Big Lying Is Better Lying

ROBERT FONTAINE is the author of books, a play, and many light articles for the ATLANTIC and other magazines.


When I was a youngster I lied a great deal. I called my stories fibs, but they were as dishonest as I could make them. Generally I was discovered. If I stayed out of school and told the teacher I was ill, she said, “I saw you shinnying up a tree across the street from the school. I was looking out the window.” If I told my mother I was late getting home because I had stopped in to see Arthur Burton, who was ill, my mother said, “Really? Arthur was here looking for you.” Presently I gave up lying for the truth.

I stayed with the truth until manhood, when I found out it was an impossible principle to embrace. It was then that I discovered my problem had not been that I was a liar, or even that I was a bad liar. The trouble was that I was not a big enough liar.

The success of the big lie was apparent to me in the fields of economics, jurisprudence, statesmanship, and advertising, but I had never thought to apply it to my daily life and my simple personality.

I had the impression (probably the result of lies I heard) that massive lies were works of genius and could only be sustained by highly trained and educated men or groups: senators, lobbyists, trade association heads, press agents, and presidential spokesmen. Not at all. There are few of us who cannot, with a little practice, stir our imaginations and emerge with splendid lies about ourselves.

We all have a small inkling of our enormous possibilities during periods of courtship. It is a rare character who has attempted to win the affection of a beautiful girl by saying, “Evangeline, you can’t cook and you can’t sew. In fact, you can barely read. Just the same, I am willing to take a chance and marry you with the hope that your pretty face will make me forget about your numerous inadequacies otherwise.”

What every man says, and knows to be fiction, is, “Evie, you are the loveliest creature I have ever known. You are a goddess. You are flawless. Marry me and I shall be the happiest man in the universe for all eternity, and I shall slave for you every moment of my life.”

Now, it seems to me that anyone who can tell a lie of this sort can go on to generally satisfactory falsehoods of all sorts. We, every one of us, have it in us if we but try.

The main fault I find with amateur liars is that their efforts are so puny. They not only lie like sheep; they willingly submit to accusations of falsehood and become contrite and unhappy about their fictions.

Take a small example. If I refuse an invitation to a cocktail party, I never say anything so dull as, “I have a headache.” I disdain this sort of cliché. I may say, for example, “I’d love to, but I’m flying to London in about an hour on a secret mission.”

If my would-be hostess sees me that evening swaggering out of a pub and says, “Humph! I thought you were flying to London,” I then simply compound the lie. “Wasn’t I lucky not to be able to get a seat on that G-76 that crashed off the coast of Ireland?”

A week later, I might even be checked about the crash. This is an opportunity for me to show my sense of humor. I then say, “I was only joking. Actually, I was about to start for your party when the Senate majority leader got me on the phone and spent two hours getting my advice on the new Farm Bill.”

As you can see, the possibilities here are endless and exciting. One can simply never stop lying, so the fun goes on continually, while one’s wits become more and more sharpened.

A further hint: never argue about your lie. Tell it and stand by it as long as possible. Only the most devoted and badgering truth seeker can force you to switch to a larger lie. Most people are unsure of themselves. In fact, most people, at some time or other, wonder if they are all there. Consequently, if you tell your lie with honest conviction, with the sound of deep integrity, and with confident articulateness, your listener, even though he is 99 per cent sure you are telling a lie, is going to scratch his head and be worried that maybe you are telling the truth.

I have gone to a party where, soaked to the gills, I have insulted the hostess and made love to her daughter, plus wearing lamp shades for hats and putting ashes in the cracked ice. When the irate husband of the hostess has cornered me the next day with a horsewhip look in his eye, I have, with great feeling and icy politeness, denied I was ever at the party.

“But I saw you,” he says desperately. “1 was standing next to you.”

“You must have been under the weather.”

“My wife says you pinched her. My daughter says you kissed her.”

“I’m afraid they were both crocked. I haven’t been at your house since March, 1954, when you were fooling around with that widow and. . . .”

“Never mind that.”

“As a matter of fact, the night of your party I was dining with Kim Novak, after which I had a late supper with Bob Kennedy. About 2 A.M.

I took a plane to Paris and had breakfast with Bardot.”

The chap, by this time, is quite dizzy and says, “Well. By God, I must be going nuts.”

I have found, too, that it is wise to have a library of proof about your activities. Not all lies are excuses. Many of them are calculated to boost your prestige and are much less expensive than a swimming pool or a Texas ranch.

For instance, I dislike paying bills, because it means a certain outgo of money I prefer to keep for my own pleasure. (This is the opposite of Galbraith’s theory, I know. But I prefer not to believe him.)

There comes a time when the company to whom I owe money sends along a burly negotiator. I then lie pleasantly. “I put a check in the mail weeks ago. I don’t like this inefficient bookkeeping of yours. I suppose you use one of the calculating machines that go berserk every now and then. I also think you should check on the mail clerk. Possibly he is cashing my checks himself.”

In cases where the negotiator is not having any, I produce evidence from my file. We have all seen the sort of thing I mean in the newspapers. I hand it to my antagonist. It says, “Letter mailed in 1883 finally delivered" and goes on to relate how, in tearing down the old post office, a letter was found between the cracks in the floor or some such thing.

I also have a file of my exploits in various fields of sport and politics. After very little experience with a camera, you can make montages and copies that show you seated at the conference table with the President of the United States, dancing with the former Grace Kelly, skiing with an Olympic champion, and reviewing Queen Elizabeth’s personal guard.

This sort of pictorial lying is charming and effective, even though it requires a little skill and patience. For emergencies, I always keep a file of newspaper pictures, which are forever blurred and dotted up so that no one can be recognized very much anyway.

If some girl I am impressing refuses to believe that I made the winning touchdown for the Green Bay Packers a few years ago, I only have to whip out a newspaper clipping of a photo of somebody making the winning touchdown. It is then up to her to prove it is not me. I have hit a home run for the Yankees with the bases loaded, stroked the winning crew at Harvard, parachuted three miles, wrestled underwater with an octopus, and climbed Everest with the aid of fuzzy newspaper photographs.

There is no use in laboring the point. Lying is more profitable, more amusing, and more heartwarming than telling the truth. Oscar Wilde said, “The aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized society.”

Possibly in Wilde’s day the liar’s value was limited to civilized society. Today the liar is the very basis of higher education, government, marriage, religion, economics, and advertising.

And that is the truth.