The National Enquirer has a backstory worthy of the National Enquirer
The cover of the National Enquirer, Sept. 6, 1977.
The National Enquirer, like the salacious stories it publishes, has a juicy backstory—one filled with scandal and blackmail.
Some of that dark history is revealed by John Connolly in next month's issue of DuJour magazine. It delves into the alleged mob ties of the tabloid's former owner, Gene Pope Jr., who acquired the then-New York Enquirer in the early 1950s, and the magazine's shifting mission: gore in the late '50s to-mid-'60s; "fallen angels" in the '60s and '70s; the targeting of celebrities and politicians like Ted Kennedy and Sylvester Stallone in the '70s and '80s; and an increasing emphasis on celebrity.
From the article:
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. [Former staffer Bill] 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.
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, fear of an affair being aired (particularly 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.
Pope, Connolly reports, encouraged his reporters to pay sources for stories:
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, selling 6.5 million copies.
The Enquirer has always had a fascination with death. And according to Connolly, it was born out of an epiphany Pope had 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.
In the late 1960s, after John F. Kennedy's death, the formula shifted from gore rubbernecking to supermarket-friendly "fallen angels," namely, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.