Are we living in a post-scandal age? On the one hand—especially in the political realm—events that would have been scandal-worthy just a decade ago now seem to unfold without consequences. On the other, as the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves show, it’s still possible for shocking allegations to derail a career. The truth is that scandals are contextual. A scandal requires an attentive audience—and societies attend to some transgressions while ignoring others.
This week, we’re bringing you eight pieces about scandals from The New Yorker’sarchive. Each reflects the values of its time. Writing in 1936, Robert Benchley weighs in on the love affair between King Edward VIII of England and Wallis Simpson, an American socialite. (Ultimately, it cost Edward the throne.) In a piece from 1950, Janet Flanner reports, from Italy, on the media frenzy surrounding the birth of Ingrid Bergman’s son, Renato Roberto Rossellini. (Bergman’s affair with the filmmaker Roberto Rossellini was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate.) In a story from 1954, Robert Shaplen reports on a nineteenth-century scandal surrounding the adultery trial of Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, and, in a 1959 Comment, John Updike reacts to the revelation of widespread cheating on many of America’s beloved TV quiz shows. Mollie Panter-Downes explores the relationship that brought down a British Prime Minister, in “The Profumo Affair,” from 1963; Mavis Gallant, in “Immortal Gatito,” from 1971, chronicles a doomed student–teacher love affair that transfixed France. Suzannah Lessard examines the life and violent death of her great-grandfather, the architect Stanford White, in “Stanford White’s Ruins,” from 1996. Finally, in “Still Here,” from 2014, Amy Davidson Sorkin revisits the affair between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and explores how Lewinsky had dealt with the fallout from the scandal. These pieces are just as fascinating now as they were back then, if not more so: they bring into focus the codes and assumptions of the scandalized.
“A Royal Love Affair”
“Do you realize that reports from ‘reliable sources’ about King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson are only just beginning! This thing is going on for years.” Read more.
“Only two people ever knew how it came about that Gabrielle Russier, discreet and prudent in her private life, given more easily to comradeship with men than romance, should have finally chosen a lover from among her students.” Read more.
“The Great American Quiz-Show Scandal”
“The mysterious and awful thing about the television quiz scandals is not that the jaded souls who ran the show were hoaxers but that dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of contestants, almost all of whom must have applied in the simplicity of good faith, were successfully enrolled in the hoax.” Read more.
“An Ingrid Bergman News Crisis”
“The American press didn’t catch on until later. When it did, the reporting of the Bergman-Rossellini news became a mass assault upon the principals in the case—mother, father, and child.” Read more.
“The Profumo Affair”
“It is painful to most people that the man who perhaps had hoped to be remembered as the Prime Minister who led Britain historically into the European community should be apparently about to make his literal exit from office on a note of scandal rather than history.” Read more.
“The Beecher–Tilton Affair”
“The deacons of Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church were dismayed, as well they might have been. Plymouth Church was the most fashionable church in Brooklyn, and its parishioners included many of that community’s most distinguished and influential citizens.” Read more.
“Stanford White’s Ruins”
“In the fifties and sixties, Stanford White became a glamorous, sexy figure, whose murder was an iconic event at the juncture of centuries. The censorious judgment of Stanford at the time of his death came to be seen as a reflection of Victorian prudery, hypocrisy, and naïveté.” Read more.
“Last week, Monica Lewinsky published an essay in Vanity Fair about her life as an object of extreme mass voyeurism. She is recognized, she writes, ‘every day,’ and has found that ‘traditional employment’ is not an option; she gets by with ‘projects,’ and money from family and friends.” Read more.