Notes on Hedda Hopper

Despite everything, we wanted to have a little fun. 

Hedda Hopper was a fun person with fabulous hats. She was light, acid-bright, and entertaining—and entertainment was her business. Hopper broke scandals and dished gossip as a gossip columnist should, but her reporting bridged the scandal sheet and the front page. Her Hollywood stories hit Washington DC with a bang.

Despite fun, there is also everything.

Hopper was an active conservative Republican partisan—her nativist, isolationist, racist Americanism influenced both the thoughts of millions of readers and the real lives of stars and Hollywood moguls brought low by her attacks. She wrote pure ideology with a veneer of tinsel.

While Hopper is a compelling figure, the gossip scene in which she was enmeshed was part of a larger machine. And that machine brought reliefs as well as impositions: newly intimate publics became the outlet for private feelings, leading to a parasocial connection between star and audience that became a source of refuge for many people, especially women. Hopper wrote for women and advocated for them as independent workers, giving the lie to contemporary views of her as some kind of dragon lady and complicating any straightforward narrative of feminist progress. In their landmark critique of the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer noted the deep complicity of Hollywood and mass media with authoritarian structures. Hopper is clearly part of this ideological push, and it is her involvement in the darkest parts of mid-century American culture, along with some of the most gilded, that make her a fascinating lens for understanding the ambiguities of our relationships to gossip, publics, media, gender, race, entertainment, and politics. 

Hopper, a part of the irreducible complexity of the past, has clearly influenced the present mediascape. Her collapse of soft and hard news into a political culture of celebrity made it possible for a reality television star to become president. Our issue attempts to take in all of Hopper’s facets, facets recut and reassembled by this issue’s incisive illustrator, Isabelle Cordemans. 

Historian Jennifer Frost published Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism a decade ago. Since the book’s publication, the growing right-wing media has amplified new candidates and styles of campaigning that embrace the gossip press, culminating in a reality-show presidency. Hopper would have been enthusiastic about Trump, who uses many of the strategies pioneered by Hopper herself: both claimed to speak for the “real America,” using simple slogans and cruel jokes to attack opponents with liberal or leftist politics. Frost considers what’s changed, and what hasn’t changed, from Hopper’s America to Trump’s.

Wendy Vogel considers the place of gossip in the Me Too movement and examines Hedda Hopper’s legacy through a feminist lens, from her condemnation of Charlie Chaplin’s relationships with young women to her support for women’s working rights. Long a political forum as well as private talk, gossip has helped define women’s friendships and networks of support. What would Hopper have made of Me Too? Vogel looks to two stories of speculative feminist justice, Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You, for glimpses of the support and solidarity that Hopper failed to evince in her own advocacy.

Zachary Tavlin explores gossip’s utopian and dystopian possibilities through the story of Barbara Payton, notoriously hounded by mid-century gossip columnists, Hopper and Louella Parsons among them. Gossip is, in his account of Payton’s misadventures, an equivocal way of building social cohesion, for good and ill. Sometimes the communities it fosters help us to cope with life or give us ways of being with other people, though not all forms of social organization are equally good. Often, the creation of these human bonds comes at the expense of a scapegoat or results in other injustices. And yet, Tavlin argues, gossip is also a dirty window into a world where people matter to one another more than almost anything else. Better to peer through that grimy surface, try to scrub away the obstruction, than to give up the intuition of a place where social relations actually work. 

Rachel Feder weaves together the sublime and the ordinary, the popular and the abstruse, the Romantic and the anti-Romantic. This playful poem takes seriously the proposition “stars, they’re just like us.” Really, how are celestial bodies and celebrities alike? And why do we project our fantasies about how life is (a form of romance) onto distant, shining objects? What do our own private lives have to do with the stories gossip tells about the lives we make our public property? And when do our own workaday lives start to seem like public property? The case, here, may be that these questions are the stuff of poetry because they have become the stuff of life and—heavy. what is it?—the, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.

Joseph Earl Thomas reminds us what parties were like, sensuous and sexy and sad and euphoric and confusing and musical—and full of he-said-she-said-they-said as people try to make sense of how to be present to one another—and how to deal with loss and absence. Drawing on breathless vernacular speech, richly painted images that seem to bloom and blow away as quickly as dandelion floss, and the rhythms and idioms of hip hop, this poem explores what it means to think and speak about other people in a few of the many languages of Black masculinity.  

Catherine Weingarten has designed a quiz to help you gauge your own potential in the worlds—both large and small—of gossip. Answer a few probing questions to learn a little bit more about yourself and some legendary gossip hounds. Do you take after Hedda Hopper? Or do you side with Hopper’s adversary Louella Parsons? Get the scoop; we can’t promise you’ll like what you learn, but that’s the business, baby. 

Finally, Daniel Lavery asks what the gossip of ghosts sounds like. Written in the voice of a chronicler of shades of old Hollywood (who sounds suspiciously like Hedda Hopper), this piece resurrects old phantoms so that the gossip of yesterday overlays the gossip of today like an uncanny wavering in the hot air above a sidewalk in Los Angeles or a mirage in the desert. But whatever you think you see, whatever you think you hear, you didn’t see it here and you didn’t hear it from us. 

Hedda Hopper excelled at the game she was given but did not change the game for anyone already playing or anyone not invited to play. She was no heroine. But the strange thing is that we can’t stop thinking about her; she sticks to our screens and our magazines and our ways of talking about and being public. There’s an old saw that says “know your enemy,” and we think that’s good advice—knowing your enemy comes with the uncomfortable realization that your enemy has something to teach you. Plus hats!!