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BOOK REVIEW

An empire built on gossip, gore and Elvis

The Godfather of Tabloid Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer Jack Vitek University of Kentucky Press: 290 pp., $29.95

September 04, 2008|Erik Himmelsbach | Special to The Times

IF THERE'S a bible for tabloid reporters, "Thou shalt not let the truth get in the way of a story" might be its first commandment.

The same applies to Jack Vitek's "The Godfather of Tabloid: Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer." Ostensibly a biography of the founding father of the tabloids, it's sloppily written, light on facts and full of overzealous speculation.

But does it matter? This is the story of a guy who made his fortune with miracle diets, celebrity dirt and cover photos of famous dead people. If ever there were a tale worthy of tabloid treatment, it's Gene Pope Jr.'s life.

In fact, Vitek's slapdash style serves to enhance his unusual subject -- Pope was a dull man with a colorful legacy. He revolutionized American publishing and popular culture. His imprint can be seen on newsstands, sleazy celeb-blogs and fawning TV flack-fests such as "Access Hollywood."

Yet Pope was an unlikely pioneer. He was, writes Vitek, an antisocial three-pack-a-day smoker who hated to travel but loved "Hogan's Heroes." With the National Enquirer, he found his identity. He understood the pulse of the masses, and it made him a wealthy man.

Pope inherited the publishing gene from his father, Generoso Sr., who owned the New York Italian-language weekly Il Progresso in the 1930s and 1940s. This was a powerful position, and the senior Pope had one hand in local politics, the other in the mob.

Pope's reputed Mafia connection is one of Vitek's flimflam fixations. Another is the future publisher's schoolboy friendship with the soon-to-be-notorious attorney Roy Cohn.

There's no record that their relationship existed beyond young adulthood, but Vitek nevertheless makes veiled suggestions that perhaps they were more than friends.

"Cohn's homosexuality needs to be dealt with (though inevitably inconclusively) in the context of his early close relationship with Gene Pope," he writes. "No one has ever proposed that Pope was a homosexual . . . yet he was best friends with one of our culture's most famous gays."

Pope grew estranged from his family after his father's death in 1950, and after a quick stint as an intelligence officer for the CIA, he purchased the New York Enquirer for $75,000 in 1952 -- with financial help from mobster Frank Costello, the author says.

The paper struggled for years. Then Pope witnessed hundreds rubbernecking at the site of a car crash and inspiration struck.

The public, he correctly surmised, wanted blood, and he gave it to them: A 1963 issue of the Enquirer featuring Lee Harvey Oswald's autopsy photos was among the most popular of the decade.

But trafficking in the grotesque cost him advertisers and space in supermarkets. Pope banked instead on circulation. As his paper's subject matter softened to include celebs, diet fads and Jesus sightings, circulation rose to more than 5 million.

The paper made money, and Pope paid top dollar to his reporters, many of whom were hard-living refugees from London's Fleet Street.

Yet if Pope was generous with salary, he was also quick to fire. Reporters learned to avoid eye contact with the boss, to laugh at his jokes and always nod in agreement.

"There were arguments over whether Pope was a genius or an idiot -- and plausible evidence could be offered for both positions," Vitek writes.

Not surprisingly, the author, a professor of journalism at Edgewood College in Wisconsin, offers a medical opinion. Pope, he notes, possessed "many symptoms of Asperger's syndrome . . . or of high-functioning autism."

For all its dysfunction, the Enquirer deserves its props. Vitek covers the high points, including the 1975 uproar over reporter Jay Gourley rummaging through Henry Kissinger's garbage and Carol Burnett's libel suit.

And, of course, the Elvis Presley estate owes a huge debt of thanks to Pope and the Enquirer for its saturation coverage of his death. The 1977 issue detailing Elvis' funeral (with photos of the King in his coffin) sold 6.7 million copies.

In 1979, when Pope launched the Weekly World News, his new paper kept Elvis' flame of burning love alive with breathless reports that he was, in fact, working at a Burger King in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Sometimes, the Enquirer even broke real news. It helped change the complexion of the 1988 presidential race by publishing photos of Gary Hart canoodling with Donna Rice. (The more things change, the more things stay the same: Last month, John Edwards confessed to having an affair with Rielle Hunter, a story the Enquirer broke.)

Like any tabloid writer worth his salt, Vitek leaves readers with one final outrageous bit of speculation. Pope died of a heart attack in 1988, on the same day the New York Times Book Review covered a book called "All the Right Enemies: The Life and Murder of Carlo Tesca," which accused Pope's father of murder.

"Could Pope have read the review on the day he died?" Vitek wonders. "Could the exhuming of these secrets, so long buried, have stressed him to the point that . . . it brought on his fatal heart attack?"

Enquiring minds will probably never know.

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Erik Himmelsbach is a Los Angeles writer and producer.

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