Nothing up my sleeve…

Nothing up my sleeve…

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The report of my death was an exaggeration.

Mark Twain, letter published in New York Journal, June 2, 1897

After such a long hiatus from this blog, I was tempted to lead with Mark Twain’s quote about reports of his death being an exaggeration. When I looked it up, though, I learned that the quip as we know it today was itself an exaggeration. So there’s your tidbit for the day.

I’ve spent the last few months reorganizing and taking stock of my projects, which by now include seven different pieces of full-length fiction, a series of humorous memoirs, several stand-alone short stories, and a play. Some of the short stories have been previously published (first serial rights) and I can share them here.

But the play’s the thing. I’ve been working on it for more than 40 years.

Digesting the Big Apple

The story-behind-the-story also explains my compulsion to fact-check before I publish anything. I took a leave term in the fall of my junior year in college to work as an intern in the Editorial Research Department of The Reader’s Digest in New York City.

The PanAm Building back in the day, when it had a heliport on the rooftop.

This was back in the day when major publishers–at the time, RD had the largest circulation in the nation–had enormous investments in their credibility. They hired scores of librarians, researchers, and editors to fact-check for them. (Think Katherine Hepburn and her team in “Desk Set,” without Spencer Tracy’s computer).

Every word in your RD was checked by one or more researchers against two or more sources. I was part of a team of about 30 people on the 43rd floor of the Pan Am Building (now MetLife) at 200 Park Avenue. RD leased three floors there, mostly for research and other specialty work best done in the Big Apple. Every evening the company ran its internal courier service called the “pony express” to the main campus in Pleasantville, N.Y.

Tools of the trade

And every morning, the pony driver would bring articles–remember, this was in the day of typed manuscripts and galley proofs–back down to the 43rd floor for the RDERD (Reader’s Digest Editorial Research Department) to check and double-check. We would work from a fully stocked reference library on the interior of the floor. There was the usual array of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and the multivolume Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. So, too, were racks and racks of magazines and periodicals from around the world that the guide would point us to.

Newspapers posed a different problem. With exceptions such as The New York Times, most did not publish an annual index to their articles. Even then, an annual guide was useless for articles that appeared after the most recent volume. RD employed a small army of reference librarians to clip and index newspapers that came in every day from major cities across the country and around the world.

What the RD library didn’t have, chances are the main branch of the New York Public Library, a short walk away, did. And if that didn’t help, we could reach out to RD researchers around the world. I even received a document from Paris on a newfangled facsimile machine!

Nothing but the truth

Our mission was clear: Fact-check everyone, from presidents to published authors to people on the street. Was there really such a thing as a burpless cucumber? The Burpee Seed Company spokesman assured me there was. Did the attack on Quebec in the American Revolution take place on December 30 or 31, 1775, or on January 1, 1776? I pored through first-person memoirs at the New York Public Library reading room to find the soldiers themselves weren’t sure; they were just anxious to go home when their enlistment was up at year-end.

The hardest part of this rule came when we had to turn down a story because it couldn’t be confirmed. One freelancer submitted a piece about a hermit for the “My Most Unforgettable Character” feature. He couldn’t provide the name of anyone else who knew the hermit (probably because the unforgettable character was a hermit). So I called the newsroom of the Ketchikan Daily News in Alaska to see if they knew of him. Nope. Hermits who live on islands don’t have phones or do interviews. That writer missed his big break, a great fee, and a debut in the most popular feature of the world’s most popular magazine.

Then, one day toward the end of my internship, the pony express rider reached into his saddle bag and pulled out an envelope that would change my own life as a writer. I slit it open, not knowing what to expect.

Inside was a 50-year-old mystery involving Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and a woman the newspapers dubbed “Margery.” It was a great story, with larger-than-life characters, deception, illusion, and conflict. I had no idea that it would haunt me nearly 50 years later.

History outdoes itself

That’s the play I’m working on today. I’ll tell you the story, and the story of writing and rewriting it, soon. But first, let me finish what I’ve started here.

Houdini’s day to that college internship was about 50 years. That internship to today is almost as long. The world has changed since then, too, only faster.

Research departments like the one RD had in the PanAm building are a thing of the past. So is the Digest itself; it’s smaller now and its circulation, while still more than 3 million, is a fraction of what it once was. The company closed its offices in the PanAm Building. A buyer converted its Pleasantville campus to apartments. The company that now publishes it is based in Manhattan.

In many ways, research is faster and easier because so much is online. But despite what many think, not everything is. For example, exactly when did that article about Houdini run in the RD? What was the title? I have a copy somewhere in my attic, but that doesn’t help much.

We checked with several research libraries. Some have subscriptions to the annual print edition of the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, but most libraries have ditched hardcover indexes in favor of online versions. The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature is now an EBSCO database, but its entries only go back to 1984. My own work has fallen into the Memory Hole.

Librarian to the rescue!

The Connecticut State Library, however, does have print copies of the guide going back to the early 1900s. We are grateful to reference librarian Stephen Rice for looking it up for us.

“Houdini, the Man No Lock Could Hold” by James Stewart Gordon ran in the February, 1976 edition. Gordon was the Digest’s Roving Editor, which meant he wrote pretty much what he liked, when he liked. Not a bad job. Today he’d probably be a blogger, or maybe have a podcast.

I think I may have met Gordon during my one-and-only luncheon with my editors in the Valhalla of Pleasantville on my last day of work for RD. We may even have talked about Houdini.

I didn’t tell him, because of course I didn’t know, that he had reawakened my own interest in the magician and that it would last the rest of my life.

This hard copy of the February 1976 edition of Reader’s Digest is for sale on eBay for $6.30.
On the newsstand, the cover was a little more eye-popping. From McCord Museum, Montreal archives.

To be continued

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