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Joseph Kane, 103; Author Dug for Forgotten Facts and History

September 30, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Webb would have loved him.

With his refusal to accept any historical factoid without proof, he had to be the original advocate of Sgt. Joe Friday's polite plea for "just the facts, Ma'am," which was immortalized by Webb's "Dragnet."

Joseph Nathan Kane, national repository of provable trivia from America's last four centuries or so and author of the five editions of "Famous First Facts," has died. He was 103.

Kane, who had suffered a broken hip six years ago and had been confined to a wheelchair due to Parkinson's disease, died Sept. 22 of causes associated with age in West Palm Beach, Fla. He had moved there a few years ago to share the condo of his only survivor, his sister, Ann Madier.

Asked in 1999 at the celebration of his 100th birthday what he owed his long life to, the blunt-spoken Kane said simply: "I did nothing wrong."

Born on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the bachelor Kane lived there most of his life.

For many decades, he occupied a garret two flights up from where the elevator stopped, an apartment stuffed with his meticulous, perfectly organized reference books and index cards.

Kane shared his carefully collected facts with a fascinated public in 52 books, beginning in 1933 with "Famous First Facts: A Record of First Happenings, Discoveries, and Inventions in the United States" and ending in 1997 with "Necessity's Child: The Story of Walter Hunt, America's Forgotten Inventor." Hunt, Kane discovered, was the inventor of the sewing machine, the safety pin, the fountain pen and the heat-radiating stove, but either sold the patents or never obtained them and never learned the art of self-promotion.

Eldest of three children of a fur importer and the grandson of a composer, young Kane learned to play the mandolin, violin and banjo. But asking questions intrigued him far more than music.

Whenever a teacher declared some accepted point in history, the upstart boy asked, "How do you know?" It was a question he asked throughout his long life. He explained to an Associated Press writer in 1988, when he was 89, "I'm stupid enough to not believe anything until I see the proof."

Kane graduated from Columbia University and planned to serve in World War I until he fell ill in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Fluent in French, German and Spanish, he went to work for the confectioner D. Auerbach & Sons and was soon running its export business.

That led him into writing--initially articles about the export business for trade journals. He went on to write for such publications as Advertising Age, Printers' Ink and Nation's Business. Over the years, he published more than 1,000 newspaper articles.

Fascinated with historical facts, Kane decided in the 1920s to write a book about the inventors and other achievers that history either had forgotten or never recognized.

From 1922 to 1932, according to the preface of the most recent edition of "Famous First Facts," published in 1997, Kane spent much of each year traveling the country, visiting libraries and museums and talking to inventors or their descendants, examining newspaper clippings and records and sorting out conflicting patents. His intent, he said in his reference masterpiece's first preface, was not "to remold public conceptions, but merely to present impartial facts

After 11 rejections from publishers, Kane asked librarians he met around the country to write letters about the need for such a book. In 1933, Halsey W. Wilson, who had founded H.W. Wilson Co. in 1898, agreed to publish "Famous First Facts" and then asked for several more books.

Kane produced such works as "Facts About the Presidents," which noted that James Madison had been the shortest, at 5 feet, 4 inches, and that Grover Cleveland had the most nicknames--20--including Dumb Prophet, Buffalo Hangman and Grover the Good.

Kane also wrote "The American Counties: A Record of the Origin of the Names of 3,067 Counties, Dates of Creation and Organization, Area, Population, Historical Data, etc." which took him on a personal odyssey to every county courthouse (or jail if that was where the records were kept) in the country.

Some of his books were easily forgotten, even though comprehensive. "What Dog Is That?" was a 1944 compendium of the 122 pure breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club.

But the "Famous First Facts" books were so popular they led to a secondary career with radio and then television quiz shows. In 1938 and 1939, Kane was host for a radio program, "Famous First Facts," and in the 1940s and 1950s, he wrote questions for such shows as "Break the Bank," "Double or Nothing" and "The $64,000 Question."

Among Kane's arcane factoids likely to stump contestants were such seemingly simple queries as who was first president of the U.S., who built the first commercial American automobile or who flew the first airplane. The answers, Kane said, were not George Washington, Henry Ford or Wilbur and Orville Wright.

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