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'Giving Up The Ghost'

Joe Holley

Some years ago, I'd begin my workday by walking down the marble halls of a historic pink-granite building, settling in before my computer in a stately, high-ceilinged office and assuming my identity as a white-haired woman in late-middle age with a distinctive Texas twang and a salty wit known to the nation.

I became Ann Richards -- or, at least, her speechwriter.

As Sandford Dody, ghostwriter par excellence, observed in his book "Giving Up the Ghost: A Writer's Life Among the Stars," putting words in the mouth of someone else and making them sound like their own words is an unnatural act. "After all, how does one become a ghost without dying a little?" he asks, plaintively.

Dody, who died for real July 4, had mixed feelings about being a ghostwriter, although writing about Bette Davis, Helen Hayes and other stars of the stage and screen seems to have made him a good living. (Our archived obits, in PDF format, are here for Bette Davis and Helen Hayes.)

"Having started my career as a playwright with the encouragement of knowledgeable powers," he writes in his tart memoir, "fortified with a scholarship, a grant, the faith of a great literary agent, and the protection of and assistantship to one of the pundits of the drama, for whatever reason, I evidently lost confidence in my own ability to project my rocket to the moon, and I hitched my wagon to the stars instead."

For me, becoming Ann Richards was relatively easy, despite the fact that I'd never been a middle-aged woman, or the governor of Texas. Both of us were from Waco, so I had heard the easy rhythms of that Central Texas twang my whole life (mother, aunts, teachers). Once I got into the groove on a speech -- armed, of course, with what I knew she wanted to say -- I could hear that voice flowing through my fingers, becoming her words on the screen. Had I looked into a mirror at that point, I wouldn't have been altogether surprised to see my face wreathed in a white bouffant.

Go here to read Dody's obituary in The Washington Post and here for our Ann Richards obituary.

By Joe Holley  |  July 29, 2009; 10:28 AM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley  
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