Family & Companions
One of the two most feared women in Hollywood during its Golden Age, Hedda Hopper first made a name for herself as an actress, typecast as society women in such features as "Holiday" (1930), "Alice Adams" (1935) and "Dracula's Daughter" (1936). As her workload inclined more towards Poverty Row than the big studios, Hopper gambled on a career change from actress to gossip columnist for the Esquire Feature Syndicate. Her insider knowledge and roster of highly-placed confidantes paid off in an instantly-popular platform, published by The Los Angeles Times in 1938 and syndicated nationally. An interest in the private lives of public figures won Hopper the enmity of such secretive stars as Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Joseph Cotten, and Katharine Hepburn, while most of Tinseltown endeavored to keep on her good side in a bid to stay out of print. By widening her range to radio and television, Hopper cornered the gossip market and eclipsed the celebrity status of longtime rival Louella Parsons. During the anti-Communist purges of the Fifties, she advocated traditional American values, aligning herself with such staunch Hollywood conservatives as Ronald Reagan and Howard Hughes and counting as allies red-baiting Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hopper's death in 1966 paralleled the demise of the studio system, while her devotion to laying bare the intimate secrets of Hollywood stars presaged the rise of such culturally entrenched scandal sheets as The National Enquirer and TMZ.
Hedda Hopper was born Elda Furry on May 5, 1885, in Hollidaysburg, PA. At the age of five, her father relocated the family to nearby Altoona, where he operated a butcher shop. As the middle of seven surviving children and the second oldest daughter, Hopper was expected by her strict Quaker father to cook and keep house in place of his chronically ill wife, while also assisting him in the family business so that her brothers could enjoy more leisurely childhoods, shirking responsibility in favor of fun. A life of small-town drudgery inspired Hopper's dream of living a glamorous big city life. A transformative experience came when she attended a theatrical performance by noted actress Ethel Barrymore. Deciding she wanted to be an actress, less out of a genuine desire to perform than to simply wear elegant costumes, Hopper bought her first hat, a bright green straw bonnet trimmed with red velvet geraniums. Without her parents' permission, she joined a Pittsburgh theatrical troupe. In 1908, at the age of 23, she ran away to New York City with the aim of becoming a Ziegfeld Girl.
Though Hopper was blessed with a peaches-and-cream complexion and excellent legs, her talents as a singer and dancer were held in lesser regard on Broadway. Turned down for employment by Florenz Ziegfeld himself, she turned to work as an understudy. She made her Broadway debut as Elda Curry in R.H. Burnside's staging of the musical "The Pied Piper," starring DeWolf Hopper. She appeared again opposite Hopper in Daniel V. Arthur's "A Matinee Idol," which ran for over a year between April 1910 and May 1911. Joining Hopper's theatrical company, she became his fifth wife. Because her husband's previous spouses had been named Ida, Ella, Edna and Nella, she opted to drop the stage name Elda Curry in favor of Hedda Hopper, by which she billed herself for a role in Clare Kummer's comedy "Be Calm, Camilla" and three later Broadway appearances. In 1915, Hopper gave birth to a son, William DeWolf Hopper, Jr. Later that year, the family traveled to Hollywood, where Hopper, Sr., was under contract to D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Mack Sennett's Triangle Company.
While still calling herself Elda Furry, Hopper made her film debut as the star of Oscar Apfel's sea drama "The Battle of Hearts" (1916), produced by the Fox Film Corporation. She would be so-billed, or alternatively listed as Elda Millar, until her appearance in the Goldwyn Company's "Nearly Married" (1917), an adaptation of the Broadway comedy by Edgar Selwyn (for whom Hopper had performed in New York). For a supporting role in "Virtuous Wives" (1918), produced by Louis B. Mayer for First National, she was billed as Mrs. DeWolf Hopper, a credit she would retain for "The Inner Chamber" (1921), "Conceit" (1921), and "What's Wrong with the Women?" (1922). In 1922, Hopper divorced her husband, opting to raise their son alone while she continued with her career. She played the duplicitous Madge Larrabee to John Barrymore's "Sherlock Holmes" (1922), having transitioned by this point from ingénues to character roles. Hopper's patrician beauty often found her playing affluent or titled women, such as the lofty Mrs. Leiter in "The Snob" (1924) with John Gilbert and Norma Shearer; Lady Wildering in "Déclassé" (1925) with Corinne Griffith; and the artistically-inclined Countess de Fragni in "Fools of Fashion" (1926) with Mae Busch.
Surviving Hollywood's changeover from silents to talking pictures, Hopper played yet another woman of means in "Holiday" (1930), an adaptation of the Philip Barry play starring Mary Astor and Edward Everett Horton, and appeared alongside Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and other stars in the charity short "The Stolen Jools" (1931). Rent-paying work in low-budget productions such as "Murder Will Out" (1930), "One Frightened Night" (1925), and "The Dark Hour" (1936) earned Hopper the nickname Queen of the Quickies, but she was cast in a number of prestige pictures as well, including "Alice Adams" (1935) at RKO, opposite Katharine Hepburn and Fred McMurray. Hopper played society ladies in "Dracula's Daughter" (1936) and "Topper" (1937). In "Tarzan's Revenge" (1938), she sneezed her way through the role of the hypochondriacal mother Eleanor Holm, jungle consort of Glenn Morris' vine-swinging King of the Apes.
In 1936, Hopper had found a sideline as a fashion commentator for a Los Angeles radio station. The following year, she was hired by the Esquire Feature Syndicate to be their Hollywood correspondent. Her column, "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood," debuted in The Los Angeles Times in 1938 and was swiftly syndicated all over the country. A CBS radio program followed in 1939. Hopper relished her new-found notoriety as a purveyor of Tinseltown tidbits. Never seen in public without an elaborate hat, she held court at such posh nightclubs as Ciro's and the Trocadero, where she collected rumors about troubled productions and misbehaving movie stars. Her rumor-mongering tinged with cruelty, Hopper wound up on the bad side of such industry A-listers as Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Joseph Cotten. Yet for as many stars who hated Hopper, more courted her favor in a bid to stay out of range. So damaging was the prospect of ruination via a Hopper exclusive that the columnist nicknamed her Beverly Hills mansion "the House that Fear Built."
Though she never remarried, Hopper weathered a longtime association with rival gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Though the pair had initially gotten on well, the friendship turned acrimonious as both women jockeyed for the title of Queen of Hollywood. Hopper was not above using her platform as a vehicle for settling old grudges, bashing Louis B. Mayer (allegedly because he had stunted her stardom at MGM when she refused a go on his casting couch) and Charlie Chaplin, whose left-wing politics and libertine lifestyle offended Hopper's Puritan propriety. Having fled her small town home for Hollywood and raised her child alone, Hooper nonetheless beat the drum for traditional American values. An anti-union Republican, she was disdainful of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and counted among her inside sources newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, red-baiting Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, and FBI frontman J. Edgar Hoover. Though she railed against big government in general and income tax in particular, Hopper gladly took a $5,000 deduction for the purchase of designer hats as a business expense.
Not entirely abandoning her acting career, Hopper made sporadic film appearances, playing a thinly-veiled version of herself in George Cukor's "The Women" (1939) and character roles in James P. Hogan's "Queen of the Mob" (1940) and Cecil B. DeMille's "Reap the Wild Wind" (1942). She cameoed as herself in Harold Schuster's "Breakfast in Hollywood" (1946), Henry Levin's "The Corpse Came C.O.D." (1947), and Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd." (1950) and hosted a series of featurettes for Paramount titled "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood" as an extension of her column. With the popularity of television, Hopper extended her domain to the small screen, turning up in episodes of "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-57), "The Colgate Comedy Hour" (NBC, 1950-55), "The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show" (NBC, 1956-1961) and "The Beverly Hillbillies" (CBS, 1962-1971). Having begun his own film career in 1935, Hopper's son William attained his own level of celebrity as Natalie Wood's father in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and among the cast of the long-running CBS courtroom drama "Perry Mason" (1957-1966).
Hopper published two sets of memoirs, in 1952 and 1963. At age 79, she contributed a cameo appearance to the Jerry Lewis farce "The Patsy" (1964), but her final years found her in declining health. Hopper never lived to see her final film appearance, in Russell Rouse's acidic Hollywood exposé "The Oscar" (1966), released a month after her death from pneumonia on Feb. 1, 1966. In 1972, author George Eells published the dual biography Hedda and Louella , source of the 1985 CBS telefilm "Malice and Wonderland" starring Jane Alexander as Hedda Hopper and frequent gossip target Elizabeth Taylor as Louella Parsons. Having established Hollywood gossip as a model for big business and a component of mid-century American life, Hopper paved the way for such professional scandal-mongers as Rex Reed, Rona Barrett and Liz Smith, while anticipating the 21st century dominance of such internet scandal sheets as TMZ, Gawker, and Radar Online.
By Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Began radio talk show
Became Hollywood columist