facebook twitter

Essay by Christopher Michael Elias

Between the late 1800s and the start of the Cold War, periodicals turned to a variety of strategies in an effort to increase readership and profit in a competitive, consumer-oriented marketplace. Tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines sensationalized headlines, featured more photography, included graphic textual and visual depictions of crimes and violence, and worked to expose corruption and vice. But none of those tactics was as widespread or as consistently employed as the efforts of those publications to use sex and sexuality—especially homosexuality—as a means of increasing circulation. In so doing, gossip magazines played a key role in making visible a variety of sexual identities, practices, and subcultures which to that point had been largely unseen by America’s mainstream reading public.

Though American gossip magazines have a deep, hazy lineage, their modern iteration can be traced to Town Topics, the Journal of Society. The magazine that became Town Topics had been founded in 1879 as Andrews’ American Queen, a National Society Journal and largely focused on publishing lists of attendees at society events. Re-titled Town Topics in an effort to make the magazine profitable, the enterprise declared bankruptcy in 1885 and was acquired by twenty-nine-year-old Eugene Mann, a lawyer with no publishing experience. Mann’s retooled society magazine adopted a livelier tone and advertised itself as “the newsiest, brightest, wittiest, wisest, cleverest, most original, and most entertaining paper ever published.”[1] Key to the redesign was “Saunterings,” a gossip-filled column placed at the beginning of every issue which helped Mann increase the magazine’s circulation from 5,000 to 60,000 but invited a number of lawsuits. In 1891 Eugene Mann was driven from town by his legal troubles—including a conviction for distributing vulgar materials through the mail—and Town Topics was taken over by his older brother, Colonel William d’Alton Mann. A Civil War veteran and prolific entrepreneur, Colonel Mann expanded on his brother’s approach and turned Town Topics into a weekly treasury of rumors and innuendo about New York’s Gilded Age elite, including the Astors and Vanderbilts. Colonel Mann is credited with creating the “blind item,” a now-ubiquitous aspect feature of gossip publications that prints a rumor without identifying the subject.Never one for subtlety, Colonel Mann would place the subject’s name in a nearby paragraph (often on the facing page), making the “blind item” much less opaque. He also pioneered the tactic of keeping on retainer informants who could supply the magazine with a steady stream of information, people such as hotel clerks, theater stagehands, and restaurant maître-des. The magazine’s widespread popularity only faltered as a result of two sensational trials: in 1900, Colonel Mann was accused of accepting loans from wealthy investors (including J.P. Morgan) in exchange for not attacking them in print; then, in 1906, Town Topics was sued after one of its operatives was caught extorting Edwin Post, the cheating husband of the future etiquette expert Emily. Though Colonel Mann won both trials and Town Topics continued to publish into the 1930s, its tone turned more conservative during its last twenty-five years of existence.[2]

A decade after Edwin Post effectively sterilized Town Topics, the magazine Broadway Brevities and Society Gossip emerged as the nation’s most notorious periodical. Published in New York City between 1916 and 1925, Broadway Brevities featured both society and theater gossip, and was packed full of items that used innuendo to suggest scandal. Notably, the forty-eight-page periodical identified the subjects of its gossip by name. In the words of media historian Will Straw, Broadway Brevities “covered both established elites and emergent theatrical circles, but the targets of its gossip were often social types who had assumed a new notoriety in the postwar economic boom: newly rich entrepreneurs, manufacturers of faddish products (like facial regeneration creams), and Manhattanites newly arrived from the Midwest.”[3] A key element of Broadway Brevities was the magazine’s reliance on homophobic sensationalism, a tactic most visible in the recurring feature “Nights in Fairy-Land.” That series of articles, which purported to be a behind-the-scenes look at the city’s gay nightlife, contained no fewer than thirteen entries over the course of the magazine’s existence. In addition to demonstrating that stories about homosexuality could improve sales, “Nights in Fairy-Land” helped introduce the general public to terminology referring to homosexuals, including the terms “camp,” “fairy,” and “punk.” The series also identified famous theater actors, directors, and producers who attended parties where same-sex interactions were said to occur. Despite its successes at the newsstand, Broadway Brevities was eventually shut down when its publisher was imprisoned on charges of mail fraud and extortion, a trial partially resulting from the efforts of the New York Attorney General’s Office to control the production and distribution of vulgar publications.

 

The success of Town Topics and Broadway Brevities spawned a host of imitators. Founded in 1919, The New York Daily News was one of the first tabloids to illustrate its articles on criminality, depravity, and corruption with graphic photographs. The newspaper’s logo has always featured a camera, illustrating the importance of photography to its ethos. The Daily News was almost immediately successful, reaching a circulation of 400,000 in 1921, 800,000 in 1925, and 1.3 million 1930.[4] William Randolph Hearst tried to match the Daily News success with his own tabloid, establishing The New York Daily Mirror in 1924.

But neither the Daily News nor the Daily Mirror could match the salaciousness of The New York Evening Graphic. Begun in 1924 by media mogul and fitness advocate Bernarr “Bodylove” MacFadden, the sensationalist, sex-obsessed Graphic strove to present the most salacious version of events it could and was replete with insinuation both in tone and content.[5] The Graphic’s photo editor Frank Mallen later recalled that the only instructions he got from founding editor Emile Gauvreau was that the newspaper should feature “sex on every front page, big gobs of it. On the inside pages [Gauvreau] expected it to be spread out like butter over canapes.”[6] The Graphic is best remembered for two gifts it bestowed upon gossip journalism. First, it launched the careers of the legendary gossip columnists Louis Sobol, Ed Sullivan, and Walter Winchell. Winchell’s work at the Graphic became a blueprint for the modern gossip column and launched him into a career that would make him the most famous media figure in the United States. Second, the Graphic pioneered the use of “composographs”: composite photographs depicting scenes that were either imagined (such as Rudolph Valentino’s arrival in Heaven) or difficult to photograph (celebrity boudoir scenes). The newspaper’s first—and perhaps most infamous—use of the technique came during the 1924 divorce trial of Alice Jones Rhinelander and Kip Rhinelander, when the Graphic printed a front-page composograph in which a topless Mrs. Rhinelander displayed her body to the jury. The newspaper’s hyperbolic depiction of the actual event showed a model’s bare back to the camera as a group of “jurors” leered at her naked torso.[7] The image was widely derided by media critics, but it caused a spike in sales. The Graphic reached the height of its popularity in the second half of the 1920s but was ultimately forced to close shop in 1932, undone by the Depression and cutthroat competition from other New York tabloids.

 

The Graphic was not the era’s only newspaper to employ innovative, morally-questionable tactics in its search for scandalous stories and increased readership. The decade also saw the spread of what was termed “muscle journalism,” an approach which included “the gentle arts of kidnapping, wire tapping, burglary, bribery, plus cunning and unlimited nerve.”[8] Its most fervent practitioners seemed to dominate the Chicago news scene of the late 1910s and 1920s, and specialized in covering gangland killings. The movement garnered enough cultural notoriety that it inspired The Front Page, a hit Broadway comedy that formed the basis of an Academy Award-nominated film of the same name in 1931 and was later adapted into the 1940 Cary Grant film His Girl Friday. (The revised narrative of His Girl Friday centered on a female journalist challenging a male-dominated newsroom.) In applying the tactics of muscle journalism to the feminized realms of gossip journalism, columnists such as Walter Winchell helped redraw gendered boundaries of the newspaper industry; because he had proven his masculine bona-fides by undertaking tasks like assisting the FBI in its search for the missing Lindbergh baby and brokering negotiations between gangsters, Winchell could report on the social lives of Hollywood starlets without sacrificing his masculinity.

The aesthetic mantle of the gossip magazine was assumed by a series of “girlie,” “true crime,” and “true story” magazines that experienced rapid growth during the late 1940s. One media historian has portrayed the immediate postwar era as a heyday for that type of publication, particularly “true crime” magazines like Headline Detective, Master Detective, Spotlight Detective, and Crime Confessions.[9] Like the gossip magazines that would soon follow them, true crime magazines exploded in the late 1940s partially as a result of the end of wartime paper rationing. The colorful, cheaply-printed periodicals fostered a market for sensationalized depictions of “real life” that emphasized violence, sex, danger, and intrigue. In so doing, they promoted the idea that state-sanctioned authority figures such as police detectives and FBI agents should embody the sort of macho masculinity that would be at home in the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. By taking on prurient topics, they also provided readers with an expanded knowledge of slang terms, particularly sexualized slang. Finally, their focus on revealing supposedly-concealed narratives implicitly argued that mainstream publications (such as major newspapers and national magazines) were not providing the “whole” story to the reading public.

Town Topics, Broadway Brevities, The New York Evening Graphic, and their competitors ultimately inspired the publications that would dominate American newsstands during the early 1950s, an era which can be considered golden age of gossip magazines. By the middle of the decade, scandal sheets such as Confidential were out-selling more august publications like Time, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post at the newsstand.[10] Confidential would also use sex to fuel its popularity, and like its antecedents it helped introduce its audience to an entirely new vernacular about sexuality. The magazine was particularly preoccupied with homosexuality, and journalist Maurice Zolotow once dismissively claimed that Confidential was “queer for queers.”[11] But Confidential and its imitators—magazines with eye-catching titles such as Rave, Hush-Hush, Suppressed, and Tattler—were unique from their forbearers in their explicit interest in gossip about the personal lives of politicians (rather than just celebrities like movie stars, athletes, and other entertainers). It was a turn in tone that would ultimately lead to a shift in the way Americans regarded their political leaders and the precise line between which topics were considered private and which were considered public.

 

Notes

[1] Andy Logan, “That Was New York—Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, August 14, 1965, 37-91.

[2] Robert Love, “Shakedown!: The Unfortunate History of Reporters Who Trade Power for Cash,” Columbia Journalism Review 45.2 (May/June 2006): 47-51. Mark Caldwell, “New York’s School for Scandal Sheets,” New York Times, Apr. 21, 2006: A25.

[3] Will Straw, “Traffic in Scandal: The Story of Broadway Brevities.” University of Toronto Quarterly 73.4 (Fall 2004), 950.

[4] Alan Betrock, Unseen America: The Greatest Cult Exploitation Magazines, 1950-1966 (Brooklyn, NY: Shake Books, 1990), 8.

[5] For more on Macfadden, see: William R. Hunt, Body Love: The Amazing Career of Bernarr Macfadden (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press), 1989.

[6] Frank Mallen, Sauce for the Gander (White Plains, NY: Baldwin Books, 1954), 55.

[7] The Rhinelander divorce trial centered around the question of whether Alice Jones had deceived her husband by not admitting her “Negro” ancestry before their marriage. Mrs. Rhinelander’s attorney had her display parts of her body – including her cleavage and legs – to the all-white, all-male jury as a part of his argument that Mr. Rhinelander had to be aware of his wife’s race. True to the Graphic’s penchant for hyperbole, the front-page composograph depicted a fully topless Mrs. Rhinelander (with her back to the camera) as opposed to portraying the (still shocking) truth. From the court record, as transcribed by the court reporter, in which Mrs. Rhinelander is identified as “the defendant” and “Mrs. Jones” refers to Mrs. Rhinelander’s mother: “The Defendant and Mrs. Jones then withdrew to the lavatory adjoining the jury run, and after a short time, again entered the jury room. The defendant, who was weeping, had on her underwear and a long coat. At [her lawyer] Mr. Davis’ direction she let down the coat, so that the upper portion of her body, as far down as the breast was exposed. She then, again at Mr. Davis’ direction, covered the upper part of her body and showed to the jury her bare legs, up as far as the knees.” Court record as quoted in Elizabeth M. Smith-Pryor, Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 202.  

[8] “The Press: Muscle Journalist,” Time 37, no. 13 (31 Mar. 1941): 40.

[9] Will Straw, “Introduction,” Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in 50s America (New York: Andrew Roth, 2009).

[10] N.B.—Of course, because American consumers were not eager to admit to reading gossip magazines, they more often bought them at the newsstand than had them delivered to their home addresses. As a result, though the newsstand sales of some gossip magazines outpaced more mainstream publications, the latter still boasted higher circulation numbers.

[11] Zolotow as quoted in Bernstein, 3.

 

Christopher Michael Elias is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.