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Ghostwriter Turned Stars' Life Stories Into Bestsellers

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sandford Dody, 90, a ghostwriter who as alter ego, confidant and shadow coaxed best-selling autobiographies out of Bette Davis, Helen Hayes and other stars of stage and screen, died July 4 of pneumonia at Christ Hospital in Jersey City, N.J. He lived in New York.

His death was confirmed by his close friend of 60 years, Granville McGee.

Mr. Dody got to know the denizens of Hollywood in the 1940s when he had bit parts in a handful of films. He had dreamed of being a playwright, but ghostwriting the life stories of often temperamental actors and actresses turned out to be a more reliable way of paying the bills.

A witty, often caustic and sharply observant writer, he had decidedly mixed feelings about assuming the identity of others and presuming to tell their life stories, in their words. "Is there anything, could there be anything madder than an autobiography written by someone other than oneself?" he wrote in his own memoir, "Giving Up the Ghost" (1980). "It is, of course, a contradiction in terms. Can one imagine a surrogate patient, with complaints freshly supplied by the sick man, now relating them to a doctor?"

His first assignment was "First Person Plural" (1958), the autobiography of silent-screen actress Dagmar Godowsky, 30 years after her career had ended. "To find Dagmar amusing, which was easy, was -- in her eyes -- almost as desirable as to love her, which was difficult," Mr. Dody wrote in "Giving Up the Ghost."

After months of trying to coax a life story from the "overweight, over-indulged, overbearing, overcivilized woman," he worried that he'd never make a dime off the book, if he ever finished it. "Dagmar was confident that we had the masterpiece of the century," he wrote. "I thought we had a salable book. We were both wrong."

His difficulties with Bette Davis were of a different sort. Introduced to the notoriously temperamental movie star by mutual friend Kaye Ballard, Mr. Dody and the movie legend became friends and the book, "The Lonely Life" (1962), was a pleasure to write. The difficulties came later.

"I wrote it exactly the way she talks -- electric, with short, punchy sentences," Mr. Dody told Opera News in 1999. "The publisher loved it. The Ladies Home Journal bought rights to it. But Bette refused to read it. When she finally did, she was guilt-ridden that she hadn't actually written it. So she tore into it with a hatchet, changing everything. The book needed surgery, not butchery. It was the worst case of egomania I'd ever seen."

Helen Hayes, first lady of the American theater, had an ego as well, although Mr. Dody found a convivial way of working with her during the writing of her memoirs, "On Reflection" (1968). Moving into her house in Nyack, N.Y., "with one valise and great hopes," he found her a bit formal -- he was "Mr. Dody," she was "Miss Hayes" -- even though they were working together in her bedroom. Finally he summoned the courage to tell her, "You were great in bed today," and from then on, they were close friends.

Judy Garland turned him down, as did Katharine Hepburn. Mr. Dody was not pleased. "As if to prove her transcendence over earthly matters, the lady [Hepburn] has, it is apparent, not combed her hair in over fifteen years," he wrote in "Giving Up the Ghost."

Sandford John Dody was born in New York City on Aug. 30, 1918. When he was 12, his father sent him to live in a boarding house in Tucson because he had battled asthma his whole life. Survivors include a half brother, Peter Dody of Chevy Chase.

He returned to New York, attended New York University and then headed west again, to Hollywood, where he appeared in several bit parts. His big moment came in "Pin Up Girl" (1944), starring Betty Grable. Mr. Dody has the opening lines in the movie, as a soldier who steps out of a car and exclaims, "Boy, what a ride!"

He thought of himself as a writer and for a time was represented by the literary agent Audrey Wood, whose other clients included William Inge and Tennessee Williams. Wood got Mr. Dody a job writing a Christmas show in London featuring Mary Martin. Silent-screen actress Dorothy Gish was interested in producing one of his plays, but nothing came of it.

He also ghostwrote "All My Sins Remembered," the 1964 autobiography of Elaine Barrymore, the last wife of actor John Barrymore, and "Once More From the Beginning," the 1965 autobiography of opera star Robert Merrill.

"It has been, one after another, quite an experience," he wrote in "Giving Up the Ghost." "When the ghost's job is done, he wanders, unheeded, unseen in an half-world and in circles now too grand for him. Unseen by everyone -- except on rare occasion by the subject who pretends blindness but winks conspiratorially when the unfamiliars are looking the other way -- I have been able to slip through closed doors and between locked mortals as they engage in their earthly affairs. Impossible to be heard, I for one have cried out in protest, in joy, in vain. Isn't that what death is all about finally?"

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