In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Rich Cohen wrote a revealing article on his experience as a ghostwriter for late businessman and philanthropist Teddy Forstmann. The piece straddles the line between profile and exposé as Cohen shines a light on intimate details of the time he spent working with Forstmann on his memoir.
It’s an intriguing piece that raises the issue of what, if anything, a ghostwriter should reveal about his clients after they’ve finished working together. We reached out to our network of ghosts to find out whether they would ever “out” a high-profile client as troublesome or difficult to work with. Although many could empathize with Cohen’s struggle, most said they would never divulge private details about their clients’ lives.
For one GG writer, the Vanity Fair piece hit particularly close to home: Karl Weber worked for Forstmann some time before Cohen took on the task, and he had an equally difficult experience working with the businessman: “Yes, I was one of Rich's several predecessors who, like Rich, found it impossible to fulfill the task to Ted's satisfaction. Rich's article gave me the satisfaction of saying, ‘Well, at least now I know it wasn't just me!’”
Speechwriter Ian Griffin has also grappled with difficult clients but said he would never expose one: “I'd never ‘out’ a problem client, even a deceased one, whose money I'd taken (not to mention whose hospitality I'd enjoyed at fine dining establishments and on private jet trips around the world). I make my living as a speechwriter, not a ghostwriter, but both professions require absolute discretion. Many high-profile people are ‘difficult,’ but if we take the assignment we should keep those difficulties to ourselves.” Editor Margot Atwell agreed: “I definitely would not. In this business we're trading on our reputations, and discretion and professionalism are important. If I were a client looking for a ghostwriter and an article like that popped up under a prospect's name, I would have a difficult time trusting that person.”
Other writers agreed that Cohen’s decision to write the piece was unprofessional. Meakin Armstrong said, “I don’t think someone else's lack of professionalism means you can be unprofessional, too.” Tim Vandehey concurred: “Pro ghosts should keep their client troubles confidential. You never know who might out you.”
Jack Rochester noted that Cohen’s lack of ghostwriting experience is evident in this piece: “Cohen admits this is his first fling with ghostwriting, and it shows. I don't see any attempts to reach conciliation or consensus with his author-client, only a brooding, unvoiced resentment. In my opinion, Cohen displays a lack of respect for his author-client, and for the ghostwriting process as well.”
For Joseph Dobrian, it came down to the issue of money. “I would only ‘out’ a client who welshed on the payment. Then I'd warn everybody I could that this person is a liar, a cheat, and a thief.”
Many of our writers didn’t see the issue as quite so black and white. Lauren Paul said, “Absent a contract barring disclosure of the identity or personal information related to the client, it is legally acceptable to write that sort of piece. Cohen very much dimmed his ghostwriting prospects by doing so, but since he never wanted to be a ghost in the first place, that's probably fine with him.”
Howard Rothman took a similar stance: “I think it's okay in this case because (a) both the client and the project are dead, and (b) Cohen says he didn't violate anything in his NDA. I think it's also good that Cohen doesn't make his living as a ghostwriter, because it's not likely that anyone aware of this article will ever hire him in the future.”
Steve George sympathized with Cohen’s struggles, but said that it's the sort of thing that sometimes comes with the territory. “My only negative reaction to the article came at the very end, when Mr. Cohen feels sorry for himself, writing, ‘I am nobody. I'm the ghost.’ I, too, have felt invisible around people attending to a high-profile client, and that can be a bummer, but I also recognize that I am very important to the high-profile client. And he's the one that matters.”
It seems like all of our writers agree: “outing” a client, whether ethical or not, is simply bad for business. “For those who make their living as ghostwriters, it would be unwise to be seen as a ‘kiss and tell’ ghost,” said Laurel Marshfield.
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