MIAMI -- On Aug. 20, a much-loved woman named Sally Bowers died at the Gramercy Park Nursing Center in Perrine, Fla.
Five days later, United Press International transmitted a story with this lead: "Sally Bowers, best known as the blond-haired girl who originated the male character of Spanky in the 'Our Gang' movie series in the 1930s, has died of cancer. She was 63."
The story was picked up and published by newspapers all over the United States. There was just one problem: By all available evidence, Sally Bowers never played the role of Spanky.
In fact, there was nothing to connect her to the popular Hal Roach movie serials that later became "The Little Rascals" on television.
Yet for most of her life, Bowers entertained her friends, children and grandchildren with colorful tales of movie-star days in the late 1920s: palling around with Shirley Temple, bouncing on Al Jolson's knee, pulling pranks with Alfalfa and Buckwheat.
Everyone believed Bowers. There seemed no reason not to.
But after her obituary ran, people said Bowers' story wasn't true.
"I'm a little bit devastated," says one of Bowers' daughters, Debbie Wallace. "What I can't understand is why would a person for 40 years be so proud of something she didn't do? It's impossible."
At the nursing home, Bowers was known to staff and friends as "Spanky." Her room was dubbed "Spanky's Penthouse." The walls were decorated with Miami Dolphins posters and old photographs of Sally dressed the way Spanky did. Often she autographed pictures and handed them out.
Visitors were treated to a storybook tale of the doting aunt who mailed Sally's baby snapshots to a talent contest at New York's Roxy Theater. Hal Roach personally chose her, she said, to appear in the "Our Gang" series at age 3. Bowers said her long hair was dyed and cropped short, and she was dressed in a cap and overalls to make her look like a cherubic little boy -- the original Spanky.
"Nonsense," says Richard Bann, a close friend of Hal Roach and the author of "Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals."
"I've identified every kid that walked in front of those cameras in all 221 pictures, and I never heard of this person."
Bann says there was one and only one Spanky: George McFarland, now 58, semiretired and living in Fort Worth. When UPI transmitted the Sally Bowers obituary, The Miami Herald telephoned McFarland to check the story. "It's balderdash," said the real Spanky. "The broad was an impostor when she was alive and she's an impostor when she's dead."
The next day, McFarland was still irritated. He said he keeps tabs on phony Spankys who "come out of the woodwork." He had a file on Sally Bowers, with newspaper articles.
"These reporters," McFarland fumed. "If they listened back in Journalism 101, they would've checked out this before they printed a word of it."
The South Dade News-Leader, which last year published a feature story about Bowers, was the source of the UPI obituary. News-Leader reporter Lorie Josephson, who wrote the feature, says: "I basically admit I took her word for it, because I thought: Why would anyone make this up?"
Josephson was not alone. Over the years Bowers had accumulated what one relative described as "piles and piles of newspaper clippings" from as far away as St. Louis.
A critical flaw in her story is the name Spanky. It was George McFarland's nickname even before he joined the cast; no other character in the Roach comedies ever used the name.
Dickie Moore, another child actor who played in "Our Gang," says he never heard of Sally Bowers, known then as Sadie Wolins.
Bowers' relatives say she told them that the movie producers originally named her character after a cereal -- like Buckwheat and Farina, only this cereal name started with a letter P. Sally couldn't remember what it was.
Which still doesn't explain why she would subsequently claim to be Spanky.
"It's sad, pathetic," says author Bann. "There isn't a month that goes by that I don't get two or three calls with respect to people who allege to be one kid or another. Obituaries come in all the time."
Bann devoted a whole chapter of his 1975 book to the weird and continuing phenomena of "Our Gang" impostors. The character of Darla Hood is most popular, he says, with Spanky second and Buckwheat a close third. Though the original Buckwheat is dead, Bann says one impostor continues to cadge free hotel rooms all across the country.
Bowers' relatives cannot believe that her story was, in Spanky McFarland's blunt words, a hoax.
Says Debbie Wallace: "I want everyone to know that Mom's not a fraud." Adds cousin Rita Lurie of Memphis: "All I know is, she was in the original 'Our Gang.' Of course I was very young then ... That's all we ever talked about, that our cousin was in the movies."
The family has many pictures of little Sally dressed up in Spanky garb. The family also remembers gathering around the television to watch "The Little Rascals," with Sally telling them what was about to happen in every scene.
"Everything was so vivid in her mind," recalls Diane Thibodeau, her daughter-in-law.
"All I know is, from the time I was little she was talking about it," says Linda Riselo, another of Bowers' daughters. "I have the beanie she wore from back then."
Richard Bann says hundreds of children were used as walk-ons and extras in the "Our Gang" comedies. He speculates that perhaps Bowers got a bit part, and from that concocted a story in which she became, forever, the star.
Last year a Herald reporter interviewed Bowers for a possible feature story. "All my life I wanted love," Bowers said at the time. "My parents didn't want me; they wanted a boy."
She told of climbing upon the great Al Jolson's knee as he crooned "Sonny Boy." Said Bowers: "He always told me: 'It takes a clown to make them laugh. Never put on a false face. Be yourself.' "
The Herald was not able to verify Bowers' account of her movie days, and did not publish the interview.
On Wednesday, UPI transmitted a revised version of the Sally Bowers story, quoting George McFarland and others, casting serious doubt upon Bowers' claim of "Our Gang" fame.
Still grieving over her death, Bowers' family is hurt that the real Spanky would speak so harshly about their own.
"She wasn't hurting anybody," says Diane Thibodeau, who always called her mother-in-law Spanky. "She must have been involved in some small way. Probably she did embellish it."
On Wednesday night, some of Bowers' relatives got together to watch a videotape of an old "Our Gang" episode in which Sally supposedly appeared as Spanky. The quality of the film was poor, Diane says, so it was hard to see the resemblance.
"At this point we don't know what to believe," she adds, "but we're going to keep believing what we want ... All we wanted was a small obituary, the way she wanted it. A small memorial."
Says Linda Riselo: "What matters is, this is what she lived. This is what she felt. Whether it's true or not, only the good Lord knows.