May 2, 1885 – Hedda Hopper:
“Nobody’s interested in sweetness and light.“
She was born Elda Furry in Pennsylvania and she grew-up wanting to be a star herself. She lacked talent but her green eyes and long legs earned her a spot on a New York supper club chorus line.
She married William DeWolf Hopper, a matinee idol, in 1913. 27-years older, balding with faintly blue skin, DeWolf had been married so many times he earned the nickname “the husband of his country”. To avoid confusion with his previous wives Ella, Nella, Ida and Edna, Elda Furry consulted a psychic Indianapolis and changed her name to Hedda. She also changed her birthday to a more auspicious, younger date.
After a crappy career as an actor that sputtered to a stop in the mid-1930s, Hedda Hopper was offered a job doing what she was best at: Gossip. Her column, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood began running in the Los Angeles Times in 1938. She called her home in Beverly Hills “The House That Fear Built”.
Hopper enjoyed a notorious, self-serving feud with the more established and more popular Louella Parsons. They had once been friendly, with Parsons passing along tips for Hopper. Hopper, Parsons and fellow columnist Sheilah Graham all vied for the title “Queen Of Hollywood”, but the whole town knew that Hopper was more vicious and unforgiving than Parsons.
Hopper grew wealthy on secrets and scandal, earning $200,000 a year, as well as accepting luxurious gifts from the studios. Hopper was not only more vicious than her rival, but also more suited to the nasty game of gossip.
She could make or break a career. She helped Ingrid Bergman get a role in The Bells Of St Mary’s (1945), only to ruin her career, along with that of Bergman’s lover, the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, by writing about their illegitimate child.
Hopper also denounced Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for their personal lives. Fan letters to Hopper suggested that many readers thought Monroe committed suicide because of the bad publicity.
If you watched Feud: Betty And Joan, the television series for FX created by Ryan Murphy, Hopper is played by Judy Davis. I hope you did watch, because you would know that Hopper had a thing for hats. In the film Breakfast In Hollywood (1946), Spike Jones and The City Slickers did a song called A Hat For Hedda Hopper, while Hopper was shown sitting in the audience wearing one of her extraordinary chapeaus.
In the film The Sweet Smell Of Success (1957), Burt Lancaster‘s character, columnist J.J. Hunsecker, was inspired by Hopper, who courted controversy and ruined lives when she named names of alleged Communists during the Hollywood Blacklist.
She frequently attacked Charlie Chaplin in the 1940s for his politics and his love life, contributing to his being denied permission to re-enter the USA after he had been traveling in Europe in 1952.
After she published a “blind item” about Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy‘s relationship, Tracy kicked her in the rear at Ciro’s.
After she published a story that Joseph Cotten and his Hers To Hold (1943) costar Deanna Durbin were having an affair, Cotten ran into Hopper at an industry event and pulled out her chair for her, only to continue pulling it out until she fell on her hopper as the room applauded. Cotton told Hopper:
If you mention my name in your column personally again, I’ll kick you in the ass.””
In the mid-1980s, Cotten’s lifelong pal, Orson Welles gave an interview to Henry Jaglom where he said:
“What Hedda was doing was printing that Cotten was balling Deanna Durbin, which he was. In cars, in daylight, where everybody could see.“
Why would Welles lie? Cotten and Durbin were both still alive at the time, so he was not only risking damaging or destroying his friendship with Cotten, he was also placing himself in a position to be sued for defamation by either or both parties. Neither Cotten nor Durbin did or said anything about it. Durbin later married Her To Hold‘s producer.
More often, Hopper was right, a fact that her 35 million+ readers lived for. Bob Hope said:
“The columns were the first thing we looked at every morning to see what was going on.”
Hopper spread rumors that Michael Wilding and Stewart Granger had a love affair. Wilding sued Hopper for libel and won.
Actor, ZaSu Pitts compared Hopper to “a ferret”.
Joan Bennett sent Hopper a $435 special valentine, a skunk which carried a note: “Won’t you be my valentine? Nobody else will. I stink and so do you”. Hopper later reported that the skunk was beautifully behaved. She named it “Joan” and passed it on to James Mason.
Merle Oberon said: “What inspired all the vicious things you’ve been writing about me?” Hopper answered: “Bitchery, dear. Sheer bitchery”.
Hopper wrecked the careers of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and his screenwriter friends with her bristling nastiness.
During World War II, her only child, William Hopper (he played Paul Drake on the Perry Mason television series) served in the US Navy. Hopper publicly scolded Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. for shirking his duty to his country. But Fairbanks was already serving in the British Royal Navy, and he never forgave Hopper for the insinuation.
During the war, German propaganda cited Hopper’s extravagant hats, her trademark look, for which she was given a tax exemption of up to $5,000, as a show of American decadence.
With one scathing sentence, Hopper gleefully ruined careers and marriages with a clear conscience. She smeared public and private life with politics and celebrity.
Hopper has been portrayed by Jane Alexander in Malice In Wonderland (1985), with Elizabeth Taylor as Louella Parsons; Katherine Helmond in Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story (1995); Rue McClanahan on the AMC’s The Lot (1999-2001); Fiona Shaw in RKO 281 (2001); Joanne Linville in James Dean (2001); Helen Mirren in Trumbo (2015); and Tilda Swinton as Thora and Thessaly Thacker, two identical twin sister gossip columnists that are a thinly disguised version of Hopper x 2 in the Coen Brothers‘ Hail, Caesar! (2016).
There is even an opera about her, sort of, Hopper’s Wife, about an imagined marriage between Hopper and painter Edward Hopper, with a score by Stewart Wallace.
She penned two dishy memoirs, From Under My Hat (1952) and The Whole Truth And Nothing But (1962). She remained active as a writer until she kicked the bucket in 1966, producing six daily newspaper columns and a Sunday column, as well as writing articles for magazines such as Photoplay. Hopper held Hollywood in thrall; she knew the truth and she was the one who decided when, how, or if, to use it.