It may not be one of our more attractive traits but human beings love gossip. The word itself was first used in a tattling context by Chaucer when the Wife of Bath refers to a 'gossib dame' and the National Archives provide a rich source of libel cases such as Ellen Bowden's in 1574 when she took Ann Venables to court for calling her a "whore, arrant whore, wedded mans whore and William Colsolls whore" and won 8 shillings for her pains. We gossip and we write it down. Pity the poor Mesopotamian mayor only now remembered because his affair with a married woman in 1500 BC coincided with the time and place of the development of Cuneiform, one of the world's earliest writing systems.
|Scandal Sheets at Mrs Humphrey's Print Shop
Once the floodgate was opened, there was no stopping it. The circulation battle in the USA between publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer was an excuse to see who could print the most scandalous news items. Penny papers in the nineteenth century thrived on lurid gossip and the author Roger Wilkes, in his book Scandal, credits the 1886 divorce case of Lady Colin Campbell with inflaming public demand for society scandals and giving birth to the first newspaper gossip column. Society tittle-tattle is one thing but it was the birth of the film industry that really saw the explosion in the demand for the 'celebrity' gossip machine and created some of its biggest monsters.
|Hedda Hopper & Louella Parsons, Vanity Fair
It was fan magazines that helped create the idea of "movie stars". Motion Picture Story Magazine was launched in 1911 during the era of silent films and the appetite was insatiable: this magazine was the first of what would become nearly 300 titles in the genre. At the height of their power in the 1940s, Hopper and Parsons' rival columns had a combined readership of 75 million people (half the population of the USA) and the industry was just as much in thrall to them, if not more so, than the public, as Bob Hope said: “Their columns were the first thing we looked at every morning to see what was going on.” Both women had a long association with Hollywood and powerful connections which they exploited ruthlessly, against the stars and each other. Hopper began as a bit-part actress. She appeared in around 120 films, hit hard times (probably because she refused to entertain LB Mayer on his casting coach) but retained enough industry friends to eventually be hired by MGM as a journalist to offset the power of Parsons, her one time friend. Parsons, by contrast, was a journalist from the start whose career went stellar after she forged a friendship with publisher William Randolph Hearst's film actress mistress Marion Davies.
|Time satirising Hopper's trademark hats
Both women were highly skilled at blurring both their own pasts (editing their marriages and their birth dates) and their colourful lives. When it came to their quarry, however, nothing was off limits. Louella’s columns were sprinkled with racist terms such as“swarthy Mexicans” and she once cited Mussolini as her favourite hero. Hedda was viciously vocal about racial intermixing, hated and hunted Communists (she led the attack that drove Chaplin out of the States and destroyed Donald Trumbo) and had no mercy for anyone who gave a story to Parsons rather than her. Louella had informants everywhere, from studios to hairdressers’ salons and doctors’ offices. When Louella received a tip that Clark Gable and his second wife, Ria, were going to divorce, she“kidnapped” Mrs. Gable and held her hostage at her home until she was sure the story was hers first. Hopper ruined Ingrid Bergman's career after she had an affair with Roberto Rossellini and became pregnant - not because of the affair but because she gave the story to Louella. Hopper's attacks on Marilyn Monroe were so vicious, fans wrote letters after Monroe's death blaming Hopper for the suicide - apparently she didn't give a damn about that or about the skunk Joan Bennett sent her as a Valentine's gift. When she was asked by actress Merle Oberon “What inspired all the vicious things you’ve been writing about me?”, her response was simple and really rather chilling: “Bitchery, dear. Sheer bitchery.”
The end of the studio system in the 1950s, the spread of television and the rise of tabloid magazines such as Confidential which was notorious for making up stories with no basis in fact at all (I'm resisting all references to Trump here) changed the relationships between Hollywood, its stars and the public. Parsons and Hopper faded away and, while gossip and some of its perpetrators seem to find continuously new lows in this 24/7 internet world, no other individual writers since have held such long-lasting and dangerous power over other people's lives. I can highly recommend the film Trumbo if anyone wants to know more, Helen Mirren's portrayal of Hopper captures her awfulness to perfection. The Golden Age of Hollywood, or so this period is so often called: proof that layers of gilt and polish and pretence can't hide the poison under the surface. Avoiding a Trump reference really was too much to hope for.