There it was behind glass: “Why Can’t Stars Stay Married?” was the madly up-to-date headline on a 1924 issue of Screenland magazine, beneath an illustrated portrait of dreamboat Rudolph Valentino.
Clearly, little has changed in the world of celebrity culture save the presentation – and that was the point of an event Thursday night at USC’s Cinematic Arts Library to launch the book “Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators and Gossip Mongers” by Anthony Slide. High and low culture is my favorite combination, and this shindig had it in spades; the classily curated exhibit runs through July 30, and the book brings the highest scholarly standards to preserving the record on dish and innuendo.
On display was everything from Hedda Hopper’s telephone to a photo layout featuring shirtless Hollywood “bachelors” Tab Hunter and Roddy McDowall titled “Calling All Girls” in which, strangely, no girls are present. The book and exhibit present the full gamut of fan magazine history, from 1911 to the present.
I found the author, Mr. Slide, chatting with film actress Samantha Eggar in front of a display that featured a 1960s Screen Stories article in which she’s pictured along with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. “Liz Faces A New Challenge!” warned the headline. “Samantha Eggar the Girl Burton Prefers.” The slender, red-haired Eggar appeared remarkably unchanged. As for Slide, who like Eggar is a Brit, he certainly has his CV in order – this marks his 75th published book.
His pal Leonard Maltin, who was on hand for introductory remarks, called him “one of our foremost film historians,” and the tireless Tony was happy to sum up his findings for TOH. There is “virtually no connection,” he declared, between the mostly internet-driven celebrity coverage of today and the early fan magazines, which featured “actual articles done in a rather responsible, middle-class fashion.”
That’s because the studios controlled and even funded some of the earliest ventures, and wanted everyone to think the stars were wonderful people, even though some of them were “bastards,” by Slide’s account. “When a star had an abortion, they used to say she was having her appendix removed,” he mused. “There’s an old joke about the starlet who had her appendix removed three times. But when studio control ended in the 1950s, the ‘fan magazine’ ended -- it wasn’t up to the studios anymore.” Everything changed, he said, with the launch in 1952 of Confidential, a scandal-driven tabloid that endured until 1978. “Confidential showed what you could get away with – suddenly it wasn’t about beauty secrets anymore, but about who was sleeping with whom.”
Things certainly got livelier then. I liked the display about a Photoplay writer with the name Kirtley Baskette who was anointed the field’s “chief exponent of dirt,” for publishing an expose on highly questionable living arrangements called “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husband’s & Wives.”
Also of interest was a glass case devoted to the ‘feud’ between “queens of gossip” Louella Parsons (who entered the game at Photoplay in 1918) and Hedda Hopper (who joined the same magazine in the 1940s). Here’s a taste of Hopper’s style: “The air is full of half-truths about Judy Garland,” she breathes in a story titled “Breakdown.” The answers are out there, she attests, but “To really understand, you have to use the heart as well as the ear.”
Slide appeared to be quite taken with the writers who toiled in the medium. The exhibit includes rarities like their notebooks and interview questions. Some of the women, and a few men, made long careers of it, and suffered the indignity of fading influence as times changed.
Slide told me a story about Ruth Waterbury, who scribbled for fan mags for some 50 years, from the ‘20s to the ‘70s. Toward the end, when Slide asked her what she thought of contemporary stars, she replied, “They’re all shit. I’ve never heard of them and I don’t know who they are. If they say they don’t want to talk to me, I say, ‘Fine,’ and walk away.”
Maltin, a film critic whose work appears on indieWire, said he’s known Slade since they both were teenagers running fanzines in New Jersey and England, respectively. “The book contains a great story that hadn’t been told. No one’s really done a true historic survey of the fan magazine from its beginnings,” he remarked.
Well, now they have.