By Mary Thurwachter
Two years ago, a California acupuncturist took her parents, visiting from Florida, along to meet friends for dinner at a trendy L.A. restaurant. The acupuncturist, well-known in Hollywood circles, had a client list that included famous folks such as Kim Kardashian.
The TV reality star wasn’t part of this small gathering, but film producer and director Mark Landsman was, and he couldn’t get over the entertaining stories his friend’s father told.
But who was the charming, chatty daddy? Enquiring minds wanted to know.
He was Lantana’s vice mayor, Malcolm Balfour, former articles editor at the National Enquirer. The acupuncturist was his daughter, Antonia.
“Malcolm was regaling us with stories from his former career and had been a reporter from the earliest days of the National Enquirer,” Landsman said. “Naturally my ears perked up because I’m fascinated with that. He told these crazy stories and offered to introduce me to some of his former tabloid trench mates, and it just went from there.”
What “went from there” was production of a documentary called Scandalous, a look at the history of the National Enquirer, an influential tabloid that covers everything from alien landings and psychic predictions to celebrity breakups and medical oddities. No expense was spared to get a story. Sources were paid handsomely, a practice that continued after the 1988 death of owner Generoso Pope Jr.
“The great thing about working for the Enquirer was there was unlimited money to get a story,” said David Wright, an investigative reporter for the tabloid from 1976 to 2010. “If you were on a story and you wanted to hire a boat or plane, or someone to help you climb a mountain, you just did it. But that was starting to dry up in the last year I was there and I was more confined to doing stories on the phone. I like traveling and I like knocking on doors.”
The film, which debuted in November at select theaters, including a short run at the Lake Worth Playhouse, examines “how this publication came into being and, on a larger level, looks at the impact it had on journalism and our political landscape,” Landsman said.
He pitched the documentary to people at CNN Films, and they went for it. In August before the Nov. 15 theatrical release, distributor Magnolia Pictures acquired the North American rights to Scandalous.
The movie uses current-day interviews with former staffers and others to examine why the paper has thrived, the effect of its sharp turn into partisan politics, and why a tabloid marketed to “Missy Smith in Kansas City” began acquiring exclusive rights to stories about powerful people and then killing the stories to protect them.
From its coverage of Elvis Presley’s death to Monica Lewinsky’s affair with Bill Clinton to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, the tabloid shook the foundations of American culture and politics, sometimes allegedly using payoffs and blackmail to get its scoops.
Finding a home in Lantana
The National Enquirer moved its headquarters from New York to Lantana in 1971. It remained there until 2000, when it moved to Boca Raton. Pope in 1952 had used money supplied by his godfather, reputed mob boss Frank Costello, to buy and remake the old New York Enquirer from a racing and sporting newspaper into a grocery store tabloid.
While in Lantana, the paper’s headquarters became known for having the “World’s Largest Christmas Tree,” but the holiday display also ended after Pope died. Pope’s widow, Lois Pope, lives in Manalapan and is a well-known philanthropist.
Balfour was working as a bureau chief for Reuters in Miami in 1971 when he got a call from a photographer who persuaded him to take a freelance assignment for the Enquirer. He joined a team of reporters (most, like Balfour, who was born in South Africa, had British accents) in covering the Red Cross Ball at The Breakers in Palm Beach. The ballroom was packed with society’s finest, including members of the Kennedy family.
“I asked Rose Kennedy for a dance, but it only lasted for about three seconds before a Secret Service guy tapped me on the shoulder,” Balfour said. “I noticed that the Marine escorts weren’t able to sit down and eat with other attendees and I didn’t think that seemed right.”
Balfour turned this observation into a story about how the Marines, who escorted socialites at the gala, were good enough to die for their country in Vietnam but weren’t good enough to have dinner with the social elite at the ball. The story was a huge hit at the tabloid.
“I was quite a little favorite with Pope from then on,” Balfour said.
Balfour, who worked for Pope from 1971 to 1980, is one of the stars of Scandalous, as are others from South Palm Beach County — including Ocean Ridge Mayor Steve Coz, once the tabloid’s editor and senior vice president; his wife, Val Coz, a real estate agent with Douglas Elliman and former photo editor at the Enquirer; and British investigative reporter Wright, who lives in Atlantis.
Former employees like film
Not surprisingly, Balfour and his tabloid “trench mates” give the film two thumbs up.
“Mark Landsman did a fantastic job capturing the energy of the newsroom, the craziness of the Enquirer during its heyday and the incredible stress everyone was under,” said Steve Coz, who was at the paper from 1981 to 2003. “In Generoso Pope’s Enquirer you had a job for the week and could be fired on any given Friday for any random reason.
“The most important takeaway from the movie for me was the transformation of the Enquirer into a powerful political propaganda machine under the ownership of David Pecker after Pope died.”
Coz and his wife left the tabloid in a nasty battle with Pecker over content and the editorial direction of the Enquirer.
Val Coz started working there in 1977 when she was 22. She took it as a temporary job, thinking she’d be there six months and move on. But she remained for 26 years and met her husband there.
“The movie made me happy because it’s a legacy for our kids to understand what we did because they were so little,” she said. “We left in 2003, so they were relatively young. It’s kind of nice because it does explain what happened.”
Wright and Balfour both agreed Scandalous was well done. They were relieved to find that the film made a very clear distinction at the end between the old Enquirer, which was breaking big stories and selling 5 million to 6 million copies a week, and what Wright calls “the pathetic publication it is now.”
Admiring, fearing Pope
Pope’s former employees had both good and bad things to say about working for him.
“It was stressful, certainly,” Val Coz said. “I had great admiration for Pope. All the stories are true about him. The one thing I never experienced from him was any kind of misogyny. He was equally mean and horrible to everybody — and equally rewarding if you produced. He didn’t have a thing ‘oh, she’s a girl don’t promote her,’ which was unusual back in those days.”
Wright, who specialized in covering high-profile crimes, said Pope was a terrifying man.
“You never knew when he was going to cast a dark eye on you and fire you,” he said. “But he was a genius in terms of how he set up the Enquirer, not only in the marketing in supermarkets, but he had a knack for getting a terrific mix of stories from show business to how-to stories to medical stories. The paper had something for everyone — and Pope OK’d every story that went in the paper, even the tiny 1-inch stories.”
Wright, who currently writes for a running and health website called TakeTheMagicStep.com, was the kind of ace reporter for the Enquirer who would do whatever it took to get the story. He once posed as a florist’s messenger, delivering roses to Megan Marshack, the staffer who had been with Nelson Rockefeller when he died in her arms. She was holed up in her apartment, trying to avoid reporters.
“I nearly had to buy the truck to get the setup right,” Wright recalled.
The stories of which he is most proud, though, are of the JonBenét Ramsey murder. He led a team of Enquirer reporters who spent two years covering the case, and he has a strong suspicion about who killed the young beauty queen.
“I have to think it was the mother, Patsy,” Wright said. “If you look at the ransom note, no kidnapper is going to come in and sit down at the kitchen table without the materials to write a ransom note in the first place, not knowing when the family is coming back. … And then the details of the ransom note had things that only Patsy and her husband would know. We really explored every one of the theories for all intruders. I never believed it could have been an intruder.”
But he can’t imagine what motive Patsy, who died in 2006, could have had.
The good, bad and ugly
One of Steve Coz’s favorite stories, from a journalism standpoint, was publishing the photo of O.J. Simpson wearing Bruno Magli shoes. A bloody shoe print from size 12 Bruno Maglis was found near the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson, his ex-wife, and her friend Ron Goldman.
O.J. had, during his trial, denied ever wearing “those ugly ass shoes.”
“Unfortunately, we didn’t find it during the criminal trial, but at least they had it (photo of O.J. wearing the shoes) for the civil trial,” Val Coz said of the photo.
“When the Enquirer trained its focus on legitimate news stories versus gossip, there was a cleanness to the Enquirer newsroom and we were quite good at it,” said Steve Coz, a Harvard graduate who has a management and communications company that specializes in media relations and brand growth.
From a gossip standpoint, Steve Coz said, the ongoing saga of Roseanne Barr during the 1990s was his favorite story. “She would call cursing me out one day and then love me the next. At one point she hired thugs who punched me out in my Beverly Hills hotel. Then later she had me co-host her daytime TV show with her. Crazy times.”
There were terrifying times for the Coz family as well. One of them came after Princess Diana’s fatal car accident in 1997. The Enquirer — and Steve Coz as editor — came under fire from George Clooney and other celebs who blamed the tabloid and Coz for her death because of the paparazzi chasing her. But none of them was from the Enquirer.
“Look, celebrities court publicity in the tabloids to start their careers, and then when they become full-fledged stars, they scream that the press is invading their privacy,” Coz said. “I was used to celebs screaming at me on the phone, but when Princess Di died, it got real ugly. She died at the hands of a drunken driver while French paparazzi were following her car. Hollywood celebrities immediately trained the focus on the paparazzi, the tabloids and me. It served their goal — to stop the tabloids from publishing stories that tarnished their public images.”
The Coz family was on edge after Diana’s death and threats from celebrities.
“The Ocean Ridge police chief then, Ed Hillery, put officers on our perimeter, and the Enquirer put security details at our house and on Val, the kids and me,” Steve Coz said. “We had our own three young children plus we were caring for two other kids while their parents were in Ireland. Those parents called when they heard the celebrity threats against me on the BBC.
“It was a trying time for us. It taught us not to sweat the small stuff. That large ficus hedge and fortified fence you see around our property were installed by the Enquirer to safeguard us.”
Another trying time for the Coz family came after photojournalist Bob Stevens was killed in the 2001 anthrax attack on the tabloid’s headquarters in Boca Raton.
“It was terrifying,” Val Coz said. “What people don’t really know is there were several people in the office that were taken ill during the ordeal and hospitalized and have had long-term results. We all had to be on prophylactic antibiotics for six or eight weeks.
“For Steve and me, it was even a little more frightening because our 11-year-old son had been in the office during the incubation time, before we knew about it. He had to go on antibiotics, as well as one of his friends who had been with him. We went in on a Saturday, they were running around the office while we were doing something on our way to a birthday party. Just one of those crazy things, you know.”
When can you see the film?
If you missed the showing at the Lake Worth Playhouse in November, you can see the film on CNN in April. If you don’t want to wait, go to www.scandalousfilm.com and click the button that says “watch at home.”
Scandalous is available on many streaming services.