The presence of celebrity in the White House and as a driving force in the political and social business of the nation is not only undeniable, it’s ubiquitous. While I have typically laid responsibility for America’s hyper-celebrity culture at the feet of the television series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (1984-1995) and the need to fill space on 24/7 cable news networks, Samantha Barbas tells another story in Confidential Confidential: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Notorious Scandal Magazine. Barbas’ narrative spans from the founding of the scandal magazine Confidential through its enormous success, terrific failure, and long-lasting aftermath.
Barbas is both a historian and law professor, and these two areas of expertise serve her writing in creating a crisp, unbiased narrative. She establishes the beginnings of Confidential as such:
“Confidential magazine was the brainchild of Robert Harrison, one of the unsung media pioneers of the twentieth century. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, a ladies’ man, and a slick nightclub playboy, Harrison started his career in the 1940s when he published the first pinup magazines in the country. By the end of the decade, Harrison, renowned as the ‘cheesecake king,’ was publishing six different girlie magazines.”
Although Harrison is the protagonist, the reader is not persuaded to have any compassion for him. Rather, we are likely to find him despicable, merely through the telling of his actions and the views of those who knew him. Barbas’ research reveals that one of his editors called Harrison “rude, crude, and unlettered” and an editor’s son said that when conversing with Harrison, you “did not get a warm and fuzzy feeling.” Her comparison between Harrison and Howard Rushmore, who became the editor of Confidential, is also telling. “Both men were liars, and they fibbed when it suited them, but for Harrison the lies were big and Barnumesque—he didn’t believe them and didn’t expect others to, either. Rushmore’s lies were insidious, told with deadly seriousness, meant to humiliate and destroy.” Noting that I was drawn to Confidential Confidential by my desire to better understand the current cultural climate, I find the different demeanor of liars something worth contemplating in trying to figure out both the intent and the consequences of creating a political structure built on lies.
Yet the lies in Confidential typically had a factual core, which was one way the magazine protected itself from libel. Because Confidential told scandalous stories about celebrities and public figures, many of those whose secrets were exposed chose not to pursue legal means of retribution against Harrison and his magazine. Doing so would only bring more attention to the somewhat-sordid stories, where ignoring or simply denying them was a better strategy to minimize the damage done. Like all news, celebrity gossip is ephemeral. Another scandal will soon replace the one that is currently in the headlines. Barbas notes that when asked about Confidential‘s reportage on neglecting his ailing ex-wife, Clark Gable said, “I don’t think stories of any kind can change the attitude of my friends toward me. The other people I don’t care about.”
The theme of Confidential outing gay men in both Hollywood and Washington runs through Barbas’ narrative. Dancer and Broadway veteran Dan Dailey was the magazine’s first target, in 1954, and Barbas notes this was a milestone not only for Confidential but for all of Hollywood. Later that year, the magazine also published “The Untold Story of Van Johnson”, an MGM star whose marriage to actress Eve Abbott was engineered by the studio as a cover for his sexuality. Confidential‘s coverage was both homophobic and racist. When an interracial relationship or a gay couple is reported as a scandal, it reinforces the idea that disapproving of difference is acceptable behavior. While it’s not difficult to see how these norms were sustained in the ’50s, it’s still a sign of how media reports that public figures are engaging in immoral or illegal lifestyles perpetuates harmful mob judgment.
As Confidential‘s readership grew, Harrison dispatched his niece, Marjorie Meade, and her husband Fred to Los Angeles, where they set up shop as Hollywood Research Incorporated. The Meades made their living by collecting and paying for information about stars that was channeled back to Harrison in New York. Many of the informants worked in service industries — bartenders, waiters, maids, valets — for whom the extra money was a significant incentive, although it was not unusual for people to provide news tips out of sheer revenge, for being treated badly by the celebrity contingent of Hollywood. The same kind of exposé still fuels TMZ, People magazine and National Enquirer, along with countless websites and YouTube channels.
Because of the pervasive presence of celebrity news and gossip, it may be difficult for contemporary readers to imagine a time when the public did not question the idyllic portraits of celebrities presented by the media. In these depictions, actors and musicians were ideal role models who lived a just-so life of the highest moral and ethical standards. Confidential was one of the first opportunities to see those fallacies debunked. While controversial in its tactics, Confidential‘s telling of certain truths were difficult for audiences to believe because of the shocking contrast between the reality and the facade to which they were accustomed. Part of Harrison’s justification for the stories he covered was the notion that readers deserve to know the truth about the people they admire. And since it’s the “truth”, well, it can’t hurt anyone.
Whether or not celebrity gossip hurts anyone helps direct the trajectory to Confidential‘s eventual downfall. The second half of the book is devoted to the legal issues that Harrison faced, the collection of attorneys that he gathered around Confidential to protect him, and the complex social issues that arise when libel, celebrity, and reputation become entwined. The issues of libel and First Amendment rights in the ’50s are explained clearly, with helpful examples. Barbas explains how Confidential‘s attorneys directed writers to use qualifying language to avoid libel, leading to articles rife with “maybe”, probably”, and “reportedly”. Robert Greenwald’s 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism shows similar hedging language used repeatedly on Fox News, especially the tendency to reveal unverified and often untrue information with the phrases “Some people say” and “You might have heard.” Trump, a former Fox pundit, frequently uses this strategy to plant lies in the media.
Confidential‘s circulation increased to more than four million readers in 1955 and, Barbas coyly writes, attracted its first national media coverage. Respected magazines and newspapers including Time, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal began reporting on Confidential, none too kindly. The article in Time was titled “Success in the Sewer”, and others also attacked Confidential‘s tenor and content.
Actor Robert Mitchum was the first to file a lawsuit against Confidential, in 1955. His attorney warned Mitchum that doing so would only make him fodder for more gossip and embarrassment, but Mitchum was determined to clear his name. Other lawsuits quickly followed: Errol Flynn sued Confidential for libel in June 1955 and heiress Doris Duke followed with a $3 million suit in response to the article “Doris Duke and Her African Prince”. Confidential‘s readership was in decline and Hollywood was working diligently to take down the scandal magazine in 1957, when both Liberace and Maureen O’Hara sued the magazine. Finally, the State of California brought criminal charges against Confidential, and it was the beginning of the end for Harrison and his contingent.
Barbas ends her book with a chapter on the aftermath of Confidential and the rise of a new generation of gossip media. Creating this context is an important link between past and present, demonstrating that history helps make sense of the paths that we are still navigating.