By Ken Gross


                                                           Design Drift/Ghost Chair Collection


The ghost writer.



By Ken Gross




Just clearing my throat.

I’m a little rusty in the self-expression department, being a professional ghost. I have, in fact, spent the past several decades crawling in and out of other peoples’ throats – a kind of literary ventriloquist. Sometimes, and this is a true mimetic hazard, I have even found myself uttering something like a fake Southern twang: “I’m about to head on down to the market, can I get y’all something?” … I had clearly spent too much time working with Ross Perot, one of my early hauntings. Sad.

Well, the truth is that ghost-writing is a sucker’s game. You can’t win. The subject is never happy with the outcome. If you fail – that is, if the book doesn’t sell – they blame you for writing a dud. If you succeed, it’s worse. They accuse you of stealing their magic. 

Of course I didn’t start out to be a literary poltergeist. No one does. I started out as a legitimate journalist, which, in my day (the late 60’s and ‘70’s,) was actually gorgeously messy with lots of fun. Not like now when the dainty “public advocates” confuse technical precision with accuracy. On the old liberal New York Post – Dolly Schiff’s Post – it was forgivable to spell someone’s name wrong, as long as you got at the truth.

 I do not even speak of television news, with its morally dull and intellectually shy armies of Ted Baxters. And the internet was still unborn. Now there’s an argument for abortion! I shudder at the idiot opinions that fly through the wireless world of raging dumb guys … A tombstone for critical thought. But I digress.

 I was also a columnist for Newsday, which was like being a chef at McDonald’s.

After stints at the New York Times, the Newark News, the Post, Reader’s Digest and that sorry stint at Newsday, I came to People Magazine, which, in its way, was the ultimate path to complete literary oblivion. And there, in the old Time Life Building, I left my corporeal life behind.

One day in 1987 I got a call from Nick Pileggi, an old, street reporting buddy. He’d written a piece for New York Magazine on a rogue cop named Bo Dietl. It was supposed to be turned into a book, but Nick was busy writing Wiseguys and asked me to do it.

No big deal. I had actually ghosted a book earlier – The Verdict – with a Boston lawyer, the late Barry Reed, who insisted that he be given the sole cover credit. I got a small, interior salute, but a nice chunk of the royalties, which, at the time seemed more urgent. The more successful the book became, the more my role receded in Barry Reed’s

memory. It is a rule of nature. (My first book, The Victims, was written with the late Bernie Lefkowitz and sad to say that there was – in spite of mutual admiration – always some tension about who did what.)

 I took the Bo Dietl job and wrote One Tough Cop. He (Bo) hated the book. That is, he hated it until one of his cop cronies told him it was, in the end, flattering. Then he actually read the thing – or said he did – and claimed me as his “writer.” In spite of the screen credit, I had nothing to do with the awful movie that they made out of the book. They even managed to keep me clean by not paying me.

Luck – that is, bad luck – played a large role in my phantom career.

Maury Povich quit the highly successful TV show Current Affair just before publication of our 1991 bio. He never called me again. Neither did Jackie Mason after Jackie, Oy!  (But that was because I intimated his true age in the book.) Of course the real reason that the book died was because Jackie insisted on performing several career-immolating moves right before publication. He had no choice; he’s a comedian!

I didn’t realize that Ross Perot had the same infallible comic timing. He actually dropped out of the 1992 Presidential race on the very day that Random House published our biography.

 I must now acknowledge the exception that proves the rule. In 2003 I met Cy Feuer, a Broadway producer who put on Where’s Charlie?, How to Succeed in Business, Guys and Dolls, not to mention the movie of Cabaret.

Cy was in his 90’s, but his mind was clear and his wit was crisp and I loved the guy. Together we wrote I Got the Show Right Here and it was a critical and commercial success. Enough for us to feel vindicated. There were clashes – he didn’t like the opening – but we hammered it out. And in the end, it turned out to be a true reflection of the man’s life written in a voice that came as close as possible to his own.

There is always the possibility – a wisp of hope – that I will find another Cy Feuer. It’s not likely, but who knows. My latest book, Soul Survivor, comes out in June. It’s about reincarnation. Maybe I’ll come back as James Boswell.


table of contents