Prithee, Little Book, Who Made Thee?


ARE you a notorious but reformed bandit? Were you ever trapped for six days in a packinghouse refrigerator while the whole country feverishly followed the news of your rescue? Are you a lady ventriloquist who has been the “toast of two continents” and the pet of the late King of Spain? Were you ever cast ashore on Bora-Bora, and did you enchant the beautiful Polynesian girl queen by playing “If I Had Wings Like an Angel” on the cornet you thoughtfully brought along, and become king of the natives, and live paradisiacally on taro and mashed conch shells, and leave the island with a broken heart when Queen Iorana mistakenly drank a bottle of your rubbing alcohol? Are you the District Attorney who, just out of short pants and tooth braces, broke up the dangerous Stinky Slutsky gang and became “The Boy D.A. Who Sends ‘Em Away ”?

If you are any of these persons: a former end man with Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels, a Sunday School companion of Magda Lupescu, a friend of Hitler’s dentist, the woman who was sawed in two by Herman the Great, the owner of George Washington’s gallstones, or a statesman whose moose call has been heard in Congress for forty years — you have a story to tell, a book to write. (“I shall feel amply rewarded” and so forth.)

You can’t write, you say? Never mind. Isn’t this the country where you can always find someone to Do It For You? If you want a college education, do you (if you have any sense) waste your time and the old man’s money going to Harvard? Certainly not. You read Dr. Winslow’s Outline of the Outline of Knowledge at odd moments. If you want a job as vice-president of a big corporation, put on a suit of Klein’s Klassy-Kut Klothes, use Sand-Glo toothpaste, and the job will be yours for a smile. If you want a husband, a cabochon emerald, and a house at Easthampton, a dime’s worth of Pourquoi Pas? perfume applied behind your ear will do the trick.

In backward countries such as Lithuania and Baluchistan, if a man cannot write he must, so to speak, keep his mouth shut — an arbitrary procedure that is undemocratic and unprogressive and the reason why these unhappy states are cluttered with mute, inglorious, maladjusted Miltons. In this glorious land of ours, however, any man who wants to be garrulous but inarticulate is given the opportunity, and thus we have not only a happy citizenry but a constantly growing body of art and knowledge which, with our efficient chain stores, makes us the envy of the world.

If you have a story to tell but cannot write, do not gloomily brood about it or take to tequila in the absence of bourbon. There is a remedy at hand and you do not even have to shake before using. You have only to hire a ghost; or, easier still, your alert publisher, hovering over the nation’s culture like a hen setting on a clutch of china eggs, will hire one for you. The ghost, far from being insubstantial, will probably turn out to be a graying gent of forty with a wife and children to feed and an eye on his next installment of the income tax, the government being just as likely to clap a ghost into jail as anyone else. He is, however, like the wraiths from whom he is descended, discreet and closemouthed, and no one will ever learn that he is the creator of the masterpiece bearing your name. Thus you will have clear title to your fame, and when your astonished friends say, “But, Wilbur, I didn’t know you could write,” you can come back at them quick as a flash with a sample of the dazzling wit that makes your book what it is: “Yeah, they’s lotsa things you don’t know.”

If you do not like this arrangement, there is another. You may make your ghost emerge from his bat-cave and walk in the daylight under the “as told to" system. Do not be afraid that this will deprive you of the fame and distinction which are justly yours, for few readers will observe the “as told to” —and, in any event, the discerning will realize that in your case the writer no more deserves the credit than does the microphone in the case of Raymond Swing. Your book will then appear in this style: Nine Years in the Black Market at Home and Abroad, as told to Henry Clutcher by Alfred J. H. Singletree.

Under either system, all that you, the aspiring author, have to do is to tell your story to the perspiring ghost. He will then retire with his notebooks and his memories of your strong, colorful personality, lock himself up with his typewriter, and emerge three weeks later with a book that only you could have written if you could write a book. Soon it will be published, you will be asked to lecture, Hollywood will buy it for a film, and you will become an Author just as other good men and true have become Authors before you. You could never have done so much for yourself. Then, logically, why not do through another what you could not do for yourself?

A word of caution is indicated. Book-writing ghosts may occasionally retain characteristics of the unearthly line from which they are sprung. Sometimes, for example, you may think you have hired one ghost when actually you hired two or more who were hangwere hanging around in your desk drawer when the deal was made. Some students of this phenomenon dismiss it as an optical illusion, but others believe that a single ghost is likely to break off without warning and become two or more on the principle of parthenogenesis — but this has not been clearly demonstrated in the absence of the best available data on demonology, which are in the hands of Presidential candidates during an election year.

It is certain, however, that this is a danger the author must face, and we have before us the melancholy case of Mrs. Etta Shiber. Her book ParisUnderground became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection last year; whereupon a Hungarian-born ghost, one Aladar Farkas, sued her for $30,000 on the unghostly ground that she had not properly whacked up the profits with him, while still another ghost is attempting to horn in on the swag. If you see spots before your eyes, call in a lawyer when you make the deal.

Once the ghost has done his work, do not monkey with it. It is bad luck as well as bad business to do so, and you will get an evil name among the fraternity, who, for all their anonymity, are inordinately proud of their craftsmanship. The ghost is an honest, hard-working fellow who will do his job well if you do not insist upon “improving” it with a few touches of your own inimitable whimsy. Recently a ghost wrote an autobiography of a famous American lady who has appeared in the films at Hollywood, in the nude at Deauville, in the divorce courts at Acapulco, and in the last act of Mama Che Vo Sapete (If Mama Only Knew) in the baroque provincial opera house of Cortina d’Ampezzo. Her publisher, thinking not only of the sales possibilities of this tale of the abundant life but also of the paper shortage, chucked two books by United States Senators off his list, prepared to give all to the autobiography, and let his wife buy a mink coat in anticipation of the large profits.

The lady, however, by this time a glutton for refinement, took the manuscript firmly in hand, struck out the juicier passages, added a few purple patches of her own (“I fell into the arms of Morpheus just as Old Sol was arising over the rooftops while the peasants in their quaint costumes . . .”), and whitewashed herself so thoroughly that not even her hairdresser could have recognized her. The book got an excellent review in the Indianola (Miss.) Tocsin, and is one of the ornaments of Walgreen’s Drug Stores, occupying the space formerly taken by the now hard-to-get Kleenex.

If you do not care to become an Author but merely a lesser creature such as a witty after-dinner speaker, a statesman making sonorous pronouncements on the affairs of the world, a businessman pleading for sound men to run the country along sound economic lines, or a flashing bird in the somber forest of ideas, there is a ghost who will do your bidding. In a country where specialization has been carried to such a point that the doctor who looks down your eye is incompetent to look up your nose or is debarred by law from doing so, it follows that ghosts, who have a lamp that we have lost, have also specialized and are meet to make you whatever you want to be.

There are those who write only biographies or autobiographies of oil and steel magnates or merchandise princes; authoritative books on aviation bearing the names of well-known aviators; volumes on Russia, on capitalism, Mexico, big-game hunting, etiquette; or even syndicated newspaper columns. Sometimes ghosts work as a team. One member digs up the facts about the person or subject; the other clothes the bare bones with flesh and breathes life into it, leaving nothing for the author to do but to appear at his publisher’s cocktail party when his book is launched, autograph copies for his admirers, and wear a look of becoming modesty. Since, however, thousands of us are anxious to get shet of our anonymity and emerge as “personalities,” ghosts these days are busier than dentists, and it is well to make an engagement far in advance.

Unfortunately for the welfare of ghosts, their clients, and the intellectual progress of the United States, there are a number of bluenosed moralists who wail that it is not cricket for a publisher to palm off a book as the product of the man whose name is signed to it when it was actually written by a ghost. Such men are enemies of progress; for, in an era whose glory is synthetics, why should we not have synthetic books filled with synthetic ideas for readers who are nourished by vitamin pills and clothed by synthetic fibers? We are exploring new frontiers of morality these days, but there is always a minority who want to return to the outmoded past when cheese came off big rounds in the country store instead of from chemical factories, and when books were sweated out of the minds of men who signed them.

Do not let such paltry considerations deter you. Progress decrees that we give another meaning to the maxim of the common law, That which one can do for oneself, one can do through another. It is, That which one cannot do for oneself, one can do through another. To take another stand is to wipe out dozens of our most enlightening books and magazines, still the voices of some of our most eloquent speakers, decimate the amiable tribe of ghost writers and personal relations counsel (press agents, old style), and wreck the lives of some of our most eminent public figures, who have been given form and dimension by our literary plastic surgeons.

If, however, the moralists have their way and ghosts are banished to the bourne from whence they came, common decency requires that the country be given ten years’ notice. It is too much to ask a man to stand suddenly on his own feet when he has not done it for years.