This Day In Literary History
On June 2nd, 1885, the legendary American writer and journalist 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 show business 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
After touring with the production for 35 weeks, 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.
She usually worked as a character actress, playing small roles as distinguished-looking society women. By the mid-1930s, her acting career fizzled out. She decided to try her hand at something else.
Hedda always had a rapacious wit and 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 scathing, 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, naming it "The House That Fear Built."
Hedda later began a nasty feud with fellow gossip columnist Louella Parsons, despite the fact that she and Louella had been good friends back during her days as a struggling actress. She even fed Parsons tidbits of gossip for her column.
Nevertheless, 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 her. Hedda Hopper's Hollywood went from the Los Angeles Times to national syndication, appearing in over 80 newspapers and 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; in the 1940s, she attacked his personal life, which included messy divorces and allegedly illegitimate children. In the 1950s, she denounced him as a communist.
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" about Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn's relationship.
Though their real names weren't mentioned, it was obviously them she was talking about. A furious Spencer Tracy kicked Hedda's ass - literally. He cornered her at the then-famous Ciro's nightclub and booted her in the behind.
Hedda also enjoyed "outing" celebrities whom she believed to be gay or lesbian - a career-ending revelation in those days. Sometimes her outings backfired on her, like when she tried to out Cary Grant and Randolph Scott as homosexual lovers.
She had to retract the accusation because Grant was too powerful for even her to touch. When she claimed that English actors Michael Wilding and Stewart Granger were lovers, Wilding sued her for libel and won.
The most memorable backfired outing attempt occurred when Hedda, determined to out actor Montgomery Clift, began haunting Hollywood hotspots in an attempt to find some celebrity willing to publicly state that Clift was gay.
She was overheard by the legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead, known for being both outrageously outspoken and fiercely liberal. Completely drunk and nursing another cocktail, Tallulah marched right up to Hedda.
"Just what the hell have you got against Monty, anyway?" she demanded to know. "He's a cocksucker! Everyone knows that," Hedda shot back. "Well," Bankhead snarled, "I don't know that, darling. He's never sucked my cock!"
In the 1950s, arch conservative Hedda was at it again, this time reporting on the political activities of Hollywood's elite and denouncing them as communists or fellow travelers - a career-ending revelation during the McCarthy era.
Back then, Hollywood had a policy of blacklisting actors, writers, and directors accused of being communists or communist sympathizers - even if the accusations couldn't be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Why did Hedda Hopper take such great pleasure in damaging the careers of actors? Was she bitter over the failure of her own acting career? Probably. Although her column redefined the term poison pen, one has to admire her guts - for a woman journalist, she was way ahead of her time.
She was also known for her flamboyance (she always wore large, elaborate hats and 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
Today's Vanguard Video features the first episode of the Hedda Hopper's Hollywood film short series. Enjoy!