Confidential: The 'National Enquirer' Of The 1950s When Confidential magazine launched in 1952, it feasted on the type of juicy gossip that could launch — or ruin — a career. Journalist Henry Scott details the rise and fall of the gossip rag in his book, Shocking True Story — and explains how Hollywood reacted.

Confidential: The 'National Enquirer' Of The 1950s

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. For decades, Americans have reveled in celebrity gossip eagerly reported in supermarket tabloids and now on Web sites like TMZ. Our guest, Henry Scott, is going to take us back to a time in the 1950s when a new magazine called Confidential was blazing the celebrity scandal trail.

Behind its lurid red and yellow cover, Confidential had stories of Robert Mitchum putting on an obscene display at a dinner party and Rita Hayworth neglecting her children. And there was the tale of Frank Sinatra joining Joe DiMaggio and his friends to kick down an apartment door in search of Marilyn Monroe. More on that one shortly.

Henry Scott says Confidential was published by an eccentric New Yorker who loathed Hollywood and paid a network of cops, hookers, and even mainstream journalists for tips and stories.

Henry Scott is a former magazine publisher and now a media and executive search consultant. His new book is called "Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, America's Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Henry Scott, welcome to FRESH AIR. This magazine, Confidential, feasted on the lives of Hollywood celebrities. But its publisher Robert Harrison didnt live in Los Angeles or particularly like it. Tell us a little bit about him.

Mr. HENRY SCOTT (Author): Bob Harrison was the consummate Broadway playboy at a time when that meant something. He thought everything was all about the Great White Way, you know, hanging out at the 21 Club. He absolutely distained Hollywood, didnt see why anybody would go there, went once and found it very small town, very pedestrian. He did, however, after publishing a couple of issues of his magazine, realize that Hollywood would sell and decided to take advantage of that.

DAVIES: And this came at a time when the movie industry was struggling. The studio system was sort of breaking down. You know, they used to control these stars and starlets. Box office was declining. This was the early 50s. I mean television was in a lot of homes. There were other forms of recreation. Did that make movie industry leaders even more protective of their stars' images?

Mr. SCOTT: Yes, I think so. The industry, as you point out, really was in decline, and nobody quite knew what to do about it. Industry revenues had fallen sharply after World War II. Americans were not only watching television, they were moving to the suburbs and going bowling and playing miniature golf. There were lots of other opportunities. So in some ways that alarmed the studio executives and made them want to protect what they still felt they could control in some ways.

And then you also had something that had never quite gone away, and that was the specter of the anti-communist investigations of what was going on in Hollywood as well as other parts of the country, and that continued to alarm these folks.

DAVIES: Bob Harrison launched Confidential in 1952? Is that right?

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah, that's right. Absolutely.

DAVIES: Right. Right. And learned - he learned early on when he did a story about Rita Hayworth, the, you know, the actress of the '40s and how some of her children were not being so well cared for, and what a sensation that story was, that Hollywood gossip would be great, but he didnt live in Los Angeles and so I gather he developed a network of sources to feed them information. Who were some of these people that fed the magazine tips and information?

Mr. SCOTT: There were some very glamorous and exciting people. There was Ronnie Quillan - Veronica Quillan, known as the Soiled Dove. Ms. Quillan was a madam and a prostitute herself who had been involved with several Hollywood celebrities, was known for being pretty skilled with a knife. She managed to cut people up when they crossed her and he recruited her as an uncover operative. She also was fairly high tech for her day. She was armed with a wristwatch with a microphone in it, which allowed her to tape some of her liaisons.

Then you had Francesca de Scaffa. Miss de Scaffa described herself as being born of royalty. And depending on the day you talked to her, she was either Italian or Spanish or Lithuanian, or who knew what. But pretty indisputable that she had had an affair with the Shah of Iran, consorted with various Mexican playboys, and made most of her living by leaking stories about those relationships and others to Confidential magazine.

And then you had a really fascinating guy who wrote a book of his own at one point called Fred Otash. And Fred had been a detective with the LA Police Department, had fallen out with the department, and became the go-to private detective in Hollywood. If there was a scandal, both sides tried to hire Fred. The guy involved with the scandal hired Fred so the other side wouldnt hire him. He knew everything. What he didnt know he could quickly find out, and Confidential became one of his biggest clients.

DAVIES: Could you think of an example of a story that one of these prostitutes, Ronnie Quillan or Francesca de Scaffa, got for the magazine?

Mr. SCOTT: Well, a great story was a story about Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. The very month that Life Magazine came out with Arnaz and Ball and their children on the cover portraying them as the prototypical wonderful American family, Confidential came out with a story alleging that Ronnie Quillan and Desi Arnaz had had an affair. It was a pretty dramatic story because it put the lie to what Life magazine was doing and it really pointed up the dramatic difference between Confidential's approach to news about celebrity and the mainstream media, if you will, the mainstream media's approach to news about celebrity.

DAVIES: So Desi Arnaz, the husband from all those "I Love Lucy" episodes, was shown in this magazine to be having an affair with a prostitute?

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah. And the interesting thing was - and this was the pretty nasty thing about Confidential - this affair had happened a number of years earlier. And if you were in Hollywood, what was really scary was you might well have thought that something that was unsavory in your past, with so many years behind, you'd never have to think about it again. But Confidential had a habit of reaching back into time and digging things up, and that was the case with this particular scandal.

So the liaison had happened many, many years before. And as it happened, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were briefly separated at the time. But nevertheless, they printed the story. It caused a big, big stir and it came at a time when there really was some strife in their marriage. Lucille Ball was very shaken by this.

DAVIES: And how did Ricky react?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: That's to say, Desi Arnaz.

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah, Ricky denied it all. And basically, as is often the case with men in these situations, Ricky wasnt willing to comment on it. Lucy actually wanted to get a copy of the magazine but was afraid to go out and buy one herself and had to send someone out to get it for her. And this, you know, she was a few years older than him. She was getting older. He had a drinking problem. He was attracted to younger women. She was feeling somewhat insecure in the relationship, and this couldnt have come at a worse time for her.

DAVIES: Now, when Confidential was writing stories like this about in many cases beloved American stars, they must've worried about lawsuits. How did they protect themselves?

Mr. SCOTT: Well, but one thing Confidential did that was really amazing was it vetted every story to a tremendous degree. So Confidential hired people - one of Otash's big jobs was actually fact-checking, going out and interviewing people who were going to be mentioned in a Confidential story or who were sources and obtaining affidavits attesting to the truth. So Harrison felt like this would protect him, number one, from being sued. It also added value to the magazine in the eyes of the readers because these were, you know, pretty scurrilous stories. But at the end of the day they could be proven to be true. So this was one of the things he hinged the magazine's reputation on.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean the subhead under the title Confidential was: Tells the facts and names the names. You know, with perspective of time, does it appear that these stories were in the main sleazy but accurate?

Mr. SCOTT: The stories were absolutely sleazy and absolutely accurate. Near the end of Confidential's prime period, it began making mistakes, but those mistakes were more a matter of time and date when they alleged various things happened rather than mistakes about the facts themselves.

Confidential had another interesting tactic that Bob Harrison's lawyer told me about. Confidential deliberately printed somewhat less than it knew. So if Confidential ran a story saying a man was having an affair with a woman not his wife, it might choose to not mention the fact that she - this woman was 14 years old. And then if the man came forward and said I'm going to sue you, Confidential would say great, we'll go to trial, you'll cost us a lot of money and we'll bring up that this young woman was a minor. So Confidential always published somewhat less than it knew, and that was - provided a little bit of margin of safety.

DAVIES: And when you were doing your research, did you hear of occasions where Harrison the publisher or others had conversations with, you know, the lawyers of celebrities and they let them know what else there was that they didnt want to hear or read about?

Mr. SCOTT: Yes. Al Viscafano(ph) told me that it was not uncommon...

DAVIES: That was the attorney for the magazine, right?

Mr. SCOTT: This was the attorney for the magazine, not uncommon for him to hear from someone who knew a story was coming, and Al would simply say, well, you know, here's what we're not going to print, and that was often just enough to have somebody hang up and walk away.

DAVIES: Yeah. Can you think of an example of that?

Mr. SCOTT: There was in one case in particular involving Tab Hunter, the magazine published a story just as Tab Hunter was appearing in a movie about the Korean War being, you know, the tough guy leading a Korean War Marine unit, I believe it was, they published a story that many, many, many years ago when he was a young actor he'd been arrested at an all-male pajama party in Los Angeles, when all-male pajama parties presumably weren't well thought of.

And Confidential was interesting. It often alluded to certain things without coming right out and saying them. So it didnt say that Tab Hunter was gay, but it made enough sort of references to homosexuality to lead a reader to think that. And this was a case where Confidential said to Hunter's lawyer, well, you know, we have additional information about Tab Hunter, and Hunter decided to, you know, drop the suit.

DAVIES: You know, I'm glad you mentioned that about the references - the indirect way that the magazine often wrote about its subjects. One of the fun things about your book is that every chapter begins with an actual article.

And you can see how these were - this was a publication in the '50s writing about sex when people didnt talk explicitly about sex. And I was just going to read just a bit from one of these articles, and this was about how Frank Sinatra had such stamina in the bedroom because he ate Wheaties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: And the writer writes, as he's describing an episode with Frank Sinatra: Back at the house he tore into the kitchen, wolfed down a big bowl of those nourishing flakes, then led her - his partner - to the boudoir. The frolic that followed was as nice a little ad for Wheaties as you could ever want, General Mills, but that was only the beginning. While the tootsie was catching her breath, Frankie excused himself and padded back into the kitchen for a refill of that breakfast of champs. The girl was still wondering what was going on when he came charging back into the playroom humming "Im in the Mood for Love" and then proceeded to prove it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: There was an art to writing about this stuff in such a revealing but indirect way, wasnt there?

Mr. SCOTT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, when Confidential wrote about Elizabeth Scott, her name being found in a call girl's call book, Confidential didnt say Elizabeth Scott was a lesbian. Confidential said she preferred the company of baritone babes. And it used these wonderful allusions and it also was kind of the king of alliteration. Harrison loved alliteration and whenever he could use a term like baritone babes, he insisted on putting it in the article.

An interesting things about his approach to editing was he believed that the way a story sounded when read aloud was very important, so one of the final things that happened when a story was being edited was someone was brought in, often an elevator operator, to listen to the story being read aloud and had to decide if they listened to that sort of man on the street, if you will's, opinion of how the story sounded.

DAVIES: We're talking with writer Henry Scott. His new book is called "Shocking True Story." It's about the scandal magazine Confidential, which was published in the '50s.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, our guest is writer Henry Scott. He's written a new book about the magazine Confidential, which was a scandal magazine which broke all the roles in the 1950s. The name of the book is "Shocking True Story."

I want to talk about the content of the magazine in some detail here.

Mr. SCOTT: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: One of the consistent themes was exposing homosexuality. What was the fascination with homosexuality here?

Mr. SCOTT: Well, as one of Harrison's editors said, he's queer for queers. And no one quite understood that. He seemed to have an outsized interest in homosexuality and in exposing gay people who were passing for straight. He was interested in exposing all sorts of what he regarded as hypocrisy - black people passing for white, communists passing for non-communists, etcetera. But gays he was particularly worked up about. Some people have raised some questions about Harrison's own sexuality - not entirely clear what he was about sexually. He had an affair with - a long-time affair with a woman who represented herself to be his wife, she was not. He did also date a woman who had been a burlesque dancer who I interviewed, and she claimed that he had somewhat kinky taste. He liked being dominated and she was turned off and repulsed by that. And in the many months that they actually went out they never had a sexual relationship. So it's a little unclear what drove him to this.

Basically, however, what motivated him was a desire to sell copies of the magazine and he did that very artfully by playing on pretty much all the insecurities in postwar America.

DAVIES: And, of course, I mean in some ways the best story about a closeted gay man in Hollywood he didnt write, which is Rock Hudson, right?

Mr. SCOTT: Absolutely. And it was a story that he had everything he needed to write. Interestingly enough, Fred Otash had been hired by Rock Hudson's wife...

DAVIES: That's the private detective who was so active here, right?

Mr. SCOTT: The private detective. He actually wired their home. She was considering a divorce and she wanted to gather all the information she could to get a maximum settlement. He wired their home and in a separate book that he wrote, he disclosed the conversation word for word. However, in that book which he published in the '60s, he never named the actor. He just said a very prominent Hollywood actor. But everyone has come to understand that was Rock Hudson. So Fred Otash, who worked for Confidential, had access to an amazing conversation where Rock Hudson confesses to his wife Phyllis that he had had sex with a man just weeks after he and she had gotten married and talked at great length about his gay life.

What happened was the studios finally prevailed on Confidential not to do the story and said we'll give you something else. And one of the things they gave Confidential magazine was the story of Rory Calhoun. And Rory Calhoun had not been gay but he was a small-time criminal many years earlier, had been arrested, and Confidential wrote the story about his secret criminal life.

Now the odd thing was that instead of hurting Rory Calhoun, this somehow made him look like a tough guy and his popularity soared, wasnt hurt at all.

DAVIES: One of the most remarkable stories in the magazine, and one which generated a lot of controversy, involved Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and somebody breaking down the door of somebody's house. Tell us what happens.

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah, this was a wonderful story. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had divorced, much to his dismay. He stilled loved Marilyn but Marilyn was not willing to be the homebody - the homemaker that he wanted her to be. She still wanted a career. So he is sitting one night at a restaurant club where he's got a friend who is the manager and he's drinking heavily and he's steaming because he has reason to believe that Marilyn has been having an affair with her voice coach. And he knows where the voice coach and Marilyn, he thinks, are shacked up - this is a home where a friend of hers lives.

So he finally decides in a drunken state that he's going to go over there and bust the door down and scare the hell out of them. So he tells his buddy, who runs the restaurant, who gets worried, and his buddy picks up the phone and he calls a private detective who's a friend of his and they call Frank Sinatra, who's a friend of all of them. And they all decide theyve got to take care of Joe.

So they all pile in cars - they can't stop Joe. And they go over to the house and they decide theyve got to do something. So DiMaggio is convinced that he needs to stand outside and just keep watch. The rest of them decide to break into this house. They have the private detectives with cameras and those big old-fashioned flashbulbs and they're going to break into the bedroom and catch Marilyn and her voice coach in the act. They go banging through the door and are stunned to find an equally stunned person, a Miss Florence Kotz, who is frightened out of sleep by this group of strange men, including Frank Sinatra, who she recognizes, and men with cameras taking pictures.

It was known as The Wrong Door Raid. It was buried for a while.

DAVIES: So they literally broke down the wrong door. We don't even whether Marilyn...

Mr. SCOTT: They broke down the wrong door. We dont even know if Marilyn was there.

DAVIES: Yeah. Okay.

Mr. SCOTT: Absolutely. And they manage to cover it up. The LA police were easily bought off and they covered up the story for quite a while. But eventually, one of the private detectives who had a drinking problem and needed some money, he heard that this magazine, Confidential, would pay for interesting stories so he managed to pull the file out of a filing cabinet and take it to Confidential magazine. It was an enormously successful story and drove circulation up to new heights - embarrassed Joe DiMaggio, embarrassed Frank Sinatra. It actually provoked a hearing in the California State Legislature about the behavior of private detectives.

DAVIES: And were Frank or Joe or any of the principles forced to tell their story in public?

Mr. SCOTT: They absolutely were. And Frank Sinatra had to appear at the hearing and had to testify. It was deeply humiliating for these people and great fun for Robert Harrison.

DAVIES: Henry Scott's book about the magazine, Confidential, which was published in the '50s is called "Shocking True Story." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're speaking with writer Henry Scott. He's written a book about one of the half-breaking scandal magazines of the 1950s. It's called "Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, America's Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine."

The Waterloo, in effect, of Confidential was an incredibly well-publicized trial in Los Angeles. Explain what happened here.

Mr. SCOTT: It was a trial that I like to describe as the O.J. Simpson trial of its time. It was on the front page everyday of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times. It was covered by the Times of London. It was covered by Le Monde - an enormous, enormous event. And what it was about was the studios finally said weve had enough. They went to Pat Brown, the attorney general of California who at that time was planning a run for the governor's position, and they said we're not going to support you unless you do something about this magazine.

So Pat Brown came up with a charge that many people think was fairly specious and that charge was conspiracy to commit criminal libel. So he filed charges against the magazine and he was not able to bring Robert Harrison to Los Angeles to stand trial because those charges were charges filed in California and he could not be extradited from New York. However, Harrison's dear niece who he loved tremendously, Marjorie, and her husband, were running the Hollywood research bureau in Los Angeles. So the charges...

DAVIES: That was essentially the sort of tip gathering and fact gathering thing that fed stories to the magazine, right?

Mr. SCOTT: Absolutely. It was the magazine's source of Hollywood information. And it was an enterprise that Harrison himself underwrote. So this was this enormous trial and Harrison's lawyer - his niece's lawyer - announced his strategy early on. And his strategy was to bring - subpoena everybody who had been written about in the magazine, get them on the stand and have them testify as to whether what had been written about them was true or not.

DAVIES: In other words, bring the celebrities in and put them under oath?

Mr. SCOTT: Absolutely. And they were terrified. Suddenly, Hollywood emptied out. You could not find a star in Hollywood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT: Frank Sinatra managed to anchor himself on a boat off the California coast. Various other people fled to Mexico to Nevada. Everyone tried to duck subpoenas. There were a few sad cases. Poor Tab Hunter was in his pajamas and answered the front door when he was handed a subpoena. So enough celebrities were subpoenaed and realized they were going to have to show up and confess to the truth of these stories.

DAVIES: And what happened?

Mr. SCOTT: Well, Hollywood was pretty frightened when they realized what Confidential's strategy was because Hollywood suddenly thought, oh my God, what have we done here? This may be more trouble than it's worth. The Hollywood powers that be then went back to the court and secretly lobbied to try and kill this proceeding but they weren't successful in doing it. The trial went forward. Very few of the celebrities actually ended up being called. One of the things that did happen, however, that was very dangerous for - damaging for Confidential was they brought Howard Rushmore, the former editor to the stand and he wanted to destroy this magazine.

He at this point hated Harrison, who had fired him. So he testified as to the secret sources and he named these people. And these were people who were, you know, humiliated by being named. They lost friends. They lost jobs. And suddenly the confidential network of Confidential, if you will, had been destroyed. And this was what all but destroyed Confidential magazine.

The jury came back with a finding of guilty on a minor charge. It didnt look like that was going to stand up. But Harrison was so nervous. He'd spent so much money on lawyers, so nervous about what might happen to his niece that he was willing to negotiate a settlement and that settlement required him to stop writing scandal stories about Hollywood.

DAVIES: So in effect, he backed out. He'd lost his sources, his distributors in California had been intimidated, and it just wasnt going to work to do this anymore.

Mr. SCOTT: Absolutely. And his circulation fell in the course of a year from five million copies on average to 200,000 copies. And what that proved was what America wanted to read was scandal stories about Hollywood. But Hollywood wasnt out of the woods. Hollywood had killed Confidential but during Confidential's boom years, a number of other magazines had seen what was going on and decided that this was a field that they wanted to get into.

So it was as if a giant oak tree had been chopped down and suddenly all these little acorns that had fallen from that tree and were laying in fertile soil underneath had room to grow. And so Hollywood's never the same. Lots of other magazines cropped up and the studios realized there was nothing they could do about this. There was a new cynicism about Hollywood and they couldnt change that.

DAVIES: Well, Henry Scott, I want to thank you for talking with us.

Mr. SCOTT: Thanks very much. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Henry Scott spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Scott's new book is called "Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, America's Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine."

You can see a slideshow of Confidential magazine covers from the 1950s on our Web site: freshair.npr.org, where you can also read an excerpt of Scott's book and download podcast of our show.

(Soundbite of song, I'm In the Mood for Love")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer, Actor): (Singing) I'm in the mood for love simply because you're near me. Funny but when you're near me, I'm in the mood for love.

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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