By: Megan McGurk
Although Louella and Hedda are more famous for their long-running feud than for the power they wielded in the studio system in Hollywood, they had a lot in common. Both women struggled as single mothers. Each woman forged a career in highly competitive fields when most women did not work outside the home. By telephone, their weapon of choice, Louella and Hedda could drag moguls out of bed, make producers sweat through a charvet shirt, and interrupt a star in the middle of filming a scene. When there were no less than 400 writers competing for stories in the film colony, Louella and Hedda had the largest readership for their daily columns. Their success inspired jealous hit-pieces and even physical attacks from men.
Louella and Hedda forged an indelible impact on celebrity journalism that remains visible today. Each time you read a profile on a film star, their imprint lingers in the subtext.
Catch up with my six-episode series:
Part One looks at Louella’s early dreams of being a writer, her rise as a film scenarist in Essay Studio, and her rise as one of the first daily film columnists. She gathered interviews from stars during train station layovers, and developed modern ways to market her skill set, pitching ideas to editors and publishers. The episode concludes when she nearly died of tuberculosis after she logged too many hours working for William Randolph Hearst in 1926.
Part Two covers Hedda Hopper’s early years as a workhorse in her father’s butcher shop, to runaway chorus girl, to wife of a Broadway star, and her success in silent pictures as the stylish dame who outshines the star. Hedda divorced a cheating husband and flourished in Hollywood, until she lost everything in the 1929 Crash.
Part Three traces the rise of Louella’s influence as a columnist in Hollywood. During the transition to sound, studios feared a negative item about one of their stars from Louella, and gave her a 48-hour exclusive. For more than a decade, she was the first to report breaking news on the stars. Louella made a splash in radio by booking free talent for the sponsors. The Screen Actors Guild mobilised against her power to get the stars to work without pay.
Part Four examines Hedda’s struggle to maintain a film career once MGM let her option expire. She became a Jane of all trades, in real estate, as a talent agent, as a beauty operator for Elizabeth Arden, and a voice coach–anything to pay her son’s tuition bill and keep a roof over her head. When Hedda was past 50 and considered a failure by everyone in the film industry, she reinvented herself as a columnist.
Part Five looks at Louella’s resilience when she lost her studio exclusive, and watch her rival catch the big stories, starting with Lombard and Gable’s wedding. After Hedda appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1948, Louella stayed in bed for days. But Louella closed the decade by breaking two of the biggest stories of the postwar era–Rita Hayworth’s Cinderella wedding to Prince Aly Khan and the truth about Ingrid Bergman’s love child with director Roberto Rossellini.
Part Six notes the accelerated speed of Hedda’s success as a daily columnist. She didn’t just cover the stars–she used her column as a platform to argue that Hollywood was unfair to women. Hedda called for the end of severe diets, and more women as screenwriters, producers, and directors. Hedda’s right-wing politics became an overwhelming preoccupation after the Time magazine cover. She encouraged the HUAC investigation, led boycotts against so-called pro-Communist sentiment in Hollywood, which inevitably led to the Blacklist.