Over the years, the National Enquirer has gone to just about any length to get a scoop. If, a source told The Post, that meant sifting through Henry Kissinger’s garbage or masquerading as a llama to graze near the herd that dressed up Michael J. Fox’s wedding to Tracy Pollan, so be it.
“The establishment press could never keep up with us,” Tony Brenna, once the publication’s roving editor, told The Post. “We had the money to pay everyone and they didn’t. Reporters on stories would leave with $5,000 or $6,000 to buy out people.”
In 1975, as rumors swirled that Hollywood legends Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor might be remarrying, word reached the Enquirer that the couple would be flying from Zurich, Switzerland, to Tel Aviv.
Other journalists heard this as well and clamored to be on the flight. But the Enquirer took it to the next level.
“I bought six first class [tickets] — so I was the only journalist in the section,” said Brenna.
He also played on the “Hamlet” actor’s weakness.
“Burton had just gotten out of rehab. I sat across the aisle from him and swigged champagne. His tongue was hanging out,” Brenna added. “I said, ‘Come on Richard, have a drink.’ He had one and [Taylor] complained to the captain. But I got the story: Burton told me they were getting married again.”
Elizabeth Taylor “was so angry that she canceled her press conference in Tel Aviv [where she planned on revealing the engagement]. So I had the story to myself.”
It was revealed this week that the National Enquirer has sold for a reported $100 million to VVIP Ventures. The tabloid, formerly owned by American Media, Inc., had been on the market for the past four years, after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos accused the Enquirer of attempting to blackmail him with nude photos he had sent to his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez.
In 2018, the publication had gotten into trouble over using “catch-and-kill” tactics — allegedly paying for stories about Donald Trump and never publishing them — as a way to help Trump win the US presidency.
The Enquirer started out as New York Evening Enquirer in 1926 and focused on crime. Media mogul Generoso Pope bought it in 1952 and turned it into the world’s preeminent scandal sheet. Through the 1960s and into the ’70s, the Enquirer’s bread and butter were gross-out stories featuring graphic car-crash photos and tales of mothers cooking their babies. But by the mid-1970s, celebrity missteps were drawing in readers — and the publication did whatever was necessary to get them.
After the 1977 death of Elvis Presley, five Enquirer reporters piled into a Learjet for the flight from Enquirer headquarters in Lantana, Florida, to Memphis, Tennessee, where the singer laid in state. Among the luggage: A suitcase containing $50,000.
Owner Pope had one demand: A photo of dead Elvis in the casket. But there was one problem: No cameras allowed inside the viewing.
As reported in the HBO documentary “Scandalous,” about the tabloid, a portly local with a priest’s outfit was hired to smuggle a camera under his robe and get the snaps. But he was too short and the shots were worthless. So the Enquirer crew recruited one of Presley’s actual relatives out of a local bar to get the front-page shot, which sold some 7 million copies.
(The plan worked so well that, 35 years later, the publication somehow managed to get a camera into the Whigham Funeral Home in Newark, NJ, for a March 5, 2012, cover image of Whitney Houston in her casket.)
Still, not every get was gotten in Memphis. “Pope had some weird requirements,” recalled Brenna. “He wanted pictures of Elvis’s organs after they had been cut out by the coroner. We hired one of the coroner’s staff to carry a small camera inside and get a picture of Elvis’s heart. Cops found out. We got busted. I was told to go to the airport and to never f–king return to Memphis … [Pope] was a strange man.”
Memphis wasn’t the only time Brenna, who is currently shopping around his memoir, “Anything for a Headline,” got in trouble.
He was once assigned to find out what Nancy Kissinger had purchased on a Middle East swing with her husband Henry, then Secretary of State. Brenna tracked her to the pool at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, popped out of the water by her lounge chair and started asking questions. “I was immediately grabbed by the Secret Service and thrown out of Israel like a terrorist,” Brenna said. “It was a crazy life — thrilling and challenging.”
For the Enquirer’s massively detailed O.J. Simpson murder-accusation coverage, beginning in June 1994, a reporter created a pool-cleaning business in order to access the football legend’s backyard. Another writer, Alan Smith, parlayed a tip from an LAPD snitch and tracked down a salesman at the cutlery store where Simpson was alleged to have purchased the knife used to murder his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson.
“Smith offered [the guy several thousands of dollars] to tell his tale, to which he agreed,” a source told The Post. “He even showed Smith an autograph [by] O.J. from the day of the sale.”
Arguably, the most impressive feat came after Simpson was found not guilty of criminal charges. Prosecutors had presented a bloody footprint left behind by a Bruno Magli shoe with a distinctly patterned sole. Simpson arrogantly told the court that he would never wear such “ugly ass” shoes.
But the Enquirer was not having it. Photographers were paid thousands of dollars to search their files for pictures of Simpson wearing “murder shoes.”
“An AP photographer said he was testing out a new telephoto lens [at an NFL game] and caught a picture of O.J. with a pair of Bruno Maglis,” a former staffer told The Post. “He was taking a step and you could see the bottom of the shoe.”
Despite the visual match, the source added, “we sent the shoe to Rochester Institute of Technology and confirmed that it was all legit.”
While Simpson was acquitted for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, he was found responsible for the deaths in a civil trial the next year. And Enquirer staffers believe their work helped.
“Jurors interviewed after the the $33.5 million verdict said it was a key piece of evidence,” the former staffer said of the photo.
Over the years, patience was a valued virtue — as when writers and photographers were sent on an 18-month operation to get 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards, who was married, with his alleged mistress Rielle Hunter.
“We knew she was pregnant and living in a gated community,” the former staffer told The Post. “We rented a house there, [and] four reporters and a photographer watched her movements. We knew she went shopping, and set up an operation at the shopping center. We were perfectly positioned to get a shot showing her pregnant belly. She denied being Rielle. Edwards said it was tabloid trash. The story [which graced the December 31, 2007, cover] landed with a huge thud. I told everyone to keep going.”
In the summer of 2008, the Enquirer tracked Edwards — whose wife, Elizabeth, had been diagnosed with breast cancer — to the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where he was visiting Rielle and the baby.
“Very early in the morning, the door opened. Our reporter told Edwards, ‘I understand you were up to the room to see Rielle and your love child.’ Edwards did not say a word and took off running to a men’s room,” the former staffer said.
“Our reporter tried to push the door open and Edwards held it shut. Eventually security escorted him out and we got a picture of him with a jacket over his head. Soon after, we managed to get a photo of him holding the baby. Game over. He went on ABC, admitted to the affair — but not paternity.”
Another wait-and-see game was played with Cathy Smith, the alleged drug dealer who was with comedian John Belushi when he died of an overdose in 1982.
Though Smith had admitted to Brenna and and his reporting partner Larry Haley that she had shot up John Belushi with the speedball — a cocaine and heroin mix — that did him in, the reporters wanted more.
“We were looking for the headline, ‘I Killed John Belushi,’” said Brenna. “We paid her $20,000 and it took two weeks to get her to say it. We interviewed her, we socialized with her. She ran up enormous bar bills. It was a dicey two weeks.”
Finally, though, Smith was worn down. “I shut off my tape recorder and asked her to just tell me. Haley [secretly] still had his going. She finally said it.”
In 2019, Lauren Sanchez’s brother sold racy text messages and selfies, sent from Jeff Bezos to Sanchez, to the Enquirer for a reported $200,000.
It was the last headline-snaring scoop for the old tabloid and ended with Bezos accusing the company of attempted blackmail — even making public an email that added credence to his claim.
For Brenna, it was a sign that the Enquirer had finally gone too far: “I think they were the most stupid motherf–kers in the world to go after the richest man in the world and to not think they would get their balls chewed.”