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. in an interview that originally aired in 2010, Henry Scott, author of the book Shocking True Story, tells Bob Confidential’s story.
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BOB GARFIELD: More than four decades before Rupert Murdoch shuttered News of the World before Entertainment Tonight, long before Perez Hilton, Nikki Finke and TMZ were serving America's appetite for celebrity scandal, we had Confidential Magazine. Lasting only six years, it wasn’t our nation's first gossip rag, but when Robert Harrison launched Confidential in 1952, he surely cashed in on the power of celebrity news. Henry E. Scott is author of Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, “America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine.” The next voice you will hear is me speaking to Scott [LAUGHS] two years ago.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, when I think of Confidential, I think of Curtis Hanson’s movie L.A. Confidential and Danny DeVito with a Speedo Flex getting tips from cops and being - [SCOTT LAUGHS] - 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 the Hollywood Research Bureau.
The key people they socialized with, 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 madam 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 cover 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, 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 gonna talk about what we've said on the stand in court, we're gonna reveal this additional information.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, by the time Confidential was first published, the Hollywood studios 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 ‘em 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.
BOB GARFIELD: 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 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 OJ 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 – ‘cause 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: What does the brief, you know, five-year heyday of Confidential Magazine tell us about American society in the 50’s, and does any of that still mean anything today?
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.
And I would imagine Americans could all take a deep breath and go “ahhh,” especially 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.”
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