The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons
by Samantha Barbas
Published by University of California Press
426 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
Though it's doubtful that many of today's generation of celebrity watchers have even heard of her, much less know who she is, Louella Parsons is where it all began. The gossip columnist icon, who was born in 1881 and reigned as Hollywood's First Lady from 1915 to about 1960, had a hand in making and breaking many movie careers. By the time she died in 1972, she had overstayed her welcome as everyday America's link to Hollywood. Only a few celebrities attended her funeral.
Author Samantha Barbas has done a superior job of researching Parsons' life and the accompanying political and moral tone of the times in this well-written biography. It's a fascinating look at a sometimes-revered, more often feared, self-aggrandizing personality. The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons is a mixture of academic and conversational styles. The only thing holding it back from being a fast read are reference notations on nearly every page.
Born and raised in Dixon, Illinois, Louella Parsons was a feminist before the term was coined, indeed even before women had the right to vote. After separating from her first husband (although she later allowed people to believe she was widowed), she moved to Chicago as a single mother in 1911 and got a job at fledgling movie company Essenay. As "scenario editor," she was responsible for selecting fan-written screenplays to be turned into short silent films. Shortly thereafter she began writing about movies and their stars for the Chicago Tribune.
Parsons' writing skills were questionable, but she parlayed her folksy, chat-over-the-back-fence style into a must-read for movie fans. In the early days, she took pains to infuse the stars with the personality traits of the characters they played. As the playing field became more competitive, Parsons fought tooth and nail to get exclusives, sometimes resorting to half-truths and innuendo to ensure her story was printed first.
Parsons was a complex individual. Not above using celebrities to further her own ambitions, her friendship with actress Marion Davies -- the longtime mistress of William Randolph Hearst -- undoubtedly helped her land a job as a columnist for the newspaper magnate. She became a staunch advocate of Hearst, defending him at every opportunity.
In 1941, upon hearing a rumor that Orson Welles' movie Citizen Kane was going to be a diatribe against Hearst, Parsons confronted Welles. The "would-be genius," however, charmed her into believing it was just a rumor; Citizen Kane was a movie "about a dead man," he told her. When she learned he had lied, Parsons went on the attack, effectively derailing Welles' career. Reflecting the moral standards of the day, she also helped damage the careers of Mae West (for her overt sexuality), Charlie Chaplin (for leaning too far to the left), and Ingrid Bergman (for becoming pregnant with director Roberto Rossellini's child while married to another man).
Ironically, her high moral standards did not extend to censorship when it would have been costly for the studios. In reality, the studio system was Parsons' ultimate employer, and her job was to get naughty stars to toe the line.
As further evidence of Parsons' complexity was her relationship with rival Hedda Hopper. What began as friendship evolved into a frequently bitter competition with many shades of grey in between. Barbas does a fine job of detailing the association, refusing to succumb to a biographer's temptation to martyrize the subject.
In the end, Parsons' penchant for making enemies may be her claim to fame, but we shouldn't overlook her greatest accomplishment: that of paving the way for women journalists beyond the role of "sob sisters." Kudos to Samantha Barbas for reminding us of that fact. | May 2006
Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor to January Magazine and the owner of WordAbilities, LLC, providing writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. Her work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com.