Wanted: Used mannequin that resembles dead neighbor, (or Why truth is never stranger than fiction)

Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci | Photo: Alan Singer

Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci | Photo: Alan Singer

The letter

It's August 14, 1995 and Bruce Nordstrom, the department store mogul, takes a half hour out of his busy day to answer a letter from a California man named Ted L. Nancy. It's unlikely that Nordstrom corresponded regularly with his customers. Nordstroms was a thriving business with over 50 department stores nationwide and answering letters wasn't his job. He had personal assistants to write back for him.

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The Nordstroms Letter

Ted L. Nancy's original letter to Nordstroms department store, eventually answered by Bruce Nordstrom himself

But something about this letter intrigued Nordstrom enough not only to answer it personally (with a typewritten letter of his own), but to cc his response to the store manager in Glendale, where Nancy lived, and the national display manager, or the guy in charge of mannequins.

The subject of the letter?

A storefront mannequin that bore a strong resemblance to Nancy's recently deceased neighbor.  

Nancy's request?

To purchase the mannequin once they were done with it so he could present it to the dead man's family and colleagues. 

Now, many of you are probably thinking at this point that I'm either describing the ravings of a certifiable nutcase or the early experimental stages of a budding serial killer.

I'm not.

It’s August 14, 1995 and Bruce Nordstrom, the department store mogul, takes a half hour out of his busy day to answer a letter from a California man named Ted L. Nancy.

Ted L. Nancy, pseudonym of comedy writer Barry Marder, was a pre-Internet troll. He wasn't the first. Marder followed in the footsteps of the original letter-writing troll Don Novello, another comedian who had a side career in the 80s and early 90s pestering corporations, politicians and dictators with bizarre requests, suggestions and unsolicited messages of support under the name Lazlo Toth.

As Marder eventually did, Novello published his collected letters as a book. If you pick up a copy of the now out-of-print The Lazlo Letters, you'll find gratuitous advice to companies like McDonalds for improving cherished recipes with idiotic additions (i.e. by adding jelly to the Egg McMuffin) and backhanded support for notorious thugs like Ferdinand Marcos and Richard Nixon. 

Along with Woody Allen's Without Feathers, Novello's collection of oddball ruminations was my comedy bible in my early teens. I was so impressed by Novello's character that I actually set out on a fake letter writing campaign of my own in college. I guess Barry Marder had the same idea.

Letter to Richard Nixon

Don Novello

Some of my fascination naturally derived from the fact that the people Toth wrote to actually seemed to believe him. And these weren't fellow morons. They were heads of corporations and world leaders. Which brings me back to Ted L. Nancy and Bruce Nordstrom.

Why did a man like Nordstrom believe Nancy's obviously fake request?

Cesky Sen | 2003

Cesky Sen | 2003

The dumb American

Are there more nuts in the US? It's possible, but I lived in England for a year and spent a few years in the Czech Republic. In both of these places, oddballs abound. Is it that Americans are more gullible? Check out the brilliant Cesky Sen from 2003, and you'll see that the notoriously jaded Czechs are just as easy to deceive.

I don't think it's because Americans are nicer either and thus genetically disposed to at least paying lip service to the whims of lunatics. Toth corresponded with Ferdinand Marcos, Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Teng Hsiao-Ping and the Vatican. Some of them actually answered back. 

Nordstroms Replies

Bruce Nordstrom's actual response to Ted L. Nancy's request to buy a mannequin from him that looked just like his dead neighbor

Part of the answer to this enigma may simply be that the customer policies of American corporations demand a level of courteousness that would just sound weird in a country like, say, Germany. In other words, Nordstrom answered because he had to. 

But this doesn't explain it either. Nordstrom certainly didn't have to respond personally. Nancy's well-meaning oddness should have gone no further than a bemused assistant. But it didn't. It made it all the way up to the boss's desk.

The more likely explanation, I'm convinced, is that the more demented the request, the more outré the premise, the more likely we are to assume authenticity. In classical scholarship—yes, I once did this for a living—they call it lectio difficilior, which for all of you who aren't former classics geeks means "the more difficult reading". In other words, if a truly bizarre sentence crept into a Platonic dialogue it's likely the original because who could have made it up? (Unless there were pre-Christian trolls, which, I'm sorry to say, is doubtful.)

So back to Ted L. Nancy and his bizarre request for a mannequin resembling his dead neighbor. 

The idea of a mammoth conceit is pretty common in novels and short stories. Pick up a comic novel by Gary Shteyngart, Kurt Vonnegut or Tim Robbins and you'll see it in action. What isn't so common is how Nancy triggers Nordstrom's suspension of disbelief. He did it so well you might not have even noticed yourself.

I call it the little oddness and it works like this.

The little oddness

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The real reason Nancy fooled Nordstrom is because he grounded his lunatic premise in absolutely believable, quotidian detail. These incidental details—the windbreaker, the strong facial resemblance, the mentioning of the actual store in Glendale, the fact that Nancy wants to share the mannequin with the dead man's co-workers—buttress Nancy's whopper like sandbags. They fortify it and hold it up, and ultimately sneak it past inspection. The fact that Nancy himself describes the situation as unbelievable only cements it. 

If you've ever read Charles Portis, who specializes in American oddballs and their off-the-wall predicaments, you've seen this technique at its funniest and most bizarre.

What does all of this mean for your writing?

Well, it doesn't mean that you'll want to run out and become a troll. Or that I'm advocating deceiving your audience either. God knows there's too much of both these days. What I think we can learn from comic writers like Don Novello, Barry Marder and Charles Portis is that detail, not premises alone, is what triggers our suspension of belief.

So, no, truth isn't stranger than fiction.

And while the bigger lie often sells, it's the fine print that seals the deal. 

Max's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, where he teaches creative writing and blogging. His novel Dillo is forthcoming from Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: max@storylinecreatives.com.