The 5 Most Extreme Examples of Lying Your Way To The Top
The job market is tough, and everyone tries to make their resume stand out. But it's one thing to count that Bavarian folk dance course as "international relationship training." It's another thing entirely to say that your ancestors founded Bavaria, and you've personally ruled it with an iron fist since 1957. These people took the latter approach, and somehow made it work for way, way too long.
Kent Johnson Lived A Triple Life To Get His Poetry Published
Araki Yasusada was a survivor of Hiroshima whose poetry was discovered by his son after his death in 1972. That's already an Oscar movie all by itself, but the poetry was also deeply personal, describing the experience of seeing his wife and one of his daughters engulfed in flames.
And of course, it was all lies.
When people started digging into Yasusada's life, they discovered that his work was the invention of an obscure Japanese translator named Tosa Motokiyu. They then discovered this was also a lie, and both men were a white, middle-aged poet named Kent Johnson. More accurately, a middle-aged white Spanish teacher at an Illinois community college who really wanted to be a poet. Every publisher who intended to distribute Yasusada's work -- and there were several -- stopped the presses, and Johnson had a lot of explaining to do.
To this day, he's done very little. He admits that Yastusada never existed, but maintains that he was a creation of Motokiyu, "the pseudonym of an author whose express wish, stated in his will, was that his identity never be revealed." That's right, he wanted to be so anonymous that he needed a pseudonym for his pseudonym.
Because society as a whole has the memory of a fetal kitten, the controversy eventually died down, and magazines like The Paris Review once again began to have scholarly discussions of Yasusada's work. So at least not a single person involved learned any kind of lesson about anything, and we're all worse for the experience. Huzzah!
John Roland Redd Posed As A Weird Indian Dude All His Life
The late 1940s weren't a particularly good time to be an African-American entertainer looking to go mainstream. Actually, it wasn't a good time to be an African-American entertainer. Actually, it wasn't a good time to be an African-American. Actually- you get it. Talented keyboardist John Roland Redd knew this very well. But luckily, he had a cheat code: He just became someone completely else.
Possibly aided by his future wife, Disney illustrator Beryl DeBeeson, Redd crafted a fake identity called Korla Pandit. The turban-wearing Pandit was presented as a musical prodigy from New Delhi, the son of a Brahmin priest and a French opera singer who came to America with the sole mission to play your pants off with his sultry tunes. Korla Pandit's Adventures In Music was the first all-music TV show. He hung out with Bob Hope and Errol Flynn. He even had his own float in the 1953 Rose Bowl parade.
Pandit played his last concert in 1996, and no one seemed to have had a clue that the guy wasn't really Indian -- not even the reporter specifically looking into him and his background. Redd kept up the act his entire life, seemingly both onstage and in his personal life, carrying that heavy burden -- and turban -- until his death in 1998.
The truth wasn't uncovered until 2001, when another African-American pianist who'd worked with Redd back in the '40s offhandedly mentioned to a music journalist that he'd known Redd, but he looked a whole lot different back then. Now that's a guy who can keep a secret.
Mary Willcocks Claimed She Was The Princess Of A Fictional Country
Mary Willcocks, aka "Princess Caraboo," claimed to hail from exotic Javasu, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. That's a bold enough lie, especially since Javasu wasn't real, but Mary didn't leave it there. She claimed she'd been kidnapped by pirates, but managed to escape to ... Glouchestershire, England? That seems unlikely, but this was back in 1817, when you pretty much believed whatever people told you.
Confused locals led her to a local magistrate, whose wife was fascinated by the mysterious woman. When a Portuguese sailor turned up in town, claimed to understand Caraboo, and gave her "royal" background to the people, high society was immediately hooked. Dignitaries came from all over to visit Caraboo, and she astonished them with the outlandish customs of her country, which included swimming naked and sleeping on the ground. Soon the "princess" became the talk of the country.
As the papers picked up the Princess Caraboo story, Willcocks was eventually outed by a Bristol woman who recognized her. But it didn't really matter; the papers and the working class both praised her as a hero who had managed to rise above her designated lot in life and thumb her nose at the rich and powerful. She was even played by Phoebe Cates in a movie about her life, and back in 1994, that was a huge honor.
Clifford Irving Faked An Autobiography Of Howard Hughes
You probably know a dozen people who claim to know a dozen famous people, but Clifford Irving's dedication to his scheme was genuinely impressive. Back in the 1970s, he was set to write an autobiography for Howard Hughes. First he convinced his publisher's editor that Hughes was into the project by forging letters from him based on real letters written by the reclusive billionaire. After that, he flew around the world, making sure to call the publisher at each stop to convince them he was jet-setting with the Aviator. It didn't hurt that he picked the perfect subject, a figure who famously refused to speak to the press ...
Until he didn't. Right as the book was headed to print, Hughes finally broke his silence and held a conference to tell Irving to get his name out of his mouth. Because this was a more innocent time when it was actually illegal to publish lies, Irving served 17 months in prison. It was really everyone else's fault that they got duped, though -- Irving's previous book was about an art forger, and titled Fake.
Helen Darville Tried To Cash In On The Holocaust
In the 1990s, Australian Helen Darville had a great idea for a story about a Ukrainian family that participated in the Holocaust, and she was going to get it published no matter what. Turns out "no matter what" didn't mean "pluck and perseverance" -- it meant "pretend to be Ukrainian and tell everyone that it was heavily based on her own family's experiences." So that's exactly what she did.
She published The Hand That Signed The Paper as "Helen Demidenko," and the publicity material stressed that her Ukrainian ancestry was the source for her story. In interviews, she even made it a point to mention her family's personal connections to the Holocaust. To her credit, she didn't personally claim to have experienced the horrific event. "I depended very heavily on my dad's memories of what the famine was like," Darville/Demidenko said, "and his brother and some of my other relatives as well." She knew a guy who knew a guy who knew the Holocaust.
The Hand That Signed The Paper was the book everyone was talking about. Of course, they were mostly talking about how its Jewish characters were basically cartoon bad guys who'd jumped straight out of an antisemitic fever dream. It didn't exactly alleviate tensions when it eventually emerged that "Demidenko" was in fact Darville, an Australian with British parents and zero Ukrainian connections.
Of course, this ruined Darville, and we never heard from her ag- wait, she simply moved to UK, got married, changed her name to Helen Dale, and became a conservative pundit with a regular columnist gig? And she claims that she wrote the book under a pseudonym in the first place to protect a source, who was totally an elderly Ukrainian war criminal with terminal cancer? And she almost revealed her true identity to her publishers, but decided otherwise after receiving some criticism from them? And it was also a deliberate hoax against the left, somehow?
We guess the moral of the story is that even if you suck at lying, if you're persistent enough (and change your name often enough), you can still waltz away from the smoking ruins to spend your time happily plagiarizing other people's tweets.
Chris Scott co-owns a bookstore in a small Midwestern town and regularly contributes to Prairie Dog and Planet S Magazines. E. Reid Ross has a couple books, Nature Is The Worst: 500 Reasons You'll Never Want To Go Outside Again and Canadabis: The Canadian Weed Reader, both available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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