Famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by actress Helen Mirren, is starring in the new movie Trumbo. Directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston, the film is about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the blacklist in Hollywood during the Cold War. Hopper is featured in the film as Trumbo’s political nemesis, as indeed she was. Rather than dismissing the conservative, anticommunist Hopper as “a crank” who engaged in “pinko purges”—as did earlier portrayals—the film takes her formidable role in mid-20th century American popular and political culture seriously.
Whether known as the “duchess of dish” or a “gargoyle of gossip,” Hedda Hopper was a powerhouse of Hollywood’s golden age. For 27 years, beginning in 1938, she wrote her movie gossip column. Her mass media gossip—or as she put it “snooping and scooping”—drew over 30 million readers to her column at its height in the 1950s. As a gossip, she publicized information about private lives. She focused mostly on the big stars, their movies and marriages, their secrets and scandals. But what made Hopper most stand out from the crowd of celebrity journalists—apart from her famous, flamboyant hats—was her political coverage and political conservatism.
Hopper excelled at a style and practice of journalism that blurred public and private, politics and entertainment and set the context for our current era. By combining and wielding gossip about the worlds of both entertainment and politics, Hopper inserted celebrity into her coverage of politics and politics into her coverage of celebrities. Her insertions took the form of today’s sound bites—simple morsels for immediate consumption. But making information entertaining simplifies the political debate and obscures the political issues. Hopper would have been very comfortable with our historical moment where politicians and celebrities are interchangeable, and personal attacks and character assassinations are a regular part of political discourse.
Hopper used her journalistic platform to promote her conservative politics and traditional values. She attacked members of the film industry who departed from her political views and moral standards, and mobilized her readers into letter-writing campaigns and movie boycotts. Always a proud member of the Republican Party, she sought to build opposition to the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern manners and morals. Her highest priority, however, was fighting against Communism at home and abroad. For decades, Hopper busied herself with “exposing Reds in the name of patriotism.” By publicizing the Communist beliefs of members of the film industry, she violated their civil liberties and the right to keep their political affiliations private. But private information was her currency in the gossip trade.
One of her most prominent targets was Dalton Trumbo. She could not understand why a successful screenwriter like Trumbo, one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, “could be a Commie.” Once the blacklist was established in late 1947, with Trumbo on it, Hopper felt it was not enough and demanded further blacklisting. In 1950, Hopper accused MGM of continuing to employ Trumbo under a pseudonym, a warning to other studios to maintain the blacklist. Hopper continued to monitor Trumbo’s career and put pressure on those protecting him. When Trumbo received screen credit for Spartacus (1960), effectively breaking the blacklist, Hopper strongly objected. “The script was written by a Commie,” she wrote, “so don’t go to see it.”
The establishment of the Hollywood blacklist in late 1947 signaled the stifling of social criticism and political dissent in Cold War America. As the new movie Trumbo makes clear, Hedda Hopper helped make this so.
Jennifer Frost is Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of Hedda Hopper’s Holywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (NYU Press, 2011) and An Interracial Movement of the Poor Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s (NYU Press, 2005).