Oh, Florida! When the National Enquirer produced Christmas joy, not political scandal

Published Dec. 19, 2018

Florida has a few distinctive holiday traditions: illuminated boat and golf cart parades, surfing Santas, snow globes containing nothing but water and a floating top hat with a sign that says "Florida Snowman." But there was a time when Florida regularly boasted of being the home not just of a town called Christmas but also home of the world's largest decorated Christmas tree.

Starting in 1971, a man named Generoso "Gene" Pope Jr. made sure that the Palm Beach County town of Lantana had a tree that stopped traffic on the highway and attracted visitors from miles around. In 1979, when Pope's tree measured 117 feet tall, the Guinness Book of World Records declared it to be the world's largest, and they just kept getting larger like the Grinch's heart.

The last one, unveiled 30 years ago, measured 126 feet. It was topped by a 6-foot lighted silver star and featured some 300,000 lights. No wonder people on the highway pulled over to see it.

Who was the right jolly old elf who produced this giant tribute to the joyous holiday season? None other than the founder and publisher of the National Enquirer, the outrageous scandal sheet that defined the term "supermarket tabloid."

Pope was an unlikely source of holiday hoopla. When he was growing up in New York, his godfather was literally the Godfather — mob boss Frank Costello, nicknamed "the Prime Minister of the Underworld." Pope graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 19 and worked for the Central Intelligence Agency in psychological operations. In 1952, when he was 25, he borrowed money from Costello to buy a newspaper called the New York Enquirer that was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Pope renamed it the National Enquirer, converted it to an easier-to-handle tabloid size and started running eye-grabbing crime headlines like, "I Cut Out Her Heart and Stomped on It." He drew his inspiration, he said, from watching how people slowed down to look at a gory car wreck.

By 1960, though, Pope had discovered that celebrity news drew even more attention. Enquirer headlines began trumpeting the latest Hollywood gossip as well as outlandish stories about psychics, UFOs and the Abominable Snowman. Pope also began selling the paper in supermarket checkout lines, instead of at newsstands, a masterstroke of marketing genius.

In 1971, the same year Walt Disney World opened, Pope moved his operation down to Florida (and put up his first Christmas tree). This was the paper's heyday, when Pope sent a reporter to rummage through Henry Kissinger's trash and spent big bucks to get a front-page photo of Elvis in his casket. (Later, another Pope-owned publication, the Weekly World News, informed the world that Elvis was still alive, but that's another story.)

Pope bought a waterfront mansion in nearby Manalapan but spent at least six days a week over at the Enquirer, checking on his paper. He was such a micromanager he would measure the height of the grass blades on the lawn to make sure the maintenance crew was cutting it right. Whatever he was doing must have worked. When he died in 1988, circulation stood at 4.5 million, second in the nation after TV Guide.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Other tabloids popped up in the vicinity, copying what Pope did, including Pope's penchant for hiring reporters from the ranks of Britain's tabloid press. Their influx transformed the area into a mini-United Kingdom, where you were as likely to hear a Scottish accent as one from Jersey. They became so ingrained in the local culture that one of the Enquirer's former editors, South Africa native Malcolm Balfour, is now a Lantana city councilman.

A conglomerate bought the paper but kept it in Florida, where it continued racking up scoops, often by waving a big check in front of potential sources. They broke the news of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's out-of-wedlock child in 2001, Rush Limbaugh's addiction to painkillers in 2003, the existence of O.J. Simpson's book If I Did It in 2006, and Sen. John Edwards' affair while running for president in 2008. The paper actually nominated itself for a Pulitzer Prize for that last one. (It did not win.)

"If it was a good story, we went after it," Balfour told me recently. Nobody was immune.

But then, in 2015, the conglomerate owner, a man with a name made for Beavis and Butt-Head mockery, moved the headquarters to New York. Later that year owner David S. Pecker met with Donald Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and "offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate's relationships with women" by buying and killing the stories, according to a document just filed in federal court that everyone pulled over and stared at like a gory car wreck.

The Enquirer killed a juicy story just to suck up to a political candidate? Say it ain't so! Balfour said he had never heard of such a thing: "I know we didn't do that."

Apparently Pecker feels betrayed by his former friend. (Perhaps the headline on that could be, "He Cut Out My Heart and Stomped on It.") It doesn't take a psychic to predict that the Enquirer's reputation for fearlessness has just fallen apart. If you ask me, Pecker should flag down a passing UFO and ask it to help him move the paper back to Florida — and next year, instead of buying and killing stories, spend that money on putting up a big Christmas tree.

Information from the book "Tabloid Valley: Supermarket News and American Culture" by Paula E. Morton was used in this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.