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Twelve Literary Hoaxes and Put-ons from "A Reader's Book of Days"



RBD-OmniLongtime readers of Omnivoracious may remember Tom Nissley as the founder of this blog and often its primary contributor, having authored hundreds of pieces over his 10-year run as an editor on the Amazon books team. From his interviews with celebrated and best-selling authors such as China Mieville, Rebecca Skloot, and David Rakoff, to curated round-ups of the week's best reviews in the weekly "Old Media Monday" feature, Tom's smart and engaging words single-handedly kept this occasionally leaky boat afloat (before, that is, it became the literary Larry Ellison carbon catamaran that it is now). Then something wonderful happened: Tom ran off eight consecutive victories on Jeopardy!, becoming the second-winningest Seattle-area resident ever (and the show's third best ever, in regular games), returning later that year to tread the glowing blue boards of the Tournament of Champions, where he finished second only to an unbeatable trivia shark in a Tom Wolfe suit.

Though it's been well over two years since he left Amazon, he hasn't been content to rest upon his piles of cash, or even upon his laurels*. This week marks the publication of A Reader's Book of Days, a collection of almost 2,000 bits of literary minutiae and anecdotes spread across each of the 366 days of the year (accounting for February 29, natch), including author births and deaths, tales from the lives of writers and their works, reading recommendations for every month, and much more--punctuated with 100 cosmopolitan illustrations by Joanna Neborsky. To give readers a taste of the new book (and as a favor to his old pals here at Omni, maybe) Tom has selected a dozen stories of literary scams and authorial deception, all lifted from the pages of ABD. The Prodigal Son has returned, and he brought a lot of fun. Nerd fun.

 * I'm giving him a hard time. Congratulations, Jet. We miss you.

Twelve Literary Hoaxes and Put-ons from A Reader's Book of Days

February 6, 1853 According to his first biographer, February 1853 was a momentous time for Horatio Alger Jr. Living in Paris, the timid Harvard grad was introduced to the sinful pleasures of the body by a plump café chanteuse named Elise. "I was a fool to have waited so long," he told his diary on the 4th, and on this day he added, "She says she knows I wanted to." But in truth there was no diary, no Elise, and no trip to Paris: his French initiation, like nearly everything else in Alger: A Biography Without a Hero, was concocted by its author, Herbert R. Mayes, in 1927. Mayes planned the book as a spoof, but he kept quiet as it was taken seriously by reviewers and became the authoritative source on the life of the once-popular master of juvenile uplift stories. Only fifty years later did he confess, as Gary Scharnhorst and Jack Bales detailed in their own Alger biography, that he had invented almost everything in what he called a "miserable, maudlin piece of claptrap."

February 14, 1971 In Oaxaca, Mexico, Clifford Irving got the call he had flown there to receive, from a “friend of Octavio’s,” the code name for Howard Hughes, the pathologically reclusive billionaire who soon agreed, without shaking hands of course, to collaborate with Irving on an authorized biography. Or at least that’s the story Irving told his editors at McGraw-Hill a few days later, leading them to eagerly advance $500,000 for “the most fantastic project of the decade.” In reality, as would be scandalously revealed a year later, his Oaxaca trip was just one element in an elaborate hoax: rather than meeting with Hughes, he spent Valentine’s Day there trysting with his mistress, the Danish pop star Nina van Pallandt.

March 15, 1958 Best known in later years as an uncompromising historian of the horrors of Soviet Communism, Robert Conquest in the ’50s was a poet and, with his friends Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, a tireless prankster. Conquest took the fun furthest of all, most memorably with Larkin, to whom, knowing the shy poet’s extracurricular reading interests, he sent a warning, claiming to be from the Scotland Yard Vice Squad, that Larkin might be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. After a nervous day at his solicitor’s, Larkin angrily sent the £10 legal bill to Conquest on this day, with the suggestion “Why can’t you play your japes on David Wright or Christopher Logue or some bastard who wd benefit from a cold sweat or two? Instead of plaguing your old pals.” Even the louche Amis recalled the episode with a slight horror.

RBD-Shakespeare-300April 2, 1796 Of the “authentic” documents from the life of William Shakespeare—original manuscripts of Lear and Hamlet, a love letter and poem to Anne Hathaway, an awkwardly scrawled note from Queen Elizabeth—that poured forth from a mysterious old chest William Henry Ireland claimed to have found, the most audacious forgery was Vortigern, an unknown play said to be in the Bard’s hand whose sole performance at Drury Lane on this evening quickly turned into farce. Even the play’s performers smelled a fraud by then, and when the star, John Kemble, repeated the line “And when this solemn mockery is ended,” with a leer at the audience, a bedlam of derision ensured the humiliation of Ireland, the play’s discoverer and its true author.


April 28, 1962 On this morning, two detectives arrested Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton for stealing seventy-two library books and cutting pages from 1,653 art books to decorate the walls of their flat. The two had also doctored dozens of library book covers—replacing Henry VIII’s head with a monkey’s, for instance, and adding mildly obscene jacket blurbs to Dorothy Sayers novels. For these crimes the “frustrated authors,” in the words of the prosecutor, were sentenced to six months in prison, which changed their lives. Halliwell attempted suicide shortly after their release, while Orton, finally unlocking the detachment and anger his writing needed, wrote a series of hit plays over the next five years, beginning with Entertaining Mr. Sloane, before being murdered by Halliwell in the same flat.

May 8, 1998 “Um.” Stephen Glass hesitated. “I’m increasingly beginning to think I was duped.” On this morning, Glass and his New Republic editor, Charles Lane, were on a call with two outside reporters who thought Glass’s latest piece—on a fifteen-year-old hacker who blackmailed software companies after breaking into their databases, shouting, implausibly, “I want a Miata! I want a lifetime subscription to Playboy! Show me the money!”—was fabricated. Lane thought so too, and later that day he had Glass drive him to the building in suburban Bethesda where he claimed a “National Association of Hackers” conference had been held and where, clearly, no such thing had taken place. By the end of the day, Glass was suspended, and by the end of its investigation, the New Republic determined that at least two-thirds of the articles Glass had written for them were faked in some way.

July 23, 1943 The romance of a poet dying young is difficult to resist, and Max Harris, the editor of the Australian poetry journal Angry Penguins, didn’t resist it at all when he received a packet of poems by an unknown writer named Ern Malley from someone claiming to be Malley’s sister, who said her brother had left the poems behind when he died on this day at age twenty-five. In truth, though, Malley was a product of the imaginations of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who, fed up with the experiments of modern poetry, composed the seventeen Malley poems, which they considered nonsense, in their army barracks in a single day. Harris took the bait and devoted a special issue to announcing his discovery, and the hoax soon exploded into Australia’s greatest literary scandal, but the biggest joke of all may be that the “fake” poems of Ern Malley have outlasted those of anyone involved.

August 1, 1956 In the hours after midnight sometime in April, Jean Shepherd, the radio host whose improvised, late-night monologues had drawn a cult audience, suggested a stunt, a prank of his fellow “Night People” against the “Day People” and their regimented lives. He sent his listeners out to ask in bookstores for a fictitious title, I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing, and they did in numbers enough to create a buzz in the publishing world for a book that didn't exist. The stunt didn’t end there: as the Wall Street Journal and Village Voice reported on this day, publisher Ian Ballantine, embracing the hoax, arranged with Shepherd and novelist Theodore Sturgeon to write a book to match the title, a pastiche of eighteenth-century bawdiness that Ballantine released in the fall with a press run of 130,000 copies.

October 24, 1992 At 11:00 p.m., James Frey, a recent graduate of local Denison University, was cited by Granville, Ohio, police for driving under the influence and driving without a license after he drove his tire up onto a curb. Five hours later, Frey was released and never returned to custody, which means that, among other events described in his memoirs A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard, he wasn't beaten by cops with billy clubs or charged with Attempted Incitement of a Riot and Felony Mayhem, he did not get hit in the back of the head with a metal tray on the first of his eighty-seven days in a county facility for violent and felonious offenders by a three-hundred-pound illiterate black man named Porterhouse, nor did he read Don Quixote, Leaves of Grass, and East of Eden to Porterhouse, nor did Porterhouse cry when Anatole betrayed Natasha in War and Peace, nor did Porterhouse sleep with War and Peace and cradle it as if it were his child.

November 24, 1977 When a few fans followed the trail of the pen name James Tiptree Jr., which some had speculated hid a CIA professional or even Henry Kissinger but few had imagined was a woman, to a sixty-one-year-old psychologist in northern Virginia named Alice Sheldon, she felt she had to out herself, and so began writing to the colleagues she’d been corresponding with for years as Tiptree. On this day she confessed to Ursula Le Guin her fear that she’d lose her friends, especially among women, after her “put-on” was revealed. But Le Guin wrote back with excitement and affection: “Oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable... It would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic and ETHICAL a put-on.”

November 25, 1921 Having entered Tufts University on the strength of a forged transcript for a high school he never graduated from, Nathan Weinstein did hardly a lick of work and by Thanksgiving was encouraged by the university to withdraw with failing grades in all his classes, among them a “double F” in French and a “Not Attending” record in phys ed (his lethargy earned him the ironic nickname “Pep”). No matter. Helping himself to the credits of a more diligent Tufts student who shared his name, Weinstein fraudulently transferred to Brown University as a sophomore, and this time managed to graduate. Two years later, before leaving for Paris to become a writer, he chose a new identity of his own by changing his name, legally this time, to Nathanael West.

December 3, 1926 Late on this evening, the young novelist Agatha Christie left her country home without explanation. The discovery of her abandoned car five miles away the next morning made her disappearance the talk of England, drawing thousands, including Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers, to search for her body before she was finally discovered residing under a pseudonym at a luxury spa and claiming temporary amnesia. The mystery has never been definitively solved, though scholar Jared Cade has argued convincingly that she staged her disappearance—never suspecting it would cause such an uproar—to embarrass her husband, whose affair was ending their marriage, a scenario made only more plausible by the name under which she registered at the spa: Mrs. Teresa Neele, which borrowed a last name from Nancy Neele, the rival her husband soon married after their divorce.

 

 



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