History for the Taking
The Deeds of my Fathers: How My Grandfather and Father Built New York and Created the Tabloid World of Today, by Paul David Pope
(A Philip Turner Book, 2010)
Tabloid culture has become so prevalent that we hardly notice it, which may be because it’s easier to ignore. With access to the internet and on-demand television, we only saturate ourselves with celebrity gossip when we want to. We might see a tasteless photograph of a gaunt Michael Douglass with a headline “THREE MONTHS TO LIVE”, but we’re less likely to pick up the paper than we used to be. We can always look into the story later, with sources that we trust. This state of affairs makes the glory days of the National Enquirer, a newspaper bought by six million people each week, seem almost quaint. But it’s exciting to think about what gives a single newspaper so much power, which Paul David Pope touches on with this book about his father, late Enquirer publisher Gene Pope, and grandfather, power broker Generoso Pope.
The Deeds of my Fathers, as the title suggests, is about what Pope’s father and grandfather accomplished, as well as about who they were, the havoc they wreaked on their wives, women and families, the laws and ethics they circumvented, as well as their generosity and strength. It works because the author isn’t afraid to present unsavory details and contradictions in his quest to commune with the men he came from.
Still, there is much for us to sift through. Generoso, who helped FDR in his first bid for the presidency, called on him to lift the Neutrality Act’s embargo on Italy. Meanwhile, as Mussolini continued to gain strength, Pope made every effort to squash the anti-fascist movement in the United States through Il Progresso, the Italian newspaper he’d recently purchased. He became an outspoken enemy of anti-fascist hero (and alleged terrorist) Carlo Tresca, who was assassinated by the mob. It was mob money that made Generoso Pope became a leader in the city’s building materials industry, and it was mob money that made his youngest son buy the New York Enquirer before he was able to turn a legitimate profit and force the paper into national supermarkets with a new name. Pope argues that the paper’s widely-criticized legacy of so-called “checkbook journalism” has been which legitimized by outlets such as CNN, whose reporters allegedly pay their own sources.
We might not agree with the comparison (or it might just confirm how we already feel about CNN) but it is a treat to watch Gene Pope work his 100-hour weeks in the Enquirer’s early days, keeping the office window open in case he needs to evade creditors, as he experimented with different formulas to capture readers. He initially attempts high journalism, with an exclusive story on Eisenhower’s potential plans for the White House, but no one notices and the New York Times fails to even give him credit when they publish their own version, three days later. Eventually, Gene settles for the lowest common denominator, and sales increase. But it’s not until he loses the gory photos, completely fabricated stories, and dirty words that his paper becomes a true blockbuster. The formula was outlined with a new editorial philosophy: “[The paper] would have to appeal to at least fifty percent of the people, and it would have to move them.” The work that followed gave a new appetite to the insatiable rubbernecks that walk among us: stories based on real life and celebrity life, backed up with sources.
As Pope unfolds his father’s story, his emotions emerge in a way that is appropriate and effective. His father and grandfather were similar in the way they treated women, from paying off mistresses to threatening their wives, and they were each absent from home. Pope needed a father, and he acted out in various ways, such as the fights he picked with the family bodyguards. These accounts are made with a blend of bitterness and affection toward his father; he doesn’t sound like an upset kid who didn’t get to take over the company (upon Gene’s death, it was sold at auction). He just sounds like a man who wished he’d had a father to show him what to do. And the connection between these three generations, though not explicitly stated, is strongly felt, and is at least as good of a reason for writing the book than the stories themselves.
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.