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August 9, 2009

James Ellroy was only a kid in the 1950s when he started to read the infamous tabloid scandal rags of the age: Confidential, Lowdown, Rave, and Whisper to name just a few. These publications were immensely popular as they played on the public’s fascination with Hollywood celebrities and sought to expose sleazy details about famous people’s private lives. The magazines followed a quasi-McCarthyite editorial policy and often sounded more right-wing than Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels in their tone. Confidential was the most successful and longest running of the scandal rags. It ran stories on Liberace’s sexuality and Robert Mitchum’s marijuana bust. The magazine had a lurid fascination with miscegenation and would often run front page exclusives if a film star had been spotted with an African-American member of the opposite sex. Confidential often justified running these stories by claiming they were in the national interest. 

Confidential magazine cover, July 1954

Confidential magazine cover, July 1954

Ellroy loved reading the scandal rags as they mocked idealised conceptions of American society by exposing movie stars’ dirty little secrets. The 50s scandal rags were a huge influence in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet novels and on American Tabloid. In these novels, Ellroy’s narrative is interspersed with articles from a fictional magazine by the title of Hush-Hush. Hush-Hush is based on Confidential, but there was also a tabloid publication called Hush-Hush in the 50s. These inserted documents serve to update the reader of narrative events which have taken place outside of the leading characters purview. In the novel White Jazz, they alleviate the burden of reading Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein’s fractured, staccato first person narration. However, the articles are also difficult to read, as Ellroy cleverly parodies the sensationalist tone of Confidential by filling Hush-Hush articles with comically excessive use of alliteration and onomatopoeia. Ellroy uses Hush-Hush as a form of contemporary Greek choric narrative, commenting on the action with a knowledge and style that goes beyond the limits of the main characters. There are moments when the magazine becomes more directly part of the story, such as in American Tabloid when the magazine, backed by anti-Castro Cuban exiles, hastily publishes a special edition reporting the success of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba– only to be humiliated when the invasion is an outright failure. This leads to the demise of Hush-Hush in the novel. In reality, the heyday of the  scandal rag ended due to ongoing legal problems and declining circulation. Yet, their seedy and outrageous portrayals of 50s society have been immortalised in Ellroy’s fiction.

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