In the 1950s, a sleazy gossip magazine that exposed movie stars’ private lives became a bestseller.
Historian and law professor Barbas (Univ. of Buffalo School of Law; Newsworthy: The Supreme Court Battle Over Privacy and Press Freedom, 2017, etc.) traces the creation, heyday, and demise of Confidential, a celebrity scandal magazine published by Robert Harrison (1904-1978), whose career in journalism took off in the 1940s with a spate of girlie magazines that featured scantily clad and naked “babes” along with a dollop of sadomasochism and fetishism. Always on the lookout for more readers, in 1953, Harrison focused on America’s 50 million moviegoers, who thronged to theaters each week and bought the many fan magazines that had proliferated since the 1920s. Harrison was not content with promoting the whitewashed images of stars put forth by studios. Instead, he gathered gossip from sources including hotel and restaurant workers, celebrities’ friends and enemies, hairdressers and bartenders, prostitutes and lovers, film crews, close and distant relatives, and “disgruntled maids and butlers.” Vetted by a team of lawyers, the stories in Confidential were written carefully to avoid libel suits—until some stars rose up indignantly and finally brought the magazine down. Harrison, as Barbas portrays him, was cynical, homophobic, and racist, attitudes reflected in his publications; one of his editors derided him as “rude, crude, and unlettered.” He was also “shrewd, meticulous, and demanding,” a workaholic and micromanager, with a sure eye for what the public wanted; in the 1950s, American readers wanted sleaze. “Confidential,” writes the author, “played to the fantasies, curiosities, and fears of a nation that was deeply conflicted about sex” and “offered an enticing vision of what a less-repressed world might look like.” Despite a veneer of cultural analysis, Barbas plays into the same desire for sleaze that fuels contemporary exposé publications by reprising in detail the magazine’s lewd revelations that shattered marriages, ruined careers, and shamed many individuals.
A thoroughly researched history of a lurid publisher and Americans’ lust for scandal.