The Magazine

The Ghost of Miss Truman

From the November 18, 2002 issue: Sometimes the real mystery is the author.

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By JON L. BREEN
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Every Midget Has an Uncle Sam Costume
Writing for a Living
by Donald Bain
Barricade, 239 pp., $22.95

Murder at Ford's Theatre
by Margaret Truman
Ballantine, 326 pp., $24.95

A BIZARRE PHENOMENON first observed in the 1940s became a crime-fiction epidemic by the 1990s. Famous entertainers, athletes, and presidential relatives began sitting down at the typewriter to bang out mystery novels.

Or so they would have us believe. In truth, nearly every one of those celebrities made a deal through an agent or book packager, collected a nice advance for the use of the name, and left to a professional ghostwriter all the actual writing.

Ghostwriting is a time-honored practice, and most readers surely realize that movie stars and baseball players have help with their memoirs--just as all politicians these days have help with their speeches, campaign literature, and policy statements. But the dissemination of novels that are ghostwritten seems somehow more blatantly deceptive and ethically questionable.

Look, for example, at the new memoir by the veteran ghostwriter Donald Bain, who has written, under his name or others, some eighty books. In "Every Midget Has an Uncle Sam Costume," Bain entertainingly describes his experiences as an officer in charge of censoring American Armed Forces Television in Saudi Arabia, as a jazz musician, and as an airline public-relations flack in a happier and more free-wheeling era of air travel.

But the most intriguing topic in the book is ghostwriting. Bain's first major success, "Coffee, Tea, or Me?" (1967), presented the comical amatory adventures of two stewardesses who appeared in public as the authors, Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones. Three sequels followed, plus similar faux first-person accounts of nurses, office temps, teachers, and actresses, always with attractive young women recruited to front the books for publicity purposes. Bain also wrote the autobiography of actress Veronica Lake, crime fiction signed by the actor David Toma and the ex-cops Nick Vasile and Mike Lundy, and the "Murder, She Wrote" novels in ostensible collaboration with "Jessica Fletcher," the fictional character played on television by Angela Lansbury.

There's no doubt that readers can be extraordinarily naive. About the cover photos on the "Murder, She Wrote" books, Bain reports, one fan wrote in to say it was "amazing how much Angela Lansbury looked like Jessica Fletcher." But when the ostensible author is a real person--and the book itself is a novel--readers don't seem unreasonable in expecting that the person whose name appears on the cover actually wrote the book.

Employing a ghostwriter on a work of fiction is never more dubious than when the putative author really is a writer. Brett Halliday (creator of Mike Shayne), Leslie Charteris (creator of the Saint), and Ernest Tidyman (creator of Shaft) all turned to ghosts to carry on the exploits of their famous characters. The Ellery Queen team employed other writers to turn out paperbacks that were very different from the genuine Queen novels. One case of posthumous ghosting, "Chains of Command" (1999)--credited on the cover to William Caunitz, who died in 1996, but written almost entirely by Christopher Newman--precipitated a class-action suit by readers who believed they had been defrauded.

Celebrity mystery novels, like other ghostwritten books, differ in the way the actual writer is or is not credited. In the most honest method, arguably not ghostwriting at all, the celebrity makes the writing professional a full collaborator, as in the recent "Blue Moon," signed in equal-sized print by bandleader Peter Duchin and Edgar Award-winning novelist John Morgan Wilson.

The second method doesn't admit the ghostwriter's existence to the world at large but at least tips off others in the writing and publishing trade. Many of the novels attributed to "Star Trek"'s William Shatner credit in the acknowledgments the assistance of science-fiction humorist Ron Goulart. Actor George Kennedy's paperback mysteries offer thanks to Walter J. Sheldon. A more subtle variation is to dedicate the book to the real author, as actor George Sanders did for Craig Rice and Leigh Brackett, the authors of the two 1940s crime novels published under his name. (Bain used the same method to give himself credit on the "Coffee, Tea, or Me?" books.)