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Victor Davis

The father of scandal

British Journalism Review
Vol. 13, No. 4, 2002, pages 74-80

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Victor Davis is a novelist and former Daily Express foreign correspondent who became a celebrity interviewer for the Express and Mail on Sunday.

Contents - Vol 13, No. 4, 2002

Editorial - Use your whistle, ref 3

Editor's poll - Announcing the greatest editor of all time 6

Harold Evans - Attacking the devil 6


Government, media and democracy

Alastair Campbell - Time to bury spin 15

Geoffrey Goodman - Standards bearer: Charles Clarke speaks out 24

Peter Oborne - A flea in the Government's ear 32


Andrea Allen - Just whose side is God on? 41

Bob Connor - Stealing Cassandra's clothes 50

Marc Lee and Eamonn Rafferty - Lies, damned lies and headlines 56

Don Hale - Why regional editors should rock the boat 62

Tessa Mayes - Privacy versus freedom of speech 67

Victor Davis - There's nothing new about scandal 74

BOOK REVIEWS
Steve Barnett on Lord Birt 81

MA Nicholas on William Randolph Hearst 83

Jonathan Holborow on Vere Harmsworth 86

Richard Stott on Max Hastings 89

Mark Killick on 50 years of Panorama 91

Saif Shahin discusses online journalism 94


  It is 50 years since a long-forgotten entrepreneur launched an enterprise that would have a profound impact on the social history of the Western world. His name was Robert Harrison. His trade was scandal. Thanks to him we are commemorating half a century of crashing careers, wrecked reputations and marriages split asunder. Top-shelf publishing empires and red-top tabloids have gorged on the “freedom” that Harrison created ever since. Post-Harrison, we live in a world of wired-up freelance hacks, club girls with miniature recording and photographic devices hidden in their teddy bears, paps with 500mm lenses, and gumshoes with bugs for every occasion – all of them hunting the dirty secrets that will make them rich.

Until the early 1950s, printed gossip-mongering was a tame, timid, business. In Britain anyway, the ruling class had long been ring-fenced by draconian libel laws. The scandal sheets foraged for most of their sustenance in reportable court cases. Gossip columns teased and hinted at the peccadilloes of the high and mighty, but there were lines over which office lawyers forbade reporters to step for fear of a writ. In divorce cases, the lurid domestic details could not be reported unless the judge, in his summing up, mentioned them – and judges, on the whole, were reluctant to oblige.

In 1952 Robert Harrison dramatically destroyed this restraint. This money-grubbing son of Russian immigrants, raised in the Bronx, was destined to light the way for today's schlockmeisters and sleaze merchants who occupy a world in which private lives, from the residents of Buckingham Palace to the lowliest cast members of the TV soaps, are fair game. In his hunger to get rich, Harrison crawled upward from copyboy on a New York tabloid to advertising space salesman to publisher of a “girlie” book specialising in sexual perversion. He would pose with the girls, playing 74 everything from pith-helmeted white slaver to wife spanker. But by late 1950, when he was 45, the financial returns were seriously declining.

Enter a Bible-punching United States senator named Estes Kefauver, a severe man who used to campaign in his native Tennessee in a Davy Crockett hat, ever ready to hunt down “smut” in all its ungodly forms. Kefauver's other obsession was crime and his Washington committee famously investigated organised crime from May 1950 until August 1951. The televised hearings revealed a pre-Mario Puzo underworld of colourful characters with Damon Runyon nicknames and lifestyles literally to die for. Avidly following the Kefauver hearings, Robert Harrison realised that the daily dramas for which the regular TV schedules were swept aside possessed an ingredient that his kinky magazine with its anonymous models lacked: the hearings shone a harsh light on real people. So Harrison began devising a format for a new type of magazine. He was not so foolish as to focus like Kefauver, who had federal marshals to protect him, on the world of criminals. Instead, he turned to the one place where there existed hundreds of larger-than-life characters leading private lives they wouldn't want the mothers (or fathers) of America to know about – Hollywood.


Assault on privacy

Secretly, he began setting up a spy network of hack journalists, private investigators, waiters, call girls, and 75-dollars-a-week starlets who were on the rosters of the major studios and were going nowhere except to bed with anyone who might boost their careers. Control centre for this army of the night was an organisation called Hollywood Research Incorporated which Harrison sent a niece and her husband to operate. When the assault on the privacy of the movie world's stars began, Harrison was greatly aided by the new developments in miniaturised surveillance equipment and by the secret collaboration of famous columnists, such as the poisonous Walter Winchell, who passed to Harrison information that his own syndicated newspaper network refused to touch.

When everything was in place, with the first crop of exposé stories and sneak photographs secured, Confidential Magazine was launched. Within months the circulation reached a phenomenal four million copies, each of which was passed from hand to eager hand so that the ultimate readership of each issue was probably tenfold. In London 25-cent copies could be bought in Soho for eight to ten shillings, a hefty chunk of a working man's wage at the time. The Hollywood moguls were appalled. They had huge investments in their stars. Hitherto, Tinseltown had the police and politicians in its capacious pocket, yet here, landing like a ton of hot manure, was this crummy magazine from the east coast. Worse, it was hard to deny the truth of some of the scandalous stories when the photographs and recordings were in Harrison's safe in his Broadway office in Manhattan.

Time magazine called this new phenomenon “up-from-the-gutter journalism”. Some stars simply laughed off the exposure of their behaviour. Victor Mature couldn't have cared less – his sexual entanglements were strictly heterosexual and he didn't mind who knew. Robert Mitchum already had a bad-boy reputation, having served a short prison sentence for pot smoking. Confidential reported that he went to a fancy dress party naked except for a coating of ketchup. “I went as a hotdog,” he explained. He made a token protest, but his racy reputation was not harmed. Not so insouciant were stars such as Fredric March, a great screen actor and member of Hollywood royalty, who was captured photographically tiptoeing away from an assignation with a lady who was not his distinguished actress wife. Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Joan Crawford, Errol Flynn, June Allyson, Rory Calhoun, Lizbeth Scott, Marie “The Body” Macdonald and Corinne Calvert all fell victim in the interests of feeding the public's burgeoning appetite for scandal in the raw. Humphrey Bogart confessed: “Everybody reads it but they say the cook brought it into the house.”

At one time the magazine faced libel suits totalling $12million. Harrison just shrugged. Confidential, hiding behind the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of expression, became even bolder. Harrison regarded each writ as a publicity plug. Said one of his editors: “Bob is rude, crude, unlettered, and totally unprincipled in the ordinary sense. He would print scandal about his mother if he thought it would sell, and then would be indignant if you criticised him for it. Yet he is a likeable fellow.” By now the likeable fellow was making half a million dollars from each issue and spin-off publications. He could claim to be America's most successful magazine publisher.

With Hollywood cowed, he looked around for new stalking grounds and quietly set up a European operation, controlled from London. Meanwhile, Hollywood's élite was in despair. For more than four years Confidential devastated the private lives of hundreds of celebrities. Other publications, magazines and tabloids, were emboldened to venture further than they'd ever gone before in printing scabrous material. It was then that the office of the Californian Attorney-General, Edmund Brown, later State governor, came up with a possible way of cauterising the suppurating wound. The stars individually may have been unable to get Harrison for libel, but could the State of California nail him for criminal libel?

Charges were laid before a grand jury and they obliged by handing down indictments against Harrison and his associates. Hollywood was delighted – for all of 24 hours. Then Harrison, safe in New York and successfully resisting all attempts to extradite him to California, announced that his lawyers would subpoena more than a hundred stars to give evidence at the trial. The uncomfortable truth for the studio bosses was that few of their cherished stars' private habits could stand up to close examination.


Trapping the stars

At this juncture I made my own small contribution to the saga of Confidential. Working at the old Daily Sketch, the Associated Newspapers tabloid that was to be closed down in the 70s, I was among a group of reporters who were told that the paper had discovered who was running Confidential's operation in London. He was a 30-year-old public schoolboy and former subaltern in the Black Watch named Michael Mordaunt-Smith.

His principal foot soldier was 30-year-old Lee Benson, a man who haunted nightclubs and low dives, befriending party girls and helping them to entrap visiting stars before buying the tales of the stars' indiscretions. Benson, who around the West End was known as Little Mister Whisper, had decided to turn his back on Confidential and confess all about the magazine's methods to the Sketch. It wasn't a troubled conscience that had returned him to the path of righteousness: people in the movie business had threatened him with physical violence.

Benson's value to the Sketch lay in the fact that he had the details of Confidential assignments that had been carried out from London. A Sketch reporter was to call on each of the magazine's victims on Benson's list. The story I drew was a typical Confidential report of Ava Gardner taking a bandleader billed as Mr Latin America back to her suite at the Savoy Hotel. Ava had gone into the Don Juan Club in Mayfair and cha-cha'd and mambo'd the night away with Mr Latin America. Then, according to Confidential: “There you are dancing cheek-to-cheek with saucy Ava Gardner when she puts her lips to your ear and whispers, I want you to meet me in my room later'”.

So I knocked on the door of a house near Olympia in West London and confronted Mr Latin America, a handsome 32-year-old from Montevideo in Uruguay named Esteban Larraura. He was still writhing in embarrassment at the story for which the magazine later sent him a cheque for £25, even though Larraura had refused to say he had had sex with Ava at the Savoy.

I ran through Confidential's account line by line. Listening to Larraura, it was clear that Ava almost certainly had had designs on him. Her invitation to the Savoy had been directed only at him, but in his surprise Larraura had blurted: “Shall I bring the boys?” Stunned, Ava had replied: “I suppose so.” Which is how she ended up, frustrated, with a seven-piece Latin band giving their all while she cha-cha'd around the suite with their unmolested leader.

While the Daily Sketch went to war with Confidential in Britain, Hollywood was getting cold feet about the criminal libel trial. Emissaries were sent to the Attorney-General. Perhaps the trial wasn't such a good idea...God knows what the defence would dig up... But the wheels of justice weren't to be derailed. Judge Herbert Walker of the State Supreme Court set the trial for August 1957. There was panic along Sunset Boulevard, largely due to Fred Otash, a private eye in the Sam Spade mould, who, armed with the magazine's subpoenas, combed Los Angeles. Fred caught up with Lana Turner at LA airport, Dean Martin at a party Sinatra was giving in his honour. Dancer Dan Dailey leapt the footlights at the Hollywood Bowl to escape the dreaded piece of paper. Eventually, the defence claimed to have 130 stars on enforced stand-by and when word reached Judge Walker that some were planning to defy their injunctions, he warned: “They'll come to court even if I have to send officers with handcuffs to get them.”

When the trial commenced in an eighth-floor courtroom in the downtown Los Angeles Hall of Justice, defence lawyers began reading the magazine's juiciest stories into the record so that the press could re-print every word under court privilege. Visiting British journalists, accustomed to the austere environs of the Royal Courts of Justice, were shocked at the carnival atmosphere. Pornographic books and magazines were piled high on lawyers' tables. A Daily Telegraph reporter witnessed a necktie salesman hawking his wares around the courtroom from an open suitcase. Witnesses and defence lawyers felt free at any time to go outside and, in front of TV cameras, voice their opinions of the proceedings.

Michael Mordaunt-Smith flew from London to give evidence on Confidential's behalf. He claimed to have checked the accuracy of 900 stories for Robert Harrison. Everything was going the dreadful way the horrified studio moguls had predicted, when Judge Walker gave the film community its first break. He barred further reading of the magazine articles into the record. This limited the defence to calling only those stars named therein – 20 of them. In the event, only two gave evidence in a trial that lasted six weeks and two days. The first was the Irish actress Maureen O'Hara, who hotly contested Confidential's story that she had misbehaved with a man in Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. She had the stamps in her passport to prove she wasn't even in the U.S. on the date alleged. The black actress Dorothy Dandridge then denied the truth of a story headlined: “What Dorothy Did In The Woods”. Hilariously, the jury – six of each sex – grimly tramped across the flagstones of Grauman's forecourt with its celebrated collection of stars' hands and signatures cast in cement. Inside, they examined the seating and a male juror stretched across three seats to illustrate one of Confidential's more lurid allegations.


Bizarre suggestion

On the last day, with half-a-million words of evidence to consider, the jury was taken to the Mayfair Hotel to be held incommunicado – no phones, letters, family contact – until a verdict was reached. They quickly discovered the delights of room service, the hotel swimming pool and sunbathing. They were out for 15 days, a State record, before they tired of hotel luxury and admitted deadlock. The judge declared a mistrial and, to the horror of the studio bosses, immediately set a date for a new hearing. The terror of going through the ordeal again dictated that the major studios begin exerting enormous behind-the-scenes pressure. Politicians were told that the millions with which the Hollywood establishment helped fund their campaigns would no longer be forthcoming unless the horror was ended. The Attorney-General, Edmund Brown, and Confidential's counsel, Arthur Crowley, met Judge Walker in his chambers and made the bizarre suggestion that the judge make a solo judgement based on the trial transcript. Judge Walker rejected this idea. All the same, 10 days later he announced that the re-trial would be dropped. The backroom deal was that Confidential would lay off the stars in return for the State of California dropping charges against individual defendants.

A year later Harrison sold Confidential, which, deprived of its juiciest exposés, had become insipid. He closed his London office – “It's been most interesting,” said Mordaunt-Smith, shutting up shop. Scandal left Harrison a rich man after he had settled those million-dollar libel writs for more modest sums. The only time he ever again made headlines he was on a jungle safari in Dominica. He encountered a man harbouring a grudge from Confidential days who shot him in the arm. Post-Confidential, Harrison lived in a mid-Manhattan hotel suite and ran a tittle-tattle magazine called Inside News. He was planning his debut in book publishing in 1978 when he died suddenly in his office. He was 73.

Confidential's historic significance is that it opened the floodgates of tellall sleaze. Imitators who hadn't given legal undertakings to desist targeting Hollywood stars burgeoned on the newsstands, shouldering aside the now sanitised Confidential. And today celebrities are in as much dread as ever from the rapacious prowling of the supermarket scandal sheets, the National Enquirer, Globe and their like, and, in this country, the national tabloids. Fifty years on, that is Robert Harrison's legacy.

Lee Benson, alias Little Mister Whisper, did not keep his promise to give up his gutter activities. The year following the trial he discovered a beautiful model/hostess at the Embassy Club in London who alleged she had a romantic claim on the son of an Indian maharajah. Benson persuaded her to fly to Naples with him to confront the young man. Somewhere over Anzio an Italian Sabre jet fighter collided with their BEA Viscount. All 31 aboard, including a Daily Sketch photographer and a girl reporter, were killed.