Movie Star Suicide, Hollywood Gossip, and Popular Psychology in the 1950s and 1960s

By Frost, Jennifer | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2011 | Go to article overview

Movie Star Suicide, Hollywood Gossip, and Popular Psychology in the 1950s and 1960s


Frost, Jennifer, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


In two shocking developments in post-World War II Hollywood, actress-singer Judy Garland attempted suicide in 1950, and, in 1962, actress Marilyn Monroe died, apparently from suicide. Movie star suicide had occurred in earlier years - at least eight incidents preceded Garland's attempt?but these postwar incidents occurred as the old Hollywood studio system was in sharp decline and exerted less control over stars, publicity, and audiences. Thus, Garland's attempt and Monroe's death sparked enormous news coverage and controversy, as well as discussion and debate inside and outside Hollywood about the causes, meanings, and significance of these tragic events. Concerned Americans sought explanations, asking where responsibility lay. Were these events the result of problems internal to the two actresses or due to the external pressures they felt? One prominent place for such a discussion was the column of famed Hollywood gossip Hedda Hopper, whose readers joined her in offering their views about the unstable mental health and selfdestructive actions of these troubled stars.

In columns and letters, Hedda Hopper and her readers raised a range of issues and concerns, but most strikingly the majority drew on psychological concepts originating and identified with Sigmund Freud to explain the problems of Garland and Monroe. Their use of "the psychological" to understand the emotional lives of two actresses demonstrated the reach of popular psychology and its "saturation of popular culture and everyday experience" after World War II (Rose 264). Yet, Hopper and her readers' adoption of psychological explanations coexisted with skepticism, deeply held religious convictions, and criticisms of psychiatrists. Moreover, a significant number of Hopper's readers rejected psychology's emphasis on the interior self and private life, and located the source of the problem not within Garland and Monroe but with external factors, including studio bosses, overwork, celebrity culture, and even Hopper herself. While one of the popular "sites of diffusion of therapeutic knowledge" in postwar America, Hopper's gossip column also provided a forum for those who remained uneasy with "the psychiatric persuasion," revealing cultural change as always "messy" and incomplete (Illouz 7, 23; Lunbeck).

Hedda Hopper's Hollywood

Hedda Hopper remained a powerful, if aging, figure in the Hollywood movie industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Born in 1885 (she always claimed 1890) to strict Quaker and Republican parents in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, married and divorced once, Hopper was a struggling, underemployed supporting actress when her fledging movie gossip column "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood" was picked up by the Los Angeles Times in 1938. Following in the footsteps of her soon-to-be archrival Louella Parsons, Hopper soon became a powerful figure in the movie industry. Syndicated in eighty-five metropolitan newspapers during the 1940s, Hopper's column had an estimated daily readership of thirty-two million by the mid-1950s (out of a national population of 160 million) (Eells). By the middle of the last century, Hopper in her famous hats had become a Hollywood icon, and, like other gossip columnists, movie critics, and fan magazine writers, she fulfilled an important function within the motion picture industry by helping to publicize the movies and the stars, and forging a relationship with the movie-going public. And she fulfilled this function until her death in early 1966.

Yet, Hopper was more than a movie gossip. She also saw herself as a conservative political figure and activist. She was a strident Cold War antiCommunist and a highly partisan member of the Republican Party. She positioned herself as the voice of conservative, small-town America, and used her column to express what she saw as proper social mores and political values. Gossip is "private talk"? true or false talk about private life? voiced, often illegitimately, in the public realm. …

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