, George. Hedda and Louella. NY: Putnam, 1972.
Friedrich, Otto. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. NY: Harper and Row, 1986.
Hopper, Hedda. From Under My Hat. NY: Doubleday, 1952.
Parsons, Louella. Tell It to Louella. NY: Putnam, 1961.
"Malice in Wonderland" (television movie), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Alexander , 1985.
Elizabeth L. Bland , reporter, Time magazine