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Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential,
America’s most scandalous scandal magazineby Jay Blotcher

Ah, the irony of modern media: While style has triumphed over substance—Oscar talk over Iraq War updates—the last bastion of responsible journalism may be the gossip rags. The granddaddy of this genre, the National Enquirer, is in the running for a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story of erstwhile Vice-Presidential nominee John Edwards, his mistress, and illegitimate child. A saga weightier than that of typical Enquirer quarries—rehabbed celebs—Edwards’ fall from grace may bring the magazine an unparalleled legitimacy. Cultural critic Frank Rich was correct in a recent speech at Vassar College, where he heralded, albeit reluctantly, a new era of “info-tainment.”

The Enquirer’s journey to journalistic respectability suggests a similar story from a half-century ago: Confidential magazine. At its zenith, this vicious bi-monthly filleted celebrities and politicians alike, positioning itself as judge and jury of public morals in the era of Communist-hunting. The magazine’s unlikely rise, brief but powerful reign, and dramatic downfall are documented in Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine, by Henry E. Scott.

The breathless title, while emblematic of the fervor of its subject, is a disservice to the book’s power. Author Scott has crafted a multi-faceted piece of journalism: by turns cultural history, media analysis, a discourse on journalistic ethics and an investigation of the power of gossip. The book also explains why Confidential provided a blueprint for today’s Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition and TMZ on TV. His decades-long background as a newspaper reporter, which includes a hitch on the New York Times business desk, explains Scott’s steady control of the narrative. In a January interview, Scott, 58, a former Ulster County weekender, explained why he spent twelve years working on his book.

“I’ve long been a real contrarian,” Scott said, speaking via cellphone from a business trip in Atlanta, “and one thing I’ve always loved is contrarian books, contrarian stories. And this was a contrarian magazine that basically said, 'What you’ve been told isn’t true and we can prove it, and here’s what the truth is.'”

Confidential was a walking contradiction. In the repressive Eisenhower era, the magazine thrived, beginning in December 1952. It offered a generous peephole onto a parallel universe where celebrities cavorted in feckless affairs—many homosexual, all of them morally suspect—and Reds were hiding under every other bed in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. Its slogan “Uncensored and Off the Record” warned away the faint of heart. But it took its role as moral crusader seriously. Next to a celebrity evisceration would be an expose of anti-Semitism in the hotel industry. The magazine even went after Big Tobacco years before the Surgeon General’s 1964 landmark study. Perhaps this duality was evidence of the magazine’s conflicted motivations. Either way, it attracted readers—many ambivalent about their interest in this naughty tabloid, Scott said. (A common ploy was to hide a copy inside a Life magazine before reaching the cash register.) Nonetheless, Confidential was, for a time, the best-selling magazine on the stands, selling nearly five million copies.

But the history of Confidential is not merely venal chatter in the pursuit of a buck. Scott dissects the personalities and psychological motivations that made this poisonous little rag a self-professed moral juggernaut—and, dubiously, an example of conscientious journalism. The drama begins with Robert Harrison, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who came to New York with his family for a better life. He began his career publishing girlie magazines with titles such as Eyeful, Titter and Wink. (One of his models was ne plus ultra model Bettie Page.) But Harrison, an ardent social climber, craved respectability. He stripped any remnants of ethnicity from his character, started wearing white suits and matching fedoras and sipped cocktails while rubbing elbows at the famed temples of Manhattan’s Café Society: The Colony, El Morocco and The Stork Club. (Scott is especially successful in conjuring vivid details of New York City and Los Angeles nightlife in the 1950s.) Harrison cast about for a new publishing venture that would fit his game plan for respectability and, more importantly, power.

Why he chose to sink his fortunes in a scandal sheet defys logic. But, Scott explains, Harrison hoped that a magazine aimed at rooting out evils would gain professional adulation. What the publisher couldn’t apprehend was that exhuming scandals required rolling around in the same mud as his targets, making both parties morally suspect. Undaunted, Harrison created a formidable network of well-paid insiders on both coasts, including nightclub hatcheck girls, waiters and whorehouse madams. These tipsters and whistleblowers allowed Confidential to steer clear of the powerful press agents who dispensed pre-approved pap about their star clients. Nobody but Confidential dared print the true scoops for fear of losing access.

To raise his magazine’s profile further, Harrison handpicked as editor, on the say-so of the powerful Walter Winchell, a man named Howard Rushmore. A sad-eyed figure of six-foot-five, Rushmore was a man of great ideological conflicts; previously, he was a research director for witch-hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy and before that, a stalwart Communist writing columns for The Daily Worker. Flipping allegiances seemed a chronic tic. He was, Scott said, “a man who turned against everyone he ever got close to.”

In the course of his research, Scott realized that Howard Rushmore was emerging as the most provocative character in the saga— “the most troubled and bizarre” of the cast, Scott said. The author spent three weeks in the rural town of Mexico City, Missouri, Rushmore’s hometown, speaking to neighbors. (This is but one example of Scott’s old-school caliber of reporting; the book cites extensive research sources and interviews that lend the tale its full-bodied complexity.)

“The two men clashed enormously in terms of personality,” Scott said of Harrison and his new hire. Harrison, fiercely apolitical, felt celebrities and studio heads deserved the lion’s share of coverage. But Tinseltown peccadillos were small potatoes for McCarthy’s former stooge. “Rushmore was not interested in Hollywood scandal, celebrity scandal, social scandal,” Scott said. “He was interested in politics and political scandal.” Rushmore’s quest for moral rot in the halls of power began to transform the magazine.

Confidential was able to air dirty laundry unfettered, due to a powerful research department. In addition to fact-checkers, Harrison retained detectives on both coasts and in London. A safeguard against inevitable lawsuits, the process ensured a level of journalistic accuracy rare among these magazines. If allegations could not be proven, reporters possessed a knack for innuendo: they would imply salacious details and allow the overheated minds of readers to imagine the worst.

But as Howard Rushmore grew more combative and his drinking more pronounced, his hold over the magazine’s operation faltered. The once-meticulous editor allowed factual mistakes to slip by in the celebrity stories, which he loathed. In a landmark 1957 Los Angeles case, the magazine was accused of criminal libel. The case commanded attention across America. While the jury ultimately deadlocked, it meant the beginning of the end for Harrison’s tawdry empire. He sold the magazine in July 1958 and it foundered quietly a few more years before closing.

While Shocking True Story is a worthy addition to tomes on First Amendment rights, Scott does not stint on titillation. He intersperses the Harrison-Rushmore saga with Confidential smears on Rita Hayworth (child neglect), Clark Gable (abandoned his first wife), Sammy Davis, Jr. (interracial love), June Allyson (nymphomania) and Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Van Johnson and Liberace (take one guess).

Author Scott, ever the contrarian, said that Confidential ultimately did some good. While mainstream film and TV back then trafficked in nuclear family wish-fulfillment, Harrison’s magazine exposed scandals, providing a corrective for an antiseptic era steeped in self-deceit.

“So in an odd way, Confidential did a public service,” Scott said, “although it did it in a somewhat nasty and personally unpleasant light.”

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