Joe Azaria dies in Costa Rica

Courtesy of the National Post: April 10, 2001

Joe Azaria, who has died in Costa Rica at the age of 71, was a pioneer in the world of supermarket tabloids. In 1954, with $14 and a $1,000 line of credit from a Montreal printer he started Midnight. Although he sold it in 1969, Midnight became The Globe, still the third largest selling newspaper of its type after National Enquirer.

Midnight dealt in gossip, UFOs and the tabloid art of taking one small fact and blowing it into a huge story. Headlines such as Man Bites off Ear and Eats it in Sandwich were standard fare. Many of the writers and editors at Midnight went on to careers in mainstream newspapers and on television.

Midnight seemed risque, although it contained in reality just hints at sex and no nudity. The raciest pictures were of women in bathing suits. It was a contrast to Joe Azaria's own life. He was a feature in Montreal night life for years and when celebrities visited Montreal he was on hand to greet them. Such visitors included TV impresario Ed Sullivan and world heavyweight boxing champ Rocky Marciano.

Joseph Amin Azaria was born on Oct. 9, 1929 in Baghdad into an Assyrian-Chaldean family. His father, Georges, was a merchant who exported such things as dates and carpets, and imported luxury goods, in particular whisky. In Baghdad, young Joe attended a Jesuit school.

Georges Azaria was prosperous as a financial advisor to Iraq's King Faisal, but he saw no future for minorities in the country so he left for Lebanon and then Canada, his second choice after the United States. The family settled in Montreal in 1949 when Joe was 19.

Joe held a series of odd jobs, including a stint as a waiter at a resort in Ste-Agathe, one of the jobs of the fictional Duddy Kravitz in Mordecai Richler's novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Ambitious, and from a family accustomed to success, Joe Azaria applied for better jobs, including one as a reporter with The Gazette. He was turned down and in 1954 started his own newspaper, Midnight.

The first few years of the paper were like something from a movie about a hustling entrepreneur. There were so many bills he would put them in a hat and have a weekly draw to see which got paid. Any creditors who threatened him were told they wouldn't even make it into the hat.

Midnight made it big when it stopped being a Montreal newspaper and went for the U.S. market. The editorial line changed and it began being distributed across Canada and the United States. It wasn't the only Canadian tabloid of its kind. There were at least two in Toronto, Flash and Hush, though they never attained the same success as Midnight. At its peak circulation in the 1960s Midnight sold 750,000 copies a week.

There was one famous lawsuit. In 1963, actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sued Midnight for $250,000 after the paper linked him with Christine Keeler, the party girl behind the Profumo scandal in Britain. Mr. Fairbanks went to Montreal to testify but lost the case when he admitted he knew Christine Keeler, but wouldn't say how he met her.

Joe Azaria was loyal to the people who helped him along the way, in particular the late Pierre Peladeau, his printer, who went on to found Quebecor Inc., the printing and media empire. Mr. Azaria also helped bankroll projects such as the Sir Winston Churchill Pub, which became one of the most successful bars in Montreal.

A rich man, he went on big-game safaris to Africa and bought a game farm south of Montreal where he raised pheasants, buffalo and white-tailed deer. Later, the 240-hectare estate was sold to the Peladeau family and it is used as an executive retreat.

He published four other tabloid newspapers, owned the Police Gazette --famous for the recurring headline Hitler is Alive --and started a successful weekly newspaper in Montreal called the Sunday Express. But it was Midnight that made him rich and, in its heyday, famous.

One of his few failures was the Daily Express, a daily version of his Sunday paper. It lasted less than a year.

In 1985, he retired from publishing and split his time between Florida and Costa Rica, where he helped set up a nature reserve. He was interested in farming and always maintained a vegetable garden at his country properties. At his estate in Ormstown, Que., he raised pheasants for restaurants in Montreal. In Costa Rica, he grew black pepper commercially.

Joe Azaria was an outgoing, quick-witted man who loved a good time.

He was married four times and had six children.

(With thanks to Gayle Coleman of Sherbrooke, Que., a daughter of Joe Azaria, who, in June 2006, sent me the picture of her father, which was not in the National Post article.)

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