Gossip pp 61-122 | Cite as

The Gossip Reporter as Anthropologist

  • Jack Levin
  • Arnold Arluke


Anthropologists attempt to understand life in other cultures as well as in their own. They travel the four corners of the globe, pen and tape recorder in hand, hoping to uncover the details of little-known tribal rites and customs. Gossip reporters really aren’t so different. Like anthropologists, they try to get the “inside scoop” on celebrity culture by examining what the “natives” of Hollywood do at work and at leisure, on the set and at home, while attending dinner parties or business meetings.


Private Life Daily Newspaper Press Agent Wire Service Local Columnist 
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  1. 1.
    The modern gossip column has its roots in the rip-roaring twenties; in the lifestyles of great stars of this decade such as Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Francis X. Bushman, Mary Pickford, and Gloria Swanson; and in the incredible popularity of Louella Parsons and Walter Winchell. Winchell was the first celebrity gossip columnist on the East Coast. He was hired in 1924 by the New York Graphic for $100 a week to write play reviews, to do a Broadway column, to act as amusement editor, and to be a tipster at the city desk. But his tips, at first, were often rebuffed by the city editor: “Once he brought the information that an aging stage star was planning to leave his wife to marry the ingenue in his latest play. ‘Has his wife filed suit for divorce?’ the editor demanded of Winchell. ‘No, but—’ ‘Then it isn’t news,’ grumbled the editor” (Bob Thomas, Winchell, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971, p. 32). Winchell’s real interest lay in the column he called “Broadway Hearsay.” In the course of writing this weekly column, he picked up bits and pieces of Broadway gossip. One day when he ran out of jokes or poems to fill his column, he started writing up the gossip he had collected. His first gossip column included the following items: “Helen Eby Brooks, widow of William Rock, has been plunging in Miami real estate . . . It’s a girl at the Carter De Havens . . . Lenore Ulric paid $7 income tax . . . Fanny Brice is betting on the horses at Belmont . . . S. Jay Kaufman sails on the 16th via the Berengaria to be hitched to a Hungarian . . . Report has it that Lillian Lorraine has taken a husband again . . .” By 1929, Winchell was doing his column for the New York Mirror (Thomas, Winchell, p. 34). As his popularity heightened, Winchell began lacing his column with the “intimacies” of imminent divorces and other scandals. He would run as many as nine thousand items a year, and he couldn’t check the accuracy of every one of them. Instead, he used a system for publishing news that he suspected to be true. It allowed him to reveal things that the public wouldn’t know until an official announcement was made—or might never know, as with a hushed-up scandal. He would hint at news that propriety or the libel laws would not permit him to report openly. Among the Winchell devices were the blind item (“What married producer of three Broadway musicals pays rent for a chorus girl in each?”), the pointed question (“Are the Clark Gables seeing a lawyer?”), and the ambiguous phrase (“Billy Rose and Eleanor Holm are on the verge”).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Thomas Wood, “The First Lady of Hollywood,” Saturday Evening Post (July 15, 1939): 25.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ezra Goodman, The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood (New York: Macfadden Books, 1962), 30.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., 42.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Bob Thomas, Winchell (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971);Google Scholar
  6. 5a.
    Herman Klurfeld, Winchell, His Life and Times (New York: Praeger, 1976).Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Louella O. Parsons, Tell It to Louella (New York: Putnam, 1961), 316.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Unless otherwise specified, quotes from gossip columnists and reporters throughout this book were obtained from personal interviews.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    Much of our evidence concerning the content of gossip columns was derived from Jack Levin and Allan J. Kimmel, “Gossip Columns: Media Small Talk,” Journal of Communication 27 (1977): 169–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 9.
    The study of People magazine reported here was from an unpublished manuscript by Joyce Ruscitti at Northeastern University, 1985.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Much of our evidence concerning the content of supermarket tabloids was taken from Jack Levin, Amita Mody-Desbareau, and Arnold Arluke, The Gossip Tabloid as an Agent of Social Control, a paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, 1986.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Lewis H. Lapham, Liz Smith, Barbara Howar, William F. Buckley, Jr., John Gross, Mark Crispin Miller, and Robert Darnton, “Gossiping about Gossip,” Harper’s 272 (1986): 40.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
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  15. 14.
    Goodman, 41.Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    Steven M. L. Aronson, Hype (New York: William Morrow, 1983), 245.Google Scholar
  17. 16.
  18. 17.
  19. 18.
    Diana McLellan, Ear on Washington (New York: Arbor House, 1982).Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    “Entertainment Tonight,” May 9–12, 1983.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    Klurfeld, 57.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    “Entertainment Tonight,” May 9–12, 1983.Google Scholar
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  35. 34.
    Richard A. Shweder, New York Times Book Review (September 21, 1986): 1.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jack Levin
  • Arnold Arluke

There are no affiliations available

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