In August 1977, a team of reporters from the National Enquirer descended on Memphis for Operation Elvis --- the biggest story in the history of Generoso Pope Jr.'s hugely successful Fla.-based tabloid. With virtually unlimited resources, the Enquirer staff installed 22 phone lines in a makeshift office at a local flop house, and fired off scoop after scoop, bribing everyone from groupies and phone operators to the King's dentist, psychic and even one family member willing to snap a shot of Elvis lying in state --- spawning the "celebrity in a box" picture that would later become a staple of the tabloid. As Walls, a former E! correspondent, puts it in this lively history of the gossip trade, "It was the National Enquirer at its best, and at its worst."

In August 1977, a team of reporters from the National Enquirer descended on Memphis for Operation Elvis — the biggest story in the history of Generoso Pope Jr.’s hugely successful Fla.-based tabloid. With virtually unlimited resources, the Enquirer staff installed 22 phone lines in a makeshift office at a local flop house, and fired off scoop after scoop, bribing everyone from groupies and phone operators to the King’s dentist, psychic and even one family member willing to snap a shot of Elvis lying in state — spawning the “celebrity in a box” picture that would later become a staple of the tabloid. As Walls, a former E! correspondent, puts it in this lively history of the gossip trade, “It was the National Enquirer at its best, and at its worst.”

By 1981, the Enquirer was facing $100 million in potential damages from 10 celebrity libel cases. Only one such suit — Carol Burnett’s — resulted in a verdict against the tabloid.

But as the years wore on, the balance of power between the public, the stars and the media shifted.

As the mainstream press turned tabloid, a trend epitomized amusingly in Walls’ opening tableau, as Matt Drudge addresses the National Press club, the Enquirer and its ilk lost ground. Meanwhile, the power of celebrities and their gatekeeper-publicists — such as Pat Kingsley, who, Walls recounts, uses draconian measures to limit access to her star clients, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman — has risen to new heights.

True to her subtitle, Walls proves the quintessential insider, and a highly entertaining one at that. Her accounts of dueling Hollywood gossips Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, tabloid TV icons like Barbara Walters and Geraldo Rivera, and high-flying editrix Tina Brown, lay bare the inner workings of the major gossip outlets in their ongoing efforts to balance dish, cronyism and actual news.

An inveterate gossip hound, Walls doesn’t hesitate to aim below the belt (Brown is reported to have had “mixed feelings about sex”; Geraldo Rivera, in his own words, is “a grunting, voracious pig in heat.”).

The book is long on detail and short on analysis. Its occasional typos and errors (e.g., Tom Cruise didn’t direct “Mission: Impossible”) suggest it was a rush job, cobbled together at the breakneck speed of a daily columnist with a page to fill.

But rarely has the world of dish been served up in so dishy a style, making this a must-read for anyone who one day hopes to walk in the hallowed footsteps of Dorris Lilly, Cindy Adams or Liz Smith.

Dish: The Inside Story of the World of Gossip

AVON/SPIKE, 384 PGS, $25

Production

By JEANNETTE WALLS
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