Like the worlds oldest profession, scandals motivated by human sexuality have always been with us. From the Old Testament and those scandalous Greek deities, to modern tabloids which obsessively monitor the erotic misadventures of the modern gods and goddesses of today, the sexual Achilles' heels of the human race has provided hot copy through the ages. Scandal has been defined as "grave loss of or injury to reputation" resulting from actual (or suspected) violation of morality, ethics, propriety, or law. Sex, deceit, bribery, power, excess, and fame are the key elements of most scandals. And of course, it all has to be exposed in some publicized, often lurid fashion, for as George C. Kohn notes: "There has to be some extra element as well—something untoward, shocking, and reprehensible to the public." Kohn might also add, something infinitely fascinating.
Artists and entertainers have always been considered innately scandalous, but at the turn of the twentieth century movies and sex became inextricably linked. In 1921 Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Hollywood's most popular silent-era comedian, threw a party to celebrate his new $3 million contract. The three day affair resulted in the death of starlet, Virginia Rappe, who suffered a ruptured bladder and died as a result of a questionable sexual encounter with the 266 pound comedian. Arbuckle was charged with Rappe's rape and murder, and became a symbol of all that appeared morally offensive in early Hollywood. Though acquitted, public opinion remained against him. His contract was canceled, his films banned, and he was no longer cast in Hollywood. By 1933 both Hollywood and the public had either forgiven or forgotten, and Arbuckle managed a comeback. But just hours after completing his first film in over a decade, the once beloved comedian died in his sleep of a heart attack in a New York hotel room.
William Randolph Hearst and actress Marion Davies indulged in a long-standing affair which was only partially shielded by the newspaper mogul's wealth and power. The married Hearst became infatuated with Davies in the early 1920s. She became his mistress, and he relentlessly promoted her movie career. Hearst and Davies became the subject of an unresolved scandal when director Thomas Harper Ince died on the Hearst/Davies yacht in 1924. Though the final verdict was death by "heart attack due to acute indigestion," rumors of foul play persisted, including one that Ince had been accidentally shot in a fit of Hearst jealousy aimed at Charlie Chaplin. After the incident the Hearst/Davies relationship continued much as before, and was later fictionalized by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, a 1941 film which enraged Hearst, but which even his vast media empire was unable to suppress.
Sinclair Lewis explored the relationship between sex and evangelism in his famous novel, Elmer Gantry, as did Reverend Jim Bakker, mogul of the 1980s "Praise The Lord" Christian TV network. With wife Tammy Faye, Bakker became embroiled in a lurid affair encompassing everything from embezzlement to wife swapping and homosexuality. The scandal was motivated by Bakker's brief extramarital liaison with Jessica Hahn, and his ensuing attempt to bribe her into silence. Bakker was eventually forced to yield control of his lucrative empire to Jerry Falwell, and in 1987 was dismissed from serving as a minister in the Assemblies of God church. But even his ensuing prison term could not quell the controversy, with the tabloids gleefully continuing to report on his alleged affair with another male inmate.
Political sex scandals are among the most venerable, dating back nearly to the creation of the highest office itself: i.e., the recent DNA verification of relations between Thomas Jefferson and his quadroon slave, Sally Hemings. And even well-loved modern presidents, such as Roosevelt and Eisenhower, have not been immune to romantic/erotic controversy.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) was informally known as the "playboy" president, but his extracurricular sex life was carefully suppressed to maintain his well-hyped family image. His erotic exploits commenced while still a Senator, but the first affair to endanger his presidency was with a 26-year-old playgirl, Judy Campbell. Campbell, also known as Judith Exner, was also involved with Chicago Mafia boss, Salvatore "Sam" Giancana. Campbell eventually asserted that Kennedy had encouraged her sexual relationship with Giancana, and used her as a courier to pass intelligence and money to the mob boss, with some of the funds used to buy votes for Kennedy in the 1960 election. In 1962 Federal Bureau of Investigation Chief J. Edgar Hoover, noted for his knowledge of the sexual habits of influential people in all walks of life, lunched with Kennedy, and the affair with Campbell came to an end shortly thereafter.
An explosive relationship that has continued to elicit speculation about both JFK and Bobby Kennedy, was the affair the brothers shared with Marilyn Monroe. The Kennedy/Monroe affairs were blown into history by Monroe's sudden death in 1962, officially a suicide, but still giving rise to persistent rumors that she had been murdered, either by Mafia hit men or by United States intelligence operatives. One investigator claimed that Bobby Kennedy and Monroe shared angry words shortly before her death when Kennedy, fearing public scandal, attempted to end the affair.
John Kennedy's assassination in 1963 threw a sanctified shroud over any scandalous revelations for over a decade. Thus, the American public was considerably jolted when in 1975 word first leaked out concerning Campbell, and Kennedy's other affairs. Kennedy's final involvement was with a Washington socialite, Mrs. Mary Pinchot Meyer. The long term affair may have remained a secret, except for the bizarre fact that Meyer was murdered only 11 months after Kennedy's assassination, and during the investigation their relationship was revealed.
Speculations on Marilyn Monroe's death have continued to the present day, though due to the fact that key data mysteriously vanished shortly afterwards, the truth about the actress' demise may never be known. The ongoing suspicions that she was killed to protect the Kennedy reputation, however, hint at the extremes to which those in high power may have gone to protect themselves from the destructive breath of scandal during the still conservative early 1960s.
Of the later Kennedy controversies, the most publicized was the 1969 incident in which Senator Edward Kennedy's secretary, Mary Jo Kopechne, was killed when the car Kennedy was driving careened off a bridge on Chappaquiddick, a small island near Martha's Vineyard. Kennedy did not report the fatal accident until the following morning, arousing suspicion of an illicit affair between the two. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and after suspending his driver's license and a two month suspended jail sentence, local authorities closed the case. It was, however, reopened by the Massachusetts federal district attorney. No one was indicted in the closed inquest in October, 1969, and while Edward Kennedy won re-election to the Senate in 1970, he declined to seek the presidency in 1972.
Not long after Chappaquiddick another senator, Gary Hart, was a leading contender for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. But accusations of an extra-marital affair with actress/model, Donna Rice, thwarted his chances, and became an overriding campaign issue. The Hart affair also included reactions against the scandal mongering of the press, particularly the Miami Herald, which launched an aggressive investigation that included a secret stakeout of Hart's Washington townhouse. But though no proof of adultery was unearthed, the press rumors persisted, and it was accusations of adultery, rather than any conclusive evidence, that actually cost Hart the candidacy. Before withdrawing Hart made the startling (but prophetic) comment that, if elected he would not "be the first adulterer in the White House."
And certainly not the last. The end of the millennium climaxed with the most graphically documented sex scandal in American history; the 1998/1999 President William Jefferson Clinton/Monica Lewinsky/Paula Jones/Ken Starr/Henry Hyde et al affair. This was state-of-the-art, high-tech scandal, integrating DNA testing, the Internet, new buzzwords such as "censure-plus," and reams of copy from both the legitimate and tabloid media (not to mention a voluminous outpouring of letters to various editors from a passionately divided American public). In contrast to the aggressively guarded Kennedy affairs, the public was spared no detail of the Clinton incident, and articles counseling parents on how to deal with the explicit details of certain highly accessible news stories were a frequent aspect of the scandal.
After the inundation of words, a terse, matter-of-fact item appeared in the "Milestones" column of Time magazine's February 22, 1999 issue: "Acquitted, William Jefferson Clinton, 52, of perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges, by the U.S. Senate; in Washington (see cover story)." The cover story: "How the Scandal Was Good For America." After the official verdict, a public consensus seemed to emerge that indicated while many remained disapproving of Clinton's morals, most were satisfied with his performance as president and happy with the state of the American economy.
In a statement on actual character, and a comment on scandal mongering everywhere, Ethan Canin drew a parallel between morality and popular culture in the "Talk of the Town" column of the October 5, 1998 New Yorker: "In a novel, I am interested in complex personality, in ranging intelligence, in moral originality -what in fiction is called rounded character. This is also what I want in the President of my country. Ken Starr's zealous and chillingly unambiguous morality suggests to me none of the fullness, none of the complex interplay and recognition of opposing forces that interest the intelligent mind. And this, in fiction, is called flat character. If Bill Clinton and Ken Starr were characters in one of my students' stories, the class could agree that it is Mr. Starr, not Mr. Clinton, who lacks character."
In the wake of the Clinton affair, one might well ask: Is scandal still a decisive issue in modern life, or merely a titillating, rather tiresome diversion? If we define scandal as "a grave loss or injury to reputation resulting from actual or apparent violation of morality, ethics, propriety, or law," we might conclude the latter. In the tabloid age scandal now promotes, rather than ends, careers—the Los Angeles New Times comments only half-jokingly that "There is no bad publicity … "—and with the O. J. Simpson case, even children seem to comprehend that certain individuals are now above the law; terms such as "ethics" and "propriety" echoing with a decidedly antiquated ring. As in Bertolt Brecht's mythical American city, Mahagonny, when everything is permitted (or accepted), nothing is sacred (or shocking). Where there is no apparent overriding morality left, there can be no scandal, only media buzzwords and cheap, hot copy.
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