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Samantha Barbas is a professor of law at the University of Buffalo, specialising in the history of America’s mass media. Her previous publications include Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity (2001), and The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons (2005.) In her latest book, Confidential Confidential: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Notorious Scandal Magazine, she explores the lurid history and aftermath of a 1950s publishing phenomenon.

Confidential’s founder, Robert Harrison, was a native New Yorker who cut his teeth as a reporter for the city’s tabloid newspapers, before launching a girlie magazine empire during the 1940s. Inspired by the televised Kefauver Committee hearings into organised crime in 1950, as well as a series of muck-raking books which flew off the shelves (including USA Confidential), Harrison decided to launch a new title exposing the dark secrets of high society and the criminal underworld. One of his chief writers, Howard Rushmore, was vociferously anti-Communist and had worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy at the House Un-American Activities Committee. Rushmore also secured an important endorsement for the fledgling magazine, from the syndicated columnist Walter Winchell.

Harrison, who had briefly worked in Hollywood years before, considered it a ‘dull town’. But disappointing sales spurred him to take on more ‘star stories.’ In 1953 he added a ‘Hollywood Lowdown’ section, dispatching his niece, Marjorie Meade, and her husband Fred, to set up a West Coast operation known as Hollywood Research Incorporated. Based at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the bureau soon built a vast network of maids, chauffeurs, hairdressers and doctors whom they paid for information. The HRI also had links to private detectives including Fred Otash and Barney Ruditsky. In the past, film studios had worked closely with fan magazines to maintain their stars’ reputations. Within less than a year, Confidential rocked Tinseltown to its foundations.

Marilyn with co-stars Johnnie Ray, Dan Dailey and Dick Powell – all were targets for Confidential’s slurs

Among Confidential’s first victims were singer Johnnie Ray (who was secretly homosexual) and Dan Dailey (a sometime cross-dresser.) They would both go on to co-star with Marilyn Monroe in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954.) The apparently blissful marriage of Dick Powell and wholesome June Allyson, who had starred together in an early Monroe picture, Right Cross (1950), was nearly broken by revelations of infidelity. Stories about Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun, Marilyn’s two leading men in River of No Return, soon followed.

Although the Mitchum exposé was actually toned down – and ultimately bolstered his ‘bad boy’ image – he became the first major star to file suit against Confidential. The disclosures about Calhoun’s criminal past were offered voluntarily by his agent, in return for calling off the ‘outing’ of another client, Rock Hudson. Framed as a tale of moral redemption, the Calhoun story was, rather unusually, based on interviews with the actor himself.

With Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun in ‘River of No Return’

Confidential’s tone was unashamedly right-wing, misogynistic, racist and homophobic, tapping into conservative America’s growing fears about the changing society of the Post-War era. However, while some stories were faked (such as Sammy Davis Jr’s purported fling with Ava Gardner), many were accurate. Employing a team of high-flying lawyers, Harrison knew he could not afford to lie and often held back the most damning information for legal ammunition. His team of writers – including mainstream columnists like Florabel Muir and Mike Connolly – were advised that if the basic facts were true, they could embellish as much as they liked. Journalists Kendis Rochlen and Maurice Zolotow – Marilyn Monroe’s first biographer – were among those who turned down overtures from Confidential.

With Hollywood mogul Joe Schenck in 1953

Circulation doubled after the release of the August 1953 issue, rising to 800,000. One of that month’s cover stories was titled ‘Why Joe DiMaggio Is Striking Out With Marilyn Monroe!’ For more than a year, the romance between the blonde bombshell and the baseball legend had been making headlines. However, the article claimed, 76-year-old Joe Schenck (chairman of Twentieth Century Fox) opposed them getting married. Marilyn had befriended Schenck several years before, when she was still unknown, and often stayed in his guest cottage. Schenck was Monroe’s most powerful ally at the studio, and some believed they were lovers although both denied it. Although she disliked the intrusion into her personal life, the article didn’t harm Marilyn’s career and may even have enhanced her sensuous image. For Schenck and the studio system, however, shining a light on Hollywood sleaze and the ‘casting couch’ was the kind of publicity they preferred to avoid.

Marilyn married DiMaggio in January 1954, but within a few months, they had separated. Jealous of her relationship with musician Hal Schaefer, Joe confided in Frank Sinatra, who suggested he hire a private detective to follow the couple. In November, Phil Irwin reported to his boss, Barney Ruditsky, that Monroe’s car was parked outside an apartment building in West Hollywood. Ruditsky alerted DiMaggio and Sinatra, and late that evening, the four men entered the building. While Irwin had correctly identified the apartment of actress Sheila Stewart as Marilyn’s location, the others insisted on storming a neighbouring apartment. Their bewildered victim, Florence Kotz, reported the incident to police, but the case was not pursued.  

Irwin passed his information to Hollywood Research Incorporated, with Ruditsky later confirming and adding more to the story. In the September 1955 issue of Confidential, the big scoop was ‘The Real Reason Behind Marilyn Monroe’s Divorce!’ Two years later, the fiasco would resurface to the detriment of everyone involved – and Confidential most of all. Once again, Monroe’s career was unharmed, as she had narrowly escaped the so-called Wrong Door Raid– but she would appear twice more in the pages of Harrison’s magazine.

In November 1956, shortly after her marriage to Arthur Miller, it was reported that earlier that year, she had been seen entering a motel room with filmmaker Nicholas Ray. And in 1957, journalist Robert Slatzer provided an account of his alleged fling with Marilyn when he met her five years earlier, during filming of Niagara – based on nothing more than a few snapshots taken with the star. Years after her death, Slatzer would claim to have secretly married Monroe, and to have been her lifelong friend. The marriage claim has since been wholly debunked, and whatever the nature of their brief acquaintance, it would certainly ended after he sold his story to Confidential.  

Howard Rushmore also had his sights on Marilyn, presenting Confidential with a story about her alleged affair with a photographer (probably her business partner, Milton Greene.) Rushmore also claimed the photographer was a communist, and indeed, a 1955 FBI memo reveals the claim from an unnamed source that Monroe’s production company was being infiltrated by communists. Neither of these claims were sufficiently corroborated, and Confidential’s legal team refused to approve publication – although after Marilyn cut ties with Greene in 1957, rival scandal magazine On The Q-T featured the cover story, ‘Did Milton Give Marilyn the Business?’

As copycats flooded the market, the studios were not above trading information on their stars to protect wider interests. In 1956 Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, offered a story about Monroe to Rave magazine in return for their dropping a story implicating a studio executive in a sex triangle. Monroe was featured twice in Rave that year: in a gossipy retelling of her rise to fame, and a shocking story about her childhood experience of sexual abuse, which had already been published in Europe despite her efforts to suppress it.

If a star of Monroe’s magnitude could be exposed by Confidential, nobody was safe. In 1956, Confidential reported that Michael Wilding had cheated on his beautiful young wife, Elizabeth Taylor, with a stripper. Taylor’s studio, MGM, were worried that this would affect her reputation as a sex symbol to rival Marilyn – although just months later, Elizabeth’s alleged fling with Victor Mature was revealed in Confidential. The Wildings’ four-year marriage ended shortly afterward.

When it was reported that Clark Gable’s former wife, Josephine Dillon – who had helped to launch his career – was frail, elderly and living in a run-down bungalow, MGM once again enacted damage control, with Gable paying for renovations on her home. For lesser-known stars, however, an appearance in Confidential could boost their profile. Barbara Payton, whose chaotic personal life had derailed her career, regularly sold tips to HRI. Another Hollywood starlet, Jeanne Carmen – who later became infamous for her dubious claims to have been Marilyn Monroe’s best friend – was featured in a 1957 issue, after a long campaign by her manager to sell a story about an affair with Lex Barker.

Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn with lawyer Jerry Giesler

In January 1957, a California state legislative committee investigated the Wrong Door Raid. Frank Sinatra was subpoenaed at his Palm Beach home, and his attempt to have the summons quashed was dismissed as a publicity stunt. Joe DiMaggio, who was then living in Miami, declined an invitation to appear in court, citing ‘pressing business’; while Barney Ruditsky, who didn’t have a private detective’s license but was working under the license of another investigator, wasn’t summoned.

The hearings began in February, with Phil Irwin claiming that Ruditsky had threatened to tell Confidential about the raid after DiMaggio refused to pay him. Irwin claimed that he had told Sinatra about the upcoming story, and was subsequently beaten by a gang of thugs. Sinatra openly lied in court, claiming he stayed in the car throughout the raid, and didn’t know what had occurred. After three days, the Kraft Committee concluded that no definitive proof of collusion between the scandal magazines and private detective agencies had been found.

Nonetheless, the writing was on the wall for Confidential. Hollywood Research Incorporated was swiftly closed, and in March, actress Dorothy Dandridge sued over a false miscegenation story. After she won a $10,000 settlement, Maureen O’Hara and Liberace followed her lead. Jerry Giesler, the Hollywood attorney who had represented Marilyn Monroe when she divorced Joe DiMaggio, was working with Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown, California’s Attorney General, to bring criminal charges against Confidential.

The trial began in August, with Howard Rushmore the prosecution’s star witness, and more than a hundred stars testifying – including Rory Calhoun, Dick Powell, and Sonny Tufts, who had appeared with Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch before his own sex life came under scrutiny in another Harrison publication, Whisper. Among the more notable absences from the witness box was Dan Dailey, who eluded private detectives after a concert at the Hollywood Bowl by vaulting over the footlights and through the aisles, and speeding off in a friend’s car.  

As the trial wore on, Polly Gould – a former investigator for Confidential – was found dead in her apartment, and the wife of ‘Chalky’ White – Mae West’s black chauffeur, and alleged lover – found him drowned in their bathtub. When the jury failed to reach a verdict, a mistrial was declared. In November, Confidential and Whisper were fined $5,000 each for conspiring to publish obscenity. In January 1958, Howard Rushmore and his wife died in a murder-suicide. By May, Harrison had sold Confidential for $25,000.

Confidential remained in print until 1978, albeit in a much tamer vein. In the early 1960s, their cover stories focused again on Marilyn Monroe’s relationships with DiMaggio and Sinatra. After her death the headlines persisted, even linking her to Bobby Kennedy. Meanwhile, fan magazines like Photoplay adopted its gossipy style, and in 1960, Elizabeth Taylor and her fourth husband, singer Eddie Fisher, would sue seven magazines over their lurid coverage of the ‘Liz-Eddie-Debbie’ scandal.

The scandal magazine format would return unadulterated with the launch of the National Enquirer, which became America’s top-selling newspaper by the mid-1970s. In the 21st century, scandal has gone mainstream: from popular newsstand titles such as People, to internet gossip blogs like TMZ.

Confidential plugged into America’s fears of social change, targeting women, homosexuals, and people of colour. While its toxic agenda was finally rejected, Confidential inadvertently helped to break down taboos by bringing them into the open. While Hollywood’s tightly controlled star system would change forever, the cult of celebrity survived the onslaught of Confidential, mutating and shaping the mass media of today.