Vintage Smear

“Everybody reads it, but they say the cook brought it into the house.” -Humphrey Bogart

Original story: I have an abundance of vintage magazines that I’ve picked up over the years, though I’m hardly a collector, an authority, an expert, or even a profiteer. In fact, I prefer “light hobbyist” because it allows me to enjoy old-timey weirdness over fixation and miscellany over totality. Besides, research is half the fun, and the story behind Confidential magazine is my favorite. Happy Holidays.

In the 1920’s, celebrated scandal rag The New York Graphic had cornered the tabloid market, and it was in the Graphic’s infamous newsrooms that Robert Harrison first met Walter Winchell. They had little occasion to work together, and their paths diverged again in the 30s and 40s when Winchell went on to become a popular entertainment columnist and radio personality, while Harrison became a rather run-of-the-mill girlie mag publisher.

In December of 1952, aiming to get involved with something more substantive, Harrison launched Confidential magazine. He played up his association with Winchell, who by then had become the most widely read entertainment columnist in the world. In exchange for Confidential’s support in matters like Josephine Baker’s racial discrimination charge against New York’s Stork Club (Winchell sided with the club), Winchell sang the praises of Confidential to his readers, encouraging them to buy the new magazine.

And buy they did.

The rag itself was garish and lurid. Newsweek, in a March 14th, 1955 issue, concluded that Confidential promoted nothing but “sin and sex with a seasoning of right wing politics.” Humphrey Bogart dubbed Harrison, “The King of Leer.”

With its sensational declaration that “The Lid Is Off!” Confidential promised raw and hidden thrills and produced loads of exposé. Its premiere issue featured a report on the mobsters and criminals that had made a home of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a photo exposé of homosexual dancers in Paris, and a piece linking a Brooklyn District Attorney to the killers-for-hire ring known as Murder, Inc. By 1956, Harrison’s lascivious invention had achieved a readership of over 4 million per issue. (And those aren’t mouse clicks, baby, those were 4 million people forking over cash at newsstands or stores.) Celebrities, politicians, foreign royalty, and high profile ‘hoods were frequent targets of Confidential’s “Uncensored and Off The Record” attacks. Headlines ranged from every conceivable communist threat to gambling, celebrity interracial scoops, Hollywood crime, and juicy divorce news.

At first, major Hollywood studios embraced magazines like Confidential, feeding them tantalizing tidbits of gossip in exchange for publicity. But when Confidential’s investigators started nosing around big stars like Rock Hudson for real “behind closed doors” dirt, the studios changed tactics. To protect the reputations of their A-list celebs, studios like Universal-International sold out lesser actors to kill the original stories. (In Hudson’s case, it was Rory Calhoun – with the studio paying Harrison $10,000 and providing info on Calhoun’s prison stint.)

Other actors went on their own counter-offensive. Ronald Reagan, at the time a Hollywood Blacklist informer, led a committee to uncloak the smear mag’s personnel. Frank Sinatra, no stranger to dirt himself, called in a few political markers to lead his own charge against the magazine.

In 1955, after “a number of complaints,” Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield refused to allow mail delivery of Confidential’s November issue. While his decision was reversed by the U.S. District Court after testimony from both Harrison and the ACLU, the magazine’s troubles were mounting. In 1957, following a two year investigation by a California State Senate subcommittee known as the Kraft Commission, Confidential’s publishers were put on trial. Harrison was charged with “conspiracy to publish criminal libel.”

The trial, an international spectacle featuring testimony by celebrities, detectives, police, and prostitutes, lasted two months. The prosecution’s star witness, a fence-sitter named Howard Rushmore who’d written for both the Daily Worker and Hearst’s right-wing New York Journal-American before joining Confidential as an editor, provided point blank testimony that he had “certainly” intended to injure the subjects of his Confidential stories. As a result, Confidential’s reign as king of sleaze began to unravel.

In November of 1957, Harrison cut a deal with California attorney general Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and the major libel charges against him were dropped in exchange for his published promise to “eliminate exposé stories on the private lives of celebrities.” But while the pledge placated the Kraft Commission, the damage was done. Lawsuit after lawsuit was brought against the magazine as every slandered star that cared to sue did. Harrison was forced to sell Confidential to protect his personal assets.

And yet the magazine itself managed to stay afloat. During the twenty-one years that followed its initial sale, Confidential’s quality fluctuated wildly under an assortment of owners. During the 60’s and 70’s, the magazine turned its attention to drugs, hippies, and the counterculture. But though it had managed to cover just about everyone and everything in the public consciousness during its long run, the financially strangled rag finally died in 1978.

The legacy of Confidential, however, lives on, mainly through the passion of collectors. In addition, Confidential broke ground for many other scandal titles and paved the way for our modern tabloids as well. Here now, is a quick look at some of Confidential’s imitators:

  • Uncensored was a favorite that ran a series of quarterly issues on vice and sex. In popularity it remained second only to its predecessor. Most smear mags folded in the 50’s, but Uncensored kept going strong until 1971.
  • Exposed also managed to last for a decent length of time, probably because it was strong on text and well illustrated. Eighteen issues of Exposed were published yearly, and it had a reputation as one of the more reliable magazines of its kind.
  • Exclusive, on the other hand, was a wild magazine of outright exploitation. It featured outrageous titles, storylines and shocking covers.
  • Blast was even sleazier. The low budget mag was infamous for its “take no prisoners” approach.
  • To answer the charges leveled by some of these smear mags against “persecuted” stars, Celebrities Answer to the Scandal Magazines was introduced. But either the stars weren’t talking or the public wasn’t buying, because the mag only hobbled along for two issues in 1957.
  • Magazines like Hush Hush, however, did make it. A stable yet mischievous exposé mag, it was another of the few to continue after the initial mid-fifties scandal boom subsided. Unlike the others that only rewrote the news, Hush Hush actually broke stories.
  • The most flagrant of the “news recyclers” was Inside, which didn’t last long. In 1958 its publishers gave up on scandal altogether and turned it into a “Photos for Men” magazine.
  • The Lowdown, which ran for twelve years, had its own version of photos – doctored and racy.
  • Slightly more accurate was On The QT, which featured real photos and well conceived front covers. Like its competitors, however, it specialized in “Stories the Newspapers Won’t Print!”
  • There are many more titles, like Naked Truth, RAVE, Private Affairs, Revealed, and even Side Street. None lasted long, but each stayed afloat long enough to distinguish an era.

Today’s tabloids are no different from their predecessors. Their doctored photos are more advanced, but often still obviously altered and their cheap shots are often cheaper. Their targets remain the same: celebrities, politicians, royalty. Following its initial burst, anti-smear litigation was largely dormant until 1990, when Carol Burnett won a significant victory and the stars were reminded that they had a means of fighting back. They’ve not only done so routinely ever since, they became their own studio backchannels, tipping off paparazzi regarding their errands, coke habits and sex tapes. It’s all the same, but turned inward with a narcissistic rage. Still, sleazemongers like Robert Harrison are probably yawning in their graves.

If anything, it is we who have changed, becoming increasingly desensitized and indifferent to low blow, hide-in-the-bushes journalism. Today’s tabloids produce “headlines” even men like Harrison wouldn’t have touched: “Celebrity Miscarriages,” “Paris Hilton smuggling coke and ecstasy in her hoo-ha” and “Exclusive (Nearly) Naked Photos” of aged stars. By today’s standards, the short-lived scandal mags of the 50’s are boring. But that’s just what makes them worth tracking down: nostalgia for naive sleaze.

Sleaze historian John Wooley was the inspiration for this post.

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