Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, “America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine”
Editor’s note: This review was first published December 2010 in the Vol. IX No. 4 issue of The Figure in the Carpet, a publication of The Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.
On September 24, 1953, actress/dancer Rita Hayworth, who had been married to Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan, wedded singer/actor Dick Haymes, whom Confidential would dub “Mr. Evil” for the way he allegedly abused Hayworth. (Haymes’s sympathetic biographer, Ruth Prigozy, takes some exception to those allegations, unsurprisingly in her book The Life of Dick Haymes: No More Little White Lies, published in 2006.) It was, to be sure, not a marriage made in heaven. None of Hayworth’s five marriages was and she divorced Haymes two years later amidst allegations that he repeatedly slammed her head against the wall on several occasions, which were not hard to believe as Haymes had a severe drinking problem at the time. Before the end, however, Hayworth had to face a New York judge in April 1954 to deal with charges of criminally neglecting her two daughters, Rebecca (Orson Welles the father) and Yasmin (result of the union with Khan) by allowing them to live in squalor in the run-down White Plains home of a babysitter. Confidential revived the story in September 1954, complete with shocking pictures of the girls in a poverty-stricken environment, juxtaposed to pictures of Hayworth and Haymes dining out at a fashionable restaurant. (Haymes, twice divorced before the Hayworth marriage, was not known for paying his child support on time or even at all. He was deeply in debt at the time of the Hayworth marriage and was being threatened with deportation.) The photos were taken courtesy of a Confidential reporter who represented himself to the babysitter as a potential buyer of the property. Hayworth and Haymes were deeply embarrassed by the story. At the time the story appeared, Confidential had a circulation of over one million. The circulation was to get even better before things got a lot worse.
Guerilla/checkbook journalism to expose the peccadilloes of Hollywood stars and the hypocrisy of Hollywood’s management of its talent was Confidential’s stock in trade: their reporters sought out, through all sorts of means, informants and paid them if their information withstood fact-checking. Confidential was the predecessor of tabloid sheets like the National Enquirer or even Vanity Fair (upscale tabloid journalism with just a touch of the New Yorker) just as it was the descendant of the National Police Gazette, the New York Evening Graphic, which helped launch the careers of Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell, and the sensational journalism of Hearst in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The magazine featured lurid stories of black singers like Sammy Davis, Jr., Billy Daniels, Herb Jeffries, and Billy Eckstine and their wild escapades with their white paramours. In its pages, readers learned of Mae West’s affair with her black ex-prizefighter chauffeur and tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s hanky panky with an African prince.
Another 1954 Confidential story chronicled how actor Van Johnson battled his homosexuality but finally was able to overcome it in 1943 when he suffered a fractured skull in an automobile accident that made him, through some sort of brain damage, heterosexual. He then went on to marry Eve, the wife of his best friend, Keenan Wynn, although he seemed closer to Keenan than to Eve. There was the story about the Harvard dorm all of whose residents were gay and the low-down on heartthrob actor Tab Hunter’s arrest with a group of young men who were having something like a gay slumber party. Boldly, in light of what we know now, popular pianist Liberace sued Confidential for outing him. The magazine featured lurid stories of black singers like Sammy Davis, Jr., Billy Daniels, Herb Jeffries, and Billy Eckstine and their wild escapades with their white paramours. In its pages, readers learned of Mae West’s affair with her black ex-prizefighter chauffeur and tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s hanky panky with an African prince.
As Henry E. Scott writes in Shocking True Story, “Recurring themes in Confidential such as homosexuality and miscegenation were good for sales because they pandered to popular fears and pre-conceptions.” As Confidential informant and former L.A. vice cop Fred Otash put it when critics complained about the crass nature of the scandal magazine, “Kick all the Communists out of Hollywood, kick out the homosexuals, enforce marital fidelity on both husbands and wives, and you won’t have any scandal—and no scandal magazines.” Of course, believing in the overthrow of capitalism, being gay, or being an adulterer were not crimes. And the first two were not even immoral. But in Eisenhower America, many white Americans were concerned about whether Negroes wanted to marry their daughters (the possibility of interracial sex was one of the major reasons white Southerners vehemently opposed school integration) and equally concerned about whether “queers” wanted to bugger their sons (homosexuality threatened marriage, manhood, and the home) and whether Communists wanted to brainwash both their sons and their daughters (Communism threatened all things American). The journalism of fear coupled with the journalism of envy—the sins, arrogance, and foolishness of the rich and famous unveiled to public ridicule—remains a winning combination. Confidential, lacking irony or any bohemian flair, did not in any way condone the behavior of the celebrities; the magazine was four-square for patriotism, Negroes engaging in coitus only with other Negroes, homosexuals been cured or quarantined, and married people not committing adultery. So, it might seem strange at first blush that the magazine was harshly condemned by Hollywood and in most respectable quarters of public opinion (although reading it was a guilty pleasure for many).
The problem was, first, that Confidential made money exploiting and sensationalizing the misbehavior that it condemned. … Second, the magazine violated the privacy of famous people who felt, their careers being at stake, they had a right to fight back, which they did.
The problem was, first, that Confidential made money exploiting and sensationalizing the misbehavior that it condemned. It was a cheap, sloppily written publication that appealed to “prurient interests,” as it were, and so was easy for both Hollywood and respectable, middlebrow society to hate. For Hollywood, Confidential was bad for business because it was a publication that it could not control as it did the fanzines and the gossip columnists. Second, the magazine violated the privacy of famous people who felt, their careers being at stake, they had a right to fight back, which they did. Whose business was it if they were homosexuals, wife beaters, drunks, commies, adulterers, lechers, leeches, or bad parents underneath the gauzy publicity of fantasy and glamour that the Hollywood spun out daily to make the actors seem as large and mythical as the roles they played? Hollywood, through the 1950s, had been the master of subtly appealing to “prurient interests” under the watchful eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency and FBI director of J. Edgar Hoover. Hollywood at the time, with its self-censoring genuflection to bourgeois morals and its contrary need to titillate its audience with the secret allure of sin and taboo-breaking, was, as one scholar so neatly put it, “a Jewish-owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America.” (Little did anyone know then that revelations of the Confidential sort would eventually become routine and do little, if any, damage to the careers of the famous. Often the fires of fame burn ever more intensely because of scandal these days! Even the unknown and the untalented hope that a bit of scandal will land them a reality television show or a six-figure contract to write a memoir.) Launched by Robert Harrison at the end of 1952, Confidential’s stock rode very high in the mid-1950s. Indeed, by 1957, the year Confidential could claim over nine million readers. It was the same year that California Attorney General Pat Brown indicted Confidential and Harrison for conspiracy to commit criminal libel and for obscenity. Nothing sours so quickly as the sweet smell of success.
Shocking True Story tells of the rise and fall of (Max) Robert Harrison, founder and editor of Confidential, born into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in New York in 1904. Harrison was always a disappointment to his father, a coppersmith, who wanted the son to learn a trade. Harrison lacked both the skill and the interest to learn a trade and was attracted to journalism as a boy, creating his first magazine, a guide to local inns and taverns, when he was 12. His father referred pejoratively to all endeavors that involved manipulating words as “the air business,” by which he meant hot air or B.S. Selling the unreal to the unwashed was, to Harrison’s father, both irrelevant and contemptible. Harrison dropped out of high school and eventually wound in Hollywood in 1935 working for Quigley Publishing Company. While working for Quigley in Hollywood, Harrison began collecting cheesecake photos with which he launched the first of many “girlie” magazines. He was fired in 1941 for his sideline enterprise but with the help of his sisters he kept the girlie magazines going. (Harrison’s publishing was always a family business.) In 1946, with a sufficient number of underground Hollywood contacts like ex-vice cops, prostitutes, madams, press agents, restaurateurs, chauffeurs, maids, bartenders, gardeners, cooks, and private eyes, the underbelly support world of the Hollywood rich, he launched Whisper, the forerunner of Confidential, as a gossip and scandal magazine to accompany his menu of girlies. Whisper morphed into Confidential. What Harrison understood was that the public loved exposure of the rich, the powerful, and the famous, no matter how hypocritically they may rail against it through their moral mouthpieces and institutions. What people loved even more than stories of success were the tales of the downfall of the successful.
Harrison’s most fateful hire was Howard Rushmore, a Mexico, Missouri, farm boy who wound up an ardent communist writing for the Daily Worker, from which he was fired for writing a glowing review of the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind. He subsequently became an ardent anti-communist and top-notch scandal journalist. Rushmore was Harrison’s best and most important writer. He also turned against Harrison when he testified for the prosecution in 1975 “Hollywood versus Confidential” trial. Rushmore, an alcoholic and a morose character generally, who had, through his betrayals, turned both the left and the right in the world of journalism against him, would wind up murdering his wife and committing suicide in the back seat of a New York taxi cab in January 1958. It was gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who loved Confidential because it had gone to bat for him in his contretemps with black dancer/singer Josephine Baker who was not served at the Stork Club one night back in 1951, who suggested that Harrison make Rushmore an editor.
What [Confidential founder and editor] Harrison understood was that the public loved exposure of the rich, the powerful, and the famous, no matter how hypocritically they may rail against it through their moral mouthpieces and institutions.
The State of California versus Robert Harrison, et al. ended in a hung jury but it effectively killed Confidential as most of Harrison’s most important informants were revealed at the trial. Without them, he had no dirt to dish. He eventually sold the magazine. It must be noted, and much to Harrison’s credit, that Confidential did feature investigative features on corporate America and consumer reports that were, indeed, useful. Shocking True Story has a chapter on Confidential’s story on the bogus tobacco industry claim that filtered cigarettes were safe to smoke because the filters blocked all the harmful effects.
Shocking True Story is a good, though by no means exhaustive or thorough, account of Confidential. For those interested in the subject matter, they might wish to read the book along with Samuel Bernstein’s Mr. Confidential: The Man, His Magazine & The Movieland Massacre That Changed Hollywood Forever (2006), which covers much of the same ground but provides many more photos and illustrations, including the covers of most of the magazines that Harrison published. (Bernstein’s book is a biography of Harrison and Shocking True Story is not.) Bernstein’s book also provides a bit more detail about testimony at the trial. His book, however, does not have an index and is not organized in the most reader-friendly way. Shocking True Story is put together much better.