Tied Up

horace de vere cole string trick

Posing as a surveyor, English prankster Horace de Vere Cole asked a passerby to hold one end of a length of string while he made a measurement. He chose the “pompous sort of good citizen of the bowler hat and rolled umbrella sort,” according to his friend David Scott-Moncrieff. Then he walked around a corner and give the other end to “another consequential ass.”

“Both victims held their ends for fully ten minutes, each invisible to the other, while the perpetrator of the joke quietly slipped away and joined me in a pub commanding a full view of the fun,” Scott-Moncrieff wrote later. “It succeeded far better than I had dared to hope, due to his brilliant selection of two absolutely perfect victims. Each blamed the other, and they nearly came to blows.”

On his honeymoon in 1919, Cole deposited neat piles of horse manure on Venice’s Piazza San Marco … which was devoid of horses. More of his pranks.

All’s Fair

Literary critic A.N. Wilson panned Bevis Hillier’s 1988 biography of John Betjeman. To get even, Hillier forged a love letter ostensibly written by Betjeman in 1944 and forwarded it to Wilson under the name Eve de Harben (an anagram for “Ever been had?”). Wilson took the bait and included the forged letter in his own biography of Betjeman, which was published in 2005.

Here’s the letter. It contains a hidden message — can you find it?

Darling Honor,

I loved yesterday. All day, I’ve thought of nothing else. No other love I’ve had means so much. Was it just an aberration on your part, or will you meet me at Mrs Holmes’s again — say on Saturday? I won’t be able to sleep until I have your answer.

Love has given me a miss for so long, and now this miracle has happened. Sex is a part of it, of course, but I have a Romaunt of the Rose feeling about it too. On Saturday we could have lunch at Fortt’s, then go back to Mrs. H’s. Never mind if you can’t make it then. I am free on Sunday too or Sunday week. Signal me tomorrow as to whether and when you can come.

Anthony Powell has written to me, and mentions you admiringly. Some of his comments about the Army are v funny. He’s somebody I’d like to know better when the war is over. I find his letters funnier than his books. Tinkerty-tonk, my darling. I pray I’ll hear from you tomorrow. If I don’t I’ll visit your office in a fake beard.

All love, JB

Click for Answer

Risqué Business

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In 1969, convinced that anything prurient would sell in the era of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady decided to manufacture his own bestseller. He asked 24 colleagues to write a chapter apiece, following two rules: They had to write badly, and there had to be an “unremitting emphasis on sex”:

In the darkened room, now thirstier than ever, Gillian was suddenly aware of the presence beside her of Mario Vella. He had allowed his left elbow to brush gently against her. In any other surrounding, in any other circumstances, Gillian Blake would have gracefully withdrawn. She didn’t. She held her ground and his elbow became more persistent.

Sadly, McGrady was right. With two sex scenes per chapter, Naked Came the Stranger quickly became a national bestseller, ending the year at number 7 on the fiction charts, five slots behind The Godfather.

“Penelope Ashe’s scorching novel makes Portnoy’s Complaint and Valley of the Dolls read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” wrote the Long Island Press. And the Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times said it was “witty and written in good taste, and brings out many new angles in man-woman relationships.”

“These are the kind of people,” McGrady told Life, “who are running around setting literary standards.”

The Emperor’s New Pose

exaltation - disumbrationism

In 1924, irritated with the undiscerning faddishness of modern art criticism, Los Angeles novelist Paul Jordan Smith “made up my mind that critics would praise anything unintelligible.”

So he assembled some old paint, a worn brush, and a defective canvas and “in a few minutes splashed out the crude outlines of an asymmetrical savage holding up what was intended to be a star fish, but turned out a banana.” Then he slicked back his hair, styled himself Pavel Jerdanowitch, and submitted Exaltation to a New York artist group, claiming a new school called Disumbrationism.

The critics loved it. “Jerdanowitch” showed the painting at the Waldorf Astoria gallery, and over the next two years he turned out increasingly outlandish paintings, which were written up in Paris art journals and exhibited in Chicago and Buffalo.

He finally confessed the hoax to the Los Angeles Times in 1927. Ironically, “Many of the critics in America contended that since I was already a writer and knew something about organization, I had artistic ability, but was either too ignorant or too stubborn to see it and acknowledge it.” Can an artist found a school against his will?

Perpetual Commotion

In 1875, the Associated Press reported a novel business enterprise being planned near Lacon, Ill. A prospectus summed it up:

Glorious Opportunity To Get Rich!!! — We are starting a cat ranch in Lacon with 100,000 cats. Each cat will average 12 kittens a year. The cat skins will sell for 30 cents each. One hundred men can skin 5,000 cats a day. We figure a daily net profit of over $10,000. Now what shall we feed the cats? We will start a rat farm next door with 1,000,000 rats. The rats breed 12 times faster than the cats. So we will have four rats to feed each day to each cat. Now what shall we feed the rats? We will feed the rats the carcasses of the cats after they have been skinned. Now Get This! We feed the rats to the cats and the cats to the rats and get the cat skins for nothing!

It was only a hoax dreamed up by local newsman Willis Powell, but, legitimized by AP’s coverage, the story bounced around the country for 65 years before the National Press Club finally debunked it in 1940. There’s a moral here somewhere.

A Blind Aye

Rep. Tom Moore was dismayed at how often his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives passed bills without understanding them. So in April 1971 he sponsored a resolution honoring Albert de Salvo:

This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.

That’s true as far as it goes — Albert de Salvo is the Boston Strangler.

The measure passed unanimously.

As Advertised

A well-known story is that of the showman who had a big placard on his tent, announcing that he was exhibiting a horse with his tail where his head ought to be. The inquisitive paid their money, were admitted within, beheld a horse turned around so that his tail was in the oat-bin, laughed shamefacedly, and then lingered outside the tent to watch their fellow-creatures get victimized in the same way.

— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

In for a Penny …

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Prosper Mérimée is best known as the author of Carmen, the novella that inspired Bizet’s opera. But he began his career as an unknown writer in Paris in the 1820s, where a passing fad for Spanish literature led him to commit a modest hoax — he published Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul, a collection of plays supposedly written by a Spanish actress.

The effort worked: The plays were well received and launched Mérimée’s career. But some admirers wondered — if Clara Gazul doesn’t really exist, who is the fetching Spanish lady in the book’s frontispiece?

It’s Mérimée in drag.

The Great Bottle Hoax

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In January 1749, the Duke of Portland bet the Earl of Chesterfield that “let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.” The earl agreed, and shortly afterward the London newspapers announced a wonderful new performer:

He presents you with a common Wine Bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this Bottle is placed on a Table in the middle of the Stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it, in the sight of all the Spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle, any Person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common Tavern Bottle.

A crowd packed the theater on the appointed night and, when the performer failed to appear, they rioted, gutting the building. It was jokingly said afterward that perhaps the man had been corked during rehearsals.

The Cheltenham Journal actually topped this in 1825 with an advertisement for five Arabian conjurors:

[T]hey will take each a lighted torch in either hand, when lo! incredible to relate! Suckee, with the burning torches, will jump clean down Mustapha‘s throat, who in an instant, with equal dexterity, will pass down the throat of Abdallah, then Abdalluh will jump down that of Benassar, and Benassar down his brother Muley‘s; who, lastly, notwithstanding he is encumbered with his four brothers and their four torches, will throw a flip-flap-somerset down his own throat, and leave the audience in total darkness!–Probatum est.

Here again the room was crammed, but five minutes before showtime “the conjuror decamped with the money and was no more heard of,” reports William Hone. “Probably he jumped down his own throat.”

“Fiddle-De-Dee”

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A young man, poorly clothed, presented himself before a dealer in curiosities. ‘Sir,’ said he, showing a violin which he carried, ‘I am a musical artist; this is the season of balls and soirées; I have just had a long illness which has exhausted my purse; my only black coat is in pawn, I shall be much obliged if you will lend me ten francs to redeem it. I will leave as security one of the violins you see, for I have two; it is an excellent instrument. I shall return for it as soon as, thanks to my coat, I shall have earned enough money for the purpose.’ The young man had such an honest bearing that the dealer lent him ten francs and kept the violin, which he hung up in the shop. The next day but one, a gentleman, well-dressed, wearing at his buttonhole the ribbon of the Legion of Honor, was choosing from the dealer’s stock of goods some shell-work. Seeing the violin, he took it up, examining it narrowly. ‘What is the price of that instrument?’ said he. ‘It is not mine,’ replied the shopkeeper; and he related how he came to possess it. ‘This violin,’ continued the unknown, ‘is worth money, it is a Cremona. Perhaps its owner is ignorant of its value. If he returns, offer him two hundred francs for it.’ Then handing fifty francs to the shopman, the unknown said on taking his leave, ‘You will keep that for yourself if the affair succeeds; I will return in a few days.’ Two days after, the young man reappeared, bringing the ten francs to redeem his violin, for which the dealer offered him two hundred. After some hesitation, he agreed. At the end of a week, the dealer, not having seen the decorated gentleman, became suspicious; he carried the violin to an instrument-maker, who offered him three francs for it.

— Thomas Brackett Reed et al., Modern Eloquence, 1900