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The First Lady of Hollywood

"The First Lady of Hollywood," gossip columnist Louella Parsons, left a mixed legacy, but one so far-reaching that it resonates today.

“The First Lady of Hollywood,” gossip columnist Louella Parsons, left a mixed legacy, but one so far-reaching that it resonates today.

Samantha Barbas has presented an extensively researched tome that places Parsons in the context of her time in terms of the development of movies and the cultural, economic and political climate from WWI to the mid-’60s. The cast includes the power players of the day, with William Randolph Hearst front and center. Virtually every big name from the silent era through talkies, radio and TV appears in this book.

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.

Parsons is pictured as an avaricious woman with an unquenchable thirst for “exclusives,” who would do almost anything to get them, all the while posing as a friendly, chatty neighbor. She was a woman with little writing skill who became the most-read movie columnist, who had a less-than-attractive voice and couldn’t read lines well yet resolutely conquered radio.

Barbas shows how Louella, with her just-among-neighbors style, attempted to deflect the wild, immoral and definitely downmarket image of the early movies. The excesses laid to stage stars were not going to tarnish those on the silver screen. Louella was, first and foremost, a booster of the film industry.

She opposed censorship vociferously when it would have added costs for the studios, which would have had to release different versions of films to fit various state codes. But her position was quite the reverse in other situations: She did all in her power to block the distribution of Orson Welles’ movie “Citizen Kane,” which could be seen to be an attack on her boss and lifelong friend, Hearst.

Barbas discusses the treatment of the Hollywood 10 and then-Sen. Richard Nixon’s role in the persecution of Charlie Chaplin. (Although there are 61 pages of footnotes, an occasional error creeps in, such as the head of HUAC being called a senator, and Nixon being called vice president before he was. But these are aberrations.)

Louella’s rise parallels that of the movies. As her readership rose, so did her clout with the studios, and her ability to coerce stars into giving her exclusives. But there is no mistaking that she was an excellent reporter.

Yes, she packaged the personae of those she covered into what she deemed welcome in small-town America, and so she packaged herself. She didn’t mention her two divorces, making herself seem the WWI widow with a daughter to support — never mind that she’d divorced John Parsons and he’d remarried. She did acknowledge her relationship with Peter Brady, making it work for her as she explained that she knew the heartbreak of loving someone who was not free to marry, and thus understood the sorrows of the stars she covered.

Louella’s feud with Hedda Hopper is recounted in detail. It must have been particularly galling to Louella to have Hedda as a rival because she’d befriended Hedda early on. And when their rivalry became really intense, Louella allegedly stooped to the unspeakable. She reportedly engaged “an obstetrical nurse” at Doctors’ Hospital in Manhattan to report on stars having abortions — which were illegal at the time. This is particularly ironic given that her beloved “Docky,” third husband Dr. Harry Martin, a urologist, was also, reportedly, an abortionist.

The chapter titled “Scandal” is particularly revealing. Earlier in the book Barbas describes how Louella pictured stars as living like their onscreen characters. Men whose roles were athletic were seen at home engaging in sports. Virtuous leading ladies were shown to be the essence of domesticity.

Thus, when married Rita Hayworth was involved in a scandalous love affair with married Prince Ali Khan — and pregnant at the time of her marriage to him — since her image was one of being wildly sexual, her career didn’t suffer. However, when Ingrid Bergman, “St. Joan,” became pregnant and had a child by Roberto Rossellini before they were married, it destroyed Bergman in Hollywood. Louella broke the story of the pregnancy and put Bergman in such lofty company as Mary, Queen of Scots, “who gave up her throne for love of the Earl of Bothwell” (historians might disagree) and Emma, Lady Hamilton, who bore Lord Nelson’s child,

The title of Louella’s autobiography, “The Gay Illiterate,” is a variant of what her one-time editor, Gene Fowler, called her. It may show what she thought about herself as well as how others perceived her. But this “illiterate” did much to open the doors of journalism to women. Her efforts were recognized by such non-gossips as Eleanor Roosevelt and Bernard Baruch.

From very early on she started, participated in and publicized clubs devoted to opening the doors of newspapers to women and allowing them roles beyond “sob sisters.” Louella was considerably more than simply “The First Lady of Hollywood.” She was one of the most powerful women in America. She not only reflected the moral tone, she set and helped maintain it.

Barbas’ book is rich in detail of all aspects of Louella’s time including the cultural and the political, of the other players during the decades through which she reigned as Queen of Hollywood, and of her effect on entertainment and the industry she covered. It is a scholarly tome. It belongs in every university library, on the shelves of cultural anthropologists, film fanatics and just folk who enjoy a juicy dish.

The First Lady of Hollywood

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Nov. 21, 2019.