Fake Folks

“If Allegra Coleman did not exist, someone would have to invent her.”

Esquire magazine

If you’ve ever wanted to make a name for yourself, you’re bound to take some inspiration from the stories of people who took things one step further and manufactured entire selves.

Fictional characters have been known to walk the earth, either when allegedly real folks like you and me have taken on assumed identities, or when whole people have been invented for one use or another. Of course, there’s a long tradition of using pseudonyms or noms de plume, so it will take something exceptional to be worth a mention here.

Unanimously elected to the Bullshitters Hall of Fame on the first ballot was a fellow who called himself George Psalmanazar (I don’t think anyone knows what his real name was). In the late 17th Century, George wandered around Europe pretending to be a cannibal prince from the exotic orient. He made up an alphabet and lectured widely about the pagan practices and exotic wildlife of his home nation, even teaching at Oxford on the subject. In 1704 he compiled these observations into the book “An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa.”

When Psalmanazar died in 1763, his memoirs, in which he confessed to the decades-old hoax, were published. His life was revealed to have been one long work of amazing improvisational dramatic fiction.

How could he have pulled off such a complete ethnic imposture on the likes of Oxford? Well, don’t say it is because people were stupid back in the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century, Grey Owl, an Englishman who impersonated a native American for years, wrote autobiographical books, lectured, and even visited the British royal family to tell them stories about his life. His influential books are credited with starting the conservation movement in Canada. He wasn’t found out until shortly after his death in 1938.

WorldCom customers collectively shouted “I knew it!” when they learned that the company’s “vice president of customer service” Thomas Barton did not exist.

The internet service provider Prodigy also created a phony head of “membership services” when communicating with its customers. A former Prodigy employee writes to

As Prodigy reps, we were told that Lee Nicholson “embodied the spirit of Prodigy Membership Services,” or some such crap like that, and we weren’t allowed to say that Lee truly didn’t exist (nor identify his/her sex). Prodigy management didn’t want to admit Lee was fake, but they did want to cover their buns, apparently! (And they didn’t do this very well!) A number of years later, Lee met with an untimely and undisclosed manner of death (death by irate Prodigy member, perhaps?), to be replaced by someone equally fictitious, whose first name was “Chris.” Yes, still going with those neuter names! As a joke, one of the Membership Services managers had a coffee can in her office with a coin-sized slot cut in the top and a piece of paper taped to the side, with the words, “Lee Nicholson Memorial Fund.” It is questionable as to whether or not she actually received donations, since we were all in on the “joke.”

In 1817, a poor British lass named (perhaps) Mary Baker managed to pass herself off as a shipwrecked “Princess Caraboo” of “Javasu,” with the help of a Portuguese sailor who claimed to understand her invented language. The media attention her act captured caused many jewelers and such to shower their wares on her in hopes of impressing the royals of that fantasy land.

One of my favorite examples (although it perhaps deserves its own category) is of a San Franciscan named Joshua A. Norton who, in 1859, declared himself to be Emperor of the United States (and Protector of Mexico). It appears to have been a creative solution to being dead broke after some financial speculation had soured. Astonishingly, and as a credit to his character, it worked like a charm.

The Emperor’s visionary proclamations were printed up in the papers, his self-issued currency was often honored, he corresponded with other heads of state, and his renown was such that tens of thousands of people turned out at his funeral.

Players who are inspired by Norton’s story might want to look into Lord Buckley, the swingingist cat that ever did deliver the scratch to the itch. He encouraged people to storm the aristocracy by taking on titles that reflected their actual nobility rather than their inheritance or ancestry.

The “multiple name” is a device that’s been used successfully for several years now, particularly by the neoists. The idea is that multiple people publish and/or act (and/or shop) under the same name, creating a (multiple) personality out of thin air. Good examples include prolific graffiti artist Kilroy, Karen Eliot, recidivist criminal John Doe, mathematician Nicolas Bourbaki, political whack-a-mole Simon Jester, filmmaker Allen Smithee, Klaos Oldanburg, Monty Cantsin and Luther Blissett.

In 1952, the best-selling book The Search for Bridey Murphy told of a woman who, under hypnosis, channeled the personality of a Irish woman from the previous century. (Well, so maybe under further investigation she didn’t, so what?) The New Age wasn’t invented in the 1970s, kids.

Steve K.D. Eichel, in order to expose slipshod credentialing organizations, got his cat a Ph.D and proceeded to have it board-certified to practice hypnotherapy. He built on these achievements to have the rat catcher awarded diplomate status by the American Psychotherapy Association in 2002.

The 19th Century reference titled Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography was hoaxed by a staffer who, understimulated and paid by the column-inch, invented famous Americans and wrote biographies for them.

Literary types, already well-versed in the arts of creativity and fiction, can be excused for wanting to take that extra step and fictionalize a whole author. If you believe in your art, it seems a logical step to take advantage of the fact that your reader has probably already suspended disbelief about your identity even before the reading begins!

Of the odd schools of poetry that flourished in the early years of the twentieth century, perhaps it is an oversight only the Spectrists are mentioned here. But if their hoax was only more obvious, it was also most curious and surrounded itself with oddity.

James Norman Hall, author of Mutiny on the Bounty, invented the poetical prodigy “Fern Gravel,” whose inspired young musings were published as “Oh! Millersville” to rave reviews in 1940.

In 1894, the twenty-five-century-old lesbian love poems of Bilitis were published. They were actually the work of the scholar Pierre Louÿs.

In 1944, a literary magazine called Angry Penguins published a series of poems by Ern Malley, a poet whose early death would have made his amazing work forever obscure had it not been unearthed by the magazine. The works were then published elsewhere, and are today included in anthologies such as the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry. The poor editor of Angry Penguins was prosecuted and convicted by an Australian court when the poems were found to be obscene. Ah, but alas, Ern Malley was just a convincing invention of a couple of poets who wanted to play a prank, and invented both Malley and his corpus in a single afternoon. “Literary fashion,” they noted, “can be so hypnotically powerful that it can suspend the operation of critical intelligence.”

These sort of literary inventions are becoming more and more popular, it seems. The world of Australian letters was more recently rocked by Ukranian author Helen Demidenko, who won literary awards for The Hand that Signed the Paper, but who was later found to be Australian writer Helen Darville, and by Wanda Koolmatrie, the eloquent aboriginal writer whose autobiography, My Own Sweet Time, turned out to be a fictional work by Leon Carmen. A feminist press printed Rahila Khan’s Down the Road, Worlds Away and then found out that the author, supposedly “a young, female Muslim of Indian origin” was a Church of England vicar named Toby Forward.

Not to let wordsmiths get all the credit, one Elizabeth Durack passed off her paintings as the work of “Eddie Burrup,” a nonexistant aboriginal artist. As the director of Flinders Art Museum put it, the thousands of people who saw the “Native Title Now” exhibition of aboriginal art became “directly involved in the deception.”

William Boyd and Karen Wright invented Nat Tate and foisted the ottabe-famous painter on the New York cultural elite. And Paul Jordan Smith fooled art snobs with his faux “disumbrationist movement” painter “Pavel Jerdanowich.”

An international arts festival in São Paolo played unwitting host to the “fictitious 57-year-old Austrian avant-garde artist” Georg Paul Thomann.

I’m sure to be leaving out many worthy entries in this subcategory, but I’ll wind up the list with Araki Yasusada, a survivor of Hiroshima whose poetry has been published in major journals but who doesn’t appear to have ever walked this Earth, and Binjamin Wilkomirski.

Wilkomirski is a similarly fictional Holocaust survivor whose best-selling and critically acclaimed “memoir” of being a child in Nazi concentration camps, Fragments, was the winner of the Jewish Quarterly’s annual literary prize for non-fiction and the Prix Memoire de la Shoah and was translated into a dozen languages before being exposed as fiction (see also: Martin Gray’s For Those I Loved and Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird).

And then there was (or was there?) the best-selling author J.T. LeRoy.

Moving away from the literary world and into the domain of celebrities, Esquire magazine played off of the supermodel hypesteria by inventing one from scratch, slapping her on the cover, and writing a feature article about her as if everyone important already agreed she were the most amazing up-and-coming new thing. Allegra Coleman (or the model who was photographed in her place for the hoax) apparantly got quite a career boost from being invented (no surprise there). Suck magazine commented on the hoax in their typically witty way.

You could always count on David Manning, movie critic of the Ridgeville Press, to come up with a pithy and encouraging summary of Columbia Pictures’ latest offering. Imaginary friends say the darndest things.

As an April Fool’s prank in 1985, George Plimpton wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about an up-and-coming baseball pitcher by the name of Sidd Finch who utters koans, pitches barefoot, plays french horn, and has a fastball that approaches 170 miles-per-hour.

Sometimes, though, Sports Illustrated is too impatient to wait for April to come along. Like in the Fall of 2002, when they ran a story about the completely concocted Uzbekistanian tennis starlet Simonya Popova.

A web site that ranked high school football players for college recruiters found that their information was being stolen and resold or redistributed. But how to prove it... They invented a top prospect, one Montego Powers, who quickly started being hunted down by recruiters from Georgia, Florida and Florida State.

Operation Mincemeat was a World War II British intelligence operation in which a corpse was disguised as a member of the British military, handcuffed to a briefcase full of secret documents, and allowed to wash up on the shore where the Nazis would find it. The documents were misleading fakes, and tricked the Nazis into defending the wrong beaches against invasion.

They’re calling it Munchausen by Internet Syndrome. Some people are manufacturing on-line personæ that are complete with realistic pathos, tragedy, disease, and trauma, and then they go on to suck up the virtual sympathy of other folks on-line.

Just as self-serving, but a little less creepy — how about inventing an on-line persona who dashes about the internet defending you and giving good reviews to your book?

Then there’s Kodee Kennings:

Word that Sgt. Dan Kennings had been killed in Iraq crushed spirits in the Daily Egyptian newsroom. The stocky, buzz-cut soldier befriended by students at the university newspaper was dead, and the sergeant’s little girl — a precocious, blond-haired child they’d grown to love — was now an orphan.

They all knew that Kodee Kennings’ mother had died when Kodee was about 5. The little girl’s fears and frustrations about her father being in harm’s way had played out on the pages of the Daily Egyptian for nearly two years, in gut-wrenching letters fraught with misspellings, innocent observations and questions about why Daddy wasn’t there to chase the monsters from under her bed.

It turns out Daddy didn’t exist. And neither did Kodee.

The original Kodee article was a bit of a propaganda piece that demonized anti-war protesters for scaring this poor little girl.

Psalmanazar’s ‘Formosa’
Psalmanazar’s ‘Formosa’

Ern Malley
Ern Malley

Princess Caraboo
Princess Caraboo

Allegra Coleman
Allegra Coleman

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