If he’s lucky, Simon Worrall might be the first journalist who sells film rights to a nonfiction story in The Paris Review.
The story, “Emily Dickinson goes to Las Vegas,” arrived inconspicuously last week in the mag’s 430-page poetry issue. But unlike the verse that surrounds it, this saga has high dramatic stakes and a plot straight out of a Hitchcock movie. Its evil mastermind is Mark Hofmann, a lapsed Mormon known as “the Rembrandt of American forgers.”
Like The Maltese Falcon, this plot has a macguffin that motivates everyone to act—in this case, an Emily Dickinson poem. In the mid 1980s, Hofmann decided to forge a Dickinson for its likely market value, carefully duplicating the poet’s penmanship and paper stock. When he began showing it in Salt Lake City, experts dismissed the text as everything from “no masterpiece” to “crap.”
Yet in 1985, Hofmann’s business associate found a buyer: Todd Axelrod, a former securities trader who had moved to Vegas to become a rare-document dealer. That same year, Hofmann murdered two business partners in Utah, for which he was sentenced to life.
Ten years later, Axelrod was still showing the lousy poem. Then fate intervened. In 1995, after James Halden, the majority investor in Axelrod’s Gallery of History, died, his family trust cashed out, thereby acquiring the poem in a $2 million lot. The trust sold the poem to Sotheby’s, which sold it in 1997 to Daniel Lombardo, a curator at the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. That summer, Lombardo repeatedly dragged the document to the forensics lab of Yale’s rare-book library, where it was finally declared a fake.
Enter Simon Worrall, whose gloves-off manuscript has aroused almost as much controversy as the poem. Worrall got wind of the story in 1997, when he read a “short piece announcing that this unpublished Emily Dickinson poem had been found, and how exciting it was the Jones Library had bought it.” At the end of the summer, upon reading a “four-line mention” that the poem had been returned, he thought, “Hmm, that’s curious” and called Lombardo that day. An hour later, after hearing the rough outlines of Lombardo’s detective work, Worrall knew he had stumbled onto “the sort of story every journalist dreams of.”
First he pitched it to The New Yorker, which said no, then to Harper’s senior editor Charis Conn, who sent him a contract. Worrall spent six months “just living, sleeping, breathing, and eating this story,” trying to figure out how the poem had gotten from Vegas to Sotheby’s. The answer came in February 1998, when he flew to Vegas and found Axelrod’s office, on a four-lane drag of strip malls at the edge of town.
The British newspaper The Guardian ran a version of Worrall’s story on April 8. In it, he describes arriving at the gallery and spotting Axelrod, who looked “big, like a Sumo wrestler,” with a “cinnamon-coloured poodle” at his heels. Then two men hurried in. “I have the Sotheby’s package,” said one.
“My jaw dropped and I went weak in the knees,” Worrall recalls. He stopped the men on the way out and talked them into showing him the invoice. On it, he saw the words, “Emily Dickinson poem.” Eureka! The next day, he grilled Axelrod, who identified the dead man, James Halden, as the last link in the poem’s journey from a known forger to Sotheby’s auction block.
You couldn’t ask for a better climax. But later, editors would have problems with this scene, and with Sotheby’s complaints about Worrall’s reporting techniques. The auction house claimed he was making biased and negative statements about their experts, which Worrall denies having done. At Harper’s, Worrall says, they struggled with the text, cutting it to 4000 words. He says that despite editor Lewis Lapham’s “personal involvement,” he and the editors came to a mutual decision that the piece “couldn’t work at that length.” Conn confirms Worrall’s account.
In the summer of 1998, Worrall sold the piece to The New Yorker, where he says literary editor Bill Buford “fought for it tooth and nail.” This time, say insiders, the same questions about Worrall’s reporting techniques came up. The author concedes he had a “confrontational and hostile relationship” with Sotheby’s—but feels it was justified by their resistance. “I would never have gotten the story if I hadn’t followed it like a fox terrier and been willing to ask some difficult and uncomfortable questions.”
The story languished on 43rd Street for months, during which time Worrall passed up the chance to publish it in Granta. So he was devastated when New Yorker editor David Remnick killed it in the spring of 1999. He says Buford was unhappy, too, telling him, “I’ll just have to read it with envy somewhere else.” (Remnick and Buford declined to comment.)
The story had to go round the world before its next reception in New York. In February, it appeared in the Sydney, Australia, Morning Herald, by which time the Guardian was showing interest. James Linville, a Paris Review editor now in Berlin, recommended it to George Plimpton, who read it last winter. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is perfect for the poetry issue,’ ” says Plimpton. “But I had to find out whether we could publish it, and the first recommendation was that we shouldn’t.”
Plimpton wouldn’t take no for an answer. He retained libel lawyer James Goodale (of his father’s firm, Debevoise & Plimpton) and personally “spent a lot of time with the lawyers, going over it line by line.” As a literary man, he wasn’t so much interested in the question of how much Sotheby’s knew about the poem’s provenance as he was in Hofmann, the forger. “What fascinated me,” says Plimpton, “was the excitement of the library and then the realization that they’d been duped.” He asked for a revise, and the edit was mostly a matter of “excision.”
Plimpton knew the piece had been turned down by Harper’s and The New Yorker, “mostly because of possible legal problems.” But having finessed the situation, he’s enjoying the irony that those other mags have “much deeper pockets than The Paris Review,” which has lost money since its 1953 launch.
Now that agents Phillip Spitzer and Joel Gotler are working on a book and movie deal, Worrall is “very happy” with the piece. But looking back, he says it’s been “a rather disquieting journey. In the old days, certainly in Britain, if the facts stood, then the philosophy was publish and be damned. But now, there’s such anxiety about the possibility of a protracted lawsuit by a very powerful and wealthy company or individual, I think the fear of litigation has made substantial inroads into freedom of expression.”
A Sotheby’s spokesperson declined to comment on Worrall’s Guardian and Paris Review stories, including Worrall’s claim that Sotheby’s returned the poem to Axelrod. But he vehemently disputed the author’s conclusions. “When we sold the piece, we believed it was by Emily Dickinson,” he said. “Any theory that Sotheby’s would conspire to sell forgeries is ridiculous.”