The Evening Graphic's
Tabloid Reality

By Bob Stepno
Assistant Professor
Emerson College, Boston
PhD Candidate, UNC-Chapel Hill
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Seventy years before the current debates about television news sacrificing journalistic values to be a form of entertainment, or arguments about the sensational excesses of "tabloid television," there was a similar uproar about the ethics and values of newspapers, especially the three New York City tabloids, the Daily News, the Mirror, and the Evening Graphic.  The Graphic  was the one the other two held up as a bad example, calling it the "Porno Graphic" for its emphasis on sex, gossip and crime news. It only lived for eight years, but it launched the careers of Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, and others who went on to more respectable newspapers or abandoned reality (or at least New York) for Hollywood.

The Graphic did things with photographs that respectable newspapers wouldn't think of doing... or at least they rarely would think of doing them after the sex and sensation-minded Graphic  did them first. The Graphic  staged dramatic "news" scenes in a studio for its daily multi-panel "Graphic Photo Drama from Life" feature, and to illustrate "True Story" style first-person stories. Bernarr MacFadden, publisher of the Graphic  also founded True Story  and Physical Culture  magazines, both pioneers in photo illustration in their own way. The Graphic  ran MacFadden's health advice, posed chorus girls in a comic strip of "physical culture" exercise demonstrations (with joke captions), and reflected MacFadden's liberal attitudes toward sex and the human body. But it was most famous (or infamous) for its composographs -- often startling front page images created in the art department by cutting and pasting the faces of celebrities onto the bodies of often scantily-clad models posed to illustrate some real-life scene where a camera simply couldn't go (especially with the flash powder cameramen used in those days)... into someone's bedroom, to bathtub-ringside at a wild Broadway party, to a hanging, into a closed courtroom at a steamy divorce trial, into a hospital operating room or beyond the grave...

There wasn't anything Irish about New York Evening Graphic  front page on St. Patrick's Day 1927, but it did put a couple of"saints" on display with a composograph  composite image of the recently deceased actor Rudolph Valentino and the previously deceased singing star Enrico Caruso meeting in the afterlife.... an afterlife that looks like a crowd of silent film extras on a movie set, with the two foreground figures superimposed, and the faces of Caruso and Valentino pasted into place.

The caption says the image was prepared from a description by a psychic at a seance. The other page-one news of the day was "Gang Queen and 4 Men Held After Police Seize 'Dope' Outfit and Guns in Raid" and "Cop, Shot, Kills Gunman." The Valentino and Caruso image was included as the frontispiece of Silas Bent's 1927 book Ballyhoo, which concerns the rise of entertainment newspapers, celebrity journalism, public relations and commercialism in the 1920s.

Incidentally, note that the Valentino-Caruso front page is the final edition of that night's paper, marked with five stars  in the top right corner of the nameplate. The Academy Award winning film Five Star Final  was based on a play written by the Graphic's second managing editor, about a tabloid with a sensational murder story on its hands. Edward G. Robinson played the editor, and Boris Karloff was the star reporter! The film Blessed Event  is based on another play -- about Walter Winchell's invention of the modern gossip column while he was at the Graphic.  The paper's original managing editor, Emile Gauvreau, wrote two novels about his experiences, Scandal Monger  (about the star gossip columnist) and Hot News  (which also was made into an harder-to-find film), in which he makes his editor's enthusiasm for composographs sound like a mad addiction.

Composographs and coverage of Valentino are probably best described in Frank Mallen's 1954 book, Sauce for the Gander, which provided the other images on this page. Mallen was photo editor at the time, and felt the composographs of Valentino's funeral were the best. He emphasizes that the composographs weren't attempts to deceive the public, but to catch their attention with the "news" of something that couldn't be pictured any other way. (Most of the images on this Web page are from that book, where they are credited "courtesy of Harry Grogin," the assistant art director who apparently did most of the creative work with composites at the Graphic. If anyone knows whether Grogin's collection survives in a museum or family collection, I'd love to hear about it.)

Perhaps the Graphic  came along before the public was set in the habit of believing that photographs represented "the truth," at least as set as audiences became with the rise of high-quality photojournalism in the 1930s, including LIFE and LOOK magazines, wirephotos, candid 35mm photographs, and the courageous work of World War II photojournalists. But the trustworthiness of photos is something we've come to doubt in today's age of easy photo manipulation with computers and Photoshop. In advertising and entertainment, the camera is clearly accepted as a tool for creative illustration, not just for "capturing" reality. Do readers recognize the difference? Did the Graphic? Its arguable whether the Graphic  was interested in capturing reality at all -- it was willing to create text stories out of rumors as well as turn hearsay into photographs. It had ghostwriters compose "first-person" diaries for publicity-hungry subjects, and it made news with its own crusades and stunts. Sometimes the boundaries between reality, story and stunt became blurred.

It's interesting to play "what if." What if other papers (with a tighter grasp on responsible journalism) had adopted the Graphic's idea of creating photo illustrations in the studio or darkroom? We might have a different attitude toward photography today, a time when photojournalists are struggling with "image ethics" issues filtered and sharpened by new technology. That kind of speculation is hard to test as a theory. One approach is to look at the reaction to the Graphic.  But back in the 1920s the greatest uproar wasn't about the Graphic's manipulation of images, or even of people, but about its habit of putting nudity and bedroom scenes on the front page in a series of sensational divorce stories.

That's the conclusion I came to after a few months of reading microfilm of the Graphic,  the trade magazine Editor & Publisher,  and critiques of the Graphic  in magazine and newspaper articles from the 1920s. The details are in my paper titled, Staged, faked and mostly naked: Photographic innovations at the Evening Graphic,  1924-1932, which was well-received by reviewers for both the Western Journalism Historians Conference in Berkeley and (a slightly revised version) the 1997 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Chicago, where it was chosen top paper in the Visual Communications division.

In printed form the conference paper was 29 pages long with 68 footnotes, something the Graphic definitely didn't have. I also prepared a version of the paper as a "page" on the Web, with all of the pictures and footnotes linked bidirectionally, so that you could browse the pictures or notes and jump to the right place in the text. (After all, the Graphic was for people who look at the pictures first. Perhaps I should write another paper about tabloids as "user interface design"?) I do want to experiment more with this business of presenting the same information in an online version with hypertext links while preserving the full linear version of the original. However, I also plan to turn the original conference paper into a journal article and have been advised by an editor to hold off "Web publication" until after the print version. In fact, that's how this Web page came about--as a less-academic essay that I could publish myself.

I hope to resume my research on the creators of the Graphic and their ideas of news, entertainment and ethics, maybe even work that into one Web with my dissertation work on online "news" and "entertainment" publishing. If you are doing related research or if you have more information about the Graphic and its creators, drop me a line by email to bob_stepno@emerson.edu or the old-fashioned way to Bob Stepno, Department of Journalism, Emerson College, 120 Boylston St., Boston, MA, 02116.


Related sites:

This document was created July 15, 1997; revised Mar. 9, 1999 after being "discovered" by my favorite online tabloid; e-mail addresses and links were updated when the page moved to Boston on May 30, 2000.