The Soft Power Brokers of Classic Hollywood
An Interview with Karina Longworth
|Anne Helen Petersen||May 18||16||1|
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There’s a particular feeling when you happen upon a piece of pop culture that seems to have been designed specifically for your interests, micro-targeted at you. That’s how I’ve always felt about Karina Longworth’s phenomenal podcast You Must Remember This. But I’ve never felt more targeted than this season, which focuses on dueling gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper — the soft power brokers of Classic Hollywood.
Both Parsons and Hopper were central figures in my dissertation on the industrial history of celebrity gossip, and I have spent years, years, trying to get people to find them as interesting as I do. Turns out, you just need a really, really good podcast (instead of…a 400 page dissertation). Last week, Nick Quah, who writes the podcast industry’s leading publication (and is also part of Sidechannel) joined me to interview Longworth about the power of celebrity gossip then and now, her research process, and watching Crazy Days and Nights go QAnon.
Nick Quah: Okay, so, just to set the scene: Why did build a whole season around Loulla Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and the early years of celebrity gossip?
Karina Longworth: You know what? I think I started from a stupid, ignorant place, because as much as I’ve read about Louella and Hedda in terms of how they delivered the news about various stars — or, in some cases, invented that news — they would sometimes still blur together in my mind. I would be trying to remember a specific star’s story, and I would just get confused: Was it Louella or was it Hedda who wrote that thing? It was one of those things where I felt like, at some point, I had to buckle down and really learn everything there is to know about both of them so I can tell them apart.
Last summer, I was trying to figure out what I would do in 2021, and there were several potential podcast seasons that I was thinking about. Louella and Hedda were one of five ideas, and I ended up deciding to go with them because, you know, we were running up to the election, and there had been more scrutiny of the media in the media. Obviously, that trend had been sort of a rolling ball that had gotten bigger and bigger over the course of the Trump administration.
And then, also, you had what specifically happening within the celebrity gossip world, with Instagram creating new ways of disseminating gossip. One big example of this is @deuxmoi, but there are also a few other accounts where it’s some combination of blin items, reader tips, and blurry photographs. They’re sort of taking what something like the Daily Mail does — narrativizing paparazzi photos — and doing it in this crowdsourced way.
One of the many things I found interesting about @deuxmoi is how there’s almost an element of fanfiction to it, where people would write in and say things like, “Please tell me Chris Evans is as amazing as I think he is,” and then whoever runs @deuxmoi would go through their files and post all the things they’ve been sent about Chris Evans. Or, you know, there’ll also be things like fantasy casting, or “Who do you wish you would match with on Raya?”
It really does feel like there’s an evolution there, and whenever something new is happening, it makes me want to figure out how we got there and connect all the dots as far back as you could go. With Louella and Hedda, you have an opportunity to really connect the dots in terms of gossip all the way back to the beginning of the film industry.
Anne Helen Petersen: One of the things I love about the work you’ve done leading up to this season is that you’ve basically established something like an “extended Old Hollywood universe” within the podcast sufficiently enough so that your listeners aren’t suddenly like, “who are these old biddies?” — in my head, I always refer to them as the old biddies — because they’ve showed up in previous narratives and seasons. They’ve been supporting characters, and now we’re completely shifting them to become the main characters in a way that’s fascinating.
Longworth: Absolutely. The season I did before this one was about Polly Platt, and I feel like you could have listened to every episode of the podcast previous to that and still not know who Polly Platt was when that story started. But with Louella and Hedda, if you’ve ever listened to my podcast before, you probably know who at least one of them are or were, because you might’ve heard me tell a story about them. Or, you know, because you’re probably interested enough in the subject matter to be aware that there were these two old ladies who were on the sidelines of so much Hollywood history.
Petersen: I love the point in the first episode where you’re essentially doing media criticism on what’s going on at, for example, the Los Angeles Times during that stretch in time. You’re expanding on the knowledge of what these publications were politically invested in, in a way that I think sometimes people are like, “Oh, maybe I know what’s going with Louella Parsons and Hearst at the time,” but that other piece of the puzzle with what was going on with Hedda was so important.” It unlocks so much.
Longworth: And I’ll just add: that dynamic makes up a good part of the season, both the inherently conservative nature of the Los Angeles Times at the time, which was Hedda’s home paper, and also the the fact that the equally conservative Time Magazine empire, who was not employing Hedda and who had no financial stake in here, decided to back her over Louella.
Quah: Do you think there’s a Parsons/Hopper equivalent today?
Longworth: I really feel like, in 2021, there’s no equivalent in terms of coverage of movies and celebrity. I talk about this at the end of the season, but that kind of gossip — What are celebrities doing? Who are they? What are they really like? — doesn’t seem to be driven by big personalities like Louella or Hedda any more.
The last of them is maybe Cindy Adams, but with all due respect, how relevant is Cindy Adams any more? I think celebrity gossip is driven by different forces now than it was in that time period. As the season goes on, it’s going to look at how Louella and Hedda found their power challenged by a lot of newcomers, and by the general expansion of the field.
Petersen: Yes, oh my gosh. Do you cover Sheilah Graham at all?
Longworth: I do, yeah. She’s a major character in a couple of episodes.
Petersen: Ah, amazing. I think you’re totally right about those shifts. There were a couple of people, like Rona Barrett, who took up the mantle in the seventies, and I remember being really interested in Perez Hilton in the mid-2000s, because he was the first person I ha seen who had taken up the mantle in a way that involves co-mingling with the stars. That was the other thing: all these celebrities invited these older ladies to their parties. They were, like, present at their baby showers.
Longworth: Somebody like Sheilah Graham, though, I think she was savvy enough to know which of the stars were really her friends and which ones weren’t. One of the tragedies of Louella Parsons, and one of the reasons why I do have more empathy for her than I do for Hedda — even though you could argue that both of them were pretty evil — was that Louella really thought people liked her. It took her a really long time to understand that people were using her.
Petersen: And she was using them. Could you talk a little bit about your research process?
Longworth: So, I made the decision to do this story in September of 2020 [Nick’s note: i.e. during the pandemic], and I was specifically looking for topics where I felt I would be able to pull them off just by buying books online and reading things on, like, Newspapers.com.
But the story of covering any story about Old Hollywood at all is that you have to be skeptical about the sources that are available. Hedda and Louella each wrote two autobiographies, and it's hard to believe a word of them. In episode three, there's this part where she's like, “Oh, well I got this offer from United Press and they were going to pay me so much money, but I slept on it and I realized I couldn’t leave Mr. Hearst.” And it’s like, really?
You have to assume that, when they published these books, it was in a media climate where people just kind of shrugged and said like, “Well, if they said it happened, I guess it happened.” Nobody was really applying too much scrutiny to it. When it comes to things like that — or really, anything — I try to read as many sources as I can get my hands on, and then be transparent about what I believe and what I don't believe.
Quah: Tell me a little more about that. One of the things that’s striking to me about Parsons and Hopper is that there’s a performance of truth in the gossip that’s operating from the position of being “in the know,” but I imagine the projection of transparency is also contingent on a similar kind of performance in the work. Do you have, say, specific turns of phrases or something you use when communicating what you perceive as the truth of a matter?
Longworth: I would just say that I try to be very transparent about what my sources are and which sources I feel more strongly about whenever there’s any discrepancy. Certainly, I’ll say things like, “I believe Frances Marion’s version over Louella’s version,” and I try to talk on the podcast as much as possible about why I think certain things are more trustworthy than others.
But at the end of the day, you have to call it kind of creative nonfiction in a way because, especially with a season like this where most of the material is from about 1915 to the early sixties, there’s no one alive I can interview, and any documentation of that time is going to be questionable on some level.
Petersen: Yeah, I found this when I was trying to reconstruct what happened with Loretta Young, which both Hedda or Louella were part of in different ways. How do you second or third-hand reconstruct the truth? And I think the thing I tried to arrive at is that, well, we can’t know, but we can talk about it. How do you set up your listeners to be on board with that sort of ambiguity?
Longworth: I guess I’ve just always kind of positioned what I’m doing as more historiography than history. It’s more about discussing how these myths get made, how things were written about at the time, and what we can understand about these situations from our perspective in the present day that maybe was not spelled out at the time.
You know, I just accused @deuxmoi of doing fan fiction, but on a certain level, there’s a part of what I do where I’m asking people to go on an imaginary journey, you know? Part of it is me trying to get inside the head of people who are long gone and trying to imagine what they would have thought or felt, and then I’m trying to recreate for the listener and get them to imagine what that would feel like too.
Quah: I get the sense that’s also a tension that’s very much present in contemporary media or reporting, at least to me. I suppose I mostly feel this way about sports journalism, and some forms of political journalism, where, on one level, the subjects are very much alive but there are power machinations that go in and around the messaging and information sharing, and on another level, there’s still some amount of imagination that happen on the part of the reporter to, like, understand the interiority of an athlete or a politician.
Longworth: I definitely feel that in terms of sports writing, for sure, and even in sportscasting. I’m a big fan of baseball, and I listen to a lot of games on the radio, and when somebody is doing good play-by-play, they’ll say, like, “Clayton Kershaw steps off the rubber,” and then they’ll talk about what the athlete is doing in a way that’s meant to evoke how the athlete must be feeling, but they’re doing it live. So, obviously, there’s no way they’re doing it based on an interview or anything. They’re just making it up based on the evidence put in front of them.
Petersen: There’s this great point in the season where you mention how we’ve introduced this conversation of bias into the way we talk about the news today, though it’s never been absent from gossip. But I think there’s this inclination to view these more feminized spaces, like gossip columns, as apolitical in some way, which is ridiculous. Celebrity gossip is inherently political — the framing of it, and so on. I would love to hear more about your thoughts on that idea.
Longworth: Do you know the site, Crazy Days and Nights?
Petersen: Yeah. It’s gone kinda QAnon, right?
Longworth: Exactly. So, that’s what I would say if anybody says that “celebrity gossip isn’t politics.” I was really deep into the site like maybe three years ago, and I reading all the blinds and trying to be smarter than the commenters, and I was kind of a witness to the site taking a turn, not just among its commenters, but with the content of the site (which is obviously responsive to the commenters), which took this turn where suddenly everyone is a pedophile, and all of the blinds are like this sort of dark fanfiction — although, you know, they don’t seem to be fans. They’re accusing people like Steven Spielberg of being serial predators.
So, yeah, I don’t understand how you can think that really anything in the world that we live in today is not political. What’s interesting to me is I remember a time when nobody was talking about the New York Times having any kind of political slant, or the LA Times having a political slant. We just received these things as news, and that wasn't that long ago. So the fact that there is this conversation about it is what is new, but the slant is not.
Quah: Could you walk me through the production process for this season?
Longworth: It took a long time, because I was also working on another project at the same time, and for a while, I was going back and forth.
It’s hard to give you an accurate timeline, but I can tell you that in August and September, I was reading a lot of books, about four or five different subjects to try to figure out what stories I would do for the podcast in 2021. I ended up choosing two topics, and during that process, I read Louella and Hedda’s books, I read a biography of Louella, I read a biography of Hedda. I read some David Halberstam about newspapers and media brands. I read Neal Gabler’s book about Walter Winchell [AHP note: This book is very long and very, very good]. I need to do at least that much research just to figure out how many episodes of a season there are going to be, and vaguely how the story will break down across those episodes. [Nick’s note: You can find Longworth’s full reading list in her show notes.]
I’m working with new people on the podcast network side now than I have in the past, but my experience is that they need that information in order to start approaching advertisers several months before the episodes are done. I was doing the writing mostly between New Year’s and the end of March, and I probably did most of the recording during that period. I just recorded episodes eight and nine over the past couple of weeks.
And then, I’m in a situation now where I had to hire my own editor [Evan Viola] to work on it with me. I hired him around April, and he’s also working on other things, so we just finished editing episode five and I have all the material for him to edit the episodes whenever he gets around to it. He’s doing basically about one a week right now.
Quah: Two random questions to wrap this up. First, what obsessions or rabbit holes are taking up your free time right now?
Longworth: I don’t know if I have any, to be perfectly honest. There’s another project I’m working on, which is also a podcast but not You Must Remember This, has been extremely time-consuming, so I’m trying to finish the season while also working on this project. My husband just left town two days ago to go shoot a movie in Europe, and I'm supposed to basically be packing up our house and like getting ready to join him.
So, I just don't really have any free time. When I'm not working, I'm trying to not be on the computer, because it drives me crazy. I'm basically watching baseball and going to bed early.
Quah: Which segues nicely to the second question: what’s your take on the Dodgers right now?
Longworth: Well, you know, it’s very difficult to win two World Series in a row. We’ve also had a lot of injuries. There’s really no reason why Sheldon Neuse should be playing every day. They just won two in a row, so there’s a lot of baseball left to play, and I’m hopeful for the rest of the season, but at the same time, it’s hard to get too upset at the current World Series Champions.
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