Boldly claiming to 'tell the facts and name the names', in July 1955 Confidential Magazine embarked on telling 'the untold story of Marlene Dietrich'. The exposé reads, 'Dietrich going for dolls', and goes on to list among her many female lovers the 'blonde Amazon' Claire Waldoff, writer Mercedes d'Acosta (rumoured to be Greta Garbo's lover as well), a notorious Parisian lesbian named Frede, and multi-millionaire Jo Carstairs, whom Confidential Magazine dubs a 'mannish maiden' and a 'baritone babe'. 1
The scandal sheet may have shocked the general public by its disclosures, but for many lesbians it only confirmed what they had long suspected. Rumour and gossip constitute the unrecorded history of the gay subculture. In the introduction to Jump Cut's Lesbian and Film Issue, the editors begin to redeem gossip's lowly status: 'If oral history is the history of those denied control of the printed record, then gossip is the history of those who cannot even speak in their own first-person voice.' 2 Patricia Meyer Spacks in her book Gossip pushes this definition further seeing it not only as symptomatic of oppression but actually as a tool which empowers oppressed groups: '[Gossip] embodies an alternative discourse to that of public life, and a discourse potentially challenging to public assumptions; it provides language for an alternative culture.' 3 Spacks argues that through gossip those who are otherwise powerless can assign meanings and assume the power of representation. Her concept of gossip as the reinterpreting of materials from the dominant culture into shared private values could also be a description of the process by which the gay subculture in the United States in the early twentieth century began to take form.
Something that, through gossip, is commonplace knowledge within the gay subculture is often completely unknown on the outside, or if not unknown, at least unspeakable. It is this insistence by the dominant culture