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During the Golden Age of Hollywood, gossip ruined careers. All thanks to Hedda Hopper.
Born Elda Furry in 1885 in Pennsylvania, she ran away at 18 to work on Broadway. She became a chorus girl there and married actor DeWolf Hopper. His previous spouses were, ironically, Ella, Ida, Edna, and Nella. To avoid confusion, Elda changed her name to Hedda after consulting a numerologist. In 1916, she began doing movies and got her big break in Virtuous Wives two years later. But it wasn’t her acting but rather her wardrobe that caught everyone’s attention. Actors provided their own costumes at the time, so she spent her $5,000 salary on clothes. She appeared in over 150 films and TV series, mostly playing society women. However, by the mid-1930s, her career has stalled.
Hedda was a single mother by then, and she was in a desperate search for income. Since she always seemed to know the best gossip, she tried her hand at journalism. In 1935, she debuted her gossip column working for $50 a week. Soon Hopper was making $250,000 per year. Her readership rose to 35 million people. Her pieces became a must-read, as her rival Louella Parsons’s once were.
Since 1939, she hosted her own radio show in addition to her columns. Hedda promoted her friends and crushed those who lied to her or worked with Parsons. A mere article of hers could destroy a celebrity’s career as well as save one.
Once she kept suggesting Ingrid Bergman should star in The Bells of St. Mary’s. When the actress got the part, Hopper was credited as the main factor for producers’ decision. She was the one who ruined her later by writing about her child with director Rossellini. Hedda also helped Joan Crawford to take down Bette Davis. She rang up over 600 Academy voters to tell them about Davis’s nasty behavior on set. Most of those stories were made up by Hopper and Crawford. As a result, Davis didn’t win an Oscar she was expected to get in 1963. Being a conservative and a Republican, Hopper demonized Communists and gays. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted for years after she exposed him as a Communist. She loathed Charlie Chaplin for having affairs with younger girls. He was denied re-entry to the US when she cooperated with the FBI. Hopper referred to her Beverly Hills mansion as «the house that fear built».
Her unscrupulous columns got her many enemies in Hollywood. Joseph Cotten pulled the chair out from under Hopper at a dinner. Joan Bennett sent her a skunk on Valentine’s day. It came with a note: «I stink and so do you». Apart from her scandalous reports, she was famous for her extravagant style. She loved oversized and overdecorated hats and allegedly bought 150 of them per year. Her crazy headgear was even mocked in a Time cover once. The «gargoyle of gossip» worked tirelessly until the very end. She died of pneumonia in 1966. She was 80.
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