A direct line to the editor—is it worth the guilt?
By Susan Fishman Orlins | Growing up, I associated my last name, Fishman, with the smell of pickled herring that emanated from my grandfather’s mustache on Sunday mornings. When I was at Penn, friends called me Fish, which I accepted as an expression of endearment. Nonetheless, I could never get used to hearing my boyfriend Dizzy moan, “Oh, Fish” during a loving embrace. Long after Diz fled to meditate on a mountaintop in California, I married someone with a more prosaic last name, Orlins. Although, at the time, revising the name on my library card to match my husband’s was equated with forsaking my individuality, I was secretly pleased to be shedding my name’s cat-food image. What I had not anticipated was the dilemma I would eventually face when phoning editors who would assume I was Susan Orlean, the New Yorkerstaff writer and author of The Orchid Thief on which the film Adaptation was based.
Sixteen years into my life as Susan Orlins, I moved from New York to Washington, D.C. Although, from time to time, my personal essays appeared in print, they were not likely to be a topic of conversation at the water cooler. So when I dialed a Washington Post editor to pitch an idea, and his voice mail clicked on, I thought, There’s no way this guy who never heard of me will phone back. Yet, minutes later, he returned the call. “We generally don’t run first-person pieces, but I’d love to consider your manuscript. Oh, and let me give you my direct line.” Then he said, “I thought you lived in Manhattan.” How did he know I had lived in New York? For a moment vanity kicked in: Perhaps he remembered the op-ed piece I had penned for Newsdaythree years earlier or one of my articles from deep in the Business section of the Sunday Times.
Then he said, “That’s Susan OrLEAN?”
“Orlins,” I confessed. “O-r-l-i-n-s.” In the silence that followed, I could hear his disappointment.
I began to notice that other editors returned my calls promptly, often promising to respond to submissions within a day or two, instead of the usual six months. One woman, on her way to the airport, recited her itinerary and said, “I’ll get back to you the second I return.”
I confronted an ethical quandary. Just because an editor gave me his fax number, was I to assume it was a case of mistaken identity? Because someone listed on a masthead was not rude to me, did I have to tell who I was not? What if my birth certificate happened to have said Sarah Jessica Parker? Would it have been wrong to leverage what was rightfully mine when making dinner reservations at restaurants where desirable tables went only to patrons whose smiles had graced the pages of Vanity Fair? Or, if a voice on the phone had twittered, “Oh-la-la, Ms. Parker,” would the correct response have been, “I am not who you think I am, so it’s OK to seat me next to the men’s room”?
Up to this point I’d had no hand in chicanery. Yet I found myself stalked by a notion that my acceptance rate would soar if I were to extend the illusion that I was Susan Orlean; I rationalized that I could compose an essay about the experience, the way some journalists feign homelessness for the sake of a firsthand story.
I began with my byline, deleting Fishman, which admittedly I used only to make an impression on college classmates who might have stumbled upon my writing. And when leaving messages, instead of saying “My name is Susan Orlins,” I said, “This is Susan Orlins,” which sounded more like an assumption the callee ought to have known who I was.
These manipulations may not seem like a big deal, but I am not a fibber.
In fact, one could argue that I am a compulsive truth-teller, the type who leaves a note after sideswiping a parked car. So the slim possibility that I was leading people on felt as though I had masterminded a full-blown coverup. Plus, I was terrified of getting caught, which probably accounted for my whole history of scrupulousness.
Although I told myself I had simply let slip a couple of the 200 falsehoods the average citizen supposedly commits each day, shame haunted me. I started to believe that I was an impostor even to call myself a writer, and that I had chosen to become a personal essayist in the first place because it enabled me to misrepresent my life through crafty editing—more flimflam.
It was time to reform. When an editor at Washingtoniansaid she would gladly look at a piece I pitched, I told her, “I’m not who you think I am. I’m Susan Orlins, not Susan Orlean.” “Who’s Susan Orlean?” she asked. Go figure.
The following week I was getting my hair cut at Robert Stuart in New York. Now, the reason I went to this Upper West Side salon was because I had read a New Yorker article—written by Susan Orlean—about its chatty ambiance. I should also tell you that when I had seen Susan’s chronicle, I thought, “Why didn’t I think to write about beauty-parlor subculture?” Under the best of circumstances it was difficult not to read competitively.
“That’s Susan Orlean,” whispered Robert, pausing from feathering my bangs and from his monologue about why he wanted me to use a rinse to eliminate my bits of gray. A trench-coated woman, whose strawberry hair swung jauntily about her face and shoulders, whizzed behind my freshly cropped reflection.
She was one of those people who arrive at the hairdresser looking better than those leaving. At least that is how I remember her. Perhaps Robert pointed her out because whenever I called for an appointment, it created confusion as to which Susan I was. Surely he did not suspect the truth—that I had brushed away as too unlikely reveries that I might actually bump into her.
Susan emerged from the dressing room just after Robert finished blowing the loose hairs off my neck. The identical taupe wraps she and I wore had an equalizing effect.
“Hi,” I said to her. “My name is Susan Orlins. I’m also a writer and whenever I phone editors, they fawn all over me, thinking I’m you.”
“Tell me more,” she said. “No one fawns all over me.” I recounted two fawnings from the previous month. The conversation meandered to children; at the time, I had three and she had none, yet I rattled on about the advantages of certain nursery schools in the city versus others. I liked that I knew more about something than she did.
Afterward, peering at my new hair style in the reflection of a shop window, I mused that I ought to have given Susan my phone number in case someday an editor were to call her thinking she was Susan Orlins.
Susan Fishman Orlins CW’67 lives in Washington, where she is currently working on a collection of personal essays and is considering writing a book about imposters.