HomeNewsThe Trial Of A Hundred Stars Rocked Old Hollywood

The Trial Of A Hundred Stars Rocked Old Hollywood

Hollywood and the structures that prop it up—from the movie studios to the tabloids—seems like immutable forces that have been around forever. But really, a number of people and institutions built Hollywood from the ground up in the early 20th century. As it became the behemoth we know today, people on every level tested their limits. Early scandals led to attempts, like the Hays Code and the HUAC hearings, to rein the whole industry in. But, in one lesser-known case, the stars themselves attempted to fight back against part of the Hollywood machine they felt had gone too far. That case became known as the “Trial of a Hundred Stars”.

Talk Of The Town

By the 1950s, Hollywood and the studio system had weathered the storms of both a few decades of scandals and WWII to find its footing. So had the celebrity gossip magazines of the day. Famed columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper still had scores of readers, but the sensational and explicit content of magazines like Hush-Hush, Dare, and, most significantly, Confidential soon eclipsed their much tamer coverage.

Trial of a Hundred Stars
Confidential magazine covers

Publisher Robert Harrison founded Confidential in 1952, and it quickly took over the gossip mag landscape in Hollywood. Its bread and butter came from the drug problems, sex scandals, and criminal records of famous figures—but Harrison soon figured out that Hollywood stars sold more than any political gossip ever could.

Harrison tapped detectives, hotel employees, call girls, studio insiders, and occasionally, even the celebs in question themselves, for stories. Very quickly, Confidential began to tick people off.

Mind Your Own Business

Confidential promised its readers that they had fact-checked all of their stories twice. This was their attempt to boost confidence in its claims and avoid potential legal issues. This was not entirely true—but they still did take some measures to protect themselves. Often, they would use innuendo to establish a story, only defaulting to more concrete language once they had signed affidavits proving their claims. And while they did spend $100,000 a year retaining a law firm to vet their stories, they often ignored the advice lawyers gave them.

Trial of a Hundred Stars
Editorial staff in a meeting to decide the layout for Whisper magazine, a sister to Confidential, circa 1950.

Robert Harrison, the man behind Confidential, filled his team with tough, scary figures—but few were as feared as his 20-something niece, Marjorie Meade. Meade ran Hollywood Research Inc, the intelligence-gathering arm of the operation. Under Meade, HRI initiated a buy-back program, where they’d put together a story about a celebrity before offering them the chance to pay to quash it.

Many obliged—but two stars, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum, refused. With the help of Hollywood lawyer Jerry Giesler, they sued. While they weren’t successful, this became the precursor to the Trial of a Hundred Stars.

Not On My Watch

The problem with Confidential wasn’t just that it had teed off a bunch of a stars. The larger-than-life personality of publisher Robert Harrison had compounded the issue. He’d orchestrated a number of hoaxes, including one where a rival had shot him during a safari. A scorned former Confidential editor by the name of Howard Rushmore had also put a target on the mag’s back. He’d contacted California’s Attorney General and offered testimony against Confidential, pushing for a criminal libel case.

In May of 1957, a grand jury indicted 11 people associated with the magazine, including Harrison and his niece Meade. They immediately ran into a problem. The magazine and its distributor were based in New York state, and the state refused to extradite them to California. The only people that California had access to were Hollywood Research Inc and its owners, Marjorie and her husband Fred Meade. Still, Harrison and his lawyer soon came up with a strategy—and a devious one, at that.

Badgering The Witness

The plan was simple, and had the potential to be devastatingly effective at not only getting Confidential off, but also at fomenting even more Hollywood scandal. Harrison’s lawyers wanted to put the subjects of the mag’s stories on the stand and simply ask if they were true—hence, the “Trial of a Hundred Stars”. The backlash was immediate. Studio execs begged the AG not to go on with the case, even though they’d originally been the ones leading the charge. Many potential witnesses left California, hoping to avoid participation in the trial.

Trial of a Hundred Stars
In Elizabeth street police station, Robert Harrison, publisher of Confidential magazine and five associates are shown as they were booked on warrants charging them. Mr Harrison sits at far right.

Ultimately, Confidential’s former editor, Howard Rushmore, was the star witness, testifying that the mag had fabricated stories. That wasn’t his only bombshell—he also outed a reporter in the press gallery as being a secret Confidential contributor. And that wasn’t the only scandal.

Not just one but two witnesses died during the course of the trial. On top of that, Harrison began to offer out-of-court settlements to other witnesses who’d brought suit against him in separate cases, hoping they’d pull out. To say it backfired would be an understatement. Dorothy Dandridge took Harrison’s $10,000 settlement—and immediately testified against Confidential anyway.

It’s Not Over Til It’s Over

Trial of a Hundred Stars
Screen star Maureen O’Hara, left, and singer Dorothy Dandridge shake hands in Hollywood court after testifying at the libel trial of Confidential and Whisper magazines.

Things weren’t looking great for Confidential by the time it came to jury deliberations. Unfortunately, there was another wrench in the works. The jury was enjoying their sequestration at a five-star hotel a little too much. Ultimately, they told the judge that they couldn’t reach a verdict, and he declared it a mistrial. But the courts weren’t done with Harrison yet.

The California Attorney General wanted to have a retrial—but the first trial had not only exhausted Harrison’s resources, but apparently had put the fear of God in him too. In order to avoid another long trial, he promised to only publish positive stories in the future. Without the scandalous stories that had, at one point, sold millions of magazines, Confidential’s readership fell. He eventually sold the rights to the magazine in 1958.

Ultimately, the Trial of a Hundred Stars sent shockwaves through not only Hollywood, but the publishing industry. Though plenty of gossip mags had popped up in the wake of Confidential’s first wave of popularity, few would ever again test the limits of controversy in the way that Harrison’s brainchild once had.

Everything You Need to Know About the Trial of a Hundred Stars

he beginning of the end of the most terrifying force ever to hit Hollywood arrived on the night of November 5, 1954, on a dimly lit street in Los Angeles. Retired baseball great Joe DiMaggio was dining with pals at the Villa Capri restaurant and stewing over the demise of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, who had been granted an interlocutory decree for divorce just a week earlier. He was especially furious about rumors that Monroe had been seeing another man. Following the suggestion of one of his friends—Frank Sinatra—DiMaggio had hired a former cop named Barney Ruditsky to tail her. While DiMaggio was eating and grousing, one of Ruditsky’s men, a private eye named Philip Wayne Irwin, spotted Monroe’s car parked on Kilkea Drive in front of an apartment complex. He immediately phoned Ruditsky, who met him there for a stakeout. After about an hour, Ruditsky left to phone Sinatra, knowing that Sinatra, at that moment, was at the Villa Capri with DiMaggio.

By the time Ruditsky returned to the stakeout, DiMaggio and his associates were already circling the block in the ex-Yankee’s Cadillac. Sinatra later said that he had tried to talk DiMaggio out of taking action but that DiMaggio insisted he was going to catch Monroe in flagrante. Sinatra reluctantly agreed to drive him, park the car a block away, and wait while DiMaggio and two companions launched their mission. Though Irwin and Ruditsky both tried to calm DiMaggio, he snapped, “I’m not fooling around here any longer.” So Ruditsky led the expedition to the back door of the apartment where Monroe was supposed to be visiting. The gang then kicked down the door—only it wasn’t Monroe they found in the bed. She was upstairs in the apartment of a friend, a bit actress named Sheila Stewart. Instead, the men had invaded the apartment of a terrified middle-aged woman named Florence Kotz, who screamed as DiMaggio and his accomplices bolted.

The L.A.P.D. investigated the incident as a foiled burglary and, without suspects, the case faded. But someone sold the “wrong-door raid” story to Confidential magazine, where it appeared in the September 1955 issue. A year and a half later, when California state senator Fred Kraft went looking for a pretense to attack Confidential, he pounced on the story, citing the incident as an example of “strong-arm” tactics by private eyes in the service of the magazine.

At the time, Confidential, with its gaudy yellow, blue, and red covers, was the scourge of Hollywood. In Tom Wolfe’s words, it was “the most scandalous scandal magazine in the history of the world.” For years the motion-picture industry had controlled the flow of information about the stars by officially accrediting journalists. Confidential challenged all that. Bearing a tantalizing subtitle (“Tells the Facts and Names the Names”), Confidential specialized in Hollywood peccadilloes—in promiscuity, in bad behavior, in miscegenation (at a time when that was considered taboo), and, perhaps above all, in outing homosexual stars decades before there was even such a term as “outing.” “Confidential really started a reign of terror,” Leo Guild, a press agent at the time, once claimed. George Nader, an actor who acknowledged his homosexuality, confessed that “every month when Confidential came out, our stomachs began to turn. Which of us would be in it?” At one point Confidential began preparing a story about a wild party at the home of Rock Hudson’s agent, Henry Willson—who happened to be gay. Because the piece was going to implicate Hudson as a guest, both the agent and the star went to see Hollywood attorney Jerry Giesler to try to stop it. Giesler said there was nothing he could do until publication. Not long after that, Hudson headed off the story, in part, by marrying Willson’s unwitting secretary, Phyllis Gates, though Hudson would tell her that he had quashed it by hiring a gangster and having him threaten Confidential’s editor.

Harrison put out girlie magazines heavy on stiletto heels and rear shots. Then, in 1952, Confidential hit newsstands.

What made things worse for Hollywood was that Confidential was a smash. Circulation during its heyday, in the mid-1950s, hit 4.6 million, which was greater than that of Time. Its publisher was profiled in Time, Newsweek, and The Wall Street Journal, and on The Tonight Show he even stared down columnist Max Lerner, who said, “You leave no dignity, no shred of privacy, in the life of a person.” In fact, Confidential had already changed the tenor and the purview of celebrity journalism and inspired dozens of imitators: Dynamite, Exposed, Fame, Hush-Hush, Inside Story, The Lowdown, On the Q.T., Private Lives, Tip Off, Top Secret, Uncensored, and its own sister publication, Whisper. In 1955 these scandal magazines accounted for 15 million copies per month, making Confidential arguably the most influential publication in the country.

The publisher of that most influential magazine, and the target of Hollywood’s wrath, was tall, affable Robert Harrison—“the King of Leer,” Time called him—whose deeply grooved dimples, hooded eyes, Dentyne smile, and slicked-back hair made him look more like a genial quiz-show host than the most reviled scandalmonger in America.

He had been born in Manhattan in 1904 to Russian immigrants whose surname was so unpronounceable that an immigration officer changed it to Harrison after President Benjamin Harrison. Harrison’s father worked as a coppersmith in the Bronx, but Robert had other ambitions. He became a copyboy on what may have been the most notorious tabloid of the 1920s—the New York Graphic, called “the Pornographic” by its detractors. The Graphic, which was published on pink paper, was Harrison’s school in scandal. But he got into a dispute with his boss—over a woman—and was fired. He landed as a copywriter at a magazine company specializing in titles that featured scantily clad women. He was fired from that job too, in 1941, when his boss discovered that, working in the office after business hours, Harrison had launched a titillating magazine named Beauty Parade. Undeterred, Harrison continued to publish it out of his apartment. So began a small empire.

By the end of World War II, Harrison was putting out six girlie magazines—all heavy on stiletto heels and rear shots. Harrison himself even posed occasionally, as everything from a great white hunter to an irate husband. But in 1952 his accountant informed him that the company was broke. An overzealous postal inspector had been threatening to rescind Harrison’s secondclass mailing privileges on the grounds that his magazines were obscene. Called in to advise him, the prominent civilrights attorney Morris Ernst suggested that Harrison change the format and eliminate the semi-nudity. He did, to his dismay. “They may be mailable,” he joked, “but they aren’t salable.”

As Harrison later recounted it, within a week of his accountant’s disclosure, he hatched the idea for Confidential. The spur: the televised hearings on organized crime recently conducted by Senator Estes Kefauver, the Tennessee Democrat. “Everybody in my office was neglecting their work to watch those telecasts,” he said, and he was annoyed. But he began watching as well, and soon realized that people were fascinated by inside stories.

Six months later, in the fall of 1952,  Confidential hit newsstands. (The name came from a series of popular expose books by Lee Mortimer and Jack Lait; the magazine would later help inspire the noir novel L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy, which became an Oscar-nominated 1997 film.) The first issue sold dismally. Then Harrison had a brainstorm. At the time, Walter Winchell, the hugely popular syndicated gossip columnist and television commentator, was in the middle of a feud with singer Josephine Baker, an AfricanAmerican. Baker had publicly excoriated Winchell for not having supported her when the Stork Club, Winchell’s hangout, denied her service. Winchell counterattacked by accusing Baker of being a Communist. In his second issue, Harrison decided to run a piece blasting Baker. Winchell brandished a copy of the magazine on his Sunday-evening television broadcast. Confidential’s sales soared. From then on, in each issue, Harrison would run a piece attacking yet another Winchell bete noire. “It got to the point where some days we would sit down and rack our brains trying to think of somebody else Winchell didn’t like,” Harrison later said.

Eventually even Winchell would wonder how he got tangled up with Confidential. In those early days, few people wanted to be seen in Harrison’s company, much less support him. (Harrison said that Lee Mortimer would meet him in a phone booth to feed him tips.) Indeed, many of Confidential’s informants were just as disreputable as the magazine’s critics suspected. One of its best sources was Francesca de Scaffa, the flighty ex-wife of actor Bruce Cabot. De Scaffa, who herself appeared in a handful of films, told Harrison that she had a large circle of Hollywood friends and access to their secrets. “If there are some secrets I don’t know, I’ll find them out,” she was later quoted as saying by a Confidential editor, “even if I have to have an affair with the man involved.”

It  was de Scaffa who provided Confidential with a story of how Errol Flynn would allegedly direct amorous couples into a certain bedroom in his house, then, unbeknownst to them, invite friends to watch through a two-way mirror. It was de Scaffa who funneled the story of Robert Mitchum attending a party at Charles Laughton’s, taking off his clothes, slathering himself with ketchup, and then declaring it a masquerade party with him dressed as a hamburger. (That was the sanitized version. The unexpurgated tale, related in a 1988 TV documentary, had Mitchum putting the ketchup on his penis and asking Laughton and a producer friend whether the “fags” wanted to eat a hot dog.) Another Confidential source was Ronnie Quillan, a slatternly, orange-haired “party girl,” in the words of the Los Angeles Times. Quillan submitted a story about an affair she claimed to have had 10 years earlier with Desi Amaz. Harrison loved the piece so much that Quillan then set up Harrison with call girls who had similar dirt on other stars.

In Tom Wolfe’s words, Confidential was “the most scandalous scandal magazine in the history of the world.”

Additional sources reportedly included Dean Martin’s children’s governess, a bartender who offered information on Joan Crawford, and a neighbor of actor Sonny Tufts who reported on Tufts’s romantic dalliances. A piece about Frank Sinatra’s weekend exploits with a female partner (which insisted that he liked to boost his sexual energy by eating bowls of Wheaties) was provided by the woman herself. There was even a Los Angeles policeman who was believed to have sold stories to Harrison off the blotter.

But it wasn’t just the sources that infuriated Hollywood’s powers that be; it was the magazine’s methods. Harrison deployed a crew of private detectives—one report estimated he spent $10,000 a month—to verify stories. He linked up de Scaffa with a private eye named H. L. von Wittenberg, who gave her a wristwatch recorder so that she could surreptitiously tape conversations. Harrison ordered von Wittenberg to wire Ronnie Quillan as well and then asked her to take actress Lizabeth Scott to lunch to confirm a rumor that she was a lesbian. Even von Wittenberg was repelled. “I think this work stinks,” he claimed to have told Harrison.

But Confidential’s final indignity to Hollywood was the cheerful incorrigibility with which Harrison embraced his role as scandal king. He lived in a suite at New York’s Hotel Madison, on 58th Street, wore bespoke suits and a double-breasted, white cashmere overcoat, and had his monogrammed shirts made by the upscale haberdasher Sulka. He drove a long white Cadillac convertible. And he went virtually nowhere without a buxom woman adorning his arm. “He liked them tall, blonde, and beautiful,” his longtime attorney, Al DeStefano, recalls. “And they all were.” For a time Zsa Zsa Gabor pursued him, according to a confidante of Harrison’s who says Gabor once spread her bankbooks across a table at Mocambo to impress him. But Harrison wasn’t interested. He preferred flouncy showgirls he could dominate—women who contributed to his flamboyant image.

His steadiest paramour was a beautiful but volatile former showgirl named June Frew, who took to wearing sweaters embroidered with a large H and who occasionally claimed to be Harrison’s wife. Harrison always denied it. DeStefano says that Frew would sometimes call him up at three or four in the morning and “start yelling and cursing at me that I was responsible for his not marrying her. I was standing in the way.” Her tirades weren’t confined to the phone. She and Harrison were actually banished from El Morocco after a screaming fight in the middle of the club.

Said a source, “If there are secrets I don’t know, I’ll find them out, even if I have to have an affair with the man involved.

But, for all his swagger—he sometimes referred to himself as Broadway Bob— Harrison was essentially a naif, which is why he was so oblivious to his attackers. His two older sisters, Helen and Edith—another sister, Gertrude, had died in the 30s—served as his assistants, his secretaries, his housekeepers, and his surrogate mothers. “All Bob would have to say was ‘It would be nice if I had a newspaper.’ It would be midnight [and] Helen would run out to get a newspaper,” remembers DeStefano. Harrison, in fact, took them everywhere. When he went clubbing with one of his blondes, Helen and Edith were invited along, creating a truly odd tableau. He had the same naivete about his magazine. He claimed he couldn’t understand why anyone would be offended by it, and once ordered a retraction of a story because he heard that the article had prompted a divorce. “I don’t want that on my conscience,” he said.

Yet it wasn’t Harrison’s softheartedness that would eventually plague him. It was his success. He had created such high expectations for gossip among his readers that he needed new and better sources as the months went on. In the summer of 1954 he made a recruiting trip to Los Angeles and came up with de Scaffa. But Harrison realized that his visits were too infrequent. He needed a permanent listening post in Hollywood. Fortuitously, Harrison’s 26-year-old niece, Marjorie (Edith’s daughter), had decided to re-settle in California with her husband, Fred Meade. When she set out for California, her uncle asked her if she could “take care of a few things.” As Marjorie recalls it, he wanted to run more first-person stories, and he hoped that she and her husband might gather and verify them.

Marjorie and Fred Meade arrived in L.A. in January 1955, believing their Confidential work would be a sideline. But when Fred’s fiberglass business began failing, Harrison gave them $150,000 to start Hollywood Research Inc. The bureau, which Harrison would incorporate that July, consisted of Marjorie and Fred. Its primary function was to collect affidavits from sources and send them on to New York, where they would be converted into articles. One source explained that she had been tipped off to Fred by a restaurateur who said that Fred wanted to buy stories on stars. When the woman provided him with material, he called the New York office to see if it was usable, then provided her with a check and a contract.

“Later, I saw him talking to an old creep who looked like he’d come off skid row,” the woman said. “When I saw that happening, I decided that he would take just about any story.”

But the Meades didn’t have to troll the demimonde for long. Marjorie says that certain Hollywood insiders, out of fear or out of the excitement of being associated with Confidential, actually welcomed them. Mike Connolly, a powerful columnist at The Hollywood Reporter and an acquaintance of Harrison’s, befriended them, giving them stories and encouraging people to talk to them. (Marjorie suspected it was because Connolly, who was gay and often reported on Hollywood’s homosexual community, was afraid of being outed by Confidential.) Another old friend of Harrison’s, a bandleader named Eddie LeBaron, who had married an heir to the Smith Corona typewriter fortune, invited them into his social set and gave the Meades a certain cachet. Soon enough, people started approaching them—often minor stars spreading gossip about themselves by relating stories that weren’t necessarily flattering but that would get them ink. That first year, by Fred’s estimate, the Meades collected 750 leads for stories.

Not everyone in Hollywood, though, embraced the Meades. The studios certainly didn’t; they had a lot invested in the stars that Confidential sullied. “There was tremendous pressure from Hollywood,” DeStefano recalls. He believes that the studio brass were behind a probe into Confidential by Manhattan district attorney Frank Hogan, who was investigating charges that the magazine extorted money to kill stories. As early as 1955, The Hollywood Reporter was writing that industry executives had been meeting to retaliate against the scandal magazines. One private detective, William Lewis, said he had been contacted by a studio security chief to consult with producer-director Mervyn LeRoy. LeRoy supposedly wanted to know what it would take to kill Confidential. Lewis would later testify that he told LeRoy he would need $50,000 from each studio and a $50,000 expense fund— $300,000 in all—to recruit former F.B.I. agents to investigate the magazine and disprove its stories. The plan, though seriously considered, was never executed. “I got the impression that the heads of the studios [thought] a project of this kind … might boomerang,” Lewis said.

He pulled up his shirt to show the bullet hole. . . . It looked as if Harrison had been shot with an elephant gun.

While seemed Hollywood to taunt dithered, his antagonists Harrison by continuing to hurl himself into the headlines. In 1956 he, his managing editor, A. P. Govoni, and a singer named Geene Courtney went to the Dominican Republic so that Harrison could look into a piece on an alleged new miracle drug. He was in the lobby of the El Embajador Hotel in Santo Domingo when he met and exchanged words with Richard Weldy, an animal trapper and safari guide whose ex-wife, Pilar Palette, had subsequently married John Wayne. Confidential had once done a story on Palette, and Weldy seemed quite angry about it. The next morning, Harrison, Govoni, and Courtney set out on an expedition into the Dominican jungle, some three hours from town. No sooner had they entered the bush than they encountered Weldy, who, as the story went, began shouting at Harrison. “I was never so surprised in my life,” Govoni later said. He told reporters that he tried to intervene, but he tripped on a rock, heard a shot ring out, and saw Harrison wounded and bleeding. Weldy easily escaped. Govoni ran to the car to get help. But by the time he reached town, a fog had rolled in. Rescue teams had to wait until morning, by which time a large-scale search party of Boy Scouts and local policemen had been recruited to comb the jungle for Harrison and Courtney. Weldy, meanwhile, was apprehended and jailed. The Los Angeles Mirror-News teased in its headline: PUBLISHER EDITED BY RIFLE?

When Harrison, apparently wounded, was discovered with Courtney the next day, he seemed surprisingly sanguine. He said he forgave Weldy: “He cannot be blamed for what happened.” Largely because of the attention the incident received, Harrison was invited to appear on Nightbeat, a popular New York TV program hosted by Mike Wallace. When Wallace questioned Harrison about whether the shooting had been a publicity stunt, the publisher pulled up his shirt to show the bullet hole. But the camera zeroed in on a large mole instead, making it look as if Harrison had been shot with an elephant gun. In fact, before leaving for his trip, Harrison had promised reporters that “the next issue of Confidential will be the shot heard ’round the world.” Weldy later claimed that he never shot Harrison. “I wouldn’t waste a bullet on him,” he said, hinting that it had all been a hoax. Afterward, according to one story, Weldy was even put on Confidential’s payroll.

It was this sort of effrontery that, a few months later, stirred California Republican Fred Kraft to action. The state senator, with much fanfare, opened his 1957 hearings on the Marilyn Monroe “wrong-door raid,” turning up the heat on Confidential. His threat to rein in private detectives and close the magazine so spooked the Meades that by February they had shut down Hollywood Research. And Kraft had an ally. One man who was eager to take on Confidential was the show-business attorney Jerry Giesler. Giesler had filed libel suits against the magazine for the Robert Mitchum piece, the Lizabeth Scott story, and an article about heiress Doris Duke, which alleged that she had had an affair with a black employee. Giesler also went to Washington to lobby Congress to pass legislation against the scandal magazines, and he pressured California attorney general Edmund Brown to take legal action, even sending him depositions he had taken for his libel suits. He also provided the New York address and telephone number of Howard Rushmore.

Rushmore had been hired by Harrison as Confidential’s managing editor in the late summer of 1954, possibly as another sop to Winchell, who was then waging a battle against the left. Rushmore’s main claim to fame was that he had been a member of the Communist Party, had left its ranks in 1940, and had been a professional witness against it ever since. In 1953 he had been named research director for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous subcommittee investigating Communist infiltration of the government, only to leave in a dispute. At Confidential, Rushmore contributed the occasional scandal piece but his heart was really in exposing Hollywood subversives. He grew to despise Harrison for not skewing the magazine that way. (Of her uncle, Marjorie Meade says, “He didn’t give one hoot about politics.”) When Harrison refused to run a false Rushmore piece on an alleged affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and her black chauffeur, Rushmore quit. Though he would later claim that he left because he was revolted by what he had to do, he promptly assumed the editorship of Uncensored, a Confidential rival.

But Rushmore did not go quietly. By one account, he immediately contacted Giesler, who steered Brown his way. In May 1957, Brown convened a grand jury in Los Angeles to seek indictments against Harrison, the Meades, Confidential, de Scaffa, and even Helen and Edith for conspiracy to distribute obscene material, conspiracy to commit criminal libel, and— two bizarre charges—conspiracy to distribute material on abortion and male potency. (Confidential had run exposes on an abortion pill and a virility drug.) The star witnesses were Rushmore (who testified that Harrison had no regard for the truth and regularly overruled his libel attorneys), actress Maureen O’Hara, and pianist Liberace. Confidential had published a piece accusing O’Hara of being “spread across three seats,” her blouse unbuttoned, with a “Latin Lothario” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. “So far as Maureen was concerned,” went the article, “this was double feature night and Maureen was giving away more than dishes.” O’Hara testified that the article was a complete fabrication, since she hadn’t even been in the country at the time of her alleged offense. Confidential’s piece on Liberace claimed that he had pounced on an unsuspecting young press agent from Ohio after the agent innocently told him, “Anything you want, I’m your boy!” Liberace denied the charge and left the grandjury room announcing that he was filing a libel suit against the magazine for $25 million.

Adding to the melodrama, one witness died in his bathtub; another was found dead of a drug overdose.

The trial that summer was a “circus,” as Marjorie Meade remembers it, with 47 reporters and a packed courtroom. The ringmaster, however, was nowhere in evidence. The state of New York refused to extradite Harrison, and he followed the proceedings from his Broadway office, phoning in nightly for reports as he was tried in absentia, while contending that the case was a setup and that the studios had agreed to pay Brown from a slush fund—to support his upcoming gubernatorial bid—if he managed to sink Confidential. (There is no evidence of this.) Among the defendants, only Fred and Marjorie Meade actually appeared in court. The prosecution brought Rushmore to the stand along with Ronnie Quillan and private eye Fred Otash, all of whom dutifully told their stories of Confidential mischief, though only Rushmore made accusations of libel. De Scaffa was absent. She had decamped to Mexico, where she attempted suicide during the trial and then disappeared when Mexican authorities threatened to deport her for moral turpitude. Adding to the melodrama, one witness died in his bathtub just days before he was scheduled to testify; another was found dead of a drug overdose; still another received a threatening phone call warning her not to ap pear in court.

The defense strategy, devised by a combative young attorney named Arthur Crowley, was straightforward; truth was a defense against libel. So he had Otash attempt to serve subpoenas on 117 stars—everyone from Ava Gardner to Clark Gable to Gary Cooper to Elvis Presley—who had been subjects of Confidential pieces. As a result, the case came to be known as the “Trial of a Hundred Stars.”

Confidential’s piece on Liberace (which he disputed) claimed he had pounced on a press agent from Ohio.

“It looked like the Exodus from Egypt,” Crowley jokes, recalling the rush of stars leaving Hollywood to avoid being served. A few, like Tab Hunter, weren’t so lucky, and skulked outside the courtroom waiting to be called. But fearing what might happen if Crowley were to bring in his parade of witnesses, Judge Herbert Walker ruled that only seven articles were at issue and that Crowley could not compel other subjects to testify. In the end, the only stars to appear were prosecution witnesses Dorothy Dandridge, who denied a Confidential story that she had had a tryst in the woods with bandleader Hal Terry, and Maureen O’Hara, wearing a demure white-striped cotton dress and a straw hat. Shortly after she testified, the jury visited Grauman’s, the scene of her alleged fling, where a male juror coaxed a female reporter to re-enact it with him.

For all its entertainment value, the sixweek trial ended inconclusively. After 14 days—at that time the longest deliberation in the history of California—the jury hung, and Judge Walker declared a mistrial. Brown labeled it a victory. But shortly after the trial he instructed his deputies to offer the defendants a deal. Crowley advised Harrison to reject it; he was eager to go to trial again now that he knew the prosecution’s case.

Harrison was not. He didn’t want to subject Marjorie and Fred to another proceeding, and, in any case, he had spent $500,000 in attorneys’ fees. In return for the state’s dropping the charges, Harrison agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and seemed happily through with it, crowing that the trial had been great publicity for Confidential. When Crowley came to New York the following week, Harrison held a victory celebration for him at Mama Leone’s, draping the restaurant with a banner that read, CROWLEY FOR PRESIDENT. Outside Crowley’s hotel, Harrison had also left a brand-new Cadillac wrapped in cellophane with a tag that said, “To Arthur.” Crowley rejected the gift, but when Harrison drove him to the airport the next morning for the flight back to L.A., he had a violinist in the back of the convertible playing “Mr. Wonderful.”

Despite Harrison’s high spirits, there was a hitch. The settlement had also stipulated that he change the format of Confidential so that it would no longer expose celebrity transgressions. It was to become essentially a public-service magazine about health scares, medical quackery, and political skulduggery. In addition, Harrison was required to announce the new policy in full-page newspaper ads. In effect, he was writing an epitaph for the magazine. “He didn’t have the stomach for the libel suits,” says DeStefano. Even if outraged celebrities didn’t prevail in court, just defending the suits was expensive and draining. Giesler had fought a war of attrition and won. Though Harrison was proud of saying that he had never paid a penny in libel claims, within a year he wound up settling with Liberace for $40,000 because it was much less expensive than going to court. He settled for smaller amounts with O’Hara, Dandridge, and Errol Flynn.

The irony was that despite its scurrility and underhandedness, despite its disreputable sources, despite its “esthetique du shlock,” as Tom Wolfe once called it, most of the pieces printed in Confidential were true— or at least came with full verification. Harrison spent more than $100,000 a year on the prestigious New York law firm Becker, Ross, and Stone to vet each story, and contrary to Rushmore’s assertion Harrison never overruled his attorneys in matters of libel, only in matters of taste. In fact, as attorney Dan Ross testified at the trial, the stories in Confidential were often “watered-down” versions of what really happened, a way of dissuading subjects from bringing libel suits that would expose the actual—seamier—truth. Harrison’s phalanx of detectives was not meant to fabricate facts; it was meant to confirm them. Harrison wanted sensation, not lies.

Without sensation, Confidential saw its circulation plummet to fewer than one million copies; in 1958, Harrison sold the name for $25,000, though it is likely that, even had it retained its old salaciousness, its popularity would have declined. The magazine’s success was largely a function of American innocence, of a time when there were subjects that could actually scandalize. As Harrison himself conceded, what Confidential had once revealed, the stars were now reporting about themselves. For a while, he became an investor in the stock market, but Broadway Bob clearly missed the action. In March 1963, he launched another magazine, Inside News, promising the “lowdown from coast to coast,” and he was talking it up when Tom Wolfe interviewed him that year, for Esquire. “This is going to be bigger than Confidential,” he said. “The keyhole stuff is dead. The big thing now is getting behind the news.” But Harrison’s idea of getting behind the news, at that stage, amounted to stories like LOVER KILLS DANCER, LIVES WITH CORPSE and DWARF KIDNAPPED AND MOLESTED 20 MONTH OLD BABY.

Some things didn’t change. He still lived high—now at the Delmonico Hotel, at 59th Street and Park Avenue, where Edith and Helen still tended him. He still cruised the clubs, glad-handing his way through a room. He still drove his yacht-size convertibles, and he still favored his buxom young blondes. Frustrated to the end, June Frew had died, an apparent suicide, but Harrison had met Regi Ruta, a model half his age, and she had become his companion. Harrison had even asked DeStefano if he should finally break down and get married. DeStefano counseled him not to, advice he says he now regrets. “He felt there was a void,” DeStefano says of Harrison. Even though Harrison was still outwardly ebullient, one could sense an inner gloom. In the 1970s he would call DeStefano with some new scheme, just as he had in the old days. He had sold Inside News and was planning to enter book publishing. “He was always thinking that he was going to do something—one of these things will click.” Yet Harrison also seemed to realize that, in DeStefano’s words, “you don’t make it twice.” Harrison was 73 and at his desk in the Delmonico late on the afternoon of February 17, 1978, when his sister Helen found him, dead of a heart attack.

The media hardly noticed. Harrison wasn’t the kind of figure to be credited with having created a journalistic institution, and his death rated only two short paragraphs in The New York Times. But if Harrison had lost the battle back in 1957 and if his day had long since passed, the intervening decades would prove he had won the war. By the time he died, his Big Idea had become the dominant idea of American journalism. What he loosed, no court settlement or moral disapprobation could ever rein in again. Broadway Bob Harrison, the King of Leer, had made it only once, but he had wound up stamping the press in his strange and sensational image, and nothing would ever be the same. 

Harrison’s idea of getting behind the news amounted to stories like LOVER KILLS DANCER, LIVES WITH CORPSE.







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