Monday, March 4, 2024

Op-ed: The Gossip Columnists Of Hollywood’s Past

Everyone is a gossip columnist today courtesy of social media. There are notable names, but anybody can make a splash with hot takes, rumors, and stupid conspiracies about how certain people are part of the Illuminati and so on. (Thank you, AND, fuck you, Twitter.) But the old-timers, and I say this with respect to living former columnist of print, will remember an era when a single person played a major role and be widely recognized on all mediums and were feared. There would be rivalries on who got the better story and what rumors were the hottest that celebrities would become Nixonian a make an enemies list starting with them. From the 1930s forward, during Hollywood’s Golden Age, the gossip columnist would step in with juicy details to feed readers’ desires on what was happening behind the scenes.

Jimmie Fidler

He was first seen interviewing actors in Fox Movietone News segments at the dawn of sound in movies before starting his “Jimmie Fidler in Hollywood” column that was published in 187 outlets. Fidler even beat a libel case when the judge ruled that, even if untrue, something told without malice, as in the case of Fidler’s writing, does not count as libelous. In 1933, Fidler began his 15-minute Hollywood on the Air radio show and received over 40 million listeners by 1950. Compared to the others on this list, Fidler was able to avoid major scandal and would continue his radio program until retirement in 1983.

Walter Winchell

While Winchell wasn’t really a Hollywood gossip columnist – he was based in New York City – his columns on celebrities and politicians was powerful but marred in ethical misconduct. Under the protection of the powerful William Randolph Hearst, Winchell’s work made him a famous nationally in the 1930s with damning stories on anyone he hated or was given scoops to by his high connections with a cracking writing style that was widely recognizable. Winchell, like another columnist, attacked suspected communists and aligned himself with McCarthyism, but also went after alleged Nazi sympathizers and isolationists like Charles Lindburgh. His power was untamed and unmatched until the 1960s, but by then, Hollywood would produce Sweet Smell Of Success starring Burt Lancaster in a role based on Winchell that confirmed his legacy as a power player in the gossip business.

Louella Parsons

(Picture of Parsons)

Parsons was the first gossip columnist in Hollywood, writing in 1914 first for the Chicago Record-Herald, then The Morning Telegraph, and then moving to California where she wrote for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Her column would be published in over seven hundred newspapers globally with a readership of twenty million. Her success is in part due to the papers being owned by William Randolph Hearst, who backed Parsons for supporting his mistress, Marion Davies, as an up-and-coming actress. Parson was given the title, “Queen Of Hollywood,” for her influence and printing stories ahead of everyone else until Hedda Hopper arrived and engaged in a bitter rivalry which Hopper won. Parsons would release her memoirs and retire comfortably.

Hedda Hopper

Arguably the most notorious gossip columnist of the Golden Age, Hopper had a readership of 35 million in the 1940s when writing for The Los Angeles Times. Hopper was an actress initially, but when her career was winding down, she became a writer where she got scoops that caught the attention of everyone. Immediately, she became the arch-rival of Parsons and would surpass her in viewership and influence. Hopper’s persona was also of interest with her flamboyance and flair for intentionally writing false rumors, some of which she’d be sued for. A conservative and staunchly anti-communist, Hopper named figures she believed were threats to Hollywood and was a promoter of the infamous blacklist. Even as it ended, Hopper remained a fervor critic of anyone with known left-wing views and would continue to write for newspapers until her death in 1966.

Rona Barrett

Barrett began her gossip column career in the 1950s in her native New York City before being hired by the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles in 1966. From there, Barrett’s televised gossip segment would be broadcast in various major ABC affiliates and would reach Frank Sinatra and Ryan O’Neal, who came to dispise her. One story is that an irate O’Neal sent her a live tarantula in retaliation. Barrett would later work on Good Morning America and Today while producing TV specials on various subjects including film, television, music, and various celebrities, plus a magazine called Rona Barrett’s Hollywood: Nothing But the Truth. After stints on Entertainment Tonight and her own morning show she breifly held on NBC, Barrett retired in 1991 and now runs her own non-profit organization that supports senior citizens in need.

Follow me on Twitter: brian_cine (Cine-A-Man)

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