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Poet's biographer is duped, and love letter spells it out

September 04, 2006|From the Associated Press

LONDON — A British writer was duped into printing a fake love letter in his latest biography -- complete with a coded four-letter insult aimed at him.

Biographer A.N. Wilson thought he had new evidence that English poet John Betjeman, who publicly lamented his dull sex life, had a previously unknown extramarital affair.

Wilson included the letter, said to be from the poet to his mistress, in his book "Betjeman," published last month.

He failed to notice that the first letter of each sentence in one section of the letter spells out "A.N. Wilson is a ...."

Wilson's publisher acknowledged that the passionate note must be fake.

"We won't be stopping publication of the book, but when we reprint it, we will take the letter out," said Emma Mitchell, a publicist for publisher Hutchinson. "We're not panicking about it."

The letter appeared to reveal a lusty romance that occurred 11 years after the poet married Penelope Chetwode. Betjeman said in a television interview before his death in 1984 that he wished he had had more sex.

The passionate letter, dated May 1944, was addressed to writer Honor Tracy, with whom Betjeman worked during World War II.

Wilson received the letter -- with a French return address and London postmark -- from an unknown correspondent using the name Eve de Harben two years ago. Late in August, London's Sunday Times newspaper received another letter informing it of the hoax.

"I should have smelled a rat," Wilson told the Sunday Times after a reporter pointed out the letter's hidden code. "Obviously the letter is a joke, a hoax."

The newspaper suggested that rival Betjeman biographer Bevis Hillier might have been responsible, reporting that the envelope came from a stationer in Winchester, the southern English town where Hillier lives. Hillier denied involvement but told the paper he thinks Wilson is "despicable."

In a 2002 book review, Wilson said Hillier's biography of Betjeman was a "hopeless mishmash of a book."

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