I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Using a false name is not always a way of hiding identity. Some aliases are mischievous, some are matters of personal safety, and some have great commercial value.
Benjamin Franklin’s Pseudonyms
The author of Fart Proudly did not hide behind a false name. Benjamin Franklin, writer, statesman, and signatory of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, took ownership of his 1781 work. However, Ben Franklin was fond of using pseudonyms at other times. Sometimes, he was Anthony Afterwit, at others Alice Addertongue. Timothy Turnstone, Harry Meanwell, and Richard Saunders were also names he wrote under.
He didn’t just adopt these names, he created personalities and life stories for many of them. Silence Dogood, for example, was a middle-aged widow he created when he was only 16.
According to the Public Broadcasting System, Ms. Dogood “looked at the world with a humorous and satiric eye. Her letters dealt with a range of topics from love and courtship to the state of education in Massachusetts.” “She” even received proposals of marriage.
Franklin used these fictitious characters as cover when writing letters to newspapers for publication. He tried to get his letters published under his own name in his brother’s newspaper, The New England Courant, but was rejected. As Silence Dogood he was published 14 times. When James Franklin discovered he had been pranked by his younger brother he was not a happy man.
As Polly Baker, Franklin attacked the way in which women received unequal treatment before the law. He wrote about how Polly was charged with having a fifth illegitimate child, while the men who fathered her babies, often prominent in society, received no punishment.
Franklin wrote of Polly’s plea to the judges: “Can it be a Crime (in the Nature of Things I mean) to add to the Number of the King’s Subjects, in a new Country that really wants People? I own I should think it rather a Praise worthy, than a Punishable Action.”
It was many years before Franklin owned up to Polly Baker being a nom de plume for himself.
Nom de Guerre
In France, from late in the Middle Ages until the revolution of 1789, it was the practice to give army recruits a nom de guerre (war name). Grunt soldiers were given these names, although officers were not, as an official identification rather than a serial number. The names related to some physical characteristic―tall, hooked nose, crooked teeth―or place from which they came.
The convention was dropped when the French monarchy was overthrown but the words nom de guerre lived on and made their way into the English vocabulary.
Noms de guerre have often been adopted by revolutionaries. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was better known by the alias Lenin, while fellow Russian revolutionary Lev Davidovich Bronstein is familiar to us as Leon Trotsky.
During World War II, many people in the underground adopted noms de guerre as a security measure. Even their comrades would not know each others real names so these could not be revealed during interrogation if caught. It also protected families against reprisals.
Today, many Islamic jihadis use noms de guerre. In some cases, it’s a way of separating themselves from their previous lives in which they would have been reluctant to engage in suicide missions.
The Movies of Alan Smithee
Perhaps, you are one of the lucky ones who missed the 1985 horror movie Appointment with Fear. Or, the Japanese-American science fiction flick Solar Crisis in 1990.
These films were absolute stinkers and were part of the body of work directed by Alan Smithee. They go along with The Challenge (1970), The Shrimp on the Barbie (1990), and Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996).
Indeed, Alan Smithee was quite prolific, having been given directorial credit for at least 30 motion pictures and scores of TV shows. He cut his teeth on Death of a Gunfighter (1969), about which renowned movie critic Roger Ebert wrote, “Director Allen (it was later changed to Alan) Smithee, a name I’m not familiar with, allows his story to unfold naturally. He never preaches, and he never lingers on the obvious.”
Ebert could not have known that Alan Smithee did not exist; he was a fictitious director created the hide the identities of real directors who did not want their names associated with bad movies. The original director of Death of a Gunfighter was Robert Totten of Gunsmoke fame. He and the film’s star, Richard Widmark, had a falling out and Don Siegel was brought in to rescue the production.
Neither Totten nor Siegel wanted credit for directing the movie so the American Director’s Guild (ADG) created the Alan Smithee name to mask the identities of the two men. The ADG then laid down some rules about the use of this pseudonym. It could only be applied to movies in which the director believed the studio had compromised his or her creative vision. Directors making such a claim had to keep their arguments secret.
Los Angeles Magazine noted that by the late 1990s, “The name had become infamous enough that slapping it on a movie was the equivalent of marketing it as total crap.”
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No more Alan Smithee movies were made although directors do sometimes still use pseudonyms.
In show business image is everything. The name Marion Morrison on a marquee is just not going to put bums in seats, or so reasoned the movie moguls of Hollywood. Image consultants, spin doctors, and creative types went to work and Marion Morrison became John Wayne. Gender confusion was buried.
The Western genre spawned many name changes. Maxwell Henry Aronson became Bronco Billy Anderson. Issur Danielovitch Demsky turned into Kirk Douglas. Charles Buchinsky morphed into Charles Bronson. And Vladimir Palanuik didn’t look good in chaps and a Stetson so they called him Jack Palance.
When a busty young blonde called Mavis Fluck turned up at the film studios in England the publicity folks said “Magnificent bosom, but the name just won’t do,” or words to that effect. She became Diana Dors. Margarita Carmen Cansino was renamed Rita Hayworth, and Virginia Katherine McMath was better known as Ginger Rogers.
A book of poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell was published in England in 1846. We know the authors better by the names of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. The sisters masked their feminine identity to overcome the prejudice against female writers that was prevalent in the Victorian era.
Mostly, women writers no longer have to hide their gender to be taken seriously as authors. However, many writers do use pen names for a variety of reasons.
Fiction authors usually develop a loyal following of readers because of the genre in which they write. A science fiction writer who wants to try their hand at a romance novel will adopt a pseudonym to avoid upsetting their fan base.
Some writers like to change their identity to distance themselves from their early work that may have bombed. Others may be under contract to a publisher using a particular name and might have to use an alias if trying to sell their work elsewhere.
For some, it’s an issue of privacy; they don’t want to be pestered by people who take exception to something they have written.
- It has been widely reported, and neither verified nor disproved, that Charlie Chaplin once entered a walk-like-Charlie-Chaplin under an assumed name. He is said to have come in 20th or 27th, depending on who is telling the story. The yarn does have a strong whiff of urban mythology to it.
- More credible is the tale that novelist Graham Greene entered a contest run by the New Statesman magazine for the best parody of his work. Under the name N. Wilkinson, Greene entered with several paragraphs from an as yet unpublished book. He won second prize.
- Walter Plinge has appeared in the cast list in several theatre programs in Britain. He, of course, never existed and was used to conceal the identity of a real actor or one who was playing dual roles. It was also employed as a placeholder for a role that hadn’t been cast at the time the program was printed.
- “What Ever Happened to Alan Smithee, Hollywood’s Worst Director?” Thomas Harlander, Los Angeles Magazine, June 4, 2018
- “Name that Ben.” PBS, 2002.
- “Film Star Pseudonyms.” H2G2, February 19, 2012
- “Why Do Authors Use Pseudonyms?” Writer’s Digest, April 29, 2008.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 09, 2020:
Anya. Believe it or not, there are several pen name generators on this internet. Here is one
I cannot vouch for its authenticity.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 09, 2020:
Entertaining and educational as always, Rupert. Another famous author who has used a pseudonym is Stephen King. He used Richard Bachman for a number of novels and short stories.
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on October 09, 2020:
I keep looking for a suitable pen-name. Thank you for a very well-written hub!
Ann Carr from SW England on October 08, 2020:
Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for the entertainment. I knew about John Wayne and also the Brontes' pseudonyms but not the rest. Some anazing real names in there!