Cinema: The Gossipist

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Fustest with the Mostest. Hedda spent most of the rest of her movie career in Hollywood, working for Louis B. Mayer. She was the screen's first best-dressed woman, and for years its official sophisticated society dame. In those years, without even trying, she salted down an incredible knowledge of Hollywood's strange ways & means. She can tell off-the-record stories that make Suetonius look like a cub from the Christian Science Monitor. She even knew what the inside of Garbo's dressing room looked like ("the black hole of Calcutta"). Studio publicity men, hard up for a story, always knew where to get it: go out and latch a siphon on to Hopper.

She had been one of MGM's brighter satellites. Then she dimmed. She was making a nice living, but chiefly as a loan-out. One day Irving Thalberg (Hedda remembers when L.B. hired him) decided: no more loan-outs. "Irving," she cried, "you don't mean me?" "Yes, Hedda," he replied, "I mean you too." As an actress, she was finished.

She took it gallantly. She dabbled in real estate, but that bored her. Then one day she flounced into the hotel suite of Dema ("The Brain") Harshbarger, an ample and astute business woman, founder and manager of the NBC Artists' Bureau, who had gone to California to retire. Said Hedda: "I want to get on that air." "In half an hour," says Dema, "she told me more about Hollywood than I could learn in two years of constant study." Dema decided to become Hedda's manager.

Hedda's first radio show (1936) was 26 weeks of chitchat for Max-O-Oil Shampoo, at $150 a week. Hedda was terrible. But the next year she did a little better. Then, in 1938, Howard Denby of the Esquire syndicate came along—primed, the story goes, by the Metromen who wanted to set up a rival to Lolly Parsons. Hedda's first columns were terrible too. Hedda was too nice to people. "Look," Dema told her, "as long as everybody says you're fine, I like you, you're going to starve to death. Wake up. Be yourself." So Hedda honed her talons.

With the first appearance (1938) of her column in the Los Angeles Times, Hedda was made. In 1940 she switched from Esquire to the Des Moines Register & Tribune syndicate; in 1942, she pulled off her grand coup of wooing & winning syndicating contracts from the New York Daily News's Joe Patterson and the Chicago Tribune's Bertie McCormick. On that day, June 1, Lolly Parsons arched her back but moved over on the fence. Hedda had become a major Hollywood gossip.

Last year, quite aside from her newspaper work, Hedda made $2,500 a week as a kind of traffic director on This Is Hollywood, a radio show. Last week, she could add up—or rather, Dema could add up for her—a quarter of a million dollars' worth of annual business. Says Dema, who runs Hedda's business affairs completely (which includes issuing her a $25 weekly allowance): "I don't think we've even scratched the surface yet."

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