Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Notes for June 2nd, 2009

This Day In Writing History

On this day 1885, legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. She was born Elda Furry and later changed her name, taking the first name Hedda at her numerologist's suggestion. As a teenager, Hedda studied singing at a conservatory and dreamed of a career in musical theater. Her parents, both devout Quakers, refused to allow her to pursue a showbusiness career, so when she turned 18, she ran away to New York City.

Hedda began her career on the Broadway stage as a chorus girl, but she was unsuccessful, first fired by the Schubert Brothers, then rejected by Flo Ziegfeld, who called her a "clumsy cow." She later joined a theater company run by matinee idol DeWolf Hopper, whom she later married, despite the fact that he was much older and a notorious womanizer. She bore him a son, William Hopper, best known as private eye Paul Drake on the Perry Mason TV show. Hedda and DeWolf divorced in 1922.

While working as a chorus girl with her husband's theater company, Hedda was bitten by the acting bug. She talked Edgar Selwyn into letting her audition for his play, The Country Boy, and won the lead role, touring with the production for 35 weeks. After that, she returned to her singing roots and won the co-lead role in the musical The Quaker Girl. Beginning in 1915, Hedda acted in over a hundred movies, usually as a character actress playing small roles as distinguished-looking society women. By the mid-1930s, her acting career had waned, so she decided to try her hand at something else.

Hedda always had a talent for gossip, so in late 1937, she was given the opportunity to write a gossip column. She jumped at the chance, and on Valentine's Day, 1938, Hedda Hopper's Hollywood debuted in the Los Angeles Times. Using her own distinctive style and scathingly sarcastic wit, Hedda dished out the dirt on Hollywood's elite. No one was safe from her poison pen. Her column became a huge success, and she bought a new home in Beverly Hills, christening it "The House That Fear Built."

Hedda Hopper began a nasty feud with fellow gossip columnist Louella Parsons, despite the fact that she and Parsons had been good friends back when Hedda was a struggling actress, and Hedda had even fed her tidbits of gossip for her column. Hedda was determined to be the one and only "Queen of Hollywood," and competed fiercely with Parsons for the title. Parsons proved to be no match for Hedda's literary sadism. The character of J.J. Hunsecker, the powerful and nasty gossip columnist in Sweet Smell Of Success, was said to have been inspired by Hedda Hopper.

Hedda Hopper's Hollywood went from the Los Angeles Times to national syndication, appearing in over 80 newspapers, attracting millions of loyal readers. In 1939, she made the leap to radio, hosting her own show, The Hedda Hopper Show, which ran for 16 years on different networks. She also hosted a TV special in 1960, interviewing famous guests including Bob Hope, Walt Disney, Anthony Perkins, John Cassavetes, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart and Gloria Swanson.

Though Hedda's column and radio show earned her millions of fans, they also earned her many enemies in Hollywood. She was an arch conservative, sort of an Ann Coulter of her day, and raked over the coals the Hollywood elite who didn't live up to her ideas of morality. She helped drive screen legend Charlie Chaplin out of the country, first in the 1940s by attacking his personal life, (which included messy divorces and allegedly illegitimate children) then denounced him as a communist in the 1950s.

Hedda made public the private indiscretions of Hollywood's elite; she leaked information about the extramarital affair between Joseph Cotten and Deanna Durbin and planted a "blind item" (their real names weren't mentioned, but it was obviously them) about Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn's relationship, which led Tracy to literally kick Hedda's ass - he cornered her at the then-famous Ciro's nightclub and booted her in the behind.

Hedda also enjoyed "outing" celebrities she believed to be gay or lesbian - a career-ending revelation in those days. When she tried to out Cary Grant and Randolph Scott as homosexual lovers, she had to retract the accusation because Grant was too powerful even for her to touch. When she claimed that British actors Michael Wilding and Stewart Granger were gay lovers, Wilding sued her for libel and won.

In the 1950s, arch conservative Hedda was at it again, this time denouncing Hollywood's elite as communists or fellow travelers, reporting on their allegedly left-leaning activities - also a career-ending revelation during the McCarthy era.

Was Hedda Hopper bitter about the failure of her own acting career? Probably. Although her column redefined the term poison pen and she took great pleasure in damaging the acting careers of others, one has to admire her guts (for a woman journalist, she was way ahead of her time) as well as her flamboyance (she was known for her large, elaborate hats; she bought over a hundred new hats every year) and the style and scathing wit she brought to her column, which she wrote until her death from pneumonia in 1966 at the age of 80.

Quote Of The Day

"Nobody's interested in sweetness and light." - Hedda Hopper

Vanguard Video

Today's Vanguard Video features one in the series of Hedda Hopper's Hollywood film shorts that appeared in theaters between 1942 and 1943. Gary Cooper is the main subject, but also appearing is a fellow by the name of... Ernest Hemingway! Enjoy!

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