They had a lot of power and really caused a lot of misery for people out there. They ruined Ingrid Bergman’s life and Charlie Chaplin’s, these two perfectly absurd women.
It was not the real world, unless you lived in it. There were 50 parties or events a week, of which the gossip columnists might make a dozen each. Every Hollywood studio had one person assigned exclusively to giving each of them items, and it could take as long as 45 minutes to get through on the phone. “Their columns were the first thing we looked at every morning,” says Bob Hope, “to see what was going on.” And what was going on? Well, there might be literary notes: “Not until such great books as War and Peace, The Red and the Black and Sons and Lovers became motion pictures,” Louella reported, “was there any demand for them.” Often there was advice, and not just for Hollywood either: At the height of WWII, Hedda announced that Winston Churchill should hire a manager because he was “making too many speeches and repeating himself.” There could be cinematic criticism of a quirky order: Louella proclaimed that High Noon was redeemed only by its music, while Hedda found Citizen Kane too “chopped up.” Sometimes there was a trend: In the ’50s Louella spotted a musical one called “rhythm and blue.” And always, always there were names like Doris Day, who, Hedda reported, insisted on tying her own shoelaces instead of letting the wardrobe department do it for her. That may not seem such big news today, but director Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz, the veteran making the movie, knew better. “My dear Hedda,” he immediately wrote. “Please accept my sincere gratitude for your generous and thoughtful story.”
Who were these two creatures and why did all Hollywood quake at the thought of what they might print? They were, respectively, the former Louella Rose Oettinger, daughter of a Jewish (she kept that quiet) clothier in Freeport, Ill., and the former Elda Furry, daughter of an unaffectionate butcher in Hollidaysburg, Pa. And Hollywood quaked because it chose to. It was huge, rich, young and uncertain; it wanted guidance, and Hedda and Louella had a combined readership, they claimed, of 75 million in a nation of 160 million. Actually, the heads of the studios had all the real power, but they were nervous too, so they all—stars and bosses—handed the two women heapings of power on a silver platter. Please ask before you sit in judgment: Should Louella Rose Oettinger and Elda Furry have turned it down?
Their views and news were often whimsical, wrong, or both, but a thing like that didn’t matter. In flat prose laced with gosh-golly enthusiasm they reported marriages and births that never happened. In the ’50s Louella assured everybody that Ronald Reagan was without political ambitions, and Hedda once soured on a young actress because she went to a wedding without a hat on. Large talents often made them cranky, and besides Liz they took on Welles, Brando, Garbo, Olivier, Chaplin, Hepburn and Bogart.
After three mentions in Louella, one screenwriter got a raise from $500 to $2,500 a week, and even the Axis followed them: German propagandists during WWII showed photos of Hedda’s extravagant hats as examples of American decadence. Their social views could be appalling. Louella’s columns were sprinkled with “swarthy Mexicans” and “pickaninnies,” and she once called Mussolini her favorite hero. Hedda decried racial intermixing, was a feverish Commie hunter and led the attack that drove Chaplin to Europe.
At the same time, both Hedda and Louella bruised easily. When her protégé, producer Jay Bernstein, told Hedda that many people privately called her a Nazi, he recalls, “It was the only time I ever saw her cry. ‘Jay,’ she said, ‘all I’ve ever tried to be is a good American.’ ” Louella’s most bitterly lost scoop was Clark Gable’s marriage to Carole Lombard. They had promised her an exclusive but instead eloped and told the press all at once. Even though, years later, Louella became godmother to the son born after Gable’s death (to his fifth wife, Kay Spreckles), Parsons never got over the betrayal.
In their approach to life and work, which were essentially the same thing, they seemed variations on the same cartoon. They both swore like troopers, demanded and gave loyalty and feuded with each other, mostly because it was good for business. Hopper, who couldn’t type, dictated her column at the top of her lungs. Parsons called herself “Mrs. Malaprop” and writer Howard Dietz said, “Louella can spell anything right but words.” Both reveled in their cattiness. “That’s the house that fear built,” Hedda often said of her home, and she would explain an especially nasty item to its subject by crowing, “Bitchery, dear, sheer bitchery.” John Barrymore called Louella “that old udder.” Joan Bennett once sent Hedda a skunk and Joseph Cotten kicked her in the tail, sending her reeling.
But of course the women were very different, as everyone in town knew painfully well. Louella married real estate man John Parsons (they had a daughter, Harriet, who died in 1983), then riverboat captain Jack McCaffrey. She wrote her first movie columns for newspapers in Chicago and New York before she took on Hollywood in 1926 at age 45. Hedda was a former chorus girl (said to have the best legs in New York) and a character actress in well over 100 movies when she became a gossip columnist in 1938, at 53. Her first name was chosen by a numerologist, for $10. Their chief difference was style. Hedda dressed well and was sure she knew best most of the time. “When I first married Gary [Morton],” Lucille Ball says, “she’d walk right into our bedroom Sunday mornings with her little dog Bo and say, ‘All right, everybody up! We’re going for a walk!’ ” In 1963, at a screening of his Under the Yum Yum Tree, Jack Lemmon sat in front of Hedda, who was fond of him. “When the lights came on, Hedda leaned forward and whacked me on top of the head, and I mean really hard,” Lemmon recalls. ” ‘How dare you make a film like that?’ she demanded. ‘It’s filthy!’ ”
Louella, by contrast, was full of guile under what even childhood friends called a “gooey” personality. “She wore strapless dresses with a merry widow underneath and everything pushed up. We weren’t ever sure we wouldn’t have another opening, another show,” Debbie Reynolds remembers. “She had this little, whiny voice”—breaking into the imitation that’s still popular—”and talked slow and lured you into thinking she was a polite little woman. She drank straight vodka in a tall glass and she’d pretend to nod off and people would say, ‘Oh look, the old bat’s asleep,’ and then they’d start talking: ‘I slept with Sam’s wife last night…’ ”
The love of Louella’s life was her third husband, a urologist, Dr. Harry “Docky” Martin, and Docky was a Hollywood legend too. On one spree, he dove into an empty swimming pool, broke his neck and held his head in place until help arrived. Another time he was drunk and dozing during a party, and somebody tried to rouse him. “Don’t bother him,” Lolly scolded. “He has to operate in the morning.” Hedda had only one love: At 28, she married an unlikely matinee idol named DeWolf Hopper, who was bald, had faintly blue skin, yet was such a ladies’ man that Barrymore was envious of him. DeWolf had been married four times, earning the title “The Husband of His Country.” They divorced when Hedda was 37. (Son Bill, who died in 1970, was an actor on the Perry Mason TV series.) “I didn’t really have a husband,” Hedda wrote. “I had legal permission to live with a star.” For all her zest, she was lonely. “Get married,” she advised Margaret Sullavan. “Don’t wind up an old lady in a big house like I am.” She was not inventive with words, but she never minced them.
In September 1964 Louella, by then 83, broke a hip and never really wrote again. That month Hedda, 79, danced up a storm at the N.Y. World’s Fair on Lucille Ball Day. While Louella’s health failed, Hedda was at her old stand, castigating President Kennedy (“I don’t listen to him, and I don’t look at him!”), excoriating Liz and branding the Beatles “The Dead End Kids of England.”
And then suddenly, on Jan. 30,1966, Hedda Hopper had double pneumonia. “At the hospital, they wouldn’t let me see her,” Lucille Ball says. “I cried and cried and cried and carried on until a nurse finally said, ‘Miss Hopper would not want you to see her.’ And then I knew. She died that night.” She left Lucy her Silver Cloud Rolls with only 8,000 miles on it.
Not long after that, George Eells relates in his book, Hedda and Louella, Lolly Parsons sat in a nursing home, licking dry, old lips and watching Clark Gable in a movie on TV. “Clark!” she suddenly called. No answer. “Clark! Tell me—when are you and Carole going to tie the knot? Remember—I must be the first to know!” Still no answer. And then tears flowed down Louella Parsons’ cheeks. She died in 1972, and then there were none.
Times change. “There’s a whole different moral climate now,” says Liz Smith about the gossip-column trade. “I don’t take any moral point of view about whom people sleep with.” “Certain concepts have changed since the woman’s movement,” notes Evelyn Keyes, an actress with no ax to grind. “Women then were supposed to be catty to each other, were they not? I think their reputations came from that. It was our programming, like pink for girls. Gossip columnists were bitches—everybody knew that.”
It used to be said that gossip columnists had the power to make or break pictures and careers, and many still say that, but seek examples and you will be told only that Ingrid Bergman got her role in The Bells of St. Mary’s because of Hedda, and…well…The evidence says simply that they could help or harm careers considerably, because the collective fears and egos of the movie world begged them to. They were created and slavishly fawned over by Hollywood, then feared and despised by the very people who gave them the power they sometimes used badly. But, bless them, they were tough; they had spirit, loyalty and a loony sort of vision; and they could be kind. They surely knew, better than anyone, the limit of their influence, which was this: When the lights went down and the real make-believe of Hollywood began, they could only sit and watch, lonely and powerless. Why wonder, then, that when the lights came back up, they sometimes gave somebody or other a good, hard whack? Gosh, who wouldn’t?