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The Godfather of Tabloid

The Godfather of Tabloid: Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Godfather of Tabloid
    Book Description:

    They're hard to miss at grocery stores and newsstands in America -- the colorful, heavily illustrated tabloid newspapers with headlines promising shocking, unlikely, and sometimes impossible stories within. Although the papers are now ubiquitous, the supermarket tabloid's origin can be traced to one man: Generoso Pope Jr., an eccentric, domineering chain-smoker who died of a heart attack at age sixty-one. In The Godfather of Tabloid, Jack Vitek explores the life and remarkable career of Pope and the founding of the most famous tabloid of all -- the National Enquirer. Upon graduating from MIT, Pope worked briefly for the CIA until he purchased the New York Enquirer with dubious financial help from mob boss Frank Costello. Working tirelessly and cultivating a mix of American journalists (some of whom, surprisingly, were Pulitzer prize winners) and buccaneering Brits from Fleet Street who would do anything to get a story, Pope changed the name, format, and content of the modest weekly newspaper until it resembled nothing America had ever seen before. At its height, the National Enquirer boasted a circulation of more than five million, equivalent to the numbers of the Hearst newspaper empire. Pope measured the success of his paper by the mail it received from readers, and eventually the volume of reader feedback was such that the post office assigned the Enquirer offices their own zip code. Pope was skeptical about including too much celebrity coverage in the tabloid because he thought it wouldn't hold people's interest, and he shied away from political stories or stances. He wanted the paper to reflect the middlebrow tastes of America and connect with the widest possible readership. Pope was a man of contradictions: he would fire someone for merely disagreeing with him in a meeting (once firing an one editor in the middle of his birthday party), and yet he spent upwards of a million dollars a year to bring the world's tallest Christmas tree to the Enquirer offices in Lantana, Florida, for the enjoyment of the local citizens. Driven, tyrannical, and ruthless in his pursuit of creating an empire, Pope changed the look and content of supermarket tabloid media, and the industry still bears his stamp. Grounded in interviews with many of Pope's supporters, detractors, and associates, The Godfather of Tabloid is the first comprehensive biography of the man who created a genre and changed the world of publishing forever.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7304-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-4)

    Generoso Pope Jr. denied all his life that he had any connections with the Mafia, most publicly when he was questioned about such links by Mike Wallace on60 Minutesin 1976. Wallace noted that Pope had known Frank Costello, Joseph Pravachi, and Albert Anastasia, which Pope readily admitted, and commented that Pope owned 100 percent of theNational Enquirer’s stock and ran the paper like a “godfather.”

    Wallace went on: “And you know as well as I do that there are allegations that Mafia money had been behind theEnquirersince the beginning?”

    Pope: “Right, I’ve heard—I’ve read...

    (pp. 5-14)

    Generoso Pope Jr. is virtually unknown to the American public as well as to academic circles, including even the discipline of American culture studies, yet ultimately he has had an immense and continuing effect on our everyday lives and our culture. Pope, who founded theNational Enquirerand edited it for thirty-six years until his sudden death in 1988, will be seen, when the full story is known, as the man who invented and fostered the ever-widening brand of tabloid culture that surrounds us now. A critical biography of Pope is in order for several reasons, and the first and...

    (pp. 15-28)

    Generoso Pope Jr. was the namesake, third, youngest, and favorite son of Generoso Pope Sr., who came to New York City in his early teens in 1906 on the S.S.Madonnafrom a farming village near Naples, with only a few words of English in his vocabulary and, as he later told a reporter, only a few dollars in his pocket. Bearing the family name Papa, which he later changed, he made his way with meager jobs, variously described as water boy in a piano factory and water boy for the men constructing the East River Tunnel. He worked his...

    (pp. 29-36)

    After Horace Mann, Pope breezed through MIT in two and a half years, by way of an accelerated wartime program, and earned, at age nineteen, a degree in mechanical engineering that he never used. Though he described himself as a “science nut,” Pope also said he never wanted to be an engineer but went to MIT because engineering fascinated him, that studying engineering taught him to think logically.¹ Cohn outpaced Pope, graduating from Columbia through a similar accelerated program with both his bachelor’s and law degrees by the time he was twenty.² After young Gene graduated from MIT in 1946,...

    (pp. 37-50)

    In 1951, Pope went to Washington and landed a job as a CIA officer in psych ops, or psychological warfare, in those days when the cold war was at arctic temperatures and a shooting war was going on in Korea. The Pope family’s Mafia connections likely had quite a lot to do with young Gene’s job with the CIA. The connection between the Mafia and Washington went beyond elective politics and the Italian American vote. During World War II the Office of Naval Intelligence had strong connections with the Mafia that did not surface until after the war. Before the...

    (pp. 51-60)

    After several years as a hand-to-mouth newspaper publisher, Pope experienced an epiphany that was to guide him into lucrative new territory. Certainly he was ready for something else. When the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian revolution of 1956 he printed ten thousand extra copies. They didn’t sell.¹ This was one of the key moments that convinced him, as he was to say more firmly later, that politics and religion were “dead.” Such pronouncements go a long way toward explaining why Pope’s later tabloid journalism was so politically bland. Trying to exploit the Sunday news gap wasn’t working out; that was...

    (pp. 61-73)

    When Pope made the move from the New York area—his editorial offices were in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, from 1962 to 1971, aside from a brief time on Madison Avenue—to Florida, he dumped practically his whole editorial staff and started over.¹ As noted, Pope never had trouble firing people. Iain Calder recalls Pope firing his whole editorial staff, except for his two top executives, after he heard reports that his employees were interested in unionizing. Pope was so trigger-happy, so much of a godfather, it was considered unlucky to even look him in the eye when passing him....

    (pp. 74-95)

    Within a year of the move to Florida and the change in formula, theEnquirer’s circulation rose to two million, and it gained nearly a million a year for the next four years.¹ The nation’s press pricked up its ears;TimeandNewsweekstarted covering the paper’s spectacular rise and the hairpin turns Pope was making with its editorial content. In 1975Newsweeksummarized the developments:

    [TheEnquirer] used to be a weirdo’s delight. Specializing in tales of mutilation, perversion, and gore, theNational Enquirermesmerized its one million readers a decade ago with such headlines as Mom Uses Son’s...

    (pp. 96-108)

    By the time Tom Kuncl rose to executive editor in the late seventies, there were more British than American reporters, and overall the editorial ranks appeared to have swollen beyond their most efficient capacity. Pope had even hired a journalist to publish a lively, gossipy house newspaper to keep track of what was going on in Popestown. Then he decided a few years laternotto have a house organ. It appeared to be just another example of Pope changing his mind. Perhaps not coincidentally, the newsletter writer had recently bought a lovely house with a greenhouse bathroom and a...

  12. NINE LANTANA 33464
    (pp. 109-119)

    Pope remained a fair enigma even to his reporters and editors, who were ordinarily experts at figuring people out. They studied him hard and knew many little things about him, some he probably didn’t know about himself. This was very plausible, since he once told a reporter, “I don’t spend much time trying to figure myself out.”¹ Writers knew they had to be careful about his sign in astrology copy (Pope was born January 13). Reporter Frank Zahour remembers having an item kicked back to have the Capricorn description pumped up: “When a feature called for a description of a...

    (pp. 120-133)

    Soon after moving to Florida, Pope decided to erect “the World’s Tallest Christmas Tree” on theEnquirergrounds, and thus was born a tradition that continued until his death. The tree was found each year in the forests of Washington State, felled, transported by railroad car, and erected on theEnquirer’s grounds. When decorated and lit up, it could be seen for miles. The Douglas firs averaged between 110 and 125 feet and were billed as the “world’s tallest,” though Pope was unable, despite the fullest efforts by several editors, to get any of his trees listed in theGuinness...

    (pp. 134-138)

    Sometime after midnight on Tuesday, July 1, 1975,National Enquirerreporter Jay Gourley stopped his car in front of Henry Kissinger’s house in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and started loading in five green trash bags awaiting the morning’s pickup. The Secret Service agent standing on the nearby porch was unsure how to react, but he pulled himself together and told Gourley to desist. Gourley stood his ground. Talking into a mike in his left sleeve, the agent summoned his supervisor, and the choice was soon given to Gourley: put the trash bags back or go to jail.


    (pp. 139-149)

    Probably Pope’s most embarrassing journalistic gaffe was occasioned by Australian Robin Leach, then freelancing for theEnquirer.Leach, who went on to found his famous TV program,Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,placed a cover story—for which Pope always paid lavishly—on howCBS Evening Newsanchor Walter Cronkite had seen a UFO. That story, which Cronkite immediately debunked, nevertheless became one of Cronkite’s favorite private war stories, which he eventually retold in 1997 on PBS’sCrossing the Line.Cronkite’s reminiscence jogged the memory of Neal Travis, who had cycled out of theEnquirerand was then writing...

    (pp. 150-162)

    The issues of cultural abjectness and social transgression were very much alive in theEnquirer’s story on Elvis Presley’s funeral in August 1977, which resulted in the highest sales for any issue of theNational Enquirer—6.7 million—and was the benchmark record for any American tabloid. Spurred by the exclusive, pirated front-page head shot of Elvis in his coffin, sales that week might have gone even higher, according to Tom Kuncl, who, as executive editor, was on-the-ground commander of theEnquirer’s invasion of Memphis: “I was on the phone telling them to go to eight million—I think they...

    (pp. 163-176)

    In the seventies, as theEnquirerheaded for its highest circulations, Pope was still experimenting with his formula and the boundaries of his new style of tabloid journalism. The paper became ever more diversified, sometimes even looking back to the old gore days. Pope sent a reporter to Uganda to write an eyewitness account of one of Field Marshal Idi Amin’s imaginative mass executions. Amin had killed prisoners by crushing them with tanks, by disemboweling, beheading, and forcing them to kill other prisoners before being executed themselves. For theNational EnquirerAmin executed seventeen prisoners by crushing their heads with...

    (pp. 177-189)

    By the mid-seventies theNational Enquirerwas routinely feeding on Hollywood’s underbelly. The film factories manufactured the dreams and created leading ladies and men, and theEnquirerpoked a hole and deflated the fantasies, revealing the warts, wrinkles, and sags in the idols, not to mention trumpeting their offscreen bad behavior. The idols were stalked and caught off guard in unglamorous private moments by the new legion of paparazzi supported by Pope’s tabloids and their clones. Pope made it known that he would pay $250 for a story tip that panned out, significantly more for one that turned into a...

    (pp. 190-202)

    By 1979 it became obvious that Pope had to move theEnquirerinto color. It was the technology of the time, and even more compelling, Murdoch was employing color in theStar,whose vivid covers were upstaging theEnquireron the news racks. Color, it was also expected, would boost theEnquirer’s circulation and attract classy advertising—expectations that were never clearly realized. Rather, color was becoming necessary for theEnquirermerely to hold its leading place in the rapidly changing milieu of tabloid journalism. Yet the masterstroke Pope was yearning for turned up in a serendipitous but related development,...

    (pp. 203-210)

    One of the most memorable creations of theWeekly World Newswas the radically conservative columnist Ed Anger. The column was written during Pope’s lifetime by Rafe Klinger. Ed Anger is also a good place to examine the motivations and politics so widely discussed in academic readings of tabloid culture. Klinger wrote his first Ed Anger column within four months of theWeekly World Newsstartup. He had been nagging Phil Bunton, who didn’t think it was right for the paper. Bunton finally told him to write a few samples and he would run a couple for two weeks to...

    (pp. 211-225)

    There was nothing architecturally distinguished about the building Pope put up off Dixie Highway to house his paper. TheEnquirer’s one-story, flat-roofed building was low profile, largely hidden from view by high hedges. The utilitarian structure was sprawling and comfortable and had a great deal of glass, offering views from inside of many varieties of flowering plants, shrubs, trees, and happy squirrels and birds. The modest building harmonized nicely with the neighborhood’s small, lower-middle-class homes, most of them one-story cinderblock bungalows built during Florida’s second land boom in the fifties. Across from theEnquirer’s parking lot, in the shadow of...

    (pp. 226-233)

    Pope never let down. He worked obsessively. Clearly this was what he considered the ideal life—performing the boss totally, sedentarily, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. It was too good to miss even a few days for recreation. For all the medical stories theEnquirerran, Pope didn’t trust doctors. He didn’t have his first physical exam until he was forty-five.¹ And his editors knew better than to propose a story on the dangers of smoking. Months before his fatal heart attack Pope was diagnosed at the hospital that was also his favorite charity, JFK Medical Center, with...

    (pp. 234-252)

    In the last years Pope was at the helm of theEnquirerits circulation was running steadily in the middle four millions, and the paper remained a reliable cash cow, always easily existing on its cover price, as was theWeekly World News,still a lucrative shoestring operation. TheEnquirerhad slipped from its position of the late seventies and early eighties, when its circulation ran steadily in the five millions and occasionally spiked into the six millions. Pope had to back down from advertising the paper as the nation’s largest, but his Enquiring Minds Want to Know television ads...

    (pp. 253-265)

    In his lifetime and in the years since his death in 1988 Pope has never achieved recognition. Some of this lack of recognition is related to the “authorlessness” of tabloid: in a real sense Pope was the constructive author of every story theEnquirerpublished, but his work was unsigned and anonymous. This fit the low-profile godfatherish life he had constructed for himself. Pope had failed to behave like a tycoon: he missed the opportunity to pioneer tabloid TV. He seemed too happy in his tropical bower in small-town Florida, tweaking his formula, controlling every story, scribbling his red Z...

  25. NOTES
    (pp. 266-279)
    (pp. 280-283)
  27. INDEX
    (pp. 284-290)