The Greatest Stories Never Told

Some of the most delicious unpublished journalism gets passed around like a secret handshake

In the former Soviet Union there was a literary genre called samizdat (the word means "self-published" in Russian) that consisted of subversive political manifestos and unsanctioned—that is, good—poetry and fiction, circulated only in typescripts, painstakingly reproduced by volunteer typists who smashed their keys through four or five sheets of carbon paper at a time. Famous typescripts never published in the USSR included Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.

Recently I was talking about samizdat to my friend the sportswriter Charles Pierce. Charlie knows a lot about many different subjects; once when I let slip that I was writing about the impossibly obscure General Smedley Butler, he piped up, "Oh, yeah—the guy they tried to hire for the anti-FDR coup." So it came as no surprise that he had a samizdat typescript in a drawer. But I was surprised when he started to quote from it from memory: "Ladies and gentlemen, here they are … Morganna!"

Charlie's recollection of the Sports Illustrated writer Curry Kirkpatrick's lengthy, unpublished profile of Morganna Roberts turned out to be quite accurate. Roberts is the stripper turned "kissing bandit" who during the 1980s leaped onto major-league baseball fields to buss players great and small. "The first five hundred words were just about her breasts," Charlie still recalls.

"It was meant to be a 'bonus piece,'" Kirkpatrick told me, speaking by telephone from his home in Hilton Head, South Carolina, referring to occasional extra-long articles the magazine would publish. "It was about ten thousand words long. I cleaned it up a lot, but there was still no way they were going to run it. I'm not sure why they even okayed my doing it in the first place." He eventually sold a shorter version of the article to Playboy, but not before his typescript had circulated widely within the sportswriting fraternity. The "ebony-haired ecdysiast" was irresistible copy, especially when it came to her sixty-inch chest. In the article Roberts wrote that her undergarments were custom-made by the man "who builds domed stadiums."

There is a lot of samizdat around. You just have to know where to look.

A friend of mine at The Wall Street Journal once showed me a never published feature story on the Chicago entrepreneur James McBride, better known as "Mr. Skin." McBride operates a seamy Web site that alerts teen video renters to scenes of exposed (female) flesh—critical information for the Porky's and American Pie set. For a nominal fee you can view film clips of, say, an undraped Helen Mirren cavorting in the 1999 classic The Passion of Ayn Rand.

The Journal reporter James Bandler's diligently researched article revealed that McBride, who operates on the fringes of the entertainment industry, is pampered by the studios, because a "Skintastic" rating on his Web site spurs rentals. How could the Journal keep this important story out of print? "We had just published a front-page story about Snoop Dogg's porn movie, Doggystyle," one staff member explains. "We wouldn't publish two articles like that, back to back, in a thousand years."

Soon after running my eyes over Mr. Skin, I encountered another piece of samizdat. Written by Thomas Farragher, my colleague at The Boston Globe, it reproduced the Gettysburg Address as if the speech had had to pass through the meat grinder of the Globe's main copy desk. I'd just had one of my own harrowing experiences with those ferocious editors, and the parody rang true.

Fourscore and seven years ago (can't we just make it 87 years ago?) our fathers (WHO ARE THEY?? Any mothers???) brought forth on this continent (North America?? Northern Hemisphere??) a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men (people, men and women, what???) are created equal. (Why don't we just say they founded the United States and leave it at that? Pacing's better.)

Back when Russian dissidents were churning out real samizdat, a young writer at The New York Times seized on the harmonic convergence of two disparate journalistic events. One was The Washington Post's publication, and eventual retraction, of Janet Cooke's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of an eight-year-old heroin addict, titled "Jimmy's World" ("Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes …"). Sadly for the Post, Jimmy turned out not to exist.

The other was among the most famous Times corrections ever, following the food writer Betty Fussell's description of the chef Michel Fitoussi's palate-popping presentation of "a live Muscovy duck." The Times revealed that "in preparing [the dish], Mr. Fitoussi uses a duck that has been killed." The Dadaist clarification provided the title for a book edited by Linda Amster and Dylan McClain: Kill Duck Before Serving: Red Faces at The New York Times: A Collection of the Newspaper's Most Interesting, Embarrassing and Off-Beat Corrections.

The work of samizdat the correction inspired, "Daffé's World," became legendary in the Times newsroom.

Daffé is 8 months old and a third-generation stuffing addict, a precocious little Muscovy mallard with sandy tufts, velvety brown eyes and wire marks freckling the baby-smooth feathers of his thin brown wings and legs. He nestles in a large, silver serving platter in the dining room of his comfortably furnished restaurant ...

Although not known as a temple of frivolity, the Times has produced at least one other underground typescript: four parodies dating from the 1980s of so-called "color leads," the folksy, anecdotal first paragraphs in newspaper stories that come in and out of vogue. This was perhaps the best:

DALLAS, Nov. 22—Elvira Brown's aging face seems almost to be a map of the parched, weatherbeaten Texas countryside that has been her home for 83 years. Through the eyes that squint in the harsh sunlight, she has seen Dallas grow from a tiny cowtown into a midland capital. The street outside of her tiny house used to be nothing more than a dust trail in summer and a mudhole in winter.

Years ago, she would sit on this porch and watch cattle drives pass. Today, a procession of quite a different sort passed along the now-paved course. It was a motorcade. It flew by at top speed on its way to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Top speed, because, it seems, the President of the United States was inside. And he was dead.
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Alex Beam is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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