Pope Family Battle: Like The Godfather

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.

"When I didn't get the paper, when it was sold out from underneath me, that was the true death of my father," Paul says today.

Paul spent the next decade running wild, a 20-something with the ego of a stymied Citizen Kane and all the id a deep bank account can provide. He bought Ferraris and cigarette boats and boozed his way through South Florida nightclubs. Three Cadillacs rented from the same agency were totaled on three subsequent nights. Drunk friends were given $1,000 to swim the Intracoastal Waterway.

The party eventually slowed down after a fling ended in a pregnancy in 2000. He had a daughter, and two other children by two additional women followed. Paul began rummaging through his own family history and eventually produced the 2010 book The Deeds of My Father. It's a bittersweet coda on the family story — "A real page-turner," Dominick Dunne gushed on the book jacket.

Throughout the 2000s, the Popes asked the courts to referee their disputes. Although his mother footed Paul's bills while he was writing his book, in 2006, she sued him for repayment of $340,000. A countersuit followed in which Pope, then 38, claimed his mother had backed out on promises, including a $1 million yearly allowance and $5 million for a new residence. In 2007, Pope also sued his mother and CitiBank over the state of the family trust, charging mismanagement because the principal had failed to grow since his father's death.

The latest legal squabble between the Popes revved up in late 2012. According to the son, it was then that he learned Lois had taken out kidnapping insurance on his kids. When Pope pressed for the reason, his mother demurred. This seemed to Paul a threat. "We're not living in a Third World country," he reasons today.

Paranoid or not, he hired more bodyguards and began losing sleep over the stress. "Typically you take [kidnapping insurance] out on your spouse or sometimes on your children," says Paul's lawyer, Michael Schlesinger. "Lois took it out on Paul's children, and that's just not typical when you're taking out insurance."

When Paul began circulating binders full of accusations about his mother's spending and charitable donations, Lois retaliated by filing for a restraining order. The document describes a son who continually asks for more money and gets ugly when refused. In 2007, a settlement was reached that allegedly awarded Paul and his siblings an additional $12 million. In an April court hearing, Lois also said she'd given her son $4 million last year. More recently, Lois claims she refused to pay more than $300,000 in legal debts Pope has racked up.

"His calculated attack to publicly humiliate Lois Pope serves no purpose other than to extort his elderly mother," Lois' petition states. According to the paperwork, Lois fears her son could harm her, citing two past incidents of domestic abuse reported by former girlfriends (the charges were later dropped). At a hearing in early April, a Palm Beach County judge continued the case for 30 days.

As he waits for a ruling, Paul dismisses both his mother's account and the suggestion that he's debt-heavy and looking for another payday. "I never stalked my mother," he says. "Never, never would I want harm done to her in any way, shape, or form."

But he also isn't idle. He's hunkered down in his offices in Weston, where his constantly booming voice sends a staff of six darting around the suites. The beehive of activity is churning out letters to lawyers and accountants. Coming down the pike, Pope promises more lawsuits. He's tightlipped on the details but hints his latest round again focuses on the main flash point in his life: the Enquirer sale.

"Let's say at the time of the father's death, the major asset was the National Enquirer," says his lawyer, Schlesinger. "Let's say years later, it turns out, in addition to the Enquirer, there were offshore accounts that were distributed off the books. Right now, we're investigating whether they exist."

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson