The Godfather of Tabloid: Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer
By Jack Vitek
University Press of Kentucky
290 pages, $29.95
The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York
By Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
University of Chicago Press
278 pages, $20
In his entertaining but slapdash new biography of Generoso Pope Jr., who shepherded the tabloid National Enquirer to a circulation peak of over five million in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jack Vitek entices readers as skillfully as any headline writer in the heyday of Florida’s “Tabloid Triangle.” And he, too, sometimes puts more tease than meat into his prose. Vitek, a former journalist who teaches journalism and English at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, likes to backpedal away from his own bombshells. That leads to the following disclosures about the man who, Vitek admits up front, had a “dull lifestyle” and a “dour personality.”
Pope might have had Asperger’s syndrome, but that tells us more about the syndrome than the man. Because he probably had Mafia connections, Pope might have attended the funeral of the mobster Frank Costello, but no one knows for sure. Pope invented modern tabloid culture, except that in all his years as editor, he wrote hardly a word of copy, nearly all of his editorial decisions were “intuitive” or “arbitrary,” and he didn’t like celebrity stories but ran them because otherwise readers stopped buying. If he hadn’t died in 1988, Pope might have thought of ways to boost the paper’s cratering circulation in the difficult 1990s, or the tabloidization of the mainstream press might have made that impossible.
And last but not least: Pope was as influential a newspaperman as Joseph Pulitzer, except that Pope couldn’t have cared less about politics, social change, progress, or truth, and provided only “cheap, even mean pleasures” that distracted readers from more serious concerns. On the other hand, he never hurt anybody.
Vitek certainly deserves credit for his persistence in pursuing so inhospitable a biographical subject. Pope left behind so little evidence illuminating his ideas or inner life—so little evidence that he even had an inner life—that some speculation is inevitable. It may also be inevitable that although Pope gets top billing in the title, his much more colorful newspaper turns out to be the star of the book. Based in part on his interviews with the seventeen employees, from executive editors to the accountant and the gardener, whom he lists in his source notes, Vitek presents a rousing if somewhat disorganized picture of life backstage at Pope’s tabloids.
Much of the material about both the man and his paper is familiar. Pope’s father, who came to New York from Naples with little money and less English, ended up the owner of the influential daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano and a wheeler-dealer in local politics. The son had a privileged childhood; his classmates at the Horace Mann School included the likes of Si Newhouse and Roy Cohn, who became a close friend. After young Gene’s graduation from MIT in 1946, his father made him editor and publisher of the family newspaper. Gene Pope broke with his family, however, and in 1952, probably with financial help from Cohn and Costello, he bought the fading twenty-six-year-old Hearst-backed New York Enquirer.
For the first dozen or so years, Pope concentrated on gore, scandal, mystery, and freaks, including the archetypal 1963 story about the murder of an Olympic skier, i cut out her heart and stomped on it! But when circulation stalled, Pope hit on a new strategy: he changed the paper’s main fare from sleaze to celebrity gossip, which could be marketed without shame at any grocery store and tossed with the Cocoa Puffs into any shopping cart. His success inspired imitators, including the Canadian owner of two tabloids who followed Pope to Florida to start his third, and Rupert Murdoch, who founded the Star as a direct competitor. And in 1979, when Pope bought new color presses for the Enquirer, he started a second paper of his own, the Weekly World News, to keep the old monochrome presses busy and absorb the goofier tales of space aliens, miracles, and “Bat Boy” that didn’t quite make the grade for its sister publication.