Duchess of Dish
“Two of the cruellest, most primitive punishments our town deals out to those who fall from favour are the empty mailbox and the silent telephone.”
Those are words spoken by Hedda Hopper, popular gossip columnist during Hollywood’s golden age.
Hedda was “a sartorial extremist, preening in headgear that varied from cabbage rose confections to plumed saucerlike contraptions that seemed poised for flight.” Her hats were “garnished with toy horns, Eiffel Towers and Easter eggs … So outré were her hats that they were spoofed on the cover of Time, in an illustration portraying her with a telephone, a microphone and a typewriter perched atop her curls. Those hats, and a wardrobe of mostly pink and lavender suits, riveted Westchester housewives, young Hollywood hopefuls” and studio heads alike.
Hollywood marriages, affairs, breakups, bad behaviour, and political leanings were her ammunition. Her gun was her syndicated column, which at its height reached some 35 million readers. If you didn’t take her call, you were dead. If you lied to her, you were dead. If you gave a good story to her rival Louella Parsons — you were dead.
Their views and news were often whimsical, wrong, or both, but a thing like that didn’t matter. In flat prose laced with gosh-golly enthusiasm they reported marriages and births that never happened. In the ’50s Louella assured everybody that Ronald Reagan was without political ambitions, and Hedda once soured on a young actress because she went to a wedding without a hat on. Large talents often made them cranky, and besides Liz they took on Welles, Brando, Garbo, Olivier, Chaplin, Hepburn and Bogart.
Even the Axis followed them: German propagandists during WWII showed photos of Hedda’s extravagant hats as examples of American decadence.
Louella’s columns were sprinkled with “swarthy Mexicans” and “pickaninnies,” and she once called Mussolini her favourite hero. Hedda decried racial intermixing, was a feverish Commie hunter and led the attack that drove Chaplin to Europe.
In their approach to life and work, which were essentially the same thing, they seemed variations on the same cartoon. They both swore like troopers, demanded and gave loyalty and feuded with each other, mostly because it was good for business. Hopper, who couldn’t type, dictated her column at the top of her lungs.