All Posts By Michael Kahn

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 Poop 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!

Cover Reveals: The Good, the Bad, and, well . . .

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Most authors have little say in the design of our book covers, and thus arrives that anxious moment when the publisher reveals its proposed cover for your novel. You hope for the best.

This time I got lucky. For my next Rachel Gold novel, Bad Trust, due in April of this year, I can state that the publisher’s cover reveal was not only a relief but a delight. I hope you agree.

But feelings of relief, much less delight, are not always an author’s reaction to the cover reveal. The best example I can think of was my very first cover, way back at the beginning of my writing career. Here’s that story:

My first novel, published in hardcover under the title The Canaan Legacy, involved a mysterious grave in a pet cemetery. A powerful senior partner in a large Chicago law firm had established a secret trust fund for the care and maintenance of that grave. After the partner dies, his law firm discovers the trust fund. Both the firm and the dead partner’s family are baffled since neither the partner nor his family had ever owned a pet, much less one named CANAAN. That is the word engraved on the tombstone. The only word. The firm retains Rachel Gold to determine what exactly is in that grave, which is robbed within days after she starts to investigate.

Working with my editor and then my copy editor at the publishing house, we got the manuscript in final form. My editor called to tell me that the book cover would arrive within the next few days. Imagine my excitement and anticipation. My very first novel! My name in print!

And then I received the cover.

Early in the novel, our hero Rachel Gold visits the pet cemetery. As drafted in my manuscript, Chapter 2 opens:

The entrance to Wagging Tail Estates is guarded by two cement bulldogs.  They stand at attention at eye level on a pair of squat doric columns that flank the pathway into the cemetary.  The dogs stare defiantly at the plumbing supply store across the street from the cemetary.

Re-read that quoted paragraph above. Now look over at the cover. As you can tell, the dogs are not bulldogs, they do not “stand at attention at eye level,” and they certainly do not “stare defiantly” at anything.

In a panic, I contacted the publisher and explained the disparity between the manuscript and the cover. “Ah, yes,” he responded, “Andre in our art department designed the cover. He said the bulldogs looked deplorable. He asured me that these dogs are much better.”

“Oh,” I responded, confused. After a long pause, “And what breed of dog are they?”

“Good question. I asked Andre the same. His said hunting dogs.”

Another pause as I tried to make sense out of this conversation. “The breed?”

“He doesn’t know. Have another call coming in, Mike. Talk later. Bye.”

I called my agent, outraged. She listened, offered some words of sympathy, and then said, “Mike, how important are those two cement dogs to the story? Do they have any impact on the plot?”

I sighed. “I suppose not.”

“Keep that in mind, Mike.”

And I did. If you turn to Chapter 2 of the published novel–reissued in paperback under the title Grave Designs–the opening paragraph now reads:

The entrance to Wagging Tail Estates is guarded by two cement hunting dogs.  They sit at attention at eye level on a pair of squat doric columns that flank the pathway into the cemetery.  The dogs gaze aloofly at the plumbing supply store across the street from the cemetery

Thus my welcome to the world of publishing.

The paperback edition came out with not only a new cover but a new title: Grave Designs. A long story that I will save for another day.

Thank you, Dorothy Parker

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When in need of a snappy one-liner for the beginning of your book–or your essay or your talk or just about anything–a good place to start is the works of Dorothy Parker, a legendary literary figure of the 1920s and ’30s known for her biting wit. As she once wrote, “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

I happened to be need of a worthy quote for the beginning of my latest novel, Bad Trust, to be published this April, so I turned to Ms. Parker’s treasure trove. My novel features two mysteries–both involving arrogant, nasty wealthy men. I quickly found the perfect quote: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

As her online biography explains, in addition to her writings for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker helped form a group called the Algonquin Round Table with writer Robert Benchley and playwright Robert Sherwood. That group also included The New Yorker founder Harold Ross, comedian Harpo Marx, and playwright Edna Ferber among others. It took its name from its meetings at the Algonquin Hotel and became famous for the group’s sharp-tongued banter. The photograph below features Dorothy Parker with some other members of that group, including Harpo Marx (standing in the middle) and Alexander Woollcott (seated on the far right). The photograph at the top of this post was taken in 1924 in the backyard of her New York residence.

Members of the Algonquin Round Table: (standing, left to right) Art Samuels and Harpo Marx;; (sitting) Charles MacArthur, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcut

My favorite quote of hers was a brilliant pun she came up with on the fly at a meeting of the Algonquin Round Table during their weekly challenge game of Can-You-Give-Me-A-Sentence? They gave Dorothy the word “horticulture.” With barely a pause, she responded: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” (For those not familiar with the original centuries-old adage, it goes “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”)

A few other Dorothy Parker classics:

Brevity is the soul of lingerie.

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy

A hangover is the wrath of grapes.

The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘check enclosed.’

But as too often is the case, the life of a brilliant, witty individual comes to a sad end. Think of Oscar Wilde, perhaps the greatest Irish wit of the 19th Century, author of, among others, the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the play The Importance of Being Earnest, but later prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality and, after his release, dying alone in Paris at the age of 46. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald, the proverbial Toast of the Town in the Roaring Twenties, but then descending into alcoholism and depression, and dead at the age of 40.

Such was the fate of Dorothy Parker, who faded into alcoholism and obscurity in her later years. Childless and living alone in a residential hotel in New York City, she died of a heart attack in 1967. According to her biographer Marian Meade, her ashes remained unclaimed in various places, including in her attorney’s filing cabinet, for nearly two decades. Nevertheless, she wrote her proposed epitaph: “Excuse my dust.”

So if there is an afterlife for authors, I hope she enjoys seeing her quote on the first page of my new novel. Thank you, Dorothy.