“The Sins of Hollywood,” via Archive.org.
From its very beginnings, the motion picture industry has endured protests and censorship attacks from conservative members of the American public, those scandalized at seeing women given the right to be heroines, use of spirits or drugs depicted on screen, accurate depictions of romantic or sexual relationships, and dramatic depictions of violence. At the same time, many of the same people complaining about these visceral images on screen were eagerly partaking of scandal sheets and tabloid newspapers filled with muck, sensationalism, and gossip. These hypocritical individuals failed to realize that one form of entertainment was just as bad as the other, but they allowed journalism to partake of First Amendment rights, but not the entertainment industry.
As early as 1905 to 1907, many persons began calling for censorship of moving pictures, and by 1909, many cities and states possessed censor boards which approved or disapproved films for public exhibition. Though they would censor film product for its licentiousness, these same public officials felt no need to alter or disapprove of scandalous printed forms of entertainment. Conservative voices increasingly voiced their opposition to film depictions whenever scandal erupted in the motion picture industry.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
After film exploded on the scene in the early 1900s, many newspapers set up entertainment sections to review productions, interview stars, and give tidbits of information regarding upcoming productions. While entertainment and motion picture trade journals like Variety and Moving Picture World existed as early as 1905, fan magazines were not introduced until 1911, when J. Stuart Blackton and Eugene V. Brewster introduce Motion Picture Story Magazine, per Tony Slide in his book, “Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine.” Fan magazines exploded in popularity in the mid-teens, and gossip soon became an integral part of the show, filling the voracious appetite for news and rumors regarding public entertainers.
The scandalous tragedies and deaths of Olive Thomas, Virginia Rappe, and William Desmond Taylor in the early 1920s drew public condemnation on the moving picture industry, forcing it to act in order to protect its very existence. Industry leaders organized the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1922 to speak as one voice for the collective members, helping ensure strong public relations and to establish and maintain a moral code for the production of films.
Ironic then, that one of the motion picture industry’s own supporters in fighting censorship and denigration of the film industry, Edward or Ed Roberts, supposed publisher of “It” magazine and the “It Publishing Company,” would pen the first tawdry hatchet job of stars and the film industry in his self-published 1922 book, “The Sins of Hollywood.” Preceding the trashy fiction of Kenneth Anger by more than thirty years, “The Sins of Hollywood” presented a thinly-veiled depiction of scandalous goings-on by popular current movie stars, easily deciphered by movie-going audiences.
The Des Moines Capital, Dec. 10, 1922.
What little that can be found about Roberts suggests that he loved a good yarn and playing loose with the facts, though he was supposedly a press agent and publisher. In the 1920 United States Federal Census, Roberts lists himself as the son of a Russian father and German mother, though he was born in Tennessee. The 1930 census claims his father was born in Wales and his mother as born in New York, and that he fought in the Spanish War. Per the 1940 census, his parents are living in Tennessee when he is born but of no foreign nationality, and he had completed a fifth year of college.
Roberts’ profession changes over the years as well, evolving from the publisher of “It” magazine and It Publishing Co. in 1920 to a wage or salary worker in 1930, and finally retired in 1940, but “with other sources of income.” In 1920, he listed himself as publisher and editor of “It” Magazine and It Publishing Company, with offices at 411 W. Fifth Street and residence at 4422 Sunset Boulevard, though I can find no listings for this magazine. He does appear to have been active as a publicist or press agent around 1920, as articles around this time list him as journalist and publisher.
In fact, Roberts took active part in an organization called Affiliated Picture Interests, organized in 1919 by motion picture workers, exchange managers, and theatre owners and managers to ”combat unfavorable legislation and be active in political matters,” per Film Daily. By April 1921, it focused its attentions against government censorship of the film industry, even campaigning for or against politicians in regards to Anti-Censorship and Anti-Blue Laws in particular.
Affiliated Picture Interests elected new officers in 1921 that included organization founder Frank Garbutt as chairman, men such as J. Stuart Blackton, Frank Woods, Sol Wurtzel, William Desmond Taylor, and Roberts as Vice Chairmen. The group endorsed candidates for public office in Los Angeles, particularly those who opposed setting up a censorship board for the city of Los Angeles, endorsing or supporting six candidates for the Los Angeles City Council, all of whom were elected.
That fall, Roberts, Glen Harper, and Ted Taylor organized a series of dinners at the Los Angeles Athletic Club between organization members, politicians, prominent businessmen, and clergy leaders in order to promote “mutual understanding’ of each other, per the September 10, 1921 Exhibitors’ Herald. These actions appeared to work in Los Angeles, with the film industry policing themselves on content, unfettered by government regulation as in other cities.
Something occurred in the next few months which must have pushed Edwards over the edge, causing him to write the poison pen “The Sins of Hollywood” in the spring of 1922. Possibly Roberts intended the tome to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the motion picture industry, screaming about the evils of censorship while overlooking the multitude of sins and destruction going on around them in Hollywood, causing all types of mental and physical health issues. Perhaps he also meant the book as a test of censorship and freedom of the press to discuss slimy subjects. The book instead comes off as a tawdry walk through the personal addictions and problems of stars, meant only to titillate rather than inform, with an ironic note that the author’s introduction is dated April 1, 1922.
The 88-page book featured chapters with such titles as “the Reasons for the Sins of Hollywood,” “Dope,” “Strip Poker and Paddle Parties,” “The ‘Gold Digger’ and the Wife,” “Whiskey Fumes and Orange Blossoms,” and “Sodom Outdone.” In it, he presented very close depictions of real people, changing their names slightly, such as Jack for Mack Sennett, Molly for Mabel Normand, Walter for Wallace Reid, Letty for Betty Compson, Adolfo for Rudolph Valentino, and Rostrand was Roscoe Arbuckle. Some stories seem pure fabrication, while others loosely tell of real incidents. It also features conversations obviously dreamed up by the author, as there were no witnesses to such events.
Roberts opened the book with an introduction entitled “The Reasons for “The Sins of Hollywood,” noting that the lives of debauchery that many lead will end with further scandal to shatter the faith and dreams of American youth. He goes on to state,
“It is for these reasons that the SINS OF HOLLYWOOD are given to the public –
That a great medium of national expression may be purified – taken from the hands of those who have misused it – that the childish faith of our boys and girls may again be made sacred!
Fully eighty percent of those engaged in motion pictures are high grade citizens – self respecting and respected.
In foolish fear of injuring the industry, Hollywood has permitted less than one percent of its population to stain its name.
The facts reported in these stories have long been an open book to the organized producers – No need to tell them – they knew!
They knew of the horde of creatures of easy morals who hovered about the industry and set the standard of price – decided what good, clean women would have to pay – have to give – in order to succeed –
They knew of the macqueraux – of the scum that constituted the camp followers of their great stars. They knew of the wantonness of their leading women –
They knew about the yachting parties – the wild orgies at road houses and private homes-
They knew about Vernon and its wild life – Tia Juana and its mad, drunken revels –
They knew about the “kept” women – and the “kept” men –
They knew about the prominent people among them who were living in illicit relationship-…
They frowned on all attempts to speak the truth –
Any publication that attempted to reveal the real conditions – to cleanse the festering sores – was quickly pounced upon as an ‘enemy of the industry’ – A subsidized trade press helped in this work!
Any attempt to bring about reform was called “hurting the industry.”
It was the lapses and laxities of the producer that precipitated the censorship agitation – that led a nauseated nation, determined to clean the Augean stables of the screen, into the dangerous notion of censorship – almost fatally imperiling two sacred principles of democracy – freedom of speech and freedom of the press!”
The only way to clean up the industry was to surgically remove the corruption – though it would be painful in the short time, much good was ensure for the long term.
Copyright records note the book was copyrighted May 1 and May 9, 1922 by the Hollywood Publishing Company, out of business by May 23. Newspapers and trade papers quickly reported that Mark Herron, deputy United States District Attorney in Los Angeles considered it “too scurrilous” to be sent through the mail, with Postal Inspector Clark E. Webster investigating the author and publisher. The Daily Ardmoreite, in its May 24, 1922 edition under the headline, “Hollywood Sins Can’t Be Mailed Attorney Claims,” called the book “an expose on the lives of certain motion picture actors and directors… . The Evening Star employed the headline, “Naughty! Naughty!” for its printing of the wire story.
The Lincoln Star wrote on May 23 that 10,000 copies of the book telling stars’ misdeeds were printed and distributed, and stating that “the writer dares to call them by their first names and endeavors to expose their shortcomings, domestic and moral.” The Rock Island Argus facetiously but accurately wrote on May 27 that with the book being banned from the mails, it would probably become a bestseller.
An editorial in the June 3, 1922 New York Call thought it prurient literature for the feeble-minded, stating, “…obviously a book that parades under the title “The Sins of Hollywood” or the “sins” of anything else is a vile script written for the deliberate purpose of cashing in on the curious minds of adolescent boys and girls. Moreover, actresses and actors, taking them as a professional class, live as decently as the average convert of Billy Sunday, even if they don’t pester everybody to death by continuously telling them how pure they are.”
A play by Hatton Powell and Norman Manley using the same title came out that fall, to defend Hollywood and its’ stars, with the Detroit Free Press calling it on August 1, 1922, a slap at Roberts and his lurid book, coming to the defense of Hollywood.
Trade papers and the industry turned on their former colleague, with Motion Picture magazine calling Roberts’ work “a putrid collection” and “slander.” On December 5, Holly Leaves reported that the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce had revealed to them on December 1 its role in submitting information to help arrest Roberts, led by the efforts of George H. Coffin. The paper went on to write, “The Chamber has done one more great work for the community” with this action.
On December 13, Roberts surrendered to United States Marshal Sittel in answer to the secret federal grand jury indictment accusing him of illegally sending “improper matter” through the United States mail. According to press reports, the postal inspector read the work to the jury, who then indicted Roberts. The December 13, 1922 Los Angeles Times reports that Roberts was out of town on Friday, December 9 when the indictment was announced and given until Saturday to make the $5,000 bond. After missing this date, he was given until Monday at noon to pay, with his third attorney in three days, Richard Kittrelle, stating he would appear. At 10 am on Monday, two neighbors or friends, Mrs. Hazel Barnes and Mrs. Katie Stieler, put up bonds stating that they could cover the costs and Roberts signed the affidavit, and was released from custody.
The Des Moines Capital reported on December 10 that Roberts worked against censorship and was backed by “four prominent Hollywood men” in his efforts to publish the book, printing it to shed light on how studios overlooked vice. He only wrote the book after leaving his role with Affiliated Picture Interests and trying to establish “It” magazine. The article goes on to say that it appeared that the motion picture industry played a large role in seeing to his indictment and possible prosecution. At the same time, Will Hays stated that Hollywood would be turned into a model city, cleaning up its social messes.
Roberts explained in a story printed in the December 10, 1922 New York Evening Telegraph, “I can prove that these stories are true, and may call as witnesses several members of the film colony. I am going to go to bat on this matter. There is nothing obscene in the book. It is a true expose of conditions as they exist and are tolerated by the film industry. Naturally the stories aren’t of puritan type. If this case does nothing else it will at least bring the situation to the attention of the nation.” He stated that he hoped to thoroughly expose Hollywood’s immorality at his trial to show his book only mildly covered the town’s debauchery and therefore was not obscene. US Attorney Mark Herron stated that the book wasn’t obscene because of its content, but because of the thoughts it engendered in the minds of those reading it.
The East Oregonian stated on December 29 that United States Attorney Joe Burke was conferring with Roberts regarding information implicating “higher ups in the Hollywood dope ring and promises arrests shortly which will startle the country.” Roberts’ attorney, Richard Kittrelle, a well-respected and important attorney in California, entered a plea of not guilty for Roberts on January 10, 1923, stating they wanted the trial to move ahead without delay.
After this date, all stories on the upcoming trial disappear from newspapers and magazines. Was it dismissed for lack of evidence? Did Roberts possess information that the industry willingly paid for to keep from court? Did the courts realize that the author was practicing his First Amendment rights, and drop the case?
Whatever the reason, Roberts and his wife Jean remained in Los Angeles, where he appeared to work steadily, at least according to the Census. In the 1940 Census, in which he states his age as 62, he lists his income as other sources. A few months later, Roberts passed away.
Edward Roberts attempts at making Hollywood clean up its act with his spicy stories did the trick for a short time, before more scandal sprang up years later. At the same time, a more sordid, gossipy press sprung up with the likes of Confidential magazine and its ilk, printing fabricated or very loosely based stories on celebrities, ruining careers or just destroying reputations. Kenneth Anger followed suit in 1959, when, in need of cash, he concocted stories in his “book” “Hollywood Babylon” to those gullible or prurient enough to read trash.
Today, tabloids and sites like National Enquirer and TMZ look for filth to publish in the race to make money, instead of printing real news or stories that might make a difference in bettering society. Sordid, spicy stories sold in 1922, and unfortunately seem to thrive even more in today’s increasingly grimy world.