Hedda Hopper — Before the Footlights

Today Hedda Hopper (1885-1966) is almost exclusively remembered as a Holy Terror of a right-wing gossip columnist, champion of Joan Crawford, J. Edgar Hoover, and HUAC, and scourge of Charlie Chaplin, Joan Bennett and Ingrid Bergman. Judy Davis played her in Feud, the 2017 series about Crawford and Bette Davis; Tilda Swinton played twin characters strongly inspired by her in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar (2016). You’ll find no shortage of books and articles full of notorious anecdotes on the quarter century or so of Hopper’s years of power in that capacity. Here though, we are more concerned with the PREVIOUS quarter century, when instead of dishing on all the stars, she moved as one of them. Unlike her rival Louella Parsons, and more like Walter Winchell, she had originally been an actress. She accrued over 150 screen credits as such, mostly between 1916 and 1942. Her address book full of stellar contacts is how she rapidly became a player in the news game.

Hopper’s given (and original professional) name was Elda Furry. Hailing from Pennsylvania Dutch country, she moved to New York circa 1903 to try to get onto the stage. By 1908 she had gotten a chorus part in the Shubert musical The Pied Piper, but she was to gain more traction as an actress with the companies of DeWolf Hopper and Edgar Selwyn. She married the former in 1913, becoming his fifth wife. As his previous wives names had been Ella, Ida, Edna and Nella, and her’s was Elda, DeWolf frequently called her by one of his ex-wives’ names, so (as the oft-told anecdote runs) she consulted a numerologist who advised her to change it to Hedda. What I really don’t understand about this story is, isn’t that name ALSO very much like those of the previous wives? Why didn’t she change it to Jane?

At any rate, her fortunes began to rise on both stage and screen in the mid ‘teens. Her first film was The Battle of Hearts (1916) opposite William Farnum. Other early credits included George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917), Virtuous Wives (1918) with Anita Stewart, and Sadie Love (1919) with Billie Burke. For a short spell, she had success on Broadway with Be Calm, Camilla (1918-19); Six-Cylinder Love (1921-22); and That Day (1922). Back in Hollywood, she was in the 1922 production of Sherlock Holmes with John Barrymore; Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (1925); Don Juan (1926) also with Barrymore; William Wellman’s Wings (1927); Harold Teen (1928); the 1930 version of Philip Barry’s Holiday (1930); Flying High (1931) with Pat O’Brien, Bert Lahr, and Charlotte Greenwood; Speak Easily (1932) with Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante; Alice Adams (1935) with Katharine Hepburn; Dracula’s Daughter (1936); Topper (1937); Artists and Models (1937) with Jack Benny; Thanks for the Memory (1938) with Bob Hope; Tarzan’s Revenge (1938); and the all-star The Women (1939). Cecil B. DeMile’s Reap the Wild Wind (1942) was the last film of her original period as an actress.

For a brief time, in her early years Hopper had had starring roles in her films, but throughout most of her career she had supporting parts, often as society women, frequently ones who were busybodies. Half of the characters she played were named “Mrs. Somebody”, and you can instantly imagine what kind of character she is. It is amusing that life imitated art when she became a professional gossip. Her famous column “Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood” premiered in the Los Angeles Times in early 1938. Syndication of her column and a series of radio shows gave her vitriolic writing national reach. After she was famous she would occasionally take cameo roles in films and TV, either as herself, or some version of herself. As such you can see her in Sunset Boulevard (1950); a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy; Pepe (1960) with Cantinflas; The Patsy (1964) with Jerry Lewis; The Beverly Hillbillies (1964), and the 1966 stinkeroo The Oscar. 

While Hopper outlived competitor Dorothy Kilgallen by one year, Parsons (who’d started out two decades before Hopper) outlasted her by another half dozen years, thereby securing the ultimate earthly revenge: longevity.

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.