Most of us spend a lifetime struggling to be successful in at least one thing. The writer of this post, for example, after failing in almost everything he’s tried his clumsy hand at, has settled his sights on the promising world of accomplishments only a few dare to pursue.
The last we heard, he’s not doing too well. Apparently, turning off the light switch and landing on a bed before the room goes completely dark has its hazards. It seemed so simple, he told us, when Muhammad Ali revealed to a reporter that it was one of his nightly rituals.
As we talk, our humble scrivener still has at least a few hundred nights to get it done, before every bone of his body is fractured. We’ll keep you posted on that one. Now, where were we? Oh, that’s right, about lifetime achievements, or the lack of them.
There are those who seem perfectly suited at imprinting their legacy on history books. Others go beyond that, and do it more than once. But none beats the kind of person that, besides all that, also manages to not exist at all. In fact, history records several of these characters.
Take George P. Burdell, for example, after whom the Georgia Institute of Technology named its Student Center after. According to the record, Burdell not just graduated from Georgia Tech, but flew 12 missions over Europe during World War II, served on MAD magazine’s Board of Directors for a dozen years, and in 2001 was almost named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year after garnering 57 percent of online votes. Not even Mozart worked this hard.
Despite his expected old age, he’s kept up with the new world and in touch with his over 4,000 Facebook “friends.” The only thing is, he doesn’t exist. No less distinctive-named William Edgar “Ed” Smith created him in 1927 by enrolling them both at Georgia Tech. For a laugh. In no time, Burdell’s life took off on its own and thrived, as he become one of the institute’s most distinguished legends.
FAKE ARTISTS & SKITTISH CELEBRITIES
There’s also Nat Tate, a fictional artist whose life existed only in the imagination of Scottish novelist William Boyd. All that it took him was to call Tate “an American artist” on a 1998 “biography” and keep a straight face. His hoax got some mileage from friends Gore Vidal and David Bowie, all in the joke.
Fiction impersonates reality better than life itself. Many lauded the new “artiste” just for the artifice of it. Maybe that was it. Or Boyd was bored and went for, well, a laugh. To cut mankind a break here, few appreciate a hoax when they’re pawns of it. But (more)
give it enough notoriety and everyone will come around.
Literature is full of such cases. The genius then resides not so much on originality but in our own endless desire to be entertained. And how we’re still enticed by something we know not to be true. George Sand what? Clifford Irving‘s diaries? Not even Hitler had one? You’re kidding.
A few years back, the fascinating case of one JT Leroy did manage to fool enough people for almost enough time, to actually give “his” books momentum to be appreciated by what they were: well crafted skid row stories about sexual abuse, prostitution, motels off highways, and all that seedy stuff we love.
It didn’t last long, thought, and the media made sure author Laura Albert would be single out for her less captivating backstory. But for all the hypocritical trashing she took, she should be credited for breaking new grounds for the Trans and LGBTQ+ communities.
THE GENIUS WITHOUT A BODY
Then again, heavy weights get thrown in the mix of literature hoaxes all the time, and the stuff gets moved from the gossip columns to the highly rarefied realm of literary forensics. That’s a realm Oxfordians, for example, would appreciate if it it were way more reliable.
That’s because their theory, that the works of William Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, despite being fascinating, insists in failing to produce more scientifically sound arguments, or as they say in academia, freaking proof.
Theories about Shakespeare’s authorship have been percolating for at least 300 years, but de Vere is a worthy candidate if we were to ever discover that conclusive evidence that, apparently, has eluded everyone. And then, along comes Hollywood again, with heavy-handed “Anonymous,” which underperformed in every sense but throwing mud at the issue.
Which it’s far from settled. Historian Mark Griffiths added his own twist: to him, an engraving on a 400-year-old book about plants depicts the Bard’s likeness. Will it be debunked as the famous Cobbe Portrait? Give us another 400 years and we may be able to tell.
RUN, ROGER O. THORNHILL, RUN
Speaking of movies, there were many about hoaxes, self-creations, plain inventions, and fraud during its century of screenings. But there’s no one like George Kaplan. Not even the personification of cool of Cary Grant‘s Thornhill character can avoid the surprise on learning from “the Professor” (“F.B.I., C.I.A., O.N.I….. we’re all in the same alphabet soup.”) that Kaplan simply does not exist.
We are talking, of course, of Alfred Hitchcock‘s masterpiece, North by Northwest, made in 1959. In our book, Hitchcock created the most lethal hoax of them all: the one that can get you killed by those who think you are it. No wonder he even created a parallel game for lovers of cinema, in general, and admirers of his films in particular: spot him on the screen, while enthralled by the riddle-ridden stories he’s telling us.
One of the most famous of his 37 cameos in his own movies is the corpse washing ashore at the banks of the Thames, for the trailer of 1972’s Frenzy. Which is just what we need to wrap up this tale, a telling dialogue between Thornhill and James Mason‘s Phillip Vandamn:
– Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
– Your very next role, and you’ll be quite convincing, I assure you.
(*) Originally published on May 13, 2011.