Writers Who Lie





Editor’s Note: Figuring out why he did it is impossible at this point. We simply don’t know enough. Maybe we never will. But Joseph Ellis is not the first person of prominence to lie about himself. The list includes politicians, sports figures, and writers, including at least one, like Ellis, who won the Pulitzer Prize. Herewith a short list of writers who got caught lying. For perspective, we have included brief excerpts from books and articles written by critics trying to come to terms with the evidence of the authors' dissembling.


ALEX HALEY

From Philip Nobile,"Uncovering Roots," Village Voice, February 23, 1993.

"Alex was a man with many compartments and nobody knew them all," observed his last agent, John Hawkins. One might even call Haley a literary Kim Philby. Like a master spy, Haley could persuasively lie about anything: where he grew up and went to school, what he wrote while in the Coast Guard, how much money he earned, his family, little lies about store food that he passed off as home-cooked, and big lies like stripping down to his shorts and staying 10 nights in the darkened hold of the freighter African Star, which sailed from Dakar to Florida in 1973, in order to divine the agony of Kunta Kint’s crossing. ("That never happened," said Frank Ewers, the Star’s former first mate."I had the keys to the hold and Haley never went down there at night. He would have died from the cocoa fumes.")

JERZY KOSINSKI

From James Park Sloan,"Kosinski's War," New Yorker (October 10 1994).

"Jerzy was a fantastic liar," said Agnieszka Osiecka, Poland's leading pop lyricist and a familiar figure in Polish intellectual circles, as she alternately sipped Coke and beer at a sidewalk cafe in Warsaw."And so what?"

While she spoke, Osiecka kept putting on and taking off a wide- brimmed red hat of the kind once affected by Frank Lloyd Wright. Years ago, she and Kosinski had sat at tables just like this one."If you told Jerzy you had a Romanian grandmother, he would come back that he had fifteen cousins all more Romanian than your grandmother"--she returned the hat to her head and gave it a half turn--" and they played in a Gypsy band!"

Osiecka was responding to a recent expose by the Polish journalist Joanna Siedlecka, in which she argued that Jerzy Kosinski, Poland's best- known Holocaust survivor, had profoundly falsified his wartime experiences. According to Siedlecka, Kosinski spent the war years in relatively gentle, if hardly idyllic, circumstances and was never significantly mistreated. She thus contradicts the sanctioned version of his life under the German occupation, which has generally been assumed to be only thinly disguised in his classic first novel,"The Painted Bird," published in this country by Houghton Mifflin in 1965. ...

Does the discovery that"The Painted Bird" was a far more fictional work of fiction than Kosinski often suggested it was give readers who were moved by the book just cause for feeling cheated? His real story might have been every bit as compelling, in its way, as"The Painted Bird," but would the world have seized so eagerly upon an account of .the less dramatic form of harassment he had to take for granted as a Jew in the Polish countryside? ....

Maybe it is only the historian's task to reassert the annoying complexity of events against the satisfying simplicity of a storyline. If the novelist trimmed his experiences to accord with a personal myth, the narrative that resulted fell on receptive ears. Certainly it was a myth that the world, demanding purity and innocence of its victims, was all too ready to appropriate. Now all must profess to be shocked--shocked-that a practitioner of the liar's profession, a man who survived the war by living a lie, told lies.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY

From Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway (1987).

Upon his return to Oak Park in early 1919, Hemingway would begin spreading stories around town that his parents must have known were deceptive. Nevertheless, their faith in the veracity of their limping son remained unshaken. To all appearances, the com- munity as a whole was equally uninterested in challenging him. Thus, in the auditorium at Oak Park High School a week after he got back, he spoke in such circumstantial detail about the Italian shock troops called Arditi as to imply that after recovering from his wounds at Fossa he had fought with them; yet even though every one in the auditorium could see that he still could not walk comfortably without a cane, no pointed questions were put to him at the end of the talk. An interview he gave to the Oak Parker was no less expansive. He had been knocked down not once but twice by machine-gun fire, he told the hero-worshiping reporter who interviewed him, and had been hit thirty-two times all told by .45-caliber bullets. And when the ladies on the Memorial Committee of Oak Park and River Forest mailed him a questionnaire about his war service, he struck awe into them by replying that after a tour of duty with the American Volunteer Ambulance Service he had joined the 69th Infantry, Brigata Ancona as a first lieutenant and had fought in three major battles: along the lower Piave, on Monte Grappa and at Vittorio Veneto.

He continued to misrepresent his role in the war to friends in Chicago and Paris in the early twenties. ...

Perhaps in order to preserve the memory of those things that had made him feel justifiably proud of himself, Hemingway finally described what really occurred on the night he was wounded. He did so, however, in a work of fiction, A Farewell to Arms ....


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