Louella Parsons: First Lady of Hollywood?

The question mark in our title is how one converts an article into a gossip column. But here you will find only the stalest of gossip. As of December 9 it will be by definition all over a half century old, for that date in 1972 marked the final breaths of Louella Parsons (Louella Rose Oettinger; 1881 – December 9, 1972).

Most classic movie fans know of the rivalry between Parsons and fellow female columnist Hedda Hopper. Humans are inclined to break things into binary opposites. According to the classic dichotomy, Hopper and Parsons are usually broken down something like this: Hopper: smart, chic, younger, more glamorous, coastal, urbane, thinner, vs. Parsons: dowdy, frumpy, older, midwestern, provincial, heavier. One has a picture of Parsons being played by someone like Marie Dressler, or maybe Estelle Parsons (no relation) in her character as Blanche in Bonnie and Clyde. This narrative however seems to come more from the one spun by Hopper herself in the way she portrayed her competitor. In reality, both columnists were a couple of pot stirring, grasping horrors. Parsons was only a little older than Hopper. Hopper was from Western, Pennsylvania (scarcely more cosmopolitan than Parsons’ Dixon, Illinois origins). Parsons made her bones in Chicago prior to New York and Hollywood, and as everyone knows Chicago was the “Third Coast”, a major show biz city in its own right. And though Hopper had been a chorus girl and an actress, she was not exactly a towering paragon of taste and class, anyway, even to the extent that you’d elevate her as such in comparison with Parsons.

Parsons started outed working for local newspapers in small midwestern cities before moving to Chicago in 1912. Like Hopper, she also had a background on the OTHER side of show business. For a time she wrote silent film scenarios for George Spoor at Chicago-based Essanay Studios. Some of these featured her infant daughter Harriet Parsons, who later went on to be a Hollywood producer and director. Louella is credited as contributing to the scenario of Charlie Chaplin’s His New Job (1915), not the last time she would cross paths with the comedian.

In 1914 Parsons launched her first movie gossip column at a Chicago paper, but it was a few years later when she wrote flattering words about Marion Davies for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Morning Telegraph that her career began to take off, with Hearst distributing her columns through his entire newspaper empire. Along with Chaplin, she was one of those present on the infamous 1924 yacht trip during which Thomas Ince died. Peter Bogdanovich dramatized this event in the 2001 movie The Cat’s Meow, with Parsons counterintuitively portrayed by the small and attractive Jennifer Tilly. Parsons moved to Hollywood in 1925 to take advantage of the climate (she had TB). Towards the end of the decade, she had a period where she further explored other media. She wrote the story for the 1927 film Isle of Forgotten Women (1927) starring Conway Tearle and Dorothy Sebastian. She had a cameo in the film Show People (1928).

Also in 1928 she began doing radio broadcasts, pioneering this form of entertainment years before later columnists like Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, and Hopper, who didn’t emerge as Parsons’ main competition until around 1938. THis was shortly after the biggest scoop of parsons’ career, the FairbanksPickford divorce. By 1941, the year of Citizen Kane, Hopper was the one getting the scoops, humiliating Parsons in front of her own boss as regards the content of that film!

Parsons had cameos as herself in several additional movies: Hollywood Hotel (1937), Without Reservations (1946), The Corpse Came C.O.D. (1947), and Starlift (1951). She was also an occasional television guest in later years, although she never had her own TV show.

Parsons retired in 1965, kind of a catastrophic time for the Old Guard of Gossip. Dorothy Kilgallen died later that year. Hopper died in early ’66. Parsons and Winchell died the same year (1972), followed by 1974. By then the power base had definitively shifted from newspapers to television. Come the new millennium it would never stop shifting.

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