Whether known as the “duchess of dish” or a “gargoyle of gossip,” Hedda Hopper was a powerhouse of Hollywood’s golden age. Known mostly today for her famous hats—which led to titles such as “Mad-Hatter Hopper” and to an entire “I Love Lucy” episode built around hat gags—she should be remembered for far more. For 27 years and 32 million readers, Hopper wrote her movie gossip column, focusing mostly on the big stars, their movies and marriages, their secrets and scandals. She also covered politics, from a conservative angle. In the process, she made both friends and enemies, but mostly enemies.
“Malice in Wonderland,” Hopper used to joke, would be a perfect title for her memoirs. Witty and catty, her title perfectly captured her reputation in Hollywood. Malicious was the least of it: “unpredictable and ruthless,” “cold-blooded,” “a vicious witch,” and, due to her right-wing politics, “fascist.” Hopper herself did not shy away from such descriptions. When actress Merle Oberon asked why she wrote such cruel things in her column, Hopper replied, “Bitchery, dear. Sheer bitchery.” Hopper in her famous hats became a Hollywood icon, yet her nasty reputation dominated her career, persists today, and overshadows her historical significance.
Hopper was fifty-two years old and an underemployed, struggling supporting actress when the Los Angeles Times picked up her fledgling movie gossip column “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” in 1938. Along with Louella Parsons who preceded and competed with her in the movie gossip business, Hopper’s access to private information meant she soon became formidable figure in the film industry during its “golden age.” Hopper knew more about the private lives of Hollywood denizens than she told, and individuals and the industry relied on this arrangement and feared exposure. “That’s the house that fear built,” Hopper said of her Beverly Hills home.
Hopper’s mass media gossip—or as she put it “snooping and scooping”—drew millions of readers to her column. They appreciated the shared information and knowledge, discussion and exchange, and sense of community it created. They also enjoyed how Hopper wielded gossip as a weapon to assail the powerful in society and to condemn celebrities who stepped outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior. For all these reasons, in Hopper’s hands, celebrity gossip was a very powerful discourse.
While early on Hopper decided to be kind to Hollywood—“I shall not set myself up as a judge or critic,” she wrote in her first column—she decided “sweetness and light” was not selling, so she “put salt on its tail.” In her interactions with stars, Hopper was brisk and challenging, demanding replies rather than asking questions. To be on the receiving end of Hopper’s treatment was not easy, but if a movie star refused an interview or to give her the information she wanted, it was even worse. “She had two weapons,” actress Simone Signoret once observed, “words that wound or the silence that kills.”
Yet, Hopper’s power vis-à-vis Hollywood stars was always limited by her dependence on the industry. While she provided the motion picture industry with much sought after publicity, her career also depended upon its success and access to its information. She needed the studios to keep her informed and give her interview subjects. As a consequence, constant negotiation and give-and-take characterized the relationship between Hopper and Hollywood, access and publicity.
What increased Hopper’s power both inside and outside Hollywood was her political influence and activism. Often dismissed as a crank who engaged in “pinko purges,” she used her journalistic platform throughout her career to promote traditional values and conservative politics. She was a proud member of the Republican Party and campaigned against all sorts of issues, from Communism to the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time—although she never would have called herself a “feminist”—she always advocated women’s equality in politics, the family, and, especially, Hollywood.
Throughout her gossip career, Hopper consistently condemned the movie industry for its unequal treatment of women. “Hollywood is unfair to women and I’m out to prove it,” she argued and over time pointed out the lack of women producers, directors, and, later in her career, actresses in the list of “Top Ten Box-Office Stars.” She proposed starting a “movement” for more women directors, and exclaimed when a woman rose from script girl to screenwriter to co-producer, “Hurray! Another Hollywood woman gets her chance.”
Hedda Hopper’s historical significance and legacy rests precisely on this intersection of political and popular culture in her column. The combination of politics and entertainment distinguished Hopper’s celebrity gossip in her era, but her style and practice of gossip is no longer exceptional and instead permeates mass media outlets in our own.
Jennifer Frost is a professor at the University of Auckland and is the author of Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism