- - Sunday, June 4, 2017



By Garson O’Toole

Little A, $24.95, 383 pages

Whether he knows it or not, Garson O’Toole writes detective stories. His specialty is detecting suspect quotes, separating fact from fantasy and stalking them back to their authentic sources. More often than not, getting there is half the fun. Consider the case of an alleged quote attributed to Franz Kafka and used as a chapter head by comedian Russell Brand in his 2010 bestseller, “Booky Wook 2: This Time It’s Personal”:

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

Although it sounds just a tad too New Age motivational to have flowed from the pen of a man who croaked in 1924, it does have a slightly Kafka-esque ring to it. Only he never said it. The words appeared in the foreword to a 1995 collection of Kafka’s works and were written by the popular horror author, Anne Rice. Five years after they were misappropriated and misattributed to Kafka, Ms. Rice would explain: “I just found out something hilariously funny. Years ago, I wrote a brief introduction to a collection of Kafka’s short stories … something I said in the intro, about Kafka’s influence on me has been recently quoted all over the internet as a quote from Kafka!”

This is just one of many cases of error, deliberate deceit and shameless recycling that Mr. O’Toole runs to ground in this engaging little collection of what today might be called literary “fake news.” Another, even more widely-circulated misattribution, which inspired the book’s title, is the oft-repeated myth that Ernest Hemingway once made a bet that he could write a complete short story in six words. The words? “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

The six words actually do, indeed, tell a poignant short story, summoning up as they do the loss of a newborn life. But Hemingway never said or wrote them. In four well-paced chapters with detailed documentation, Mr. O’Toole can only offer us a limited sample of phony or stolen quotes, but he provides an excellent introduction to the subject.

My own first encounter came many years earlier while writing a long biographical piece on Marshall Turenne, Louis XIV’s greatest military commander, for History Today magazine in the 1970s. I already knew that Napoleon had been falsely credited with saying that “God always favors the big battalions,” that the Prussian warrior King Frederick the Great had actually said it, but that his sometime mentor, Voltaire had written words to that effect long before. Then I discovered that, a generation before Voltaire, Madame de Sevigne had coined the phrase in a letter to Marshall Turenne, the subject of my article: four degrees of separation.

I also experienced how difficult it is to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to supposedly familiar quotations in the course of my 17 years as creator and editor in chief of “American Speaker,” an all-purpose guide to public speaking. One of my chores was to compile an annual pocket volume of “100 Best Quotes” each year. In doing so, one had to be constantly on guard against counterfeits.

As I knew better than most, witness the following a confession. During one of my stints as a presidential aide, while writing a speech for Jerry Ford, I decided to test — in a harmless way — how easily fiction could be folded into history. I knew that, as House minority leader, Jerry Ford had been close to Everett Dirksen, his Senate equivalent and the eloquent, beloved “Wizard of Ooze” who had died in 1969. I had met and conversed with Dirksen and knew his style well; besides, dead men tell no tales. So, as an experiment, I invented a Dirksen “quote” and inserted it into the speech draft to see what would happen. The quote, as I recall it, had Ford visiting Dirksen in the hospital and Dirksen delivering the following exhortation: “Jerry, just do right by the American people and the American people will do right by you.”

I assumed that, even if the fact checkers didn’t flag it, President Ford would recognize it as a ringer. Instead, he kept it in the final draft and delivered it with great conviction, exactly as I’d written it. From that day onward I have always had my doubts about so-called “recovered” memories. I had fabricated something that sounded so much like Everett Dirksen that Jerry Ford, a man of total integrity, actually thought he remembered Dirksen saying it to him, and then repeated it in a speech.

Where was Garson O’Toole when I needed him?

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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