All Posts By Michael Kahn

Tonto, Aunt Jemima, and the Challenge of Implicit Bias

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Surrounded by dozens of hostile Indians, the Lone Ranger turns to his faithful companion.

“What are we going to do, Tonto?”

“What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

Earlier this year I gave a Strafford webinar presentation entitled “Rebranding Trademarks: Challenges of Walking Away and Choosing a New Mark.” The focus was how the Black Lives Matter movement had forced many companies to finally realize that one their most profitable trademarks was offensive to a certain portion of their customers. And thus lucrative trademarks–such as the iconic Aunt Jemima–quickly became toxic. Indeed, the Washington Redskins, which had spent millions of dollars in legal fees defending its brand, played the 2020 season as simply the Washington Football Team.

But as I dug into the issues for that presentation, I realized that recognition of the harm caused by culturally offensive trademarks had preceded the Black Lives Matter movement—in some cases by decades. My personal experience was perhaps the best proof. I played on my high school football team. Back then, we were the U City Indians—and none of us back then perceived anything offensive about that name. And keep in mind that more than once, when we got off the bus for our games at rival high schools, we were met with chants of “Jew City, Jew City.” In other words, if anyone should have been aware of an offensive term, it should have been my teammates. More precisely, it should have been me. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century the Indians had become the Lions.

When I attended Amherst College, our sports teams were the Lord Jeffs, named for Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who gained distinction during the French-Indian Wars of the 1700s by selling smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians. The chinaware in the school dining hall best captures the oblivious bias of that era, with dishes depicting our esteemed Lord Jeff on horseback chasing Indians around the outside of the plate. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Early in the 21st Century the Amherst sports teams became the Mammoths—perhaps an overly aspirational mascot for a Division 3 school of 2,000 students, but certainly an improvement over the Indian infector of yore.

But two recent incidents remind me—and perhaps you—that we shouldn’t be too quick to congratulate ourselves for the cancellation of that handful of culturally offensive trademarks.

The first example was triggered when I overheard a screed about how “offensive” and “unAmerican” it was that the introductory recording for all of those call centers—government entities and otherwise—begins by giving you the option of proceeding in English (by pressing 1) or Spanish (by pressing 2).

“This is America,” he shouted. “The Pilgrims spoke English, not Spanish!”

I shook my head in sad amazement at his ignorance. The rich history of our Spanish heritage is on full display throughout our western states, including, of course, the names of four of them–Colorado, Arizona, California, and New Mexico–and all of the major cities in California, including San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara. And then there is Florida, named by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 in tribute to Spain’s Easter celebration known as “Pascua Florida,” or Feast of Flowers. Don’t forget Texas, where one can take a boat ride on the Rio Grande (in English, Big River) right through the town of El Paso (in English, The Passage). Yes, our founding fathers (and mothers) included plenty of Spaniards. And plenty of French, the glaring evidence of which remains in the names of all of those cities within the territory acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase, including St. Louis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans–all three of which still celebrate the holiday of Mardi Gras (translation: Fat Tuesday).

Jeep Cherokee

And as for the Indians, my elementary school lessons pretty much ended with that largely fictitious first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Still, I had thought that after 2020—and the final demise of the Redskins brand—we had ended the culturally offensive use of Native American names. But just this past month I learned that the Chief of the Cherokee Nation has asked Jeep to stop using the name of his Native American tribe as the brand of one of its vehicles. As reported in the New York Times, the Chief said in an interview that the name belonged to the Cherokee people, and that Jeep’s use of it without permission was troubling: “The use of Cherokee names and imagery for peddling products doesn’t deepen the country’s understanding of what it means to be Cherokee,” he explained, “and I think it diminishes it somewhat.”

The point here is NOT to criticize Jeep, and certainly not to criticize you. No, the point here is to ask you (as I have asked myself) the following question: before you read this (or saw that news report) had you ever connected the Jeep brand with that Native American tribe? When you saw a TV commercial for the Jeep Cherokee or found yourself idling next to one at a red light, did you make that connection? I confess that I never did. Ever.

And regardless of whether you find that Jeep brand offensive, what does that failure to make that connection say about us? Why are we so oblivious? Oh, yes, and perhaps we could discuss these implications this next time we go skiing at the Squaw Valley Resort.

Remarkable Graveyards and Sad Words of Wisdom

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As our days in St. Louis grow shorter–we move to Chicago in November–Margi and I took a hike through the remarkable Bellefontaine Cemetery, rightfully named a Best Hidden Gem by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In addition to serving as the final resting place for many historical figures, such as William Clark of Lewis & Clark renown, this burial ground features row upon row of grandiose mausoleums with the names of their “inhabitants” etched on the marble or granite lintels above the doorways. For example, the mausoleum above is for someone–or some family–named Tate.

Adolphus Busch Mausoleum

So, too, the earthly remains of Adolphus Busch, the co-founder of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, has what could hardly be described as a modest burial structure.

And those were just two of dozens and dozens of mausoleums that we strolled past on our hike.

As we passed one row after another, I was reminded of the sad but wise meditation of Marcus Aurelius on this very subject. Nearly 2,000 years ago, he wrote:

People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.

At Bellefontaine Cemeery
On our walk through Bellefontaine Cemetery

From Covfefe to Aunt Jemima R.I.P.–Trademarks in the Era of Black Lives Matter

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In my day job as an intellectual property lawyer I’ve been blogging occasionally about the strange new world of trademarks that began three years ago with the explosion of trademark registration applications for the 7-letter typo in one of Donald Trump’s late-night Tweet complaints about what he claimed was “fake news.”

Following that trademark silliness was this year’s explosion of registration applications for variations on the term COVID-19. Those applications now number more than 350 and even include one referring back to the Trump typo: COVID-19 TAKES DOWN COVFEFE (Serial No. 88849328).

But in recent days that trademark narrative has undergone a profound change. Specifically, many profitable but controversial brands–from the Washington Redskins (dating back eight decades) to Aunt Jemima (introduced in the 19th Century)–have been undergoing an overdue but inspiring evolution, largely in response to the social protests and cultural reckoning inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. This has been the commercial trademark equivalent of the removal of statues of Confederate generals and other formerly iconic historic figures.

You can find my blog post, along with links to the earlier ones, here.

Benny and the Greatest Bowel Movement in Literature

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Several years ago, as an interminable mediation of a high-profile trademark case stretched into the wee hours of the night, I stepped outside my crazy client’s breakout room to get another cup of coffee and found the mediator–the late and beloved Dick Sher–seated at a table in the lunchroom sipping his own cup of coffee and reading one of the short stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners. Grateful for a chance to discuss something other than damages issues in the lawsuit, I joined him at the table.

Turned out we were both English majors in college, and our favorite short story of all time was “The Dead” by James Joyce, one of the stories in his Dubliners. But, I confessed to Dick, as much as I loved that short story, I was embarrassed to admit that I had tried to read Ulysses at least three times but never got past the first chapter.

“Really?” Dick said. “That’s my favorite novel. I’ve read it several times. Tell you what: find a few others willing to take it on and I will lead the group through the novel.”

And so I did. While it was a bit of challenge to find anyone–much less a half dozen–willing to join a Ulysses reading group, I finally gathered them all. Over the next few months, we met every other week to discuss the chapters for that session’s homework assignment. And we made it all the way through the novel, which some of us loved and some us, well, did not love. I was somewhere in the middle–deeply moved by several sections of the novel and deeply exasperated by other sections.

All of which made it inevitable that Rachel Gold’s best buddy, Benny Goldberg, would eventually weigh in on one of the more surprising scenes in Ulysses. And he eventually did so during a midnight stakeout with Rachel in the novel Face Value. Here’s Benny, in all us unique and off-color glory:

“Do you remember our nighttime stakeout a few years ago,” Benny asked. “We were at that self-storage operation out by the airport?”

I thought back. “Vaguely.”

Then you may also recall that while we were sitting there in your car waiting for something to happen I provided you with some enlightened commentary on an important gap in world literature.”

“You mean your demented rant on why no one in a novel ever makes a poop?”

“A ‘poop’? Did you just say ‘poop’? Good grief, Rachel. That is proof of the detrimental side effects of raising a child. But back to my commentary. It was a thoughtful and, if I may say, a profound discourse on the noteworthy absence of a certain bodily function from the novel. Great characters in world litera­ture eat and sleep and eat some more and occasionally fuck but they never ever take a shit. Huck and Jim on that raft for weeks, Captain Ahab on his ship, Jay Gatsby in his mansion, and even Tarzan in the fucking jungle, for God’s sake. Nary a dump.”

I sighed. “Yes, Benny, I do recall that rant.”

“Well, my dear, I must amend it.”

“Oh?”

“I finally dragged myself through that James Joyce piece of shit—no pun intended.”

Finnegans Wake?”

“Of course not. No one has ever read that book. Anyone who claims they have is full of shit. Again, no pun intended.”

Ulysses?”

“Exactly.”

“You read it?”

Benny shrugged. “Sort of.”

“What does that mean?”

“To quote the great Lord Arthur Balfour, ‘He has only half learned the art of reading who has not added to it the more refined art of skipping and skimming.’ Try to read Ulysses. You’ll see what I mean.”

“So what caused you to amend your prior diatribe?”

“A massive dump. In Chapter Two. Probably the biggest one in the history of world literature. And guess what? It’s by a member of the tribe.”

“A yid?”

“You got it. Leopold Bloom. You’d be proud of him. And then, near the end of the book, Leo and that other guy—that preten­tious putz from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—they stand side by side under the night sky and take huge pisses together.”

That is an endorsement worthy of a dust jacket blurb.”

Sex, Ecclesiastes, and Jewish Mothers

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One of the unexpected joys of writing a mystery series–or any series–is getting to spend more time with your main characters and, in the process, learning more about them. Such has been true with my Rachel Gold series, with has now reached #11 with the recent publication of Bad Trust.

Over the past several novels, I have become totally enchanted with Rachel’s mother Sarah. Indeed, she is now my favorite fictional Jewish mother of all time. A widow in her sixties, Sarah Gold speaks her mind on any topic and without inhibition. For example, she is apparently the subject of the amorous fantasies of many of the elderly men who work out at the Jewish Community Center at the same time she does. As Rachel explains in my new novel:

Though she recently turned sixty-six, my mother still looks terrific. She works out three days a week in the Fitness Center at the Jewish Community Center—and apparently the arrival of the red-headed Sarah Gold is eagerly anticipated by the older men. They flirt while she’s on the StairMaster and vie for position on the treadmill next to hers. Just last week my mother remarked that there should be a special place in Hell for whoever invented Viagra. I try not to think about the implications of that statement.

Rachel and her mother have a special loving relationship, as best exemplified by what she did after Rachel’s husband Jonathan died in a plane crash, leaving Rachel with two step-daughters and her little son Sam. As Rachel explains: “My mother lives about thirty steps from my back door. More precisely, she lives in the renovated coach house behind my house. After my husband Jonathan died, my mother sold her condo and, God bless her, moved in to help me raise Sam and my two stepdaughters, Leah and Sarah.”

Which is not suggest that Sarah is some mild-mannered timid granny.

Although my two step-daughters call me Rachel, they call my mother Baba, which is Yiddish for grandmother. Their Baba is hard-headed and opinionated and sets lofty standards for her grandchildren. Don’t ask the two girls how many times their red-headed Baba made them rewrite their college application essays. Though she can exasperate me like no other human on the face of the earth, we all adore her—and the “we” definitely includes Benny.

Nothing captures the essence of Sarah Gold more than her questions regarding Rachel’s relationship with the man Sarah fixed her up with: Abe Rosen, a tall, handsome Jewish doctor (of course) and a divorced father of two. Abe’s and Rachel’s children attend the same religious school on Saturday mornings, and the two of them meet for coffee while their kids are in class. Rachel (herself a widow) and Abe (recently divorced) have decided to take it slow. Too slow for Rachel’s mother, who interrogates her daughter as follows one evening after dinner:

My mother leaned back in her chair. “So?”
I frowned. “So what?”
She gave me one of her knowing smiles. “You and Abe.”
“What about me and Abe?”
“Are you two finally shtupping?”
“Mom, what kind of question is that?”
“One a mother should ask of her daughter, that’s what kind.”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “Really?”
“Yes, really. I know that a girl shouldn’t be opening her legs on a first date but come on now. How long have you two lovebirds been dating? A big virile man like that, well, I shouldn’t have to remind you, Rachel, a man’s got needs.”
“So do I, Mom. But that’s not the point. Abe and I are taking this slow. We both agreed.”
“Slow for how long?”
“I don’t know. We’re fine with it. I promise. Okay?”
“Okay, Doll Baby. But remember what that Ecclesiastes fellow said.”
“Huh?”
“There’s a time for everything under the sun. There’s a time to plant and a time to harvest what was planted. Right?”
I gave her a look, “Okay.”
“And you know what else? There’s a time to meet for a cup of coffee, and then there’s a time to say enough already with this coffee.”
I shook my head. “Oy.”

Sara Gold–I love her!

An Author Event in the Era of COVID-19

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I now have my own sequel to one of my favorite novels by the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

While I concede my sequel may not have the same poetic charm as the title of the Marquez novel, I can now say that have presided over a Book Signing in the Time of COVID-19.

The events in Love in the Time of Cholera take place over decades in an unnamed South American country about 100 years ago. By contrast, my event took place in under an hour last weekend in the alley behind the wonderful Left Bank Books in the Central West End of St. Louis, Missouri. And as you can see from the photo above, I arrived with all the proper gear for a COVID-19 book launch: pen, mask, and gloves.

Strange times.

Stay safe and healthy!

Marcus Aurelius and COVID-19

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I keep a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius nearby and am continually amazed by the wisdom and the timely relevance of the musings of a Roman emperor from nearly 1,900 years ago.

I learned today that he lived through the Antonine Plague of 165 CE, a global pandemic that wiped out more than 10 million people. At some point during that horrible pandemic he wrote the following in his diary:

Bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before and will happen again—the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. Produce them in your mind, as you know them from experience or from history: the court of Hadrian, of Antoninus. The courts of Philip, Alexander, Croesus. All just the same. Only the people different.

A Special Heaven for Authors: My Fantasy

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I’ve been thinking about the afterlife lately. Not mine, though at age of 67 I know I am closer to my end than my beginning. But, to quote Marcus Aurelius, “It is not death a man should fear but he should fear never having to live.” So I try focus on the living part.

But I have a fantasy–or maybe I should call it a yearning–for a special afterlife. Not mine. My fantasy afterlife is for a unique group of men and women: a place for beloved authors who died in obscurity or with no expectation that their works would live on after them.

Authors who died famous need no afterlife. Indeed, for many of them an afterlife would be a miserable residence in one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell. Take, for example, those who reached the apex of fame, namely, the number 1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list. For the year 1960, the most famous author in America was Allen Drury with his novel Advise and Consent. He would continue to dominate the bestseller lists of the early 1960s, and for good reason. He was an excellent storyteller. But today–just 60 years later–Drury’s Advise and Consent is ranked behind more than 200,000 other titles on Amazon. I don’t want Allen Drury spending eternity in some dank afterlife staring at his Amazon ranking and wondering what happened to his legacy. To grasp the ephemeral nature of bestseller fame, check out the authors and their works on these lists of bestsellers from the 1920s. More than 90% of them have been out of print and forgotten for decades.

“But those are bestsellers,” you snobs scoff. “That’s no way to judge literary greatness.”

Okay, how about the Pulitzer Prize for Literature? That’s the essence of acclaim and achievement, right? Actually, Allen Drury won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for Advise and Consent. Take the year I was born: 1952. That prestigious prize was awarded that year to Herman Wouk for The Caine Mutiny, which is currently ranked behind more than half a million other books on Amazon. I’m fairly sure neither man’s novel is taught in any university course on American Literature. But that’s okay. Drury and Wouk went to their graves secure in the knowledge that their Pulitzer Prize would be mentioned in the opening paragraph of their obituary and that their elite literary status was safe. No need to update them. Let them rest in peace.

And sadly, even some of those modern authors who did make it onto the syllabuses for American Lit courses back in my college days have begun to fade. John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer are just a few of the literary giants of that era whose novels have gone out of print or who are now lingering in the Allen Drury dungeon on Amazon. For all of these fine authors, I wish them tranquility in their graves.

So who would I gather in my fantasy afterlife, in my celestial version of the Algonquin Round Table?

First would be Herman Melville, whose promising career as a novelist was destroyed by the nasty critical reception of Moby Dick. His writing career ruined, he spent the last decades of his life in obscurity working as a customs inspector for New York City. He died in 1891. But by the 1930s his work had been rediscovered, and soon Moby Dick would be hailed as a masterpiece and perhaps the Great American Novel. And Billy Budd, discovered among his papers nearly three decades after his death and finally published in 1924, is now recognized as one of great works of literature of the 19th Century. Better yet for a man who died in obscurity, Billy Budd has been adapted into an award-winning play and an Oscar-nominated movie. I just love the thought of Melville looking down from above in amazement at his posthumous success.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgeral

Joining Melville at that celestial Round Table would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose own brilliant career was upended by publication of The Great Gatsby, which was neither a critical nor financial success. Fitzgerald, an alcoholic since college, deteriorated further after publication of that novel and died at the age of 40, viewing himself a failure. But now The Great Gatsby is included on all those reading lists alongside Moby Dick and is usually one of the Top 3 contenders (along with Moby Dick and Huck Finn) for the honor of Great American Novel. I’d like to imagine Herman and Scott chatting at the table and perhaps joking about some of their literary peers who sneered at them in life and are now forgotten for all time.

Jane Austen

Two women would have a special place at my table: Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson. Jane must be amazed not only by the ongoing sales of her novels but by all those screen and theatrical adaptions of each of them. Here is a writer who died more than two centuries ago but whose novels remain relevant and popular. This year has seen the debut of the third movie or TV adaptation of her novel Emma in just the past 25 years—four if you count the movie Clueless, which many fans may not know is a modern adaptation of Austen’s Emma. Four! Think of that. For a novel published in 1815! Can you name any novel published in your lifetime that has had more than one motion picture adaptation? I can’t.

Emily Dickinson

As for Emily Dickinson, her ascent to the pantheon of American poets is even more remarkable. She lived most of her short life in isolation in Amherst, Massachusetts. Fewer than a dozen of her vast collection of poems were published in her lifetime. It was not until after Emily’s death in 1886, when her younger sister Lavinia discovered her cache of poems, that the breadth and sheer artistry of her work became public. How astonished–and, hopefully, pleased–would the shy Ms. Dickinson be today to discover the reach of her poetry and its impact on American culture. She is taught in literature and poetry classes classes in the United States from middle school to college. Her poetry is frequently anthologized and has been used as text for songs by composers such as Aaron Copland, Nick Peros, John Adams and Michael Tilson Thomas. A few literary journals—including The Emily Dickinson Journal, the official publication of the Emily Dickinson International Society—have been founded to examine her work. A commemorative stamp in her honor was issued by the United States Postal Service as the second stamp in the “American Poet” series. She was inducted into the  National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973. A one-woman play titled The Belle of Amherst appeared on Broadway in 1976, winning several awards.

Not too shabby, eh?

And finally, at that first seating at my celestial Round Table would be the Bard himself. Though it’s not all that clear whether he was critically esteemed at the time of his death–or was viewed as just another playwright hack–there is no question that William Shakespeare deserves a prime spot in my fantasy afterlife. He has now been dead for more than four centuries. If one merely tallied up the number of Shakespeare productions being staged around the world in any given year over the past decade, he would easily come in first place of all playwrights that year, living or dead. The Guinness Book of Records lists 410 feature-length film and TV versions of Shakespeare’s plays, making him the most filmed author ever in any language. There are, for example, more than a dozen film versions of Richard III and more than fifty film versions of Hamlet. So, too, there are thousands of books and tens of thousands of scholarly articles written about Shakespeare and his plays. I would like to think the Bard would be delighted to page through some of those books, watch some of the dozens and dozens of movie versions of his plays, and perhaps even gaze down from the clouds at a current production of Romeo and Juliet being staged at his very moment somewhere in the world.

So what’s at the root of this fantasy of mine? Every writer–and every musician and playwright and photographer and painter– no matter the genre or the topic, and certainly no matter the current level of success, wonders whether his or her works will live beyond the grave, much less beyond the century. The answer for 99.9% of us is an emphatic No. And that was certainly the answer assumed by those at my fantasy Round Table. I’d like to hope, at least for them, that they might be given a glimpse, no matter how brief, of their profound impact on our world.

And as a final and fitting tribute to my afterlife gathering, here is a link to one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death.” Enjoy.

(Featured image: Gates of Heaven. Photo by Porfirio Domingues)

Napoleon’s Penis: The Ultimate MacGuffin?

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The answer: absolutely. And yes, I know where you focused on that painting of Napoleon.

But before we take a closer look at that titular appendage, we need to understand the MacGuffin and its key role in many of your favorite books and movies.

So what is a MacGuffin? Coined by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, it is a valued plot device for authors of all types of fiction, from novels to screenplays to dramas. It’s typically introduced early in the work and acts as the catalyst to set the characters in motion and drive the story. Hitchcock described the MacGuffin as “the thing that the characters on the screen worry about but the audience doesn’t care about.” Well, yes and no. The perfect example of a Hitchcock MacGuffin is the movie Psycho, where most of us have forgotten the plot device–namely, the stolen money that motivates all of the actions of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)–long before that horrifying scene when she steps into the shower, now considered one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. Another example: the letters of transit in the motion picture Casablanca. They serve as the MacGuffin for that movie, though few of us remember them after the closing credits.

But some MacGuffins are more memorable than others–and they tend to stick with each of us long after we close the novel or leave the movie theater.

Consider Citizen Kane. The MacGuffin in that celebrated film is Rosebud, which is the murmured dying word of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane. The film follows a reporter’s efforts to uncover the significance of that word. His search ends in frustration when he concludes that he can’t solve the mystery and thus the meaning of Kane’s last word will remain an enigma. But then comes the movie’s final scene:

We are back at Kane’s mansion. The staff is busy cataloging or discarding the dead man’s belongings. They come upon a sled–the same one on which the innocent eight-year-old Kane was playing on the day his bank-trustee-appointed guardian came to take him away from home to prepare for his lonely new life as an American oligarch. The staff worker, deeming the sled junk, throws it into the furnace. As the sled burns, the camera zooms in to reveal its trade name: “Rosebud.” Without that dying word, no plot, no movie, and certainly no sympathy for the dead man.

Another famous MacGuffin is the statuette of a falcon in the 1929 detective novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Sam Spade, the private investigator (played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie version) is hired to find the statuette, which legend claims is made of gold and precious gems covered by black enamel. (Ironically, the subsequent fate of the Maltese Falcon movie prop–a piece of Hollywood memorabilia right up there with Dorothy’s ruby slippers–morphed into a complex and lucrative real-world MacGuffin, as reported by Bryan Burrough in Vanity Fair here.)

And then there is that Persian rug in the the 1998 crime comedy The Big Lebowski. Yes, the rug that “really tied the room together.” It also ties the movie together. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is assaulted in his apartment by two goons who have mistaken him for another Jeffrey Lebowski. Realizing their mistake, the goons leave, but not before one of them urinates on his rug. Outraged, the Dude seeks compensation from the other Lebowski, a wealthy philanthropist who refuses his request, thus setting the entire plot in motion. Without that rug, no movie.

While a missing object is a frequent MacGuffin, occasionally–especially in mystery novels and movies–the MacGuffin will be a missing person. One such mystery is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the MacGuffin is Mr. Kurtz, the inscrutable ivory trader operating out of a station somewhere far up the Congo River in Africa. The novella is the narrator’s tale of trying to find Kurtz. Eight decades later, Francis Ford Coppola directed Apocalypse Now, an updated version of Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War. A U.S. Army officer (played by Martin Sheen) is placed on the trail of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a rogue U.S. Army Special Forces officer who’s gone insane and established himself as a demigod in the jungles of Cambodia. Although Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Kurtz is spellbinding, he actually spends little time on the screen, instead serving as the unseen MacGuffin propelling Sheen’s character and his troops forward in their journey into the heart of darkness of the war-ravaged region. (By the way, the name of the detective narrator in Heart of Darkness is Marlow. The name of the detective narrator in the Raymond Chandler mystery novels is Marlowe. Coincidence? Like Conrad’s Marlow, Chandler’s Marlowe finds missing persons.)

In my first novel, Grave Designs, I unwittingly created a MacGuffin years before I had heard of that term or its significance. The MacGuffin in Grave Designs is a coffin stolen from a grave in a pet cemetery. That burial plot had been endowed with a large trust fund for its care and maintenance—a trust fund secretly established by a powerful partner in a major law firm. The partner has died, and his law firm is confused to discover the trust fund, especially since neither the partner nor his family ever owned a pet. The firm retains attorney Rachel Gold to figure out what was in that grave, and shortly thereafter the grave is robbed. Rachel’s search for that stolen coffin and its mysterious contents propels the novel’s plot.

And then there are MacGuffins in the form of works of art. Back at the time of the release of my novel The Sirena Quest, an interviewer asked me to describe the book in 12 words or less. A long pause, a silent word count, a smile, and then the answer: “A Baby Boomer version of ‘The Big Chill’ meets ‘The Maltese Falcon.’” It was only later, as I thought about my answer, that I realized that an art object—stolen or otherwise missing—serves as the MacGuffin for so many literary works, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, to Wilkie Collins’ 19th-century masterpiece, The Moonstone, and so on all the way back to those Arthurian tales of quests to find the Holy Grail. My Holy Grail is Sirena, a legendary Greco-Roman statue of a young goddess that mysteriously disappeared from my protagonists’ college 35 years ago.

Which, at last, brings us back to Napoleon’s penis. The Emperor’s member was not famous during his lifetime, at least based on my review of his biographies. There have, of course, been genuinely famous penises, but mostly in the 20th Century, where they became a topic of gossip (such as the purported endowments of the comedian Milton Berle and the singer Frank Sinatra) or of video display (see, e.g., porn stars John Holmes and Ron Jeremy. I’ll let you conduct the NSFW Google search for those two). But, alas, even famous penises tend to enter the grave attached to their owners.

Not so with Napoleon’s. According to legend, his penis was removed during his autopsy in 1821 and initially claimed by his chaplain, Abbé Ange Vignali. From there, it embarked on a journey from owner to owner across Europe and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. When its owners put it up for auction in 1916, the catalog chastely described it as “a mummified tendon taken from Napoleon Bonaparte’s body during post-mortem.” It was allegedly last purchased in 1969 by a Columbia University professor of medicine. Alas, there is little aesthetic appeal to that object, which Time magazine described as “looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or a shriveled eel.” For more on the weird history of that “shriveled eel,” visit the Wonders and Marvels website, where you can read “The Strange Journey of Napoleon’s Penis” by Karen Abbott.

Among other things, Monsier Bonaparte’s “object of art” inspired the plot of my second Rachel Gold novel, Death Benefits, While Napoleon’s penis makes no appearance, you will quickly discern its, er, seminal contribution to the mystery at the core of the novel.

But meanwhile, Napoleon’s penis remains the proverbial low-hanging fruit for some budding mystery novelist looking for a MacGuffin to power his novel. I have no idea where that penis is today–or whether it still exists–or even whether that “shriveled eel” is in fact the mummified remains of Napoleon’s little fellow. But we’re talking fiction here. There are also reports of Rasputin’s preserved member. Or you can just invent another famous one. Such as, perhaps, an appendage known in certain circles as the original Lincoln Log. Or perhaps Gustave Eiffel’s Tower. Or, or course, Scarface’s Little Friend. Think of all those possibilities! Be sure to make it a collector’s item. Worth millions. After all, if the Maltese Falcon movie prop could sell at auction for more than $4 million, think what a famous historical figure’s preserved member would be worth. And its sudden disappearance would certain get a plot rolling. There you go. Have fun!