Sunday, 19 August 2012

Naming Names: The Rise & Fall of Confidential Magazine Part One

Even in the 20th Century celebrity gossip was nothing new. The gossip column as we know it today took shape in late Victorian London. The now long defunct London evening newspaper The Star was the first publication ever to include a gossip column. Other newspapers in the United Kingdom and the United States would follow suit, until they were relatively common in the early 1900's. The success of gossip columns would see the rise of gossip magazines, the first perhaps being Broadway Brevities and Society Gossip in 1914.  Celebrity gossip would become so popular in the early to mid 20th Century that  such gossip columnists as Louella Parsons, Walter Winchell, and Hedda Hopper would become celebrities themselves. It was in the 1950's, however, that a new sort of celebrity gossip arrived on the scene, one that was dark, often malicious, and more often than not salacious. It arrived in the form of Confidential.

Confidential was a gossip magazine first published in December 1952. While it would run until 1978, the heyday of Confidential was in the Fifties, when it was viewed as a serious threat by Hollywood. Confidential operated by publishing articles that contained a little bit of fact and a whole lot of innuendo. What is more, Confidential would publish stories that no other gossip column or magazine before would ever think to publish. Accusations of homosexuality, interracial romances, promiscuity, and marital infidelity (all of which were exceedingly scandalous for the era) were par for the course in the average issue of Confidential.

Confidential was the brainchild of publisher Robert Harrison. During the Forties he published such girlie magazines as Whisper and Eyeful. By the early Fifties. however, Harrison's girlie magazines were declining in circulation. It was when he was watching the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce hearings (which looked into organised crime) on television that Robert Harrison had the idea for Confidential. The hearings, which exposed the private lives of noted gangsters, received extremely high ratings, leading Harrison to believe that a magazine that did something similar might sell quite well.

With the slogan "Tells the Facts and Names the Names," Confidential sought to expose the private scandals of public figures (politicians, sport figures, movie stars, et. al.). In fact, for its first two issues Confidential did not focus on Hollywood. There were stories about President Harry Truman and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson mixed in with stories about racketeering, political scandals, and what can only be described as oddities. This would begin to change even as the earliest issues of the magazine were published. In April 1953 Confidential ran a story that attacked singer Josephine Baker, who had criticised gossip columnist Walter Winchell, while at the same time lauding Winchell. Pleased with the story, Winchell promoted the magazine in his newspaper column over the next several months. What is more, Walter Winchell began to secretly collaborate with Confidential, leaking rumours to them that could not be printed in more respectable publications.

If the link between Confidential and Walter Winchell were not enough to steer the magazine towards a strong focus on Hollywood, its third issue would. The third issue featured Marilyn Monroe prominently on the cover along with the headline "From a Detective's Report--The Real Reason for Marilyn Monroe's Divorce." The story inside claimed that Miss Monroe was cheating on then husband Joe DiMaggio with 20th Century Fox co-founder Joe Schenck. With that issue alone the circulation of Confidential, which had started with a run of 150,000 copies, jumped to 800,000. The course of Confidential was then set--its sights would be firmly on Hollywood.

One would think a gossip magazine would tend to be apolitcal, but in its early days Confidential had a definite right wing slant. It often targeted liberal celebrities, and attacks on the "Communist menace" were not unusual in the magazine. Much of the reason for the magazine's right wing slant is that it employed conservative journalist Howard Rushmore. Howard Rushmore had been a member of the CPUSA and a reporter for The Daly Worker in the Thirties. In the Forties he switched sides and became an anti-Communist crusader writing for Heart's New York Journal-American. He was a star witness in the House Un-American Activities Committee's 1947 hearings into Communism in Hollywood. He later served as one of Senator Joseph McCarthy's researchers. He would eventually have a falling out with both Senator McCarthy and the Journal-American. Rushmore would eventually have a falling out with Confidential as well, although sources differ as to the reasons. According to some Robert Harrison refused to let Rushmore print a piece critical of Eleanor Roosevelt and so Rushmore quit. According to others, Confidential was going to hire a liberal writer to balance out Rushmore's conservative articles. According to yet others, it was over a simple salary dispute. Regardless, Howard Rushmore would prove pivotal in the magazine's downfall later on.

Confidential would come to operate like a well oiled machine. Robert Harrison developed a network of call girls, waiters, bellboys, journalists, private detectives, and even minor actors who would provide the small bits of fact which Confidential could elaborate with a good deal of innuendo. Confidential also took full advantage of recent advances in surveillance technology. New, smaller, more easily hidden cameras and even electronic bugging devices were used to gather what little information the magazine needed for its stories. Of course, Confidential needed only the tiniest bit of truth to create a story. As stated earlier, the magazine would take one tiny fact and then proceed to lace it with innuendo. Frequent use of both puns and alliteration was made. More often than not, Confidential operated on suggesting that something unseemly had happened, rather than stating outright that something scandalous had occurred. What is more, Confidential skirted libel and obscenity laws as closely as it possibly could. While its stories were often salacious, they could never be considered as only appealing "...to prurient interests," part of the definition of obscenity at the time. And because the stories often contained a kernel of the truth, for a time celebrities would be unlikely to sue the magazine for libel.

Ultimately Confidential would prove to be extremely successful in a very brief  amount of time. With its particular combination of sin and sex, its circulation would reach 5 million by 1955. What is more, it inspired scores of imitators, including Hush-Hush, On the Q.T., Uncensored, Naked Truth, and so on. Robert Harrison even turned his girlie magazine Whisper into a gossip magazine, often reprinting articles from Confidential. Not only  would Confidential prove to be a hit on newsstands, but it also developed some leverage over Hollywood, In 1955 Confidential threatened to publish a story that would have exposed Rock Hudson as a homosexual, something which could have effectively ended his career. Mr. Hudson's agent Henry Wilson avoided this possible public relations nightmare by providing Confidential with information on Rory Calhoun's arrests for armed robbery while he was young and Tab Hunter's arrest at a party in 1950.

The sad fact was that Confidential had grown to the point where its stories could have major repercussions for Hollywood. In a news story published in November 1955, legendary journalist Jack Olsen told how some Southern exhibitors had resisted booking movies starring Ava Gardner because of an "exposé" published in Confidential about an alleged affair with Sammy Davis Jr. He also told how another, unnamed actress, who had once played "sweet young thing types," would never be cast in such roles again after a Confidential story about her "nighttime escapades." While in the end Confidential would not destroy the careers of any major stars, the fact that Hollywood believed that it could do so showed just how powerful the magazine had become. For decades the film industry had wielded considerable power over such fan magazines as Photoplay and Motion Picture Classic and such industry publications as The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Hollywood not only had no power over Confidential, but regarded it as a serious threat.

While Confidential had reached a circulation of millions in a few scant years and was powerful enough to bully even Hollywood, its days were numbered even while it was at its peak. The still powerful film industry would not take the magazine's smearing of its stars lying down and individual stars were not about to have their reputations ruined by a scandal sheet. When Confidential was at its height, Hollywood started to fight back.

1 comment:

Ric Snead said...

Fascinating.