Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Lavender lads,
baritone babes

Lavender lads,
            baritone babes

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 exposés. 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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