Louella was short, dumpy and unattractive, a three-times married Catholic who delivered innumerable Hollywood “excloooseeves” (as she pronounced it) for the Hearst publishing empire and its Los Angeles Examiner flagship. Orson Welles was her bete noir.
Hedda, an ex chorus girl and character actress, was better looking — tall and thin, and elegant of appearance who barked out questions like a county prosecutor. (You can check her out via her cameo role in Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic, Sunset Blvd.). Hopper’s flagship paper was The Los Angeles Times. Hedda despised Charlie Chaplin.
Together, their daily reports of studio coups, production snafus and star indiscretions reached some 75 million readers, giving the columnists enormous power in an inherently nervous town.
These two gutsy women were at various times called vindictive, semi-literate, often inaccurate and ‘ silly women.’ Whatever, they influenced Hollywood movie making and mores for nearly three decades.
It only needed one of these ladies to hint that an actor or actress was ‘box office poison’ for contracts to be terminated and studio doors to be slammed, wrote actor David Niven in his very entertaining 1975 memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses.
Niven pointedly noted that this unlikely couple had this in common – they loathed each other.
Anecdotes about the pair’s reporting gaffes are numerous, but nowhere near as numerous as their combined scoops.
Competition between the two was ferocious. Hedda supposedly ran with an item calling George Burns the lousiest actor she ever saw. Angered, Louella supposedly phoned Burns complaining to HIM that she didn’t get the item first.
Niven felt that a large part of their columns was pure fabrication. He wrote that Hedda once tried to dissuade Elizabeth Taylor from marrying British actor Michael Wilding because he had indulged in homosexual relations with Stewart Granger.
Despite Niven’s assertions that Wilding was indeed heterosexual, Hopper decided to run with the item anyway in a book she was preparing. The upshot: Hedda and her publisher were sued for three million dollars and had to cough up a hefty settlement and an abject apology.
Then there is the matter of Joseph Cotten and Deanna Durbin, the Southern Virginia gentlemen and the wholesome wunderkind from Winnepeg. In 1943, the pair were costarring at Universal in the 1943 musical drama, Hers To Hold.
According to Cotten’s most readable 1987 autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, the two coincidentally slept over one night — separately — in their respective studio quarters, arriving at the lot an hour apart from each other. (Cotten observers, including Welles, differ about that sleeping separately claim. But no matter.)
Shortly after Hopper’s phone rang, the item appeared in her column that Cotten and Durbin, married to others at the time, were indeed an item. Cotten was furious, and phoned the columnist with this statement: If you mention my name in your column personally again, I’ll kick you in the ass.
At a swanky dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel soon after, Cotten did just that. Hedda was sitting in a cane-bottomed chair, and contact (of the kick) was positive enough to disturb the flower garden on top of one of the outrageous hats for which she was renowned, Cotten wrote.
After a moment of stunned silence a “group of gentlemen” surrounded the actor, carrying him from the room on their shoulders to the bar, where I was toasted in champagne by all.
Niven is generous overall in his assessment of the columnists. It took guts and ability for Hedda and Louella to rise to the top of this inkstained pile of professional reporters, and it took tremendous stamina and craftiness on their part to remain there for a quarter of a century.
Hedda died in 1966 at the age of 80. Louella outlived her, expiring at 91 in 1972.