VICTOR FRISBIE, WHOSE name often appeared in Los Angeles newspapers of the 1950s as a spectator at the Tournament of Roses, did not exist. He was invented by reporters under pressure to produce human-interest shorts to liven the coverage.
Yet, Frisbie had a life of his own, and when the morning Examiner was folded, to merge with the Herald Express, a memorial notice appeared in the paper, edged in black.
Now, Duane L. Peterson, assistant to the state attorney general, has sent me a delightful yarn written by Joe Queenan, a free lance, and published in the New Republic, which discloses that the venerable Who's Who in America (1986-87) lists a man who no more exists than Frisbie did.
Throughout this century, Who's Who has been a trusted roster of distinguished Americans. In a nation that has no need of a Burke's Peerage, it lists the names and biographies of tens of thousands of Americans who have achieved some prominence, mostly through their own efforts.
Not only the rich but the successful in every field might take their inclusion in its pages as a sign of their having "made it."
I admit to having had a feeling of mellow fulfillment, of having arrived, of having justified my mother's vainest hopes, when I was invited to submit my name and certain biographical data for the 1980-81 edition. I only wished my father and mother were still around to see how high I had flown. Their boy in Who's Who!
One of the pieces of data the book routinely publishes is a person's clubs, and I believe I remember deliberately renewing my membership in the local Calcutta Saddle and Cycle Club that year because I thought the name would lend a sort of tweedy cachet to my entry, though I haven't been to a meeting since.
I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of the entry, when, as they probably had foreseen, I bought the enormous two-volume set to have on my own shelf. Every detail was exactly as I had stated it, including the Calcutta Saddle and Cycle Club.
So I was slightly disillusioned when I read Queenan's piece about the inclusion in the 1986-87 edition of Roland Chanson Webster, a magazine editor, who receives 18 lines, including the dubious information that he was born in Arcis-sur-L'Abattoir, France, that his wife is the former Trish Abigail Boogen, that he authored "Causes of World War II" and "Mr. Sleazy in Zion," that he has worked as a writer or editor for Your Business, the Business of Business, Latin-American Business and Our Business magazines and is a member of Christian Managing Editors, Tarrytown Dog Club, Westchester Dog Club, North Bronx Dog Club and Christian Dog Club.
Queenan reveals that when he edited American Business a few years ago, R. C. Webster had been a figure on the masthead for some time.
"Though he may have started out as somebody's nom de plume," Queenan says, "by the time I got there, he was turning up as managing editor, staff writer and general office help--wherever we needed to fill a space on the masthead."
R. C. Webster was a handy name staffers used to get rid of salesmen, collectors and flacks. The receptionist would say, "Send it to R. C. Webster." Or, "The only person who would know about that is R. C. Webster, and he's in Houston."
When Queenan inevitably received a Who's Who application, so did R. C. Webster. Queenan filled out both forms.
The only query he received was one asking what year Webster had received his Master of Fine Arts degree.
Queenan says he received nothing else but a stream of invitations to buy the upcoming edition at a biographee's special price.
He notes, "I must say that the Who's Who people deserve credit for not cutting Mr. Webster or me out of the book simply because we failed to order a copy."
I have never bought a new edition since 1980-81, but my entry has not been eliminated, and every year I get a proof with an invitation to correct or update it.
Maybe next year I'll tell them that I got a Doctor of Letters degree from Victor Frisbie University.
It couldn't hurt.