“This Little Trixie”

Gossip is a craft built on collectivity. Gossip is only “good” gossip when its channels are reinforced, when its infrastructure is solid enough to keep its circulation humming. Professional gossip reveals what is essentially true about even its sloppiest forms. Another thesis: gossip is an art of care in a damaged world. Beneath its moralistic airs and its cruelest sneers lies a concern for sociality prior to all individualism, and even the possibility of social repair through a reinvestment in publicity. And not cynical publicity, but the real thing, though public life might in fact be gone, or present only in its absence, like a star bathed in the light of more attractive neon.

That’s also a good way to imagine the riveting starlet Barbara Payton, out playing on the Sunset Strip, drawing tattle and bavardage like a glowing bug zapper beckoning curious flies. But more on her soon.

Most gossip is practiced by lay enthusiasts. If the rarefied craft of “professional gossip” means anything now beyond clickbait, it will have to be excavated, its glossy sheen scrubbed off to reveal the old tools of its trade. Hedda Hopper’s office, off Hollywood and Vine, had the junkspace redolent of a studio described in Vasari’s Renaissance Lives (one of gossip’s lodestars in the Western tradition). Her “leg man” Jaik Rosenstein describes it in his autobiography:

The atmosphere was that of a combination newspaper office, junk shop, wardrobe closet, and theatrical dressing room. There are hats and hatboxes, a dress hanging precariously over the door, a broken lamp, an old period chair lacking one arm, a beat old sofa, shelves disorderly piled with all kinds of books and bric-a-brac. And a great, weatherbeaten old desk, cluttered with hundreds of fan and business letters, paste jars, pencils, scissors, notebooks, magazines, lipsticks, compacts, hairpins, and a silk stocking with a bad run.[1]

In Hopper’s operation, gossip is Gesamtkunstwerk, a discursive mish-mash of a trade where journalism meets theater and found art. Her writing style was paratactical, reproducing the non sequitur-driven patterns of conversational gossip while also reflecting the papiermâché, pasteboard aesthetic of a Hollywood lot opened to a curious public. The formal bricolage of Hopper’s columns contributed to the cunning of the craft. By printing reader letters, for instance, she poked holes in the imaginary screen dividing insiders and outsiders, the middle-America/West Coast divide reinforced by official, studio-supported myths of the star-struck starlet leaving the drudgery of family life behind for the chosen broods of MGM or Paramount. Hopper was always on your side, as every good gossip must appear to be.

Jennifer Frost, whose Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood (2011) remains the most thorough thing ever written on Hopper’s professional practice and politics, exposes without exactly naming some of the contradictions entailed by gossip’s form. Gossip lubricates a public sphere of titillating concern by clearing out a corridor or foyer (or, more aptly, a mudroom) where insiders and outsiders meet without intermingling. “Hopper was a publicist of private talk,” Frost writes. “Her respondents read and wrote from the privacy of their homes yet located themselves in the public world.”[2] This is a simple point in theory but hardly simplistic in practice or effect. The ideal Habermasian-liberal public sphere, built on progressive transparency and a telos of fundamental and necessary agreements, misses the texture of gossip’s publics, clusters of weeds in the cracks of well-trodden discourse, which depend on maintaining an illusion of privacy that all parties know to be a mere illusion. If one desires gossip as an end in itself, one needs merely the pretense of a shield or screen—“don’t repeat this to anyone”—to set its chattering in motion.

Hopper’s column revealed the contradictions in the structure of social bonds paradigmatic of gossip: its anti-privacy ethos, its drive to distribute sociality more widely and strengthen its fabric by lengthening its weft, constantly at risk of severing the threads it weaves, weakening its structure by going too far.

One figure for this risk, for the temptation to push further and deeper until all interiority breaks open and suppurates, is the aforementioned Barbara Payton (née Redfield). In Payton Hopper found a vulnerable target for the social politics embedded within gossip’s form. Payton was a force against which professional gossip would encounter its limit condition.[3]

Barbara was a stunning blonde with legitimate acting talent. A natural in both cases, as they say. She came from a family of petit-bourgeois alcoholics and arrived in Los Angeles by way of Cloquet, Minnesota and Odessa, Texas after marrying a couple of times, at least once just for the hell of it. Payton’s quick rise from doing B-Western shorts at Universal to starring opposite Lloyd Bridges and James Cagney in feature-length noirs was matched by her social and sexual ambitions, starring opposite Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, and several other Hollywood players in likely dozens of extramarital affairs (some of them consummated on lot). In 1951 she got engaged twice, once to actor Franchot Tone and again to actor, amateur boxer, and previous beau Tom Neal.[4] Their isosceles came to its apex in what the gossip establishment called “The Love Brawl” (or, alternatively, according to two headlines, the “Love Fist Fight” and the “Bloody, Pre-Dawn Love Duel,” which took journalistic precedence over lighter, less sensational fare like American military involvement in Korea).[5]

While Payton and Tone were out carousing on the Sunset Strip, Neal threw a party in Barbara’s apartment. When the trio came together there in the early morning, their inevitable squabble led outside to the patio where Neal, well, beat the shit out of Tone (a neighbor said he hit him at least thirty times) and gave Payton a black eye. Tone lived, but only barely, coming-to after eighteen hours in critical condition with a broken nose, jaw, cheekbone, and a severe cerebral concussion.

Hopper pounced on Payton: “This little trixie is rolling in glamour and love like a big beautiful bee in a pot of amorous honey, getting boudoir and business all mixed up in an unbalanced hash. For months, Tone and Neal have been panting pop-eyed after pouty Payton’s wriggling charms.”[6] Wonderful alliterative bounce to the doggerel, all b’s and p’s a play on the actress’s initials, each plosive a pinprick meant to permanently pop Payton’s pride. Hopper’s playful prose, its sliding surfaces, also performs the epistemic obscurity entailed by gossip in all its forms, its phatic aspects that hum like pedal tones beneath all its propositional content.[7] Since gossip reflects the speaker’s desires as much or even more than its objects of interest, it loops back on the (f)act of its enunciation through delivery style. Through figura (artful diversion) and obscuritas (oracular or concealing language), gossip hedges against sheer falsity and the overtaking of fact by prurient, vicarious desire (or just pleasurable speculation), sounding hearsay’s generic intermixture of truth-claims and buck-passing admissions of non-knowledge.[8]

One can readily imagine the affected pitch underlying her judgment against Payton after seeing a younger Hopper play patrician ladies in films like The Snob (1924), Another Scandal (1924), and High Society Blues (1930). Payton herself, at least according to Tina Ballard, called Hopper a “self-righteous sow” (and likely much worse).[9] But it was Hopper’s part in a collective effort that really turned the aftermath of “The Love Brawl” into a program of sustained, magnified attention toward Payton’s and Tone’s lives, and into a prime example of gossip as a style of shooting society in extreme close-up. Close-ups, by momentarily sacrificing an audience’s implied distance from a scene, can mirror its disavowed desire to be ensconced in the event as it happened instead of looking back on it, too late to know for sure how it really felt, what really truly was.

After Tone and Payton married and embarked on a publicity tour together, greeted across America by less-than-supportive audiences, the couple ran into Hopper’s catty complement Florabel Muir at Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip. Tone spit directly into her face. He then clutched her pearls, Muir wrote later, “and tried to choke me by making a tourniquet” of them, “at the same time tromping on my right instep and kicking me viciously about the feet, ankles and shins. At first I thought he was just stumbling, then noticed he was deliberately kicking. So I lifted my foot and gave him my right heel.” As the confrontation played out further in the papers, Muir would write that she “deeply regret[ted] becoming involved in the unsavory affairs of Tone and his bride, Barbara Payton. I have no stomach for mixing it in the gutter with anyone, but I believe I have a right to go about my newspaper business without being required to wear a waterproof veil over my face when encountering persons about whom I have written.”[10]

Muir’s protest is on behalf of the professional nature of published gossip and a nigh-ontological difference between the status of events described in her columns and what actually goes on outside of the world of print. Not quite, though, since the “persons about whom [she has] written,” like Payton, Tone, and Neal, seem to be same people who might confront her on the Sunset Strip. But the “waterproof veil” must remain in place for her and her colleagues to go about her “newspaper business.” Backsplash, Muir thinks, destroys a necessary illusion separating the public sphere of gossip and the private sphere of the gossiped-about. If you have to warn those in the first three rows that they may get wet, the spectatorial distance between the actors and the audience—even those safely up in the balconies—collapses, or at least shrinks to the now-literal span of the splash.

Muir, Hopper, and Louella Parsons teamed up as a triumvirate against Tone and Payton, a three-headed hydra spitting near-weekly attacks right up until the couple filed for divorce. Hopper and Muir had already joined forces in 1943 when they supported a paternity lawsuit against Charlie Chaplin, representing actress Joan Barry’s side of the story against the screen legend. The pair contributed to his eventual indictment for violating the Mann Act (colloquially known as the White-Slave Traffic Act). Hopper’s rationale for joining Muir in the fight against Chaplin then, no doubt bolstered by her general opposition to his progressive politics—see her vociferous critique of the prematurely anti-fascist The Great Dictator (1940)—was that “the life of an unborn child” was at stake.[11] I think, or at least I hypothesize, that there is an underlying logic that joins Hopper’s unctuous advocacy for the unborn and Muir’s fear of continual backsplash after Tone broke the gossip-mongers’ fourth wall. It’s about the very anxiety that causes a gossip network to close ranks against the outside in the first place.

Gossip, we all find out eventually, means engaging in a radical sociality that promises a life lived in widening intimate concern. Social gossamer spins out in ambivalent search of thickness, a disavowed proto-utopian desire for maskless existence. But in the process, we cannot help feeling like we’re being bad, even irreparably cruel, failing our own ideals by reinforcing an informational asymmetry that keeps gossip as we know and do it from ever having claim to the categorical imperative (act as you would wish all others to be bound to act) or any consistent, universal social maxim. The status of the social bonds traced by gossip, whether they are strengthened or weakened, become undecidable in the process. Where does this anxiety of social lubrication—also a sexual lubrication, joining lovers with their hidden voyeur—lead? Usually quidnuncs (the “what nows?,” the gossips) defend themselves by preemptively washing their hands. They reposition themselves outside the community in question. “I was just passing on what I heard.” And when you are confirmed to have been there? “But I had nothing to do with it.” Just like a growing fetus, which is all effect of a dalliance, never a cause, and the definition of innocence to boot. No wonder Hopper and Muir staked so much on the rights of the unborn.

The pleasures of gossip involve intimacy, mediated through a jerry-rigged public, but the pain of gossip is in its uncontrollable reproductivity. Which is why gossip has a sexualized economy. No wonder, then, that Hopper et al. occupy such antithetical ground. Their careers, Hopper’s and Muir’s both, were made on breaking certain social bonds in the name of reinforcing larger ones: pushing couples, both unmarried and married partners whose ties were often forged by the studio system (in the sense, too, of forgeries and fakes), to the brink of separation and beyond, all in the service of revealing that those bonds were already weak or porous. The fragile romantic and marital bonds of Hopper’s Hollywood would bond the conservative American national imaginary by their insufficiency. To supply the lack, American conservatism coalesced around the specular ideal of the family and its unborn futures.

So decades before something called Reaganism would take hold, when Reagan himself was still working and mixing in and around Payton’s world and informing on Hollywood commies, Hopper and Muir were helping to build (or to install the studs) of the foundations of the sentimental discourse Lauren Berlant calls the intimate public sphere.[12] But there’s a key difference that marks Hopper’s mode of gossip as infrastructural, a form of discursive primitive accumulation that targeted the boundary-crossing allure of those like Barbara Payton. The biggest crimes of Payton and her fellow starlets, it often appears, were saying yes to dashing society men, criminal lowlifes, and sexy roles all at once. It was Hopper’s artistry to transform these “yeses” into a way of corraling one form of sociality in favor of another, family values intimacy for the revolving comradeships aboard Hollywood’s socio-sexual carousel.[13] Berlant refers to a neoliberal-era “simultaneous contraction of the state and expansion of the nation [that] produces an incoherent set of boundary-drawing panics.”[14] Still in an age of pre-dismantled statehood, classical Hollywood gossip afforded an early stage of regulatory publicity unbeholden to the state apparatus. It separated audience-subjects from entertainment-objects, the critics from the players. And it revealed the impossibility of maintaining these distinctions consistently and coherently on moral principles: these are aesthetic-ontological distinctions, not ethical ones.

But in blurring that boundary, gossip undoes its disciplinary logic in spite of itself. It provides a narrative frame for damaged life, inflected with whatever cultural politics one likes, and never fails to implicate its frame as part of the picture. In fact, gossip points beyond the powerful event of convening a particular community to a fundamental uncertainty about fact and fiction. It must admit speculation as part of its paratext, its motor, and some minimal dimension of fictionality as the secret kernel of truth’s bounding shape (its pragmatic frames that tell us what kind of truth-domain we’re in, what kind of world).

Gossip distributes the pointing finger, sets it in motion, and widens the distribution of shame to include the pointing itself, and so the pointers, who flick open secrets from the tips of their accusing fingers. Gossip points to gossip: nodes in the unfolding network. What seems like evidence of something there becomes evidence of what someone else already said about the matter. So evidence becomes discourse.

There are pointing fingers and pointing fingers.  Hopper  and Muir were professional knowers. Their job was to appear knowing, to point at what they seemed to know, and to circulate it. They developed a form of pointing whose chatty, even playful style betrays its immunity to backsplash, to a game of she-said-he-said-she-said. For Barbara Payton, the object of so much pointing, Hopper and Muir were not the only indexers and the costs of being pointed at could be legal and personal as well as social, political, and economic. There was also Jean Wallace’s index finger, stretched outward toward Payton in the fact-soaked milieu of a courtroom. Wallace, Tone’s ex-wife (and Payton’s near-doppelgänger), fingered Payton, pointing both to her and to her presence in court, as the reason why Franchot should give up custody of their children to her. Why? “Because Barbara is a well-known tramp.”[15] Wallace proceeded to reveal Payton’s mix-up in still-unresolved drug and homicide cases.

Revealing to the court that Barbara was “a well-known tramp” and an upcoming witness in a Hollywood-underworld criminal suit as key facts in a civil law case and as soundbites to be re-circulated outside the courtroom by Hopper and Muir, Wallace distils gossip logic to alchemical perfection. She mixes fact with value and does so within the frame of a fact-finding institution. Wallace requires no marked transition to make her point. Parataxis is enough, concentrated by the force of the finger.

Payton’s stone-faced response to this pointing was reprinted by the tabloids and re-interpreted by the gossip columnists. The finger points through Payton’s hardened, even wry, unashamed exterior to the virtual show-figure crafted by Hopper’s wardrobe department. Like the inverse of a smoldering publicity shot, Payton’s image is borrowed, quoted, repeated out of context. Here we glimpse the lineaments of gossip’s social form, the contest over social knowledge’s fallibility and even illegitimacy turning atop a battle over the (il)legitimacy of one’s potential parenthood.

The notion that gossip is a court of public opinion is spurious. Gossip is, in fact, all about amplifying the reasonable doubt that motivates its perpetual transmission. When truth-value is established on frequency of circulation, empirical validation becomes inquiry’s denouement rather than its motive. Like Proustian sexual jealousy, gossip reveals how the most intimate facts are also the most obscure, and how unknowingness leads to infinite surmise. Gossip midwifes its own confirmations—with apologies to Philip Sidney and to poetry, it nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth[16]—and so its text is more like the draft of a screenplay (or even an apostrophizing lyric poem) than a testimony under oath. Saying so still does not make gossip’s propositions false in any straightforward way.

As Hopper’s career indicates, gossip’s judgments are often framed by straightforward and verifiable fact. But its propensity for reproduction is ultimately its internal criterion for correctness (of feelings of rightness). “Real” knowledge, according to the most stringent criteria of justified true belief, is outside the generic domain of gossip. So gossip is both an adhesive and a dissolvent. In mid-century Hollywood Barbara Payton was the icon of gossip’s damage. The way gossip dealt with her reveals the distance we still have to travel to get from now to a social structure of actual care and concern, in which all scuttlebutt will exist in some sublated form, its residual aristocratic robes finally shed.

I have no interest in blaming Hopper in particular and gossip in general for Payton’s end, but there she was, dumped out back behind an A&P on Sunset and Fairfax like a bag of trash, wearing only a thin chemise and pair of flip-flop sandals, dried blood pooled around her nose and mouth, bruised all over, blonde hair fading at the roots. This was 1967, and Payton was dying after years experiencing continuous domestic violence, homelessness, street prostitution, and unsobriety. The scandal sheets followed Payton half of the way down and then dumped her too, eventually. At the tail end of the studio system’s classic form, the Hollywood noir affect was not a representation of anything except a past gone sour, mourning again in America at the beginning of Reagan’s first term as Governor of California.

And there was Hopper too, in the last days of the old system, after the death of Louis B. Mayer and C. B. DeMille, bemoaning realism, method acting, and a lack of glamour in the industry, betraying her own illusions about Hollywood illusion—“Aren’t there any normal people around any more?”[17]—in columns that evinced little beyond her own cultural obsolescence (even as the age of Nixon approached, and her favorite Barry Goldwater won out ideologically despite losing the 1964 electoral vote).

Hopper’s legacy would be Tipper Gore, but for a while she was something else, something more stylish and impressive, if never admirable. In her late-life melancholy she finally joined Barbara in feeling belated, pining after a Golden Silver Age (pre-Civil Rights and New Left, of course) before the fall into publicity’s unforgiving experience, which she surely knew to be as much her doing as anyone else’s. That’s gossip’s ownmost truth. We picture a world without us, a foretaste of our own mortality, which is too painful to let be. And so we put ourselves in it, and then when it comes back to us we blush. But that’s the blush of life suffusing the surface of the skin, of a life lived together and not apart.




[1] Jaik Rosenstein, Hollywood Leg Man (Madison Press, 1950): 41.

[2] Jennifer Frost, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (NYU Press, 2011): 61.

[3] One thing I realized combing through Payton biographies—the few that exist—with an eye toward the function and effects of gossip is that in the end all biography is gossip, an art of picking and gleaning amongst all extant rumors so as to reduce but never replace the way gossip shapes a life. Because of her status as a starlet ruined by Hollywood gossip, Payton’s biographies explicitly react against the way her reputation was soiled, and the popular notion that everyone more or less knows who Payton was from the stories told by Hopper and others. This goes for Payton’s own I Am Not Ashamed (written with Leo Guild and published in 1963) and John O’Dowd’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which opens with a blessing from Barbara’s son John. In what follows I lean on O’Dowd’s book, in part because it includes clippings from the author’s personal collection I could not find anywhere else. But not because it cuts through the gossip to some untouchable core self. Its real primary sources are the fuzzy memories of those who believed Payton was basically a good person with an oft-referenced “heart of gold.” That seems right to me, cliché aside, but it doesn’t really matter either way. Meanwhile, I would say there are no two ways about Hopper’s personal and political awfulness, but there are at least four or five ways about it, all bad. And yet one should grant Hopper the opportunity of the same title Payton used: I Am Not Ashamed, Either, perhaps. I would read that in a heartbeat.

[4] Exposed, one of many scandal magazines created in the wake of Confidential’s success, engaged in free indirect gossip by relating an anecdote about Payton’s and Neal’s first meeting at the Sunset Plaza Apartments’ pool: “The memory of whatever Tone resembled in his undies was blurred by strutting Tom’s conspicuous bulges.” You have to think you know Barbara or at least her type to say or write something like that. But psychologization is as much a generic marker of gossip as it is the realist novel. It is rarely ever enough to describe a love or lust triangle—one must take a point of view on it from the inside. See John O’Dowd, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story (BearManor Media, 2015): 181.

[5] See clippings from the author’s personal collection in O’Dowd, 196 and 200.

[6] Qtd. O’Dowd, 201.

[7] A friend and fellow gossip (no, I’m not giving you their name!) called the art of tea-spilling a ceremony of surfaces. There must be a Ding an sich gossipers talk about and around, but gossip is ultimately proud of its artifice, its walls of tone.

[8] Which is why I have never found Robin Dunbar’s well-known evolutionary theory of gossip as “vocal grooming” completely believable, or at least complete (see Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language [1996]). Yes, as we see in both Hopper’s columns and the most ordinary gossip-talk, the alliance-structure of give-and-take dishing promotes social bonds by cliquing groups into place, and maybe the history of gossiping at a distance (from speech to writing, telephones, and internet) can reach back as far as the origin of language in the hominid lineage, but is gossip really as cheap and efficient an investment as such an account suggests? The ambiguity of gossip, its interpretation-rich textuality and speculative nature, not to mention the excess of performative style that tends to come along with it—gossip’s jouissance—makes me think we should look to literary criticism before evolutionary anthropology in explaining how it works now, at the end of its long history. But maybe that’s just cliquishness on my part.

[9] Qtd. O’Dowd, 203, at second hand.

[10] See O’Hara, 229 and 233.

[11] Hedda Hopper, From Under My Hat (Doubleday, 1952): 81.

[12] See, for instance, Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Duke UP, 1997).

[13] Another way of putting this is that Hopper preferred the intimacies performed inside the Hollywood film to those she spent her life revealing outside the frame of the fictions. The price of making that distinction is contradiction masked by polemic, style, and concealed fictionality.

[14] Berlant, 14.

[15] Qtd. O’Hara, 145.

[16] This may be a controversial reference. Gossip often—maybe even typically—does present itself as the truth about people. But less as propositional truth, I think, and more as atmospheric truth, truth in spirit rather than to the letter. If gossiping comes with an unwritten contract, it grants the possibility of at least exaggeration and hyperbole, which does not derail gossip but pushes it forward and even licenses it retroactively, against future rebuttal.

[17] Qtd. Frost, 201.