Ron Briley: Review of Jennifer Frost's "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism" (New York University Press, 2011)
Ron Briley is a book reviewer for HNN.
Those who lament the blurring of the personal and political, the extreme partisanship, and the obsession with celebrity of the contemporary media would do well to consult Jennifer Frost’s study of Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood gossip columns from the late 1930s until her death in 1966. The venues for this dialogue may have changed with today’s social media and round the clock cable television news, but the foundation for our modern age was certainly apparent in the partisanship and conservatism of Hopper’s columns. Frost, senior lecturer in history at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, has not written a biography of Hopper, but instead Frost focuses upon a close reading of the many letters sent to Hopper by her admirers and readers; many of whom were female, white, and middle class. Frost acknowledges that historically gossip has been perceived as the private talk of women; however, in the hands of Hopper her female readers were empowered to enforce community standards which the columnist equated with the anticommunist agenda of the Republican Party. According to Frost, Hopper “believed that a person’s real self could only be viewed in private; therefore private talk reveals the truth; and she considered invasion of privacy in the interests of democracy; her readership had a public’s right to know about prominent figures” (5).
The influential Hopper began her life in humble circumstances as Elda Furry in 1885. Growing up in Altoona, Pennsylvania as the child of socially conservative Quaker parents, Hopper had to do many family chores for an ill mother, while her father labored in his butcher shop. Accordingly, she welcomed the opportunity to leave home and pursue a career on the New York City stage. While performing in the theater, she met actor DeWolf Hopper who was twice her age. The couple wed in 1915, and the union produced a son. Hopper was DeWolf’s fifth wife, and this marriage failed in 1922 when Hopper refused to abandon her career. In the 1920s, Hopper secured a contract with MGM and moved to Hollywood, where she often portrayed secondary roles as a wealthy society wife. With her screen roles declining in the late 1930s, she accepted the sponsorship of MGM Studio chief Louis B. Mayer to become a Hollywood gossip columnist who would rival Louella Parsons of the William Randolph Hearst newspaper empire. When the Los Angeles Times picked up Hopper’s column in 1938, Parsons had a major competitor in Hopper who sought to champion the moral conservatism of her youth in Altoona.
Although she was consistently anticommunist and antiunion, Hopper could also waver in her views on the powers of the state. She opposed what she described as the centralization of power by the Franklin Roosevelt administration during the New Deal and World War II, but she perceived no problems with the United States shaping a global empire to oppose communism in the Cold War. Frost concludes, nevertheless, that Hopper’s promotion of gossip rather than the state to police personal life reflected her more libertarian principles. Thus, Hopper would use her position as a molder of public opinion to encourage her readers to mount boycotts of stars whose politics and personal lives failed to reflect what Hopper perceived as true American values.
Hopper’s antistatism led the columnist to oppose American entrance into the Second World War, and briefly she was on the same anti-interventionist page as Hollywood leftists. Following Pearl Harbor, she, of course, enlisted in the war effort. However, she did champion the World War II conscientious objector status of Lew Ayres, who starred in the Hollywood version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). This case reflected Hopper’s tendency to associate film roles with personal politics and to give the benefit of the doubt to performers who cooperated with the gossip columnist. Her respect for civil liberties, however, was not extended to Charlie Chaplin. Hopper perceived Chaplin as a sexual libertine and communist sympathizer who was un-American in his values and adherence to his British citizenship. Hopper would later claim credit for driving Chaplin out of the United States.
But the Chaplin case was hardly unique for Hopper as she joined the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideas who welcomed the investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities into communist subversion in the film industry. Hopper perceived Hollywood social problem films as reflecting the United States in a negative light, and she depicted such filmmakers as un-American. She also had little problem working with the FBI, American Legion, and studio executives to enforce a blacklist of the Hollywood Ten and others suspected of harboring leftist sympathies. Frost writes, “Liberty and freedom were at the heart of Hopper’s Americanism. She used these words to convey the basic right to live one’s life free of external restraints and to privilege independence and individualism over social qualities or collective interests” (95). Although again Hopper could be surprising as she defended Lucille Ball from the actress’s associations with the Communist Party during her youth. Recognizing the popularity of Ball’s I Love Lucy television program, Hopper even made a guest star appearance in an episode focusing upon the columnist’s fetish for hats.
On the other hand, Hopper consistently believed that the civil rights movement was a threat to traditional American values. Hopper saw nothing wrong with Hollywood’s stereotypical representation of African Americans. The columnist successfully campaigned for a special Oscar to recognize the performance of James Baskett as Uncle Remus in Walt Disney’s Song of the South (1946). Hopper also defended Hattie McDaniel’s depiction of the black mammy in such films as Gone with the Wind (1939). Hopper did not understand how younger black performers such as Sidney Poitier could be supportive of the civil rights movement which Hopper perceived as undermining America in the eyes of the world.
In addition to perpetuating ideas of white supremacy, Hopper argued that the traditional family unit was the backbone of the nation. Nevertheless, the columnist believed that women similar to herself could pursue a career and be a homemaker. The key to preserving the American home, according to Hopper, was containing female sexuality. In scandals such as Frank Sinatra leaving his wife Nancy for Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor’s affair with Debbie Reynolds’s husband Eddie Fisher, Hopper placed blame upon Gardner and Taylor.
Hopper’s criticism of Taylor, however, did little to injure the star’s career whose celebrity status was only enhanced after she left Fisher for Richard Burton during the filming of Cleopatra (1963). In fact, Hopper’s political influence was waning in the late 1950s and early 1960s as with the advent of television and the breakdown of the studio system, the film industry’s ubiquitous role in the culture was less significant than when Hopper began her column in the 1930s. The younger generation of film stars was no longer dependent upon the studios and the approval of gossip columnists. Hopper was also increasingly out of step politically in the 1960s. She campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Hopper believed that the Civil Rights Act allowed for “Negro supremacy.” She would not live to see the 1980 political triumph of her friend Ronald Reagan.
Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood is a well researched and written account of Hopper’s career. Although she does not agree with Hopper’s politics, Frost is fair in her treatment of the columnist. In fact, Frost is considerably more understanding and tolerant than Hopper was with those who did not share her definition of Americanism. As we despair of the current partisanship in Washington; labeling a President with whom one might disagree as a Nazi, socialist, or communist and un-American; and efforts to enforce definitions of morality and marriage upon Presidential candidates, it is worth recalling the bitter political climate of the 1950s fostered by commentators such as Hedda Hopper. Frost’s book reminds us that while technology has advanced, the deep fissures of American politics and culture from the post war era remain with us, undermining efforts to promote toleration, dialogue, and respect for diverse opinions.
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