Fans of The Godfather will be familiar with the screwy moral code of Italian New York immigrants in the early 20th century: you gotta do whatever it takes to look after your family and build your empire. Like it or not, Cosa Nostra got business going, even if plenty of poor sops were screwed over or butchered along the way.
Generoso Pope Senior was 15 when he disembarked at Ellis Island in 1906, with just $10 in his pocket. Twelve years later, he owned half of Colonial Stone and Sand, the company making bricks for the Rockefeller Centre. A decade on, he was outbidding William Randolph Hearst to buy Il Progresso, New York's Italian language newspaper. So far, so Godfather Part II.
But it's in the story of the inheritance – Part One in Godfather terms – that the plot picks up. Generoso Pope Snr doesn't think much of sons one or two – too fond of golf and martini lunches – so on his deathbed, aged 59, tries to give it all to go-getting son number three, Gene Jnr. But young Gene persuades Dad otherwise – "you can't do that. They're my brothers" – only to find himself booted out of the family. It turns out his brothers resented him for being Daddy's favourite, and even his mother loathed him, calling him the abortion she wished she'd had.
So, with a pregnant wife and just $5,000, young Gene builds his own empire. He buys the ailing National Enquirer, eventually turning it into America's leading scandal sheet. From day one, he's up to his neck with unsavoury types: mobsters, bent cops, judges and politicians. But his father hadn't been much better, befriending and supporting Mussolini.
Even if the characters are unlovable, this is a cracking tale. The author, Paul David Pope, who is Gene's son, conducted 500 interviews to piece it together. Students of journalism will be intrigued by the story of the Enquirer, which Gene didn't mean to turn into a tabloid. His first edition splashed with an important political scoop, but he quickly learnt who his readers were. He took The Daily Mirror as his model, adopting its winning formula of crime, scandal and disaster, with all the boring serious news crunched into one page at the back. A typical headline of the 1950s and 1960s read: "I cut out her heart and stomped on it". Sales blossomed.
Today, the Enquirer is ailing once more, largely because of the internet. But, having gobbled up this gossipy account of power, crime and corruption, I don't think our appetite for scandal is in danger of dying just yet.
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