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The Godfather of Tabloid

Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer

Jack Vitek

Publication Year: 2008

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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pp. vii-viii

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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 on 60 Minutes in 1976. Wallace noted that Pope had known Frank Costello, Joseph Pravachi, and Albert Anastasia, which Pope readily admitted, ...

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1. The Man in Perspective

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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 the National Enquirer and edited it for thirty-six years ...

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2. Family Connections

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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. Madonna from 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. ...

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3. Kid Wheeler-Dealer

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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 ...

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4. Friends in Low Places

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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. ...

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5. From Gore to Groceries

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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. ...

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6. A Second Start

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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. ...

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7. Rocketing Up

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pp. 74-95

Within a year of the move to Florida and the change in formula, the Enquirer’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; Time and Newsweek started covering the paper’s spectacular rise and the hairpin turns Pope was making ...

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8. Perfecting the Formula

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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. ...

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9. Lantana 33464

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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 ...

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10. The Million-Dollar Tree: Ho! Ho! Ho!

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pp. 120-133

Soon after moving to Florida, Pope decided to erect “the World’s Tallest Christmas Tree” on the Enquirer grounds, 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 the Enquirer’s grounds. ...

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11. Washington Garbage

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pp. 134-138

Sometime after midnight on Tuesday, July 1, 1975, National Enquirer reporter 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. ...

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12. Manufacturing "Truth"

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pp. 139-149

Probably Pope’s most embarrassing journalistic gaffe was occasioned by Australian Robin Leach, then freelancing for the Enquirer. 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 how CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite had seen a UFO. ...

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13. The Peak of Tabloid: Elvis

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pp. 150-162

The issues of cultural abjectness and social transgression were very much alive in the Enquirer’s story on Elvis Presley’s funeral in August 1977, which resulted in the highest sales for any issue of the National Enquirer—6.7 million— and was the benchmark record for any American tabloid. ...

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14. Reporter as Gladiator

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pp. 163-176

In the seventies, as the Enquirer headed 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 ...

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15. Star Wars: Hollywood Versus the Enquirer

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pp. 177-189

By the mid-seventies the National Enquirer was routinely feeding on Hollywood’s underbelly. The film factories manufactured the dreams and created leading ladies and men, and the Enquirer poked a hole and deflated the fantasies, revealing the warts, wrinkles, and sags in the idols, not to mention trumpeting their offscreen bad behavior. ...

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16. Wacky World News (Tabloid II)

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pp. 190-202

By 1979 it became obvious that Pope had to move the Enquirer into color. It was the technology of the time, and even more compelling, Murdoch was employing color in the Star, whose vivid covers were upstaging the Enquirer on the news racks. Color, it was also expected, would boost the Enquirer’s circulation ...

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17. Anger as Satire

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pp. 203-210

One of the most memorable creations of the Weekly World News was 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. ...

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18. Second Peak (Two Gardeners' Stories)

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pp. 211-225

There was nothing architecturally distinguished about the building Pope put up off Dixie Highway to house his paper. The Enquirer’s one-story, flatroofed 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, ...

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19. Sudden Death, Ironically

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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 the Enquirer ran, Pope didn’t trust doctors. ...

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20. The Enquirer After Pope

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pp. 234-252

In the last years Pope was at the helm of the Enquirer its 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 the Weekly World News, still a lucrative shoestring operation. ...

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21. Pope in Perspective

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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 the Enquirer published, but his work was unsigned and anonymous. ...


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pp. 266-279

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 280-283


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pp. 284-290

E-ISBN-13: 9780813173047
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125039

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2008