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The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons

Samantha Barbas
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 426
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnjh4
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  • Book Info
    The First Lady of Hollywood
    Book Description:

    Hollywood celebrities feared her. William Randolph Hearst adored her. Between 1915 and 1960, Louella Parsons was America's premier movie gossip columnist and in her heyday commanded a following of more than forty million readers. This first full-length biography of Parsons tells the story of her reign over Hollywood during the studio era, her lifelong alliance with her employer, William Randolph Hearst, and her complex and turbulent relationships with such noted stars, directors, and studio executives as Orson Welles, Joan Crawford, Louis B. Mayer, Ronald Reagan, and Frank Sinatra-as well as her rival columnists Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell. Loved by fans for her "just folks," small-town image, Parsons became notorious within the film industry for her involvement in the suppression of the 1941 filmCitizen Kaneand her use of blackmail in the service of Hearst's political and personal agendas. As she traces Parsons's life and career, Samantha Barbas situates Parsons's experiences in the broader trajectory of Hollywood history, charting the rise of the star system and the complex interactions of publicity, journalism, and movie-making. Engagingly written and thoroughly researched,The First Lady of Hollywoodis both an engrossing chronicle of one of the most powerful women in American journalism and film and a penetrating analysis of celebrity culture and Hollywood power politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94024-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Prologue: September 1941
    (pp. 1-4)

    In hollywood it was a difficult time. Though film attendance was at an all-time high—that year eighty-five million tickets were sold each week—the major studios were under attack. The war in Europe and Asia had led to a decline in foreign markets, the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating the alleged involvement of several prominent actors with communism, and a Senate commission accused Hollywood of warmongering by making films that promoted U.S. intervention in the overseas conflict. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission had allowed regular commercial television broadcasting to begin on July 1, 1941, panicking those in Hollywood...

  5. PART I
    • ONE Early Years
      (pp. 7-27)

      Though dixon was louella’s hometown, her story began in Freeport, Illinois, thirty miles north. Like most small communities in north-central Illinois in the 1880s, it was quiet, rural, tight-knit, and fiercely proud. Settled by miners, army volunteers in the Blackhawk war of the 1830s, and German immigrants, during the 1840s it was a regular stagecoach stop on the route to Chicago, a hundred miles east. Thanks to industrial development in the region, by the 1880s Freeport had grown into a town of fifteen thousand that was a thriving center of business and industry and one of the most important commercial...

    • TWO Essanay
      (pp. 28-43)

      Louella was no stranger to this city of big shoulders, this gritty metropolis that, in 1910, over two million residents called home. Like Frank Cowperwood of Theodore Dreiser’s 1914 novelThe Titan,she had seen from the train window the flat brown land that ringed the city’s outskirts, the Chicago River “with its mass of sputtering tugs and its black oily water,” and the “little one and two story houses” that stood on the edge of town.¹ Before, on her visits from Freeport with Helen, Louella had enjoyed the bright lights of the theater district and the color of the...

    • THREE The Column
      (pp. 44-60)

      For years, Louella boasted that she was the first movie gossip writer in the country. Like much of what she claimed about herself, this was exaggerated. She was not the first journalist to write about film stars. Fan magazines were flourishing by 1915, and theChicago Tribunehad two movie writers, Kitty Kelly and the pseudonymous “Mae Tinee,” who reviewed films and occasionally commented on actors’ personal lives and careers. Also, Louella’s column, initially, was hardly a gossip column. In its first two months, “Seen on the Screen” read more like the business column in a film trade journal. “Alfred...

    • FOUR New York
      (pp. 61-76)

      Louella often wondered what would have happened if she had moved to Los Angeles instead of New York. By 1918, Hollywood, which produced over three quarters of American films, was fast becoming the nation’s movie capital.¹ In the new empire of sun, citrus, and celluloid, reported the newspapers and fan magazines, former mechanics and waitresses were transformed into glittering screen idols, sometimes literally overnight. While the newly minted film stars played out their real-life fantasies in their sprawling mansions, automobiles, and nightclubs, a cast of supporting characters—studio technicians, set and costume designers, publicists, and editors—made more modestly comfortable...

    • FIVE “The Lovely Miss Marion Davies”
      (pp. 77-90)

      Louella’s work on theTelegraphbrought her into contact with some of the most fascinating and celebrated personalities of her day. She interviewed Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, and Cecil B. DeMille, discussed philosophy with Harry Houdini, and posed for a portrait by the amateur caricaturist (and renowned opera star) Enrico Caruso, whose unflattering sketch, Louella wrote, “punctured my girlish vanity.”¹ She lunched at the Algonquin Hotel with novelist Fannie Hurst, danced with Rudolph Valentino, and dined with Charlie Chaplin at the home of the well-known New York entertainment lawyer Nathan Burkan. Film premieres threw...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
  6. PART II
    • SIX On the Way to Hollywood
      (pp. 93-107)

      If louella worked in a car barn at theTelegraph,at theAmericanshe worked in hell. Housed in the former Rheinlander Sugar House, a gloomy building used by the British as a prison during the Revolutionary War, the offices of theAmericanwere, in the words of editor Gene Fowler, near-“purgatorial.” In the composing room on the eighth floor, “molten lead from the linotype pots seeped through crevices in the floor, turned into pellets of hot hail . . . then fell upon the desk [of the night city editor] below.”¹ Editors and reporters rushed around the dim, smoky...

    • SEVEN Hollywood
      (pp. 108-126)

      They were the “days of prohibition, the old Montmartre Café, the Cocoanut Grove, the Charleston, and the Black Bottom,” Louella recalled. “Bands were playing ‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.’ The girls were wearing kneelength evening gowns and big bows on high-heeled slippers. Clara Bow was the biggest box office star.”¹ The environment in Hollywood in the mid-1920s was wild and heady, colored by the raucous pleasures of Prohibition nightlife and the newfound wealth of the movie elite. The Montmartre Café, on Sunset Boulevard, boasted crystal chandeliers and carpets from Europe and twenty-four hundred pounds of solid silver service. The premiere...

    • EIGHT Feuds
      (pp. 127-147)

      On october 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, sending the nation into financial crisis. Over the next three years, nine thousand banks closed their doors, Americans lost over two and a half billion dollars in deposits, and breadlines formed on street corners throughout the country. Nationwide, the unemployment rate shot up to 25 percent and as high as 70 or 80 percent in some cities.¹ Though the Great Depression would eventually wreak havoc on Hollywood, the film industry successfully weathered the first year of the crisis as the result of an attendance boom created by the talkies. Not until 1931...

    • NINE Radio
      (pp. 148-169)

      At last, the great depression hit hollywood, and it hit hard. In 1931, theater admissions fell from eighty million to seventy million a week and in 1932 dropped to fifty-five million. After registering profits of $14.5 million in 1929 and $7 million in 1930, Warner Brothers lost nearly $8 million in 1931; Paramount sustained a record loss of $21 million in 1932. By 1933, Paramount, Fox, and RKO had gone into receivership, and by the mid-1930s, more than 20 percent of the workforce in Hollywood had been laid off.¹ Though the motion picture industry was better off than many American...

    • TEN The Best and the Hearst
      (pp. 170-190)

      All his life, Hearst had dreamed of the presidency. It was a fitting aspiration for a man with lofty ideals and a regal vision of himself. Though he had served in Congress as a Democratic representative from New York from 1903 to 1907, he lost his bid for the New York governorship and, in 1904, failed in his attempt to win his party’s nomination for the presidency.

      But his fantasies lived on. For the rest of his life, Hearst had an active hand in national politics, using his film and publishing empire to influence, manipulate, and in some cases help...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
  7. PART III
    • ELEVEN The First Lady of Hollywood
      (pp. 193-212)

      Though she was increasingly hated in hollywood, Louella was more popular among American newspaper readers than ever. In 1936, a Chicago-based Louella Parsons fan club formed that had branches in several cities. Moreover, that year she was voted in a New York poll to be “far and away the choice of newspaper readers as the outstanding motion picture columnist,” reported the McCann-Erickson Company, which had taken the survey. “So decisive is her superiority that she has no close rivals.” By 1937, she was earning over a thousand fan letters a week, a testament not only to her ability to command...

    • TWELVE Raising Kane
      (pp. 213-236)

      It was largely as a means of damage control that Louella, in the fall of 1939, began toying with the idea of doing a personal appearance tour. Personal appearance tours had saved the sagging careers of many actors and actresses. Why not that of a wounded Hollywood columnist? In October 1939 she floated the idea by friends, who quickly put her in her place. Yes, fans would turn out to see Clark Gable or Joan Crawford, but how many would pay to see Louella? Fans would pay to see her, Louella countered, if she were surrounded by a group of...

    • THIRTEEN The Gay Illiterate
      (pp. 237-258)

      In hollywood, there were two schools of thought on the Hopper-Louella feud. The first was that it was hype—that Hopper and Louella didn’t hate each other but had staged the war for publicity. This was clearly false; Hopper and Louella resented each other, and they always would. The second was that the feudconsumedthem, and that each wanted nothing more than her rival’s defeat. This, too, was a myth. Certainly Louella would not have shed tears had Hopper lost her lucrative new contract, and Hopper would not have lost any sleep if papers stopped carrying Louella’s column. But...

    • FOURTEEN War and Peace
      (pp. 259-282)

      It was, in retrospect, Hollywood’s last hurrah. Boosted by millions of returning servicemen and a prosperous postwar economy, motion picture attendance in 1946 reached an all-time high. That year, ninety-five million film admissions were sold each week, and the film industry’s revenues soared to $1.7 billion, up from $1.45 billion in 1945. “Maybe we are sitting around in this country waiting to buy new toasters, vacuum cleaners and cars, but we’re not sitting at home my friends,” Louella wrote in an article inCosmopolitanin May 1946. “We’re sitting in movie theaters and the producers are picking up the change.”¹...

    • FIFTEEN Scandal
      (pp. 283-307)

      In 1949 rita hayworth and ingrid bergman were two of the nation’s most beloved screen stars. Hayworth was known primarily for her sex appeal on the screen, and Bergman played a nun. Though their film personae could not have been more different, they were flip sides of the same coin, both products of the sexual schizophrenia of postwar America. The war had encouraged a kind of sexual liberalism. Separated for the duration, many couples had affairs, and across the nation there was greater tolerance for premarital sexual experimentation; but peace ushered in conservatism, as couples married, settled in the suburbs,...

    • SIXTEEN The End of an Era
      (pp. 308-331)

      Hearst and harry were gone. So was the old Hollywood. In 1952, film admissions hit a record low of fifty-eight million a week, down nearly forty million since 1947. Over three thousand theaters had closed since 1950, the number of studio workers regularly employed had declined 15 percent since 1947, and the studios had drastically pared their lists of contract performers. Most of the former top names were freelancing, and a crop of brash newcomers—Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, among others—shattered Hollywood’s image of genteel glamour with their tough swagger and edgier, more naturalistic acting style....

    • SEVENTEEN Eclipse
      (pp. 332-346)

      Louella was almost eighty when, in 1958, Kingsbury Smith, chief of the International News Service, renewed her contract for three years. “I hope I’ll live that long,” she told Smith, half jokingly. Even though she now required an extra daily nap—“I get pretty tired, and rest is very good,” she wrote in a note to Jack Warner—Louella was still energetic and compulsive, with near “cyclonic” energy, as Anita Loos once described it.¹ When asked by an interviewer if and when she planned to retire, she laughed. “I’ll be meeting eight deadlines a week when they have me in...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 347-400)
  9. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 401-408)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 409-417)