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Lavender lads,
baritone babes

Lavender lads,
baritone babes


Long before "outing," Confidential magazine was printing gay rumors about the stars--without wrecking careers. In writing about the tabloid, Samuel Bernstein wonders: Was '50s America more tolerant than we think?

I've got a giddy crush on Neil Patrick Harris--not in that way exactly. I'm more thrilled that spilling the beans hasn't affected his success as a roguish womanizer on network television. Millions of Americans now know he's gay and don't seem to care. It's a revolution, miraculous and unprecedented.

Except it isn't.

Van Johnson, the A-list MGM star who appeared in The Caine Mutiny with Humphrey Bogart and The Last Time I Saw Paris with Elizabeth Taylor, was outed with little or no ill effect--not in 2006, but in 1954.

Credit Confidential magazine for the dirty work. Published by Robert Harrison, Confidential was a pioneering tabloid without Hollywood studio ties that freely explored the private lives of celebrities. A Paramount exec couldn't say, "We're throwing you off the lot if you print that." Confidential was never invited on to the lot. Harrison was independent, and he could do whatever the hell he wanted.

Confidential: The name alone promised so much. It was the place to go to get the real lowdown on the lowbrow habits of Hollywood icons: Desi Arnaz was a boozer, Rita Hayworth was a horrible mother, and Marilyn Monroe liked sex.

The subject of homosexuality was a Confidential mainstay. In Johnson's case the magazine claimed homosexuality had made him 4-F (unacceptable for miliary service) during World War II. According to the article, a car crash's aftermath and the love of a wholesome adulteress later turned him hetero.

According to my research, Confidential had 5 million readers by the mid '50s, yet Johnson remained under studio contract. There were no protests, no boycotts. He would have 38 more years of film and TV work. Even with the mitigating "ex-gay" angle, how could this be? Everyone knows that 1950s America was a hotbed of homophobia, right?

Before writing my new book, Mr. Confidential (Walford, $22.95), I thought I knew everything about the business. Starting at age 11, I acted in six shows a week for months on end; I was a preteen piece of chicken puffing on cigarettes and laughing hollowly. No one could tell me anything.

After more than a decade as a screenwriter and director, I'm still a big smarty-pants. I figured I knew the scoop on Confidential--suicides, murders, etc. But after dozens of interviews and hours spent poring over hundreds of magazines, I realized that this know-it-all knew basically zip about Harrison, his magazine, or the torrid trial that effectively put him out of business.

Obviously, I can't tell you the whole story here--I want to sell the book, after all--but I now believe that Bob Harrison, the scary "Sultan of Sleaze," was actually a powerful if unwitting pioneer in the struggle for gay acceptance.

Harrison opened closet doors with a wink and a chuckle. For example, the magazine never called Lizabeth Scott a "lesbian" but alleged that "the unmarried actress prefers the company of Hollywood's weird society of Baritone Babes." Tab Hunter was coined a "Lavender Lad." And the tone of a story on Marlene Dietrich's pansexual past was frisky and alive with admiration.

I found many rumors but little evidence of James Ellroy's brilliantly twisted L.A. Confidential world of corruption, malevolence, and masochism. The real Confidential was shocking, but in a very funny way. With crackling, alliterative prose and a propensity for puns (they alone were worth the cover price), Harrison didn't as much judge as celebrate that the rich and famous liked to sleep around, whether the celeb in question was Marilyn, Elvis, Liberace, or Tab.

Competitors called Harrison "queer for queers" to describe his love of gay exposes. But when Confidential ran a story about a Mattachine Society demonstration in Washington, D.C., it was the only national publication to cover the event. The society sent Harrison a thank-you note when the publicity made requests for membership skyrocket.

This doesn't mean being gay was easy; it just meant it wasn't always the end of the world--not then and not now.

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Samuel Bernstein