Hollywoodland | Sex Files Feb 26 2014
SLINGS AND ARROWS
Liberace is finally forced to take up arms against the tabloids.


A long while ago we shared the cover of a 1956 Whisper featuring George Sanders. The same issue had an article on Liberace, and we’re returning to that today as part of our look at mid-century tabloid attitudes toward gay culture. In general of course, the tabloids were brutally insulting, using overt as well as coded language to get intimations of homosexuality across. Theoretically, when dealing with public figures they had to be somewhat cautious, but both Rave and Inside had in 1954 written stories insinuating that Liberace was gay, and in 1955 Suppressed and Private Lives did the same. In Whisper, a journalist writing under the name Sylvia Tremaine refers to Liberace as a “creature,” labels his speech as “simpering,” and describes his move to television this way: “From there it was just a brief flutter to a local TV program.”

You’ll notice there’s deniability in all those words—Whisper could claim there was nothing defamatory in the language. Ridiculous, of course. Clearly the magazine was calling Liberace gay, and only a fool would claim otherwise, but defamation had not occurred to an extent that would stand up in court. Thus we see the joy of coded language. The same occurs in the U.S. today in certain media outlets with language directed at African Americans. The disparagement is clear, but deniable. Or for a cinematic example of coding, consider the Maltese Falcon and how the character of Joel Cairo is announced by flute trills on the soundtrack. Clear, and yet deniable. But in its Liberace article Whisper then throws deniability out the window with this: “Hollywood snickerers are wondering, in fact, if all the male hormones earmarked for the Liberace boys weren’t hogged by George, leaving Lee with only his nimble fingers.” That goes a bit beyond code, wouldn’t you say?

Liberace did not sue, and the tabloids simply built momentum. Later in 1956 Britain’s Daily Mirror called him a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” Robert Harrison’s Confidential piled on in 1957. It published a three-part tale of Liberace attacking a hapless press agent. A sample from that hit piece: “Fatso plumped onto the couch alongside his young guest, and before you could say Gorgeous George, the pair were [wrestling]. In a matter of moments, it turned into a boxing bout, too, with the press agent throwing desperate lefts and rights at Liberace. The latter, his determination stiffening, merely clung tighter. The floor show reached its climax when Dimples, by sheer weight, pinned his victim’s shoulders to the mat and mewed into his face: 'Gee, you’re cute when you’re mad!'”
 
Liberace’s lawyer John Jacobs filed lawsuits against both Daily Mirror and Confidential, demanding a whopping twenty million dollars from the latter. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $174 million in today's terms. You can almost imagine Robert Harrison spitting up his coffee when he heard the settlement demand. Equally you can imagine Liberace’s reluctance to dignify the article, but Confidential at the time had readership in the millions. Something had to be done. It had become open season on his private life. Even the press photo below toyed with him. Thedescriptive text, written for newspaper staff, is meant to simply get across the basic facts of the photos and is typically pretty dry stuff. But this describes Liberace as "the curly-haired pianist"  and says his walk is "jaunty." Clear, but deniable.
 
In the end, Liberace received $40,000 from Confidential and $53,000 from the Daily Mirror, substantial sums for the time. In addition to his legal victories, the constraints against tabloid journalism were becoming more defined. Of course, Liberace had won the cases by perjuring himself in court about being gay. In 1987 when he died of complications related to AIDS, Daily Mirror refused to show an iota of deference or respect and published a piece referring to the 1950s settlement. It was headlined: Any Chance of a Refund?

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Vintage Pulp | Politique Diabolique Jun 1 2011
PAL JOEY
Private moments made public.


This issue of Private Lives from June 1956 with its cover story about Joey Fay teaches us the basic facts of plausible deniability as it works in the political arena. Fay was vice president of the A.F.L. International Union of Operating Engineers based in New York, and in 1945 he was hit with an eighteen-year sentence to Sing-Sing Prison for extortion. Within months rumors sprang up that even though he was behind bars he was still running rackets in New York City. A second scandal involving Fay's involvement in crooked horse racing finally prompted some clever reporter, curious who was relaying directives between Sing-Sing and NYC, to come up with the genius idea of requesting a list of his visitors. That list turned out to be pure dynamite—it was a roster of practically every prominent east coast politician and official within a two-hundred mile radius. We’re talking the majority leader in the state senate, acting lieutenant governor George Wicks, a former state supreme court justice, state senator William Condon, the mayor of Jersey City, the former mayor of Newark, and on and on. Eighty-seven callers in total, whose visits comprise the “affairs” Private Lives speaks of on its cover. The embarrassing revelation produced three results. First, the politicians and officials who had visited Fay were forced to concoct highly improbable excuses that the public nevertheless had to accept because nobody knew the exact content of their conversations. Wicks explained his visit this way: “I never consulted or talked with Joseph Fay about anything else but labor conditions in the counties I represent.” See how that plausible deniability stuff works? The second result of the scandal was that Fay was transferred 250 miles upstate to Clinton Prison in Dannemora, NY, where conditions were not nearly as nice as at Sing-Sing and he was considerably harder to visit. And third, public officials nationwide stopped visiting criminals in prison. Go and figure. And if there was a fourth result, possibly it was this: a generation of New York voters learned what every generation of voters always re-learns—politicians are exactly as corrupt as lack of scrutiny allows them to be.  

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Hollywoodland Jun 5 2010
PRIVATE EYES
The lives of others.

Today we have a new entry for our collection of mid-century tabloids—Private Lives, published forty-five years ago this month, with a strikingly bright cover starring Jane Russell, and an accompanying article about aquatic sex timed to take advantage of her role in Underwater. Every tabloid had its visual gimmicks, and Private Lives began with the motif you see here of a black and white face floating on a Technicolor background. By the end of 1955 it had abandoned this look for a fuller color palette, but this older design is much more appealing, in our view. We’ll keep hunting for more of these.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
June 19
1953—The Rosenbergs Are Executed
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted for conspiracy to commit espionage related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet spies, are executed at Sing Sing prison, in New York.
June 18
1928—Earhart Crosses Atlantic Ocean
American aviator Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly in an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean, riding as a passenger in a plane piloted by Wilmer Stutz and maintained by Lou Gordon. Earhart would four years later go on to complete a trans-Atlantic flight as a pilot, leaving from Newfoundland and landing in Ireland, accomplishing the feat solo without a co-pilot or mechanic.
June 17
1939—Eugen Weidmann Is Guillotined
In France, Eugen Weidmann is guillotined in the city of Versailles outside Saint-Pierre Prison for the crime of murder. He is the last person to be publicly beheaded in France, however executions by guillotine continue away from the public until September 10, 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi becomes the last person to receive the grisly punishment.
1972—Watergate Burglars Caught
In Washington, D.C., five White House operatives are arrested for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel. The botched burglary was an attempt by members of the Republican Party to illegally wiretap the opposition. The resulting scandal ultimately leads to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and also results in the indictment and conviction of several administration officials.
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