From Il Progresso to the Enquirer: the story of the Pope family.
An Interview with Paul Pope.
By Tiziano Thomas Dossena; published by L’IDEA N.3, Vol.II, 2000, NY
Generoso Pope Sr. came to America at 15, in 1906. He worked at different menial jobs in the Colonial Sand and Stone Co. of New York City, rising quickly through the ranks. When the company was in financial difficulty, in 1916, he courageously persuaded the owners and the creditors to allow him an attempt to bring it back to solvency. His reward would be half the ownership. He worked hard at it and within two years he had become president of Colonial.
As it is stated in the Internet site http://www.PopePublication.com, “Generoso fashioned alliances with politicians who helped him achieve his goal of becoming a key figure in New York politics and the construction industry. He soon began gobbling up competitors through mergers and buyouts. By 1928, at the age of 37, Generoso was the millionaire owner of Colonial, the country’s largest sand and gravel business which provided the concrete for much of New York City’s skyline, including Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music hall, FDR Drive….”
In our Italian community, Generoso Pope Sr. is remembered specially for his ownership of Il Progresso Italo-Americano, purchased in 1928 for $2,052,000 and directed by him until his death, in 1950. Through the paper, he accomplished the difficult task to teach Italian immigrants how to become Americans, funneling thousands of dollars into charities and scholarships to educate young Italians. By launching a publishing career, he also strengthened his prestige and power to become the most politically influent Italian-born individual in New York.
His position in the Italian daily passed on to his son Fortune. Generoso Jr., his youngest son, was cut out of the inheritance because of “sibling jealousy and maternal cruelty” according to the biography found on PopePublication.com.
Gene, as he was called by everyone, worked for the CIA for a while. In 1952,after leaving the Agency, he purchased the struggling weekly The New York Enquirer, thanks to a $25,000 loan from Mafia kingpin Frank Costello, changing its name to National Enquirer.
To improve the sales, he started running lurid and gory stories. “This is what the people want” was his claim for the changes. In the 1960’s, the circulation had stalled, so Gene metamorphosed the paper again by removing the violence and filling it with paranormal chronicles, tantalizing human stories and celebrity exclusives. Just as the popularity of the periodical grew, so did the controversy over its journalistic techniques. Despite all the criticism and disapproval, the National Enquirer soon grew to be the undisputed number one periodical in the USA as circulation.
Gene suffered an apparent heart attack at home and died on the way to the hospital, at the age of 61. His son Paul, who had learned all aspects of publishing working for his father, kindly offered us a chance to interview him about his own past and his future programs.
L’IDEA: The Pope dynasty has always fascinated Italians. Since your biography already contains significant activities, both in business and in charities’ support, do you consider yourself to be the genuine heir to Generoso Sr.’s legacy?
PAUL POPE: Of course no one could achieve what my grandfather did 70 or 80 years ago. Times are very different now – the Italian American community was just in the process of being formed and it had no leadership to speak of and no spokesman who could defend its interests; moreover, ethnicity in politics was a relatively new idea, and no one had tried to give Italians a voice in the political power structure that was Tammany Hall in the 1920’s. The same was true in business – opportunities were immense as New York City was literally being built from the ground up, and with vision and courage and hard work virtually everything was possible. And Of course in those days there was a special, close relationship between the government and business in the city that my grandfather forged and took advantage of.
Today the challenges are different for Italian Americans – the burning issue now is the degree to which we can keep our identity and our history as Italians in America and pass it to our children. That is the great challenge that I see ahead of us and want to do something about.
L’IDEA: What activities related to the Italian American community have you been and will you be involved in the near future?
PAUL POPE: Recently I was a major contributor to “Italians of New York” exhibition at the New York Historical Society. I saw the exhibition as an opportunity for our community to launch a major drive toward recapturing and preserving our heritage. It was the first time that an effort was made to tell the whole saga of how Italians came to New York and settled here and built lives and created a culture and helped to shape this great city. And of course the story of New York Italians is in a large way the story of Italians in the United States. The exhibit evoked a tremendous response from the community and all the generations applauded it.
So in that same spirit my goal now is to undertake further cultural and educational initiatives designed to preserve our heritage and pass it on to future generations. Our Community is great at putting on banquets and fancy dinners but very few Italian American leaders support and further the kind of serious cultural endeavors like the exhibit. In this I believe we must learn from other ethnic communities who do much more for the education and culture of their people.
L’IDEA: Many Italians in the USA felt betrayed when Il Progresso Italo Americano disappeared. Do you believe that the practical abandonment (sale) of the Italian daily by the Pope family was defensible from a social point-of-view?
PAUL POPE: I do not believe that my grandfather would ever have condoned the idea of selling the Progresso. He did not buy the Progresso as an investment out of which he expected to make a profit. The reason he spent 2 million dollars on the paper – an enormous amount of money in 1928 – was because he saw I as a vehicle for giving voice and strength to our community at a time when it had none. He used the paper to further what he saw as the needs and interests of his fellow Italians in the United States. Today, more than ever, we need something like the Progresso to focus our interests and sustain our cultural identity and our social cohesion as a community.
L’IDEA: Are you at the moment involved in any kind of publishing activities?
PAUL POPE: In the past I have been involved in publishing ventures. Plans are under way for me to become active again in publishing, and in a way that I hope will be meaningful for Italian Americans.
L’IDEA: When will the announced book on the Pope saga go to the press?
PAUL POPE: The book will be completed in the spring of 2001.
L’IDEA: Are you still attempting to gain control of the National Enquirer? Why do you feel there was a conspiracy to stop you from purchasing it? [According to the New York Post, “millionaire bachelor Paul Pope…is spinning just the kind of yarn you’d expect to see in the pages of the supermarket tab.” ]
PAUL POPE: No. For some strange reason family members didn’t want me to get control of the paper even after efforts of me raising $400 million with another $50 million in reserve. [“With the backing of Shearson Lehman, he offered $400 million, but the company American Media won out with a bid of $412 million.” New York Post, June 21, 2000]
L’IDEA: You have a $1,000,000.00 reward posted on the Internet for any information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for the death of your father, Generoso Jr., the disappearance of a will in your name and the creation of the conspiracy of which we just spoke. On what do you base your beliefs that your father’s death was suspicious? Why are still not able to obtain an autopsy to clear the case?
PAUL POPE: We have two leads at this time we’re perusing and we feel the more publicity about the reward on the Internet will bring forward a secretary who typed the second will, or an ambulance driver who saw something that wasn’t kosher. We’re waiting for anyone with information to come forward so I can have closure in my life and justice will prevail. I haven’t been able to obtain an autopsy because my mother is the only one who can order one, and she won’t consent. [Lois Pope, his mother, in a recent interview, could not suppress her disdain for the airing of the dirty laundry. Paul “said his mother is ashamed of what he’s unearthed about the Enquirer history… Before this falling-out, Paul headed Lois’ educational foundation. Now they don’t speak… For Paul, the estrangement is just another case of Pope history repeating itself: My father didn’t talk to his mother for 40 years. It’s family trait . “ New York Post, June 21, 2000]