The First Lady of Hollywood
From time to time, I'll give a look to biographies of people who played roles in the life of Welles, however small, and the most recent and interesting of these is Samantha Barbas' The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons, telling the story of that infamous gossip columnist who did her best to have Citizen Kane destroyed. As far as I know, this is the first full-length biography of Parsons, who terrorized Hollywood for decades as the motion picture editor for William Randolph Hearst's newspaper empire. Barbas should be commended for her diligence in puncturing many falsehoods and inventions that came from Parsons herself, who, like Welles, wasn't above re-arranging the truth to make herself look better. When Welles did make up stories, he did at least do so far more interestingly than Parsons, it must be said. Barbas also gives numerous examples of the sleazy journalistic behavior Parsons engaged in, using blackmail and other underhanded methods to force people in the movie business to do her bidding. Parsons invented a persona that the public ate up, that of the homespun, folksy small town girl who lived a prim and proper life. In reality, Parsons led a dissolute life like many of the stars she covered up for, as she guzzled her share of booze, was an inveterate gambler and an adulterer, and had multiple divorces in an age when that was a serious social offense.
Parsons relentlessly kissed Hearst�s ass until he gave her a job (and we're not talking about the Ince affair, a story which Barbas deftly skewers), which she parlayed via hard work and underhandedness into the top dog of movie �journalism.� Stars and studio executives alike truly feared what she (and by extension Hearst) could do to a career; look at what Hearst did to Fatty Arbuckle for the sake of selling papers. So the studios gave her an exclusive 48-hour advance on stories coming out, and stars showered her with gifts to curry her favor. Needless to say, she had long since sold her journalistic soul to hype whatever star or picture Hearst told her to, and she boosted them to the extent that it became readily evident what she was doing. She engaged in blatant nepotism, getting cushy jobs for her daughter and final husband, and forced stars, who could command large fees for appearing on radio, to do her radio show, Hollywood Hotel, for free, lest they get frozen out of her column.
When Welles began work on Kane, he deftly suckered Parsons into believing that the picture had nothing to do with Hearst, despite every indication that it did in fact directly come from Hearst�s life at least in part. Her rabid reaction to being so duped came close enough to getting the picture permanently shelved in not destroyed, if not for George Shaeffer, who remained firm in his plans to release the film. Granted, he did it in part because he thought the film would make money, but he did so in the face of enormous pressure from the rest of Hollywood�s execs. The fallout from the Kane struggle left Parsons� career damaged, much as it did Welles; Hollywood, which had long resented her strongarm tactics, quickly turned on her, and rival columnist Hedda Hopper, who had also crusaded against Kane (mainly to kiss Hearst�s ass), quickly grew in power, despite being a lesser writer and a much lousier person than Parsons.
Parsons would remain a potent force on the Hollywood scene, but her day as the supreme force she had once been was largely over. When she died in 1972, the old Hollywood she was such a part of largely turned a blind eye, with only a tiny handful of stars coming to her funeral. Today, she is largely forgotten outside of hardcore movie fans and scholars, her immense influence relegated to a footnote in movie history.
Barbas� book is extensively footnoted, cleanly written and very balanced, objectively reporting Parsons� often odious behavior as well as her several accomplishments. Parsons was a workaholic and pursued her stories very seriously, but she also appears to have been largely devoid of ethics and integrity. Barbas has presented a biography of Parsons that doesn�t attempt to interpret Parsons� personality or actions beyond the facts at hand, which might dismay readers who want a book that tries to get into the head of its subject. That isn�t what is on offer here, but the book tells a Hollywood story that certainly deserves to be remembered. I went in to the book with absolutely zero respect for Parsons, and while my opinion remains more or less the same, I at least have a better understanding of what she did and how she did it.