For five scandal-ridden years in the mid 1950’s, Confidential was the most popular, pulpiest, dishiest, Hollywood-shaking, gossip rag in the nation. And it insisted that its stories, no matter how sensational, be true. Confidential defied the studios, exposed the foibles of Hollywood brightest stars and laid the groundwork for our modern 24/7 celebrity culture. Henry Scott, author of a new book Shocking True Story, tells Confidential’s story.
Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the PositiveArtist: by Johnny Mercer
BOB GARFIELD: Before The Enquirer, before Entertainment Tonight, long before Perez Hilton, Nikki Finke and TMZ, Americans demanded to have the latest trivia and scandal about the people they cared - disproportionately about. And for five short scandal-ridden years, the prime source was Confidential magazine. Its publisher, Robert Harrison, launched the magazine in 1952 and, while it wasn't the first gossip rag, it defined forever the power of celebrity news. Henry Scott is author of a new study of the magazine, Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, “America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine,” and he joins me now. Henry, welcome to the show.
HENRY SCOTT: Well, I'm delighted to be here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, when I think of Confidential, I think of Curtis Hanson’s movie L.A. Confidential and Danny DeVito with a Speed-O-Flex [?] getting tips from cops and being -
HENRY SCOTT: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - in places where Hollywood stars were in compromising positions. Is, is that a fairly good representation of what the real Confidential was doing?
HENRY SCOTT: Interestingly enough, Robert Harrison disliked Hollywood and went there only twice in his life. He eventually, however, realized that the sexiest gossip, the gossip that was sending his single-copy sales soaring, came out of Hollywood. So he sent his niece and her husband there to set up a Hollywood Research Bureau. The key people they socialized with, and rather quietly, were the cops, Fred Otash, who was a former detective for the L.A. Police Department - if you knew a scandal was brewing, you hired Otash right away so that the other side didn't hire him - a wonderful woman named Veronica Quillan, a madame and a prostitute herself and who was known as “Ronnie Quillan, the Soiled Dove.” And there was a whole cast of wacky characters put on the Confidential payroll, the waiters and bartenders, the jilted lovers who either had an axe to grind or were looking for a cash payment.
BOB GARFIELD: In its heyday, what did the magazine look like?
HENRY SCOTT: The design of the magazine is really amazing. The cover focused on just a couple pictures, used more exclamation marks than I have ever seen in any single publication anywhere [BOB LAUGHS] in my life. Red and yellow were the primary colors used always. And the one thing Harrison loved was alliteration. So when Confidential talked about Robert Gillette, a New York socialite dating a woman who Confidential said was really an African-American woman, it described her as his “tawny temptress,” his “sepia sweetheart.”
BOB GARFIELD: And what were the biggest scoops?
HENRY SCOTT: Life magazine featured Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and their two children on the cover as the ideal Hollywood family. Just as Life magazine came out with that beautiful picture on the cover, Confidential came out with a story - the source was Ronnie Quillan, the Soiled Dove – the story about her liaison with Desi Arnaz. It was a perfect example of how Confidential was willing to tell the truth, no matter what. Confidential might go back 10 years, 15 years and dig something up out of your past and reveal it at the time that it hurt you most.
BOB GARFIELD: One thing that distinguished Confidential from other gossip magazines was that they actually insisted that the stuff be – true?
HENRY SCOTT: Absolutely. This was one of the smartest things Harrison did. He spent an enormous amount of money on fact-checking. He also had this really interesting technique his lawyer told me about, which was to print somewhat less than what they knew. So, if they ran a story saying a celebrity was cheating on his wife, they would perhaps decide not to have mentioned that the young woman was 15 years old, so they could say to somebody, you can bring a lawsuit if you'd like but we're not only going to talk about what we've said on the stand in court, we're going to reveal this additional information.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, by the time Confidential was first published, the Hollywood studios had turned manipulating press coverage into some sort of art form. They had near total control of what was written about their stars and upcoming films. And, and along comes this gossip rag that threatens that total dominion over the message. How did they react?
HENRY SCOTT: Well, they were confused at first. They didn't quite know what to do. So they sent representatives to Harrison in New York and begged him to leave them alone. Harrison wasn't interested. Some of them offered to spend some money on advertising but his magazine thrived from circulation revenue, the single-copy sale; he didn't care about advertising. So, he didn't need their money. What he needed to do was sell lots of magazines.
BOB GARFIELD: So if Confidential magazine was a leader in this field, what killed it? You know, why isn't it still on the newsstands today?
HENRY SCOTT: What happened was Harrison had a big falling out with his editor-in-chief, Howard Rushmore. They realized that they were getting into some trouble, a few lawsuits, because Rushmore had not been doing the fact-checking that they had always relied so heavily on. So they fired him. He left. He quickly went to California. He went to the Hollywood community. He went to Pat Brown, the attorney general, and said, I'm happy to testify about what really goes on at Confidential. The resultant trial was the O.J. Simpson trial of its time, covered every day on the front page of The New York Times, on the front page of Le Monde, on the front page of The Times of London. And he destroyed the magazine by getting on the stand and revealing the names of all of the Confidential’s confidential informants. The second issue was that Harrison who, above all, was a family man, he was not in any danger in this trial – the charge was conspiracy to commit criminal libel – because he was in New York, but his niece, she was in L.A., and she faced a possible prison term and a fine. So he finally decided to knuckle under. He entered an agreement to no longer publish Hollywood scandal in the magazine. Its circulation fell from, I think, four or five million at the time to 250,000 in less than a year.
BOB GARFIELD: So what does the five-year heyday of Confidential magazine tell us about American cultural life in the 50’s?
HENRY SCOTT: Hollywood movies were the funhouse mirror in which Americans checked their reflections, and they saw this really reassuring notion of who Americans really were, reassuring, but absolutely false. And Confidential exposed all of that. There are lots of homosexuals in this country. There are lots of black people who marry white people in this country. There are lots of people who say one thing and do another. We really had this wonderful moral code that was enforced through Hollywood, and Confidential put the lie to it. And I would imagine Americans could all take a deep breath and go ah [SIGHS], especially [LAUGHS] those Americans who hadn't been living up to that code but maybe naively imagined that the rest of the country did.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Henry, thank you very much.
HENRY SCOTT: Thank you, Bob. I really enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Henry Scott is author of Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, “America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine.” [JOHNNY MERCER SINGING ”AC-CENT-TCHU-ATE THE POSITIVE”/UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hauver and Alex Goldman and edited this week by our senior producer, Katya Rogers. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. John Keefe is our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. And to all the listeners who have written to inquire of Brooke’s whereabouts, I promise you that my co-host will be back very, very soon. Brooke, very soon! I'm Bob Garfield.
[CLIP FROM L.A. CONFIDENTIAL]:
DANNY DE VITO AS SID HUDGENS: You heard it here first, off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.
[JOHNNY MERCER SINGING/MUSIC OUT]