Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip And American Conservatism by Jennifer Frost
New York University Press $72
Hedda Hopper was a remarkable woman. Not necessarily likeable, but her influence and reach as Hollywood's - and America's - premier gossip columnist through the middle of last century is without dispute, as this enlightening, if a little academic, book makes clear.
A mid-level actress in her own right, Hopper set herself up as a moral guardian and commentator via a syndicated column that at its height had some 32 million fans and, later, through radio and television.
That she lived in interesting times only added fuel to her indignant fire - her views on World War II, the ensuing Cold War and the un-American Activities witch hunts were the political, weighty parts of her debate, tempered somewhat by more traditional gossip content: which star was doing what to who, themselves or their career, and what it said about their morals, or lack thereof. These were the two prongs of her attack - people and politics - and how they played out with and against each other, and what that meant for the nation and you, dear reader.
Her values were clear and unwavering. She vehemently opposed American entry into World War II, then turned America's "success" in that theatre into a call for global interventionism when the Cold War arrived, fearing, like many in her industry, that America was about to drown in a red tide of Communism.
She therefore, unsurprisingly, adored stars with an American purity to their beliefs - she was friends with Lucille Ball and admired John Wayne, while loathing with passion those, such as Charlie Chaplin, who were less rooted in all things starred and striped. (Her assiduous and vicious pestering of the Little Tramp - she even fed information to the FBI about him - was a major reason for his leaving the US.)
Hopper understood - and wrote about - the Hollywood machine as no one had, and was friends with many of the great stars of the golden age of cinema, even if she was feared or loathed by plenty more. A star on Hollywood Boulevard and a Time magazine cover - and huge pay checks - were the tangible rewards.
So why should we care, let alone read a sometimes dry, but deeply interesting tome devoted to her? Another royal marriage raises the debate, again, of public intrusion in public lives, and while this book looks in detail at Hopper and her impact on cinema and its moralistic direction - yes, she had that much influence, it also provides much learned discourse on the nature of gossip and the cult of celebrity, shining the light on behaviours and exploring human needs that haven't changed for centuries.
Michael Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.