I’ve written on Confidential before, but on a much more cursory level. Below you’ll find the culmination of the chapter on which I’ve been working (and of which the ‘Problem Star’ series has been a part), detailing the rise and fall of the magazine that fundamentally altered the way the gossip industry did business. Stay tuned: as the end paragraph promises, there’s much Liz Taylor (and continued scandal) to come.
Garish, brassy, and brimming with punning innuendo, Confidential Magazine pledged to “tell the facts and name the names” — who was having sex with who, who was covering up hidden pasts, who was secretly flaunting societal rules. Confidential suggested, to an audience that quickly reached over four million an issue, that sexual and moral deviance ran rampant in Hollywood. In this way, it not only countered the wholesome narratives of traditional, conservative gossip outlets, but rendered them absurd. The mercurial rise of the magazine bespoke a hunger for this type of coverage — one that, once whetted, would not be sated by traditional reporting tactics. In 1958, “The Trial of the 100 Stars” forced Confidential publisher Robert Harrison to sell off the magazine, effectively neutering it in the process. Yet its success forced mainstream publications to alter their tone, style, and subject matter to better fit readers’ new-found taste for smut and scandal, and precipitated the rise in weekly tabloids, such as The National Enquirer, in the late 1960s.
In just four years, Confidential set new standards for the collection, mediation, and consumption of gossip. By extension, it altered the way that Americans consumed stars — along with their attitudes towards and expectations of them. And as the stars fell from grace, so too did their ability to reliably anchor a picture. Confidential proved that scandal sold magazines, but it did not necessarily sell movie tickets. In 1958, the gossip and film industries were still dependent upon one another. But the relationship demanded reconfiguration: as the fan mags broadened their focus to singers, television personalities, and president’s wives, Hollywood was increasingly relying on special effects and pre-sold properties. Ultimately, Confidential’s “reign” marked the end of close symbiosis between the two industries, and signaled the beginning of the slow demise of the classic fan magazine.
The narrative of Confidential has been well-rehearsed. Harrison started as a newsboy at the notoriously smutty New York Graphic, where he ran errands for Walter Winchell. Trained in the trade, he began publishing various “cheesecake” mags when paper rations lifted following World War II. But the profits were negligible, and Harrison was under pressure from the postal service, which threatened to revoke his mailing permit for mailing obscene material. Harrison had watched his staff mesmerized by the Kefauver Hearings, which put members of the organized crime syndicate, including Frank Costello, on the stand for the nation to see. Such unabashed fascination prompted Harrison to start a magazine based entirely on finding such inside stories—exposing that which would otherwise be “confidential.” The magazine that followed traded on the unsettled moral milieu of the ‘50s, specializing in stories that insinuated homosexuality, miscegenation, and aggressive female sexuality. No public figure, in or outside of Hollywood, was immune: as Harrison proclaimed, “once a person becomes a public character, he belongs to his public insofar as what he does. They’ve made him. Hence, in my opinion, he’s fair game, because his income is coming from the very fact that he’s a public property.”[i]
With an initial run of 150,000, Confidential peppered its coverage of public figures with stories of “racketeering, consumer scams, and political peccadilloes.”[ii] But it wasn’t until the third issue, dated August 1953, that Confidential would focus on Hollywood, placing Marilyn Monroe on the cover.
The headline inside promised to reveal “Why Joe DiMaggio is Striking Out with Marilyn Monroe!”, and circulation jumped to 800,000.[iii] Importantly, the story named DiMaggio’s rival for Monroe’s affections: 20th Century Fox co-founder Joe Schenck, who Monroe supposedly referred to as “daddy.” The jab was well-placed — Schneck was notoriously sensitive about his public image. The attack thus underlined Confidential’s willingness to alienate any and everyone in Hollywood, no matter their stature. As Henry E. Scott concludes, The Monroe Story, “was a clear sign that Confidential wasn’t going to play by the unwritten rules” that had theretofore governed the gossip industry.[iv]
Harrison was savvy to the power dynamics at play in the gossip industry. He immediately curried favor with Walter Winchell: in April 1953, Confidential featured a condemnation of Josephine Baker, who had recently bad-mouthed Winchell. Winchell was delighted; over the coming months, he “plugged the magazine so hard that, for a time, it was rumored he had money it.”[v] Harrison also recognized Confidential’s role as an alternative to the sappy, moralizing fan magazines and fluffy profiles in popular magazines. In the January 1955 issue, for example, Confidential queried “Does Desi Really Love Lucy?” The accompanying article detailed a tryst between Arnaz and a well-known Hollywood call-girl in 1944, when the two were separated. The issue hit newsstands the very same month that the cover of Look featured “Lucy and Desi, TV’s Favorite Family!”[vi]
With Winchell’s endorsement and established role as fan magazine “antidote,” sales boomed. The July 1955 issue sold 3.7 million copies, setting the record for single-issue sales and outpacing both Reader’s Digest and Ladies Home Journal in newsstand purchases.[vii] Confidential’s success was rooted in Harrison’s keen understanding of both the art of titillation and of the specifics of libel law. Harrison knew that the magazine had to deliver on its promise of scandalous revelation, and certainly would not receive “the goods” by relying on agents or studio publicity departments. Instead of cultivating a relationship with the studios, Harrison gleaned content through a network of informants, ranging from bell-check boys to call-girls, who provided the foundational truths for stories that he and his staff would then flesh out with the trademark Confidential style.[viii] In this way, Harrison supplanted the need for studio cooperation — and the resultant obligation to toe the publicist line — with his own stream of information and content.
The Confidential house style was laden with elaborate, pun-inflected alliteration, and allowed stories to suggest, rather than state, the existence of scandal. They also rendered Confidential copy quite hilarious; headlines such as “Orson Welles, His Chocolate Bon Bon and the Whoopsy Waiter” provided the push-off for what Harrison termed “the toboggan ride” of each article.[ix] And if the content was funny, it did not, strictly speaking, “appeal to prurient interests” — a basic qualification for a product to be labeled obscene, and one that would come in handy when the magazine was taken to court. While not all Confidential stories were strictly true, they were always rooted in fact. Frank Sinatra may not have eaten Wheaties to maintain his stature as “Tarzan of the Boudoir,” as Confidential alleged in 1956, but he did sleep with a call girl who related her experience, breakfast and all, to one of the magazine’s reporters.[x] The Wheaties were just for laughs — and provided the most opaque of covers for the real scandal, which was the presence of a young woman, not his wife, at breakfast time.
Harrison understood the power of documentation: if he could prove that an event, however scandalous, had occurred, it would be immune from libel. He thus pursued the “state-of-the-art” in audio and visual surveillance technology.[xi] He hired private investigators across the globe who both unearthed dirt themselves and confirmed stories brought in by paid tipsters; other informants were asked to sign affidavits attesting to the veracity of their claims.[xii] Harrison’s lawyer also advised Harrison to “print slightly less than [he] knew” — thus maintaining leverage over stars, studios, and agents that might be tempted to sue. According to Frank Otash, one of Harrison’s long-time investigators, “what Confidential actually published was ‘pretty thin stuff’ compared to what he and others had turned up.”[xiii] Most famously, Harrison forged a deal with agent Henry Willson, trading proof of Rock Hudson’s homosexuality for an expose of Rory Calhoun’s convict past.[xiv]
As documented by Mary Desjardins, Confidential’s aesthetics and narrative methodology relied heavily on “practices of recycling, combining, [and] recombining.”[xv] Stories would regularly use established fact, such as Fatty Arbuckle’s murder trial, to infuse speculative stories with smutty-undertones. These “recycled” narratives “contained important omissions, combined several events that had no causal relationship,” and employed aesthetic flair, including loud font size and color and exclamation marks, to add further suggestiveness.[xvi] Confidential’s trademark blue, red, and yellow color scheme was paired with black and white photos, cropped to fit the narrative’s need, to form a sort of “smut decoupage.”
Confidential also perfected the now-common practice of recaptioning an unflattering or unkempt photo of a celebrity to substantiate the innuendo of the article.[xvii] As Desjardins notes, these “composite truth stories” possessed enormous “truth value,” presenting “plausible chronologies for events that had a ring of truth about them because readers had probably encountered some aspect of them before in newspapers gossip columns, traditional fan magazines,” etc.[xviii] The gossip industry had historically depended on the studios to provide photos of the stars, whether on set or at leisure. With no studio ties, Confidential was forced to rely on haphazard, unauthorized photographs. It just so happened that most were unflattering and easily manipulated to serve the magazine’s narrative purpose, with a certain aesthetic quality infinitely more suggestive of a dirty secret revealed. The demand for this type of unauthorized photos — the more suggestive the better — would soon coalesce into the paparazzi culture as we know it.
Proof of Confidential’s salience was in its imitators: dozens of publications and hundreds of “one-shots” promised disclosure in the Confidential vein, variously named Uncensored, Inside Story, On the QT, Behind the Scene, Hush-Hush, and Exposed. Harrison was familiar the desire for “second-tier,” even pulpier knock-offs, and promoted his own iteration, Whisper, to attract an additional 700,000 in sales.[xix] From 1955-1956, several mainstream newspapers and magazines profiled Harrison and the magazine; the publisher boasted that Confidential would fight, and win, any suit against it. It also sparked attracted virulent condemnation: a lawyer representing several subjects of the magazine proclaimed “These magazines are a major threat to the movie industry….We’ll hound them through every court in the country…We’ll sue the publishers, the writers, the printers, the distributors. We’ll even sue the vendors. This smut is going to stop.”[xx]
But stop it did not. Lacking immediate recourse, Hollywood attacked Confidential in other ways. In July 1955, Photoplay responded to the incursion of Confidential and the scandal magazines. Carefully avoiding the mention of names, Photoplay suggests that the scandal magazines’ tactics are unethical and manipulative, their readers naive and impressionable. To this end, the editor relates the story of one reader, whose daughter “had read your excellent article telling about Burt Lancaster’s wonderful home life.” But “now she brings into our house an article that makes Mr. Lancaster appear to be a man of little principle.” The daughter didn’t know what to think: “I’ve told her not to believe the article,” the mother relates, “but the disillusionment still stands.”[xxi] The daughter was responding to a discourse that undercut that proffered by Photoplay, and the resultant disillusionment and confusion typified the reaction to Confidential and its ilk. Should fans now question all that they’ve ever read and believed about their idols?
Photoplay reassured readers that “We must all admit the existence of good and bad persons, even the coexistence of good and bad in individuals. Motion picture stars are no exception.” With that said, “much has been written that is pure speculation….Even more has been written revealing scandal, dug from the archives of the past, which has no bearing on the person the star has become.” Photoplay concludes by advising the mother that “if you seek to believe the worst in human beings, motion-picture stars not excluded, you can find something bad in everyone. But there is more good than bad in most everyone, and on this truth Photoplay stands.” In other words, the fan who seeks such information — who purchases Confidential — will be disillusioned. But the fan who wants to know “the good”— the “truth” of the star’s soul — will stick with Photoplay. The decision is the reader’s: choose good or choose evil.
This moral is reproduced in MGM’s 1956 film Slander, whose narrative rotates around a scandal magazine obviously modeled after Confidential and the effects of an expose on a young Hollywood star. The film labors to frame the scandal magazine, its tactics, and its morals as unaccountably evil. To ensure the viewer understands the evil at work, the publisher is killed by his own mother at film’s end, while the star takes to television to proselytize against the purchase of similar magazines.[xxii] The film “made it clear that Hollywood put the blame on the public” for propagating scandal; the impetus was upon the reader to stop supplying the demand to which publishers catered.[xxiii] By asking readers to judge themselves instead of judging the stars, both Photoplay and Slander were attempting to distract from the actual revelations.
Photoplay helped readers “choose the good” by providing space for stars to “tell their own side of the story.” In 1955, Robert Mitchum sued Confidential for $1 million over his depiction in the story “The Nude Who Comes to Dinner.”[xxiv]
In “Robert Mitchum, The Man Who Dared To Sue,” Photoplay affirmed the star’s gumption and motivation: “The stake, Bob says, is not money — it’s the honor and good name of his family.”[xxv] Like several other articles of the period, the article emphasizes the lack of collective action on the part of Hollywood. Most stars hesitated to even issue formal denials of stories, lest they “dignify” the claims in the process. In reality, the stars had little recourse: some were scared of what other dirt Confidential might spread on their name, while others understood that a suit would only further propagate the scandal; to fight was to dig yourself deeper. What’s more, as Desjardins explains, “if the celebrity had not suffered pecuniary loss, the libelous material had to be defamatory on its face. In other words, it must be defamatory without the need of innuendo or inducement” — which, in the case of Confidential, would be extraordinarily difficult to prove.[xxvi] In Photoplay’s hands, Mitchum emerges as the savior — or at least the bravest — of the stars, protecting the honor of the entire industry.
Other stars simply used Photoplay to generate counter-discourse which would hopefully trump the scandal. In “Kim Novak: Stabbed By Scandal,” the star “personally asked Photoplay“ to tell the “true story” of her discovery.[xxvii] Novak had been “scandalously painted as an ambition-driven girl who let nothing stand in the way of a film career,” e.g. Confidential suggested that she had slept her way to the top. The article counters the Confidential narrative with Novak’s version of the “hard work” that led to her career. The article strains to frame scandal-mongers as “envious, grasping men” who “cowardly hide behind an anonymous name.” For Photoplay, the true scandal is not Novak’s behavior, but the nefarious men who conjure such material — and spread their lies to the reading public.
When Confidential exposed Rory Calhoun’s past as a juvenile delinquent, the star used Photoplay to proclaim his reformation, employing a narrative of growth and moral maturation with which Photoplay was well-versed. The article, published under Calhoun’s name, advises young delinquents to steer clear of trouble: “I have since had to pay the price for every mistake I ever made,” Calhoun admits, “I had to bring shame and suffering to the people who were close to me when I admitted to the world that I had a prison record.”[xxviii] Calhoun then psychologizes his behavior, explaining that he was raised by a single mother and lacked guidance. At 19, however, he found God, made friends with a chaplain, paid off his debt to society, and was baptized in a train station bathroom. Calhoun is now thoroughly reformed, as affirmed by the close of the article, which encourages readers to “BE SURE TO SEE: RORY CALHOUN IN COLUMBIA’S UTAH BLAINE!” Photoplay counter-Confidential methodology was straightforward: never dignify the magazine with a mention, but provide a space in which the stars could apply Photoplay’s trademark psychology and moralizing to form a defense and encourage readers to patronize the star’s films. While some readers certainly bought such defenses, Confidential’s numbers continued to claim. Scandal sold; moralizing defenses also sold — just not nearly as well.
Harrison continued to gain gumption, braving to proclaim “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be Mad About the Boy” on the cover of its July 1957 issue.[xxix] But the stars and their studios had lost their patience. The studios purportedly began plotting a counter-attack in early 1957, funneling money into a secret fund, to be directed towards the California Attorney General with the explicit purpose of “getting [Confidential] at all costs.”[xxx] It was a war without visible armies: the stars could not see the enemy, and never knew when, or how, it would strike. Many decried it, but it was impossible to ignore: as Humphrey Bogart famously quipped, “Everyone in Hollywood reads Confidential, but they say the maid brought it in the house.”[xxxi]
This frustration came to a head in May 1957, when a California Grand Jury indicted Confidential and its subsidiaries with conspiracy to commit libel and conspiracy to publish obscene material.[xxxii] This was the trial that Harrison had been long anticipating, and he fired back with gusto. The defense subpoenaed hundreds of stars; many fled the state, but others were forced to take the stand and officially associate themselves with the magazine and scandal. Confidential stories were repeatedly read aloud in court to uproarious effect; the jury took a field trip to Graumann’s Theater to watch a re-enactment of the “alleged love scene” between Maureen O’Hara and a “Latin Lothario.”
The trial was front page news in Los Angeles and reported across the nation; the “serious” press was now propagating these stories, camouflaged as “legal reporting.”[xxxiii] In other words, the trial became a media spectacle, putting Confidential’s name was on everyone’s lips. The plan to silence the magazine and mute its allure had not only failed, but backfired.
Highlighting the magazine’s investigative and surveillance tactics, the prosecution charged that Confidential not only dug up old scandals, but set the stage to create new ones. In other words, Confidential was a “smut factory” — generating scandal so that they could then cover it.[xxxiv] Confidential’s defense team crafted a cunning response, claiming that 1) Confidential’s material was far less “morally contaminating” than other publications, including the bestselling novel Peyton Place, and 2) the magazine was actually performing a public service, broadcasting the “truth” about stars, whereas the studios had long disillusioned the public with falsified fairy tales, inspiring millions to worship “false idols.” By illuminating those lies, Confidential was performing a public service. In essence, Confidential was charging that the studios had long “systematized” their own star discourse; now that they were no longer able to do so, they were attacking the publication that had stolen and improved upon their tactics.[xxxv]
Nevertheless, the jury hung after fifteen days of deliberation, and the judge declared a mistrial. A retrial was scheduled, but both sides had had enough. A deal was struck: the studios would drop their charges; the magazine would stop covering the stars. In May of 1958, Harrison sold the magazine to other interests. The magazine still looked the same, but stripped of its investigative arm, it lacked the bite — and actual exposes — that incited its rise. The damage, however, had been done. From 1958 onward, even the traditional fan magazines were forced to alter their style and content to cater to appetites now oriented towards scandal.
The Confidential trial capped a ten-year period in which the stars became progressively resistant to the gossip industry. It was increasingly clear that the old ways of mediating stars were no longer cost effective: the stars refused to offer their services and interviews for free, apart from a select exceptions, such as Rock Hudson, the studios no longer forced them to do so. What Confidential offered, then, was a new business plan. The mainstream gossip industry may have decried the expose magazines, calling their tactics unethical and their content immoral. But Confidential showed that the gossip industry need not be dependent upon the sickly film industry; the fate of Hollywood need not be the fate of the magazines. Instead of bemoaning the fall of the stars, they could profit from it; instead of laboring to counter bad behavior, they could put it on the cover. They could also take a page from Confidential in terms of potential content, expanding coverage to an endless supply of television, music, political, and royal celebrities. And with Confidential essentially out of the business, there was a gaping hole for the mainstream magazines could attempt to fill.
This style fit the new generation of fan magazines readers, who cared less for nostalgic tales of old Hollywood and more for photos of young singing sensation Pat Boone. Photoplay would term its new approach a “broader look” to the future of stardom. As the next chapter will show, this “broader look,” — specifically, the type and tenor of stories mainstream magazines were willing to publish — would guide the gossip industry through the 1960s and ‘70s and its increasing de-articulation from the film industry. The magazines would have plenty of content, as the stars themselves realized that scandal did not harm their careers, but functioned as a form of a publicity as important as any in establishing an image.
Confidential was no fluke success. It built on the wreckage of star scandals and scandalous star images following the war, and established a foundation on which future publications, whether The Enquirer or TMZ, could flourish. It forever changed the contours and character of the gossip industry, but the ground had been well-plowed in preparation for it to sow its scandalous seeds. And as the actions of Liz Taylor would soon prove, it was ground that would prove to be unceasingly fertile. Hollywood’s misfortune — and the fall of the stars — would prove the gossip industry’s feast.
[i] “Fair Game: Interview with Robert Harrison,” Writer’s Yearbook, 1956, 20.
[ii] Mary Desjardins, “Systematizing Scandal: Confidential Magazine, Stardom, and the State
of California,” in Headline Hollywood, David A. Cook and Adrienne McLean, eds, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 208.
[iii] Henry E. Scott, Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential (Pantheon Books: New York, 2010), 6.
[v] Scott 23; Richard Gehman, “Confidential File on Confidential,” Esquire, Nov. 1956, 145.
[vi] Scott 55.
[vii] J. Howard Rutledge, “Gossipy Private Peeks at Celebrities’ Lives Start Magazine Bonanza” Wall Street Journal, July 5, 1955, 1.
[viii] Harrison would pay $4500 for a big article, $1000 for an outline, and $500 for a picture. See Rutledge 1.
[ix] “We went someone to get interested right away,” Harrison revealed, “and not get off that toboggan until they are through.” See “Fair Game,” 23.
[x] Samuel Bernstein, Mr. Confidential: The Man, His Magazine & The Movieland Massacre that Changed Hollywood Forever (Walford Press: New York, 2006), 88-90.
[xi] Desjardins 206-231.
[xii] Scott 38; Desjardins 210.
[xiii] Scott 40.
[xiv] See Robert Hofler, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson (Caroll & Graff: New York, 2005).
[xv] Desjardins 211.
[xviii] Desjardins 212.
[xix] Desjardins 208; J. Howard Rutledge, “Sin & Sex: Gossipy Private Peek At Celebrities’ Lives Start Magazine Bonanza,” Wall Street Journal, July 5, 1955.
[xx] Jack Olson, “Smeared Stars Fight Back,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 22, 1955, 6.
[xxi] Ann Higgenbothom, “Scandal in Hollywood,” July 1955, Photoplay, 29.
[xxii] Slide 181.
[xxiii] Peter Baker, “When Public Lives Are Private Property,” Films and Filming, March 1957, 12.
[xxiv] The story describes Mitchum stripping naked at a party, “dressing himself” with ketchup, and declaring himself a hamburger.
[xxv] David Albright, “Robert Mitchum: The Man Who Dared to Sue,” Photoplay, Jan. 1956, 36.
[xxvi] “Under a special civil code in California law, which exemplified the degree to which the first amendment concept was held sacred, if the judge or jury believed that the article was susceptible to an innocent as well as defamatory interpretation, it was highly likely that the ruling would be in favor of the defendant.” Desjardins 208-209.
[xxvii] Tex Maddox, “Kim Novak: Stabbed by Scandal,” Photoplay, Feb. 1956, 54.
[xxviii] Rory Calhoun, “Look, Kid, How Stupid Can You Be?” Photoplay, Feb. 1957, 48.
[xxix] Liberace would successfully sue Confidential for libel.
[xxx] “Laxity of Studios Charged in Trial,” New York Times, Aug 27 1957, 43.
[xxxi] “Scandal Sheet in Court,” New York Times, Aug 18 1957, E2.
[xxxii] Coupling the two charges was no mistake. As Desjardins explains, “Yoking the charge to conspiracy to publish obscene material worked as contaminating factor in two ways. It put the case into a social arena in which the magazine might be judged as a moral contaminant in society (as moral crusade discourses usually described obscenity) and it ‘contaminated’ the libel charge, potentially predisposing jurors to find the magazine’s whole operation sleazy and therefore to fine its stories malicious in intent and its reporting of private acts outrageous and of no social value” (220).
[xxxiii] Jack Smith, ‘”Love Scene Re-Enacted,” Los Angeles Times, Aug 17, 1957, 1.
[xxxiv] Desjardins 221.
[xxxv] Desjardins 221.