Almost everyone will sell out. The only question is, at what price?…
by: Steve Slavin1
Everybody has a story. But if you’re a big celebrity, then a lot of people will want to read it. The only problem is that very few celebrities can write. OK, in fairness, most people can’t write. So when a big publisher wants to do a celebrity autobiography, then a ghostwriter is hired to do the actual writing.
I am a ghostwriter. That’s why even though my books have sold in the millions, nobody knows my name. After all, I’m just a ghost.
I’d love to tell you about some of the autobiographies I written, but if I did, I’d never get work in this town ever again. But I’m going to make an exception. The subject of this autobiography couldn’t care less, the editor probably won’t care, and I’ve finally left the profession.
The story I’m about to tell you took place relatively early in my career. Another writer told me about an ambitious young editor who was looking for someone to ghostwrite an autobiography of a professional basketball player. Hey, why not?
The next day I was sitting with Terrence in his cramped little office talking about my subject, Sam the Man. Sam was one of the most interesting players in the National Basketball Association. An excellent shooting guard – he held the record for consecutive 3-point baskets in one game – and he also happened to be quite outspoken. Because he played in New York, he was quoted a lot more often than he might have been in, say Oklahoma City, But as Terrance explained, Sam does not speak the Queen’s English.
“That’s OK, neither do I.”
“No, I mean he really does not speak the Queen’s English. You’ll need to omit more than a few of the fucks and sucks – if you get my drift.”
“Will Sam mind if I do?”
“It’s hard to tell. I’m not sure if he can read.”
“So I’m ghostwriting the autobiography of a man who may be illiterate?”
“Well, maybe. If he could write, then we wouldn’t need a ghostwriter.”
“And I would be out of a job.”
“Will I get a share of the royalties?”
“No, but we will pay you quite a nice sum for your work.”
“Is there anything else I need to know about Sam?”
“No, not right now. We’ll set up a few interviews and you can record them. And we’ve hired a researcher to provide plenty of background information.
“Here’s the first installment to get you started. And here’s your contract. Please read it, sign it, and get it back to me within a day or two.”
I left his office, and when I got down to the street, I glanced at the contract. Shit! I would be making more money than I had earned in the last the two years. Oh happy day!
A week later I met with Sam the Man for our first session. I asked him questions and he would sometimes answer with a simple yes or no. But if the question interested him, he sometimes rambled on for ten or fifteen minutes. He was actually a pretty interesting guy.
He liked to talk about his sex life, and it certainly was an extensive one. Sometimes he’d ask me about mine, but I told him his was much more interesting, and that the book was about his life and not mine. He fully agreed and then would recount still another sexual exploit. As I remember, sex with four women on his king-size waterbed was his all-time record. But as he noted, “Listen man, yuh gotta get ’em tuh take off them heels first, if ya’ follow what I’m sayin’.”
“I hear yuh, Sam.”
A few days after I delivered the first set of chapters and Terrence called me to talk about them. “I loved the sex scenes,” he told me. “But remember, we don’t want to say too much about the drugs. The National Basketball Association has some sort of policy against players discussing their drug habits.”
“Even pot? I mean, look, it’s the seventies. Everybody smokes.”
“You know that. I know that. Sam knows that, and the NBA Commissioner knows that. But it would be better to tone it down a little.”
“Won’t Sam mind?”
“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Besides, we haven’t yet established whether or not he can read.”
“No problem. Any other restrictions I should know about?”
“Well, there is one delicate issue. You know that Sam’s a nudist, right?”
“Yeah, but he hasn’t brought it up.”
“OK, Roger. When he does, we need to handle it very carefully. The Commissioner will come down on him if it’s too overt.”
“One other question, Terrence. How do I handle his grammar, or lack thereof?”
“Well, in general, we want to capture the flavor and meaning of what Sam says, but we do want the book to be readable.“
“I’ll do what I can.”
“Great! Talk to you soon.”
One of the first things you learn when studying grammar in elementary school is that a double negative is a big no-no. Still, you can make the case that it’s a legitimate way to provide emphasis. For example, you may remember the Big Bopper and his 1958 hit song, “Chantilly Lace,” and one of its lines, “Honey, I ain’t got noooooooo money.” That sounds a lot better than, “Honey, I haven’t got any money.”
But when Sam the Man said, “Nobody don’t care for nobody no more,” I had to draw the line. How much emphasis do we need?
“Come-on, Sam! A quadruple negative?”
“You have four negatives in the same sentence. Even two negatives would be ungrammatical.”
“What exactly is you sayin’?”
“You are violating the basic laws of grammar.”
“So put me in jail.”
“Sam, if there were a grammatical jail, you’d be in for life.”
“Hey, as long as the food’s good and I can play ball, what can be bad?”
Well, I thought, you can’t argue with that.
When I mentioned the grammatical issue to Terrence, he seemed unperturbed. “Keep in mind, Roger, that Sam is a very emphatic guy.”
“Is that a euphemism for being illiterate?”
He just smiled.
“Look, Terrence. Even ghostwriters have a little pride.”
“As do editors. Believe me, I never would have signed this guy if I didn’t believe that this would be a bestseller.
“Don’t you feel like we’re both prostituting ourselves?”
“Roger, do you remember what the great Samuel Johnson had to say on the subject?”
“Vaguely. But I’m sure you do. Why don’t you refresh my memory?”
“OK, this was also attributed to Winston Churchill, so take your pick. At a dinner party, Johnson asks the haughty woman seated next to him if she would sleep with him for one million pounds. ‘Of course I would,’ she replies.
“Then he asks her if she would sleep with him for ten pounds. ‘Do you take me for a prostitute?’ she replies indignantly.
‘We’ve already established that,’ replied Johnson. ‘Now we’re just haggling over price.’”
“Terrence, I’m glad to see that you feel just as shitty about yourself as I do about myself.”
“That’s right! Ghostwriters, editors, and even publishers – we’re all in bed together. And we do it for the money.”
As I got into the elevator, I had concluded that almost everyone will sell out: the only question is, “At what price?”
Late one afternoon Terrence called. “Roger, I want you to watch the six o’clock news.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Is it Sam the Man?”
“What did he do?”
“Roger, you won’t believe it if I told you. You need to see this for yourself. Then give me a call. I’m still at the office.”
A few minutes later, I turned on the news. The third item was all about Sam the Man. The Knicks had a game with the Utah Jazz that evening in Salt Lake City. But Sam would not be playing. He had been suspended indefinitely. Then they cut to a commercial.
What could he have done? A flagrant foul? He took off his uniform and exposed himself? Drugs? Some kind of sex scandal?
It was soon cleared up. A reporter was interviewing people outside the basketball arena. “I can’t believe he said that!” “What a hateful thing to say!” “All we can do is pray for him and hope that God forgives him.”
Sam must have said something pretty awful to have gotten all these people so upset.
Then the news anchor came back on and said he would play the film clip. And there’s Sam screaming, “Those goddam bleep Mormons! They can all kiss my bleep. The next Mormon I see, I’m gonna tell him he can bleep my bleep!”
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. Maybe Sam wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but still….how could he visit Utah and then go around insulting the Mormons? I mean, there are more Mormons in Utah than there are Jews in Jerusalem.
I called Terrence. “Can you believe it?” he asked. “How dumb can he be!“
“Will this affect our project?”
“It’s hard to say. I just got off the phone with his agent. Sam will be issuing an apology within the hour.”
“I hope he’ll be able to read it.”
“Maybe he can memorize it.”
“So he’ll be on the eleven o’clock news?”
“If they don’t lynch him before that.”
Sam lived to be on the eleven o’clock news. He made a very brief statement apologizing for his hateful words, and said that he was truly sorry. But I thought I detected some puzzlement not just in his expression, but even in his body language.
There had to be more than a hundred reporters shouting questions at him. He answered each one calmly, but he still looked kind of puzzled. And then, a reporter said to him. “I cannot understand how you could come to our state and insult what is practically our official religion.”
“Religion? I ain’t never insulted no religion!”
Another reporter yelled, “Did you or did you not insult the Mormons?”
“Oh them guys? Yeah, I had some choice words tuh say tuh them. Yuh wanna hear some more?”
His manager pulled on his arm as another reporter yelled, “Are you bleeping crazy? Don’t you know that most of the people in Utah are Mormons.”
“Well, yeah. Everybody know that!”
“So you do know that most people here hold to the Mormon faith.”
“Most people in Utah are members of the Mormon faith.”
Sam was completely astounded. His mouth hung wide open. Then he said, “You telling me that the Mormon is a religion?”
“Of course,” yelled one of the reporters. “What did you think it was?”
“Hey man, I thought the Mormon was a nickname for the people of Utah. Yuh know. Like the nickname for all of the cats up in Canada? Those guys are all Canucks…. Wait, I got another one! Those folks in Idaho? I saw that basketball movie about them. They called Hoosiers, right?”
Terrence phoned me the next morning. “Great news, Roger! Sam’s interview was a tremendous hit. We’re going to wind up this project by the end of next week and immediately go into production. We want to ride this publicity wave and have the book in the stores in exactly six weeks.”
“Of course it’s nuts. But it’s also good business. Yuh gotta strike while the iron’s hot! So I need you to write up the rest of what you’ve got and get it to me by the end of the week. And then, by the middle of next week, I’ll need a closing chapter. Can you do it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Of course not! But my boss approved a twenty-five percent bonus if you meet both deadlines.”
“OK, Terrence. I better get off the phone and start writing.”
Sam, whose basketball career would have ended soon anyway, agreed to speed up his retirement. He announced to the reporters covering the Knicks that he would play his last NBA game stark naked. The Commissioner announced that if Sam played a game naked, that would indeed be his last game ever.
Sam wanted his farewell game to be in his home arena, Madison Square Garden. The day before the game he received a three-word message from the commissioner: “Don’t do it.” Terrence and I were pretty sure he would, but with Sam you never could be sure just what he would do.
Half an hour before the tip-off, the Garden was packed to the rafters. The question on everyone’s lips was, “Would he or wouldn’t he?” Not even his coach and teammates had a clue.
When he emerged from the locker room in his sweat suit and began the shoot around with his teammates, every eye in the arena followed his every move. After the National Anthem, he took his place on the bench with the other players who were not in the starting five. And then, exactly seven minutes into the game, he reported to the scorer’s table, and a few seconds later his name was announced.
The fans went wild. They knew what was coming. Off came the sweat suit. All Sam had on was a jock strap. Pandemonium! Everyone in the arena was standing and screaming. There were so many flashbulbs going off, it seemed like the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
When he walked onto the court most of the players were laughing, and even one of the referees. A couple of players came over and slapped hands with Sam. Before one of the Knicks could inbound the ball, several whistles were blown as a whole bunch of cops rushed down to the court to place Sam under arrest. He said something to a police captain who smiled and ordered Sam released.
The referee handed the ball to one of the Knicks. He inbounded the ball to Sam. Sam dribbled across midcourt and then pulled up about thirty feet from the basket. No one was guarding him. He glanced at the basket, and got set to shoot.
The crowd hushed as he got off the shot. The ball seemed to hang in the air forever. And then, as it finally began its descent, time slowed even more as we all counted off the seconds in our minds – one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, and then…. Swish! The crowd went totally nuts! Some fans were jumping up and down, some were crying, and everyone was screaming. Sam looked like Rocky when he won the heavyweight championship. It took almost ten minutes until order was restored. And as the police escorted Sam out of the Garden, they were smiling and waving to the crowd. Even after he had left the arena, the crowd was still chanting, “Sam the Man! Sam the Man! Sam the Man!”
Two days later Sam’s autobiography was in all the bookstores, and it became an instant bestseller. He was interviewed by everyone from Howard Cosell to Barbara Walters. He had become a national hero. The Democrats and the Republicans wanted to nominate him to run for the Senate. There was even talk about an appointment to the president’s cabinet.
How did I feel about all of this? I liked Sam the Man. The word may be overused, but he certainly was “authentic.” He was interesting, he was funny, and in his own way, he was smart – even if he did occasionally use quadruple negatives.
Did anyone actually believe that Sam wrote the book? I doubt that anyone is that dumb. I’d like to believe that I told a credible story of an individual who does not come along every day. Sam the Man was unique. And, as everyone knows, writers like me are a dime a dozen.
My name was in the Acknowledgements. Someone wrote, “And I’d like to thank my good friend, Roger Grayson, for his many helpful suggestions.” Better yet, when my last payment came, it was double what I had expected.
Terrence, largely on the strength of his success with Sam’s autobiography, was promoted to editorial director. I called him a couple of times to congratulate him, but he never returned my calls.
- Header art is by the talented sports artist, John Robertson. [↩]