The Disappearing Act: A Brief History of Ghostwriting in Semi-Chronological Order, Part I
When did ghosting begin? If you ask our editorial intern, Damien, he’ll argue that between 800 and 700 BCE is as good a place to start as any. If you remember your Classics, that’s when Homer penned his great epics. But magical leprechauns didn’t whisper those legends to the bard. Nor did he “make up” all those stories. All literature – all writing – began with the oral tradition. Storytellers bounded from hill to dale telling tales, and stories spread like a prolix virus. Eventually, a select few literate, creative types wrote them out. They transcribed as faithfully as possible the stories we all tell each other – just as the Grimm brothers would do a thousand years later, going from door to door asking people for their tales, and recording them for Disney to later bowdlerize and bastardize.
Of course, Homer and the Grimms got credit, which we don’t always associate with ghosts. That’s a misapprehension, though, as a good many ghosts – especially nowadays – receive recognition in any number of ways. More on that in Part II.
There have been times, however, when authors have chosen to hide their ghosts behind the sheet. This is especially true among political authors.
Though ultimately credited to President James Monroe, the conception and authorship of the Monroe Doctrine belongs to John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s Secretary of State at the time, with significant assistance from former President Thomas Jefferson. Monroe just happened to be the chap who first “performed” the piece, in 1823.
Sure, John F. Kennedy provided the message and ideas behind his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of biographical sketches, Profiles in Courage, but later it came to light (and not without considerable controversy) in 1957 that a ghost wrote the book. Journalist Drew Pearson appeared on The Mike Wallace Interview Program, claiming that Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, wrote most of the book, a claim later substantiated in the 2000s when Sorenson “confessed.”
Alex Haley, who’d later become celebrated for his novel of slavery, Roots, ghostwrote the critically acclaimed and controversial Autobiography of Malcolm X. Some editions employ the euphemism, “As Told To” Alex Haley. Did they think they were getting one over on us? We know Malcolm X was BUSY!
The words – all 748 pages of them – in President Reagan’s popular biography, An American Life, came from the pen of New York Times correspondent Robert Lindsey, who worked extensively with the president to capture his “voice.” Hadn’t a million dimestore comics done that already? In the book, Reagan waxes eloquently about a stirring speech he delivered on the 40th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy—but fails to credit his speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, who ghosted many of the most memorable moments and words of the Reagan Presidency. In her memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution, Noonan calls Reagan’s mind “barren terrain.” Bad ghost—bad! Never bash the author.
Vetted and selected by the Alaska Governor herself, Lynn Vincent, author and features editor for World magazine, became the ghost behind Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life. Her other books also had ghosts in the machine.
George Lucas’s vision and directing acumen far outweighed his writing talent on Star Wars (Harrison Ford: “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it”). Both the script for Episode IV: A New Hope (especially the dialogue), and the novelizations of Star Wars required ghosts.
At the height of espionage novelist Tom Clancy’s prolific career, he nearly drowned in the tsunami of demand for more work. His publisher hired a series of ghostwriters trained to emulate Clancy’s signature style. These included: Tom Clancy’s Op-Center, Tom Clancy’s NetForce, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Tom Clancy’s EndWar, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X.
Much like Tom Clancy, children’s book author and publisher Edward Stratemeyer hired several ghostwriters, all operating under the name “Carolyn Keene,” to put his inexhaustible ideas – including his famous character, Nancy Drew – down in ink.
Officially, the Vatican does not employ a ghostwriter, there being no such thing – except for that one holy one – as a ghost. But do you suppose that God’s representative on Earth has time to blog? Pope Francis, like all the pontiffs before him, relies on a ghostwriter to compose all his speeches, major publications, encyclical letters, and social media posts. Of late, the Pontifical Coordinator of Papal Speech and Homily Writing – awesome job title – is one Mgr. Paolo Luca Braida.Same again for His Holiness The Dalai Lama: Several ghosts have written his scores of books over the past decades.
One could argue – and one will – that the New Testament features apostolic ghostwriters for Jesus in the form of the gospels. And some, like Second Peter, appear to many religious scholars and historians to have been further ghosted (John Calvin conjectures, for example, that, in his extreme dotage, Peter might have commissioned a ghostwriter, an “amanuensis,” to write the epistle on his behalf, and with his imprimatur).
Ghostwriting—It’s Not About to Disappear:
Here’s young Damien again: “Nowadays, it’s rare to find a celebrity Facebook status or tweet that originated with the person whose name appears on the page. Nor will you hear a presidential speech conceived by a head of state burning his (or her) own midnight oil. A CEO’s memoir? An NBA player’s tale of triumph? A golfer’s walk of shame? A tech guru’s vision of an apocalyptic or utopian future? Probably all ghosted, and definitely better for it.”