There was something unbelievable about a recent obituary in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram—and it brought to mind some of the great journalistic hoaxes of my day.
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THE DEATH NOTICE of James M. “Jaime” Woodson III, 76, known to friends and relatives as the most extraordinary writer Fort Worth has ever produced, sparked a flurry of literary correspondence not seen in these parts since Clifford Irving fooled the world about Howard Hughes. Dallasite Blackie Sherrod clipped Woodson’s obituary from the May 11 Fort Worth Star-Telegram and faxed it to Dan Jenkins in Florida. Jenkins faxed it to Bud Shrake in Austin. Shrake faxed it across town to me. We are all old friends, writers who worked together on the Fort Worth Press and later the Dallas Times Herald at about the same time that Jaime Woodson would have been working on the screenplays of some of the greatest movies of all time. According to the obit, Woodson’s long writing career included such films as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Night of the Iguana, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. So how was it that none of us had ever heard of him?
“This could be the greatest stunt played on a newspaper since the Corbet Comets,” Jenkins suggested. Ah, yes, the Corbet Comets. In the early sixties Jenkins, Shrake, the late Dick Hitt, and I conspired to fabricate Corbet, a small Texas town. From time to time we slipped items about the goings-on in Corbet into the pages of the Times Herald. In 1961 the paper reported that the Corbet Comets—led by its twin halfbacks, Dickie Don and Rickie Ron Yewbet—made it to the state high school football championship in an unspecified class of schools. Still nobody caught on that it was a hoax. Could the Corbet phenomenon explain the incredible life of Jaime Woodson, “adventurer, humorist, humanitarian . . . environmentalist,” lover “of all creatures great and small”? Was Woodson nothing more than an ingenious hoax?
Mindy Charski, a bright and industrious intern who worked at Texas Monthly this past summer, began checking the facts in the obit line by line. She discovered that Woodson had indeed existed. He was born in Burkburnett in 1919, graduated from Fort Worth’s Paschal High, attended the University of Texas at Austin, and died on May 9, 1996, in Fort Worth, just as the obit said. After that the story gets a little weird, then a lot weird. It isn’t a hoax in the same sense, but the fanciful tale of Jaime Woodson does qualify as worthy of mention alongside the Corbet Comets.
The obit recalled Woodson’s days as a Kappa Sigma at UT, as he had no doubt recalled them in conversations with his closest friends. But the national office of Kappa Sigma reports that Woodson was never a member of that fraternity. Woodson did serve in the armed services from 1944 to 1946, but because of a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in the seventies it is impossible to determine whether he really flew combat missions with the Eighth Air Force, or whether he really received the Purple Heart for alleged wounds suffered when he was shot down over enemy territory. Mindy did confirm that Woodson was not a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, though that doesn’t prove he didn’t receive the decoration.
The obit said that after the war Woodson moved to New York, worked for the New York Daily News, then began a long career writing for The New Yorker, often under the pen name Zachary Gold. A librarian at the Daily News couldn’t find Woodson’s name in any of the paper’s records. A librarian at The New Yorker found no record of either Woodson or anyone named Zachary Gold. The obit said that the lyrics to “Everybody’s Talkin’,” from the movie Midnight Cowboy, came from a poem Jaime published in The New Yorker, but there is no record of such a poem. A search of Contemporary Authors came up empty, and the local affairs reference desk at the Fort Worth public library could find nothing on a Jaime Woodson.
The most intriguing part of Woodson’s literary dossier, at least as cited in the obit, is the impressive list of movies “among his many credits.” According to the Writers Guild of America, Woodson never received a single screen credit—not one. Screenwriters frequently work on film projects on which their names do not appear, but it’s hard to believe that a writer could spend a significant part of his career in the movie business and never get credit for anything. Calls to some of Woodson’s friends and relatives shed some light on this mystery. Andrew Bradshaw, a Fort Worth attorney who knew Woodson for ten years, said that he described himself as a troubleshooter, not a primary screenwriter. “Jaime was not the type to seek credit,” Bradshaw told Mindy.
Still, Woodson bragged to friends that after he moved to New York, he wrote stories and novels for many famous authors who didn’t have time to write for themselves but didn’t mind placing their names on his works. One friend had heard that Jaime actually wrote The Catcher in the Rye, which might account for one of the more curious sentences in the obit: “[Jaime] loved to read and often said, ‘What I like best is a book that’s at least funny once in a while.’” Mindy found that exact line on page 18 of her copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Her attempts to reach J. D. Salinger were unsuccessful.
Nor was she able to contact William Holden, Natalie Wood, Montgomery Clift, Peter Sellers, Sir David Lean, John Huston, or any of the other actors and directors—most of them long dead—who were cited among Jaime’s many film industry friends. None of Woodson’s Fort Worth friends had firsthand knowledge of his screenwriting career or his friendship with Hollywood legends, but Bradshaw recalled a story that Jaime used to tell about Elizabeth Taylor. After production ended on a movie that they had worked on together, Taylor gave Woodson and other members of the cast and crew expensive watches. Later that evening Jaime and Liz got into a drunken argument on a pier, at which point he took off the watch and threw it into the ocean.
That’s the sort of melodramatic touch one would have expected from Crew Slammer, a bogus Texas literary figure from another era. In 1959, the first year that the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association sponsored its annual awards, Slammer was the overwhelming choice as the best sportswriter in Texas. That’s because the staff of the Fort Worth Press, who invented him, in effect stuffed the ballot box. Eventually, Slammer might have joined Blackie Sherrod and Dan Jenkins as the only Texans in the Sportswriters Hall of Fame—but Bill Reves, who was at the time the sports editor of the Dallas Morning News, blew the whistle on us.
The irreverent sports staff of the Press also invented Metcalf R., a nonexistent college basketball team whose exploits began to appear in the Sunday paper in the long list of agate-type scores. Metcalf R. (the R. stood for nothing) usually won by 1⁄2 points. Since nobody ever called to inquire by what aberrant rule half-points were permitted, we assumed our handiwork had gone unnoticed. Wrong. When the score was mistakenly dropped from one edition of the paper, some no doubt luckless gambler called the sports desk demanding to know if Metcalf R. had beaten the spread.
By 1961 most of the Press sports staff had moved to Dallas to work at the Times Herald under Sherrod, the granddaddy of Texas sportswriters. Because he was technically part of management, Blackie couldn’t take part in these stunts. But he was kind enough to look the other way when labor indulged itself. Dick Hitt, who wrote a funny general interest column for the Times Herald but moonlighted on the sports desk, originated the Corbet Comets. He even had little black-and-blue auto window decals printed, exactly like the school-colors decals that the Humble Oil Company distributed to fans of the Southwest Conference. We took turns writing about the exploits of the Yewbet twins, who racked up hundreds of yards a game but were never able to score a touchdown. Each Friday night for an entire season the Comets won, 3—0, on a last-second field goal by Rickie Ron Yewbet. Like children aching to be caught, we got more and more brazen. One time we wrote that Corbet Ford dealer E. O. (Shug) Kempleman had donated the world’s largest tuba to the Fighting Comet Band. Later, Kempleman won a close mayoral race over his archrival, F. D. Orr. A few days before the state finals, readers were probably saddened to learn that Rickie Ron had died of mumps. Naturally, Dickie Don rallied his teammates, personally scoring eight touchdowns as Corbet humiliated East Dozier, 48—0. The really funny part was, nobody caught on. What’s the fun of being irreverent if the reverent take no offense?
The story of Corbet follows a tradition handed down through generations of journalists, a profession that takes delight in leveling the high and mighty. Paul Crume, the finest humor columnist in Texas history, played his best joke on his own paper. When the Morning News sponsored a white elephant contest in the fifties, Crume wrote the winning entry, a letter from a reader who revealed that her family owned a real white elephant. Her father had shot it on an African safari and had it mounted. The elephant was the normal elephant gray at first, but over the years it turned white, simultaneously swelling until it became too large to bring down from its storage place in the attic. The letter was signed “Kate from Forney.” The ghost of Forney Kate haunts the hallways of the News to this very day.
Old-timers in San Antonio recall a notorious prankster named Harold Scherwitz, who wrote about sports for the San Antonio Light in the forties. Scherwitz devised elaborate schemes to plant phony items in the rival San Antonio Examiner so many times that the Examiner got to looking like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. San Antonio would have its own seaport, one item reported, as soon as city engineers completed plans to dig a canal to the Gulf of Mexico. Scherwitz’s crowning hoax was a story about the pitiful conditions of the city’s tennis courts and how scientists had discovered an inexpensive, nearly indestructible surfacing agent called TIHS GIP.
Don’t read that backward. As Jaime Woodson’s friends must know by now, it is best not to examine these things too closely.