Where Celebrity Scandals Started
With the jailing of slimy publicist Max Clifford it would wonderful if the age of celebrity obsession became too tarnished to be worthy of our attention (although the Sunday Times is eerily obsessed with the idea of ‘hanging out with the famous’).
But it’s not a new thing at all. The age of the ‘kiss and tell’ story began much further back, first with salacious press stories in the 1920s, and then with Kenneth Anglemeyer in the 1950s.
If ever there was a case of adopting an apt pseudonym, Anglemeyer had it. Born into a middle class family in Santa Monica, California, he quickly became the author of his own legend and rechristened himself Kenneth Anger. Setting out to become a child actor and then a filmmaker, he managed to acquit himself after being placed on obscenity charges for his first self-directed short at the age of 20. What had he done to draw done such wrath?
Angerâ€™s 14 minute film â€˜Fireworksâ€™ conflated homoeroticism, mysticism, surrealism and sado-masochism, and set the tone of his work for decades to come. He never made a feature, but his 40 independent shorts (nine of which were grouped together as the â€˜Magick Lantern Cycleâ€™) proved unique and highly influential. Anger was a fan of Aleister Crowley and other self-styled ‘magicians’, and formed a lifelong friendship with Dr Alfred Kinsey, who became something of a father figure.
Soon he was turning sexuality into a political act and testing the boundaries of acceptability, producing his strangely poetic films in Paris and Rome, befriending another experimentalist, Stan Brakhage, hanging with Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger, regularly facing obscenity bans. Although his films are tame by todayâ€™s standards they continue to exert a peculiar power.
Where does the birth of the scandal-sheet fit in?
While he was broke, Anger ventured into writing. In 1959 he produced â€˜Hollywood Babylonâ€™, a collation of outrageous Hollywood tittle-tattle (complete with unsavoury bootlegged photographs) that could only be published in France as it was stuffed to the gills with uncorroborated scandal, suggesting that Walt Disney was addicted to opiates and that Rudolph Valentino was sexually submissive with dominant women.
As slimy and salacious as it was, the failed child-starâ€™s prose touched on a truth that had not until that time been stated in print; that the studio heads rigorously controlled the behaviour of their wayward stars and misrepresented them in publicity.
â€˜Babylonâ€™ perfectly captured Angerâ€™s love/hate relationship with Hollywood and became an underground classic, but was hastily disavowed and remained unavailable in the US until 1974. It was followed by a sequel, but by this time the public had become less easily gulled by Hollywood publicity, and it bombed.
However, Anger had opened the floodgates; muckraking volumes poured out, each more prurient than the last, thanks to US libel laws, which provided more extensive defences for those accused of making derogatory statements. Surprisingly, the original book is still in print, and Anger remains an iconoclast.