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30 October 2000

The secret lives of our Walter Mitties

Tired of your ordinary life? Why not follow in the footsteps of Grey Owl, Anastasia and Ali G, and i

By Patrick West

When the author Patrick O’Brian died earlier this year, he took to the grave with him a man called Richard Russ. O’Brian, the novelist behind the much revered Aubrey-Maturin nautical series, was a Roman Catholic born in the west of Ireland. Or so his readers believed for more than 50 years. Two years before his death, it was revealed that O’Brian was not so.

As elucidated in Dean King’s recently published biography, O’Brian’s real name was Richard Russ, and he was born in England to a Protestant father of German extraction, who worked in London as a doctor, and an English mother. Patrick O’Brian was a name that he assumed in 1945 and, for more than half a century, an identity that came to consume him, slowly erasing his old self from history.

He was not the first, and he will not be the last person to invent himself as someone entirely new. In the past week, the newspapers have made a great fuss over another man who lived a double life. Shortly after the murder of Harish Purohit on 20 October, the police revealed that this prominent Hindu priest had enjoyed a secret existence in Leicester’s gay community.

Unlike O’Brian, Purohit lived his two lives simultaneously, rather than erase one altogether in favour of the other. None the less, the fascination for the press and public was the same: people who undergo extraordinary personal metamorphosis intrigue us. But why do people change themselves? What leads people to live such clandestine lives?

“This above all: to thine own self be true”: thus uttered Polonius in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s maxim is a guiding principle of western civilisation. Whether it be the Christian idea of the unique soul, or the humanist ideal of the rational individual, we hold dear the concept of every person being a distinguishable, cogent entity. In short: we believe in an essential, Platonic, real self.

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The alternative, as with poor old Hamlet, is considered as incoherent, nihilist insanity. People who invent themselves are accused of being impostors, fantasists or clinically insane. No one likes, or trusts, a Walter Mitty or a Billy Liar. For this reason, O’Brian became a figure of ridicule – and not a little antagonism. In the words of one of his friends, the Irish journalist Kevin Myers, O’Brian was a “writer of genius and in large part a total fraud”. For, to his own self, Richard Russ was not true.

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Throughout history, there have always been identity chame-leons. Sometimes, such character change is associated with mental illness. Indeed, Anna Anderson, who became the Grand Duchess Anastasia after the First World War, was discovered in a psychiatric hospital. Likewise, Olive Wilmot (1772-1834), who palmed herself off as the daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, is still widely described as having suffered from a psychiatric condition.

Then there are the opportunists. In 1704, George Psalmanazar successfully presented himself to London society as the Prince of Formosa (present-day Taiwan), because, he said, he desired to live a life of “shameless idleness, vanity and extravagance”. Then, in 1920s Heidelberg, a certain Herr Harry Domela duped others into believing first that he was Prince Lieven of Latvia, and then Prince Wilhelm of Hohenzollern, the Kaiser’s grandson.

In more recent times, Brian McKinnon, a Scot in his early thirties, passed himself off as the Canadian teenager Brandon Lee so that he could retake his A-levels, while a David Hampton successfully posed as the son of the actor Sidney Poitier. Hampton’s motive had been to acquire small amounts of money and hospitality. Indeed, as with McKinnon, Domela and Psalmanazar, his bogus identity was assumed for material gain.

In this respect, these people are not true Walter Mitties; they were merely impostors. They did not “become” their characters, but put on a facade when necessary. In his mind, Brandon Lee remained Brian McKinnon. Conversely, Patrick O’Brian became not a mask for Richard Russ: it supplanted him.

It was similar for another character to whom we bid farewell this year. In July, the futurist known as FM-2030 passed away aged 69. A lecturer at New York University and a prolific author, FM-2030 was not only quite an accurate soothsayer – in the Seventies, he talked of internet shopping, genetic engineering and out-of-body fertilisation – but an ardent, almost utopian, prophet of the future. By the year 2030, he said, humans will have abolished death – thus this Future Man’s appellation.

FM-2030 conceded that he got a “lot of flak” for his adopted name. Indeed, few obituarists on either side of the Atlantic could resist stating tauntingly that FM-2030 “was revising his book Countdown to Immortality when he died of cancer”.

In many respects, he did cut something of a preposterous figure. He predicted in the Seventies that housework would soon be abolished; and he was prone to such statements as “In the 21st century, no one will say ‘I’m Egyptian, or Romanian, or American’, but ‘I’m global’, or ‘I’m moon-based’, or ‘part Martian'”. His body is now immersed in a tank of liquid nitrogen in Arizona, where he expects to be resurrected once humanity has developed the appropriate technology.

Yet it was an earnest intellectual endeavour on his behalf. Born in Belgium, Fereidoun M Esfandiary was the son of an Iranian diplomat. For the first 11 years of his life, he grew up in 17 countries, and so he naturally came to repudiate the whole notion of nationality and inherent selfhood. “I sort of outgrew my old name,” said FM-2030 in 1989. “I am not who I was ten years ago.”

Like FM-2030, the late Harish Purohit would also intimate that his alternative, hidden self was actually someone else. Last year, in his capacity as Hindu priest, Purohit expressed disapprobation at a gay Asian club in London naming itself after Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, but insisted: “I have nothing against gays and lesbians.” According to a report in the most recent issue of the newspaper Indiaweekly, however, Purohit was himself a well-known and active member of the gay community in Leicester.

Similarly, O’Brian would refer to Russ as another person. As a youth, Patrick O’Brian had penned novels under his baptismal name. Later commenting on one of the Russ tomes, he wrote sourly: “I doubt if my present self would have liked the 12-year-old boy who wrote this tale – he was certainly not very popular among his brothers and sisters.” As he became O’Brian, he severed his family ties: in 1989, Barney Russ, his biological brother, complained: “I have had the most fearful letter from Patrick . . . I really think he thinks he is not my brother.”

Unlike FM-2030, O’Brian did not want to liberate himself from the whole idea of nationhood, just the particular one foisted on him. In the choice of nationhood that he acquired, O’Brian was not alone. Irishness has always been an attractive nationality for the English. To them, it conjures up notions of romance, spirituality, rugged masculinity – qualities more alluring than a stuffy, prosaic Englishness. From Erskine Childers to Maud Gonne to Rose Dugdale, many English men and women have fallen for its charms. It was Ireland for Alfred Willmore, too. Willmore was a famous child actor of the pre-First World War era, but left for Ireland in 1917, possibly to escape conscription. In the Free State, he re-emerged as Micheal MacLIammoIr, who would become the most celebrated Irish stage actor of his time. MacLIammoIr, so he told everyone, was born of Irish parents and brought up in Cork.

The only other adopted nationality (if we can call it that) to rival Irishness is American Indian. In the aftermath of the First World War, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, a “full-blooded member of the Northern Blackfeet”, became a national celebrity in the United States. He starred in a movie, published a book, campaigned for the rights of inmates of Indian reservations, spoke publicly of his childhood in an Indian settlement in Montana and his war exploits in the Canadian Army for which he won three medals.

After he turned to drink and then killed himself in 1932, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance was revealed to be Sylvester Long, part white, part black and possibly part Native American. He was not from Montana, but North Carolina, and he was not decorated in the First World War, either, but invalided back home.

His deception was initially based on expedience, when, trying to escape hopeless poverty, he managed to get into the prestigious Indian school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Long did not look pale enough to get into a white school, and he did not want to go to a desperately under-resourced black school, but his unusual complexion let him pass for a Native American. From there on, he lied continually until “Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance” eventually consumed him.

Very similar are the stories of William Red Fox, who passed himself off as a Sioux chief, and Grey Owl, “an Ojibwa” born in Mexico to a Scottish father and Apache mother, who wrote about and campaigned on behalf of his fellow Native Americans in the 1930s. Grey Owl, the subject of a Richard Attenborough biopic that opens next month, was born Archibald Belaney in 1888 to European parents. They abandoned him at the age of four to a lonely childhood with his aunt, where he found solace by immersing himself in tales of Red Indians.

Real life and fiction are naturally prone to overlap among those enthralled by grand tales and fiction. Certainly, we have seen how that wonderful storyteller Jeffrey Archer has seemingly got the two confused throughout his life. Like his icon Oscar Wilde, Micheal MacLIammoIr believed, like many an actor, that man’s first duty in life is to assume a pose.

Sean MacStiofain may appear similar to MacLIammoIr. The Provisional IRA’s chief of staff from 1969 to 1972 was christened John Stephenson, and was born and brought up in London to an English father and mother he believed to be Irish. However, MacStiofain changed not so as to be someone else: he changed so he could become himself, resurrect his inherited Irishness. MacStiofain is rather like the people who undergo sex changes. Transsexuals never say they make the change so that they can be someone else; it is always “the real me was born in the wrong body”.

Transvestism, whereby one’s biology remains the same but one’s social exterior is altered, is more closely the tool of the Walter Mitty. And no more so than in the case of the jazz pianist Billy Tipton, whose wife of 18 years and four adopted sons discovered at the time of Tipton’s death in 1989 that “he” was a “she”. Born in 1914, Dorothy Lucille Tipton was a gifted musician, but after failing to get a foothold in the industry, she suited up as a man and was immediately hired. So enamoured did she become of a role that bestowed on her such success, that she remained, and died, a man – but also a female.

Such chameleons solicit great hostility. Consider the DJ Tim Westwood. He transformed himself from the Norfolk grammar school-educated, bespectacled, mild-mannered son of a bishop into the Puffa jacket-wearing London homeboy with a Brooklyn accent of today. Just how far Westwood has tried to push his rudeboy image was clear at the Notting Hill Carnival three years ago, when he allegedly shouted to his audience that he wanted his “big black brothers” to get to the front.

Westwood has fans across the racial divide, yet, for this kind of outburst, he has been mocked by black and white alike – for pretending to be “something he isn’t”. Unlike Ali G, Westwood doesn’t “keep it real”. Indeed, we saw in Sacha Baron Cohen’s hugely popular satirical creation, loosely based on Westwood, how roundly white fantasists are laughed at. We find Ali G funny because the poor soul really does think he is black.

In fiction, we see how the character who becomes someone else is often portrayed as disturbed, mad or actually evil – Batman, Don Quixote, Dr Jekyll, Dr Strangelove, Darth Vader. Rarely are the Walter Mitties accepted as people who are just more comfortable “being someone else”. This is justified to a degree. The enduring story of Martin Guerre or the fictional Keyser Soze (from The Usual Suspects,1995) are dark, foreboding tales as to how an identity chameleon has the power to ruin lives – and take them. Meanwhile, Billy Tipton’s life, and the Kinks song “Lola”, are salutary warnings to heterosexuals about the perils of trusting appearances.

Everyone dislikes identity chameleons because they upset our notion of reality and our safety. After all, what if that isn’t a real heart surgeon or a genuine airline pilot? Yet perhaps this is something we should get used to, because the idea of “the self” has never seemed so imperilled. Intellectually, identity chameleons are part of the zeitgeist: in the Fifties, Jean-Paul Sartre said create thyself; in the Eighties, Michel Foucault said invent thyself. At a time when academics talk of deconstructing gender roles, or liberating ourselves from the “imagined community” of the nation, the likes of Tipton, FM-2030 and O’Brian have literally done as much. And Foucault’s latter, anti-humanist prophesy of “the death of man” seems to be edging closer as we edge ever closer to the age of the cyborg.

The potential of technology to shatter the notion of the self has been constant in fiction since 1818 and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But, in recent times, it has loomed ever heavier. In Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott depicted a future where the boundary between human and replicant was unclear; Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) was a tale of dislocation and erasure, where personal identity was a bricolage of electronic image and reality; while in Total Recall (1990), Arnold Schwarzenegger knows not if he is real or living inside a computer.

Whether such science fiction will become science fact is speculation. The late (or is he?) FM-2030 may have sounded a crank to many. But his predictions – that one day we can clone human beings, add electronic memory extensions to our organic brains, or maybe download new bodies or virtual memories from the internet – seem less outrageous than they did in the Seventies. Already, the internet provides enormous scope for inventing oneself, with personal web pages and gender-bending e-mail addresses that are wholly unverifiable.

Maybe we should celebrate, or at least accept, the death of “the self”. Perhaps, one day, in a kind of Nietzschean mode, we can all be Superman or Wonder Woman.