The Late Great Weekly World News

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Paul Buck / EPA

Dawn Leffler (L), Colette Stevens (C) and Dasha Guillam (R) enjoy the last issue of Weekly World News while relaxing in the sand in Manhattan Beach, California.

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Like other tabs, WWN had its evergreen celebrities. One was John F. Kennedy, who would show up every few years glimpsed behind estate gates. In 1993, a year before her death, his widow Jackie was "photographed" in a reunion with the wheelchair-bound President. The writers also proclaimed "JFK Proven Alive!" because they held a seance to talk to his ghost and the ghost didn't answer. Can't argue with that logic.

The biggest star was Elvis, who had "died" two year before WWN was born. The weekly ran frequent stories about the singer ("Painting of Elvis Weeps Real Tears"), but its greatest news coup, and its top-selling issue, was the one that announced Presley was alive in a Kalamazoo, Mich., hideout. WWN's explanation of his 1977 disappearance — what was reported as his death — was typically ingenious. Building on the fact that Elvis had a twin brother Jesse who died at birth, WWN claimed that Jesse had in fact survived, brain damaged and hidden away, and that when Jesse died in 1977 Elvis took this as his cue to disappear. It was Jesse, the twin, whose body was displayed in Elvis' open coffin.

Tabloid readers, like the rest of us, want to live forever with no effort, and WWN playfully pandered to their wishes. Among the self-help headlines:

"It's a Miracle! U.S. Soldiers at Iraqi Detention Facility Discover Mashed-Up Pages from the Koran Make Wrinkles Disappear!"

"Strap Down Your Bratty Kids With Toddler Straitjackets"

"Sleep in a Tub of Lard and Look 20 Years Younger"

"Key to Long Life: Porridge, Whiskey and Cigarettes"

Lose 70 Pounds in 15 Days — with flesh-eating bacteria!

These were fish stories, and WWN had plenty of those: the mermaid sushi and the fish with legs that washed up on a Riviera beach, not to mention "Miracle Carp Says the End Is Near!" The paper also indulged in rampant francophobia, evident in such headlines as "Vengeful Frogs Eat French Chef's Legs" and (one of our favorites) "Sissy French Kids Trade Cards of Female Impersonators."


To gauge WWN's influence across the media, consider that it's the only tabloid newspaper to have inspired two terrific musicals. The first was David Byrne's 1986 movie True Stories, which shows two guys in a laughing fit over a WWN headline ("Starving Peasants Sell Their Blood to Vampires for Blood Money") and features a character called the Lying Woman, whose claims of being involved in every imaginable sexual, political and extraterrestrial scandal echo many a WWN story.

Byrne, the Talking Heads leader who wrote and directed the movie and its music, and serves as on-screen narrator, tells us that in this part of Texas, "People here are inventing their own system of beliefs. They're creating it, doing it, selling it, making it up as they go along" — an apt description of the WWN ethic. True Stories (which landed Byrne on the cover of TIME) also has a wonderful pop score, including the all-time great group lip-synch, "Wild Wild Life."

In 1997 librettists Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming and songwriter Laurence O'Keefe collaborated on Bat Boy: The Musical, based a creature dreamed up by the WWN staff in 1992. Half-human, half-bat, he was discovered in a West Virginia cave, and proved so popular that the writers had him escape custody every now and then and go on a new adventure. In the excellent musical version, which starred Devin May and had a long off-Broadway run, he is a practically a Christ figure, sacrificed and venerated: "Hold me, Bat Boy, / Touch me, Bat Boy, / Help me through the night." He's a metaphor for humanity's fascination-repulsion with the bizarre, which was right up WWN's back street.

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