SHOCKING TRUE STORY: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, "America's Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine," by Henry E. Scott. Pantheon, 224 pp., $26.
Henry E. Scott was inspired to write "Shocking True Story," a frisky history of Confidential, after reading James Ellroy's novel "L.A. Confidential."
From this gritty work came the 1997 movie, which co-starred Danny DeVito as the publisher of a scandal sheet based on Confidential. The film's tagline: "Off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush."
That snappy come-on, with its '50s cadence and promise of the forbidden, applied to Confidential. The 25-cent pulp-paper read appeared in 1952 and was defined by lurid covers, outing homosexual stars, exploiting fear of the Red Menace, exposing mixed-race affairs and generally titillating Eisenhower America. Confidential's motto: "Uncensored and Off the Record," and later, "Tells the Facts and Names the Names."
It was the work of Robert Harrison, a veteran of "girlie" mags and the New York Evening Graphic, which ran doctored photos and specialized in headlining murders and society divorces. He was enthused by the Kefauver organized-crime hearings, which presented 1950-51 TV viewers a keyhole on wiseguy life. Harrison saw an audience for inside stories about sin in Hollywood.
So readers were treated to beauts headlined "Why Joe DiMaggio Is Striking Out with Marilyn Monroe!" "Why Liberace's Theme Song Should Be, 'Mad About the Boy!' " "What Makes Ava Gardner Run for Sammy Davis Jr.?" "Robert Mitchum . . . the Nude Who Came to Dinner!" and, in a still subtler, political piece, "The Strange Death of J. Robert Oppenheimer's RED Sweetheart."
For Harrison, the magazine's success was based in a simple fact: "The desire to know that which is not told."
Scott writes, "Thanks to legions of publicists and an inept and sometimes corrupt press, magazines and newspapers propounded the myth that the real Hollywood . . . was every bit as wholesome as the cinematic one."
"Shocking True Story" lets you in on stories from the deal to make Rory Calhoun's criminal record public in exchange for keeping Rock Hudson's homosexuality private to John Wayne's visits to a Peruvian brothel.
But the magazine also had a selective consumer approach, assailing cancer-causing cigarette filters as well as "vermin-infested" Davy Crockett coonskin caps.
Scott, a former journalist and media consultant, does err here and there, from making Frank rather than John O'Hara the author of "Appointment in Samarra," to tinting brunette the platinum bun of Kim Novak's Madeleine in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
But what finally makes "Shocking True Story" so subversively entertaining are reprints from the magazine, which eventually was undone by lawsuits. Harrison sold it in 1958. Confidential folded in the early '60s.
By then, Scott observes, "What had seemed shocking when Confidential first published it now seemed commonplace on America's newsstands and on its television screens.
"Of course, it was Confidential, for better or worse, that had helped make it so."