Maureen O’Hara was one of the most celebrated actresses of her era. She lit up the big screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond. But the Ireland-born thespian was also the subject of a notorious scandal. And it led to a titanic showdown between the “Queen of Technicolor” and a magazine called Confidential.
It was March 1957 when Confidential – effectively the National Enquirer of its day – ran its salacious story about Maureen O’Hara. It seemed the magazine’s editor and journalists had pulled off a real scoop. It was a truly lurid story that would titillate its readership, which was certainly considerable at that time.
Confidential had earned a reputation for its exposés, of which this O’Hara story was the latest in a long line. Today, the publication is widely deemed to have been a pioneer in the realm of gossip, celebrity news and scandal reporting. But had the sometimes-mendacious magazine bitten off more than it could chew with its article on O’Hara?
Confidential alleged that O’Hara had got all hot and steamy with a “Latin lothario” in the back of a cinema in Los Angeles. The claims in the big-selling magazine would cause something of a scandal in Hollywood. But the Ireland-born actress would not take the accusations lying down, and ultimately decided to fight back.
Indeed, O’Hara was evidently incensed by the tawdry allegations made by Confidential about her private life. The claims of very public lovemaking would have troubled the actress’s handlers in Hollywood, who wanted their stars to maintain a wholesome image. Besides that, the lewd nature of the claims couldn’t have gone down well with the more conservative or religious people in her adopted home country of America.
But O’Hara chose to fight back against the magazine’s allegations in the courts. Yes, the Irish actress was determined for her version of events, and ultimately what she regarded as the truth, to come out in a criminal trial. She sued Confidential for libel, and the trial itself would become a highly significant one.
To fully understand the impact of the allegations made against her good name, it’s helpful to know a bit more about O’Hara’s background. The actress was born in the Republic of Ireland – in Ranelagh to be precise – on August 17, 1920 as Maureen FitzSimons. O’Hara was the second of six children born to businessman Charles and stage actress and opera singer Marguerite.
As the only redhead in her family, O’Hara immediately stood out. As for her temperament, the chances are that she likely inherited her love of the arts from her mother. After studying drama and moving to London in the 1930s she got her big break in acting, landing a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn.
Despite the Hitchcock film being a flop by his standards, O’Hara was deemed to have excelled in it, and moved across the Atlantic to Hollywood in summer 1939. Her movie debut in the U.S. was in William Dieterle’s big-screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She played the captivating gypsy Esmeralda in the successful motion picture.
Then in the 1940s, O’Hara would begin her journey to becoming one of the biggest female stars in Hollywood. She enjoyed the first of numerous fruitful collaborations with director John Ford in 1941 in the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley. Then the Irish actress appeared opposite a number of Tinseltown’s leading lights such as Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Vincent Price, in movies including The Black Swan, Sinbad the Sailor and Bagdad.
And it was in the era spanning the 1940s and 1950s that O’Hara would earn her exalted nickname the “Queen of Technicolor.” That arose because she was consistently cast in the heroine role in Hollywood’s extravagant Technicolor pictures. The Irish actress became famous for portraying strong-willed females, which were made all the more pronounced by her flaming red hair, enchanting green eyes and immaculate skin tones.
Undoubtedly O’Hara’s sassy turns in adventures such as the 1944 motion picture Buffalo Bill and The Spanish Main a year later cemented her status as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. But from 1950 onward the Ireland-born actress effectively embarked on a new phase of her career. And it was one that would lead to a lifelong friendship with one particular well-known actor.
Yes, O’Hara hooked up with Ford again to appear in a number of his classic westerns, starring opposite a certain John Wayne. In total, she appeared in five films alongside Wayne, who became a close confidant and perhaps – as a later book on the actor alleged – a lover. That biography entitled John Wayne: The Life and Legend was published in 2014 and quoted a supposed pal of ‘the Duke’ who claimed their relationship went beyond friendship.
But the “strong-willed” nature that O’Hara often displayed on screen and which so endeared her to Wayne would soon be needed off it. Namely, when she became the focal point of that Confidential article. So, what was the deal with the magazine? How exactly did it come about, and who ran it?
Well, Confidential was founded by a man named Robert Harrison. The New York-born journalist and publisher launched the magazine in 1952, after working on a similar project previously called New York Evening Graphic. As with his prior publication, Confidential would be centered around the top celebrities of the day, attempting to expose everything from their sexual escapades and preferences to their illicit drug habits and criminal records.
The first edition of Confidential – the December 1952 issue – hit the shelves in November of that year. Right off the bat it achieved a respectable circulation of 250,000 copies. At first it was published on a quarterly basis, from its inception until August 1953. From then on Harrison moved the operation to the more regular bimonthly format.
The magazine’s hard-earned reputation for sensationalist muck-raking and suggestive, pun-heavy tattletale led The Bonfire of the Vanities author Thomas Wolfe to label it “the most scandalous scandal magazine in the history of the world.” Its notoriety was enhanced by a number of shocking stories that Confidential published throughout the 1950s. And they involved some of the biggest names of the era.
Firstly, there was a story about the popular broadcaster Walter Winchell. He had been accused of racism and not supporting African-American actress Josephine Baker, after she made discrimination complaints against the owner of the Stork Club in New York. The right-leaning Confidential sided with Winchell, and he gratefully plugged the magazine’s article that exonerated him. Harrison later acknowledged this publicity effectively made his publication.
Another story that gained serious traction was a bizarre piece on the legendary crooner Frank Sinatra, entitled, “Open Letter To General Mills: Here’s Why Frank Sinatra Is The Tarzan Of The Boudoir.” The May 1956 article in Confidential claimed that Ol’ Blue Eyes enriched his sex life by, erm, eating plenty of Wheaties. Ridiculous, sure, but an angry Sinatra threatened to take legal action.
Others who had their lives interfered with by the magazine and its network of informants, private investigators and spies included Johnnie Ray, who it claimed was a drag queen; Robert Mitchum, allegedly a nude exhibitionist; and June Allyson, reportedly a promiscuous adulterer. Confidential also dug up dirt on Grace Kelly, Liberace, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Joe DiMaggio, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe, plus many, many, others.
Besides the celebrity and public figure tittle-tattle, Confidential featured the political diatribes of staunch anti-Communist writer Howard Rushmore. Harrison believed the journalist’s work added gravitas to his magazine. And it was undoubtedly a highly successful formula that began to pull in about $500,000 per issue. By 1955 its circulation had reached close to five million copies, bettering well-known publications such as Reader’s Digest and Look.
So, given all that had been written about arguably bigger stars,Confidential and its proprietor Harrison probably thought they had nothing to worry about with their racy cinema story about Ms. O’Hara. The piece from March 1957 was entitled “It was the hottest show in town when…Maureen O’Hara cuddled in Row 35.” It was written by R.E. McDonald.
So what exactly did it say? What were these juicy details that caused such a stir? Well, McDonald’s piece began with an introduction to the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Los Angeles. It stated that almost anyone who liked movies knew about the famous venue, and that it was where screen legends got their footprints marked in cement. But it then teased how you’d have to have been an usher to get the real insight into what happened in there.
The article continued to set the scene about being an usher, stating, “Garbed in your flashy uniform and equipped with your tiny flashlight, you’d discover something to make your eyes pop.” Then, in typical Confidential style it salaciously asserted that “the show that goes on in the back seats often beats anything that is flickering on the screen.” McDonald then introduced O’Hara to the story, as she was greeted by a “gentlemanly assistant manager.”
O’Hara, as the story went, was in the company of a “tall and handsome Latin American.” And after being led to their seats towards the rear of the orchestra, she was alleged by Confidential to have been discovered making out with him. The magazine reported that the assistant manager had seen his fair share of over-amorous couples in the cinema, but never could have imagined, upon meeting the Irish actress, that she could have followed suit.
Alas, he was – by Confidential’s account at least – sorely mistaken. In fact, the magazine claimed he “got the shock of his life” when an hour into the movie an usher responsible for aisle C “came rushing out to report that there was a couple heating up the back of the theater like it were mid-January.” It continued, “Easing down the aisle he saw the entwined twosome. It was Maureen and her south-of-the-border sweetie.”
The Confidential article then dove into the alleged detail, and painted a vulgar picture. According to the magazine, O’Hara’s white silk blouse was unbuttoned, and her male companion’s blue suit was likewise unfastened. Then, the salacious piece alleged, “Maureen had taken the darndest position to watch a movie in the whole history of the theater. She was spread across three seats – with the happy Latin American in the middle seat.”
Anyway, O’Hara was evidently incensed by the allegations. They seriously soiled her carefully maintained, wholesome image. The Irish actress was not going to let the magazine get away with it and decided to take action against Confidential. And on July 9, 1957 she did just that, filing a $5 million lawsuit against the magazine. The battle was on.
The man with whom O’Hara was alleged to have got steamy in the Chinese Theater was Enrique Parra, a well-heeled banker and politician. She had begun dating him in 1953 after they met in Mexico two years earlier, and the two were a couple until 1967. Her relationship with Parra led to some legal struggles and custody battles with her ex-husband, William Price. But the actress was adamant nothing unseemly had happened in the cinema on that November night.
The 1957 court case would be labeled the “Trial of a Hundred Stars.” That’s because of the attempted subpoenas served by Confidential’s legal attorney on 117 stars who had been subjected to the magazine’s meddling brand of journalism. This infuriated group of actors and performers – that included Clark Gable, Elvis and Mae West – were brought together by thespian and soon-to-be-senator George Murphy, to tackle the publication in the courts and many filed lawsuits.
But many of the other stars shied away from litigation, perhaps cowed by the power and influence that Confidential appeared to have. Yet O’Hara had no intention of stepping aside. She stood firm and was joined in testifying against the magazine by an unlikely ally.
That ally was Confidential’s former editor Rushmore. Yes, the fiercely anti-communist political firebrand – who had had left his position at the magazine after a dispute with Harrison over a potential story – decided to dish the dirt and give evidence on his former employer. And what he revealed was quite astonishing.
The trial – officially The People of the State of California v. Robert Harrison (pictured above) et al – got underway on August 7, 1957. The legal showdown would, in time, involve more than 200 actors, many of them fleeing California to evade defense subpoenas. Being a high-profile former employee of Confidential, Rushmore was undoubtedly The Golden State’s most prized witness.
Rushmore revealed under oath that Confidential during Harrison’s leadership consciously published uncorroborated claims, despite its supposed commitment to verifying facts. He testified, “Some of the stories are true and some have nothing to back them up at all. Harrison many times overruled his libel attorneys and went ahead on something.” The former editor also revealed that the magazine proprietor had told his attorneys: “I’d go out of business if I printed the kind of stuff you guys want.”
Meanwhile, O’Hara appeared as a witness at the libel trial, alongside the famous pianist Liberace. The latter strenuously denied the charge Confidential had made about him. The magazine had written about how he had pounced on a youthful press agent and after protesting his innocence to the jury, Liberace announced to the waiting press that he would be filing a $25 million lawsuit against the publication.
On that day, O’Hara would also take the oath. Dressed in a demure dress and hat, she held up her right hand and solemnly promised to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Yet before the actress even began testifying, she had revealed something very important to her defense for the gathered press.
Indeed, O’Hara knew what she brought with her to the court fully exonerated her against Confidential’s unseemly claims and proved she was totally innocent. The Irish actress had held up her passport records for the press gathered to view. They clearly showed that she was thousands of miles away in Europe when the supposed public lovemaking in Grauman’s Theater took place.
O’Hara was able to prove that she was in Spain at that particular time and not smooching with Parra in Hollywood’s most famous cinema. No, the Irish actress was working on the set of the Technicolor film noir Fire Over Africa – known as Malaga outside the United States – that was directed by Richard Sale. So there was no way she could have been doing what the magazine had alleged.
The article by Confidential was therefore quite clearly a complete fabrication. A pernicious lie. And the magazine would be made to pay for it in more ways than one. Firstly, O’Hara accepted an undisclosed but likely significant sum from the publication in an out-of-court settlement. Secondly, stripped of its ability to shock and with clear evidence of its impropriety made public, the magazine eventually went to the wall in 1978.
Having been fully vindicated, O’Hara would continue with her successful acting career. She made movies regularly throughout the 1960s, before slowing down significantly in the following decades. On her 95th birthday the actress reflected on her lifetime, saying, “It’s been a good life … I’ve had a wonderful career and enjoyed making movies. I was fortunate to have made pictures with many of the greats…I’ve no regrets.” Finally, she added, “Above all else, deep in my soul, I’m a tough Irish woman.” Clearly the strong, no-nonsense persona she often presented on-screen was very much representative of how she carried herself off it.