Monday, May 2, 2016

Born Today May 2: Hedda Hopper


Born Elda Furry in Hollidaysville, Pennsylvania to a "Pennsylvania Dutch" (German) family that was staunchly German Baptist Brethren; an influence that would stay with her all her life, especially in role as a notorious Gossip Columnist.  She had six siblings and the family resided in Altoona as of Elda's third birthday.  Before transforming into the columnist that she became (in)famous for, she had quite a long acting career. This started in New York City, where she had relocated in order to break in chorus line work on Broadway.  She did manage to get parts in this capacity, but was not very good at it and was famously fired by the renowned Broadway big-wig the Shubert Brothers.  She eventually found work in a staged matinee where she met it's owner DeWolf Hopper, whom she would later marry and have her only child with--famed Perry Mason actor William Hopper.  She began then to hone her acting skills and was eventually awarded a lead role in a touring stage production of The Country Boy.  It was at the time of her marriage to DeWolf Hopper that she changed her first name to Hedda, as her real first name was too similar to several of his previous 5 wives!  It was also at this time that she started acting in motion pictures.  The first film that she appeared in was in 1916, The Battle of Hearts, and was billed under her birth name.  The next two films in which she appeared, both in 1917, she was, for some reason, billed as "Elda Millar" (her mother's maiden name was Miller, why the change in spelling is a mystery).  It wasn't until the next year that she was finally billed under married name in Virtuous Wives, when she was credited as "Mrs. DeWolf Hopper."  From then on, she was credited as Hedda Hopper.  Her first partial sound film came in 1927 with an uncredited role in the huge production that was Wings; however there was no dialog in sound, only sound effects and a soundtrack by Western Electric Sound System.  It would be fully two years later before she would appear in another sound film, with many appearances in late silents in between.  That came with her role in Girls Gone Wild (1929) (a most unfortunate title since the schmuck that was filming girls on spring break in the 90's called his series the same thing!).  The film was in full mono sound provided by MovieTone.  Though she continued to appear steadily in films right up through the year 1940 (and would, indeed, accept a few scant roles right up to the year she died); her acting career started to slip in the mid-1930's.  She began to look for alternative sources of earned income.  Hopper was known as a notorious gossip, so when the Los Angeles Times offered her the opportunity to write a Hollywood gossip column, she naturally jumped at it.  Thus she began the career that she is most known for.  Her first column appeared in the Valentine's Day edition of the paper in 1938, and things took off from there. She became quite the vicious writer, and was reportedly quite vicious person in actual life.  She started a rivalry with Louella Parsons, who had arguably created the role of the film columnist, and with whom Hopper had been friendly with when she was acting.  The column would soon lead her to radio, where she had a spot on Hollywood romance and scandalous divorces.  Her strict religious upbringing "informed" her politics, about which she was very vocal; she was an unrepentant Republican.  Her darkest moments in the political arena came in the era of communist scares in Hollywood, when she basically came up with name after name, with no evidence, to hand over the Hollywood Blacklist.  She was also a very strong supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had origins in congressional committees going back to the 1910's and created the Hollywood Blacklist.  It was also closely associated in the popular mind and in the press with Senator Joseph McCarthy, the infamous Junior Senator from Wisconsin--though he never had anything officially to do with the committee, and, indeed, had never served in the House of Representatives.  Future disgraced president Richard Nixon however, did serve on the committee; being that he was from California, Hopper was a supporter.  Hedda Hopper died on February 1, 1966 of double pneumonia at the age of 80.  Her body was sent back to her home state for burial.  Her last acting role came earlier that same year, when she played the role of "Hedda, the Mad Hatter" in in a musical television adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor and Sammy Davis Jr.  Hopper had long been known for her very large hats. She is buried Rose Hill Cemetery in Altoona, Penn. where she grew up.  Her grave marker states that she born in 1890, which does not match her birth certificate.  She was succeeded in death in 1970 by her only child William. Just as side note:  she was recently played by the great Helen Mirren in the 2015 release Trumbo, about blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, assayed by the equally great Bryan Cranston (an interesting recently published article about her in the 1960's in Variety can be found here.

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