Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential

I’ve been checking out Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, “America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine” recently. I’m fascinated by tabloid culture; what our society finds shocking and why; and how the outrageous changes over time. I recommend the book for showing the roots of our current gossip-driven media through the story of one trashy tabloid.

Shocking True Story cover
Shocking True Story
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Confidential started in the early 50s, and its stock-in-trade was publishing exposes, mostly about Hollywood, although it also covered politicians, socialites, and corporate dangers. Its track record for accuracy was surprisingly good, since it dug deep and paid well for the dirt, especially when it came to outing gay stars. Other popular topics were guys who paid prostitutes, closeted Communists, and interracial relationships, things that would grab the attention of readers of the time.

The best part of the book is that every chapter starts with part of a reprinted story, showing not only the subjects of the magazine’s fascination, but its unique voice and style. Confidential was quite popular — at its high point, it was *the* best-selling newsstand magazine, with almost 4 million copies sold per issue. They were able to keep going in part because they’d research the gossip, find out the true story, then only publish some of what they knew. Keeping a bit behind kept them from being sued so often, for fear of what additional information would come out.

The mag told tales it got from hookers and former lovers, and its stories could ruin careers. Even those members of the public who didn’t read it (or claimed they didn’t) heard the rumors, and those who weren’t big enough stars had nothing to protect them when the studios dropped them for being too hot to handle.

Then the magazine quit being quite so rigorous on its fact-checking, allowing stars to win lawsuits, including Liberace, who sued over a story that said he liked boys. He surprisingly won that one, because a couple of incident dates were wrong. Fired editor Howard Rushmore (who wound up killing his wife and himself) turning traitor against owner and publisher Robert Harrison didn’t help. When Rushmore revealed many of the magazine’s sources on the witness stand, Confidential‘s network dried up.

But what really took down the magazine was concentrated action to censor them — they were prohibited from being sold in California due to “obscenity”, for example, and the movie studios were determined to shut Confidential down. Never mind that that left openings for more wannabes and imitators to do the same thing, with many similar publications flourishing after the original’s demise.

The studios thought they could get back to the days of movie mags that they totally controlled, those that ran puff pieces and played along so they could get access to stars who otherwise were inaccessible. Instead, Confidential had shown a whole lot of people that money could be made in reporting something closer to the truth, even if it put stars in a bad light, because that’s what the audience wanted. That revelation, and that audience desire, wasn’t going back in the box.

Author Henry E. Scott tries to weave the reprinted stories into chapters that tell the magazine and Harrison’s history, but he loses control of the structure halfway through, bringing up incidents that are never followed up on. I think he’s trying too hard to write like the old-school scandal sheet. The magazine’s history is fascinating, though, and the book’s a fun, if light, read.

Read a book excerpt and see many of the classic red-and-yellow covers online. If you want a comic version of the gossip world of the 50s, check out Scandalous.

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