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Robert Harrison (publisher)

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Title: Robert Harrison (publisher)  
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Subject: Confidential (magazine), Robert Harrison, Peter Driben, Earl Moran
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Robert Harrison (publisher)

Robert Harrison (1905–1978) was an American publisher who created the bi-monthly magazine Confidential in 1952. Confidential is seen as the progenitor of today’s gossip magazines and modern celebrity journalism. Humphrey Bogart nicknamed Harrison "The King of Leer".[1]

Early life and career

Robert Harrison was the son of Russian immigrants and grew up in the Bronx in New York. He started out as a copyboy on a New York tabloid and worked his way up to advertising space salesman. Later he started up smaller publications specializing in material seen at the time as sexually titillating and perverted. He was not beyond posing himself with the models (among them the famous Bettie Page), “playing everything from pith-helmeted white slaver to wife spanker.”[2] At one time he was arrested for having staged pornographic pictures at a golf course in New Jersey.[3]

Harrison's early publications

During the 1940s Harrison published ”girlie magazines”, with pictures of partially clothed women. To enhance sales he used three leading pin-up artists of the time: Peter Driben, Earl Moran (aka Steffa) and Billy De Vorss.

Beauty Parade (”The World's Loveliest Girls”) was Harrison's first ”risqué” publication, started in October 1941. It contained, as the title suggests, pictures of pretty women, although not as raunchy as his later works.[4] The magazine Eyeful (”Glorifying the American Girl”) was created in 1942 and was very similar to Beauty Parade. The depicted women were still fully, or partially, clothed but were placed in more intimate positions. Eyeful often featured Bettie Page posing on the centrefold.[5] Wink also imitated the style of Beauty Parade, but contained a stronger element of fetishism, with women in bondage, handling whips or being spanked.[6] In 1947 Harrison created Flirt, which mainly featured the same kind of models as Beauty Parade, but with more fetishist themes.[7] Titter (”America's Merriest Magazine”) was another of Harrison's publications, which focused on the burlesque.[8]

The only one of Harrison’s magazines that differed from the Beauty Parade format was Whisper, started in April 1946. The contents were more explicit, violent and blatantly sexual, and Whisper reached sales figures of 600,000 copies per issue.[9] After Harrison had created Confidential many of Confidential's articles were reproduced in the magazine. Harrison sold Whisper in 1958, but it survived into the early 1970s.

Confidential magazine

The creation of Confidential

The idea for the Confidential gossip concept, Robert Harrison supposedly got while watching the U.S. Senate hearings on organized crime, conducted by Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver in the early 1950s. The hearings exposed the underworld in the USA, with mafia bosses who had colorful nicknames, lavish lifestyles and private lives full of scandalous details. The televised hearings often revealed real life people that were more interesting than the made-up characters of Harrison’s publications.

After the hearings Harrison started to build up the concept for his new magazine. He realized that he couldn’t target the mob without personal protection, and instead turned to the world of movies. Hollywood was a similar environment that seemed to live by its own laws, and contained the same glamorous lifestyles with promiscuity and temptations.

Confidential’s success

The first Confidential issue was published in December 1952 under the caption "The Lid Is Off!". It was quarterly until August 1953, when it became a bi-monthly product and became the fastest growing magazine in the US. After only a couple of issues, Harrison claimed its circulation reached four million, and because every copy was estimated to be read by ten persons, it might have reached a fifth of the US population.

Harrison soon started making approximately half a million dollars per issue. By 1955, Confidential had reached five million copies per issue with a larger circulation than TV Guide, Look, The Saturday Evening Post or even leading magazines such as Life and Time.[10]

Confidential’s concept was to insinuate about and expose the private lives of celebrities. For example the magazine alleged that Bing Crosby was a wife beater, that Rock Hudson and Liberace were homosexuals ("Lavender Lads"), and that Robert Mitchum had been charged, convicted, and jailed for smoking marijuana. (Mitchum had been arrested for marijuana possession on September 1, 1948 in Los Angeles, and spent 43 days in February and March 1949 in a prison farm in Castaic, California but the Los Angeles District Attorney dismissed the charges on January 31, 1951.) Apart from spreading gossip and outing homosexuals, Confidential combined the exposés with a conservative agenda especially targeted at those who sympathised with the left wing and in identifying those engaged in so-called ”miscegenation”.

The trial against Confidential and Harrison

In 1957 Hollywood tried to stop the gossip-mongering and convinced the California Attorney-General to charge Robert Harrison with "conspiracy to publish criminal libel."[1] When the trial started Defense Attorney Arthur J. Crowley subpoenaed more than 100 Hollywood stars as witnesses. This turned out to be a stroke of genius for the marketing of the scandal magazine.[11] At the beginning of the trial the defense started reading the juiciest magazine pieces for the court record. This meant that the libellous stories could be reprinted by the more serious press, which was devastating for the film industry.

After a record 15-day deliberation the jury announced that it was hung and could not reach a conclusive verdict. A retrial was scheduled but by then the film industry had had enough. Hollywood started wielding behind-the-scenes pressure by threatening to withhold campaign contributions for local politicians and after ten days the judge declared there would be no new trial.

Harrison after the trial

After the mistrial Robert Harrison struck a deal with the film industry, which stated that the charges were dropped in exchange for leaving the movie stars alone. The deal became the effective end of Confidential, as the magazine was no longer able to publish the juiciest gossip. Eventually Harrison settled with all individuals who had charged him with libel to salvage his income from six profitable years. In 1958 he sold off both Confidential and Whisper.

In September 1956, Harrison generated front-page headlines around the world when he was shot in the arm during a safari in the Dominican Republic by a man who still harboured a grudge over a story Confidential published about his ex-wife.[2] In his later years he ran a much smaller magazine called Inside News. Robert Harrison died in 1978; the same year that Confidential was shut down.

Further reading

  • Henry E. Scott, Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, "America's Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine" (Pantheon/Random House, 2010)
  • Samuel Bernstein, Mr. Confidential: The Man, His Magazine & The Movieland Massacre That Changed Hollywood Forever (Walford Press, 2006)
  • Maureen O'Hara and John Nicoletti, 'Tis Herself: An Autobiography (Simon and Schuster, 2004)


External links

  • Samuel Bernstein, "Mr. Confidential site",
  • Victor Davis, "The father of scandal", British Journalism Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, 2002
  • Larry Harnisch, "Aug. 10-15, 1957 Los Angeles", Los Angeles Times blogs, August 10, 2007
  • John Nelson, "Vintage Smear",
  • TIME, "Success in the Sewer", Monday, Jul. 11, 1955

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