Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Ghost in the Machine - Part One

The ghost
in the machine

Hailey writer no longer undercover

First in a two-part report



By Tony Evans
For the Mountain Express

Bob Pearson is an anonymous master of the craft of writing. As a "writer for hire" for nearly three-quarters of a century, he has rarely taken credit for his work.

Although he has written numerous books, supplied speeches for two U.S. presidents and has been friends with many of the leading literary figures of his day, only lately has he begun to write his own memoirs from a small basement office on River Street in Hailey.

Bob Pearson works in his office in Hailey. Photo by Tony Evans

Pearson is also the patriarch of a local "writing dynasty," which includes his two sons Brad and Ridley Pearson. Brad has worked alongside his father on two books, and is currently the editor of Heartland magazine. Ridley is a best-selling author of more than 20 novel-thrillers, featuring the exploits of detective Lou Bolt and Daphne Matthews. His work has been translated into 40 languages.

The professional writing career of Robert Greenlees Pearson began in Kansas City when he was approached by students who needed his expertise in completing some assignments at a public high school.

"These were the Depression years and money was scarce. So, I began to ‘ghost-write’ compositions for students who could afford to pay. Well, by the time I got to college, I had a sort of reputation," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "At one point I was writing for students at eight different colleges."

Pearson attributes his writing skills to enrollment in Kansas City Junior College, where a single grammatical error in the weekly 1,500-word compositions could result in failure. His continued ghostwriting activities eventually enabled him, as well as a few others, to graduate with honors in English from the University of Kansas. There he edited the campus Jayhawker magazine. At the end of his senior year he decided to come clean by submitting a story of his exploits to the leading literary journal of the time, Scribner’s Magazine.

"The Ghost Behind The Grade’ was published just before commencement ceremonies, setting off a spark of debate in the national press.

"Associated Press and United Press both carried it," he recalled. "Pretty soon I was called into the chancellor’s office on the issue of ‘intellectual honesty.’ It almost cost me my diploma."

Instead, "The Ghost Behind the Grade" made Pearson a "cause celeb" in the literary circles of New York City, with writers like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan chiming in on the pros and cons of Pearson’s clandestine services.

"This was before Ed Sullivan got into television," said Pearson, who was soon a member of the Dutch Treat Club in New York City. The club met each Tuesday and was attended by the movers and shakers of the literary world, including George Plimpton, Alfred Knopf Jr. and Isaac Asimov.

"I had lunch every Tuesday for two years with Asimov," Pearson said. "He was brilliant on so many topics. He ended up writing some 400 books, and not all of it was fiction." Pearson wrote a 50-year chronicle of the Dutch Treat Club last year.

In 1941, Pearson was commissioned into the U.S. Navy as a speechwriter. Eventually he would be trained to seek out German U-boats.

"After Pearl Harbor, the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. was completely blockaded. U.S. citizens watched as ships were sunk 200 yards from shore. One thousand merchant ships, freighters and tankers were sunk along the U.S. coast. To make things worse, the Germans had a code machine called "Enigma," which the Allies could not break."



Next week: Pearson’s secret Naval mission, being a speech writer for Presidents Truman and Roosevelt and more anecdotes from his upcoming memoir.


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