(Motoko Rich, Brian Stelter)
In media circles, there is a joke about facts that are too good to check. This week Oprah Winfrey and the New York publishing industry stumbled on yet another unverified account in the form of a Holocaust survivor who said his future wife had helped him stay alive while he was imprisoned as a child in a Nazi concentration camp by throwing apples over the fence to him.
The story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat, who said they reunited years later on a blind date in New York, turned out to be fabricated, and over the weekend the publisher of his memoir, “Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived,” canceled the February release of the book. This isn’t the first time either a publisher or Ms. Winfrey has been gullible in the face of an exaggerated tale. Now both Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, and Ms. Winfrey are faces on a media dartboard, with Ms. Winfrey dodging criticisms of what the media blog Gawker called her “liar’s club.”
Ms. Winfrey has not commented publicly on Mr. Rosenblat’s fabrications And, other than to announce the cancellation of the book, Berkley Books has said nothing further.
Nearly three years ago Ms. Winfrey was famously duped by James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” his memoir of drug addiction and recovery in which he embellished several details; for example, he wrote that he had spent nearly three months in jail when in fact he had been held for a few hours. An outraged Ms. Winfrey rebuked Mr. Frey on television, telling him that he “betrayed millions of readers.”
In that case Ms. Winfrey was in part trusting the credibility of Mr. Frey’s publisher, an imprint of Random House, when she anointed “A Million Little Pieces” as a selection of her book club and propelled it to best seller status. But in the case of Mr. Rosenblat it was Ms. Winfrey who gave his story a mass hearing long before he ever secured a book deal.
According to the prologue in a galley copy of “Angel at the Fence,” Mr. Rosenblat entered a contest in The New York Post for the “best love story sent in by a reader.”
“On a whim, I wrote a couple of paragraphs and mailed them in,” he wrote. He won the 1995 contest, he said, and he and his wife received a candlelit dinner overlooking Central Park and a trip to Broadway and were featured in the newspaper. As a result of that media exposure, Mr. Rosenblat wrote, Ms. Winfrey invited him on the show.
Mr. and Mrs. Rosenblat appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1996, telling their story of meeting as children while Mr. Rosenblat was a prisoner at a subcamp of the infamous Buchenwald. Eleven years later the couple returned to Ms. Winfrey’s show, and Mr. Rosenblat got down on his knees to give his wife a new ring. Ms. Winfrey called it “the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever told on the air.”
Although Mr. Rosenblat’s memoir was pulled before it was ever published and therefore never had the chance to be a candidate for Ms. Winfrey’s book club, some viewers seemed to take the fabrication — and Ms. Winfrey’s endorsement of it — personally.
“We run out and buy these books and then we get kicked in the teeth,” someone using the identification 0423dee wrote Monday on Ms. Winfrey’s Web site, oprah.com.
Kathleen Rooney, the author of “Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America,” said she did not find any evidence the producers fact-check the books Ms. Winfrey selects.
“As far as I know, book club selections are not routinely vetted for veracity,” Ms. Rooney said.
In Mr. Rosenblat’s case, Andrea Hurst, the literary agent who secured his book deal, said she trusted him in part because he had already received Ms. Winfrey’s imprimatur. And no doubt because of the appearance on Ms. Winfrey’s show, Mr. Rosenblat retold his story repeatedly to newspaper and magazine reporters and to a writer for the book “Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul,” published in 1999.
A children’s author, Laurie Friedman, was so inspired by an online news article she read about the Rosenblats that she wrote a children’s book based on his story. Lerner Publishing, the publisher of the book, “Angel Girl,” released in September, said Monday that it would not proceed with any reprints and would offer refunds for returned copies. The book has sold 2,000 copies so far, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of sales.
Harris Salomon, a producer who plans to make a fictionalized movie version of Mr. Rosenblat’s story, said that whether the portion about Mr. and Mrs. Rosenblat’s meetings at the concentration camp was strictly true was almost irrelevant. “If we were talking about the horrors of the Holocaust and life in the concentration camp being incorrect, that would be something entirely different,” Mr. Salomon said. “But we are debating an apple being thrown over the fence.”
Mr. Salomon said that “when a Holocaust survivor comes to you, somehow we all let our defenses down.”
But others argue that Mr. Rosenblat’s status as a Holocaust survivor is not an excuse for promoting fiction as fact, especially in light of the rogue’s gallery of fake memoirists who have paraded through publishing houses in the last few years, including others who have faked Holocaust memoirs.
“It’s a little disturbing that this is happening so often, and as an industry we need to get our act together,” said Morgan Entrekin, president of the publisher Grove/Atlantic.
Certainly, industry observers wondered how editors at Berkley and producers for Ms. Winfrey did not at least question the veracity of Mr. Rosenblat’s story, given some improbable details. In the book, he wrote not only that he reunited with his wife in New York years after she threw apples to him over the fence, but also that he had actually gone on a blind date with her in Israel a few years earlier but did not recognize her when he met her again.
“You’d think somebody would say, ‘Hmm, that’s amazing, let’s just spend an hour or a day seeing how plausible that is,’ ” said Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of the public radio program “Studio 360.”
Mr. Andersen compared Mr. Rosenblat to Bernard L. Madoff, the money manager who is accused of defrauding investors of $50 billion.
“The will to believe something that is convenient to believe is strong in all realms,” he said.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company