About a month ago I watched a Netflix documentary on the founder of the National Enquirer: Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man behind the National Enquirer. As it started, I saw that the production was nothing special—mostly voiceovers and interviews while a historical slideshow played onscreen, like a decent History Channel movie for a lazy afternoon. That was basically what I needed. I was recovering from a concussion at the time and didn’t want too much action or movement or intrigue on-screen. I’d prefer to be lulled to sleep. Intrigue wound up being the complicating ingredient, both in the life of Gene Pope Jr., the Enquirer’s founder, and in the ways it paralleled mine.
Our story begins with Generoso Pope Sr., father of the lead, coming to America a dirt-poor Italian near the turn of the century. Through raw ambition and hard work (and the requisite help from the mafia, who control the industry), he rises from construction worker to construction magnate. He also founds the largest Italian-language newspaper in New York, Il Progresso. He controls the Italian vote in the city, and makes Frank Costello (family friend and legendary mob boss) godfather to his youngest son, Generoso Pope Jr.
Gene Jr., then, has quite a bit to live up to. At this point I start comparing myself to the kid. My own father, a finance professor at Vanderbilt, has always been an inspiration, though at first (ages one through eight, maybe) I refused to believe the professor gig wasn’t a front for something more interesting, like secret agent or refugee king of Belgium. As I grew older, I saw the work that had gone into his ostensibly ordinary job, one that became more and more impressive as I grew closer to my own entry into academia. Gene Jr. probably had a lot of the same feelings growing up, I thought. Maybe there was more for him to find under the surface of his father’s success, what with the sordid mafia connections, but the basic outline was there. We both have impressive immigrant fathers, whose titanic reputations we’re desperate to live up to.
Gene Jr., despite being the youngest son, is the father’s natural favorite. He’s smart. He goes to Horace Mann, then MIT. I remember the time I sat down with my dad to come up with a list of colleges, and he rattled off every Ivy. I picked my favorite, the one that also happened to be the best. Gene graduates with an ME degree in two and a half years. I start rooting for the guy. I figure he’ll be a scurrilous genius, who founds the Enquirer because he can, because it’s fun, because he needs a project to keep busy.
That isn’t quite the way it works out. Gene Sr. dies, and Junior starts working on Il Progresso. Though he runs the newspaper successfully for a while, he tries to work the newspaper’s political power, and takes bribes to back a senatorial candidate. He blabs about the deal, gets exposed, and the guy loses. Gene’s jealous brothers seize control of the newspaper, and he gets shut out. Daddy’s ghost is disappointed. Any Princeton student who’s gotten a B can relate.
So Gene buys the New York Enquirer, a local rag, with Uncle Frank (Costello)’s mob money. He struggles for a while, but eventually finds his niche in horrific car crashes, “cheesecake” photos, and the myriad rampages coloring the oh-so-immaculate fifties. Good American violence and pornography prove popular, and he expands—thus, The National Enquirer. Through his underhanded, exploitative, and sensational reportage, he builds an empire. The newspaper only grows through the latter half of the twentieth century, moving into supermarkets and suburban homes. Gene marries several times, and eventually settles down with his third wife in Florida, where he dies working.
This is where I start to see the sad side of Gene’s shining ambition. Sure, he makes some money. A lot of money. He has what appears to be a functional family to mourn him. And, of course, he’s founded a newspaper greater than his father’s ever was. But he leaves behind a legacy of sensationalism and celebrity journalism (which magazines like People and Ok! are happy to emulate), and a family to whom he was a half-stranger. While he has the outline, the archetype of a great life, it all seems half-empty by the end of it.
I try to stop drawing parallels between Gene and myself and fail. Thus far, what have I done differently from Gene? I went to a prep school, worked my ass off, got into a good college where presumably I’ll do the same thing. What’s next? A PhD? A newspaper? I have friends, but there’s always the nagging suspicion that I’m not really that close to them. That none of us really understand each other, because we’re all busy doing stuff, building our individual empires. I haven’t wrecked any marriages yet, but I’m afraid that’s where I’m headed.
I think my dad had the same fears, and did his best to combat them. He certainly has an impressive résumé, still cranks out papers. But at the end of the day, he comes home to his ranch out in the country, rides his lawnmower around, and cooks dinner for his family. He makes the “work-life balance” thing look easy, and lately I’ve been hoping I can emulate him in that way, professional success or no. I hope I have a family to come home to, one who knows me beyond the news story.