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Jack Smith

He remembers tales of fabled old Hollywood as ruled by those two grande dames of gossip

May 19, 1985|JACK SMITH

I did not know either Louella Parsons or Hedda Hopper, but as a newspaperman I had brief encounters with both, and so I was fascinated the other night by the TV movie of their competitive careers, "Malice in Wonderland."

Any pretense of verisimilitude was discarded in the casting of Elizabeth Taylor as Louella Parsons. Even when she wore her mink coat flared wide and walked with a waddle, Taylor in no way suggested the dumpling that was Parsons.

I met Louella only once, when she introduced Perle Mesta, then the recent ambassador to Luxembourg, at a small press conference in the Beverly Hills Hotel. My editor had instructed me to avoid any discussion of the tourist attractions, steel production and gross national product of Luxembourg and get to the point: Those expensive parties the ambassador was said to have thrown for American servicemen.

Protected as she was by Parsons, Madame Mesta avoided my questions until I finally asked her bluntly: "Madame, where is Luxembourg, anyway?"

That caught them both off guard.

To Madame Mesta's credit, however, she told me, and I solemnly took notes.

I encountered Hedda Hopper only over the telephone. A few times, when I was on night rewrite at The Times, she called in what she regarded as news stories. She would tell me the story, with occasional interjections and asides, and then say something like, "That's it, dear. You'll put it into English for me, won't you?"

She would have done her job, and I would do mine.

I rather liked her.

Ironically, one of Hedda's crueler news stories was one that concerned Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor's third husband, Michael Todd, had been killed in a plane crash, and not long after that tragedy Hedda and Taylor happened to be flying east together on the same plane. Wasting no tears, Taylor told Hedda, "Mike's dead and I'm alive," and Hedda couldn't wait to tell the world.

Andy Hervey, a studio publicity planter since 1919, now retired in Oceanside, tells me it isn't true that Hedda Hopper was given her start by Louis B. Mayer as a counter-weapon against Louella.

The truth is, Hervey says, that Howard Denby, head of the Esquire Syndicate in Chicago, was looking for a Hollywood columnist and asked Hervey to find him one. He suggested Hopper and two or three others; Denby flew to Hollywood, talked to Hopper, and called Hervey to say that he had signed "the new first lady of Hollywood." She had style, she had a small name, she loved gossip, and someone could be found to do her writing.

For many years Hervey's main job was to plant stories in Louella's and Hedda's columns. "When I filled out my draft registration form during World War II where it said, 'What do you do best?' I wrote 'Plant Louella and Hedda.' "

Hervey thinks the famous feud was created by outsiders, and that the two women felt obliged to be "bitches" toward each other.

"It was pretty much like that," recalls John Campbell, who was with 20th Century Fox publicity. "If you gave Hedda an exclusive you were out of Louella's column, and if she could nail you, she would."

But Campbell liked Louella. She was loyal and she was generous. One Christmas, he remembers, when he hardly knew her, she gave him four hand-painted neckties. "They must have cost $15 each."

Both women were in a tough business. "Louella heard that Shirley Temple and John Agar were having marital difficulties. Shirley asked Louella not to mention it--they were trying to work it out. She didn't do the story, and next morning it was in Harrison Carroll's column in the Herald-Express."

Hervey remembers that Parsons was the better reporter; Hedda more careless, more eccentric. "Once she wrote that Judy Garland, who wasn't married, was going to have a baby. Judy threatened to sue. It turned out to be Judy Canova, who was married, who was going to have the baby."

Stars were quick to report any change in their lives to one or both of the columnists. One night Lupe Velez and her husband, Johnny Weismuller, had come home from a party and Johnny decided to take a midnight swim. He dived into the pool and Lupe decided it would be fun to throw in her three Mexican hairless dogs. She did. Johnny hated the dogs. He got out of the pool and said he was going to divorce her. Lupe called Louella.

Louella could be gracious. Once Hervey took Clark Gable to her house to be interviewed. This was after Carole Lombard had been killed in an airplane crash. They had what seemed to Hervey a casual chat at the bar, but Gable called Hervey later in a panic. He had heard that Louella's Sunday column in the Examiner was to say that Gable had told her he would never marry again. Since he was then going with Kay Williams, whom he indeed hoped to marry, and did, that story might have been ruinous. Louella pulled it back.

But she could also take her revenge. Nunnally Johnson once wrote a magazine story about her called "The Gay Illiterate." Not amused, Louella later wrote in her column that a certain woman "used to be such a pretty girl before she married Nunnally Johnson."

Johnson, who was one of Hollywood's sharpest wits, was said not to have been amused.

As for Hedda, Louella always called her "that woman."

As Campbell says, that kind of reporting isn't dead. It's just been moved from Hollywood to Washington.

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