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The Famous Writer Who Brought Down Famous Writers School

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Image Credit: Alec Nevala-Lee

Jessica Mitford used a typewriter the way others would a sniper rifle. An investigative journalist who exposed the seedier underpinnings of the funeral industry and sounded alarms over medical impropriety, nothing seemed to escape her attention. She even outed her own sister as a Nazi sympathizer.

In the late 1960s, Mitford met a client of her lawyer husband who was in significant distress. The woman, 72, had given over every last dollar of her savings to a salesman representing Famous Writers School, a mail-order correspondence business that peppered magazines and paperback books with ads promising aspiring writers personalized guidance.

Famous Writers was so named for its “guiding council” of established and celebrated authors including Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone, Max Shulman, and Faith Baldwin. Bennett Cerf, a key publishing figure at Random House and well-known for his appearances on television, co-founded the school. Several of these faces appeared in promotional material, encouraging would-be authors to enroll in the program they had designed.

The claims, Mitford found, were difficult to believe: that writers would receive personalized guidance, that “aptitude” tests would weed out those unworthy of their attention, and that success awaited those who adhered to their lesson plan, which could cost upwards of $900. After learning the woman was refused a refund for the $200 she had spent as a down payment, Mitford decided to investigate.

The result, “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers,” appeared in the July 1970 issue of The Atlantic, and it was not flattering. Mitford described how one consumer advocate, Robert Byrne, submitted a poorly-worded essay for their no-obligation writing assessment. In return, he received a glowing endorsement of his skills:

"Dear Mrs. Burns, Congratulations! The enclosed Test unquestionably qualifies you for enrollment...only a fraction of our students receive higher grades...”

Mitford sought comment from the Famous Writers themselves, who appeared aghast that anyone would think they had any personal involvement in the school’s operations. "Anyone with common sense would know that the fifteen of us are much too busy to read the manuscripts the students send in,” said Faith Baldwin.

The parent company, Famous Schools, was a staggeringly lucrative venture, bringing in $48 million in revenue in 1969. The writers helped prepare textbooks and appeared in advertising, acting as spokespeople. In return, they received a share of profits.

Like his authors, Cerf professed to have no direct involvement with how the business was run. Nevertheless, he welcomed Mitford into his office and proceeded to cram his foot in his mouth. When Mitford inquired whether Random House had ever signed a contract with an author trained via mail order, he replied:

"Oh, come on, you must be pulling my leg—no person of any sophistication, whose book we'd publish, would have to take a mail-order course to learn how to write...The crux of it is a very hard sales pitch, an appeal to the gullible. Of course, once somebody has signed a contract with Famous Writers he can't get out of it, but that's true with every business in the country."

Milford also observed a salesman making an in-home pitch for the course:

During his two-hour discourse he casually mentioned three books recently published by students he personally enrolled; one is already being made into a movie! "Do tell us the names, so we can order them?" But he couldn't remember, offhand: "I get so darn many announcements of books published by our students."

The Atlantic was initially reluctant to publish Mitford’s expose, wary of alienating Famous Writers School after having accepted a substantial amount in advertising money from the company. But Mitford’s story was compelling enough for the magazine to cancel the contract. It became their highest-selling issue up to that point.

Readers were intrigued—writers (and would-be customers) were appalled. Famous Writers School saw a radical drop in enrollment. In 1972, Famous Schools underwent bankruptcy reorganization, evaporating their Famous Writer program from ad pages and dissolving partnerships with their spokespeople.

"I'm only a figurehead,” one of the writers, Phyllis McGinley, had told Mitford. "I thought a person had to be qualified to take the course, but since I never see any of the applications or the lessons, I don't know. Of course, somebody with a real gift for writing wouldn't have to be taught to write."

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Tulane University Offers Free Semester to Students Affected by Hurricane Maria
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As Puerto Rico continues to assess the damage left by Hurricane Maria last month, one American institution is offering displaced residents some long-term hope. Tulane University in New Orleans is waiving next semester’s tuition fees for students enrolled at Puerto Rican colleges prior to the storm, Forbes reports.

From now until November 1, students whose studies were disrupted by Maria can apply for one of the limited spots still open for Tulane’s spring semester. And while guests won’t be required to pay Tulane's fees, they will still be asked to pay tuition to their home universities as Puerto Rico rebuilds. Students from other islands recovering from this year’s hurricane season, like St. Martin and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are also welcome to submit applications.

Tulane knows all too well the importance of community support in the wake of disaster. The campus was closed for all of the 2005 fall semester as New Orleans dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During that time, schools around the world opened their doors to Tulane students who were displaced. The university wrote in a blog post, “It’s now our turn to pay it forward and assist students in need.”

Students looking to study as guests at Tulane this spring can fill out this form to apply.

[h/t Forbes]

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Pablo, a Groundbreaking New BBC Series, Teaches Kids About Autism
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Autism spectrum disorder affects one in 68 kids in the U.S., but there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of the condition and what it feels like to have it. As BuzzFeed reports, a new British children’s program aims to teach viewers about autism while showing kids on the spectrum characters and stories to which they can relate.

Pablo, which premiered on the BBC’s kids’ network CBeebies earlier this month, follows a 5-year-old boy as he navigates life with autism. The show uses two mediums: At the start of an episode, Pablo is played by a live actor and faces everyday scenarios, like feeling overstimulated by a noisy birthday party. When he’s working out the conflict in his head, Pablo is depicted as an animated doodle accompanied by animal friends like Noa the dinosaur and Llama the llama.

Each character illustrates a different facet of autism spectrum disorder: Noa loves problem-solving but has trouble reading facial expression, while Llama notices small details and likes repeating words she hears. On top of demonstrating the diversity of autism onscreen, the show depends on individuals with autism behind the scenes as well. Writers with autism contribute to the scripts and all of the characters are voiced by people with autism.

“It’s more than television,” the show’s creator Gráinne McGuinness said in a short documentary about the series. “It’s a movement that seeks to build awareness internationally about what it might be like to see the world from the perspective of someone with autism.”

Pablo can be watched in the UK on CBeebies or globally on the network's website.

[h/t BuzzFeed]


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