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Gossip Girl: Hedda Hopper’s Conservative Empire

June 2, 2013, 2:55 pm

Jennifer Frost, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism. New York University Press, 2011. 281 pp. Index. B & W illustrations. Hardcover $31.50; Kindle $15.12.

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Hedda Hopper makes the cover of Time in 1947.

Every once in a while you read a book that is pure joy, and Jennifer Frost’s Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood hits all the right notes. It’s got movie stars, it’s got intrigue, and it’s got humor, it’s got a light but effective theoretical frame. Best of all, it’s organized around a driven, ambitious woman who — if she hadn’t played herself in any number of films — could have been played by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Barbara Stanwyck. If they had dared.

Born Elda Furry in 1885, the butcher’s daughter who became Hedda Hopper fled industrial Altoona, Pennsylvania, with a suitcase and a dream. She made a pit stop at a Pittsburgh theater company and arrived on the New York stage by 1908. Cycling through opera companies, plays and musicals as a chorus girl, Elda — now Elda Curry — kept her eyes on the prize. Later she claimed to have known that she had good looks but “no talent.” However, as Frost writes, “she was ambitious and worked hard, because if she failed she faced a fate worse than death — go home to Altoona.”

Eventually Elda landed a job in the theater company of her first and only husband, matinee idol and producer William De Wolfe Hopper, famous for his roles in Gilbert and Sullivan extravaganzas, and for dramatic readings of the epic baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat.”After marrying Hopper in 1913 she changed her name to Hedda because Elda sounded too much like the names of the previous Mrs. Hoppers: Ella, Ida and Edna. Thus, a star was born. Hedda Hopper had one son, William Jr., who would also have a decent acting career: his best role was as Paul Drake in the TV series Perry Mason (1957-1966).

The Hoppers soon divorced: DeWolfe’s infidelities were one part of the story, but Hedda’s success in motion pictures — where lack of theatrical talent was no barrier to employment — may have been another. Showing the perseverance that had taken her from Altoona to Broadway, Hedda began traveling back and forth between New York studios and Hollywood in 1915. By 1922, she had an MGM contract and was making $1000 a week. It was the equivalent of over $600,000 a year in today’s dollars, and virtually tax free. From this, she was expected to buy her own wardrobe, but it was a tidy sum. It allowed her to leave her husband and become the independent woman that she remained, despite losing her savings and her acting career during the Great Depression, until her death in 1966.

Frost’s account of Hopper’s metamorphosis from small-town, star- struck girl to celebrity gossip columnist is as lively as the rags-to-riches films that lit up the early years of New Deal Hollywood. When opportunity knocked, Hedda answered the door; when life handed her lemons, she made a pitcher of lemonade. By 1933, as her parts dwindled and she was reduced to $1000 per film, Hopper used her industry connections to bring in cash between shoots. She”worked as a talent agent, promoted Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, acted in theater” and sold real estate — something she had dabbled in during the go-go 1920s Los Angeles market.

Hopper’s studio connections had long made her an inside source for Hollywood writers, and she began writing short items herself in 1936. When she made the pragmatic decision to launch a new career with her own column, all she had to do was cut out the middlemen. Furthermore, as Frost points out, her life as an actress — she eventually appeared in 120 films — gave her a kind of street cred that her famous rival, Louella Parsons, never had. Hopper knew the industry from the performer’s point of view, and quickly became well known for the reach and accuracy of her networks. “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” debuted on Valentine’s Day, 1938. It hit the big time a year later when Hopper scooped the James Roosevelt divorce on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Shortly thereafter, she acquired her own radio show, and in 1960 (when she was 74 years old), she was awarded her own television special.

Prior to Frost, no one has addressed Hopper’s importance as a political figure, nor has Hollywood gossip been as well analyzed for its role in popularizing conservative moral and economic values. Hopper decided what to print and what not to print, which gave her enormous power in shaping public opinion, and she often made these decisions in the interests of her political enthusiasms. Her conservatism was of the libertarian variety: given a choice, she was likely to prioritize those stories that “exposed” Democrats and leftists for the hypocrites she believed they were. She was fiercely anti-New Deal, and not part of the journalists’ circle cultivated by a publicity-conscious White House. When no other journalist would, she pursued the Roosevelt divorce story right onto “Jimmy” Roosevelt’s front lawn, where she confronted the President’s son — an executive at Samuel Goldwyn Studios — in his bathrobe.

Hopper was not only a hard worker; when she saw a niche she jumped to fill it, and when the business environment changed, she changed too. One of the hallmarks of her career was her ability to learn new media — whether it was film, sound film, radio, newspapers, or television — and put her own distinctive stamp on it. Like many celebrity journalists, (think Ed Sullivan, another gossip columnist, who had an even more successful career as a television variety show host) she did this by creating a “character.” It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, if she patterned herself on Walter Winchell (who pioneered the use of fear and influence to get a scoop), she is the grandmother of journalists like Perez Hilton, Cindy Adams, Michael Musto and Liz Smith. If the woman were alive today, she would be a blogger.

Hopper was the whole twentieth century media package.  She had a mobile, expressive face, terrific voice control and a personality made for radio, film and TV. This allowed her to expertly blur the line between journalism and theater: the columnist spread gossip, but she also performed gossip. Frost uses several publicity photographs that show Hopper hamming it up for a national audience:  elaborate expressions of comic shock at the “news” she is receiving or writing up make these still photographs jump off the page.

Pictures of Hopper inevitably included a telephone and/or a typewriter; indoors and out, she was famous for her elaborate hats (see the clip below.) Male journalists, of course, were also known for their hats, but Hopper’s were pseudo-Edwardian monstrosities, a cross between Chiquita Banana and Downton Abbey. In the final chapter of the book, Frost includes a campy picture of Hopper and Winchell wearing each others’ hats at the 1964 Republican National Convention. As women stopped wearing hats after WWII, Hopper’s toppers — festooned with vast amounts of false flowers, bird wings and mountains of velvet ruffles — became an even more distinctive trademark. One wonders if, as with Bella Abzug several decades later, they were initially meant to send the message: “I am not the secretary!” but by the 1950s became a canny way of making herself the center of attention in rooms filled with beautiful young starlets who were likely to be bare-headed.

Frost’s analysis of Hopper’s career as a maker of popular culture is both entertaining and points us towards what may be a central truth of Cold War bootstraps conservatism:  many of its proponents were  successful self-fashioners and entrepreneurs. Alger-like, they clawed their way to the top with grim determination, believing that theirs was but one of many stories made possible in an exceptional America. Hopper may well belong in a category with Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, J. Edgar Hoover, John Wayne and other prominent conservatives who not only became movement stars, but knew how to spin a homespun story to sell a patriotic vision.

This American Dream was, not accidentally, a fiction more generally promoted by the film industry. Performers rewrote the stories of their own lives to match their movie roles: there is no better example of this than Hedda Hopper’s contemporary, Ronald Reagan who, as a politician, promoted confusion about whether he fought in World War II (he did not), and told stories about his “life” that had actually occurred in movies.

Hopper viewed herself as a woman who had become a success in Hollywood through playing by the industry’s — and America’s — rules; as she told the story, she gracefully stepped aside as a performer when she could no longer cut it. After 1940, those rules, and her power to enforce them through print, made her a bigger player than ever. Raised in a studio system that held employees to moral clauses, Hopper excoriated actors who publicly broke the sexual codes of the day even — or perhaps especially — after stars like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton grew too powerful for studios to punish them. Frost also uses Hopper’s practice of cultivating and punishing stars to examine Hollywood’s political culture: gossip was a tool that celebrated racism as reality, and it became a route for industry insiders to collaborate with the House Un-American Activities Committee without appearing to do so.

A central argument of the book is that gossip created a political community around Hopper, one that not only lived and breathed Hollywood, but also discussed politics through an easily accessible national film culture. Frost had access to a great many fan letters that were written to Hopper: the moral and political issues she raised were expanded upon and debated by movie audiences.  Readers applauded Hopper, but they also argued with her vigorously: African-Americans spoke up against the racial stereotyping in movies that the columnist applauded, while many readers saw Marilyn Monroe’s suicide as the direct outcome of the bad publicity that was the gossip columnist’s bread and butter.

In fact, as Frost notes, Hopper understood as early as 1950 that the Hollywood she had built and defended was giving way to television and to a new political and moral liberalism. As a conservative, Hopper continued to promote a racial and gender order into the 1960s that was fast slipping away, as well as a nostalgic fiction about small town America that continues to play a central role in the contemporary conservative imaginary. By her death in 1966, the queen of gossip had seen the candidate of her dreams, Barry Goldwater, take the national stage. But she would not live to see the movement that Goldwater built come to fruition in 1980, nor would she see conservatism adapt to and overcome the post-war cultural changes she deplored. And yet, as Frost underlines in this wonderful book, Hedda Hopper and her celluloid world were part of that vision and set the stage for what was to follow.

Hedda Hopper Appears on “What’s My Line?” (1959)

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