Throwback Thursday – Louella Parsons, the first American movie columnist and screenwriter

Freeport, Illinois — A quick trip down Monterey street in Freeport, Illinois might not appeal to too many people any longer. Even though it’s the very location of Freeport’s oldest home and home to the wrought iron Van Buren Bridge built in 1885, you wouldn’t think much exciting ever came from here.

Yet the area holds the story of a girl, who all the stars and bosses of Hollywood handed “heapings of power on a silver platter”, named Louella Parsons.

LouellaParsonsThe woman considered the first lady of Hollywood and who was retained by William Randolph Hearst was born Louella Rose Oettinger, August 6, 1881 in Freeport, Illinois. Louella was the daughter of Helen (Stine) and Joshua Oettinger. Her father was of German Jewish descent, as was her maternal grandfather, while her maternal grandmother, Jeanette Wilcox, was of Irish origin.

She had two brothers, Edwin and Fred, and a sister, Rae.

In her teens, Louella was considered an already smart and intelligent young woman, but there were few literary outlets for her ambitions.

It wasn’t until high school that Louella decided to become a writer or a reporter. On June 4, 1901, at her high school graduation, Louella gave a foretelling speech, entitled “Great Men,” after which her principal announced that she would become a great writer.

At her peak, her columns were read by 20 million people in 400 newspapers worldwide. She was one the greatest allies of Marilyn Monroe, and probably the columnist the most influential in cinema.

In 1914, Parsons began writing the first gossip column in the United States for the Chicago Record Herald.[6] William Randolph Hearst bought that newspaper in 1918 and Parsons was out of a job, as Hearst had not yet discovered that movies and movie personalities were news. Parsons then moved to New York City and started working for the New York Morning Telegraph writing a similar movie column, which attracted the attention of Hearst. In 1923, after shrewd bargaining on both sides, she signed a contract and joined the Hearst newspaper the New York American.

In an article from 1985, People magazine called her one of the Warrior Queens of Gossip:

“Who were these two creatures and why did all Hollywood quake at the thought of what they might print? They were, respectively, the former Louella Rose Oettinger, daughter of a Jewish (she kept that quiet) clothier in Freeport, Ill., and the former Elda Furry, daughter of an unaffectionate butcher in Hollidaysburg, Pa. And Hollywood quaked because it chose to. It was huge, rich, young and uncertain; it wanted guidance, and Hedda and Louella had a combined readership, they claimed, of 75 million in a nation of 160 million. Actually, the heads of the studios had all the real power, but they were nervous too, so they all—stars and bosses—handed the two women heapings of power on a silver platter. Please ask before you sit in judgment: Should Louella Rose Oettinger and Elda Furry have turned it down?”
Louella Parsons with Marilyn Monroe.

In 1925, Louella contracted tuberculosis and was told she had six months to live. She moved to Arizona for the dry climate, then to Los Angeles, where she decided to stay.

With the disease in remission, she went back to work, becoming a syndicated Hollywood columnist for Hearst. As she and the publishing mogul had developed an ironclad relationship, her Los Angeles Examiner column came to appear in over six hundred newspapers the world over, with a readership of more than twenty-million, and Parsons gradually became one of the most powerful voices in the movie business with her daily allotment of gossip.

Beginning in 1928, she hosted a weekly radio program featuring movie star interviews that was sponsored by SunKist. A similar program in 1931 was sponsored by Charis Foundation Garment. In 1934, she signed a contract with the Campbell’s Soup Company and began hosting a program titled Hollywood Hotel, which showcased stars in scenes from their upcoming movies.

Her memoirs include the best-seller “The Gay Illiterate” and “Tell It to Louella.” As an actress Parsons appeared in “Hollywood Hotel” (1938), “Without Reservations” (1946), and “Starlift” (1951).

Born right here in Freeport, Illinois and still talked about today as in this recent article from E-Online

2016 Spencer Tracy Film Festival - 3sm
Louella Parsons’ Freeport home


Source and additional reading:

The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons

Cover photo:

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