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The Secret History of the National Enquirer

The truth behind America’s favorite tabloid proves just as juicy as the stories in its pages

In 1971, the sleepy Florida town of Lantana, population 7,000, was best known for its state hospital and a short stretch of beach fronting the Atlantic Ocean. But on July 19 of that year, Lantana woke up—and stayed awake. On that day, a mysterious office building that had been swiftly erected filled up with 57 people. Days earlier, these people had all worked long hours in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Now they would perform the same tasks in South Florida. Their job: putting out a weekly newspaper called the National Enquirer.

A midnight move to Florida is one of the oddities associated with the phenomenon that is the story of the National Enquirer. Purchased just over 60 years ago from the Hearst Corporation by a man named Generoso Pope Jr., the tabloid is now being recognized for transforming not only American newspapers and magazines but also celebrity culture, TV and even politics. After acclaimed documentarian Ric Burns released a miniseries on Pope in 2014, it became clear that the time had come to examine the publication’s influence and impact. And while many people may think they know the story—and its most infamous moments—there are secrets embedded in the newspaper’s time line just coming to the surface now. In exclusive interviews with former editors and reporters as well as law enforcement and media observers, DuJour tells the story of the Enquirer, both the wild triumphs and the darker mysteries.

The abrupt relocation to Florida is, it turns out, key to understanding the newspaper’s roots. Pope moved his family and his newspaper staff to Florida because he was in fear for his life. And not without reason.

Gene Pope, called “G.P.” behind his back and “Mr. Pope” to his face

A Shadowy Beginning

Pope was 25 years old when, in 1952, he bought what was then called the New York Enquirer, but he’d already had some newspaper experience as publisher of the family-owned Il Progresso Italo-Americano. His father, Generoso Pope Sr., shoveled gravel and hauled water to make ends meet after immigrating to America from Italy. His ambition and determination took him from laborer to owner of one of the largest sand and gravel companies in the world in little more than a decade. He bought Il Progresso in 1928, followed by other media acquisitions, and also became active in New York City politics.

His third child, Gene, attended the Horace Mann School and earned an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before his father installed him as Il Progresso‘s publisher. But after Pope Sr. died in 1950, his son was ousted because of a fight with his siblings. His next move, sources say, was to join the CIA and undergo training in psychological warfare at the height of the Korean War.

When Pope made his move to return to publishing, the New York Enquirer barely sold 17,000 copies a week and published horse-racing statistics for the city’s gamblers. The renamed National Enquirer would one day be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but Pope liked to tell people that he was so broke back when he bought it, he had to use his lucky silver dollar for cab fare to get him to the paper’s closing on time.

So where did the money come from to buy the newspaper? For decades, rumors have swirled about the purchase price—placing it between $10,000 and $75,000—and Pope’s source of funds. According to exclusive interviews for DuJour with former employees, the money came from two men: a $10,000 loan from Pope’s godfather, Frank Costello, the boss of the Luciano crime family and head of a national gambling empire, and an equal amount from the lawyer Roy Cohn, a friend of Pope’s who had helped convict Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and was soon to gain notoriety as counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Frank Costello, center, was a friend of the Pope family and controlled a vast gambling empire across America

Costello was deeply involved with the paper, sources agree. One former National Enquirer reporter says, “We would often get visits from guys in dark suits sporting pinkie rings who would have private meetings with the boss. We all suspected that Pope had some kind of deal with them regarding the paper.” There were even whispers that, early on, Costello covered the Enquirer‘s payroll.

Joe Coffey, now a retired lieutenant of detectives for the New York Police Department, was assigned to tail Costello in New York City in the 1960s. “Costello was the prime minister of the underworld,” says Coffey. “He had great political influence, too, but had a nice way about him. He was hard to dislike.” The link between Costello and the Enquirer was exposed one night in early May 1957, when the mob boss hosted a large group dinner at L’Aiglon restaurant on Manhattan’s east side. Among the guests were Gene Pope and John Miller, one of his reporters, along with Miller’s wife, Cindy. (Costello was godfather to the Millers’ son, the future broadcaster John Miller.) At 11 p.m., Costello went home to his apartment on Central Park West. Just as the crime boss entered his building, a gunman named Vincent “Chin” Gigante shouted, “This is for you, Frank!” and shot him in the head. Costello survived, but his reign as mafia king was on the wane.

In her book Dish, about the world of gossip, Jeannette Walls wrote that in the late 1960s, Costello discreetly warned Pope to stay away from him because otherwise he could get hurt. Shortly thereafter, Pope’s staff informed him that delivery trucks were distributing fewer copies of the paper than had been loaded. Pope enlisted an ex-con to investigate and ride in one of the Enquirer‘s suspect trucks. The next day, the truck returned. Pope’s man was dead in the back, and there was a note attached to the knife in his chest. It read, “Don’t f—k with us.”

The message was received. The Enquirer moved to Lantana.

Enquiring Minds Want to Know

At first, Pope had no idea how to make his newspaper a success. In an early mission statement, he declared, “In an age darkened by the menace of totalitarian tyranny and war, the New York Enquirer will fight for the rights of man, the rights of the individual, and will champion human decency, dignity, freedom and peace.”

That formula failed to ignite sales.

Then Pope had an epiphany one night in 1957 during a traffic jam. As his car reached the cause of the delay—a violent crash—he realized that the drivers all slowed down to get a good look at the carnage. This kicked off the paper’s gore stage, which lasted almost a decade. Headlines screamed about one tragedy after another: “I’m Sorry I Killed My Mother, but I’m Glad I Killed My Father.” Circulation soared, and Pope took the newspaper national, changing its name to the National Enquirer. Gruesome stories and photos were the order of the day. But two subjects were strictly off-limits: the CIA and the Mafia.

Pope changed the National Enquirer‘s mission yet again in the mid-1960s. While the tabloid turned a nice profit, he had his eye on supermarket distribution. Pope told his editors that gore was out and the Enquirer must become the sort of newspaper that women could buy at a grocery-store checkout counter. The headlines still screamed for attention, but in a new—and even more effective—way. Bill Sloan, who worked for the Enquirer from 1968 to 1970, says, “Pope had an uncanny ability to know not only what would sell but also what kind of stories the average person wanted to read about.”

Pope loved running stories on America’s “fallen angels,” and his absolute favorite was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

One of Pope’s pet stories was about people who’d become “fallen angels.” His favorite angel was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Sloan says, “Pope had standing orders that there was to be a cover story or cover line on Jackie in every issue.” Another pet story of Pope’s was the “gee whiz” tale, or, as Sloan puts it, the “Hey, Martha, you gotta read this!” story, covering topics like miraculous cancer cures and UFO sightings. The public loved it and clamored for more.

“What most critics and others did not understand was that the paper was much more than celebrity gossip. In truth, celebrity stuff was rarely more than 40 percent of any issue,” says Iain Calder, a Scotsman who was hired by the National Enquirer in 1964 and eventually became editor in chief. “We wrote about stories that regular people could relate to. They were human-interest stories with some odd or freakish twist that would make them interesting. We didn’t make stuff up, but we did sensationalize it.”

The annual “Predictions” issue of the paper was its most successful, year in and year out

Circulation grew and grew. In the 1980s, the National Enquirer sold an average of 4.5 million copies a week. According to S. Elizabeth Bird, a professor of anthropology who specializes in media culture at the University of South Florida, every copy of the Enquirer is estimated to have been read by an average of five people during that time, meaning that almost 25 million people read the paper every week—more than 10 percent of the U.S. population.

One tactic that Pope put in place very early on was paying cash for stories.

Calder says, “For Gene, it was always the story that mattered. He didn’t care what it cost. If it was a good story, he wanted it. The paper sold on emotion.” Reporters often paid cab drivers, doormen, hospital workers and waiters for information—anybody who knew something juicy. (Major news organizations have always been ethically constrained from doing the same.)

For years, Enquirer reporters were allowed to pay up to $2,500 to a source without any approval needed from the home office, say several ex-employees. But Pope was willing to go way higher. In 1977, after Elvis Presley died, he chartered a jet to rush a task force to Memphis. According to Tony Brenna, who worked for the Enquirer for 18 years, “We took over a hotel and had special telephone lines installed so that we could not be bugged by other papers. I was assigned to get information on the Elvis physician who had prescribed him all the drugs. Others on our team were charged with getting a photo of the dead Elvis. We bought every miniature camera that was for sale in Memphis. One reporter found a distant cousin who, for a guarantee of more than $5,000, agreed to go to Graceland and try to get a photo.” The issue featuring that photo of Elvis lying in a white suit in his copper coffin became the biggest seller in the history of the National Enquirer, moving 6.5 million copies.

While human-interest and medical stories remained popular, gradually the big, shocking stories on celebrities and politicians became the ones that riveted readers, such as when married senator Gary Hart was caught with a girlfriend on a boat while running for president in 1988. Bill Sloan admits that, coming from traditional media, he was taken aback by the hardball policies of the Enquirer. When Senator Ted Kennedy was suspected of having extramarital affairs in the 1970s, Pope dispatched a squad of his most tenacious reporters to get the story. Sloan remembers four or five “very nasty” stories on Kennedy in those years. It is widely rumored that an emissary from Kennedy approached Pope with an offer to become a confidential source for the Enquirer if the paper would leave the senator alone. Pope agreed.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the celebrities harassed by the Enquirer

Over the years, scores of celebrities and politicians were rumored to be making deals with the National Enquirer to conceal all manner of indiscretions, be it a DWI or other arrest on a minor charge, an intimate photo or video, an affair (particularly worrisome if it involved the spouse of another star), a gay or lesbian encounter or an out-of-wedlock child. In exchange for information on someone else or agreeing to an exclusive interview, stars were able to keep their secrets out of the spotlight. Confidential sources confirmed to DuJour that celebrities were essentially blackmailed to work with the Enquirer or else risk their improprieties appearing on the front page. It is alleged that Sylvester Stallone was told to cooperate or have a nasty exposé published. As agreed, such a story was not written, but a National Enquirer reporter gave the incriminating details to Hollywood private investigator Anthony Pellicano for one of his clients to use as leverage against Stallone. (Pellicano is currently serving 15 years in federal prison for numerous RICO violations, including illegally wiretapping his clients.) Other prominent figures who reportedly cooperated under duress were Arnold Schwarzenegger, Burt Reynolds and Bill Cosby.

Working on a Tightrope

Pope lavished money not only on sources but on staff. National Enquirer reporters were paid more than any others in the country. In the mid-1980s, a starting salary was $50,000. Raises of $20,000 a year were handed out to top performers. There were also bonuses for landing a hot story: $360 for the top half of the page, $180 for the bottom and $1,500 for a full front-page story.

Ian Calder, former editor-in-chief of Enquirer, was Pope’s go-to man for more than 20 years

The downside to the fat paychecks was that employees had little job security. Pope held “Friday Massacres,” when he’d fire as much as half the staff on a Friday afternoon. Iain Calder, who lasted more than 20 years there, says, “God help the reporter or editor who didn’t deliver,” and that the Enquirer‘s pool of terminated employees “could have filled Carnegie Hall, maybe Yankee Stadium.” According to the book The Godfather of Tabloid: Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer, Pope “once fired a man for stepping into an elevator ahead of him, only to be told, ‘I don’t work for you—I was just delivering lunch.’ ”

Whether it’s because of or in spite of such a newsroom operation, the National Enquirer has earned the grudging respect of much of its competition for feats such as finding and printing photos of O.J. Simpson in Bruno Magli shoes after he denied owning such a pair, helping solve the murder of Bill Cosby’s son Ennis by offering a cash reward of $100,000, breaking the story of Rush Limbaugh’s painkiller addiction and, most recently, revealing that John Edwards had fathered an illegitimate child. “At certain times, the National Enquirer has beat the mainstream media at its own game,” says media critic Howard Kurtz.

The Enquirer also spawned a cluster of imitators, ultimately reshaping media in the United States. Not long after the paper’s successful gore period, clones like the National Tattler sprang up. Then, when the Enquirer made its profitable shift toward celebrity journalism, other publications followed. Rupert Murdoch’s Star led the charge into the fray in the 1970s, as did the New York Times Company, with the original Us magazine, and Time Inc., publishing People.

Christopher Tennant, the co-founder of Radar Online, who is currently writing a screenplay about the tabloid world, considers the National Enquirer the single most influential publication of the 20th century. He says, “The Enquirer nuclearized the tabloid formula, pushed the boundaries of good taste and gave the people what they wanted—the unvarnished but highly sensationalized truth. For better and certainly for worse, things we consider mainstream today would not exist without it, from gossip blogs to reality TV.”

Through it all, Gene Pope, the man behind the juggernaut, never left Florida. He worked six days a week minimum. On weekends, the publisher, well over six feet tall and often described as “odd,” appeared in his newsroom in a T-shirt and shorts or even a bathing suit.

The National Enquirer was the second-largest employer in Lantana, after the hospital down the road. Pope sponsored an annual dinner-dance benefit in nearby Palm Beach for another hospital, roping in Bob Hope to host and celebrities ranging from Dolly Parton and Raquel Welch to Joan Collins and Don Johnson to attend. “Mr. Pope was very generous,” says Jack Carpenter, the founder of the Lantana Historical Society. “Every year he would erect a huge Christmas tree on the grounds of the National Enquirer.” Pope went to enormous trouble to scout what he, in typical Enquirer overstatement, called the “world’s largest tree,” and thousands of people came to see it at holiday time.

The flag flew at half-mast in front of the newspaper offices on Oct. 3, 1988, in observance of Pope’s death

In 1988, at the age of 61, Pope suffered a heart attack and died on the way to the hospital. He specified in his will that the National Enquirer be sold after his death—and it was, to McFadden Publishing Inc. (It is now owned by American Media Inc. and is moving back to New York.)

The paper Pope bought for, at most, $75,000 was sold for $412 million.

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