As anyone here at Cracked will tell you, without even the slightest provocation, writing is hard. When the strain of coming up with new material becomes too great to bear, a writer has two options: He can pepper his work with penis jokes and pictures of cute animals (see our entry on T.S. Eliot, below), or he can steal his words from a better writer.
Occasionally, a brilliant (or at least sort of clever) mind comes across a bad spell of writer's block and gives into the temptation to be a cheating plagiarist. Sometimes this blatant plagiarism ends up being the catalyst that launches their career like a rocket powered by lies.
What'd He Do?
In a nutshell, Ambrose invented pop history. He was the historical advisor on Saving Private Ryan and wrote the book Band of Brothers, that miniseries about WWII that starred the guy from Office Space.
"You know, the Nazis had little pieces of flair they made the Jews wear."
Ambrose also wrote award-winning biographies on Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. If you've ever wanted to become a famous historian, chances are Stephen was one of your inspirations. Also, chances are you're a massive nerd.
What's the Problem?
In 1995, an almost unknown historian named Thomas Childers published the book Wings of Morning. It was a well-received but relatively obscure novel about the crew of a specific B-24 bomber during WWII.
Ambrose was a fan of the book and, as a firm believer that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he proceeded to plagiarize the fuck out of it for his hit 2001 novel, The Wild Blue, which was the account of a different group of B-24 crewmen. Ambrose ripped off whole passages of text and stole several sentences and descriptions word for word. Then he got his book published and just sort of hoped no one would notice.
In the writing business, that's what we call "textual rape."
Show me on the table of contents where Dr. Ambrose touched you.
Unfortunately for Stephen, but fortunately for truth, he got caught. Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard noticed what was going on and revealed it to the world. Ambrose was fast to respond.
He had cited Childers' book in his bibliography (although he hadn't come close to listing everything he 'borrowed' from his fellow historian's work) and basically claimed that he'd just "forgotten" to attribute the stolen passages in the text, like he was supposed to.
This chart comes from the Weekly Standard's article about Ambrose, written by Fred Barnes. See what we did there Stephen, you dead bastard? We gave the original author credit for something they fucking wrote.
Is That All?
For a little while, Stephen's apology was enough. Ambrose was famous for turning out books at an astonishing rate. He was the meth-addicted prostitute of popular history, turning tricks faster than anyone else on History Whore Blvd. Of course he was bound to make the occasional mistake. Most people considered the matter settled.
Mark Lewis, of Forbes.com, was not one of those people. He read the first story about Ambrose and, like a good investigative journalist, proceeded to tear apart everything the pop historian had written in his search for the truth.
Lewis first hit gold when he found several blatant thefts in the book Crazy Horse and Custer, which Ambrose pretended to write in 1995. For that novel, Ambrose molested the work of esteemed historical writer Jay Monagham. Here's an excerpt from the Forbes article:
MONAGHAM: "On August 28, 1859, Custer returned to West Point. Cadet James Barroll Washington, a great-great-grandnephew of George Washington, entered that year. He remembered hearing the crowd shout, 'Here comes Custer!' The name meant nothing to him, but he turned, and saw a slim, immature lad with unmilitary figure, slightly rounded shoulders, and gangling walk."
AMBROSE: "When he returned to West Point, Cadet James B. Washington, a relative of George Washington, remembered hearing the crowd shout, 'Here comes Custer!' The name meant nothing to Washington, who was just entering the Academy, but he turned and saw a slim, immature lad with unmilitary figure, slightly rounded shoulders, and gangling walk, surrounded by back-slapping, laughing friends."
The Vanilla Ice to Monagham's Queen (featuring David Bowie), Ambrose exerted less effort covering his ass than a high school student who just discovered Wikipedia.
"Holy shit. Everything I want to say about The Grapes of Wrath is RIGHT HERE."
Ambrose's web of lies didn't end there, either. In total, seven of his books were found to contain some degree of plagiarism. His fucking college thesis was even loaded down with other people's unattributed writing. The most famous historian in the world built his career on a foundation of deception.
Did He Pay?
He really didn't. Evidence of his wrongdoing came up very shortly before his death from lung cancer in 2002.
The real tragedy here is that Ambrose's work which, plagiarism aside, was incredibly significant, has been tainted by association with his crimes. Dr. Ambrose was not a bad writer or a bad historian, but his flexible ethics and lack of regard for his fellow writers sent him down the path to infamy.