Paul David Pope: The Deeds of My Fathers

December 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1442204867 – Hardcover – $24.95 – Philip Turner/Rowman & Littlefield (e-book editions available at $9.99)

Well this is truly an amazing 20th century American story, and really well told by the author, who spent many years working on this book.  There are characters here as big as those in any historical novel. The full title of the book gets to what the story is about: The Deeds of My Fathers: How My Grandfather and Father Built New York and Created the Tabloid World of Today.

Paul David Pope’s grandfather, Generoso Pope Sr., came to this country alone and poor, at a very young age seeking a better life, as so many other immigrants did.  That part of the story is hardly unique.  But he was obviously a very special sort of person, and it did not take him very long, through hard work, intelligence and a certain amount of ruthlessness, to create a building trades empire in the greatest city in America, New York City.

His companies supplied the concrete that literally built the city in the boom years of New York.  But he also managed to buy and control this country’s primary Italian language newspaper, Il Progresso, and his wealth, power and connections (including political kingmakers, the mob, and even FDR as well as the Pope) made him one of this country’s leading and most influential Italian Americans. Because he was able to use his newspaper to influence elections, he essentially became a kingmaker in the old school of American politics, and was truly an iconic emblem of his times.

But author Pope does not shy away from telling us the ugly along with the good.  His grandfather was far too close to Mussolini in the 1930s, and was blatantly used by the Fascists to try to influence American public opinion in their favor during the lead up to World War II.  And he was far from being a good husband and father.  He always favored his youngest son, Gene (author Pope’s father), and selected him to run his businesses, over his older and more experienced brothers.

Early on, Gene Americanized his name to Pope. He was pushed out of the family business after his father’s death by his mother and his two older brothers.  At that point, Gene, with a loan secured from his “Uncle Frank” Costello, bought a newspaper in decline, the New York Enquirer.  With a combination of dedication and a brilliant natural understanding of what average readers would want to read, he created the pinnacle of all tabloids, the National Enquirer.  Of course, the support of his Uncle Frank did not come without strings, and Frank required that the paper stop attacking the mob in its stories, and in fact it was to publish only positive stories about projects the mob was backing, and even that the Enquirer would attack and discredit the enemies and opponents of organized crime – which it did without hesitation.

But the heart of Gene Pope’s story is his single minded dedication to the newspaper he loved.  He moved the company to Florida and made it almost the only thing he cared about.  As he grew older, he was clearly eccentric in his behavior (some might say nighly neurotic and disturbed).  But throughout, Gene Pope gives readers what they want, and as the National Enquirer covers the paranormal, medical cures, celebrities, always attentive to what the average American would read, and circulation soars, peaking with the 7 million copies sold of the Enquirer’s 1977 exposé on the death of Elvis Presley.

Paul David Pope gives us a fast paced, almost novelistic version of his family’s history.  His story is based on hundreds of interviews, and a huge amount of research, but of course much of what happened in the earlier part of the story is reconstructed from the documentary record.  It is a gripping narrative, and a compelling story for anyone who cares about the modern history of the United States as lived by some of its more colorful and successful citizens, and the author gets across the complexity of his real life family in their non-stop rush to make their marks.

Talking to the author gave me a chance to delve into the background of the story, what motivated Paul to do all this work and stay with it for so long, and for him to talk about how his family history has affected his own life.  There’s more about the book at the author’s website too.