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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 movie-making. Engagingly written and thoroughly researched, The First Lady 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.
Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders: They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen Your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys. And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again. And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of Women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
CARL SANDBURG, "Chicago," 1916
Louella was no stranger to this city of big shoulders, this gritty metropolis that, in 1910, over two million residents called home. Like Frank Cowperwood of Theodore Dreiser's 1914 novel The Titan, she had seen from the train window the flat brown land that ringed the city's outskirts, the Chicago River "with its mass of sputtering tugs and its black oily water," and the "little one and two story houses" that stood on the edge of town. Before, on her visits from Freeport with Helen, Louella had enjoyed the bright lights of the theater district and the color of the streets downtown. Now she faced a different Chicago, one of bustling streetcars andopen-air markets and filthy, rundown cold-water flats crowded with workers and their families.
Louella was not the only newcomer to seek her fortunes in Chicago. Between 1880 and 1920, nearly two and a half million immigrants arrived, having fled poverty and political persecution in southern and eastern Europe. Tens of thousands of native-born Americans also went to the city in search of employment, and many of these migrants were women. Self-supporting women-unmarried, divorced, or widowed-were the largest group of native-born Americans to move to Chicago in the early twentieth century. Between 1880 and 1930, the female labor force in Chicago increased from thirty-five thousand to four hundred thousand, or over 1,000 percent. During those years, rural towns in Iowa, Minnesota, and northern Illinois experienced a "defeminization" as daughters left the countryside for work in the city.
In her autobiography, Louella described Chicago as "gutsy." That word better characterized Louella. In the early twentieth century, leaving a philandering husband took strength: women were expected to tolerate affairs, considered a man's prerogative. Depressed but optimistic, Louella moved in with her aunt and uncle Hattie and Eli Oettinger, who had since moved from Freeport to a small flat on the city's North Side. She quickly found a job as a secretary in a company that manufactured stereopticons, an early form of motion picture projector, but when she found that her "chief chore seemed to be playing flunky to the boss's little blonde secretary," she moved on. Louella then secured a position at the Chicago Tribune, in the syndication department. Being hired by a newspaper thrilled her, but her enthusiasm was short-lived. Within a week, Louella discovered that her job was essentially clerical-she retyped the syndicated articles that came off the wire-and within two weeks, she was bored. At a salary of only nine dollars a week, considered barely subsistence wages, she was also broke. She allowed herself one luxury-regular trips to the movies.
The cinema flourished in Chicago, with its large immigrant and working-class population. In 1910, there were 407 movie houses for a population of slightly over two million, twice as many movie theaters per capita as in New York. Film fans often went to the movies three, four, or even five times a week, and they were lured to the theater not only by films but also by an emerging motion picture celebrity culture.
Before 1910, the actors who appeared in films were unbilled. Fearing association with the "lowbrow" cinema, they insisted on remaining anonymous. Neither they nor the heads of the fledgling New York-based film companies anticipated the level of curiosity among moviegoers, who sent hundreds of letters to the studios asking for the identities of their favorite screen players. In response to pressure from moviegoers, in 1910 Carl Laemmle, head of the IMP studio, publicized the name of his leading actress, Florence Lawrence. In a carefully planned stunt, Laemmle planted a rumor that Lawrence had been killed in a car accident, then refuted the accident with a flurry of press releases and newspaper stories that he used to publicize Lawrence's name. Laemmle set off a trend for name popularization that resulted in the development of a movie star system, much like the star system that had dominated the theater. By 1911, films were being advertised not only by "brand name"-prior to 1910, studios used their companies' reputations as a marketing tool-but also, increasingly, by the names of the stars who appeared in them.
Drawing on stage tradition, film companies began publicizing personal information about their stars, both in the mainstream press and in two new motion-picture fan magazines. In February 1911, the Vitagraph studio head J. Stuart Blackton launched Motion Picture magazine, the nation's first publication devoted exclusively to motion pictures. Although the publication initially printed cinematic plots in short-story form, in 1912 it began printing interviews with popular film actors and question-and-answer columns that answered readers' inquiries about stars' private lives. By January 1913, the "Answer Man," the columnist who presided over the magazine's "Answers to Inquiries" section, claimed that he was receiving twenty-five hundred letters from film fans each month. Beginning in 1912, another new fan publication, Photoplay, offered readers a similar diet of star news along with advertisements for perfumes, clothing, and cosmetics, all bearing celebrity endorsements.
Fans devoured the information and begged for more and, by 1912, began to organize into movie star fan clubs. Unlike theater fans, who had the chance of meeting their idols in person, there were few if any opportunities for film fans to see motion picture stars in the flesh. As a result, movie fans depended on tidbits of personal data about stars, rather than personal contact, to create the feeling of intimacy with their idols that was the essence of the fan-star relationship. From the fans' perspective, the more personal the information, the better. But detailed private information about stars' marriages and romantic affairs was the last thing the magazines or studios wanted to reveal. Truthful depictions of stars' often turbulent and scandalous romantic lives, they felt, would only further damage the cinema's already precarious reputation. Motion Picture's Answer Man refused to respond to the hundreds of questions he received each month about actors' marriages and romantic affairs. "Questions concerning the marriages of players," the magazine warned, "will be completely ignored."
By 1913, however, the magazine had changed its policy, publishing slightly more revealing articles that disclosed actors' marital status. But on the whole, the fan magazines' approach to star "gossip" was timid and innocuous. Typical pieces described actors as virtuous, hardworking, and devoted to their spouses. In an article on actress Helen Gardner's home, Photoplay gushed, "Here Miss Gardner and her mother, who looks no older than her daughter ... live happily, plan pictures, design costumes, and receive their friends." In their free time, actors allegedly pursued such hobbies as cooking, embroidery, gardening, reading, and socializing with friends, and the magazines took great pains to distance film actors from their allegedly debauched theatrical counterparts. In contrast to stage life, "with its night work, its daytime sleep, its irregular meals, [and] its traveling and close contact," working for a film studio was stable and dignified. A film "player is located in one neighborhood and is recognized as a permanent and respectable citizen. Evenings can be spent at home, and the normal healthiness of one's own fireside is an atmosphere conducive to refining influences," Motion Picture wrote in 1915. These details and "slice-of-life" depictions were, of course, thoroughly false, the concoction of imaginative magazine editors, studio publicity departments, and press agents.
Though the magazines skirted carefully around actors' personal lives, they were aggressive on the subject of scenario writing. In the years around 1910, thousands of moviegoers began writing their own short "scenarios," the one-or two-page plot summaries that were the scripts of early silent films. According to one estimate, by 1913 over twenty thousand fans had submitted scenarios to studios, and thousands more were harboring half-written pieces that sat unfinished in desk drawers. Thankful for the free material, the film studios encouraged the submissions and occasionally offered cash prizes for high-quality material. The fan magazines colluded with the studios, offering advice to aspiring scenarioists and frequently running scenario success stories. In 1912 Photoplay reported that Cordelia Ford, a housewife who wrote in her spare time, earned $250 in a screenwriting contest. Helen O'Keefe, who "scribbled" after her children had gone to bed, paid off her debts with a prize from the American Film Company; and Elaine Sterne, winner of the Thanhouser studio's screenwriting contest, earned a position with the studio as its chief scenario writer.
By 1911, Louella was thoroughly immersed in movie fan culture. She bought and read the fan magazines, developed crushes on popular stars, and went to the movies almost nightly. Reviving her long-dormant interest in writing, she also tried her hand at scenarios. She wrote dozens of short scripts, which she sent to a few Chicago film studios, and received dozens of rejections. But she enjoyed the work and was intrigued by the cash prizes, so she persisted. She was determined to see her work on the screen, even if it took years. Little did she know that her encounter with the film industry would come much sooner.
Many film historians correctly cite New York as the moviemaking capital before World War I. But Chicago, between 1907 and 1915, ran a close second. The city had two assets that made it ideal for film production: a central mid-western location, perfect for shipping finished films to either coast, and over ten thousand theater actors and stagehands, frequently unemployed and eager for part-time work in the "flickers." By 1911, Chicago was home to the film industry's official trade journal, Moving Picture World, and two studios, Essanay and Selig.
Essanay was founded by Gilbert Anderson, a cowboy actor who had starred in the famous 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, and George Spoor, owner of a small chain of movie theaters. Spoor had wanted to go into film production but needed an experienced hand to work with him. In 1907, Spoor and Anderson joined forces as partners and founded the studio, which they named after their initials (S and A). The studio was known for its slapstick comedies, many of which featured the studio's janitor, Ben Turpin. In one of the studio's first films, An Awful Skate, Turpin careened down the streets on roller skates, mowing over pedestrians. Unbeknownst to the film's viewers, the slapstick was hardly staged. Turpin could not skate, and many of the unsuspecting passersby were injured during the filming.
Such disasters were common during Essanay's first years. Like most early film studios of the period, the company was a fly-by-night operation. The cavernous warehouse was packed to the gills with a collection of broken-down props-old clothes, rusted cars, headless mannequins-and its small staff, a troupe of loud and often foul-mouthed former stage actors, puttered around the studio building sets, mending costumes, performing stunts before the camera, and playing practical jokes on each other. Cameramen operated crude, hand-cranked machines, and due to poor indoor lighting, all filming had to be done outside. When the sky turned cloudy, the actors sullenly waited around the studio for the next sunny day. In 1910, Essanay set up a studio in Niles, California, to shoot its cowboy films, but its Chicago crew constantly struggled with lighting problems.
Like most studios, Essanay was inundated by fan-written screenplays, which arrived at the studio at a rate of about a hundred a day. In 1911, George Spoor decided to hire a full-time staff member to sift through the contributions and advertised in local papers for a "scenario editor." Immediately the studio was swamped with mail. Along with the usual volume of screenplays came hundreds of applications from frustrated novelists, unemployed playwrights, and former newspaper reporters, all eager to be hired for the editorial position. One of those applications was from Louella. Her resume, like most of the others, ended up in the trash.
One day over dinner Spoor's wife announced that she had met a young woman in the neighborhood who was ideal for the position. "Introduce her to me sometime," Spoor mumbled. "She's standing outside the dining room," Mrs. Spoor replied, and motioned for Louella to come to the table.
Maggie Oettinger, Louella's twelve-year-old-cousin, played with a girl named Ruth Helms, who lived next door to Spoor. When Louella found out that Ruth's neighbor was the head of Essanay, she begged the girl to introduce her to Mrs. Spoor, offering her movie tickets if she would make the introduction. Though George Spoor was less impressed than his wife with Louella's possibilities as an editor, Mrs. Spoor persuaded him to hire her. In the spring of 1911, Louella quit her job at the Tribune and signed on with Essanay as its chief scenario editor.
The job turned out to be a godsend. The generous income of twenty dollars a week enabled Louella and Harriet to move to an apartment on Magnolia Street, not far from the Argyle Street studio. Before long, Louella was saving a little each week and building a bank account; she was also reestablishing the emotional confidence she had lost in Burlington. She found her work creative and engaging, was thrilled by her position of authority, and for the first time in years, felt part of an intimate community. The sudden boost to Louella's ego allowed her to make friends, meet new men, and pour a prodigious amount of energy into her new career. She returned to Burlington that fall, and on September 29, 1911, Louella and John divorced.
Louella never admitted to the public how her relationship with John Parsons really ended. For the rest of her life, she insisted that she was widowed-Parsons, she claimed, died in World War I. Indeed, after marrying Ruth Schaefer in 1917, John Parsons enlisted in the army and died in 1918 of the flu. But he and Louella had divorced seven years earlier. During the early twentieth century, divorce was still considered a moral transgression, and divorced women often bore the stigma for the rest of their lives. Ashamed, Louella concealed her separation from Parsons from her friends and colleagues, and only her family and closest confidantes knew.
In late 1911, around the time of Louella's divorce, Helen and John Edwards also decided to separate. John Edwards left Dixon and returned to his hometown of Amboy, Illinois, where he lived until his death in 1931. Helen sold the house in Dixon and, for the next seven years, lived with Louella and Harriet in their apartment on Magnolia Street. Essentially Louella's housekeeper, she cooked, cleaned, and cared for Harriet while Louella was at work. During Louella's four years at Essanay, that was most of the time.
Excerpted from The First Lady of Hollywood by Samantha Barbas Excerpted by permission.
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1. Early Years
3. The Column
4. New York
5. “The Lovely Miss Marion Davies”
6. On the Way to Hollywood
10. The Best and the Hearst
11. The First Lady of Hollywood
12. Raising Kane
13. The Gay Illiterate
14. War and Peace
16. The End of an Era