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Some of the most delicious unpublished journalism gets passed around like a secret handshake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Charlie's recollection of the Sports Illustrated writer Curry Kirkpatrick's lengthy, unpublished profile of Morganna Roberts turned out to be quite accurate.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.

The leads whisked through the newsroom faster than … well, really fast. "It was terrifying," the metropolitan reporter David Dunlap, since revealed to be the talented wiseacre, remembers. "By the end of the afternoon Abe Rosenthal [then the editor] himself had been shown them." As a friend of mine who savored off-color limericks about Leonid Brezhnev's daughter—supplied by British intelligence—when he enjoyed a top security clearance once opined, "The narrower the audience, the more potent the satire."

Almost every newspaper or magazine generates tiny gems that circulate clandestinely. New Republic staff- ers remember "Marty's Nightmare Table of Contents," listing stories that the editor and publisher Martin Peretz would least like to see in print. (No one has a copy, so I am left to imagine the headlines: "Israel Cedes West Bank, Jerusalem; 'The Arabs Were Here First,' Sharon Admits.") Some at The New York Review of Books have held on to faded copies of a February 10, 2000, letter to the editor from Theodore John Kaczynski, "04475-046 U.S. Penitentiary Max," better known as the Unabomber. In three neatly handwritten pages Kaczynski commented on an exchange of letters about psychoanalysis, asserting, inter alia, that "it would be surprising if the field had reformed itself in a sufficiently fundamental way to become a genuine science." The letter was never published.

The wits at The New Yorker naturally generated much material for what Ivan Turgenev, facing czarist censorship, called "the desk drawer." A classic example is the forty-five-page "Sophiegimbel book," formally titled Style: A Mnemonic Narrative in Twenty-Six Chapters With Epilogue. Style was a send-up of the magazine's talmudic stylebook, which until the early 1990s could be viewed only by a select group of staffers. A typical injunction was "Indicate a proscribed word thus: '---- off,' he said. (hyphens) Do not use asterisks." Spelling was deliciously idiosyncratic: "electric-light bulb," "eyeopener," "eying."

As part of post-William Shawn glasnost the copy editor Lindsley Cameron jawboned many colleagues, including Roger Angell, Charles McGrath, and Elizabeth Macklin, into writing twenty-six short stories, each one starring the fictional copy editor "Sophiegimbel." Each story had to use every stylebook entry for a given letter, in the order in which they occurred in the manual. "Sophiegimbel" is itself a New Yorker stylebook relic, being the correct spelling of a 1930s trademark for couture made by Sophie Gimbel, who married into the department-store family and cut Lady Bird Johnson's memorable red coat-and-dress combination for the 1965 inauguration. "Miss Gould"—the legendary, recently deceased editor Eleanor Gould Packard—"was the only person who remembered what the word was," the former librarian Craig Smith says.

Style contains literary horseplay galore. "Chapter E for Eros," ascribed to McGrath, inevitably draws attention, as Sophie bares her obsessive affection for "[The] fire of my life, fire of my loins. My boss, my boychik. Will-i-am." (As in Shawn, who had by then been replaced as editor by Robert Gottlieb.)

He was no epicurean. He had the dignity of an Episcopalian and the heat of someone who slept, nude, on the equator. He was smarter than the whole Ervin committee put together, and he knew more words for snow than even the Eskimos.

The copy editor's erotic fantasy knows no bounds.

Sophiegimbel felt herself losing consciousness and she felt or imagined she felt herself and the editor spooned together like a pair of commas, her nipples hardened like the dots of a colon, and there out of the mist loomed a giant exclamation point—an eighteen point screamer— ... Sophie could no longer help herself and yes she cried yes and then E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e!

One New Yorker writer wrote an acidulous mock obituary of a colleague's dog. After telling me about it, he asked me not to mention details in this story—feelings were still too raw. The late Veronica Geng penned a drop-dead parody of The New Yorker's "forward schedule," listing stories for future issues, and posted it on her door. "It was not seen as a good thing for Veronica to have done," says her former colleague Ian Frazier.

Frazier posted his own samizdat in his office: a rejected cartoon that he submitted in the late 1970s, lampooning the "I Heart New York" campaign, then at its apogee under Mayor Ed Koch. "I did a cartoon of a Cossack chasing a Hasidic Jew and wearing a T-shirt that read 'I Heart a Pogrom,'" Frazier recalls. "It was too horrible to publish."

Several of Frazier's cartoons were published in the humorist George Meyer's short-lived magazine Army Man: America's Only Magazine. For a time in the 1980s Meyer, who later became a writer for The Simpsons, was the Random House of American samizdat. A never produced film script he wrote for David Letterman had, David Owen wrote in The New Yorker, "a second life, in the Simpsons rewrite room, where for several years the show's writers would guiltily consult it whenever they were stuck for a joke." While circulating that script Meyer typed up the first issue of Army Man, eight pages long, which he laid out on his bed and printed in editions of 200. "For years, it circulated in samizdat on college campuses," wrote Owen, who told me that his profile of Meyer itself circulated in samizdat for five years, until a new editor came across it. The New Yorker's editor at the time, Tina Brown, commissioned the piece but never ran it. "She thought The Simpsons was passé," Owen said.

Army Man was dark and brilliant. It showcased the work of Andy Borowitz, Roz Chast, Merrill Markoe, and many others who went on to fame and fortune in Hollywood and elsewhere. A feature like Frazier's "My Ideal Woman"—a graphic description of a man—would be impossible to reproduce anywhere except in a rental apartment in Boulder, Colorado, in 1988. In its second issue Army Man teased a major upcoming feature: "Mother Teresa, the Nun You Love to Hate." This was four years before Christopher Hitchens first put the paddle to the beloved Catholic saint-in-waiting in his notorious 1992 Nation column "The Ghoul of Calcutta."

A reprintable example of Meyer's humor would be his list of Chapter 11 filings: "Tommy's Resume Servise. Nite-Owl Skywriting Co. The Pink Pork Chop." And so on.

More typical would be this "Jolly Comedy Joke" from John Swartzwelder, who also became a writer for The Simpsons: "disgruntled man at breakfast: They can kill the Kennedys. Why can't they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?"

Another much admired typescript handed around by the Army Man claque was Harry Shearer's relentless fifteen-round pummeling of Jerry Lewis's muscular-dystrophy telethon. The piece was commissioned by Clay Felker's magazine New West in 1976. At various points in the article Shearer (whose credits include several voices on The Simpsons) mentions how Lewis's factotums kept trying to usher him away from the center of the telethon action. It appears in retrospect that they should have tried harder, in order to keep observations like these out of circulation:

Nobody causes muscular dystrophy, and almost nobody gets it. The day before the show, [Jerry] did a promo with a fat lady from Channel 8 in Honolulu and concluded it by yelling, "Watch the show and getta hunka nooky." Every Muscular Dystrophy telethon ends with Jerry's singing "You'll Never Walk Alone," a peculiar choice of songs to address to crippled people.

New West "bumped it for a Mary Murphy profile of Dino DeLaurentis (key detail—he falls asleep on a transatlantic flight, his head in her lap)," Shearer remembers. "I guess I sent a bunch of copies around, trying desperately to get it published somewhere. A lot of people read it"—both before and after he managed to sell the piece as an insert to Film Comment in 1979.

V ideo killed the radio star, and samizdat has been over-taken by technology. It has gone digital.

Cases in point: Years ago sportswriters regaled one another with transcripts of bootleg tape recordings of the profession's most notorious interviews. Exhibit A is the Chicago Cubs manager Lee Elia's tirade in the midst of a 1983 losing streak: "If they're the real Chicago BLEEPin' fans, they can kiss my BLEEPin' BLEEP right downtown …" Exhibit B is the Los Angeles Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda's 1976 assessment of Dave Kingman's three-homer outing against his team: "What the BLEEP do you think is my opinion of it? I think it was bleeping BLEEP. Put that in, I don't give a BLEEP."

Those interviews and others can be heard on the Internet in less time than it takes to read this sentence.

Michael Kinsley, then the editor of the online magazine Slate, discovered the reverberating power of the Internet when he sent what he thought was a private message to his friends and colleagues on July 12, 1998, titled "My Career as Editor of The New Yorker." Kinsley laid out in embarrassing detail a meeting with The New Yorker's owner, Si Newhouse, who eventually chose Kinsley's rival David Remnick to succeed Tina Brown. Within a few days the letter had been read by almost every journalist in America. "I sent it to everyone I knew," one recipient says. It was one of the first recorded instances of viral gossip with e-mail as the vector.

Similarly, The Wall Street Journal's Middle East reporter, Farnaz Fassihi, sent an e-mail to a few friends last year that immediately became one of the most-read dispatches from Iraq. ("Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest …") "The e-mail was a private correspondence to my friends and not meant for publication," Fassihi told me. "It was shocking and overwhelming to see it snowballing around the world as it did."

Samizdat is no longer a matter of punching typewriter keys through recalcitrant carbons and hoping the neighbors don't tip off the KGB. Now self-publishing is waking up in the morning, turning on your computer, and sharing your thoughts with the hypothetically limitless audience of the Internet. The San Francisco-based consulting firm Technorati recently estimated that the number of digitally published Web diaries, or blogs, almost doubled in the first half of this year, from 7.8 million to 14.2 million.

Forget writing for "the desk drawer." Forget mailing copies of your unpublishable work around to your friends. To paraphrase Yogi Berra ("Nobody goes there; it's too crowded"), so many people are doing it, it's hardly worth doing at all.