Living the Lie

This orig­i­nally appeared on mis​ter​agye​man​.blogspot​.com on August 28, 2015.

Warning: this is a pseudo-listicle.

Recently I’ve been read­ing titanic writ­ing from GQ, the NY and LA Times, Esquire, Wired; learn­ing big new words like metas­ta­size and scro­fu­lous and pul­chri­tudi­nous— guess which one means beau­ti­ful— but there’s some things that are best han­dled by Cracked jour­nal­ism. I won’t rank though. Everyone’s a winner here.

Lies. Possibly civ­i­liza­tion’s great­est tool, after coöper­a­tion. Most clos­ets come with skele­tons pre-installed. But how do we define a lie to begin with? ‘Real’ used to be a legal term. It described con­crete­ness. Thing is, the best lies have health­ier skin than most facts. Fiction becomes fact, if you work hard enough at it. In Russia, they say: if Putin lies today, it will be true tomorrow.

Down to six hours by 2016, because efficiency.

So for this arti­cle, let’s rate fibs by the invest­ment of the fibber. There are cheap, reflex lies that just save trou­ble; those don’t count. The people I’m going to write about— their lies cost them years of their lives. Their lies cost them careers, rep­u­ta­tions. Some ded­i­cated their lives to the lie. They put in the effort. They deserve some credit.

Frank Dux

Sorry man. Don’t kill me.

Last name pro­nounced ‘Dukes’. This man is the inspi­ra­tion for this arti­cle. Why? Because his auto­bi­og­ra­phy inspired the movie ‘Bloodsport’, which gave the world Jean Claude van Damme. That’s how epic Frank Dux is; it took JVD to tell his story.

Dux is a mar­tial artist of some stand­ing. He has an impres­sive pro­fes­sional record, and an open-palm strike that appar­ently breaks bul­let­proof glass. There are many mar­tial art author­i­ties who dis­like him, but nobody ques­tions his abil­ity to reshape a jaw­line with his fist. (His foot has an equally fine resume, if his fist is oth­er­wise occupied.)

If there are con­cerns, they are directed at Dux’s claims. Dux says he is the heir to an ancient Ninja tribe. He says he fought in an inter­na­tional ille­gal mar­tial arts tour­na­ment, called the Kumite. (His account of the tour­na­ment inspired the movie.) In this tour­na­ment, among other feats, Dux knocked out 56 people in a row. According to one analy­sis, this would imply that each match lasted less than a second. He did all this after a leg­endary career in both the Army and the CIA. Basically, Frank Dux is every vil­lain’s worst night­mare, espe­cially if they deal in child slaves. Frank Dux loves children.

The amaz­ing thing is how believ­able it all is. One, Frank Dux seems capa­ble of the phys­i­cal feats, if not the 56 con­sec­u­tive knock­outs. Two, all the things he claims to have done would­n’t be public knowl­edge. Three— why would any normal, suc­cess­ful mar­tial artist make up things like this?

Turns out, many mar­tial artists do it. It’s become a bit like fish­ing yarns, I guess. They kill twenty people and rip out some­body’s heart, then limp off to give the baby Lama back to the monks on the moun­tain. Explosions ensue, while stir­ring string music plays. Still, Frank Dux stands apart. Did I men­tion he has a box full of medals from sev­eral branches of the mil­i­tary? It’s like a mixed bag of sweets. Apparently they called him up one day and explained why his leg­endary ser­vice could never be pub­licly rec­og­nized. The next day, he got an enve­lope full of hearts and crosses. It’s like James Bond is real, and he is actu­ally Stephen Seagal. Now If he could just stop doing all his own write-ups in the third person.

Janet Cooke (ft. Washington D.C. Authorities)

Try to believe that she means well.

Not quite as ha-ha funny, this story.

The remark­able thing about these lies is the invest­ment-to-profit ratio. In this way they are much like nuclear bombs, because by the time they reach crit­i­cal mass, they really can’t be con­trolled. This lie came quite close to vapor­is­ing a lot of people in Washington.

Janet Cooke was a jour­nal­ist at the Washington Post, also known as “the people who brought you ‘Watergate’ ”. In September of 1980 she wrote a star­tling piece enti­tled ‘Jimmy’s World’. The Jimmy in the story was eight years old, a crack addict from birth, hoping to make a name for him­self in the heroin busi­ness some­day. The story shocked people, and there was enor­mous public inter­est in Jimmy’s case, prompt­ing the city of Washington to try to find Jimmy. Unfortunately, Jimmy was a fig­ment of Janet’s imag­i­na­tion. Questions started cir­cu­lat­ing, but editor Bob Woodward of ‘Watergate’ fame went ahead and sub­mit­ted the story for the Pulitzer prize. It won.

Did the city powers see this as a wake-up call? The PR depart­ment cer­tainly did. They had tried to find Jimmy, and they could­n’t. Cooke at this point was insist­ing on her duty to pro­tect her sources. What to do? Announce they’ve found Jimmy? Yes! Then they announced Jimmy was doing well in state cus­tody. Then they announced that Jimmy had died.

Poor made-up Jimmy.

Around this time, Janet Cooke was facing a lot of ques­tions. Her pre­vi­ous employ­ers started chal­leng­ing her resume claims. Then it turned out that she didn’t really have a Vassar degree. Then, under pres­sure, Janet Cooke con­fessed that she hadn’t exactly talked to a Jimmy, but she believed he was out there. I sup­pose it could be the Jimmy who died? 

Janet Cooke resigned, and gave back the Pulitzer. (Apparently Gabriel Garcia Marquez said she deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature; the story was that heavy.) She laid low until GQ did a fea­ture on her. She later sold the movie rights for some 1.5 mil­lion dol­lars. Marion Barry, mayor of Washington D.C., should really have taken some­thing from the story. He was later con­victed on drug charges, after years of par­ry­ing rumours of cocaine addic­tion. He sur­vived the felony, just like he sur­vived this mas­sive PR dis­as­ter, and came back as mayor. Because life is wonderful.

Ferdinand Waldo Demara

He does­n’t mean well. Not for a second. 

You know Frank Abagnale— the guy from ‘Catch Me If You Can’? Well, if Frank ever met Ferdinand, he would have to call him ‘sir’. Because Ferdinand Demara would­n’t be an accoun­tant, or a pilot. He would be CEO, or head of Flight Control. He didn’t have jobs; he built careers.

At six­teen, Demara ran away to a monastery. Monasteries are a recur­ring theme in his story. I sup­pose he found them rest­ful, when he wasn’t fib­bing with all his strength and might. Anyway. From there he went to the Army. It didn’t take. He deserted under an assumed name, and tried the monas­ter­ies again. Then on to the Navy, where pro­mo­tions didn’t come fast enough. (Remember: he built careers.) So he faked his own sui­cide. On to psy­chol­ogy. He taught for a bit, then he thought he’d try the hands-on approach, so he joined a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal. Then, having learned the busi­ness from the ground up, he went to impart some more knowl­edge to the young ones. Then the FBI decided to impart some knowl­edge to him. Turns out, you see, that the mil­i­tary does­n’t like people leav­ing with­out saying goodbye.

After he got out of jail, Ferdinand— ‘Fred’ to friends— stud­ied law at night school. Then he joined another Roman Catholic order. Then he met Joseph Cyr. Maybe he just liked the name, or maybe he believed that a healthy mind belongs in a healthy body. So he mixed his med­ical inter­ests with his mil­i­tary ones, and enlisted as Joseph Cyr, sur­geon, on a warship.

Here’s where it gets fun. The Korean War was under­way at this time, and Demara’s ship, the ‘HMCS Cayuga’, took on six­teen battle casu­al­ties. “Calling Joseph Cyr!” Does Freddie say “Catch me if you can”? No sir. Freddie inno­vates. Freddie assim­i­lates the train­ing and knowl­edge of years of med­ical school from a text­book, steps up and scrubs in. He cuts chests open. He digs out bul­lets. Does he puke? Not our Freddie. Does he repine? He saves lives.

The man didn’t lose one patient of the lot. He per­formed so well, news­pa­pers picked up the story. And so it hap­pens that Joseph Cyr, sur­geon, goes to the mil­i­tary and asks, ‘What’s this I hear about me saving lives?’ Understandably, the mil­i­tary wasn’t sure what to do. Demara did enlist under a false name, with false accred­i­ta­tion— but he was basi­cally a plump boxed set of ‘House, M.D’. They let him go, and didn’t press charges. They should have given him a medal, the ingrates. An enve­lope full! They should have built him a monastery.

Pardon me. Need to pull myself together.

We follow Fred back to his brethren of the Holy order. He founded a col­lege for these guys, but left because they passed him over for the dean posi­tion. Also, their naming choice appar­ently sucked. Then came Fame, and that was the end of Ferdinand Demara. He got fea­tured by Life mag­a­zine, after which he could­n’t even keep a job at a prison with­out an inmate rec­og­niz­ing him. His great high­light in this third stage of his life was a bit part in a film— this from a man who seems to have lived to pro­vide John Goodman with Oscar mate­r­ial. Such is life.

We pass onto the final stage of Demara’s illus­tri­ous career, and what do we see? He takes a reg­u­lar job. As chap­lain, of course, in a hos­pi­tal. What’s more, he actu­ally earns a cer­tifi­cate from a Bible col­lege. His phe­nom­e­nal mind and remark­able spirit occu­pied itself with a reg­u­lar sched­ule. Of course it’s nice to see him defeat his demons— if he did, that is; still, one can’t help but wonder what might have been. ‘Demara for Senator’? It seems inevitable. He had expe­ri­ence deal­ing with mad men, and his fib­bing is unparalleled.

Marvin Hewitt

“That’s Professor Hewitt to you.” 

Marvin Hewitt hap­pened to read the Life Magazine fea­ture on Ferdinand Demara, and was struck by the sim­i­lar­i­ties. But where Fred spec­u­lated, Marvin spe­cial­ized. No hop­ping about for him. He knew his career path, and he stuck to it.

Marvin was one of those people who love learn­ing so much that they can’t stand to be in school. At ten, he dis­cov­ered advanced math­e­mat­ics. At twelve, he was grap­pling with rel­a­tiv­ity. He tried to share his dis­cov­ery with his teacher and class; they didn’t quite get it. At sev­en­teen, Hewitt dropped out, whether from sheer bore­dom or some deeper con­flict. But it was ‘au revoir’, not ‘adieu’. Marvin and the school­room would be seeing a lot more of each other. In the mean time, he did blue-collar work, light­ened occa­sion­ally by prize-win­ning essays for a news­pa­per competition.

Then his des­tiny came call­ing, in the form of a want ad for an eighth-grade teacher. He quickly climbed from grade-school math, geog­ra­phy and his­tory, on to col­lege-level physics. Of course, in his spare time he was oper­at­ing on the very fron­tier of the­o­ret­i­cal physics, but you take what you get. He mailed the uni­ver­sity of a promis­ing young doctor of physics, got him­self a tran­script. and set off as Julius Ashkin. Maintaining his double life became his first pri­or­ity, until even when he was mourn­ing his father’s murder, he was avoid­ing jour­nal­ists. He soon moved on, partly to escape detec­tion— and partly because he wasn’t get­ting the pay that his bogus iden­tity deserved. Then Julius Classic went and became famous, so Julius Deluxe moved up again, to grad­u­ate courses this time. And then again, and again– a higher pro­mo­tion with every move, until he was making full pro­fes­sor status on the strength of good old Jules’ research and papers. All was rosy. And then Dr Julius Ashkin 1.0 wrote to Dr Julius Ashkin Beta.

The man was cool, though. He didn’t report him or any­thing, real­iz­ing cor­rectly that it takes more than a name to pull off a career like that. But other reports came from other sources, and Marvin Hewitt was painfully exposed. He licked his wounds and slipped out of town. And here we are faced with a ques­tion: can a person in Marvin’s con­di­tion be expected to go straight? Several legit­i­mate col­leagues of his tried to help him get on track to do what he did for real, but he let the oppor­tu­nity go past. Instead, he just switched sub­jects, to engi­neer­ing. This time, he made up a name, so he got to pub­lish papers of his own, way ahead of his field. Then he got caught, and back to physics, at two dif­fer­ent schools. It’s pos­si­ble he could have kept his last job if he’d passed the one stu­dent who was on to him, but no. Marvin Hewitt respected his job— he failed the sucker and left town. He would prob­a­bly have applied again, but every­thing leaked, and his career was over.

Even when his former col­leagues knew that he was an imposter, they were still shocked to learn that he wasn’t a PhD. The man loved sci­ence, and taught him­self all he could. He tried to get to Einstein once what for, I do not know. I don’t doubt he would have made some cor­rec­tions to the gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity theory.

The moral of this story? Don’t flunk students.

Han van Meegeren (ft. Joseph Piller)

Han van Meegeren could have been a rock-star. For one, he fooled Hermann Goering. Any enemy of Hitler’s— that crazy dude we love to hate— is a friend and brother to all. He’d be on late-night tele­vi­sion all the time. Plus, every­body did forg­eries in the good old days. Michelangelo mocked up Greek stat­ues all the time, with little touches of decay and ero­sion— some­times, on the spe­cial request on the client. The cus­tomer gets cheap pres­tige, the artist gets hard cash, every­body is a winner with forg­eries. Meegeren him­self made a name early on with copies of Rembrandt and Vermeer. But when crit­ics started saying he was only good for copies, he vowed to make the crit­ics see his genius. How? He would make orig­i­nals. See him now, throw­ing the news­pa­per down, pound­ing his fist on the table, speak­ing in delight­ful Dutchery. The Masters would live again!

After that stir­ring scene, we move nat­u­rally to the train­ing mon­tage. For years, Meegeren pre­pared for his mas­ter­piece. He repro­duced the old-school pig­ments, and got the clas­sic brushes and can­vases. He invented a process of matur­ing and wear­ing his paint­ings (here we get the clas­sic test-tube scene) and immersed him­self in the Old Masters. He made some trial runs. Finally he was ready. He called up his friend, and gave him a Vermeer.

“I wonder if we could have this ana­lyzed,” we see him saying in his musi­cal tongue. “You are acquainted with the emi­nent scholar, Bredius, are you not?”

Meegeren had beaten the tests, and his style was psy­cho­log­i­cally per­fect— quite orig­i­nal, but with enough of Vermeer that the emi­nent scholar, Bredius, con­sid­ered it to be one of the leg­end’s finest. Han van Meegeren could now walk into the night­clubs of which he was so fond, and make it rain. But that was sec­ondary; the big thing was that his paint­ing was the cen­ter­piece in an exhi­bi­tion of the old-school Masters. For pure rich­ness, this is up there with caviar and Black Forest Gâteau.

Why didn’t the man come out at this party and do the clas­sic ‘It Was I’? Well, the mil­lions of guilders likely pre­sented a com­pelling argu­ment. Consider: it’s great when you’re placed in the league of Vermeer and Rembrandt, but there’s a level of appeal that you only get when you’re dead. We see this at the Oscars— play a corpse and you’re golden.

But I digress. As things unfolded, six new Vermeers were mirac­u­lously dis­cov­ered in a few years’ span. Also, two unknown mas­ter­pieces from some other genius unfor­tu­nately named Hooch. (I Googled him just now, and he is rather good. Poor guy.) Meegeren started living like a boss, even in the middle of World War Two. He devel­oped expen­sive tastes, and unfor­tu­nate habits. His paint­ing and wits began to suffer, which makes it all the more incred­i­ble that his agent man­aged to sell a ‘Vermeer’ to a Nazi banker. That guy in turn, passed it on to Goering, who liked some art after a long day’s murder. Then the war ended, Nazis got beat, the art got recov­ered. (See ‘The Monuments Men’? It was in the salt mine.) The banker got ques­tioned, and he snitched on Meegeren, who was arrested on sus­pi­cion of col­lab­o­ra­tion with Nazis.

Unfortunately, he kind of did like Nazis. Which is why he could live big during the occu­pa­tion. Even signed his book for Hitler, “to my beloved Führer”.

Han van, man, you don’t make it easy to love you.

Anyway. Here, we intro­duce a guest star of the fraud, Joseph Piller. This guy arrested Meegeren and received his con­fes­sion of forgery. (Fun fact: to prove his guilt-slash-inno­cence, the man had to create a new piece before experts and court wit­nesses.) For some reason, Piller helped Meegeren to sell the nar­ra­tive of the brave artist who duped the dirty Nazis, even when the truth was coming out. The Dutch loved this angle— the world loved this angle, and so Meegeren remains ‘The Guy Who Tricked Hitler’. Awesome rep to have. Still, he was also the guy who tricked every­body else, scoop­ing 40-plus mil­lion dol­lars. (‘In today’s money’, as they say.) The trea­son charge was dropped, but Meegeren was con­victed for fraud and sen­tenced to jail, and his estate was sold to repay his vic­tims. Then his health failed, and he died before his sen­tence began.

And after Meegeren came Meegeren Jnr., who saw fit to forge his father’s pieces.