Full Deck by Barbara Shulgasser-Parker

September 19, 2007

I am a Who

Filed under: mystification — bshulg @ 1:17 am

I don’t know why I am listed in Who’s Who in America. The editors there have every reason to wonder themselves. Thirteen years ago I assumed I was first included because they may have thought I was an up-and-coming young writer and Who’s Who wanted to be in at the ground level of my ascendancy. Perhaps my rise had been detected by the experienced professionals at the Marquis publishing group using some proprietary mathematical formula based on volume of published words, divided by something or other, under which I scarcely qualified. Or maybe it had to do with my feather-headed willingness to immediately send off a check for a substantial amount to secure my copy of the 1994 edition that might, perhaps, showcase my name.

   Early on, my skepticism was triggered regarding the good sense of the Who’s Who marketing department. Every year they’d ask me yet again if I wished to buy the latest edition, having forgotten that I’d already purchased my Who’s Who back when they first offered it at the special, low-low, 30-percent-off, two hundred-something dollar-honoree-only price. (Non-honorees can now pay $749 for this year’s “Classic” edition and $790 for the leather-bound.)

  Did they fear I’d lost track of the 4,141-page, two-volume doorstop? Or had they mistaken me for a reference library? A more worrisome thought: Do other honorees update every year?   

  Who’s Who publishes seventeen books, including Who’s Who in American Women, Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in the East, Who’s Who in the West and Who’s Who in American Engineering. A year or two into my run, other Whos got in touch inviting me to be similarly honored. I was honored, yes, but following Groucho’s logic, it occurred to me that I might possibly do better than to sign up with an organization eager to embrace the likes of me. I said yes to Who’s Who in American Women and Who’s Who in the World against my better judgment. But that’s as far as I was willing to go. You will not see me in Who’s Who in American Anything Else. And I will not be purchasing any more books, either.  When I want to see my name, I will make a trip to the local library. I do not have reinforced shelving and two hundred something bucks a pop is above my means. Perhaps I should send a note and remind them: I’m in for writing, not investment banking. 

When Who’s Who originally found me I was an obscure film critic writing for The San Francisco Examiner, an afternoon paper in a town that reads its newspaper in the morning hours of the day. Chances were good that if you knew me for my incisive criticism at that time, you were probably one of my editors.  (They were required to read me – it was in their job description.) How did Who know about me? Perhaps they’d gotten hold of some of my recent bookstore receipts and figured I was a good prospect for buying another book I didn’t need.

 When I was first invited, I sent back the Who’s Who’s form immediately and impatiently awaited judgment. I had earlier been a veteran news mangler and night rewrite man at The Chicago Sun-Times, a former feature writer at a small daily in Connecticut and a journalism school graduate. My most significant achievement at the time had been publication of a short story in the kind of magazine well stocked in beauty shops. It was a good bet that anyone who read it had recently had a haircut. I was the author of two novels taking up space in my desk drawer and several unproduced screenplays. In short, I felt as if I ought to have been further down the road of life. Then Who came along, patted me on the back and said, “You’re good enough. Good enough to be a Who.” I said, “Why, yes, I’m sure you must be right.”

   Some time after I was first listed, I had a screenplay produced. And then a novel published. Over the years, as requests to update my listing arrived in the mail I was eager to dash off descriptions of my latest accomplishments, telegraph style, and send them in. Who’s Who had stood by me and whispered encouragement while I had toiled in the shadows. With each addition to my bio I was justifying Who’s faith in me. I was living up to the Who mantle.  

  That’s what I had always thought. But recently, while cleaning the maple syrup off my four-year-old son’s hands, I counted how many years it had been since I’d had anything new to add to my bio. (Six.) And a new paradigm occurred to me and it is this: There are three tiers of Who-ness. Nobel Prize winners (you know their names), high-profile entrepreneurs (Bill Gates), politicos (Hillary Clinton), influential writers and artists (Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Art Spiegelman) and big name entertainers and sports icons (Tom Cruise and Roger Federer) are all shoe-ins and belong in the First Tier. Shaquille O’Neill does not have to update and return his listing every year. He will be included with or without his expressed cooperation. He has to be or Who’s Who has no credibility as an institutional reference staple.    The Second Tier includes many highly accomplished people who are not as well known outside of their fields. If you need to learn the birthplace of a living scientist, educator, publisher, character actor, business person or urban planner, you will probably find the information in a Who’s Who. 

   Then there is the Third Tier and that’s me. It is flattering to be asked your mother’s maiden name in the name of historical documentation. Who would not succumb to such a blandishment? I suspect that Second and Third Tier candidates account for a healthy portion of the sales of Who’s Whos to private individuals.  In a slow sales year, you, too, may find an invitation in your mailbox to be a Who.  

  Why am I still in? I suppose once you’ve done something, anything – even written a critically ignored novel and a critically abhorred movie – they hesitate to expunge you.  Space probably never becomes an issue as long as people like John Kenneth Galbraith reliably keep dying. He freed up enough space singlehandedly to accommodate four or five Third Tier entries. 

  In any case, the letters keep coming all through the year asking me to update my profile and resubmit it for consideration to be included again, and with them come the perquisites of the privileged. Generous discounts remain perpetually on offer. Had I ordered the 60th Anniversary Who’s Who in America, I could have received a free 60th Anniversary Certificate of Recognition with my purchase. And the Collection Catalogue offers deals on clocks, trophies, etched glass, plaques and key chains bearing my name and my position of honor. I have manage to maintain my resolve and resist. So far.   

   Like galbraith, when Who’s Who honorees die they are deleted from the world of the unforgiving present tense. If you are no longer an “is,” you are no longer in.  Some time in what I hope will be the distant future, I expect an invitation from the Marquis company’s most ghoulish venture, Who Was Who in America. On behalf of the self who will not be able to speak up and seize immortality, I hereby submit my bio for consideration. If elected, I will serve. And, if this will have any influence on the selection committee, let me add that I’m springing for the leather-bound.



  1. The only Who I ever looked at was “Horton Hears a Who.” Hey, how come nobody thinks I’m a Who? This is hilarious, Barbara! Keep ’em coming.

    Comment by Lynn — September 19, 2007 @ 1:51 pm

  2. You do not know me at all,but I have heard of you, so you must be a WHO!!!
    Happy who-ing.

    Comment by Debbie — September 19, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

  3. I thought you were a rock star…. a member of The Who !!!! This has me on the floor…. play your guitar one more time….

    Comment by Uncle Ira — September 20, 2007 @ 2:36 am

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