Elda Furry rushed away from her boring life in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s and took herself right to Broadway, determined to see her name in lights.
Before, she had been the daughter of a butcher, she was a Baptist and had had half dozen siblings. In New York, she took the stage a few times, as a chorus girl, as a character actress, and as a traveling performer, before marrying a bona fide Broadway star, DeWolf Hopper, a man older than her father, and Elda was his fifth wife, and apparently he had a type: they all had names with two syllables and ending in A (Ella, Ida, Edna, Nella, then finally Elda). But DeWolf proved to be a bore to her as well, alcoholic and relatively self-absorbed and calling poor Elda any of his wives’ names interchangeably. So she left him.
So Elda took her soon, DeWolf Jr (who later went by Bill) and moved to California, where she vowed to see her name not just in lights, but lit up in the credits of silent films on the silver screens across America. She consulted a numerologist for $10 and, guided by the stars, changed her stage name to Hedda. Hedda Hopper.
Starting in 1915, and for over two decades, she made over 120 movies, generally as a high society woman in the background, but never made it as big as she had hoped, even when she played Mona Lisa herself. Wanting the attention for herself but never quite making it, Hedda grew to resent the stars around her who proved to be great successes.
And somewhere along the way, Hedda learned her greatest talent lied in gossip. Securing a newspaper column in the late 1930s, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood, she was soon being read by millions as she told the public who was up-and-coming, who was washed up, and what films to be excited about. Hedda Hopper could make or break careers, and most in Hollywood knew to rightfully fear her power: making her angry, reporting a story to another newspaper first, or ignoring her were all very dangerous choices. Her greatest rival was Louella Parsons, another Hollywood gossip with a column, and they feuded for years.
Hedda worked through her own little network of spies (hairdressers and maids and everyone in between), her firsthand sources to pregnancies, affairs, divorces, and marriages, and her scandalous seeds over the next few decades, until her death of pneumonia in 1966, but many in Hollywood remained frightened of her for years after her death. Hedda relished in fear, even calling her home “the House that Fear Built”, and she worried little about upsetting anyone. When actress Merle Oberon asked Hedda why she was writing such terrible things about Merle, Hedda famously smiled back at her at a party, and gave her most memorable quote.
“Bitchery, dear. Sheer bitchery.”
While Hedda danced the night away with her close gay friends in clubs, she destroyed the careers of individuals she outted as gay in her columns. During World War II, while her own son (the actor William Hopper) served in the military, she accused certain celebrities of being anti-American. And after World War II, she listed names of suggested Communists, often leading to intense FBI investigations of the individuals; among the accused was Charlie Chaplin, who she suggested should be banned from the country (and indeed, for years, he was).
Most famous for her enormous and lavish hats, and nicknamed Hedda Hell by Louis B. Mayer himself, Hedda Hopper has been gone for 50 years now. While her legacy remains firmly entrenched in the tabloids and paparazzi of Hollywood, who now use blogs, tweets, and live social media broadcasting to scandalize celebrities, in many ways Hedda Hopper’s worst nightmare has now come true: Her name has been largely forgotten.