Confidential dishes dirt but tries not to cross the line.
Confidential gives Kim Novak the cover and Lili St Cyr the inset on an issue published this month in 1965. Inside, the editors offer readers mostly lukewarm rehash, as was Confidential’s usual approach during its fangless mid-1960’s years, but there are also a few interesting tidbits. We learn that Lili St. Cyr took more than thirty Nembutals during her 1958 suicide attempt, yet still managed to survive though as few as three pills can be fatal. Ramfis Trujillo’s wild Parisian parties are detailed, including the time he and his entourage shot up the lobby of the Hotel George V. And we find out that Frank Sinatra paid a $400 fine in Spain for disturbing the peace when he blew up after a woman threw a drink on him.
But make no mistake—the once mighty Confidential was walking on eggshells after being on the wrong end of some costly lawsuits. Maverick owner Robert Harrison had sold the magazine to Hy Steirman, who realized the easiest way to avoid litigation was to take on targets that either wouldn’t fight back or couldn’t be bothered to care. Ramfis Trujillo, for example, was a mass-murderer and likely found articles about his crazed partying flattering. Thailand’s dictator Sarit Thanarat is also slammed in this issue, and you can bet he gave less than a shit about the write-up—if he was even aware of it. Editors sling mud at Marilyn Monroe, who was dead. Amorphous group targets, like the “limp wrist set,” the Mafia, real estate swindlers, and escaped Nazis make up the rest of the subject matter.
But even if Confidential wasn’t kicking ass and taking names in 1965, its visuals were still quite nice, with those impactful black, white and red graphics, and that super hip language that’s so much of its time but which is still amazing to read today. Try this on for size: “Call the men in the white coats and get the whacky wagon rolling, your favorite swinging correspondent is ready for Flipsville!” We’re always ready for Flipsville, and we’re always ready for mid-century tabloids, too. How many of these do we have left in our collection? You wouldn’t believe us if we told you. We’d sell some, but how could we possibly part with them? We’re stuck with them. And so are you. Twenty-plus scans below.
Liberace is finally forced to take up arms against the tabloids.
A long while ago we shared the cover of a 1956 Whisper featuring George Sanders. The same issue had an article on Liberace, and we’re returning to that today as part of our look at mid-century tabloid attitudes toward gay culture. In general of course, the tabloids were brutally insulting, using overt as well as coded language to get intimations of homosexuality across. Theoretically, when dealing with public figures they had to be somewhat cautious, but both Rave and Inside had in 1954 written stories insinuating that Liberace was gay, and in 1955 Suppressed and Private Lives did the same. In Whisper, a journalist writing under the name Sylvia Tremaine refers to Liberace as a “creature,” labels his speech as “simpering,” and describes his move to television this way: “From there it was just a brief flutter to a local TV program.”
You’ll notice there’s deniability in all those words—Whisper could claim there was nothing defamatory in the language. Ridiculous, of course. Clearly the magazine was calling Liberace gay, and only a fool would claim otherwise, but defamation had not occurred to an extent that would stand up in court. Thus we see the joy of coded language. The same occurs in the U.S. today in certain media outlets with language directed at African Americans. The disparagement is clear, but deniable. Or for a cinematic example of coding, consider the Maltese Falcon and how the character of Joel Cairo is announced by flute trills on the soundtrack. Clear, and yet deniable. But in its Liberace article Whisper then throws deniability out the window with this: “Hollywood snickerers are wondering, in fact, if all the male hormones earmarked for the Liberace boys weren’t hogged by George, leaving Lee with only his nimble fingers.” That goes a bit beyond code, wouldn’t you say?
Liberace did not sue, and the tabloids simply built momentum. Later in 1956 Britain’s Daily Mirror called him a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” Robert Harrison’s Confidential piled on in 1957. It published a three-part tale of Liberace attacking a hapless press agent. A sample from that hit piece: “Fatso plumped onto the couch alongside his young guest, and before you could say Gorgeous George, the pair were [wrestling]. In a matter of moments, it turned into a boxing bout, too, with the press agent throwing desperate lefts and rights at Liberace. The latter, his determination stiffening, merely clung tighter. The floor show reached its climax when Dimples, by sheer weight, pinned his victim’s shoulders to the mat and mewed into his face: 'Gee, you’re cute when you’re mad!'”
Liberace’s lawyer John Jacobs filed lawsuits against both Daily Mirror and Confidential, demanding a whopping twenty million dollars from the latter. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $174 million in today's terms. You can almost imagine Robert Harrison spitting up his coffee when he heard the settlement demand. Equally you can imagine Liberace’s reluctance to dignify the article, but Confidential at the time had readership in the millions. Something had to be done. It had become open season on his private life. Even the press photo below toyed with him. Thedescriptive text, written for newspaper staff, is meant to simply get across the basic facts of the photos and is typically pretty dry stuff. But this describes Liberace as "the curly-haired pianist" and says his walk is "jaunty." Clear, but deniable.
In the end, Liberace received $40,000 from Confidential and $53,000 from the Daily Mirror, substantial sums for the time. In addition to his legal victories, the constraints against tabloid journalism were becoming more defined. Of course, Liberace had won the cases by perjuring himself in court about being gay. In 1987 when he died of complications related to AIDS, Daily Mirror refused to show an iota of deference or respect and published a piece referring to the 1950s settlement. It was headlined: Any Chance of a Refund?
Confidential goes full throttle on the high seas.
On this Confidential from February 1965 the publishers give their cut-and-paste artists a month off and grace the cover with a simple portrait of Brigitte Bardot and her famed pout. Inside the editors air out her love life in a way that today would be called slut shaming—pretty much stock-in-trade for Confidential. The suggestion is she won’t come to the U.S. to act because she’s busy Morockin’ around the clock with Moroccan-born producer Bob Zaguri. Elsewhere in the issue you get Romy Schneider, Jean Harlow, Alain Delon, Peter O’Toole, love behind the Iron Curtain, and an outraged report on pharmaceutical companies marking up medicines 200%, 500%, even 7,000%. Yes, medicines cost too much in the U.S. even back then. But don’t take our word for it. Take Confidential’s—their story ends by declaring that drug companies have Americans by the balls and the only way to avoid the drug price racket is to not get sick.
But moving on, as we mentioned last week, we wanted to look at tabloid attitudes toward gay culture, and this issue has two articles along those lines. The first involves gay cruises off the Florida coast, an activity Confidential informs readers was devised as a way to avoid Dade County vice cops. Once the boats were in international waters therewas no law, local or federal, which could be applied against shipboard activities. We’ll come back to that in a sec. The other story involves what Confidential describes as the middlesex—i.e. people who lack strong masculine or feminine characteristics. The story is concerned with this only as a social issue and makes no mention of physically intersex persons who genetically are neither male nor female.
For Confidential the issue is simple—men are no longer macho enough and women are no longer (submissively) alluring enough. Of course, gay men are the ultimate villains here, and to make the topic emotional for readers Confidential paints a picture of an America devoid of Jayne Mansfields and Lana Turners. The article’s author Harold Cimoli sums it up this way: “As female busts and hips grow ever narrower even Playboy may have trouble keeping its broad-watchers supplied with bosomy playmates.” And there’s also this tidbit: “Designers of both types of clothing are poaching unforgivably on the styles of each other. The main hope must be the evolution of an entirely new style of ensemble for these new phenomena and a new branch of the industry to supply it.” Were they really this comically worried about visual identification issues? Of course they were—what could be more disturbing to guardians of a prevailing social structure than people managing to wriggle out of their pre-assigned boxes?
The story on gay cruises is a bit more typical of mid-century tabloids—it’s just a takedown piece. Gay men are blithely described as “lavender lads,” “minces,” and other words we wouldn’t dare dirty our website with. The effusiveness of the magazine’s hateful and sneerful terminology suggestsjust how certain Confidential editors were that homosexuality was completely beyond the pale. And yet, nearly every issue harped on the subject, either directly or indirectly. For instance, here we get full reportage on a maritime cabaret show featuring drag queens, followed by detailed descriptions of music, dancing, and gambling. You’d almost think the writer Gaye Bird—nice, right?—was actually there.
The cruise is eventually reported to the boat rental agency in Miami, whose owner vows that he will never again allow his vessels to be used for such debauchery. The response from the organizer of the cruises was this: “There are approximately one-hundred thousand boats or ships of some sort or another. I think we’ll be able to find some way to balance supply and demand.” Ouch—zinged right in the Econ 101s. Doubtless Confidential expected the congressional switchboard to light up over this outrageous appropriation of boats meant for exclusively heterosexual usage, but whether it happened we can’t say—the story ends there. And Confidential readers were left to endure thirty days of disquiet until the next gay bashing issue came out. We won't wait quite that long—we'll explore this subject in another tabloid soon. More scans below.
We hear a lot today about the mainstreaming of LGBT culture, but for the tabloids it was always a popular subject.
This January 1967 Confidential offers up cover star Roxanne Lorraine Alegria, a famed transvestite-later-transgendered cabaret performer who was billed as “The First Topless Sex Change Dancer.” You may remember that we’ve already featured one Confidential and one Whisper containing mention of the transsexual dancer Coccinelle, another Whisper concerned with Christine Jorgensen, and a National Insider featuring Abby Sinclair. Other tabloids we’ve posted contain similar stories, but we’ve ignored them in favor of other content. The point we’re making is that the frequency with which the old tabloids focused on transsexuals is really striking. You’ll also note in the banner at the top of the above cover that Confidential offers a story about a gay convention in San Francisco. This was a subject the old tabloids flogged even more relentlessly—often with the added twist of the alleged gay cabal, usually poised at the threshold to the corridors of power and influence. The language in such articles is shocking by any standard, with the undercurrent of fear that such pieces tend to contain. With so much global attention being devoted of late to LGBT issues we think it’s a good time to go back and look at some of those old articles. We’ll get to that just a little bit later.
Even in decline Confidential had eyes and ears everywhere.
Liz Taylor and her tan star on this cover of Confidential published this month in 1964. The magazine was just a shadow of its former self by this point, but the inside stories still manage to raise eyebrows and give the impression of tabloid spies in every corner of Hollywood. Simon Lee Garth’s exposé accuses Richard Burton of being an abusive drunk, but that was not a scoop—other tabloids had written the same. But elsewhere, investigative journo Beverly Hillis (nice, right?) shares the amusing story of Elvis Presley throwing a party at which only women were invited. Apparently “swivel hips”, as Confidential refers to him, paraded around in a series of bizarre costumes and generally acted the fool, prompting some (but crucially not all) of his guests to leave in a huff. In another story Jack Asher writes about bottomless swimsuits worn by gay men as a response to the topless women’s suits that had appeared on European beaches, and also tells readers the fashion house Lanvin Paris had begun selling a bottomless suit for women. We don’t buy that one for a minute, but there are some interesting photos of women wearing breast-baring dresses. Elsewhere in the issue you get tabloid fave Jayne Mansfield and her husband Mickey Targitay, Peter Sellers sexing himself into a heart attack with Britt Ekland, Barry Goldwater playing dirty politics, and an impressively tasteless graphic of Malcolm X. All below.
Who’s that knocking at my door?
This issue of Confidential from this month in 1955 was one of the magazine’s high points (or low points, depending on your perspective). In this issue the world learned about the infamous Wrong Door Raid in which a group of men that included Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra broke down an apartment door in West Hollywood in an attempt to catch DiMaggio’s ex-wife Marilyn Monroe in bed with another man. We’ll let Confidential describe the delicious scene:
The human battering ram backed up and struck again—four or five times in all—before the hinges gave, the door toppled with a terrible crash, and his momentum carried him sailing inside. The rest of the amateur raiders tumbled right after him. A faint light coming from the window told the private eye they were in a bedroom. Any further confirmation he needed was coming from the bed in the form of shrill screams. The investigator had a camera slung around his neck and—without waiting for the lights to be turned on—he blasted away with his flash bulbs.
At some point, DiMaggio and Co. realized that it wasn’t Monroe in the bed and that they had invaded the wrong apartment. Cue panicked retreat, overturned furniture, broken glass, the works. The story is well known today and you can read full accounts on various websites, butwe thought we’d share this cover anyway because we love the photo Confidential chose for Monroe, and the entire episode is a reminder of how bland modern day celebrity scandals really are.
Confidential basked in the glow of its exposé, but events turned sour rather quickly. Even though DiMaggio, Sinatra and the rest were the ones who had broken the law (or several laws), and Confidential had merely reported the truth, Hollywood was fed up. The stars and studios mounted a concerted push in the state legislature, which resulted in indictments against the magazine. With the constant threat of lawsuits hanging over Confidential like a cloud, publisher Robert Harrison made a deal to refrain from writing about stars’ private lives. One of his biggest scoops had helped lead to his magazine’s de-fanging.
Ronald Reagan gets the maximum Confidential treatment.
The old tabloids really savaged politicians. Liberals and conservatives alike got their turn and in this issue of Confidential from March 1967, Ronald Reagan gets roasted. The story by Roger Baldwin brands Reagan an “ex-pinko,” whispers about his “hushed-up divorce,” notes that a portion of his following is a “nut fringe,” and mentions “race-hate rumors” that surround him. There’s a line in all caps: Ronald Reagan Elected President. It’s a neat little trick, because he’d just been sworn in as Governor of California two months earlier, but the writer is actually referencing Reagan’s 1946 election to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, and using that event to hint at his 1968 White House ambitions (which, by the way, are derided as “a passion for power”). We won’t comment on the veracity of Baldwin’s claims, but his portrayal of Reagan does make us think of something that isn’t mentioned about Hollywood actors very often, if ever. Consider—none of them would make even a fraction of the money they do without their strong trade union, which means they owe what they have to the liberal ideal of worker solidarity. And yet many actors (and for that matter many athletes, also made fantastically rich largely thanks to unionization) are conservatives. It’s a bit of a paradox, don’t you think? In any case, Reagan survived Confidential’s scathing attack and made that all-caps line—Ronald Reagan Elected President—come true, not in 1968, but twelve years later.
We take back everything we said—the postal service rocks.
Well it worked again. We’re definitely feeling total confidence in the postal system now. Why that first issue of Adam disappeared a while back we’ll never know, but after that little mishap we successfully received one shipment, so this time we decided to go for broke. Above is the result of that experiment—forty-four American tabloids. Even with postage in the $40 range, these came out to about two dollars apiece. Very exciting, and since the collection consists of all the heavyweights—Whisper, Hush-Hush, On the QT, Confidential, Uncensored, The Lowdown, et al.—we’re pretty much set for the foreseeable future. You want mid-century tabloids? This is where to find them. Accept no substitutes. On a side note, remember we said we were refinishing a 150-year-old desk? There it is above in final form. Note that the legs are topped by carved demon heads. We haven’t yet figured out who he’s supposed to be, but he emanates a palpable aura of evil that’s a bit… Hang on a sec. Did you hear that noise? Probably the wind, but we better go check anyway. Be right ba—
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1974—Police Raid SLA Headquarters
In the U.S., Los Angeles police raid the headquarters of the revolutionary group the Symbionese Liberation Army, resulting in the deaths of six members. The SLA had gained international notoriety by kidnapping nineteen-year old media heiress Patty Hearst
from her Berkeley, California apartment, an act which precipitated her participation in an armed bank robbery.
1978—Charlie Chaplin's Missing Body Is Found
Eleven weeks after it was disinterred and stolen from a grave in Corsier near Lausanne, Switzerland, Charlie Chaplin's corpse is found by police. Two men—Roman Wardas, a 24-year-old Pole, and Gantscho Ganev, a 38-year-old Bulgarian—are convicted in December of stealing the coffin and trying to extort £400,000 from the Chaplin family.
1918—U.S. Congress Passes the Sedition Act
In the U.S., Congress passes a set of amendments to the Espionage Act called the Sedition Act, which makes "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces, as well as language that causes foreigners to view the American government or its institutions with contempt, an imprisonable offense. The Act specifically applies only during times of war, but later is pushed by politicians as a possible peacetime law, specifically to prevent political uprisings in African-American communities. But the Act is never extended and is repealed entirely in 1920.
1905—Las Vegas Is Founded
Las Vegas, Nevada is founded when 110 acres of barren desert land in what had once been part of Mexico are auctioned off to various buyers. The area sold is located in what later would become the downtown section of the city. From these humble beginnings Vegas becomes the most populous city in Nevada, an internationally renowned resort for gambling, shopping, fine dining and sporting events, as well as a symbol of American excess. Today Las Vegas remains one of the fastest growing municipalities in the United States.
1928—Mickey Mouse Premieres
The animated character Mickey Mouse, along with the female mouse Minnie, premiere in the cartoon Plane Crazy, a short co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. This first cartoon was poorly received, however Mickey would eventually go on to become a smash success, as well as the most recognized symbol of the Disney empire.
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