By Michael E. Miller
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It's Tuesday morning and Paul Pope's staff is hustling around a walk-in closet in his Spanish Colonial spread in Highland Beach.
A buxom 30-something with cascading brunet hair sits on the floor cradling a black-belt-fed M60 machine gun. Nearby, a stocky middle-aged man in a baggy white sports coat casually grips an unloaded Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun outfitted with a scope and silencer. Soon a SWAT-style shotgun is passed around as another pretty assistant checks serial numbers against state paperwork, the reason behind the chore. A hulking bodyguard, monk-quiet, stands sentry.
It's the type of hardware you'd expect to see pouring rounds into a Taliban encampment rather than sharing shelf space with undies and dress shoes. Pope watches from the doorway, dressed in a cream-colored button-down and dress slacks. Though his cherub cheeks are unshaven and his dark pupils are down to pins from sleepless nights, he's smiling and cheerful.
"If you fall, just don't sue me," the 45-year-old deadpans as one of his assistants stretches up to a high shelf for a box of .308-caliber ammunition. "I have enough lawsuits already. You'd have to get in line."
The wisecrack hits the bull's-eye. Legal action has pretty much swallowed Pope's life. He's the only son of Generoso "Gene" Pope Jr., founder of the National Enquirer. Since the patriarch's 1988 death and the subsequent $412.5 million sale of the tabloid, the younger Pope has been in court regularly, up against an unlikely opponent: his mother, Lois.
The Palm Beach philanthropist and her son have faced off in four lawsuits. Although she declined to talk for this article, Lois Pope paints her son in legal filings as a psychotic party boy who gets litigious when his trust fund dries up. Pope counters that his mother is a spendthrift socialite who's mismanaged the family wealth. Despite the acrimony, mother and son have attended galas over the years arm-in-arm. It's a tawdry Hamlet and Gertrude staged for the supermarket checkout audience. "There's been a constant sort of battling on and off for 25 years," Pope admits.
Now, according to Pope, the curtain is up on Act Five. Charges of fraud, kidnapping, stalking, and extortion have all popped up over the past few months. Restraining orders have been filed, binders full of sleazy gossip passed around. Pope says he's ready to end the long-running squabble, hinting that he might have finally unearthed the family secrets to do so.
It seems his mother is also ready to finish it. "I want to get him out of my life forever," Lois testified in an April court hearing. "I want God to take care of him now. I want to be able to live my life in peace. I haven't had any because of him in 25 years."
The Pope story in America opens just like the Godfather trilogy: Generoso Pope Sr. arrives in New York City in 1906 and quickly hustles to the top of a Manhattan sand and gravel company. In 1928, he purchases Il Progresso Italo-Americano, the largest Italian-language paper in the country. Soon Generoso is rubbing shoulders with power players, from Franklin Roosevelt to Benito Mussolini.
But there's more than just Il Padrino. When it was time to choose a successor, Generoso tapped his youngest son, Gene, who had graduated from MIT at age 19. The scion ran the paper for a few years before his mother and brothers booted him following his father's death. The broken family never reconciled. Instead, in 1952 Gene purchased a New York daily with a $20,000 loan from a Pope clan friend, Mafia don Frank Costello.
Steering the rechristened National Enquirer, Gene arguably changed America's taste for news from Cronkite-serious to outrageously lurid. He persuaded supermarket chains to stock the tabloid in checkout aisles, and from headquarters in Lantana, he personally micromanaged coverage and sometimes tossed journalistic ethics. Whether it was paying $15,000 for Grace Kelley's last words or unleashing Elvis' autopsy details, the Enquirer didn't hold back.
Paul was born in 1967. Being the latest issue of the Pope line wasn't easy. His father was always away at work. Lois, Gene's third wife, kept a frosty distance, battling an alcohol problem and a deteriorating marriage. As he grew up in the family's oceanfront estate in Manalapan, the boy was walled off from the outside by a 24-hour security detail.
"I didn't know until I was about 7 that I was different from the other kids — always being driven by bodyguards and having kids constantly mention the newspaper to me in school," he recalls. "Was [my father] the type to go out and play ball? No. But he would be there for family gatherings and dinners. The connection started more when I started working at the paper. The paper and my dad were one."
Paul started at age 10 loading trucks at the printing plant. Later, he worked in the editorial office, watching his father dispatch investigators to solve the murder of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane or comb through Henry Kissinger's garbage. One day, he figured, he would call the shots.
But it didn't happen. In 1988, Gene died of a heart attack. His will stipulated that the paper should be sold. Then 21, Paul put together an investment group that came up short of the final price tag, $412.5 million. After the sale, Lois received $200 million. Her son pocketed $20 million (as did three other siblings: Lois' two daughters from a previous marriage and Gene's sister, Lorraine, who has Down syndrome). Despite the payday, Pope was crushed about losing the legacy.