Hedda “The Hat” Hopper earned her nickname as a young actress because of her love of high fashion hats. After she gave up acting and gained popularity as a Hollywood gossip columnist, Hopper’s fans often sent her ever more wild, outlandish, unusual hats and she was said to have spent many thousands of dollars a year on her trademark garment. Late in her life, Hopper said, “If you wear a crazy hat, no one notices the tired face beneath it.”1
Born Elda Furry, the daughter of a Pennsylvania butcher, Hopper dropped out of the Carter Conservatory of Music in Pittsburgh as a teenager and headed for New York. She wasn’t a particularly talented dancer or singer, but because of her height, handsome legs, and her striking green eyes, she soon found a place on a chorus line. In New York she met and fell in love with a popular comic actor named William DeWolf Hopper. Though he was nearly thirty years older than she was, Elda Furry married Hopper in 1913, becoming his fifth wife.
Hopper, who had changed her name several times already—she was known variously as Elda Furry, Elda Curry, Ella Furry, and Elda Millar—was happy to take her husband’s last name, hoping the recognized name would help boost her career. She did not like, however, that her husband often referred to her by the names of his former wives: Edna, Ida, Ella, and Nella. Thus, in 1918, she sought help choosing a new name from a numerologist-astrologer. After the ten-dollar consultation, she became Hedda Hopper. She also changed her birth date to a more favorable day some five years after her actual birth.
During these years, Hopper enjoyed a moderately successful stage and film career. After her divorce from William DeWolf Hopper in 1922, she struggled financially and aggressively sought work. Hollywood was not yet the only site for serious film making, and Hopper worked for several East Coast studios, especially in New York and New Jersey. When she finally moved to California, it was at the urging of Louis B. Mayer, who cast Hopper in his first film, Virtuous Wives (1919). Though she played only bit parts and secondary characters, Hopper made more than one hundred movies.
As her acting career began to falter, a friend helped Hopper get a break as a columnist. Her brief reports on Hollywood did not initially take off, in part because columnist Louella Parsons had the gossip market cornered. Soon, in an effort to diffuse Parsons’s considerable power in Hollywood, Louis B. Mayer arranged for Hopper, with the help of his studio’s publicity office, to write a rival column. Her comparatively mild column began to appear regularly in a handful of papers; however it was “not until Hedda resorted to bare-nails bitchery was she able to put her career into orbit.”2
Hedda Hopper became well known in Hollywood for her sharp wit and vicious tongue. She quickly developed a reputation for writing malicious stories and occasional false reports on the lives of the stars. Her ruthlessness and willingness to ignore her subjects’ wishes made it possible for her to write the shocking and edgy stories her fans came to love.
In many ways, Hopper was an unsavory character who used her power to damage and destroy other’s careers. She was a radical political conservative and, in the 1950s, she was a leading supporter of Joe McCarthy’s assault on Hollywood; she served as the second vice president for the Motion Picture Alliance of the Preservation of American Ideals. Hopper was considered by many to be an anti-Semite.
Because it was often said that she could “make or break” a career, Hopper became one of Hollywood’s most feared figures. When she used the proceeds from her column to buy a mansion in Beverly Hills, Hopper referred to it as “the house that fear built.” She commonly offered unsolicited advice to movie stars in her column, and, on occasion, to others; “at the height of World War II, Hedda announced that Winston Churchill should hire a manager because he was ‘making too many speeches and repeating himself.’”3