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.
"She created Hollywood gossip. She was the first person to write a daily movie gossip column in 1915. She was the first person to convince America that stars were important.
"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."
"How did she feel about homosexuality?"
"She was like most people at the time in Hollywood; she tolerated it, she was familiar with the gay community, but I don't think she approved of it in her daughter [Parsons's only child Harriet was a lesbian].
"I wish I had insight into Harriet's torment. It was so obvious that she was struggling all her life. She was still bitter, even after Louella died; she was going to write a memoir called I Didn't Tell Mother. But in the end, her obituary read 'Louella Parsons's Daughter,' even though she was a respected producer in the '40s."
"Did she bring home her girlfriends?"
"No. Oh, no. I think by the time she came out, she was probably in her 40s. They didn't have that close a relationship. Harriet was devoted to Louella. This was definitely a love/hate relationship."
Parsons loved movies. "She was addicted," Ms. Barbas said. "When she was in her 70s, she was still reviewing five films a week. All her career she was not only writing a gossip column, but she did film reviews. So she was writing two columns every day. And for each one she had to watch a film."
"Who is the Louella of today?"
"I don't think we have one. There's the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, but these don't reach a mass audience. We have People and other, similar publications. The concept of celebrities has expanded. Anyone can be a celebrity. Gossip and news have fused. Now we have a gossip culture. We don't need to go to somebody's column to find out who's sleeping with who."
"Why do you think we want to know?"
"Well, in the '20s, I think Louella was very smart. She brought this up in an interview, she said, 'I think that as a modern society, we don't know our neighbors, we have no community.' She believed we were looking for some intimate connection with people. Maybe this is one way."
"So much that was written in the gossip column was illusion."
"Yes, and all the classic American fables -- 'rags to riches,' 'work hard and succeed,' 'the good will be rewarded.' Those are all woven into the celebrity myth. We know it's a sham. Yet we're willing to participate in it. More than ever we know it's a sham, but it's still addictive."
"What would Parsons make of today's films?"
"She would criticize the sex and violence. Part of me thinks she would faint, but on the other hand, she always appreciated a good story. So she might see some merit in some films today. But she was basically Victorian. She was born in the 1880s. Yes, she would faint at a lot of stuff.
"I wish that I had more to go on with Louella. I want to dig deeper. I want to write a history of female ambition in the 20th Century. What drives women to do these things, particularly at times in history when they're not encouraged? How are their efforts perceived, and where did their inspiration come from? What's the role of men and other women in this ambition?"
"A personal question, how did you survive while you did this work for the book?"
"I was teaching full-time in Orange County. I didn't get any fellowships. I did it on my own."