Everybody who was anybody was fair game in Harrison's Hollywood.
In independent journalism there's a battle raging at all times, as those with power attempt to intimidate the press, make its work difficult, control its narrative, restrict its access, redefine what constitutes journalism, or even cast individual members of the press as public enemies. It's a battle that never ends. Confidential magazine was an important soldier on the journalistic battlefield. For ages anything that appeared in Hollywood gossip magazines was carefully crafted and groomed by the studios, which maintained power by denying access to all but officially accredited press outlets.
Maverick publisher Robert Harrison was a visionary who realized the public would open their wallets and pay for the lurid truth—even if the rush to get startling scoops meant the truth was sometimes only half-correct. Confidential appeared in 1952, and had the studios quivering in their boots by 1954. The issue you see here came later, this month in 1963, in what is acknowledged as the magazine's later, tamer period, a defanging that came about thanks to numerous lawsuits launched by Hollywood stars, backed by powerful California politicians.
Confidential still managed to entertain, even if its stories were of a less invasive nature than before. But notwithstanding the new rules of engagement, some targets received particularly scathing treatment. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were among them. The magazine says their legendary affair on the set of Cleopatra began as a studio publicity stunt, which backfired when Taylor actually fell for Burton—and into his bed. That may be true, but failure can be relative. On one hand Taylor's squeaky clean image was ruined forever, but on the other the story of her affair generated immense amounts of free press for Cleopatra.
Other celebs who get cooked on the rotisserie include Joan Collins, Anthony Newley, Rex Harrison, Vince Edwards, and pioneering trans entertainer Christine Jorgensen. The magazine also tackled the issue of street prostitution in New York City and an epidemic of glue sniffing among American teens. We have a set of scans below and—stop us if you've heard this before—an entire tabloid index with thirty more posts about Confidential, to be found here.
Confidential climbs the stairs and creeps down the bedroom hall.
This January 1958 issue of Confidential, with Anita Ekberg and Gary Cooper starring on the cover, was released in the magazine’s prime, during the heyday of its special brand of slash and burn journalism. You can really see why Hollywood focused its efforts on neutralizing the publication—celebs and important figures get knocked down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Examples: Tita Purdom is caught cheating by her husband, Kim Novak got into movies with the help of a sugar daddy, Lili St. Cyr tried suicide twice and both times was saved by her husband Paul Valentine, and millionaire Bobby Goelet is dropped from the Social Register for dating a non-white woman. We'd like to get into each of those stories, but while we do have time to read them all, sadly we don't have time to write about them all.
Because we have to pick and choose, we're limiting ourselves today to Confidential's domestic violence stories. This was a regular focus of the magazine, and a very good example of just how untouchablepublisher Robert Harrison thought he was. First up is Rita Hayworth, who allegedly walked out on husband Dick Haymes because he beat her. Here's scribe Alfred Garvey: “Haymes' favorite form of assault was to grab Rita by her world-famed tresses and slam her head against a wall until her sense reeled. And the brutal beatings were part and parcel of their schedule wherever they went.” We should note here that Confidential was in no way a defender of women—the magazine published anything that made a celebrity look bad. It didn't publish this story to expose Haymes, but to expose Hayworth. She's the star—the reader must be left asking what's wrong with her.
For evidence consider the story that appears a bit later in which Confidential accuses actor Jack Palance of beating women. “You can't win all your fights, though, even with dames. One talked, and squawked, after a bruising evening with the ungentlemanly Jack and the result has been a tide of whispers [snip] literally a blow-by-blow report of how he conducted at least one romance.” The text goes on to describe theassault in first-hand detail, but even though the writer seems to know every word spoken in that closed room, he never names the victim. This is not because Confidential cares about protecting her identity—if editors can name Hayworth they certainly can name a random aspiring actress—but because she doesn't matter. Her identity would distract the reader.
The point to absorb is merely that Confidential had no compass, no aim at all except to generate terrible publicity for the famous. Some may have deserved it, but moral justice was never the goal. If the two previous stories weren't enough, Confidential hits the trifecta with yet another domestic violence story about Bob Calhoun and big band singer Ginny Simms. In this one Calhoun gets a co-starring role—he was rich, thus worthy of mention. “Grabbing his shrieking bride by her pretty unmentionables, Calhoun yanked her off their nuptial bed and, in the same swift movement, uncorked a right that spun Ginny across the room like a rag doll.”
As far as we know nobody mentioned in any these stories sued. Confidential was impervious—at least for the moment. Celebrities just hunkered down and hoped the stories would fade. But Confidential'scirculation kept growing. Soon it would be one of the most widely read magazines in America, the indisputable king of tabloids. Hmm… king of tabloids has a nice ring to it. We’re going to use that—Pulp Intl. is the king of tabloid websites. You can work your way through more than three-hundred individual tabloid entries here.
Liberace experiences tabloid wrath at its most merciless.
It was in this July 1957 issue of Confidential that journalist “Horton Streete’ infamously outed cover star Liberace in the most vicious and dehumanizing way with an article entitled “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be ‘Mad About the Boy’.” We’ve talked about it before. Streete willfully attempted to damage the singer’s career by spinning a shocking tale of how he attacked a young, male press agent. The article refers to Liberace as Fatso, Pudgy, Dimples, and other, less flattering monikers.
Here’s a rule you can count on—when a journalist or on-air personality constantly refers to someone by other than his or her name or title, it’s a hit piece. Liberace was horrified and sued Confidential. California Attorney General Pat Brown had already managed to win an indictment of the magazine two months earlier. Owner Robert Harrison was about to spend his entire summer in court. He took these legal threats to heart and publicly promised to stop publishing stories about the private lives of Hollywood stars.
Up until then Confidential had been as reckless as a magazine could be. This issue accuses Gary Crosby of punching a woman in the face, and Eartha Kitt of trapping her friend’s boyfriend in her penthouse. An extraordinary story about boxer Jake LaMotta suggests the he got a bumrap in his morals trial. LaMotta was serving time for bedding a 14-year-old. Prosecutors had convinced a jury that the incident with LaMotta was a primary cause of the girl later becoming a prostitute. Confidential rides to the rescue, claiming that the girl’s father had already deflowered her, therefore LaMotta could not have had any influence on the girl’s fate. How’s that for a principled stand?
These early issues of Confidential are a cesspool of journalistic ethics, no doubt, but they’re also a visual treat. Using black, red, blue, and yellow, plus the white of the pages themselves, the designers put together a bold and gaudy package that would influence every other tabloid on the market. The layouts on Kitt, Liberace, Alan Dale, and Lex Barker are among the most eye-catching we’ve seen from the period. Elsewhere you get Anthony Quinn, and a host of other stars. We have a bunch of scans below. Remember, you can always see more from Confidential and other tabs by visiting our tabloid index at this link.
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?
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.
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