The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons by Samantha Barbas. The University of California Press, 2005; $29.95; 420 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Hollywood celebrities feared her. William Randolph Hearst adored her. Between 1915 and 1960, Louella Parsons was America's premier movie gossip columnist and in her heyday commanded a following of more than forty million readers. This first full-length biography of Parsons tells the story of her reign over Hollywood during the studio era, her lifelong alliance with her employer, William Randolph Hearst, and her complex and turbulent relationships with such noted stars, directors, and studio executives as Orson Welles, Joan Crawford, Louis B. Mayer, Ronald Reagan, and Frank Sinatra -- as well as her rival columnists Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell. Loved by fans for her "just folks," small-town image, Parsons became notorious within the film industry for her involvement in the suppression of the 1941 film Citizen Kane and her use of blackmail in the service of Hearst's political and personal agendas. As she traces Parsons's life and career, Samantha Barbas situates Parsons's experiences in the broader trajectory of Hollywood history, charting the rise of the star system and the complex interactions of publicity, journalism, and moviemaking. Engagingly written and thoroughly researched, The First Lady of Hollywood of Hollywood is both an engrossing chronicle of one of the most powerful women in American journalism and film and a penetrating analysis of celebrity culture and Hollywood power politics.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Variety: Samantha Barbas meticulously paints the portrait of a complex woman, at once frightened because she thought she couldn't write and feared being scooped, and frightening, as the attack dog of the industry in general and Hearst in particular. She was a relentless enforcer for the studios, spanking stars or praising them. "Marilyn Monroe could do no wrong, Marlon Brando no right," Barbas notes. Judy Garland was admonished for not shedding 15 pounds, Donald O'Connor for refusing to make the last Francis (the talking mule) movie.
Library Journal Reviews: Set within the framework of evolving American popular culture, this insightful first biography of legendary Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons is also a fascinating look at the world of movies, newspapers, politics, publicity, and ever-changing social roles. Barbas (author of Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity) portrays her subject as a talented and determined woman who rose above stereotypical boundaries and created her own opportunities.... Solid details of Parsons's life aid in presenting a three-dimensional portrait of both the woman and the public figure. This well-researched and finely written work will appeal to a wide readership.
Publishers Weekly: Historian Barbas's thoroughly researched and footnoted biography of the powerful gossip columnist who virtually invented celebrity journalism asks to be taken seriously as a chronicle of American history at a pivotal time -- but it is also a fast and fascinating read.... Of its kind, this is a terrific book about an unusual life, and the author has done future Hollywood historians a great service by documenting it so carefully, incidentally exposing all the falsehoods Parsons related in her own 1945 autobiography, The gay illiterate.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Born in 1972, Samantha Barbas was raised in Sacramento and Seattle. "My mother is Japanese," said Ms. Barbas, on the day that we talked (Ms. Barbas was at home in Seattle and I, in California). "My mother was a pianist. She's now an accountant. My father was doing import/export work with Japan. He did some work with the film industry back in the '60s, which is perhaps how I got interested in this area." Ms. Barbas did her undergraduate work in political science at Williams College in Massachusetts and received her Ph.D. in American history at UC Berkeley.
Between her undergraduate and graduate work Ms. Barbas lived for a year in Japan in a Zen monastery. "That's about as far from Hollywood as you can get," she said. What she did at the monastery was "cook a lot of tofu and vegetarian food. I was also practicing the Zen routine."
"Do you still practice?"
She wasn't a big movie fan as a child. "I discovered movies in Berkeley when I was 24. I wandered into Movie Image and found all these old films. I had never, ever seen an old movie. I became determined that I was going to see every old film in that store. I got one of those prepaid accounts, and by the end of the first year I'd racked up 400 films. I don't know why that world of Hollywood, in the '30s particularly, mesmerized me. It's probably the photography. Black and white. Beautiful tones. I became hooked.
"I was interested in cultural history but I didn't have a particular area. I became interested in film and the impact of film on American society at that time. So, I did my dissertation on movies and culture in the early 20th Century; so, fan clubs."
"From which your first book came."
"Yes. I became interested in Parsons through that book, as I saw how much fans adored this woman. I had to figure out what she was all about. There's no biography. There was a dual biography written by a journalist in the '70s, but it focused on the rivalry with Hedda Hopper. It didn't get into what drove this woman. So, I set out to do research. I started in 2002."
"The footnotes are impressive."
"The research was tedious. She didn't leave any papers. I started by reading her columns from 1915 to 1963. She wrote every day. Several thousand columns. I used to have perfect vision and now I have these big glasses.
"So often today she's caricatured and criticized. No one would take her seriously today, but people then did take her seriously. Her fans took her seriously; they appreciated what she was doing. They didn't think her writing was excessive.