• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

"She had a good sense of spotting cultural trends, and she knew this was a time people wanted gossip, but sanitized gossip. The culture wasn't ready for scandal.

"Her great fan base was in rural America. She played to women who wanted to believe that the stars were like the family next-door -- a little more glamorous but conservative. Making casseroles. Chatting over the back fence."

As a writer, said Ms. Barbas, Parsons "never improved. But I don't think writing was the point. The point, for her, was that she wanted the scoop. She was a newspaperwoman at heart. She loved that thrill of having it before anyone.

"She craved attention. She could never get enough. She'd work herself to the point of illness. The only time she ever took a rest was when she was too sick to work."

Parsons came down with tuberculosis. Hearst, her boss, took care of Parsons's needs as she recovered. About this, Ms. Barbas said, "That helped me understand why she was willing to carry out Hearst's deeds. He'd saved her. She was paying him back.

"Hearst was good to his women reporters. He was personally devoted to his mother, who was a strong woman and a bit of a feminist. Because of that he was open to women reporters. He put them on the front page, monitored their careers. He also knew that this was a time when women were starting to read newspapers, but also becoming consumers.

"He wanted to draw women onto the papers. 'Sob stories' were launched by Hearst. He also developed a 'woman's interest' page and needed star women reporters for that."

Parsons was a collector, Ms. Barbas explained. "She had a huge estate -- every now and then I meet people who say, 'I own one of Louella Parsons's perfume collections or something.' She had an enormous estate full of knickknacks and lost it all in the end. It's still being auctioned on eBay."

Ms. Barbas bid on none of Parsons's eBay treasures. "I knew it would be in bad taste, and it probably wouldn't help me that much."

Parsons's head, I noted, seemed overlarge for her body. Ms. Barbas responded, "She had a round, big face. She wore these horrible corsets, trying to shrink herself, as she was quite heavy at times."

Parsons had many younger women friends. "Her friendships with women were always difficult," said Ms. Barbas. "I'm not sure that she had many enduring friendships. She was male-oriented. She always had to have a lover; she had to have the approval of some male editor. She saw her female peers as rivals. Younger women could be mentored or non-threatening."

Parsons left few private papers. "I wish she had," Ms. Barbas said. "The only thing that I ever got that seemed to be written from the heart are several letters that she'd written to other people, that weren't particularly revealing. There were some to Hearst that detailed her dirty deeds.

"She did have this collection of scrapbooks -- mostly her news clippings. But there was one yellowed paper stuck between the pages on which she typed to herself that said 'worries of the week.' Something about her sadness over not being able to be with Peter Brady. She had worries. She kept a lot to herself."

Brady, a married man who was unwilling to leave his wife, was the love of Parsons's life. "She had this fascination for Irish men. He was big. He could make her laugh.

"Her final husband, her third, was a Los Angeles urologist -- Harry Martin. She met him in the late '20s. He had come to Hollywood earlier in the decade and was working as an abortionist and VD specialist for the studios.

"She married him when she was almost 50. They were absolutely passionate and remained so until he died in 1951. Dockey, as she called him, was an incurable drunk. There are stories about Dockey passing out on the floor and Louella saying, 'Don't wake him up, he has to operate in the morning.' Apparently this happened often.

"He'd give her all the news on the abortions and whatnot before anybody else found out. She would get the results of tests before these starlets even got them back. This was all highly unethical.

"I'm amazed how Dockey put up with the whole thing. He seemed to be saintly. Sure, they argued. But he didn't mind being upstaged by this woman. He served as her agent; he'd go out and get food while she worked on her radio scripts. He was a very modern husband in that way."

Parsons and Dockey squandered their money. "I think she was so fascinated by putting on the show, she didn't care what it cost. Hearst squandered his fortune too."

"She had awful taste."

"Right, but it also was modeled on Hearst."

Ms. Barbas explained that Parsons was not popular with all the stars. "Garbo would have nothing to do with her. Many stars stood up to her. Jeanette McDonald refused to appear on her radio show, as did Mary Pickford. I think once they reached a certain security, with their image, they didn't worry about being banned from Louella's columns. It didn't matter. They knew that she was never going to slam them. She had a job to protect the film industry. This was a time when there was censorship, and she'd never print anything scandalous."

"What did she make of Brando?"

"She thought he was a snot. Hollywood was changing in the '50s, and she was used to the old studio system where stars were disciplined and controlled by studios. Here comes Brando, and he's cocky and so he doesn't live the celebrity lifestyle and defies what his producers want for him. So she refuses to acknowledge him in her column, except in critical ways, and he snubs her. This is typical of what happened with many younger stars in the '50s. They said 'Louella who?' and her column didn't mean that much anymore."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

More from the web

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close