Usually attributed to [George] Burns — as, for example, in Michael York, Travelling Player (1991). Fred Metcalf in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations (1987) has Burns saying, rather: ‘Acting is about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’ However, Kingsley Amis in a devastating piece about Leo Rosten in his Memoirs (1991) has the humorist relating ‘at some stage in the 19705’ how he had given a Commencement address including the line: ‘Sincerity. If you can fake that… you’ll have the world at your feet’ So perhaps the saying was circulating even before Burns received the credit. Or perhaps Rosten took it from him? An advertisement in Rolling Stone in about 1982 offered a T-shirt with the slogan (anonymous): ‘The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.’ Fred MacMurray was quoted in Variety (15 April 1987): ‘I once asked Barbara Stanwyck the secret of acting. She said: “Just be truthful — and if you can fake that you’ve got it made.”’
At some stage in the 1970s at some party in London I ran into an American called Leo Rosten, who turned out on investigation to be the author, under the pseudonym of Leonard Q. Ross, of a number of stories (reprinted from The New Yorker) in the now (and even then) long-defunct British magazine Lilliput in the war years and after, comic genre pieces about one Hyman Kaplan, an Eastern-European immigrant to America, and his attempts to learn English in night school in New York. I remembered having thought them genuinely funny in a closely observed verbal way, and when Rosten amiably proposed throwing a quadripartite dinner including wives I gladly accepted.
Alas! I had infringed the old rule that lays down, Never accept an open-ended invitation from a stranger: when one who seems interesting and possible asks you out to dinner, say you have time for an early drink on Tuesday before a firm dinner date. If he still seems all right after an hour or so of early drink, say you reckon you can put this guy off. When you have gone through the motions of doing so, remember to mutter stuff about having to be home or in bed early. Then, and only then, you may go off to a place of your choice and dine with him.
It was arranged that Jane and I should turn up at Rosten’s flat at some time like seven and go off to a restaurant from there. On our arrival Rosten presented his wife, name of Zimmy, a pet-form, so I gathered, of Zimmermann, her maiden name. Being at once burly and flat-chested she did not appeal to me visually, but she was anxious to be agreeable. Rosten poured us all some very small drinks, an unusual performance for an American, at that time anyway. I seem to remember they were bloody Marys about the size of a fairly large glass of sherry. We drank ours up rather fast and got another of the same size. He said he would take us to eat at what he called his local. I had been looking forward to something a little fancier than a snack at a pub, and was relieved to find in due course that, mistaking a British usage, what he meant was a nearby restaurant. Anyway, in a little while he telephoned it from across the room.
‘Hallo, Mario,’ he said vivaciously. ‘Buona sera… what?’
Having already begun to dislike him I was pleased to hear him getting to the end of his stock of Italian with such promptitude. He continued his conversation in English.
During it, Zimmy noticed that Jane’s and my glasses were again empty and, lowering her voice, asked us, ‘Would you like another drink?’
She had not lowered it enough to escape the attention of Rosten, who slapped his hand across the telephone and said with some emphasis, ‘They’ve had two! They’ve had two!”
‘I just thought…’ said Zimmy apologetically before shutting up, and there was a brief embarrassed pause until Rosten finished at the telephone and, doing a lot of laughing to show he had only been joking a moment before, came and poured us all a further diminutive drink before departure.
The local turned out to be indeed local, less than a hundred yards off, and a standard and perfectly acceptable trattoria-type establishment. Rosten put on a revolting pseudo-Italian show of delighted cries and embraces with the proprietor and the waiter and doubtless others too. The four of us sat down at a rectangular table with Jane facing me and next to her Zimmy facing Rosten. Despite earlier talk about how he loved England and how often he came to London, he was turning out to be nearly the sort of American who tells you that in the United States of America we have this man we call the President. Not quite. He began doling out information about his life and works while the food began to arrive. It turned out to have been ordered in advance. This practice is surely a bit off, destroying as it does part of the point of going out to eat in a restaurant. What they brought us, however, was palatable enough.
Rosten went on with his narrative to me. The successive episodes were not very varied and they all shared the quality of showing him in a uniformly favourable light. Across the table Zimmy seemed to be delivering a similarly unbroken monologue to Jane, who looked as if she was enjoying it about as much as I was Rosten’s. At one point he said,
‘In our high schools and colleges back home in the United States…’ Here he paused, no doubt to debate mentally whether he needed to explain to me what a high school was, but, evidently deciding this would be unnecessary, continued, ‘…we have something we call the Commencement.’
‘Yes, I know about that,’ I said; ‘in fact we use the—’
‘It’s our name for the end-of-year ceremony of conferring diplomas and degrees. We call it Commencement to show it’s to be regarded as the beginning of something, not the end of something.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘Well, during the ceremony we get the Commencement Address, and the faculty, the professors and whoever, like to invite some kind of—’
No single noun would come near doing justice to the mixture of self-deprecation, amusement, worldly wisdom, mockery, vanity and shittiness with which he spoke the next word.
‘—distinguished guy to deliver it. Well, one time when some school couldn’t get hold of anyone better’—chuckle—‘they came to me. So I just told the kids,’ and he told me a certain amount of what he had told the kids, eventually reaching the peroration, ‘ “But all this learning and knowledge and hard work and dedication and so on is of less importance in the end than one other thing, which is sincerity. And if you can fake that” ’—he did a wink involving most of his face and held up a crooked forefinger— ‘ “you’ll have the world at your feet.” Well, some of the high-ups and stuffed shirts didn’t care for that at all, not one little bit, but the kids just loved it. They simply exploded. They went wild.’
I have forgotten what else the kids did. Somehow we got to the end of the meal. After a glass of grappa, which I greatly appreciated, the bill was settled and we were outside and making for the Rostens’ flat. No thank you, we would not come in for a final drink.
‘When do you go back home?’ I asked. Rosten named a time forty-eight hours ahead or so. ‘Oh dear,’ I said as insincerely as I could—’we won’t have time for another get-together.’
No, we would not.
When the other couple were just about out of earshot Jane said to me, ‘If you fancy that woman I’m leaving you.’
I reassured her most vigorously on that point.
‘Well, that’s something.’
I could not see what more there could be of that, but said, ‘You know, I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for old Zimmy even so. Married to that—’
‘I can. I don’t. She’s a revolting creature.’
‘Well yes, but—’
‘You saw how she was going on at me. Do you know what it was about? Just what a drag it was, going to see her mother in an institution every Monday. She doesn’t like doing it, you see. Just think of being eighty-something and having that as the one event in your week.’
The following week I entered the Garrick Club and the first person I saw was Leo Rosten, sitting writing at the writing-desk. Expertly converting my yell of horror into a cry of delighted surprise, I said, ‘Leo! I thought you said you’d be back in New York by this time.’
‘Well, I kind of… decided to stay a little longer.’ At Windsor Castle, or perhaps Chequers.
We chatted for a moment. I considered asking after Zimmy, but soon rejected the idea. I noticed he had a couple of books with him on the desk and, going by the principle that you can find out something about a man from his reading, unobtrusively took in what they were. The top one was called Selected Short Stories of Leo Rosten, and the one underneath, different in size, shape and jacket design, was called Selected Short Stories of Leo Rosten. I hurried off to the Gents.
If you should ever feel you may be getting complacent, or too complacent, look up Rosten in Contemporary Novelists (St James Press, 1972), a most useful compilation. In his entry, Rosten includes among the posts he has held ones like Consultant to the Commission on National Goals, 1960, and Member of the Educational Policies Committee of the National Educational Association; no lie-abed or recluse he. He writes of his writing: ‘I write as my interests guide and seduce me: see the preface to The Many Worlds of Leo Rosten [by Leo Rosten, 1964]… The titles of my works indicate the range of the nets I have cast into the sea of my fancies.’
And to think the bugger has probably had a better time of it than you and I.