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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Living in a democracy

By Paul Bannister

Life at the National Enquirer had a flavour all its own, and it often tasted like fear.
Working in Lantana (FLA) was an edgy adventure, if sometimes a dangerous one for your career, because publisher and owner Gene Pope ran a very tight ship and instructed his hatchet men to fire at will. Or, if not at will, at least when he said to fire.
And they did. It was normal on Friday afternoons to see small knots of red-eyed young women sobbing farewell to one of their friends, who’d lost her job at short notice.
Dismissal wasn’t really that bad. Many editorial staff who were fired, hung around the area freelancing. They got handsome fees, worked a fraction as hard as the staffers and were not subject to the last-minute assignments that forced staff reporters out of town despite other, domestic, commitments. We envied the freelances, their days at the Banana Boat bar, their freedom. It seemed they’d been playing the tuba the day it rained gold coins.
Then Pope issued an edict, ex cathedra: no Florida-based freelancers would be employed. It was a typical GP move, cutting the Gordian knot. In one easy move he put fear of firing back into staffers’ lives and increased the flow of ideas from other parts of the US.
It was only one of the ways Pope kept control. GP was Mafia mobster Frank Costello’s godson, and knew all about power and influence. His father, Generoso Sr was said to ‘run New York’.
The Popes were connected, but when three of the New York mob families went to war, Costello got sent down, and his grip on power began slipping away.
Pope later said Frank made some bad decisions, and Pope’s New York Enquirer became a victim. GP had to ship the paper from its New Jersey printing works, and there was a dispute with the Teamsters union. The story went round that one of GP’s delivery drivers had been found dead in the back of his truck, a note pinned to the body with a knife stuck through the man’s heart.
The note said simply ‘Don’t fuck with us.’
Pope got the message. His papers, his guy, he’d be next. He announced that the Enquirer was headed south, to union-free Florida. Enquirer employees were told to show up at Grand Central with their families for the train ride south – GP didn’t fly – and his henchmen started handing out train tickets. That was when those employees found out if they had a job or not. Most of the 80 or so families had sold or rented out their homes, packed their goods for shipment. They were going to a new life.
They showed up at the station expecting to embark on their new adventure, and about one family in three found they had no ticket. They were not along for the ride. They were fired. Tough about your home, tough about packing your goods.
It was Pope’s way. A man who’d let his dog eat right off his dinner plate, he had a mental disconnect when it came to indifference to others’ feelings – or futures.
As corporate policy, he pitted editorial teams against each other, with the loss of their jobs the penalty for the losing team. Once, he pink-slipped the whole public relations department of about 20 people at an hour’s notice. Another time, when he came across a memo with a word misspelled by a photo assistant, he didn’t even ask whose error it was. He just growled, “Fire the dummy.”
In later life, Pope’s second wife, Lois, told how his favourite question was ‘What do you want from me?’ and said he told her to keep out of his business.
He even canned the guy who likely saved his life. In New York, GP was travelling to a lunch appointment with then-editor Ted Mutch. An oncoming truck swerved into their lane. Pope’s chauffeur pulled off a miracle of evasion, swerving up the sidewalk and around a telegraph pole before bouncing back into the roadway.
GP never said a word.
After lunch, at which Pope had his favourite meal, chicken soup (which he believed kept him healthy) followed by pasta, Ted was surprised to find the limo outside the restaurant, with no chauffeur in sight.
“You drive, Ted,” said Pope. “Yes, sir,” said Ted. “Where’d the chauffeur get to?”
“Hadda fire the stiff. He nearly got us killed,” said Pope.
At the other end of the scale, Pope could be loyal to his crew. Ted told me once of taking a glamorous woman to dinner. As they entered the restaurant, a couple of drunks made a crude remark to her. Ted, a mild-mannered man, left it alone and checked in with the maitre d’, who recognised him as the new editor of the Enquirer.They got a good table, and a complimentary bottle of wine. Ten minutes into dinner, Ted saw four large men enter and efficiently remove the two drunks.
“I excused myself for a moment and slipped outside,” Mutch said. “In the alleyway alongside the restaurant, the large men were using baseball bats to give the drunks a bad beating. One of them stopped to nod to me. ‘Mr Pope’s compliments,’ he said. “The maitre d’ had called someone to tell him about the insult.” It was Pope’s way. He could gift you with protection, or he could fire you. That message was plainly on the wall for all of us, so much so that, in my second month at the paper, a Scots editor held a ‘bank balance party’. He wanted to celebrate the fact that he now had enough in his bank account to move back to Scotland and set up house again if he got fired in Florida. It was an eerie feeling: we were celebrating ahead of the editor’s being fired. In fact, he hung on for years, but a metaphorical sword was dangling over our heads the whole time.We were also constantly and accurately reminded that we were highly paid, to shut up and get on with it.
Nobody was exempt. When one of Pope’s closest henchmen, Guy Galiardo, who was company secretary as well as a lifelong friend, was looking over the extensive office gardens with GP’s wife Lois, she made some suggestions about changes to the Christmas decorations.
Pope noticed the changes and brought up the matter with Galiardo.“Why’d you move that?” he growled.“Because Lois told me to.”
“See if you can get her to sign your pay cheque next week,” Pope glowered. “Meantime, move it back the way it was.”
Pope could be cruel. An editor presented him with an extremely expensive bottle of Scotch at a meeting, a bad error, as it put GP, a man who never wanted to be beholden, in a position of having to return a favour, and that was part of Mob code.
At the next meeting of the same group, Pope referred to the gift: “I took a sip of that cheap booze you gave me,” he said, showing his large teeth. “I must not be paying you enough. Stuff tasted like kerosene. I used it to clean the carb on my Chevy.” The other editors took mental note, and GP didn’t get any suck-up gifts after that, though I did present him with a copy of a book I’d authored, appropriately inscribed, as a thanks for his permission to use the magazine’s photographs in it. I have to admit, I was highly nervous about the offering but decided it might be an insult not to pay tribute. I chose my time carefully, going the day after the paper locked up, when he was least stressed, and right after lunch, when he’d cooked his own hamburger as usual. I also insured my safety with a discreet phone call to one of his secretaries to see how mellow he was at the moment.The planets were in conjunction and he took my Danegeld affably, but it was always a challenge to the heart monitor to enter his office…
Sometimes, the mountain came to Mahomet, and the boss would patrol the buildings with a sergeant major’s inspecting eye. Once, when he used the staff men’s room instead of his private one, Pope noticed a couple of cigarette butts in a urinal.Within minutes, a sign went up in the toilet, over his initials in the red ink only he was allowed to use in the office.
“Anyone caught throwing cigarette butts in the urinals will have to remove them with his teeth.”
The urinals had never been so spotless...
When Lois and her mother once walked past a line of people waiting to view the Enquirer’s Christmas decorations, Pope called them back.“Where do you guys think you’re going?” he demanded. “No cheating, everyone waits in line here.”
His wife and mother-in-law turned, humiliated, and joined the end of the line. “This place is a democracy!” Pope told his attendant editor, who was so afraid of the democratic despot he didn’t repeat the story for a couple of years.
Paul Bannister was on the Bolton Evening News before moving to Fleet Street to work on Cycling magazine (next door to Mick's Cafe). He joined the Morning Telegraph, Sheffield, then the Odhams Sun and the Daily Mail, Manchester, before becoming a senior reporter on the National Enquirer.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful writing and fascinating details. I want more, please.

Brian Barrick, Bakersfield CA said...

Paul should not write his own anonymous blogs he should leave that to the literary unwashed. His effusive self congratulatory is readily indentifiable - the only thing missing is "Please Brother the bus were late."