On this day in 1938, the former silent film actress Hedda Hopper pens the first installment of what would become her tremendously influential gossip column in the Los Angeles Times.
Born Elda Furry in 1890, she was the fifth of nine children of Quaker parents living in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. She left school after the eighth grade and worked as a chorus girl on Broadway, where she met her future husband, actor DeWolf Hopper. Elda was Hopper’s fifth wife; his four previous wives had been named Ella, Nella, Ida and Edna. After her husband reportedly called her by the wrong name, Elda decided to change her own name to Hedda Hopper, a change she maintained even after the couple’s divorce in 1922.
Hedda appeared in MGM’s first production, Virtuous Wives, in 1915 and went on to act in more than 100 films over the next two decades. In 1936, several years after an unsuccessful bid for the Los Angeles City Council, Hopper parlayed her knowledge of the movie industry and Hollywood society into a radio show. A syndicate later offered to carry a print column that would compete with that of Hearst’s resident gossipmonger, Louella Parsons. The result, dubbed “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood,” debuted in February 1938, kicking off a juicy 28-year run. In 1939, the column turned into a radio program.
The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for Hollywood gossip columnists, and Hopper and Parsons (who famously carried on a bitter decade-long feud) received sizeable salaries–Hopper’s was estimated at close to $200,000–and tons of gifts from studios hoping for favorable coverage of their movies and actors. In one telling statement, Hopper referred to her own lavish home as “the house that fear built.” In addition to her titillating coverage of Hollywood’s latest pregnancy or breakup, Hopper was famous for her fashion sense, most notably her flamboyant hats. She also became increasingly political over the years, voicing her conservative opinions, praising Republican candidates such as Barry Goldwater and attacking the actor Charles Chaplin for his leftist views.
Over the years, Hopper occasionally played herself in episodes of TV sitcoms spoofing her power. In an episode of I Love Lucy, Lucy and Desi stage publicity stunts to get into Hopper’s column; on The Beverly Hillbillies, Hopper posts bail for Jed and Jethro after an incident at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. In 1960, Hopper appeared in her own TV special, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood. She published a book called The Whole Truth and Nothing But! in 1962. Hopper died in 1966; two decades later, her fierce rivalry with Parsons was adapted for the big-screen in Malice in Wonderland, starring Jane Alexander as Hopper and Elizabeth Taylor as Parsons.