Fifty years ago, Rona Barrett forged a Hollywood gossip empire. Then she left it all behind, her innovations attributed to others, her legacy almost entirely overlooked. But as she nears 80, there’s very little Miss Rona regrets.
At the peak of her powers — back in the mid-’70s, when she was essentially practicing therapy on stars while millions watched — Rona Barrett drove around Hollywood in a Rolls-Royce with a license plate that read MS RONA, the nickname she’d picked up when she first started delivering Hollywood tidbits at the end of the ABC evening news. She wore miniature heels for her size 5 feet and massive minks on her 5-foot frame, crowned with a layered bob (“like an artichoke”) dyed platinum silver.
Her 1974 memoir, Miss Rona, had sold over half a million copies, in part due to its irresistible lede: “Just an inch, Miss Rona, just let me put it in an inch!” Barrett attributed the come-on to a “major masculine Hollywood star,” and rumors swirled as to his identity. It couldn’t be Frank Sinatra, who’d taken to calling Barrett horrible names at every concert — or Love Story star Ryan O’Neal, who’d sent Barrett a live tarantula. Some guessed it was her neighbor, Kirk Douglas, whose Hollywood estate backed up onto hers. But Barrett would never confirm. Sparking that sort of speculation was what Barrett did best: Every broadcast was an invitation to join her in the campiest, dirtiest game in town.
Over the course of her 40 years in the gossip industry, Barrett became known as a ball-buster, an indefatigable reporter, and a legitimate pioneer. Her name has faded from national consciousness, yet her innovations remain: She was Barbara Walters and Nikki Finke and TMZ all rolled into one, and she did it first. Reporting industry information — power shake-ups at the studios and box office figures — for a national audience? That was Miss Rona. Hosting hourlong interviews with Hollywood stars? Rona. Getting those stars to talk frankly about sex on national television? All Rona.