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When Gossip Was Currency

Hedda Hopper and Louella Parson's Hold on Old Hollywood

By William Shelton • June 09, 2021

In old Hollywood, gossip was hard currency, and there were two doyennes who dealt in the coin of the realm: one a frustrated former actress, and the other a queen of yellow journalism who spent decades working for William Randolph Hearst. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons served as the moral arbiters to the stars.

No silver screen actor would think of having a secret elopement, divorce, or "adopting" a love child of their own creation with a recent co-star, without first sitting down with either Parsons or Hopper for an exclusive scoop. If Confidential magazine was about to print a salacious expose on your favorite vice, you could preempt them through the cleansing act of contrition by telling your side of the story first to Louella or Hedda.

Many a Hollywood sinner was transformed into a saint through this public, and printed, absolution. However, this method did not work so well for Elizabeth Taylor when pressed by Hedda Hopper on why she broke up the marriage of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. In frustration, Taylor blurted out, "What do you expect me to do, sleep alone?"

Rock Hudson was hounded by Louella Parsons for being the most eligible bachelor in America, yet perennially single, until Rock, on a whim, married his agent's secretary. Their first act on the honeymoon?—telephone Louella Parsons to share the good news. This same agent, Henry Wilson, famous for discovering many stars of the 1950's, was also not above casting one to the lions to prevent exposure of another. Such was the fate of Rory Calhoun in an effort to distract the sniffing dogs of negative publicity away from Tab Hunter.

The power these two women possessed was based upon the Hays code, which defined what was considered respectable entertainment fit for public consumption, and subsequently the morality clause in the studio contracts which bound the actors. No self-respecting citizen wanted to see smut on celluloid, so Will Hays thought, and likewise the public expected those who graced the big screen to be equally virtuous in their private lives. Parsons and Hopper were there to ensure that there were no cracks in the façade of Hollywood decency. Of course, there were actors who flaunted every convention, such as Tallulah Bankhead and Errol Flynn, both of whom were devoted to the philosophy of "wine, women, and song," to the chagrin of the publicity department for their respective studios.

The sword wielded by Parsons and Hopper cut both ways, and many an aspiring actor benefited from the glowing praise heaped upon their head by these two ladies. Marilyn Monroe was an especial favorite of Hedda Hopper, just as the frequent reviews provided by Louella Parsons boosted the career of Bebe Daniels.

The decline of the Hays code in the 1960's brought a level of grittiness to American films, and corresponded with the social, and sexual, revolutions taking place in that decade. Coupled with the deaths of Hedda Hopper in 1966, and Louella Parsons in 1972, a new age of celebrity scandal reporting was ushered in with the publication of Hollywood Babylon, whose author, Kenneth Anger, did not believe in masking innuendo behind delicate euphemisms.

Soon the actors who had been lionized in old Hollywood were getting into the tell-all autobiography business themselves, each competing with the other to rack up the highest count of addictions, illicit liaisons, and stints in white-gloved rehabilitation centers. Hedy Lamar, Shelley Winters, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, Joan Fontaine, and countless others penned scandalous books exposing their private lives and reaping the financial rewards brought by the sales of these books, as well as the late night talk show circuit fees where no interview was complete without its confidential confession. The zenith of these poisoned pen exposes, Full Service by Scotty Bowers, came in 2017, along with confirmation by fellow Hollywood regular and author Gore Vidal of its accuracy.

For readers who are interested in the lives of the stars who helped establish the American film industry, they need not rely upon second hand sources. The words of these pioneers live long after them. It is an interesting perspective that our modern age, where celebrities compete with each other for leaked videos and interchangeable spouses, is not as novel as it might seem. When it comes to high profile gossip there is verity in the adage: Everything Old Is New Again.

Read more by William Shelton

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