A Q&A with Author Henry E. Scott Question: Shocking True Story
is a full, behind-the-scenes look at the original scandal magazine that started it all--Confidential
. You first came to this story, as you share in your acknowledgements, through another title, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential
. How did that book start everything, and where did it take you?
Henry E. Scott: I picked up James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential at an airport bookstore before boarding a flight several years ago from New York City to Istanbul. I was so captivated by Ellroy's book that I spent my first two days holed up in my hotel, finishing L.A. Confidential, before venturing out to explore exotic Istanbul. When I got back to New York, the one thing I wanted to know more about was Confidential magazine, which had a small supporting role in Ellroy’s tale. To my amazement, I couldn’t find a book about Confidential. I couldn’t imagine anything more fun than writing one.
Question: In telling the story of Confidential, Shocking True Story is populated with over-the-top characters--private eyes, movie stars, politicians, moguls--and of course scandal and intrigue of every kind. In all of this, two figures stand out--Robert Harrison, the publisher, and Howard Rushmore, one of the magazine’s most important editors. What were they like and how were they drawn in to this world?
Henry E. Scott: Harrison, Confidential's founder and publisher, and Rushmore, its best-known editor, fascinated me because they were such complete opposites. Harrison was the son of immigrants--Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms of the 1890s; Rushmore bragged that his family traced its ancestry to the Pilgrims. Harrison was a social butterfly, out at clubs with chorus girls on his arm; Rushmore had few friends. Harrison was part of a big family, while Rushmore was an only child. Harrison reveled in the celebrity and notoriety that Confidential brought him; Rushmore appreciated the size of the magazine’s audience, but much of its content embarrassed him. What they had in common was both were on a quest for fame that led to a collision that ultimately destroyed Confidential.
Question: Confidential featured pieces on all of the major movie stars of the time--Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and so on. As you mentioned earlier, these weren’t stories planted or approved by the movie studios, but written in defiance of those studios and the often false images of their stars that they were trying to promote. Among all these stories was there any Confidential piece that shocked you?
Henry E. Scott: I was quite surprised to discover that "outing,” or disclosing that someone was gay against his will, was a common practice at Confidential. Most of us think of outing as something that started in the '90s, when gay activists exposed the sexual orientation of those closeted gays who they thought opposed gay rights. But Confidential, sometimes bluntly and sometimes by suggestion, wrote about the gay lives of people as varied as Tab Hunter, Marlene Dietrich, and Walter Chrysler Jr., heir to the automobile fortune.
Question: You have worked at the New York Times and continue to work in the media today--do you look at our current media moment any differently after learning all you did about Confidential? Where do you see us heading?
Henry E. Scott: I think Confidential’s strategy of exploiting American fears is flourishing today on television, in certain print publications, and certainly online. The wacky idea that the health care bill proposed "death panels" is something I could see Confidential writing about. And the sexual indiscretions of conservative Republican congressmen would have been a major Confidential cover story. As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. The only difference is Confidential’s editorial formula is now found everywhere.
Question: The book features many original articles from the magazine--what was your favorite one?
Henry E. Scott: I think my favorite story is "The Real Reason for Marilyn Monroe’s Divorce." I love the idea of several of America’s best-known men hanging in the shadows outside a house where they thought Monroe was hidden with a lover. I wish I could have been there and seen the looks at their faces when they burst into the house and discovered what really was going on. I’ve driven by that house in Los Angeles several times--it’s still there--and I always smile at the thought of that so-called "wrong door raid."
(Photo © Joyce Ravid)
Scott concentrates on ur–scandal rag Confidential proper more than mercurial publisher Robert Harrison (so see also Samuel Bernstein’s Mr. Confidential, 2006) in a short, punchy book replete with pictures (not, apparently, reprints from the mag) of the celebs tarred in its pages. Scott presents excerpts from the likes of “Why Joe DiMaggio Is Striking Out with Marilyn Monroe” and “How Rita Hayworth’s Children Were Neglected” and discusses their background and how they affected their subjects and Confidential’s circulation and legal affairs. Salacious many stories were (e.g., “What Makes Ava Gardner Run for Sammy Davis, Jr.?”), but since Harrison insisted on rigorous fact-checking, there was usually a modicum of truth in the claims made. Obsessed with miscegenation, homosexuality (“Lizabeth Scott in the Call Girls’ Call Book”), and Communist affiliations, Confidential also managed to do consumer-interest stories (“The Big Lie about Filter Cigarettes”). The last couldn’t pay the rent by themselves, as Harrison found out after being induced to give up celeb scandals. Circulation plummeted. An excellent wallow in the pop-cultural swamps. --Mike Tribby