How My Grand­fa­ther and Fa­ther Built New York and Cre­ated the Tabloid World of To­day

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD -

By Paul David Pope Philip Turner/Row­man & Lit­tle­field. 396 pp. $24.95

When Paul David Pope, the son of the founder of the Na­tional

En­quirer, sits down to write the story of his fam­ily in Amer­ica, you ex­pect “shock­ing” rev­e­la­tions. And there are some choice de­tails in Pope’s “ The Deeds of My Fa­thers,” in­clud­ing col­lu­sion be­tween his fa­ther and the CIA over sto­ries not cov­ered, fa­vors be­stowed by politi­cians and mob con­nec­tions so deep you won­der whether the Popes feared din­ing in pub­lic (you never knew back then when dessert could be a bul­let).

Un­for­tu­nately, since this book is by, and about, the fam­ily that brought us the En­quirer, you also won­der how much of it is ver­i­fi­able. Sure, the tabloid has had some jour­nal­is­tic suc­cesses ( just ask for­mer sen­a­tor John Ed­wards). Yet the to­tal of its parts is an out­let not to be trusted with­out ver­i­fi­ca­tion, and it’s hard to shake that sense of skep­ti­cism as you read Pope’s tales of his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther — es­pe­cially given the lack of footnotes, the re-cre­ated con­ver­sa­tions from two gen­er­a­tions ago and Pope’s re­liance on the mem­o­ries of in­ter­view sub­jects.

Those are high hur­dles to over­come for an oth­er­wise en­gag­ing, per­sonal look at the rise of an am­bi­tious young Ital­ian im­mi­grant, the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion suc­cess of his son, and the squab­bles, love af­fairs and sib­ling ri­val­ries that re­mind us there are other mea­sures of suc­cess than a big house and a fat bank ac­count. Pope’s fo­cus on wealth and el­bow-rub­bing with the pow­er­ful gives the book a “ look at us” fla­vor, the over­achiever’s puffed-chest need for so­cial val­i­da­tion. But Pope also has car­ried out (or at least had the maid carry out) the fam­ily’s dirty laun­dry. One hopes the irony was in­ten­tional.

If you sus­pend skep­ti­cism, “ The Deeds of My Fa­thers” is an in­ter­est­ing fam­ily saga that par­al­lels the Amer­i­can 20th cen­tury, though in truth the grand­fa­ther comes across as much more in­ter­est­ing than his son. Gen­eroso Pope Sr. was born near Ar­paise, Italy, in 1891 and came to Amer­ica at age 15 to strike it big. That he did. For a time, Pope was the king of the New York City ce­ment world, which isn’t as mun­dane as it sounds. He be­came in­cred­i­bly rich as Man­hat­tan and the other bor­oughs used sup­plies from his Colo­nial Sand & Stone for their roads, bridges and sky­scrapers.

Pope’s suc­cess gave him the cash to buy Il Pro­gresso, an Ital­ian-lan­guage news­pa­per, in 1928, mak­ing him­self a lead­ing voice and fig­ure in the Ital­ian Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. He was courted and feted by Mus­solini in the pre­war years as a friend of Ital­ian na­tion­al­ism in Amer­ica (that em­brace of fas­cism would cost Pope ac­cess to an­other im­por­tant friend, Pres­i­dent Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt). And Pope was a close friend of Frank Costello and other mob­sters, who gave him ac­cess to cash and, when needed, mus­cle. Pope and Costello were so close that the mob­ster was the lit­eral god­fa­ther toGen­eroso Pope Jr.

When the elder Pope died in 1950, his wife and two older sons, re­sent­ing the fa­voritism their late fa­ther showed to the youngest brother, cut the ju­nior Pope out of the fam­ily busi­nesses. De­cid­ing that suc­cess would be the best re­venge, Pope bought the mori­bund New York En­quirer for $75,000, most of it bor­rowed from Costello. The loan came with strings. The tabloid could not write about the mob, but would tar­get the mob’s en­e­mies and write glow­ing pieces about mob fronts and night­clubs.

Pope didn’t care. His strat­egy was to sell news, the more sala­cious the bet­ter. Jour­nal­is­tic ethics were shack­les for other editors — not Pope, who hap­pily paid for ex­clu­sive ac­cess. In the early days, he pub­lished pho­tos of de­cap­i­tated ac­ci­dent vic­tims, tor­ture cults and devil wor­ship­pers. Over time, celebri­ties re­placed the gore.

And ev­ery now and then, the Na­tional En­quirer would break a story, from pub­lish­ing the fa­mous photo of Elvis Pres­ley in his cas­ket to out­ing the sex lives of hyp­o­crit­i­cal po­lit­i­cal fig­ures. Over time, the tabloid ap­proach that once marginal­ized theNa­tional En­quirer has be­come part of the main­stream me­dia. Whether that sig­nals Pope’s ul­ti­mate suc­cess or the me­dia’s ul­ti­mate fail­ure is a sub­ject for a dif­fer­ent kind of book.


Scott Martelle’s “The Fear Within: Spies, Com­mies and Amer­i­can Democ­racy on Trial” will be pub­lished in the spring.


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