WSJ Historically Speaking: How to Fake It in America

Peter Arkle

Peter Arkle

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the term “ghost in the machine” to make fun ofDescartes’ influential idea that the human mind (“the ghost”) is utterly separate from the body. But it was the English rock band The Police who popularized the expression, making it the title of their classic 1981 album. Today “ghost in the machine” shows up everywhere. It has become a metaphor for the assorted forms of fakery that are constantly revealed in the mashup of modern culture.

The anger directed at Beyoncé for lip-syncing the national anthem during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January reflected the country’s disgust with performers who fake it. The mere hint that a singer is no more than a dancing puppet can create a scandal—or even end a career. As the disgraced front men of the 1980s pop act Milli Vanilli will attest, you can’t pretend to perform and keep your Grammy.

This distaste for dissimulation is nothing new. When the dramatist Edmond Rostand wrote ” Cyrano de Bergerac” in the late 19th century, he knew that his audience would have no trouble rooting for the large-nosed Cyrano over his cute but dimwitted friend Christian. (Rostand skates over precisely why a red-blooded lover like Cyrano would ever agree to ghostwrite his rival’s love letters.)

The entire play hinges on when and if the lovely Roxanne will discover that she has been drawn to the wrong nose and the wrong man. Though Rostand kills off Cyrano at the end, his death is made palatable for the audience by the knowledge that artistic truth has won out: “Prejudice! Compromise! Cowardice!” cries Cyrano. “What’s that? Surrender? No! Never! Never!”

The same noble sentiment runs through “Singin’ in the Rain,” the 1952 movie about an egomaniacal starlet and the lengths her film studio will go to in order to preserve the fiction that she can act and sing.

Still, Hollywood had no compunction the following year about substituting soprano Marni Nixon’s voice for Marilyn Monroe’s for some of the tricky high notes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Nixon went on to “voice” Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”—all without studio credit—resulting in her crowning by Time Magazine as the “Ghostess with the Mostess.”

Of course, movie studios aren’t the only ones with a history of peddling images over reality. For decades after George Washington’s death, his friends and admirers tried to keep the real authorship of his 1796 Farewell Address secret: Washington had supplied the ideas, but Alexander Hamilton’s prose had enraptured the public. Two centuries later, John F. Kennedy walked off with the 1957 Pulitzer Prize in history for “Profiles in Courage,” even though most of the chapters were drafted by his gifted speechwriter, Ted Sorensen.

At least in these cases, the presidents were actively involved with the works that bore their names. The same could not be said for the actress Hedy Lamarr and her racy, ghostwritten 1967 autobiography, “Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman.” The extent of Lamarr’s participation in creating the book may be judged by the fact that, after its appearance, she filed suit against those she deemed responsible, including the ghostwriters, the publishers, her literary agent, a lawyer and a psychiatrist.

In 1949, the Supreme Court ruled that ghostwritten speeches and documents could not be used as evidence in court. The justices deplored “the custom of putting up decoy authors to impress the guileless.” In short, they weren’t going to be taken for rubes, and neither should anyone else.

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