|Hollywoodland||Dec 13 2010|
This December 1955 cover of Inside asks why Hollywood fears Louella Parsons. And the answer is because Parsons was at the time arguably the most important tastemaker in the world. Louella Parsons, née Luella Rose Oettinger, was the first person to write a true gossip column, beginning in 1914 when she worked for the Chicago Record Herald. Later, publisher William Randolph Hearst gave her a column in the Los Angeles Examiner that was eventually syndicated to 600 papers worldwide, which amounted to a readership of about twenty million people.
Parsons considered herself Hollywood’s moral watchdog and didn’t think twice about damaging the careers of celebrities she believed had behaved badly. She was also the gatekeeper of success for aspiring starlets—a few negative words in her column and a lifetime’s dream was shattered. The irony of all this self-righteousness is that she may have earned her column as a reward for helping cover up a killing.
The story goes that powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst either accidentally or intentionally shot producer Thomas Ince in the head while cruising with Ince, Hopper, and other guests on his 200-foot yacht the Oneida. While it’s impossible to say if this is true, it’s interesting that the guests on Hearst’s boat all had wildly different stories about what happened. Several, including Charlie Chaplin, denied ever being on the cruise, a claim that was contradicted by other guests. Hearst’s papers went the opposite route, reporting in unison that it was Ince who had never been on the boat. Instead, they claimed he died of a heart attack on Hearst’s ranch in San Simeon.
Later the story was revised—he had been on the boat, but had taken ill, left for Los Angeles by train, and died en route. By legal standards, it would be impossible to prove a cover-up took place. But by the lesser standards of plain logic, there’s no doubt that when a guy gets sick and has to leave a boat, people don’t fall over themselves making up conflicting stories about what happened.
The aftermath of the incident was just as curious. Ince’s widow refused to allow an autopsy and had her husband immediately cremated. Hearst then set her up with a trust fund and she left for Europe, never to return. It was also around then that Hearst gave Parsons was a contract to be a columnist for his influential Examiner newspaper.
All these gifts were, at the very least, cases of extremely suspicious timing, but Ince’s death was never seriously investigated. A token police inquiry predictably turned up nothing, and all the lies were papered over. Louella Parsons didn’t squander her Devil’s bargain—if indeed that’s what it was. From her post at the Examiner she ruled Hollywood for thirty years, a moral arbiter who in all likelihood had a secret in her past that dwarfed any of those she revealed in her column.