GhostwriterDonald Bain

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After working as a disc jockey and radio announcer in Texas, Bain moved to New York …and struggled to make a living. He used that experience for some side work, though: he was the voice of the American Cancer Society’s public service announcements — even though he smoked. But things turned around when a cousin, a freelance writer, couldn’t do a writing project himself, and suggested Bain as a ghostwriter; it was a history of stock car racing, and released as written by a NASCAR executive. The editor of that book liked his writing, and gave him another assignment: two stewardesses (as they were called at the time) from Eastern Airlines wanted to write a book, but once he met them, Bain “realized they didn’t have enough to sustain a book, and I was going to have to use an awful lot of my own imagination,” he said later. He completely made up their story — and even their names. The resulting 1967 “memoir,” Coffee, Tea or Me? (1967) became a best-seller, and the “authors” went on tour to promote it, and “one of them legally changed her real name to the one I had given her on the book.” Amusingly, he dedicated the book to himself — as if it had been written by the authors: “To Don Bain, writer and friend, who’s flown enough to know how funny it really can be.” The book — and its three sequels — sold five million copies, and “became my annuity for almost 17 years,” he said on his web site.

Bain’s first best-seller — but note his name isn’t on the cover.
By then Bain had a day job — working in public relations for American Airlines — but he still wrote books: around 120 of them, almost always without being acknowledged as the author. He churned out 2,500 words every afternoon, then edited them the next morning. He wrote nearly 50 “Murder She Wrote” books, mystery novels attributed to “Jessica Fletcher” — the name of actress Angela Lansbury’s character on the TV series of the same name; her character was an Agatha Christie-like mystery novelist. He wrote Margaret Truman’s “Capital Crime” series, but kept that a secret until 2014 — probably because his contract required secrecy; Truman was the daughter of former president Harry S. Truman. For the Truman books, “I operate from the standpoint that there is absolutely nothing that I can make up that is far-fetched when it comes to Washington, D.C., and the political climate there.” He wrote westerns under the name “J.D. Hardin” and other comic novels under a variety of names, both male and female. He wrote investigative journalism, biographies, Mafia novels, the “autobiography” of film legend Veronica Lake, and “the definitive work on caviar.” The most important book that never had someone else’s name: his own 2002 memoir, which he first titled Every Midget Has an Uncle Sam Costume (a reference to one of his publicity stunts), and later renamed Murder HE Wrote. But his first fiction book that actually had only his own name on the cover didn’t come until 2014. As his books got more and more recognized, Bain’s name was often added to the covers when reprinted, including Coffee, Tea or Me?, but he didn’t really care: “My ego is intact,” he assured an interviewer. “I’ve made a living all these years as a ghost who makes others sound good. I’ve been a journeyman writer and proud of it. I’ve attacked every book with the philosophy that it’s the most important book I’ve ever written, and maybe the last I will write, no matter whose name is on it.” Bain died October 21 from congestive heart failure. He was 82.

From This is True for 29 October 2017