When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

In the new book Shocking True Story, Henry E. Scott details the rise and fall of Confidential magazine which was the TMZ of 1950s Hollywood sleaze. We have an excerpt. And Scott was nice enough to scan some covers.

When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

On this summer afternoon the businessmen in the gray flannel suits and the secretaries who assisted them were at their desks. Outside, it was amateur hour on the streets of New York City as aimless tourists, their heads bobbing down to look at maps and up to look at tall buildings, meandered along Broadway. Robert Harrison, forty-eight, blue-eyed, deeply tanned, and dapper as always in his white suit and white fedora, glided through this crowd like a broken-field runner, the ever-present cigarette dangling from his lip and a copy of Confidential magazine in his hands. It was August 1953, and Harrison smiled the smile of a man who knew he was at the top of his game in the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. On almost every corner he passed in the five blocks between his home at the Parc Vendôme on West Fifty-seventh Street and his Broadway office, there was a newsstand. And on each newsstand only Harrison's magazine promised the answer to the question that was on every American's mind: "Why Joe DiMaggio Is Striking Out with Marilyn Monroe!"

Harrison had launched his semimonthly Confidential nine months earlier with a press run of 150,000 and a racy mix of stories that included a feature on a homosexual wedding, a portfolio of pictures of women in their underwear, an exposé entitled "I Was Tortured on a Chain Gang," and a "science" story by a Manhattan psychiatrist that revealed that athletes are lousy lovers. No matter that the gay wedding, purportedly set in Paris, was staged and photographed in Harrison's New York City apartment, that the chain gang story was utter fiction, and that the underwear pics were retreads from Harrison's stable of girlie magazines-Beauty Parade, Whisper, Eyeful, Titter, Wink, and Flirt. Readers loved the pulp paper magazine with the lurid red and yellow covers that used exclamation marks as often as other magazines used periods. Now, by issue number 3, Harrison knew that Hollywood was the country's richest source of sensational stories. And with the August issue of Confidential he was to learn for sure what Twentieth Century-Fox already knew-Monroe sells.

In 1953 her three films-Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire-grossed more than $25 million, making Marilyn the studio's most valuable property. With its promise of "the story behind the story" on the Monroe-DiMaggio romance, Harrison discovered Marilyn was equally valuable to Confidential, whose circulation for the August 1953 issue would climb to a stunning 800,000 copies, far surpassing tame movie industry favorites such as Photoplay. Harrison himself had written the story, using the pseudonym Harrison Roberts. It said that Joe Schenck, co-founder and chairman of Twentieth Century-Fox and one of Hollywood's richest and most powerful men, opposed the Monroe-DiMaggio marriage. Heavy with innuendo, the Confidential story said Schenck was Monroe's "daddy," a role it averred he had played with a number of other young actresses. Indeed, Hollywood insiders knew Monroe as one of Schenck's "girls," invited to sit in on the high-stakes card games at his Holmby Hills estate where aspiring actresses met, and slept with, studio executives and producers. Confidential offered titillating details, reporting, for example, an IRS investigation into Schenck's attempt to deduct as business expenses the new car and furniture he supplied to a young woman he met in Miami and brought to Los Angeles as a "secretary."

In some ways, the swipe at Schenck was a foolhardy move for a publication in business less than a year. After all, Schenck wasn't a public figure whose foibles would interest the average reader. He was, however, a powerful Hollywood aristocrat so concerned about his image and reputation that he was rumored to have backed Hollywood Reporter, then as now one of the film industry's major trade organs, to assure a steady flow of good news, or at least forestall any bad publicity.

To Hollywood insiders, the Monroe story was a clear sign that Confidential wasn't going to play by the unwritten rules that governed timid fan magazines such as Photoplay, Film Pictorial, Modern Screen, Motion Picture Classic, and Silver Screen, and docile trade publications such as Variety and Hollywood Reporter, all financially dependent on or easily intimidated by the studios. The very existence of so obstreperous a publication was another in a growing number of signs, albeit initially a small and easily overlooked one, that the studios were losing their tight grip on the film industry, its stars, its theaters, its public, and even its sense of magic.

Hollywood in the Golden Age of the thirties and forties had become the funhouse mirror in which the country checked its reflection. And America had become accustomed to a reassuring, if remarkably distorted, image. The mirror showed America's men in the image of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart-strong, solid, exemplifying the integrity and rightness of America herself. And America's women? In Hollywood, they ran the narrow gamut from Doris Day to Betty Grable, from beauty, integrity, and wholesomeness on one end of the spectrum to beauty, integrity, and sexiness on the other. Thanks to legions of publicists and an inept and sometimes corrupt press, magazines and newspapers propounded the myth that the real Hollywood, spread across affluent neighborhoods in central and west Los Angeles, was every bit as wholesome as the cinematic one.

The Motion Picture Production Code was partially responsible for Hollywood's image of America and America's image of Hollywood. "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it," the code stipulated. In the service of that principle, it stipulated that "passion should be treated in such manner as not to stimulate the lower and baser emotions." Its earliest versions demanded moral retribution for every sin, including sex out of wedlock. Thanks to its strictures, abortions and illicit drug use were as rare on the screen as were homosexuality and miscegenation.

The code was a way to gild with legitimacy an industry born in the nickelodeons of America's crime-ridden immigrant slums. It was a great device for deflecting attacks from the Catholic National Legion of Decency and various state censorship boards. It appeased federal legislators, who moved on to regulate the television industry instead. And it reassured good people everywhere who had been alarmed by the movie colony's drug and sex scandals in the 1920s and by the revolutionary fervor of films during the Great Depression.

Morals clauses in the contracts of all movie stars helped ensure that their private lives mirrored their wholesome movie images. What the code and the morals clauses didn't dictate was assured by the upper- middle-class mores of the affluent Jewish immigrants who owned the studios and were largely responsible for creating Hollywood as Shangri-La. As in their own private worlds, so in the movies, black people, if evident at all, knew their place. Communism was the devil's own work. And on the silver screen the prosperity and social stability that blessed America in the war years stretched unending into the future.

Certainly the men who ran Hollywood knew life was more complicated than that. Thanks partly to the success of television, theater attendance by 1950 had declined by nearly half from its postwar peak in 1946. Yet Hollywood still hadn't decided how to come to terms with that little box. Antitrust rulings and other forces had conspired to break up the studio system that had oppressed and nurtured a generation of stars. Backlots that had hummed with the production of as many as one hundred movies a year in the 1940s were being sold and subdivided for commercial use by the 1950s. Leading ladies and men reveled in the growing freedom to pursue vastly more profitable futures outside the constraints of exclusive contracts with a particular studio. But they also were nervous without the protection of the studios, which had provided regular salaries and legions of publicists. Thousands of other workers were even less sure of their employment prospects.

On the political front, life also was complicated. Hollywood largely had been "cleansed" of Communists and fellow travelers in the late 1940s. But in the decade that followed the blacklist remained in effect. Congressmen Francis Walter and J. Parnell Thomas continued to summon actors and directors to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the persistent belief that some elements of Hollywood wanted to tint America Red. There also were signs that young Americans who had left the farms and towns of Middle America to fight overseas in World War II had come home with a more cynical and sophisticated view of the world than what Hollywood was offering.

Against all these threats and uncertainties there was something reassuring to studio executives about the image of a right and innocent America and a moral and proper Hollywood that they had worked so hard to construct and now struggled so hard to maintain. Thus there was a lot at stake in December 1952 when the trucks of Publishers Distributing Corporation rolled out across America to deliver the first issue of Confidential, proudly subtitled "Uncensored and Off the Record." Not five years later, in a nasty courtroom battle whose excited news coverage made it the O. J. Simpson trial of its time, Hollywood seemingly vanquished Confidential. But its damage had been done. The magazine, in stripping away layer upon layer of Hollywood puffery, left a legacy of skepticism and cynicism that was quickly embraced by Americans who had come to doubt the oh-so-wholesome image of life they saw projected endlessly on the silver screen.

Although Confidential eventually fell, it spawned dozens of imitators, some of which continue to prosper. In many ways, Confidential was father to the National Enquirer, the Star, E! True Hollywood Story, Access Hollywood, TMZ.com, and for that matter, today's Vanity Fair. Confidential was, in a sense, inevitable. "Half-fictionalized as they are," said Camille Paglia, the feminist social critic who grew up reading Confidential, "the tabloids, with their twin themes of sex and violence, tell the lurid pagan truth about life." As Robert Harrison put it, "I sincerely believe the basic vehicle of the story-behind-the-story will be here long after we are all dead."

Click images below to see a gallery of the old covers. If you'd prefer to see these photos all on one page, you can click here. All of the covers were graciously scanned for us by the author, from his own personal collection. The captions belong to Richard Lawson.

When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

It's just so great that there was someone named Vic Mature once.

When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

Some very true medical news about cigarettes.

When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

Tab's "disorderly conduct" was probably buggery.

When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

Liberace was gay?

When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

Lana Turner, pre-Johnny Stompanato.

When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

More cigarettes!

When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

Old Blue Eyes' (to be played in an upcoming movie by Jamie Foxx) sexual escapades.

When Gossip Was Gritty: Confidential Magazine

No gay rumors about James Dean!

Excerpted from Shocking True Story by Henry E. Scott Copyright © 2010 by Henry E. Scott. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.