How did Hedda Hopper go from a poor Quaker farm in Pennsylvania to the height of Hollywood luxury? Surprisingly, her archnemesis was a huge help.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were the most popular Hollywood gossip columnists and consequently the most powerful women in Hollywood. But Ms. Hopper had a less auspicious start than her future rival. While Parsons was amassing a readership of 40 million people as William Randolph Hearst’s premiere gossip columnist, Hopper was a 38-year-old single mother making $250 per week as an actress for MGM.
However, Hopper’s luck would soon change in part thanks to a budding friendship with Parsons. Though Hopper played mostly supporting roles, such as Greta Garbo’s sister in silent films like 1932’s As You Desire Me, Parsons wrote about her often, dubbing her “The Queen of the Quickies.” Parsons even gave Hopper her first real writing opportunity, reprinting some of the gossipy letters the actress wrote to her in her column.
Hedda’s time as an actress made her famous friends like actress and Hearst mistress Marion Davies and placed her in the heart of the Hollywood gossip mill. Still, the most critical moment in Hopper’s career came in part thanks to those who wanted to bring Parsons down a peg. Parsons had developed the power to make or break the careers of actors and industry heads alike, and studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer were tired of bowing to her whims. So, when the Esquire Feature Syndicate called MGM looking for a gossip columnist, publicity head Andy Hervey suggested Hopper, thinking the actress might be easier to control.
They could not have been more wrong.
While Hedda’s early columns had a sweeter tone (Marion Davies had told Hopper not to “bite the hand that feeds you caviar”) it wasn’t long before she realized viciousness sold. She called the casting of British actress Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind a “slap in the face to every qualified American actress.” She more than insinuated that the friendship between playwright Noel Coward and actor Cary Grant was less than platonic. Most notoriously, she publicly spread a lie that actor Joseph Cotten wanted to leave his wife for “America’s Sweetheart” Deanna Durbin (a falsehood that would ultimately get her a literal kick in the butt from Cotten himself at an industry party).
However, the story that cemented Hedda’s star status and set her up as a true rival to Parsons involved the son of the president himself. Hopper broke the story that FDR’s son James was having a secret affair and would divorce his wife. Louella Parsons, the reigning queen of Hollywood gossip, had been publicly scooped by a novice. And thus a rivalry, at least a professional one, was born.
By 1941, Hopper was earning over $100,000 dollars a year and had a readership of 35 million – thanks in large part to her biggest competitor.