Paul David Pope's account of his father's founding of the National Enquirer

Scott Martelle
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 11:01 AM

THE DEEDS OF MY FATHERS How My Grandfather and Father Built New York and Created the Tabloid World of Today

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 Sen. John Edwards). Yet the sum 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 footnoting, 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 over-achiever'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 a highly readable and 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 pre-war 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, which gave him access to cash and, when needed, muscle. Pope and Costello were so close that the mobster was the literal godfather to Generoso 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, and 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 had marginalized the National 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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