Louella Parsons was the original Hollywood gossip columnist. With a head full of scandalous secrets, Parsons had the ability to make or break Tinsel town’s twinkling stars. And when she wasn’t uncovering other people’s secrets, she was busy trying to cover up her own. Failed marriages, sordid affairs, secret love children, and clandestine studio deals were just the start—read on for some sensational facts about Louella Parsons, the undisputed Queen of Hollywood Gossip.
1. She Started At The Bottom
Born in the small town of Freeport, Illinois in 1881, Louella Parsons seemed like the least likely person to become a Hollywood reporter. In fact, when she was growing up, there was no such thing as a Hollywood reporter. But, even back then, in her small town, little Louella had an appetite for gossip. And a knack for learning secrets.
2. She Learned A Tragic Secret
When she was just six years old, Louella’s idyllic small-town life crumbled before her eyes. Her father, Joshua Oettinger, became suddenly and mysteriously ill. A quiet man, he never shared the details of his illness with his family but she could read between the lines…of his blood-soaked coughs. Not long after, he passed away from tuberculosis.
3. She Lived Comfortably
Louella Parsons’ mother wasted no time mourning. Before her husband’s body had even turned cold, she sold the family business, cashed in the life insurance policy, and began living a life of luxury. From that early age, Louella grew accustomed to the lifestyle of the rich and famous. And when you’re living the high life, you tend to uncover their deepest, darkest secrets.
4. She Was Ambitious
From day one, Louella knew what she wanted to be. She had much grander ambitions than her small-town roots could give her. She recalled, “I wanted to grow up as quickly as possible and to be hailed—if not as the best writer in America—at least as the youngest and most beautiful”. And she would step over anyone to make it happen.
5. She Was A Liar
Louella’s dream of becoming the greatest writer in America seemed far-fetched. But then, so did her grasp of the truth. Later on in life in her autobiography, Parsons made a disturbing confession about her early days. She said that, in order to get ahead, she “lied frequently and made extraordinary and exaggerated claims about herself and her accomplishments”. But she didn’t have to.
6. She Was An Inspiration
Louella Parsons definitely did not have to exaggerate her accomplishments. Despite her challenging upbringing, she excelled in school. At her graduation ceremony, she delivered a speech that she titled “Great Men”, which inspired all of her classmates and teachers alike. Her principal even declared that she would become a great writer—but he never could’ve predicted just how she’d use her gifts.
7. She Snooped On Her Husband
In 1905, Louella married John Parsons, the most eligible bachelor in Dixon, Illinois where she was studying to become a teacher. The couple moved to Burlington, Iowa, and, for a while, the marriage seemed like it would be a happy one. That is, until Louella started doing what she did best—i.e., digging up dirt on those around her.
8. She Was Perfectly Terrible
Louella developed a “bad reputation” in Burlington, Iowa. Whereas everyone back home in Illinois had fawned over her writing, her new neighbors were less enthusiastic. Years later, one neighbor recalled, “She used to come over and read poetry she’d written. Her work was perfectly terrible, but she was awfully polite about it”. Well, eventually her nosy side would backfire on her.
9. Her Husband Vanished
Louella’s knack for digging up dirt led her to a shocking discovery. Her husband had been having an affair. After years of neglect, Louella divorced John Parsons—and promptly tried to cover up her scandalous heartbreak with lies. In her autobiography, she falsely claimed that John Parsons had drowned returning from service during WWI.
Well, fake death or not—Louella moved on just as quickly as her mother once had.
10. She Found Her Voice
Divorced and scorned, Louella struck out on her own. Through a family contact—and some very bold ambition—Parsons landed her first full-time writing job, working for George K Spoor’s film studio Essanay Company. Even though she was making decent money and had a fairly sizable audience, Parsons wanted more. So much more.
11. She Fetched Another Husband
Parsons’ assistant of 30 years, Dorothy Manners, said that she had “lustrous brown hair and skin that a baby might envy”. And her beauty attracted another husband. While working in Chicago for Essanay Company, Parsons met and married John McCaffrey Jr. This time around, however, it would be Parsons who was hiding something.
12. She Had Her Own Secrets
Throughout her marriage to McCaffrey Jr., Louella Parsons was covering up a dark secret. She carried on a long-term affair with a married man named Peter Brady. Allegedly, their love affair was “obsessive” and, eventually, it ended Parsons’ marriage. Dorothy Manners described Brady as “the real love of [Parsons’] life”. The details are scarce, however, as Parsons worked hard to erase that chapter of her life.
13. She Came Up With A Plan
Louella Parsons wasn’t happy writing her gossip column in Chicago, catching starlets on their way between Hollywood and Broadway. She wanted to get closer to the action and the gossip—and she had a brilliant strategy. Parsons began writing gushing puff pieces on Marion Davies, who happened to be William Randolph Hearst’s mistress at the time.
14. She Rolled Up In A Hearst
Parsons’ strategy was simple: use Davies to get close to Hearst and leverage the relationship for personal gain. Her strategy worked better than she expected and she and Davies became very good friends. Her cheerleading of Davies even became something of a cultural meme, with the line “Marion never looked lovelier” practically turning into her catchphrase.
15. She Had A Deadline
Louella Parsons worked herself to the bone, only catching two or three hours of sleep every night. The rest of her waking time she spent digging up dirt, juggling her affair with her marriage, and spending money as fast as she could earn it. But her fast and hard lifestyle had taken its toll on her. Doctors diagnosed her with tuberculosis and gave her just six months to live.
16. She Was Going To Hollywood
Well, to the doctor’s surprise, nothing could keep Louella Parsons down. She recovered from her bout of tuberculosis in Palm Springs, turning it into a getaway for all of Hollywood’s rich and famous. When she returned to work, her editor unexpectedly informed her that he wanted her to move to Hollywood.
“At last,” Parsons relished, “the Hollywood writer is going to Hollywood!” It might not have been a coincidence.
17. She Might Have Known Something
Hard work was one reason for Parsons’ sudden promotion—but it may have happened for a far more disturbing reason. After all, what better way to get to the top than by blackmailing one of the most powerful men in America?
See, rumors began spreading that emergency services had rushed famed director Thomas Ince off of Hearst’s yacht. Allegedly, he had to be hospitalized for indigestion and later passed away.
18. Her Paper Covered Up The Truth
Hearst’s newspapers, including the Los Angeles Examiner where Parsons was now writing, began churning out a different account of events concerning Thomas Ince’s curious demise. Collectively, Hearst’s papers claimed that Thomas Ince had never, in fact, been on the media mogul’s yacht. Rather, they claimed, Ince had left Hearst’s home because he had fallen ill.
19. She Helped To Cover It All Up
Charlie Chaplin’s secretary, however, blew the whistle on the whole scandal and contradicted Hearst’s papers’ story. The secretary confirmed that Thomas Ince had, indeed, been onboard Hearst’s yacht He further alleged that Ince’s excuse for leaving had nothing to do with indigestion—but rather, a bullet hole in the head.
20. She Was A Star Witness
The speculation is that Charlie Chaplin had the hots for Marion Davies. When Hearst found out, he lost it and fired at Chaplin, only to strike Thomas Ince instead. Now, if you’re wondering where Parsons fits into the scandalous affair, the answer is right in the middle. Allegedly, Parsons had been on the yacht as a friend of Davies and witnessed the whole thing.
21. She Blackmailed The Blackmailer
In all likelihood, Parsons received her big promotion from Hearst himself as payment for her silence. Alternatively, she might have been bold enough to blackmail one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. At least, that’s the story that has gone down in Hollywood legend. Either way, the rest is history. Sensational, tabloid history.
22. She Marked Her Territory
Once in Hollywood, Louella Parsons “marked her territory”. She made it a rule that all information in Hollywood had to go through her first. She also literally marked her territory. Parsons suffered from incontinence since elementary school and, allegedly, left small puddles of urine wherever she went. Hollywood was her territory.
23. She Knew Everything
Parsons had eyes and ears in every studio, salon, back alley, and brothel in Hollywood. Her informants included the hairstylists, doctors, lawyers, and maybe even gardeners of the Hollywood elite. Nicknamed “Love’s Undertaker”, Parsons knew about every affair and even knew about pregnant starlets before they themselves knew.’
24. She Held Stars For Ransom
Parsons aggressively pursued new gossip. In fact, to make sure that she was always the one to “break the news”, her tactics were downright disturbing. For example, when she learned that Clark Gable and his wife were getting a divorce, she held Mrs Gable in her office (against her will) to make sure that she got the exclusive.
25. She Was Just Goofing Around
Louella Parsons developed all kinds of strategies for extracting information from Hollywood’s A-listers. She often feigned a goofy personality so that people who feel comfortable opening up to her. But make no mistake, she was always digging for the dirt. One of Hollywood’s biggest legends, Mary Pickford, learned that the hard way.
26. She Betrayed Her Friends’ Confidence
Pickford believed that Parsons was her friend and opened up to her about her private plans to divorce Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Given the power couple’s status, Parsons couldn’t resist breaking the story. Poor Pickford had believed that she could count “upon the [Parsons’] discretion” to safeguard her “against sensation”.
Of course, Parsons broke the story and opened the gates to a media mania.
27. She Fell For The Doc
Even as she was busy destroying the love lives of Hollywood’s rich and famous, Parsons pursued her own romantic interests. With Brady in her rearview, Parsons succumbed to the charms and, ahem, “endowments”, of one Doctor “Docky” Harry W. Martin. Parsons might, indeed, have loved “Docky”—but there was a twisted side to their relationship.
She loved the gossip he gave her even more.
28. She Knew Everyone’s Medical Records
“Docky”—as everyone had taken to calling him—earned his medical pedigree by treating working girls and guys for venereal disease. It wasn’t long, however, before he became a studio doctor where his primary responsibility was pumping stars full of uppers and downers. And, of course, promptly reporting back to his new wife, Parsons.
29. She Made Her Own Arch Nemesis
Parsons’ hegemony over Hollywood gossip seemed unbreakable—but she was ultimately responsible for creating her own arch-nemesis. In addition to propping up Marion Davies, Parsons used her column to heap praise on the aging studio actress, Hedda Hopper. In exchange, Hopper gave Parsons the inside scoop on film sets.
30. Her Informant Betrayed Her
Dorothy Manners described Parsons’ and Hopper’s relationship as follows: “When they first knew each other, Hedda was an actress, a good one. They liked each other a lot. If anything happened on a set—if a star and leading man were having an affair—Hedda would give Louella a call.” But informants always make for the worst enemies.
31. She Snubbed Her Former Friend
It wasn’t long before Hopper thought she could dethrone the “Queen of Hollywood Gossip”. She broke out on her own and got a morning gossip column with the Los Angeles Times, making her Parsons competitor. To celebrate, Hopper had a party with all of Hollywood’s A-listers. To voice her disapproval, Parsons “swept in, turned on her heel, and exited in a huff”.
32. She Was Out Of Control
Louella Parsons believed that studio executives feared her power and set up Hopper to take her down. But things soon spun out of control. Fellow gossip columnist, Liz Smith, said, “The studios created both of them. And they thought they could control both of them. But they became Frankenstein monsters, escaped from the labs”. Things got ugly.
33. She Took It Personally
At first, the Parsons-Hopper rivalry that was raging in the gossip columns remained relatively amicable. In fact, Hopper thought that she and Parsons had a fun rivalry. Parsons, however, adopted a scorched earth policy when Hopper referred to her husband, Docky, as “that…clap doctor”. From there, the gloves were off and the knives were out.
34. She Played Nice For A While
At first, the studios tried to play nice with Parsons and Hopper. As screenwriter Gavin Lambert said, “the studio bosses used Louella and Hedda as a weapon of intimidation to keep their employees in line. But if there was a real problem with a star, they could almost always buy these women off”. However, that only worked for a time.
35. She Extorted The Studios
When it came to making sure she got what she wanted, Parsons used downright dirty tactics. She extorted large sums of money out of the studios for her services. For example, Twentieth Century Fox purchased the rights to Parsons’ 1943 memoir for $75,000. Funny enough, Fox never made it into a movie. In all likelihood, it was hush money to prevent Parsons from breaking a scandalous story about their leading ladies Katharine Hepburn and Norma Shearer.
36. She Became Fanatical
In the 1950s, Parsons became an increasingly devout—and judgmental—Catholic. From then, her gossip column turned into a personal crusade for moral uprightness that no amount of money could silence. When she learned about Grace Kelly’s affair with the married Ray Milland, Parsons lambasted Kelly in her column for “compromising her honor”.
37. She Had The Scoop
The competition for the title of Gossip Queen between Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper became an all-out feud to dig up dirt. And nothing and no one was “off the record”. At the behest of the studios, Hopper propped up Ingrid Bergman as a “saintly” celebrity to prepare her for roles in The Bells of St. Mary’s and Joan of Arc. But Parsons had the scoop.
38. She Nearly Broke Hollywood
In 1949, Parsons broke a story that nearly broke Hollywood. In her gossip column, she reported that Ingrid Bergman was cheating on her husband, Peter Lindstrom, and carrying on a sordid romance. She claimed that Bergman had absconded to Italy in the loving arms of director Roberto Rossellini. The gossip grudge was getting heated.
39. She Was Expecting Drama
The story of Bergman’s scandalous new romance was disastrous for the film studios—and for Hedda Hopper, who had stake her reputation on propping up Bergman. But Parsons took the story a step further when she ran with the headline “INGRID BERGMAN BABY DUE IN THREE MONTHS AT ROME”. It was just the beginning of the media maelstrom.
40. Her Husband Doubted Her
Every other newspaper and gossip columnist, including Hopper, denounced Parsons’ unfounded allegations of a Bergman-Rossellini love child. Even Parsons’ husband thought that she had crossed the line and doubted her information.
“I’m…praying your story is right,” he said when Parsons found him one night clutching rosary beads. But if there’s one thing about Parsons—it’s that she pretty much always got her way.
41. She Was Right All Along
In 1950, when she was still married to Lindstrom, Bergman gave birth to Renato Roberto Ranaldo Giusto Giuseppe (“Robin”) Rossellini. It was conclusive evidence that, against all odds, Parsons had been right. But there was a strange twist. No one could figure out how Parsons, and Parsons alone, knew that Bergman was pregnant with Rossellini’s child. And Parsons wasn’t telling.
42. She Never Betrayed Her Source
Years later, Dorothy Manners revealed Parsons’ source. Manners claimed that it was none other than mogul and madman Howard Hughes who had spilled the beans to Parsons. Allegedly, he was angry with Bergman for delaying one of his productions because of her pregnancy. “I could overhear him shouting into Louella’s phone,” Manners said.
43. She Kept The Grudge Match Going
After the Ingrid Bergman scandal, the studios begged Parsons and Hopper to make nice, lest their feud destroy every actor in town. Hopper seemed willing to mend fences—but Parsons wasn’t ready to make nice. “So many people say we do not like one another. Who are we to argue against such an enthusiastic majority opinion?” Parsons quipped when asked about the feud.
44. She Launched A Crusade
Louella Parsons’ power continued to grow. In fact, she had become so powerful in Hollywood that she nearly shut down one of the greatest films of all time: Citizen Kane. Tipped off by Hopper that Citizen Kane was an unflattering film à clef about his life, William Randolph Hearst demanded that she go to a pre-screening. What ensued was Parsons’ biggest crusade.
45. She Defended Hearst
After watching Citizen Kane, Louella Parsons became mortified. She feared that it would ruin her boss’ reputation if the film ever came out. She hurriedly sent him a detailed telegram expressing her concerns. In return, Hearst sent her a now infamous message that read, “STOP CITIZEN KANE”. So, she launched a full-throttle attack.
46. She Was Going To Spill All The Beans
With her new marching orders from Hearst, Louella Parsons went to the head of RKO Studios, George Schaefer. Without mincing her words, Parsons made it clear to Schaefer that if he ever released Citizen Kane, she would release all of his dirty secrets and let the skeletons out of his closet. And Schaeffer had more than a few of those.
47. She Shutdown The Biggest Premiere Ever
In spite of Parsons’ threats, Schaefer charged ahead with Citizen Kane and scheduled a premiere at Radio City Music Hall. Undeterred—and angry at Schaefer’s defiance—Parsons threatened Radio City Music Hall with a total media blackout. Fearful of garnering Parsons’ wrath, the theater’s manager canceled the premiere. But it wasn’t over yet.
48. Her Audience Turned On Her
The overwhelming vitriol that Parsons heaped on Citizen Kane and its director, Orson Welles, had an unintended side effect. Public sympathy turned in favor of the beleaguered filmmaker and against Parsons and her mean-spirited attack. When the film premiered in mid-1941, critics and audiences heaped praise on it.
49. She Was Losing Her Grip On Power
Eventually, Hollywood’s heavy hitters grew tired of bowing and kowtowing to Parsons and Hopper. A-listers began demanding fees to appear on Parsons’ radio show and the studios learned that it was easier to simply pay her off than it was to incur her wrath. In addition to those changes, Parsons’ health took a turn for the worse and she slowed down her writing pace.
50. She Was A Little Ham-Fisted
Parsons’ influence quickly began to wane as her readership faded. In the end, Hopper outlasted Parsons but even she acknowledged that Parsons had retained the crown of “Queen of Hollywood Gossip”. “Louella Parsons is a reporter trying to be a ham,” Hopper once said. “Hedda Hopper,” she confessed is a ham trying to be a reporter!”
51. She Was Working Out Her Own Demons
Actor Tony Curtis said of Parsons, “The way she invoked God—it was as if she were speaking morally for Him. It was frightening. I didn’t know what the consequences would be”. Her dark side could be terrifying. As Curtis said, “With Hedda, you knew pretty much where you stood. But there was something uncomfortable about Louella—as if deep down something was grinding away, some secrets, maybe, from her past”.
52. She Held Onto Her Crown
Even as her readership disappeared and her radio show faded into obscurity, Parsons never stopped digging for gossip. Vanity Fair described the Queen of Hollywood Gossip’s later years as follows; “Still, Louella carried on, going out every night bejeweled and bewildered, like a dowager empress whose country had overthrown her rule”.