Adventures in the Gossip Trade
What I learned from Louella Parsons and other master practitioners.
Apr 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 30 • By RICHARD W. CARLSON
"We're like the Mafia."
I DON'T KNOW JARED PAUL STERN, the New York Post gossip writer accused of blackmailing a billionaire, but over the years I've learned a little about the gamier side of gossip-columning. Stern's self-dealing, unsubtle as it was, is no big surprise.
When I was 21 years old, and new to Los Angeles, I worked for Louella Parsons, creator of the first movie gossip column and one of the most powerful and influential of William Randolph Hearst's syndicated writers. At its peak, her column was carried by more than 1,000 newspapers. She was heard by millions of Americans on her weekly radio show, "Hollywood Hotel." She had serious chops in the world of gossip.
Aside from Miss Parsons' office in her home on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, where I labored on Mondays and Tuesdays, I worked two mornings a week for an arm of United Press International called the "UPI Foreign Film Bureau" located in the Times Mirror building in downtown Los Angeles. (My third job was about 20 feet down the hall, in the L.A. Times newsroom where, from 3 to 11 p.m. five days a week, I was a copyboy for the Times's night city editor, Glen Binford. I had ravenous appetites at the time, and becoming a full-time reporter was one of them.)
At the UPI office, three writers, a part-time assistant (me), and our boss, a one-armed Latvian émigré named Henry Gris, produced 20 or more gossipy stories a week about Hollywood and movie stars: the Brads and Angelinas of the day, folks like Kirk Douglas, Steve McQueen, Tuesday Weld, Doris Day, Natalie Wood, and Frank Sinatra.
Our copy made up all or most of half a hundred fan magazines in Asia, Europe, and Latin America, first translated in New York into a couple of dozen languages before it was wired or mailed out. Henry had a name for our work: He called them "coulda' been stories," meaning, as he explained to me on my first day, they could have been true even if they weren't. The fact that they were to be printed abroad, often in foreign languages, meant we could get away with considerable deceit in their preparation. The world was a big place. UPI wouldn't mind.
Henry said all this while explaining that I would do a couple of interviews a week with top stars. But I wouldn't actually need to talk to them in person. "That would be a waste of time," he said. "We write about them from clips," meaning stories and items cut from other publications and kept in voluminous files stacked against the walls of our large, one-room office. "We call movie stars on the phone only if absolutely necessary." For a fee, an outfit called Celebrity Service supplied home numbers and addresses of actors, but Henry was adamant about keeping costs down and using them sparingly.
"We make our stories colorful, we make them entertaining, we spray them with adverbs and adjectives until they are soaked, and most important, since they are not true but very well could be true, we keep them free from libel," said Henry, who could type faster with one hand while he talked than anyone in the room. He emphasized points by flapping the end of his missing wing inside the short-sleeve white Dacron shirt he wore every day.
As a group we cobbled together two full gossip columns weekly. A few items came from Henry, who was chummy with many stars, like Audrey Hepburn, I was impressed to learn. But mostly it was stuff we cribbed and rewrote from columns by Army Archerd of Daily Variety, Cholly Knickerbocker, Dorothy Kilgallen, Earl Wilson ("Midnight Earl, the Broadway Columnist") and Walter Winchell in New York, "Suzy" (then called Suzy Knickerbocker), Florabelle Muir, Hedda Hopper, Harrison Carroll, Jimmy Fidler, Sheila Graham, and my other employer, Miss Parsons--"global cross-pollination," Henry called it, as we rejiggered the work of others and sent it on to magazines in Stockholm and Tokyo. Henry did once make the point that "all columnists steal from each other, or at least from somebody."
The five of us signed our bylines to a couple of pieces a week, but we produced so much we also employed a list of 20 pseudonyms. One was that of a writer who had died in a car wreck years before. ("Terry lives in the minds of fans in Oslo and Jakarta," said Henry.) Our stories were often written to promote new movies, a form of pimping still in style--just read Time and Newsweek or Star and People--and the magazines required a lot of "art," that is, still pictures to accompany them. Henry had a personal relationship with every movie studio publicity chief and press agent in town, which is how he really made his dough.