Outside of slightly exaggerating my athletic prowess and my natural popularity with women, I have seldom compulsively lied about much that truly matters.
Excepting, of course, my educational qualifications. Truth to tell, I have--and earned on merit--the sorriest curriculum vitae since Eliza Doolittle was discovered speaking street Cockney by her kindly tutor Professor Higgins.
In my junior year I dropped out of a Texas high school, an act which the faculty accepted with great equanimity, to join the Army. I rapidly went on to flunk out of 1) radio operator's school, 2) radio repair school, and 3) cryptography school. Uncle Sam gave up on me as a scholar when I explained cryptography shortcomings with the complaint that everything was in code.
At that point I began to hide my academic deficiencies behind the darkest mendacities, claiming, when pressed, to be a graduate of this universtiy or that, and bestowing high honors or exotic degrees on myself as needed.
Fresh from one miserable semester at Texas Technological College, where I had enrolled to major in journalism before tardily discovering the institution had no journalism school and issued no journalism degree, I hitchhiked into a small New Mexico town. There I discovered in a marginal newspaper's window a sign proclaiming "Reporter Wanted."
I repaired to a beer joint and within the hour had invented a wonderful academic and work history on a damp napkin: honors graduate of Fordham University, prize-winning reporter on newspapers in Red Bank and Long Branch, N.J. I explained to the puzzled old lady publisher that though surely welcome at The New York Times, I had come back to the Southwest for my health--and hollowly coughed while saying it. The betting, in 1949, was that the smalltown publisher would not risk two dollars calling East to check my credentials. I won the bet and got the job.
By the time I worked up to the Midland, Tex., daily a year later I had routinely added a master's degree in Australian literature from St. John's College--never quite specifying the school's location, there being several such institutions. Why Australian literature?Well, who in Midland, Tex., might be able to question my expertise in such an exotic matter?
Two years later, on slow days in the city room of the "Odessa American," I repeatedly threatened to return to school to finish my doctorate work as soon as I found a spare dozen hours. By the time I came to Washington for work for Congress in 1955, I could tell my barroom admirers of many adventures at the Lyce'e Janson de Sailly, Paris, and the Universite' de Paris. (Chuck de Gaulle was a personal friend, of course, because we'd served together in World War II and Chuck had persuaded me to France to continue my education.)
When I briefly flirted with the corporate world in the late 1950s, applying for an executive job with Ford Motor Company, the man conducting my oral interview rejected me as overly qualified for the mid-management position I sought. By now I was proficient in seven languages, by my own admission, and had turned down a Rhodes Scholarship because I didn't like fog and rain.
In 1969-70, I sneaked into Harvard as a legitimate Nieman Fellow and astonished many by actually lasting out the year. 1973-76 found me teaching political science and creative writing at Princeton University, drawing a full professor's pay and carrying that title with the school's official blessings; woe unto the student who failed to use it. A year later, I signed on as a Duke Fellow of Communications at Duke University.
A bit of irony reposes here. I think I got those academic jobs--after achieving a certain tinny frame as a writer--because such high-toned institutions were impressed by 1) a dude who dressed like John Wayne and could quote snatches of Shakespeare if backed into a corner and 2) who candidly admitted, or bragged, that he owned but two diplomas: a tattered high school equivalency certificate from the U.S. Army, and a seal-embossed job from the Ditrict of Columbia Department of Recreation attesting that he had failed its swimming course.
You see, I had come full circle. When I was nobody it was helpful to flower myself with imagined blooms and scents. Later, it became more advantageous to shamelessly play the role of the high-school-dropout-cowboy-professor. A good con job, see, is all in knowing what is needed and what role to play exactly when. I believe it was my esteemed colleague Bill Shakespeare who put it best: "There's room enough to caper on this lengthy stage . . . "
Dr. King's learned tome, "The Whorehouse Papers," will be published next month by the Viking Press, New York. It is based on his serious sociological study now on Broadway, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."