08/15/2008: "Enquiring Minds Want To Know - The Story of the National Enquirer and its Founder"
Jack Vitek has written a fascinating biography of the peculiar founder of The National Enquirer, Generoso Pope and, at the same time, a biography of the American icon that he spawned.
Pope was the son of a powerful Italian-American who lived in New York. Pope senior was purported to be connected --- or as some people say --- associated with the Mafia. This connection would later provide seed money with which to start the National Enquirer.
A young Roy Cohn was a friend of the young Pope junior. And he too would contribute money to found the paper. It is thought that the majority of the money came from the infamous Frank Costello, a New York gangster who rose to the top of America's underworld, controlled a vast gambling empire across the United States and enjoyed political influence like no other La Cosa Nostra boss. He was called "The Prime Minister of the Underworld."
It is into this world that Vitek takes us right from the beginning of the book. Vitek is an associate professor of journalism and English at Englewood College in Madison, WI. So one would assume his interest in this subject would be his natural curiosity of this tremendously successful, yet little written-about publication.
When I was a young freelance writer, I wrote for The National Enquirer. I was deeply impressed with the fact that it was harder to get a story published in the Enquirer than any other publication I wrote for. The reason? They checked their facts so well. When I discovered that, I had a new respect for them and I tended to (and still do) believe most of what I read in the paper. Pope ran the publication with an iron hand.
Every reporter and editor had a hot line, a private phone, on his or her desk. That phone was for a call from Pope. When a reporter got that call, he stopped doing whatever he was doing, regardless of how important it was. A summon to see Pope came before anything else. No one called him his nickname, Gene or by anything but Mr. Pope of G.P.
Pope was an illusive and private man. He had very little sense of humor. And certainly during his lifetime, he did not get the attention or respect that such people as William Randolph Hurst and Rupert Murdock got. Yet he accomplished as much and earned as much money. His was as important a publication as any in America.
I generally don't enjoy books written by professors or people with Ph.D degrees as they tend to be academic and stuffy. This book, however, is well written.
The author does take the liberty to guess what might have happened in a number of cases. But he says things like, "It may have . . ." so you know he is considering a possibility and not stating a fact.
He also gets a few facts entirely wrong. For example, he says that Jackie O and Ari Onassis were "married in name only" when we all know that's not true.
Vitek didn't live up to the Enquirer code of fact checking in a few cases.
The National Enquirer would, and will, send a reporter anywhere, anytime to get the big story. It will spare no expense.
When I was doing a story on Roe Messner and Tammy Faye Baker, I was in the courtroom. Next to me was a friend of Messner's former wife. She looked at me and said, "Are you with the National Enquirer?"
"Yes", I replied.
"I could tell. You dress better than the local media," she said.
And that in essence is why the Enquirer can get the get better than anyone else. It pays well. Pope set a high standard. The paper may have been an investment and, perhaps even a tool, of the mob. But it was and is one of the greatest parts of the average American citizen's life.
Whether a person admits it or not, he is drawn to The National Enquirer. Pope was not the kind of journalist that Hurst was. But he knew his reader. And that knowledge paid off.
Pope was a man of privilege but he split with his family after his father's death. He was close to broke when he started the publication. It was the investment of the Mob and Cohn that created his paper. But it was Pope who made it great.
This book is a valuable and, I think, important book. It's a book that gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the power of one man and his publication. Pope was not a colorful man. He had little life outside his paper. He was odd. Yet for all that, his story "is" the story of The National Enquirer.
This book is a tremendously exciting book and I highly recommend it.
The Godfather of Tabloid: Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer