Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Louella Parsons, Dirt Dispenser

Today, I am closing my series of tributes to women in American radio by devoting this final edition to one of the biggest names in Tinseltown hearsay: Hearstian columnist Louella Parsons. I leave it to Ms. Parsons to dish a little dirt about her on-air scandalmongering, even though that dirt is no more messy than a dusting of confectionary sugar on a well turned cuff. “Well,” Parsons told readers of Radio and Television Mirror Magazine (from an issue of which this picture has been taken), “I can safely say that no one else in the business can boast that her program was almost a radio casualty because of a toothache, a can of soup, and Audie Murphy’s cold! Likewise, I’m the only woman in these parts who’d had the dubious distinction of being almost ‘stood-up’ by Clark Gable. . . .”

Now, she does say “almost.” As it turns out, Gable was scheduled to appear on Parsons’s Hollywood Hotel when he got “snarled up” in a traffic accident. Shortly before the broadcast, he showed up with assorted bruises, welts, and a torn coat; but, according to Parsons, he insisted on going ahead with the live broadcast as scheduled, since, as the enterprising secret sharer put it, “he knew the program was very important to me, and didn’t want to disappoint me.”

He also knew better than to stand up this formidable career ender. So, Parsons’s wounded pride was mended—and Gable’s stardom secure. “Since that day,” Parsons added, “he has had a very special place in my book of friends.” Merely pencilled in, no doubt. This lady dealt in muck, after all, which in her profession is more precious than friendship.

I’ve mentioned Joan Crawford’s mike fright before in this journal. It was a well-known fact the first lady of gossip enjoyed repeating, claiming that the star “ran like a startled faun” every time a microphone was as much as “mentioned” to her. Eventually, the actress’s fear of bad press must have been more pronounced than her microphonophobia, as Parsons got her to go on the air talking about “what an advantage it was to be born on the wrong side of the tracks.”

Carole Lombard, on the other hand, was “completely unruffled when she lost two whole pages of her script. She merely ad libbed her way through, without a pause, and you’d never have known the difference.” Abbott and Costello, in turn, “turned the tables” on Parsons by reading her lines instead of their own. So, the chat hostess obliged by reading theirs, and, “as mad as it may sound,” she discovered that “the program had some semblance of sense to it.” These recollections are not exactly an endorsement of Parsons’s writing; but, by her own admission, “lack of talent has never dimmed [her] enthusiasm.”

Her first program, Hollywood Hotel, was off to a shaky start back in 1934: “My show was probably the worst in existence—I wrote, produced, and directed it all by myself.” Perhaps, it was not so much the writing and directing that were most amiss. Unlike rival columnist Hedda Hopper, Parsons did not have a trained voice, let alone a pleasing one; but she “knew too that is wasn’t how [she] said anything that mattered, because people were interested in what [she] was talking about.” Sure, she couldn’t “close [her] eyes to television indefinitely,” she concluded. “But until better make-up and lighting are developed,” she vowed to “stick with [her] Hooper” (Hollywood jargon for radio audience).  And stick she did, for better and worse.

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