Louella’s dreadful essay drew a congratulatory letter from Donald Clark, the “registrar” of the Famous Writers School, who stated: “The enclosed Test unquestionably qualifies you for enrollment … only a fraction of our students receive higher grades … In our opinion, you have a basic writing aptitude which justifies professional training.”
The “registrar” who reached out to the so-called Louella, Mitford discovered, was actually a copywriter in the school’s advertising department. Mitford decided to have a neighbor send in her own “aptitude test.”
The school salesman who soon visited them lied, telling Mitford and her friend that several of the Famous 15 writers were stationed at the school’s headquarters in Connecticut at all times working with dozens of experts evaluating and correcting student manuscripts. “Your Guiding Faculty member … could be Bennett Cerf, could be Rod Serling," the salesman promised.
In an interview, Cerf confessed that the school’s advertising was designed to lure the gullible into paying a then-hefty fee of $785 to $900 for the home-study lessons. “The crux of it is a very hard sales pitch, an appeal to the gullible,” Cerf told Mitford. “Of course, once somebody has signed a contract with Famous Writers, he can’t get out of it, but that’s true with every business in the country.” Cerf said that “If anyone thinks we’ve got time to look at the aptitude tests that come in, they’re out of their mind!”
When Mitford asked how many books by FWS students Random House had published, Cerf retorted: “Oh, come on, you must be pulling my leg—no person of any sophistication, whose book we’d publish, would have to take a mail-order course to learn how to write.”
At the time, 65,000 people were enrolled in Famous Writers courses. None of the Famous 15 taught at the school, but Famous Writers did employ 55 teaching faculty—which translated into 1,182 students on average per un-Famous instructor. Each student was supposed to submit 24 assignments over three years. That would amount to 55 instructors grading 520,000 assignments a year—nearly 10,000 writing assignments each, an impossible task.
The school’s financial model thus actually depended on having the overwhelming majority of students drop out. Fortunately for the school, Mitford’s math indicated about 90 percent did. Phyllis McGinley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and one of the 15 Famous Writers, confessed to Mitford: “We couldn’t make any money if all the students finished.”
Mitford’s exposé was an overnight sensation. She detailed its successes in Poison Penmanship: The Washington Post and The Des Moines Register reprinted her story. Dick Cavett invited Mitford onto his TV talk show. Congressman Laurence Burton, a Utah Republican, read her article into the Congressional Record as a warning to unsuspecting consumers. Cartoonists had a field day. A New York Times Book Review cartoon portrayed a middle-aged woman writing a letter: “Dear Bennett Cerf and Faith Baldwin—Yes! I have a strong desire, nay, a lust to write. …” A New Yorker cartoon showed a disgruntled husband telling his smirking wife: “Go ahead, scoff. Bennett Cerf and Faith Baldwin say I have writing aptitude, and they know more about it than you do.”