Hedda Hopper (born Elda Furry; May 2, 1885 – February 1, 1966) was an American actress and gossip columnist, notorious for feuding with her arch-rival Louella Parsons. She had been a moderately successful actress of stage and screen for years before being offered the chance to write the column Hedda Hopper's Hollywood for the Los Angeles Times in 1938. At the height of her power in the 1940s she commanded a 35 million strong readership. She was well known for her political conservatism, and during the McCarthy era she named suspected communists. Hopper continued to write gossip until the end of her life, her work appearing in many magazines and later on radio.
Hopper was born Elda Furry in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Margaret (née Miller; 1856–1941) and David Furry, a butcher, both members of the German Baptist Brethren. Her family was of Pennsylvania Dutch (German) descent. The family moved to Altoona when Elda was three.
She eventually ran away to New York City and began her career in the chorus on the Broadway stage. Hopper was not successful in this venture, even getting the axe by the renowned Shubert Brothers. Florenz Ziegfeld called the aspiring starlet a "clumsy cow" and brushed off her pleas for a slot in his lavish Follies. After a few years, she joined the theater company of matinee idol DeWolf Hopper, whom she called "Wolfie" and would later marry.
She remained in the chorus and they toured the country. While in the Hopper company, she realized that chorus and understudy jobs were not acting. She wanted to act, and she knew she would have to prove herself before she could hope to get anywhere in the theater. Hearing that Edgar Selwyn was casting his play The Country Boy for a road tour, she went to his office and talked him into letting her audition for the lead. She was given the role and that show toured for thirty-five weeks through forty-eight states. She studied singing during the summer and, in the fall, toured with The Quaker Girl in the second lead, the prima donna role. The show closed in Albany.
In 1913, she became the fifth wife of DeWolf Hopper, whose previous wives were named Ella, Ida, Edna and Nella. The similarity in names caused some friction, as he would sometimes call Elda by the name of one of his former wives. Consequently, Elda Hopper paid a numerologist $10 to tell her what name she should use, and the answer was "Hedda". She began acting in silent movies in 1915. Her motion picture debut was in The Battle of Hearts (1916) with William Farnum, but she made a major splash in 1918's Virtuous Wives, in which she established her pattern for playing society women. Hopper decided to upstage the film's headline starlet, Anita Stewart, by spending all of her $5,000 salary on a lavish wardrobe from the upscale boutique Lucile, which she wore in the film. By 1920 she was commanding $1,000 per week as a free agent in New York; in 1923 she moved to Hollywood and became a contract player for Louis B. Mayer Pictures. She appeared in more than 120 movies over her twenty-three year acting career.
As Hopper's movie career waned in the mid-1930s, she looked for other sources of income. In 1935, she agreed to write a weekly Hollywood gossip column for the Washington Herald at $50 a week (equivalent to $914 in 2018), which was cancelled after four months when she refused to take a $15 pay cut.
In 1937, Hopper was offered another gossip column opportunity, this time with the Los Angeles Times. Her column, entitled "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood", debuted on February 14 (St. Valentine's Day), 1938. Hopper could not type, or spell very well, so she dictated her column to a typist over the phone. Initially facing stiff competition against Louella Parsons, who had a monopoly on Hollywood gossip, Hopper used her extensive contacts forged during her acting days to gather material for her column. Her first major scoop had national implications: in 1939 Hopper printed that President Franklin Roosevelt's son James Roosevelt was divorcing his wife Betsey after being caught in an affair with a nurse at the Mayo Clinic.
During the Second World War, the Nazis used photographs of Hopper in her extravagant hats for propaganda, as a symbol of "American decadence". She made a $250,000 annual salary, which enabled her to live an extravagant lifestyle and maintain a mansion in Beverly Hills, which she described as "the house that fear built".
After Hopper printed a story about an extramarital affair between Joseph Cotten and Deanna Durbin, Cotten ran into Hopper at a social event and pulled out her chair, only to continue pulling it out from under her when she sat down. The next day, he received dozens of flower bouquet deliveries and congratulatory telegrams from others in the industry, thanking him for having the courage to do what everyone else dreamed of doing.
Hopper was an advocate for actress Joan Crawford, whose career suffered in the early 1940s after she was labelled "Box-Office Poison" and forced to resign from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1945, Hopper reprinted a press release for Mildred Pierce in her column, which described Crawford as a leading contender for the Best Actress Oscar. Such was Hopper's influence that she was credited with swinging the decision in Crawford's favor when she won the award. Hopper's support has been described as the first instance of lobbying the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to favor a certain winner.
Joan Bennett sent Hopper a "$435 valentine. The $35 went for a skunk which carried a note: 'Won't you be my valentine? Nobody else will. I stink and so do you.'" Hopper reportedly commented that the skunk was beautifully behaved. She called it Joan and passed it on to actor James Mason and his wife as a present, as they had made the first bid after the story about the unusual gift made the news.
During World War II, Hopper's only child, actor William "Bill" Hopper, served in the Navy in Underwater Demolitions. She chastised Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the son of her old friend the late Douglas Fairbanks, because she thought the younger Fairbanks was shirking his duty to his country. Fairbanks Jr. recalled in his memoirs Salad Days that he was already in uniform serving in the United States Navy, and despised Hopper for her insinuations.
Actor Kirk Douglas recounted an interaction between Hopper and Elizabeth Taylor. At the 1965 premiere of Taylor and husband Richard Burton's film The Sandpiper, Hopper began to complain when she saw screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's screen credit (she had led the charge in blacklisting Trumbo for his Communist party membership). This led Taylor to turn around and say "Hedda, why don't you just shut the fuck up?"
In 1958, Hopper made racist remarks to African American actor Sidney Poitier. While interviewing him, she asked if he could sing, because "so many of your people do". When he replied that he could not, she said:
In 1963, Hopper complained in her column that three out of five Best Actor Oscar nominees were British and only two were American:
Hopper was a fervent Republican. In 1944, for instance, she spoke before the massive rally organized by David O. Selznick in the Los Angeles Coliseum in support of the Dewey-Bricker ticket as well as Governor Earl Warren of California, who later became Dewey's running mate in 1948 and later the Chief Justice of the United States. The gathering drew 93,000, with Cecil B. DeMille as the master of ceremonies and Walt Disney as one of the speakers. Others in attendance included Ronald Reagan, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Sothern, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Adolphe Menjou, Dick Powell, Gary Cooper, Edward Arnold, and William Bendix. Despite the good turnout at the rally, most Hollywood celebrities who took a public position sided with the Roosevelt-Truman ticket.
Hopper strongly supported the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings and was a guest and speaker of the Women's Division at the 1956 Republican National Convention held in San Francisco to renominate the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket.
She was so well known for her conservatism that rumor had it she planned to stand up, unfurl an American flag, and walk out of the 1951 Academy Awards ceremony if Jose Ferrer, a well known socialist, should win Best Actor. The rumor was untrue, but Hopper joked that she wished she had thought of it. Screenwriter Jay Bernstein related that when he told Hedda that because of her extreme conservatism many people in Hollywood privately called her a Nazi, the gossip columnist began to cry and replied: "Jay, all I've ever tried to be is a good American."
Hopper was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Hollywood blacklist, using her 35 million strong readership to destroy the careers of those in the entertainment industry whom she suspected of being Communists, having Communist sympathies, being homosexual, or leading dissolute lives. She was a leading member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, founded in 1944 and devoted to rooting out suspected Communists in Hollywood. She considered herself to be a guardian of moral standards in Hollywood and bragged that she need only wag her finger at a producer and he would break off an adulterous affair instantly.
One of Hopper's most famous victims was screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted throughout the late 1940s and 1950s partially through Hopper's consistently negative coverage of his Communist Party membership. When actor Kirk Douglas hired Trumbo to write the script for Spartacus (1960), Hopper denounced the film in her column, stating that "[the script is based on] a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don't go see it." Nonetheless the film was a critical and financial success.
Charlie Chaplin was another target of Hedda Hopper's vitriol because of his alleged Communist sympathies and his penchant for much younger women, which she considered immoral. She also loathed him for remaining a British citizen and not becoming an American, which she considered an act of ingratitude towards a country which had given him so much. When in 1943 he denied that he was the father of 22-year old actress Joan Barry's child, Hopper assisted Barry in filing a paternity suit against Chaplin, launching a campaign of attrition against him through her column and calling for him to be deported for his "moral turpitude". She defended her behavior by stating that she wished to make an example of Chaplin as "a warning to others involved in dubious relationships." Her grudge deepened when, later in the year, Chaplin married 23-year old Oona O'Neill and gave the scoop to Louella Parsons out of spite for Hedda. For years after the paternity trial, Hopper cooperated with the FBI to destabilize Chaplin's career. This involved her printing damaging information leaked by the FBI concerning Chaplin's past Communist affiliations, while Hopper in turn provided the agency with unsavory gossip about Chaplin's personal life gleaned from her informants. Her sustained criticism of Chaplin was one of the factors which contributed to his being denied re-entry to the United States in 1952.
Actress Ingrid Bergman was also blacklisted as a result of Hedda Hopper's sustained negative coverage in her columns. Hopper had supported Bergman in her column throughout the 1940s, advocating for her to land starring roles in The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) and Joan of Arc (1948). She was enraged when Bergman lied to her about being pregnant with married director Roberto Rossellini's baby. Hopper had believed Bergman's denial of the pregnancy, printing a fervent repudiation of the rumor in 1949. However, Bergman was indeed pregnant, and the news was leaked to Hopper's arch-rival Louella Parsons, who got the scoop. Seeking revenge, Hopper launched a PR campaign decrying Bergman for being pregnant out of wedlock and carrying a married man's child.
Radio and television
Hopper had an acting role in a radio soap opera, playing Portia Brent on the Blue Network's Brenthouse beginning in February 1939. She debuted as host of her own radio program, The Hedda Hopper Show, November 6, 1939. Sponsored by Sunkist, she was heard on CBS three times a week for 15 minutes until October 30, 1942. From October 2, 1944, to September 3, 1945, Armour Treet sponsored a once-a-week program. On September 10, 1945, she moved to ABC, still sponsored by Armour, for a weekly program that continued until June 3, 1946. Hopper moved back to CBS October 5, 1946, with a weekly 15-minute program, This Is Hollywood, sponsored by Procter & Gamble. It ran until June 28, 1947.
Expanding to 30 minutes on NBC, she was host of a variety series, The Hedda Hopper Show, broadcast from October 14, 1950, to November 11, 1950 on Saturdays, then from November 19, 1950, to May 20, 1951 on Sundays. This program featured music, talk and dramatized excerpts from movies with well-known guests, such as Broderick Crawford doing a scene from All the King's Men.
On January 10, 1960, a television special, Hedda Hopper's Hollywood, aired on NBC. Hosted by Hopper, guest interviews included a remarkably eclectic mix of past, current and future stars: Lucille Ball (a longtime friend of Hopper), Francis X. Bushman, Liza Minnelli, John Cassavetes, Robert Cummings, Marion Davies (her last public appearance), Walt Disney, Janet Gaynor, Bob Hope, Hope Lange, Anthony Perkins, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, and Gloria Swanson.
Hopper had several acting roles during the latter part of her career, including brief cameo appearances as herself in the movie Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Patsy (1964), as well as episodes of The Martha Raye Show, I Love Lucy, The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford, and The Beverly Hillbillies, starring Buddy Ebsen. Her autobiography, From Under My Hat (Doubleday, 1952) was followed by The Whole Truth and Nothing But (1962), also published by Doubleday. She remained active as a writer until her death, producing six daily columns and a Sunday column for the Chicago Tribune syndicate, as well as writing articles for celebrity magazines such as Photoplay.
Hopper died on February 1, 1966, of double pneumonia at the age of 80 in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills . The probate value of Hopper's estate was $472,661 gross and $306,679 net. She is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery, Altoona, Pennsylvania.
In popular culture
In 1995, Cynthia Adler portrayed Hedda Hopper in the documentary Carmen Miranda: Bananas is My Business.
In 2002 by Ingrid van Bergen in The Man in the Moon. A Radio-ballett with Charlie Chaplin. A piece for Acoustic Stage Dt. Der Mann im Mond. Ein Radio-Ballett mit Charlie Chaplin. Stück für Akustische Bühne. Written by Evelyn Dörr, on WDR in 2002.
In 2016, Tilda Swinton played in Hail, Caesar! the double part of Thora and Thessaly Thacker, two identical twin sister gossip columnists (mimicking the rivalry between Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, but both heavily based on Hopper herself).
The New York City Opera announced that it will stage the East Coast premiere of Stewart Wallace's Hopper's Wife — a 1997 chamber opera about an imagined marriage between painter Edward Hopper and Hedda Hopper—at Harlem Stage from April 28 through May 1, 2016.