The National Enquirer -- a shameless insider's lurid saga

On Books

June 27, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

It's classic tabloid copy -- scandal-filled, hammeringly upbeat, simply stated, writhing on the verges of vulgarity, wallowing in celebrity gossip, direct, defiant, thriving on the stuff of dreams. It's The Untold Story: My 20 Years Running the National Enquirer, by Iain Calder (Miramax, 336 pages, $24.95). Calder is the retired editor in chief and president of that supermarket tabloid.

He was born an impecunious Scot, working in his teens for a small regional paper rather than going down in the coal mines. He moved up to the Glasgow Daily Herald, a tough tabloid. Through his early 20s, he fought in circulation wars, succeeded enough to go to London, and then got signed up to recruit European free-lance writers and photographers for the National Enquirer, based in New York. He was invited to the home office to fill in as an editor and found it completely disorganized, unprofessional. He signed on there, in 1967, age 28.

The Enquirer was owned by Generoso Pope Jr., son of a Sicilian immigrant who had made a fortune in New York construction and other enterprises and was closely allied both with politicians and with the city's top organized crime figures. The senior Pope died in 1950, when his son, called Gene, was 23.

Pope bought the Enquirer for $75,000 in 1964. It was tiny, but he had the ambition to make it the largest circulation weekly in the United States. "He made that vision a reality," Calder declares, "and I was at his right hand for most of the wild ride." When Pope died of a heart attack, on Oct. 2, 1988, his heirs sold the company in an auction among seven bidders. The winner paid $412.5 million.

Above all, this book is a homage to Pope, even though for all Calder's obvious fondness and deep respect, Pope was always fearsome. "Here was Gene Pope's genius," Calder writes, "When he believed in an idea, he was like a freight train. He forged ahead with a drive and optimism that inspired everyone around him with the same passion. ... Gene gambled his company on what seemed to be perilous decisions. But on the big things he was always right, a trait that turned most of the executives into zealots."

Calder declares they invented and launched personality journalism -- godfathers of People, celebrity television shows, newspaper, magazine and broadcast features that endlessly celebrate and gossip upon evanescent -- or enduring -- pop culture figures.

The paper's growth was parallel to that of television, early on recognizing the draw of using TV subjects, rather than the Hollywood faces that mainstream magazines and television itself still lionized. Pope conceived the idea of selling at supermarket checkout counters -- following homebound women buyers from the cities and their traditional newsstands to burgeoning suburban shopping centers. Only TV Guide and Family Circle were already selling there.

Pope lobbied the Enquirer into national chain supermarkets with all sorts of political and promotional shenanigans. Celebrities were paid lavishly to turn up at their parties at grocery industry conventions.

Pope pushed rags-to-riches stories, medical breakthrough articles, self-help, upbeat, positive pieces aimed to appeal to women in checkout lines. They published, Calder claims, the first aggressively successful coverage of weight-loss programs. "We were selling dreams," Calder writes. They raised money for sick and indigent children and families. Calder makes much of the eagerness of high-level research physicians to cooperate with the Enquirer because it got their innovations attention among patients, and their doctors, nationwide.

In 1971, Pope moved the entire operation from New York to Florida. In 1973, Calder was made executive editor.

Pope approved every story, read every line. He was always feared, despite surges and splurges of generosity and kindness. He was arbitrary and often cruel, more often an utterly insensitive user and discarder of people. But he was, undeniably, an entrepreneurial genius.

And he allowed Calder to aggressively expand a large, well-paid staff. They lavishly paid sources for stories and pictures, a practice no mainstream newspaper or magazine I know in the United States would allow. They often worked with outrageous indifference to the most basic considerations of privacy, spending tens of thousands of dollars to get "exclusives." "We certainly were bribing people," Calder writes, "-- just not illegally."

Scooping the world's gossip press was their overriding goal, and they often met it, breaking stories on Rock Hudson's AIDS, stars' weddings and breakups, interviews with the only witness to Princess Grace's fatal accident and more, more, more.

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