In the last millennium, in the days pre-tubes, I read a piece somewhere—Harper’s I think, maybe Rolling Stone—by a shamefaced scribe who confessed to working for some years in the wacky world of Generoso Pope, Jr., late titan of the tabloid empire that churned out such wonderments as The National Enquirer and The Weekly World News.
Two anecdotes from that story have stuck with me for years. The first involved the day when the writer realized that, notwithstanding the fat salaries that Pope paid to his people, he had to get out of the place. Seems one of the rags was set to feature a piece about an alien spacecraft hovering on the far side of Mercury, undetected here on earth. One of the writer’s fellow workers, assigned to author the caption for the image accompanying the spacecraft nonsense, approached a member of the graphics department, bearing with him the image, and asked of it: “Is this a photograph, or an illustration?”
The writer understood that if he remained in Pope’s employ much longer, he too would reach the day when he would genuinely not know whether an image of an undetected alien spacecraft on the far side of Mercury might be an illustration, or a photograph.
The second anecdote concerned a new and zealous female coworker of the writer’s. The writer and she were assigned, for some reason that I have forgotten, to dog Frank Sinatra. Sinatra, as was his wont, arrogantly blew off these people. After several frustrating encounters, the woman angrily shook her fist at a retreating Sinatra, and vowed: “You’ll get yours, Frank! We’ll get you in your box!”
This was a reference to the Enquirer‘s then-practice of surreptitiously obtaining, then publicly printing, photographs of dead celebrities in their caskets—known in the Pope trade as “in the box” pictures. Apparently the first such Enquirer “in the box” shot was of Elvis Presley, which the paper obtained by bribing a member of Presley’s entourage. The Enquirer issue featuring on its cover Presley “in the box” sold more copies than any other edition of the Enquirer in history. Word then went forth to Pope’s Enquirer people that they should move heaven and earth to obtain similar “in the box” photos of future dead celebrities.
I don’t recall whether the paper succeeded, when Frank did pass, in skewering Sinatra “in the box.” I do know the practice continues with Pope’s spiritual heirs: OK! reportedly shelled out $500,000 for a picture of Michael Jackson “in the box.” And there has recently developed a perhaps even uglier sub-genre, in which tabloids print photos of celebrities taken just before they die: Gary Coleman’s heirs sold pictures of his “last moments” to the Globe for $10,000. “They are going to sell a crazy amount of magazines,” a Globetrotter noted before the images appeared. “Yes, it’s an ugly decision to run pictures of a man in his hospital bed minutes before he died, but dead celebrities sell.”
Why am I remembering and recounting all this? Because in recent days this site has begun attracting a tremendous number of page hits for a photograph of Jesse James “in the box,” that I unwittingly posted here nearly a year ago.