When and How Discovered
Let’s look at the facts. We read books that have been recommended based on the message they have to tell. We rely on the publishers, not necessarily book critics, to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work.
Like everybody else, I go to the bookstore. I see a book I like. If it says memoir, I know here may be some names and dates changed, but I don’t expect it to be fiction, portrayed by the imagination of the author. I don’t like to be cheated. And with Frey the public was cheated. Winfrey hailed Frey’s graphic and coarse book as “like nothing you’ve ever read before.” She stayed up late at night reading it. In emotional filmed testimonials, employees of Winfrey’s show lauded the book as revelatory, with some choking back tears. Said damp-eyed Winfrey, “I’m crying ’cause we all loved the book so much.”
Frey’s deception was a masterpiece. His runaway hit sold more than three and a half million copies and, thanks to Winfrey, had made it to the top of the list of The New York Times nonfiction paperback bestsellers for fifteen weeks. Next to the latest Harry Potter title, Nielsen Book Scan reported, Frey’s book sold more copies in the U.S. in 2005-1.77 million-than any other title, with the majority of that total coming after Winfrey’s selection.
For Frey, the bubble burst when a website called “The Smoking Gun” announced his best-selling nonfiction memoir is filled with fabrications, falsehoods and other fakery. The Smoking Gun is a website which posts obscure or unreported legal documents, arrest records, and police mug shots on a routine basis. The intent is to bring to the public information which is damning and shocking.
I believe if you can’t tell the story faithfully, don’t tell it at all. We are bound by the rules of nonfiction, the first of which is: Tell the truth. When readers learn a work of nonfiction is partly fictional, they become angry. But a good writer can turn this situation around. When readers hear a work of fiction is autobiographical-that it has nonfiction elements-they get excited. They ask endless questions, demanding to know which parts of the novel are “real.” When Somerset Maugham published his collection of short stories, East Meets West on Southeast Asia, people tried to read themselves into the plots. With Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the author’s followers are still trying to discern who was who in the novel.
I found myself in a difficult predicament when I wrote Take China, The Last of the China Marines. The book is ninety-five percent factual, but I embellished parts of the ending to dramatize it. I had to call the book a novel which actually hurt sales. By calling my work nonfiction (which, strictly speaking, it is), I would be lying to readers when some sections were not factual. I also thought it best to change some names. A few readers, who in the beginning wanted to remain anonymous when they passed on information to me, came back and asked, “Why did you change my name?” It was too late. I went to my notebook and looked up lines from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam that I marked down years ago:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
It’s true, once you put something down in writing, it’s there forever. The truth will come out, eventually. It always does. How dreadful to be found out to be a fraud.
Frey’s memoir isn’t the first bit of fiction passed off as truth. Remember Jack Kelley at USA Today. Kelley was a long-time USA Today correspondent and nominee for the Pulitzer Prize. Then the truth became known that he had long been fabricating stories, going so far as to write up scripts so associates could pretend to be sources. I saw some of this happening when I was a war correspondent in Vietnam for the Bangkok World. I met reporters who never left the bars in Saigon. They got their information from the men in the field who came to Saigon for R&R. At least their source was generally accurate. At least they never claimed they were with the grunts in the field-Kelley did. Investigators sifted through stacks of hotel records to determine if Kelley was in the locations he claimed to be-Cuba, Israel, and Jordan. The scandal led to the resignations of several key staff at the newspaper, including editor Karen Jurgensen in April 2004.
An honest non-fiction writer holds to the belief that anything purporting to be non-fiction should be true. When he must change small details-such as names-he lets readers know. He spends hours interviewing people on both sides of the stories. He double-checks statistics. Such writers want to be right because they know trust is what carries readers along.
While James Frey may have hedged on the truth, writer Clifford Irving created what is perhaps the biggest literary hoax ever conceived, the unauthorized biography of Howard Hughes. Billionaire tycoon, aviator, playboy, eccentric and Hollywood legend Howard Hughes, who had turned hermit, was the subject of great intrigue in America and the world throughout most of his life. In his later years, during the late 1960s to mid-1970s, the mystery surrounding him intensified when he became a recluse and hid himself from the outside world for more than a decade.
The public, understandably, was hungry for information concerning Howard Hughes. Realizing what an opportunity this was, Clifford Irving set out to do what no one else had done, write his biography. He convinced his publisher, McGraw-Hill, that Howard Hughes commissioned him to write his biography. He said he would write the book based on interviews conducted with Howard. Clifford hopefully believed Howard Hughes was too ill to come forward and repudiate the book. Howard had not been seen publicly since 1958 and, as far as they knew, he could have even been dead. Clifford forged letters and legal documents allegedly written by Howard in order to make the deal appear even more genuine. He had obtained actual handwriting samples from various sources, which he used as a model for his own letter. McGraw-Hill executives were impressed. An agreement was signed, using a forged signature made by Clifford. The contract stated an advance of $500,000 would be paid, of which $100,000 would be paid up front. Clifford was to receive a total of $100,000, whereas the remaining $400,000 was allotted to Howard.
On top of that, Time-Life Magazine offered $250,000 for serial rights to the manuscript, and Dell Publishing Company offered a further $400,000 for paperback rights. But Howard Hughes wasn’t ill, or crazy, or dead, as some suspected. He was very much alive, and very much annoyed. On January 7, 1972, he spoke to the press via the telephone. It was the first time he spoke publicly in fourteen years. He announced his biography was a hoax.
The next day, Howard’s attorney, Chester Davis, filed suit against McGraw-Hill, Life, Clifford Irving and Dell Publishing Company, citing they had violated Howard’s right to publish his own autobiography. Howard had been pushed too far. He demanded his privacy, and he was not about to let Clifford or those who supported him interfere with his basic human rights.
In the meantime, Swiss police investigated a suspicious bank account under the name H.R. Hughes. Within a short period of time, over $750,000 passed through the private account only to be whittled away down to approximately $150. Clifford stood trial and was given a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence of which he served fourteen months. He is still writing books today. But it’s still not over as far as the public is concerned. Miramax Films has released The Hoax starring Richard Gere who plays Clifford Irving. I guess the saying applies when it comes to movies-”Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Editors are responsible for what their publications print. But even with big publishers, they can sometimes go astray. In April 1983, the popular West German magazine Stern made a shocking announcement that it was about to publish Adolf Hitler’s diaries. The magazine claimed sixty two handwritten volumes of secret diaries written by the founder of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, had been discovered in East Germany. According to Charles Hamilton’s book, The Hitler Diaries, the volumes were reported to be one of the most significant historical discoveries in recent history.
The “priceless” diaries were said to have been discovered several years earlier by an East German who had learned the artifacts were in the possession of farmers living in the village of Boernersdorf. Apparently, they were rescued from a downed Nazi plane which had crashed and burned in April 1945. The documents were reported to have survived the inferno because they were supposedly protected in a metal-lined container. Following their discovery, it was stated the documents were kept in a secret location, then eventually smuggled out of the country and kept secured until they were publicly revealed to the world years later.
Historical accounts further supported the sensational story, which were based on the memoirs of Hitler’s chief SS pilot, Lt. General Hans Baur. Baur claimed the plane, piloted by Major Friedrich A. Gundlfinger was carrying Hitler’s private archives when it was shot down en route from Berlin in April 1945. The evidence was enough for some to believe the diaries were indeed genuine artifacts. However, time proved the manuscripts instead were one of the biggest hoaxes of the century. The price to be paid was that Stern magazine lost its credibility.