Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Napoleon Hill - A Life in Lies 3

In the previous blog we saw Oliver Napoleon Hill emerge from the First World War as a hapless nonentity who was once again having to cope with the failure of his latest business. And let's just recap: Hill had never met Carnegie, nor been entrusted with him to undertake any sort of research; Hill had never worked in the White House. Hill was a conman and a fantasist with nothing more than a string of small business failures to his name. Hill's claims are almost always total fantasies.

[I should remind you that I've used the official biography - Michael J.Ritt & Kirk Landers, "A Lifetime of Riches", 1995 - as the frame on which to hang my enquiry into Hill's life, and on which to base my questions about what really occurred and query what evidence we might find which could expose the truth.]

So, back to 1918, Hill's third son was born. It appears he did spend a little time with his family that year, but this is unusual. Hill maintained a successful front - he dressed well, he lived well, drove a nice car, maintained his image, his family was left struggling. From time to time he did invite his wife to visit him - his third son seems conclusive evidence of that - but he rarely spent time with his family. Hill - his writings make clear - enjoyed sex, he had no time for family.

[In Hill's "The Magic Ladder to Success" (1930), he questions why most men only succeed after the age of 40 (he's 47 by this time, and a failure). He concludes that it's because they expend so much sexual energy in their earlier years! (pp.68-69) Until the age of 40-45, most males dissipate their energies in "one long, continuous orgy of sexual intercourse". And true to form, he has the figures - he bases this "statement of fact" on a careful analysis of over 20,000 people. (p.69) So, 20,000 men have revealed the details of their sex lives to him - kind of makes Masters & Johnson's 1960s research a tad redundant, but then, of course, their ground breaking study involved less than 700 male and female subjects.]

Hill rarely mentions his family. He used them instrumentally. At one stage he made a ludicrous claim that he'd taught his son to hear using positive thinking. He poses as some Messianic figure. And it's a scam. He hardly spent any time with his children, he certainly didn't work any medical miracles on them, he certainly never healed his child and taught him to 'hear'. Hill was self-centred, self-absorbed, and children were simply a drain … unless he could serve one of them up in a parable to illustrate his own genius and greatness. Oliver Napoleon Hill was a conman.

But, back to 1918. He was broke again, so decides he'd launch his "Golden Rule" magazine. In "Outwitting the Devil" (written in 1938, published in 2011), he explains that by 1918 he'd discovered the "seventeen principles of achievement and thirty major causes of failure", but his philosophy lacked soul! He kept changing jobs, he 'drifted' through the War - no claims about the White House then - but he couldn't find any satisfaction in life.

Until Armistice Day, 1918, when he was suddenly inspired to launch his "Golden Rule" magazine. Somehow, he secured the backing of a Chicago printer, George Williams, pitching the idea of a magazine which would explore the nature of success. Hill's biographers comment that Hill had no "definiteness of purpose" yet - but he had now recognised his vocation!

The first edition of "Hill's Golden Rule" was published in January, 1919. All 48 pages were written by Hill. In it, he offered free lectures and training sessions to any company buying copies in bulk. It combined Hill's potted advice on how to succeed in business with a spiritual / religious element. Hill reviewed works by 'New Thought' writers who'd been developing the self-help, self-improvement genre since the late-19th century; he simply repeated the formula found in a number of their magazines.

Hill was clearly inspired by Charles Haanel, an eminent New Thought writer and speaker who published his "Master-Key System" as a correspondence course in 1912, then as a book in 1917. Hill wrote to Haanel (April 21, 1919) enclosing a copy of the "Golden Rule" magazine, and explaining that his own success "is due largely to the principles laid down in The Master-Key System". He described Haanel as "helping people to realise that nothing is impossible of accomplishment which a man can create in his imagination."

In an obsequious letter, trying to solicit advertising for his magazine, Hill claimed he was "President of the Napoleon Hill Institute" and had "just been retained by a ten million dollar corporation at a salary of $105,200 a year, for a portion of my time only, it having been agreed that I shall continue as editor of the Hill's Golden Rule."

So this is Hill in 1919, fawning to Charles Haanel, representing Haanel as his inspiration and, effectively, as his mentor. Hill regurgitated and recycled Haanel's ideas - the bullshit Hill passed off as his philosophy is simply a rehashing and plagiarising of work by Haanel and others. Moreover, Hill would now follow Haanel's example, moving from magazines to selling correspondence courses, to writing books, to imagining himself touring the country giving lectures, etc. Had Hill subscribed to Haanel's correspondence course? Or did he just read the book?

1919, of course, was also the year in which Andrew Carnegie died (and Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie's one time partner-cum-rival in US Steel). Hill wasted no time in writing … not a eulogy to his supposed mentor … but a lengthy editorial attacking the two men and blaming them for labour unrest in the steel industry. Carnegie's life is described as an "example of colossal greed" and his philanthropic work dismissed as "a sop to his personal vanity". 1919, and Haanel is Hill's Svengali, not Carnegie.

Hill's partnership with Williams didn't last. By 1920, he'd lost the magazine> He talks about embarking on a nationwide lecture tour - Hill always paints a picture of the whole of the USA begging him to come and deliver something akin to the Sermon on the Mount in every major city in the land. Listen to Hill, you imagine him filling football stadia and concert halls. When Hill talks of a nationwide tour, it's as a salesman embarked on a trip to try to sell a product, in back rooms and small venues, perhaps offering to come talk to a local group of New Thought enthusiasts at their monthly meeting, and hopefully sell a few subscriptions to his magazine.

In fact, in 1920 he moved to New York and launched "Napoleon Hill's Magazine", then set off on a 'lecture tour', a sales pitch to sell the magazine!

Once again, the philosopher failed in business. Once again he alienated his partners, once again, his magazine folded. It seems he hatched a scheme to sell the magazine to prison inmates. Was this some sort of scam offering to undertake rehabilitation through business training? Or did it arise because Hill, himself, had been banged up in prison for some reason? There seems to be quite a gap between New York in 1920 and his move to Ohio in 1923. Was he in prison?

In "Outwitting the Devil" he describes his magazine years as a success … but he has a get-out clause. "The more we succeeded the more discontented I became, until finally, due to an accumulation of petty annoyances caused by business associates, I made them a present of the magazine." (p.9) Presumably his backers seized the assets after Hill had plunged them into debt.

Christmas Eve, 1923, and Hill was in despair. Out of business. Again. It was a bad year: the Chicago building in which he would claim to have stored his questionnaire returns, his photos of famous people, his correspondence, etc., was burned down. Did Hill make an insurance claim? Be suspicious of anything Hill claims.

But, Christmas Eve, 1923, and Hill had an epiphany - he has to complete his philosophy of achievement and tells himself to "begin transferring the data you have gathered from your own mind to written manuscripts"! (Hill can't simply 'write his ideas down' - he has to 'begin transferring the data you have gathered from your own mind … ".)  He explains that his 'other self' has awakened. I can't help but wonder if he's describing a psychotic episode?

"I went into the house, sat down at my typewriter, and began at once to reduce to writing the discoveries I made concerning the causes of success and failure." He hears a thought! "Your mission in life is to complete the world's first philosophy of individual achievement." (p.13) His mission - Hill's mission: nothing to do with Carnegie … that fantasy is yet to occur to him. But he apparently gets a premonition of the Depression and realises that millions will depend upon his philosophy to survive! Again, Hill with his Messianic fantasies - and a premonition he won't disclose for another 15 years!

Hill tells us that he completed this manuscript in 1924, but then remarks that he started yet another business. Again, this failed to "make him happy", so he turned it over to his associates and went lecturing instead!

Around this time he certainly appears to have borrowed $1000, to invest in the Metropolitan Business College of Cleveland, Ohio. The business was apparently on the market for something like $125,000, so there was a bit of a shortfall between the asking price and Hill's available capital. Somehow, he negotiated a deal with the college owner, and set about launching a range of courses.

This was a business college, offering courses in journalism, advertising and public speaking. It was a mail order business, providing correspondence courses - the 'college' was an office and post box number. Hill bought in to a going concern - there must have been several, money-making courses up and running. Of course, Hill fails in business yet again. Was this the business which failed to make him happy and which he turned over to his associates?

But this move to Ohio would at least give Hill the opportunity to make yet another fantastic claim. According to Hill, he met Don Mellett, who ran the Canton Daily News. In "Outwitting the Devil", he tells us, "Mr.Mellett became so thoroughly interested in the philosophy of individual achievement on which I lectured that night", that he signed a partnership agreement and promised he'd quit his role as a journalist in order to publish and promote Hill's philosophy!

As I write in 2016, the name Don Mellett has largely passed into history, so let me explain why he found fame in 1926. Mellett was a campaigning journalist in Canton, Ohio, who earned the hatred of organised crime because of his stance against bootleggers during the Prohibition Era. He was gunned down by gangsters.

Mellett had no association, whatsoever, with Hill. I can't imagine Mellett had even heard of Hill, unless Hill had placed an advert in Mellett's paper for one of his lectures. Mellett was a dedicated newspaper man - there was no way he was going to quit his profession to back Hill in business.

Hill, however, had given a talk in Canton around the time of Mellett's assassination. Hill, in true exposure junkie mode, could hardly fail to fish for fame by association. Thus, he tells us that he, himself, narrowly survived "an assassination attempt" in July 1926, and had to flee Ohio and go into hiding for a year, sleeping each night with a gun under his pillow.

Hill doesn't even appreciate the contradiction inherent in his claim. If Mellett was going to abandon journalism and his crusade against organised crime, the gangsters would have been delighted - they might even have offered Hill some financial incentives to expedite Mellett's departure. Hill was a salesman, selling a correspondence course. He was no threat to organised crime. Hill was a conman, a cheap fraud, he'd have been scared out of his mind by a thug with a baseball bat.

But Hill claims the Ohio shooting filled him "physically and mentally" with a paralysing fear. I can't help wondering what happened in this year in hiding (1926-27). Did Hill serve a further prison sentence that year? His business folds (which is why he has to leave Ohio) - were there accusations of fraud? Or did it mark a major psychotic episode and his admission to a psychiatric hospital? Somewhere, there are court or institutional records.

But let's return to 1924, when Hill completes the writing of his "Law of Success", the work which is to be his magnum opus. It did, indeed, make it into print, in 1925/26. I think it was self-published - vanity publishing. And it flopped. At 1500 pages in 8 volumes, it was hardly going to fly off the shelves, even assuming any book shop was prepared to stock it!

Hill's biographers describe it as "bearing the name of an author with little or no standing in the commercial book trade" (p.110), which is a bit of a contradiction, given the image of Hill as a successful and influential magazine publisher. Hill, of course, was a conman - it's all about image and distraction. Hill left the remaindered copies of his philosophy with his wife.

Hill, however, was determined to find another published for his work - he claimed that this was why Mellet was interested in a partnership. In reality, Hill borrowed yet more money from his in-laws, from his wife, even from his 16-year old son, Blair, who was running his own small yet successful poultry business.

Numerous publishers refused to touch his work. And his biographers comment that none of the successful businessmen Hill claimed to have interviewed were prepared to invest. Apparently many were dead or retired! And, of course, the economy was in turmoil. Hill was a conman. He had no association with the rich and successful, he had a history of business failure and litigation. He was never a good investment.

Nevertheless, in 1927, we rediscover the 44 year old Hill in Philadelphia, where, according to his biographers, he "set up operations in a comfortable hotel" (p.108). He maintains the image of success, dressing and living expensively while his abandoned family struggle. And it's here that he manages to impress (con) publisher Andrew Pelton - expensive cigars, over-tipping staff, using letter heads and business cards which gave the impression he'd lived at and run a business from his plush hotel for years, acting the part of a rich, successful man (on borrowed money), .

Pelton was known to Hill. He'd advertised in Hill's magazines. Pelton was the publisher of Frank Channing Haddock's "Power of Will" (1919), another New Thought classic, and another work Hill would plagiarise. Was Hill reluctant to approach Pelton because he feared the publisher would recognise Hill's philosophy as nothing more than a rehash of Haddock, Haanel and others?

Pelton, however, published the books. Hill sent off sample copies of his original manuscripts to "many of the great minds he had consulted during its creation" (the very people who had failed to back him because so many were already dead or retired). Hill, of course, had never actually met any of them, had never interviewed any of them, had never consulted with any of them. Hill's biographers advise that two eventually responded, promising to eventually read the manuscript (i.e., polite acknowledgement by a secretary that the sample book had been received …. And binned).

Nevertheless, Hill & Pelton printed the books with endorsements from the rich and famous. Which is curious, because his biographers inform us that, "After posting the sample copies" Hill locked himself away to rewrite his manuscript. (p.113) So what exactly had the great and the good allegedly endorsed?

Hill's 8-volume 'Law of Success' has been described by Hill's apologists as "offering the collective wisdom of the greatest achievers of the previous 50 years". It's a verbose, correspondence course; it could have been reduced to a single volume - except, I don't know if Hill ever entered into much correspondence. He didn't have the business acumen or organisational skills to maintain a correspondence course which would inevitably have taken 'students' a year or two to complete.

Did he ever offer a diploma? How many tutors did he employ, how large a staff would he have needed to maintain a successful school in operation for any length of time, one which could generate the sorts of income he claimed to be earning. The only picture we ever get of Hill is of a one-man band, running the operation himself. How could he have managed a 'school' with, necessarily, several hundred, if not thousands of students, unless it was all just a scam, a confidence trick fleecing the ambitious and aspirational lower classes?

Hill's correspondence courses more likely acted as sales fronts. His repeated claims to have analysed 20-25,000 'failures' can only be based on one of the services he sold to his students - send me $10 or $20 (or whatever) and receive a questionnaire which will enable you to undertake a personal assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, etc.

There's an example of such a questionnaire in his 1937 "Think and Grow Rich", where (pp.359-364) he prints one described as 'Self-Analysis'. From a research perspective, it's impossible to code. Even in a computerised era, there is nothing you could do to analyse this random set of questions (page after page of them). As an interview schedule - sit down, get the client talking about their life, values, skills, attitudes, etc., it's pointless. You'd start by asking a handful of salient questions, thereafter, the client's responses would determine what you asked next and how. There's no way you could follow a 5-6 page script without tearing your hair out … and being arraigned for human rights abuses. How would anyone imagine this could form the basis for a programme of self-assessment?

Hill's questionnaires are the work of a man with no research skill and no research training. Rambling, unfocused, lacking precision and objectivity. The only insight to be gained by completing one is a greater understanding and appreciation of your boredom threshold. It's the product of a complete amateur posing and preening himself, convincing himself that he's a competent social scientist. There is no obvious way to benefit from the exercise of completing one.

If these are self-assessment questionnaires he sold to students, he never got to look at them himself. Yet he's talking about analysing 25,000 individuals (he also claims to have analysed the sex lives of 20,000 people, and to have studied the functioning of 5,000 families). Even if we keep this down to 25,000 studies and allow him 30 years to undertake the work and assume that, miraculously, he has no difficulty finding volunteers - that's 3 intensive interviews per day (allowing time off on Sundays and annual holidays), every day, for 30 years.

And that's assuming he could undertake a full psychological assessment in a single interview! He'd actually need a minimum of 3 or 4 interviews, each lasting an hour or more. He'd have to devote 9-12 hours a day to his 'research', every day - and yet this is something he's supposed to be doing in his spare time. His research claims are a total fraud (and, don't forget, all his papers were destroyed in a fire in 1923, so he would actually have had to start again). Napoleon Hill was a total fantasist, a liar, and a conman.

When Hill finished his rewrite of the course (March 26, 1928), he wrote to his wife to tell her he'd taken a job as a salesman with a car dealership to earn money until royalties came in. Pelton had given him an advance - Hill had already drawn against the royalties to maintain his flamboyant lifestyle. No mention to his wife about repaying the borrowed money then.

Hill claims that, after a slow start, he was earning $2,500 a month by early 1929, enabling him to quit the car dealership. Was he actually earning this much? Was his
"Law of Success" course selling. His biographers describe it as having 'encyclopedic scope', 'a philosophical dimension', and an 'instructional format'. (p.116) They also, however, recognise that it was "flawed, rambling, sometimes incomprehensible", and could have been dramatically reduced in size. (The biography is printed by the Napoleon Hill Foundation, one of the authors worked for it - it's hardly guaranteed to be an honest exposé … although they do get a bit coy about some of Hill's claims.)

Hill delivered his fifteen laws of success, his Master Mind principle, and his claims about a universal medium, the ether, in which human thoughts vibrate eternally. His biographers comment that the "'Law of Success' might well have been discarded as the ravings of a lunatic but for the fact that much of Hill's most improbable conjecture was spun from the musings of men like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell." (p.119) They anchored Hill's words in respectability and stimulated readers to "ponder life on a grander scale more than any self-help book ever has". (p.119)

1929, and the Hill Myth really begins. He claims fame by association, bandying around the names of famous people, claiming to have interviewed or befriended them, bolting together ideas from New Thought literature, selling himself as a great philosopher, as a man making a contribution to humanity. And it's all a con, and a con which will be leveraged by an industry hyping up the lies and the vapid prose in order to market it and make a profit.

The "Law of Success" apparently proved so successful that Hill bought an estate in the Catskills Mountains and began talking of his plans to turn it into a Success University where he'd build vacation homes for successful people and invite them to share their knowledge. This was to be his 'Success Colony' (his biographers describe it as "a private school with a dubious curriculum and an impossibly remote location"). (p.131)

For a few months, Hill was a family man, living ostentatiously, driving a Rolls. And, by the end of 1929, he was once again destitute. He'd failed, yet again. Hill blamed this failure on the Wall Street Crash – it wiped out the savings of less than three million Americans, but it had knock-on effects for many more, and Hill's book sales slumped. Hill defaulted on his Catskill estate, borrowed more money, even sold his wife's engagement ring.

And here's the paradox. Hill's books were sold to people who wanted to get on the economic gravy train. They thought he was selling advice which would make them rich. Hill wasn't selling a formula for success - he was selling delusions, pandering to greed. When the economy went through one of its cyclical crashes, Hill didn't see it coming, Hill knew nothing of how to stay successfully afloat.

The Wall Street Crash might be offered as an explanation for his latest failure, in fact, it exposed him for the squalid little conman he really was. He had no understanding of life or the economy, he was a serial failure, but he conned people by claiming that he was the confidant of the rich and famous, so must therefore having something valuable to contribute. "The Law of Success" proved no protection against failure when Wall Street crashed.

Hill headed for Texas to work in the oil industry, writing his magazine in his spare time. It turned into another disaster - Hill claims he was duped, that he'd been promised $100,000 to set up a new oil company, but had earned nothing and had narrowly avoided prosecution! I have no idea what happened - it's simply incredible that anyone would employ Hill to set up a business, and utterly inconceivable in this instance given that Hill had no knowledge of or experience of the oil industry. It's more likely that one of his scams went wrong.

In March 1931, Hill launched his "Inspiration Magazine" - presumably he'd managed to borrow more money from somewhere. Described by biographers as a 'maverick publication' (p.132), it was written by Hill, most of the magazine being an advice column (containing fictitious letters and questions written and answered by Hill). He represented it as produced by the 'International Success Society'.  In April, 1931, he invented the 'International Publishing Corporation of America' and the 'International Success University'. In October, 1931, he launched 'Success Magazine'. These seem to have been a series of unsuccessful scams - he, in fact, scraped a living that year giving "Mental Dynamite" lectures (be interesting to know where, and to whom).

And the scene is set for the next great lie.

His biographers inform us that, in early 1933, Hill was invited to meet Roosevelt and was asked to "listen to and report on the mood of grassroots America". (p.138) "Hill's first assignment was to identify every conceivable institution that affected public opinion in America." (p.139) Hill claims (quoted p.139) that his proposals for mobilising public opinion gave Roosevelt "one of the most powerful mastermind creations this country has ever set into motion". He mobilised the clergy, got cross party cooperation in Congress, newspapers and radio stations started delivering positive headlines, and teachers began instructing their students in positive messages about the economy!

Allegedly, Hill contributed "a steady stream of suggestions for topics" and supplied scripts for FDR's fireside chats. (p.140) And he supposedly did this without accepting a salary (which would obviously show up in White House accounts). This is a man who can't support his family, who's in debt, who was "barely able to support himself with writing and lecturing activities during this period." (p.141)

The biographers remark that Hill claimed credit for "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" (p.134), but continue, "Whether he actually created that line or not, Hill believed it". (pp.134-135)

There are moments when you suspect you can see the join in the biography – much of the writing is uncritical, portraying Hill in at least an apologetic, if not always adoring light. But, here and there, we get reasoned asides and caustic comments … a sort of embarrassed "hang on, if this is what Hill claims, there is room for doubt here … but we'll just pass over this as uncritically as possible."

So we get the admission, "Napoleon Hill's personal record of his relationship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and FDR's administration was surprisingly scant." (p.137) In fact, it amounts to a brief letter from the White House (signed Louis McH. Howe, Secretary to the President), thanking him for a letter (any crank writing to the President would get a similar courtesy letter).

In 1924, Roosevelt's speech to the Democratic Convention had been broadcast and was heard by a far wider audience than such speeches had previously reached. He attracted a lot of favourable attention and was quick to appreciate the potential of radio. Radio was very definitely 'new technology', and FDR was one of the first to appreciate its potential.

As Governor of New York from 1929-33, he used the radio two or three times a month. This is an era before TV or the Internet. Families sat around of an evening and listened to the radio together. FDR cultivated an image … an uncle who had dropped in to chat, an old friend, someone you could trust, someone you would welcome into your living room. Having honed his skills talking to New York, it was a logical step to expand his talks to cover the whole nation once he became President.

The first Fireside Chat, March 12, 1933, explored the subject of banking - the term 'fireside chat' was coined by Harry Butcher of CBS in May, 1933. FDR gave a total of 28 (some authorities suggest only 27). He used a number of speechwriters - Samuel Rosenman was chief amongst these. Hill was not one of them, he never worked at the White House, politically he would have regarded FDR as the Anti-Christ, FDR would have regarded Hill as a Neanderthal. The Fireside Chats used simple, anecdotal language, offered concrete examples, and picked on an enemy with whom everyone could identify - the greedy, 'chiselers', 'pessimists'. Simply compare the text of any of FDR's chats and the rambling, verbose, tedium of Hill's writings.

Hill had no association with Roosevelt, had no involvement in FDR's 'fireside chats' or New Deal programme. Hill was never employed by the White House. Politically, Roosevelt and Hill were poles apart. Intellectually, Roosevelt was an educated, urbane, sophisticated patrician - he would have little time for an intellectual pygmy and social parasite like Hill. And it's inconceivable anyone with Roosevelt's political nous would have touched a serial failure and obvious conman like Hill. It's just another fantasy claim - conceived instrumentally to enable Hill to con others. Whether or not he ever came to believe it himself, that depends on how you view Hill's mental health.

At which point, I'll pause. Read Hill's own writings, read around his autobiographical claims, understand a little of the history of the late 19th and early 20th century, and it becomes blatantly obvious that he is a conman and a fraud … and possibly psychotic. It's obvious his claims are fraudulent.

Yet it is a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. With many millions of websites all hailing Hill as a genius and accepting uncritically that he had been Carnegie's protegé and that he had served two Presidents, few people are going to step back and recognise just how naked the emperor really is. Hill is dressed in lies and delusions, in fantasies and frauds. It's time to come clean. Time to get naked.

So these notes are intended to inspire would be investigative journalists and local historians in the USA - check your local library, see if Hill ever lectured in your town, see if there are any court or police records, see if there are any reports by people who bought his correspondence course, etc. Find back copies of the various magazines he produced. Look for traces. I'd love to hear from you.

There is scope for a significant social history out there. I, meanwhile, am scribbling together notes for a screenplay - a tragic-comedy. Join me later to look at the rest of Hill's life and consider another series of questions to ask about the man's character, competence, and mental health.

Next - Napoleon Hill: A Life in Lies - 4

Friday, 19 February 2016

Napoleon Hill - A Life in Lies 1

When Napoleon Hill was born in 1883, Horatio Alger's popularity was already on the wane. Alger mainly wrote children’s books, but branched out into biographies, including one of Lincoln.

Alger's tales are generally of the rags to riches genre - a young boy escapes poverty through an act of heroism or demonstration of character. This attracts the attention of some prominent person who appreciates the hero's qualities and lifts the youngster out of poverty, often inviting him to come live in his new mentor's palatial home.

Alger's characters have 'a definite purpose' - to achieve respectability and happiness. They are tempered by adversity: they'll meet setbacks, but they will emerge stronger, more determined, better able to achieve their aspirations.

Napoleon Hill presents himself as a tearaway, gun-toting child, "the worst boy in the county", … until the age of 11, when his father remarried and his stepmother took him under her wing! In "Magic Ladder to Success" (1930), Hill describes himself as "surrounded by the poverty and illiteracy that were firmly established on both sides of my family. For three generations before me, my ancestors were content to be poor and ignorant." (p.xxi)

He was saved from this fate by "an educated stepmother who came from a cultured family" - she planted ambition in his family "starting with my father, whom she sent away to college at the age of forty". (p.xxi) "It was my stepmother who taught me the value of having a definite, major aim in life." (p.xxii). She told him he should devote his energies to becoming a writer and promised she'd get him a typewriter if he surrendered his six-gun.

Now, famously, Abraham Lincoln's stepmother, Sarah, had a good relationship with her stepson (he was 10 years old when she arrived in the household). She came from a cultured family and introduced young Abraham to the classics of literature.

Hill's account is classic Horatio Alger - the advent of a new adult who recognises the young Napoleon's superior qualities, turns him away from self-destructive habits, and instils in him a sense of purpose … he shall become a writer!

Of course, Hill's family was hardly illiterate. His father and grandfather were printers, a prerequisite for which would appear to be literacy. His younger brother would study law at Georgetown, his father was a highly practical and resourceful man who did not need to be 'sent away' to college.

Hill never lets the truth get in the way of a good yarn … which seems like a good time to introduce "A Lifetime of Riches" by Michael J. Ritt Junior & Kirk Landers. Published in 1995, this is Hill's 'official' biography, courtesy of the Napoleon Hill Foundation - Ritt worked with Hill and is executive director of the Foundation, so don't expect a searching enquiry into Hill's life and works. This was never going to be an exposé. However, I'll use it as the skeleton on which to hang critical questions about Hill and his legacy.

Ritt describes Hill in the Foreword as "confidant of presidents and statesmen", "an American treasure", and assures us that the "prominent men of several generations freely revealed their secrets of success to him." (p.viii)

The biographers launch into the legend of gun-toting apprentice bandit, transformed into a journalist by his stepmother. They put words in her mouth - fiction rather than quotes - and create the obvious connection: she gives Hill a vision of himself as a great writer, he sets out to achieve it … positive thinking in practice!

Hill's father and grandfather were printers. His father produced a newspaper on a home-based press. If stepmother gets the credit for reforming the lad, you suspect dad and grandfather had an influence, that the legacy of journalism and printing were vital factors in shaping the boy's intellectual development. Can we believe the gun-toting delinquent tale? Did Oliver Napoleon Hill spend more time buried in books than earning a reputation round the county!

Hill makes frequent claims to having analysed 500 'successes' and 25,000 'failures' (in research and analysis terms, a complete and utter impossibility). I worked in the 'caring professions', in the Probation Service in England & Wales: working full-time (Hill, remember, was doing his alleged 'research' in his spare time), I doubt I prepared reports / assessments on more than 1500 people in ten years. Working as a research manager for a major organisation in England (and using computers), I probably carried out statistical analyses of some 4000 other people over a 3 year span - not individual assessments, but identification of trends and analysis of the effectiveness of intervention ... the data being generated by 50 or more professionals working in the field.

So I'll put my professional hats on (as caring professional and as social scientist / criminologist): Hill's adult behaviours don't paint a picture of a delinquent, gun-totin' tearaway! I see Hill as a timid, compliant child, anxious to please, bullied at school (he was 5'6" as an adult) - not an under-achiever, but easily frustrated, someone who felt he deserved better, who felt superior to others.

I suspect his persona was that of a cold, self-centred, isolated youth who escaped into fantasy books because he had few friends. I picture a dreamer, a loner, someone who learned to manipulate others with charm, not violence. As an adult he was bad tempered and a petulant bully determined to get his own way, but he'd have reserved his adult violence for women and children; he learned very early on that most boys of his age would beat the crap out of him if he antagonised them.

So who'd allow a puny 10 year old to run around with a revolver he could barely lift? Certainly not his father, who seems to have been a responsible and respected man. The first time young Oliver tried to wave one about someone would have shot him ... or more likely taken the gun off him and tanned his hide. The tearaway claim is a complete nonsense.

At 13, Hill claims he worked briefly as a labourer in a mine (he alludes to this in his 1928, "Law of Success").  He's a small, slightly built child, probably a bookish lad - and he works in a mine? Maybe in the office, or running messages. It would be lovely to learn the truth.

Hill's father comes across as a remarkably adaptable man. He made a living as a printer, farmer, blacksmith, shop keeper, manager of a post office - then converted himself into a dentist (sending away for a manual on the subject - eventually putting himself through college when the legislation changed).

He was the model entrepreneur, and appears a caring parent. He'd probably let his kids help out on local farms and do odd jobs, but he's ambitious, upwardly mobile. He wants his kids to do well - younger son Vivian studies law. There's no reason he should have alienated the young Oliver Napoleon Hill … unless Hill felt jealous of his younger brother, felt rejected. Was his brother brighter, more socially skilled, more popular?

Nevertheless, by age 15 (October, 1898), Hill had put manual labour behind him and was apparently writing stories for the local newspaper in West Virginia. I can't conceive that he'd be paid for this (if, in fact, he ever did do any such writing). Small newspapers can't afford to pay freelances, especially not children. However, his biographers do remark that if there were no news stories to be found, "he simply made them up" (p.16). It's an interesting commentary on Hill's ability to spin a tale … and a reminder to listen for the alarum before we believe any claims made by him.

Hill's father was making enough money to support the family - it's hard to imagine a teenage Hill could have earned more than a few cents from writing - certainly not from small town and rural newspapers. He seems to have returned to school for at least two years. Then, at 17 (1900), off to business school, learning bookkeeping, shorthand, and typing - secretarial skills which, at that time, were seen as a popular male entry route to a career in business and commerce.

Significantly, in 1885, Andrew Carnegie wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Road to Business Success", which was specifically aimed at the many business schools and commercial colleges which had proliferated in the US in the late 19th century. These fell, essentially, into two strains - those training literate males and females to work as clerks and secretaries, and those which sought to introduce more privileged males to the new entrepreneurial skills of marketing, advertising, and accountancy.

Carnegie was vastly influential. His pamphlet instructed students to aim high - if they wanted to rise in the company, simply being conscientious meant they'd only be trusted to stay in the job they were doing. "The rising man must do something exceptional ... . HE MUST ATTRACT ATTENTION." The employer has to recognise "that he has not a mere hireling in his service."

 "The Road to Business Success" was certainly an influential document in its day. Did Hill come across this when he went to his second division business school? Was it his introduction to Carnegie's writings? Did he learn the vital lesson of making himself indispensible and being recognised as someone with potential? Or is it Horatio Alger again?

In his "Law of Success", Hill devotes Chapter 14 to the subject of 'Failure' and to the various epiphanies or turning points he had in his life. "After finishing a course in a business college," (presumably 1901), "I secured a position as stenographer and bookkeeper, which I held for the ensuing five years."

He tells us that he was successful in his work, advancing to the position of General Manager over this five year period. However, his employer went bust and Hill lost his job "as a result of causes beyond my control". (1906/07) This is Hill's first 'Turning Point'! He had to pick himself up.

Hill's biographers, however, elaborate on this. On graduation, Hill, it appears, was determined to get work with Rufus Ayres, the most successful local businessman. He worked hard for Ayres, impressed his employer, got promotion - but his big break came when the manager of one of Ayres' coal mines and chief cashier of one of his banks got drunk and 'accidentally' shot dead a black bellboy in a hotel.

Hill rushed to the rescue, persuading the coroner it was an accident, getting the boy quietly buried, then tidying up the mess in the bank (it's unlocked, the safe is open, there's money scattered around). Ayres is so impressed he gives Hill the job of mine manager!

And, of course, it’s pure Horatio Alger - Hill impresses Ayres because of his honesty and presence of mind, Ayres recognises the youthful Hill's superior qualities, etc. It's a storyline lifted straight from Horatio Alger.

Pity about the black kid! I mean, it's all very nice for Napoleon Hill, but someone has just been murdered (sorry, 'accidentally shot').

Hill's biographers advise us that, "in his memoirs, Hill used the incident to point out the pragmatic virtues of honesty" (p.21). They're clearly not comfortable with this, and comment that "Hill would also be affected throughout his life by the ease with which a black man in 1902 Virginia could be killed and buried." (p.21) However, they recognise that he "may not have been bothered by this at the time" (p.21) as he'd been brought up in a racist society in backwoods Virginia.

[Did the incident even take place? Is it a complete, Alger-inspired fantasy? Hill can't rise through the death of a white man, but the death of a black youth? There must be newspaper and official records, if a killing took place. If a 'murder' took place, did Hill just use it as the plot for a story of his 'heroism'? Could an insignificant 19-year old clerk persuade a coroner to bury the evidence? It would surely take someone with a lot more political clout.]

Inevitably with Hill, confusion creeps in. Writing in 1928, Hill confirms he worked for Ayres, in Virginia, for five years (until 1906/07). His biographers suggest that, in 1902, he decided to study law, joining his brother at Georgetown, Washington. Hill announces he will pay the way through college for both of them by working for "Bob Taylor's Magazine" (the biographers describe this as "part of a flourishing genre providing inspiration and guidance for those of modest circumstances who were intent on achieving wealth and power") (p.22). It published success and inspirational stories for the literate lower middle classes.

Now, from what I can gather, "Bob Taylor's Magazine" first appeared in 1905. It was a distinctly small scale publication with limited circulation, combining essays and short fiction. Aimed at Southern readers, Robert L. Taylor was a Democratic Senator and former Governor of Tennessee who wrote editorials for the magazine and published some of his lectures in it.

It had a brief existence (April,1905 - December,1906). From January, 1907 until December,1910, it was merged with "Trotwood's Monthly" to become "Taylor-Trotwood Magazine". In 1910 it again merged to become "Watson's Jeffersonian Magazine" (described by some as a muckraking journal). Bob Taylor was editor, 1905-1906, then co-editor.

Taylor died in 1912. His magazine was published monthly in Nashville, Tennessee. It sold for 10 cents. It was of limited circulation - it was not a huge financial success, it was not a prominent national publication, it would have paid peanuts (if at all) for contributions by some unknown, freelance contributor, and it would never have been able to afford a full-time reporter on its payroll.

And yet, we have the legend: Oliver Napoleon Hill - born in a tiny cabin in Wise County, Virginia, escapes a legacy of illiteracy for a successful writing career, cutting his teeth with local newspapers in Virginia. Aged only 18/19, he approaches Bob Taylor for a job; Taylor agrees to write letters of introduction to prominent individuals who might make good subjects for the magazine - Edison, Ford, Bell, Carnegie.

This is 1902 ... three years before the magazine actually appears. The alleged interview with Carnegie will not occur until autumn, 1908. And yet, in 1902, we supposedly have Hill writing success stories for a magazine which does not exist while he puts himself and his brother through Georgetown Law School? And his first assignment is to interview Carnegie? There are huge inconsistencies here ... not least the fact that he's working for Ayres at the time - "After finishing a course in a business college, I secured a position as stenographer and bookkeeper, which I held for the ensuing five years."

Hill's biographers explain that he abandoned journalism, he's making "meagre earnings", and quit law school, telling his brother he'd have to pay his own way now. This, again, is fantasy. Georgetown offered law as a 2-year course, taught at night classes. Vivian Hill worked by day, supported himself, studied law in evenings … and graduated. He was never dependent on his older brother - I suspect there was little love between them. In fact, Oliver Napoleon Hill, throughout his life, showed little or no concern for anyone but himself - he disowned his father, he abandoned his wife and children ... and I suspect he was jealous of his brother.

Nevertheless, Napoleon Hill appears to have lost his job with Ayres. Was this because of Ayres' business failings, because of changed economic circumstances? Was Hill really Ayres' General Manager at this time, or was he still just a clerk who was laid off with the rest of the workforce?

According to his 1928 "Law of Success" account, Hill went off to become Sales Manager for a Southern lumber business. This is 1906? According to Hill, he did so well in the lumber business that, within a year, his employer took him into partnership. But then came the financial panic of October / November 1907 - the so-called 'Knickerbocker Crisis'. By the end of the year, Hill was bankrupted.

According to his biographers, Hill decided his best option was to return to "Bob Taylor's Magazine" and Washington. "His work would expose him constantly to the movers and shakers of American commerce. He would surely find a path that led to the grand heights his brief business career had promised." (p.24) This sets up the supposed interview with Carnegie, which is usually explained as occurring sometime in the autumn of 1908.

However, according to Hill's 1928 account, with the failure of the lumber business he became a car salesman (1908) in Washington. The attraction of Washington was his brother - Hill stayed in Vivian's home.

Let's digress, briefly. In 1901, Oldsmobile had begun the first mass production of motor cars, but it was only in 1913 that Henry Ford really speeded up the process by introducing a mobile production line. By 1908, the half dozen major manufacturers in the USA were producing fewer than 50,000 cars annually (10,000 by Ford). With a US population of nearly 90 million, one person in 1,800 was acquiring a car annually. It was a growing market, and one in which an ambitious young salesman could make a living. It was not yet a mass market.

Hill claims he identified a growing need for trained automobile engineers, so opened a school, "The Automobile College of Washington", to train chauffeurs, drivers and motor mechanics. He took out loans to finance this, but he over-extended and couldn't pay the bank. The bank seized his business. This failure, explains Hill, was the bank's fault - it had deliberately loaned him too much money in order to plunge him into debt. Hill's failures are always caused by someone else or by circumstances beyond his control.

In 1908, he'd met 20 year old Florence Hornor; they married in 1910. Hill borrowed against Florence's assets (and her family name), deluding himself about the success of his business and his claim to have sureties. He over-extended because of his fantasies, not because the bank manager lured him into it. [His biographers describe Hill as "full of grand plans and promises" (p.38) and comment that by 1911 "Florence's dowry money was fast running out" (p.41) … and they now had a child.]

With the failure of this latest business, his wife's family bailed him out and found Hill what he describes as a 'senior position' with a major coal firm - it was, in fact, a sinecure with one of the family firms. It was an easy job, so Hill informs us. He was earning lots of money … so, of course, he quit, left his family behind, and moved to Chicago (1912), shortly after the birth of his second child.

He explains this decision as caused by lack of challenge - more likely, it was caused by a need to escape his family (he abandoned his wife and children for 17 years, except for brief visits, insisting he'd send for them when he'd made enough, returned briefly in 1929, then abandoned them again.)

Late 1912, Hill got a job in the sales and advertising department of LaSalle Extension University (it offered distance learning courses and, in the 1930's was instructed to stop claiming it was a 'university'). His in-laws helped him get the job by providing references.

Hill trained salesmen, but, according to his biographers, around this time Hill has also had stationery printed - Napoleon Hill, Attorney at Law - and was advising people that he represented various banks and utilities. He didn't actually practice law (he couldn't), he trained salesmen, but he clearly had pretensions.

And, though he'd promised to send for his wife and children as soon as he was earning enough, he didn't. By the end of his first year he was quite comfortably off, but he didn't send for his family.

Hill worked away, training salesmen. His biographers explain, "Slowly but surely, Hill was beginning to create his own philosophy of success", all the while "working tirelessly on the Carnegie project". (p.47) This really is gilding the lily. "Whenever there was time, he would spend it writing letters, sending questionnaires, interviewing and analysing the lives of hundreds of people." (p.47) And, after two years, he quit his job with LaSalle.

Hill's "Law of Success" account explains that he'd done so well with LaSalle that it's boss "induced me to resign my position and go into the candy manufacturing business with him." His biographers, however, tell us that he bought a half interest in a franchise selling sweets, reorganising and renaming it The Betsy Ross Candy Company. They go on to confirm that his three partners clearly didn't get on with him. His biographers describe Hill as having a real temper, as being single minded and constantly insisting on getting his own way. Hill was impossible to work with! He wanted to be his own boss, he wanted to get his own way, he was intolerant of any frustration.

By Hill's account, the Betsy Ross company opened branches in 15 cities and was doing well, until, in 1914/15, his business partners "had me arrested on a false charge"! He contested the case, he says, and won (be interesting if someone could check the Chicago Superior Court records, see what the case was about). The biographers simply recount that he was plunged into litigation.

Hill was once again out of a job. It's worth pausing, here, to include some of his biographers' comments. He was capricious in his business affairs - was prone to moods and sudden flights of fancy. He was unable "to support his family - let alone live with them" (p.50). Visits to his family became infrequent - his in-laws felt he'd used Florence for her money. Hill's "business ventures failed miserably ... with almost perverse regularity" (p.51).

And, of course, the failures were never his fault.

In 1915, he launched his George Washington Institute (with more money 'borrowed' from Florence) offering a correspondence course in salesmanship. He produced a series of typewritten 'Lessons', emphasising that self-confidence and enthusiasm were the hallmarks of a successful salesman, but larding the lessons with hints about a 'Law of Attraction'.

Hill describes himself as prospering, his biographers say he was earning a modest income, until the USA declared war on Germany in 1917. The second draft (June, 1918) apparently saw his class called up! [The first draft in June, 1917, called up all males aged 21-30, the second draft called up those who had turned 21 in the intervening year, the third and final draft, in September, 1918, extended the call-up to all males aged 18-45 - Hill was then aged 34.]

Once again, he was out of a job. And he had another epiphany on Armistice Day (November 11th, 1918). He conceived of launching "Hill's Golden Rule" magazine, and sat down to pen an 'inspirational' editorial.

Sorry, what, you might ask, about his time in the White House during World War 1? Simply put, he didn't work in the White House - it's all a myth. In 1928, the end of the war was too close for him to pretend to have been a White House insider. In 1928, he tells us that his teaching job was ended by the second draft and he found himself, once again, looking for work. Even in 1938, in his "Outwitting the Devil", he still described himself as 'drifting' through World War 1 doing jobs which didn't satisfy him, until he had the idea of launching his magazine!

In "Think and Grow Rich" (1937), Hill discusses the 'secret' of positive thinking. He explains that, "The secret was extensively used by President Woodrow Wilson, during the World War. It was passed on to every soldier who fought in the war, carefully wrapped in the training received before going to the front." (p.27) Wilson, apparently, claimed it helped raise the funds for the war! (p.27) But Hill still doesn't claim to have worked in the White House.

The myth, to be elaborated in later years, either has Wilson approaching Hill at the outbreak of war, or Hill volunteering to write propaganda material. Hill is supposed to have interviewed Wilson while he was President of Princeton (1902-1910), securing the interview on the strength of a letter of introduction from Carnegie. Hill refused to accept any pay for his White House work, so the legend goes! That obviously explains why there are no financial records of his 'work' there.

Of course, the most ludicrous claim about the First World War is the one included by Hill's biographers. "Hill was in the White House on the day in early November that the Germans requested an armistice." (p.57) Wilson read "the decoded message", passed it to Hill, then left the room. Wilson returned with his reply and asked Hill if he has any suggestions to add! Hill suggested the Germans must get rid of the Kaiser if peace iwa to occur!

Reality? At the end of September, 1918, Ludendorff had advised the Kaiser to sue for peace, accepting Wilson's 14 Points. By the end of October, Wilson had exchanged notes with the Germans demanding, as a precondition for peace, the withdrawal of German troops from France and the Low Countries, the end to submarine warfare, and the abdication of the Kaiser!

Most Germans accepted the Kaiser's abdication as a necessity. Pressure for the Kaiser to step down was dramatically increased by revolt, beginning with the German naval mutiny at the end of October, and by army mutinies and the threat of widespread revolution on the Russian model. November 9th, the Republic was proclaimed, the Kaiser having abdicated - Ludendorff had already fled the country.

Hill never met Carnegie, so had no letter of recommendation from him to Wilson. Hill never met Wilson - can anyone seriously believe that a sophisticated, educated, urbane, patrician like Wilson would have wasted a minute of his time on an anonymous small businessman with a record of business failure, debt and litigation? Wilson had the pick of US intellectual and artistic circles to choose from. A nonentity like Hill wouldn't even have appeared on the horizon.

In reality, the official war propagandist appointed by Wilson was George Creel, an experienced newspaperman. Creel set up the Committee on Public Information, and this organised the Four Minute Men - 75,000 speakers across the USA who delivered three quarters of a millions 4-minute speeches in thousands of US towns and cities, encouraging people to support the war and volunteer. Amongst the Four Minute Men were people like Charlie Chaplin.

During the course of the First World War, the USA drafted 2.8 million men. A further 2 million volunteered. Hill clearly never volunteered, he says nothing about being drafted (although he would have been included in the 3rd Draft of September, 1918). Would he have been rejected as too small? He does allude in one passage to 'hanging up his uniform' when he heard that the war had ended - it didn't seem to occur to him that if he was in uniform he would have to wait to be discharged, he couldn't just simply throw the uniform away. Hill played no part in the War, he never saw the inside of the White House (unless he ever went there as a tourist).

Like his connection with Carnegie, Hill's claims to have worked in the White House are total fantasies, if not the outright frauds of a conman.

I'll continue exploring the elusive history of Oliver Napoleon Hill in the next blog, but, somewhere in the USA, in some library or other, there are back issues of "Bob Taylor's Magazine" and its sequels. Are there any articles credited to Hill? Is there an article on Carnegie? Who is credited with writing it? What date? If you can answer any of these questions, please let me know.

A Life in Lies 2

Friday, 21 August 2015

Napoleon Hill - A Life in Lies 2 (or Notes for a Screenplay)

Napoleon Hill (1883-1970) was a conman who sold the lie that he had interviewed Andrew Carnegie and been commissioned by him to undertake research, a conman who sold the lie that he had associated closely with Ford, Edison and other rich men, a conman who sold the lie that he served in the White House under two administrations, a conman who sold the lie that he had undertaken research into how and why people succeed.

It's all a fraud. Hill never met Carnegie, he never associated with any of the other celebrated industrialists lauded in his writings, he never worked for the White House, his research claims are fantasies.

Napoleon Hill was a fraud and a serial liar - and this is transparently obvious if you ignore the marketing hype and emperor's new clothes veneration which continues to surround him.

Napoleon Hill never was and never will be a man to be celebrated for his intellectual contribution to the world. He was a pathetic, obnoxious little man with delusions of grandeur. His habitual escape into fantasy and lies is not merely morally reprehensible, it betrays his intellectual immaturity and emotional frigidity, if not an underlying psychotic condition.

Bad tempered, petulant, he could charm and manipulate when he needed something, but he alienated most people who worked with him. Self-centred, self-obsessed, self-absorbed, he was unable to handle criticism and showed scant respect for the needs and interests of others.

A serial business failure, a convicted fraud, a philanderer and adulterer who abandoned his family, he was a small-minded man who was convinced he was a genius.

Napoleon Hill sought adulation and veneration, he sought greatness through association with the rich and famous, selling the delusion that he had actually mixed with them and become their friend and confidant.

Hill's ego far exceeded the compass of his abilities. He posed as an original thinker, as "philosopher", as social analyst, yet his thinking involved bolting together a load of familiar themes and questionable ideas from 19th century New Thought literature (with which he was very familiar). Far from being an original thinker, he was simply a plagiarist.

There is NO philosophical content in his published work, merely ramblings and assertions jumbled up in a clumsy, verbose, pretentious writing style which betrays his intellectual shortcomings.

His claims to have undertaken research are threadbare - what little evidence he presents demonstrates only too clearly that he had no research or analytical skills. He simply made spurious claims … and made up numbers. His assertions that he had analysed 500 successful men and women, and 25,000 failures have no basis in fact ... they're just round numbers he throws in to substantiate his lies. I'd see it as fraud, he'd represent it as a marketing lure ... just a piece of hyped-up sales pitch.

Hill's writings are vapid - they're empty and meaningless. They don't inform, they don't make a contribution to knowledge, they simply celebrate Hill - time and again he tells us what a remarkable man he is, time and again he poses, time and again he glories in his own, self-proclaimed "genius".

A crass, absurd, deceitful little man dancing to the tune of his own delusions, Napoleon Hill was - and remains - a charlatan, a conman, a snake oil salesman peddling drivel and pretensions.

And many who continue to promote and sell his writings know full well that he was a conman, that his claims to have met Carnegie, to have worked in the White House, to have associated with Ford and Edison (or any of the other celebrities of his day) are all a tissue of lies and delusions. You have to question the morality of continuing to market Hill’s writings without the inclusion of a disclaimer - "Contains Bull Shit".

Right, now you know exactly how I feel about Napoleon Hill and the industry which sells his name, perhaps I should explain what I mean by "Napoleon Hill - Notes for a Screenplay"!

In the USA, the character of "Walter Mitty" made the transition from short story to movie. In England, "Billy Liar" went from novel to film. Walter and Billy are fantasists who live in their own delusional worlds.

They are decent, kindly individuals who escape the tedium of everyday life by drifting into fantasy, dreamers who cast themselves in heroic roles - ineffectual men trying to capture some sense of dignity, validity and individuality (not to mention excitement) in the face of the dehumanising, boring routines of their daily working lives.

Walter and Billy are fictional characters.

It's tempting to paint Napoleon Hill as one of the great fantasists of the 20th century, to see his imagined autobiography as a work of fiction … except that we have to question whether or not this ineffectual little man recognised that his fantasies were fairy tales.

Read Hill's writings, and it becomes increasingly obvious that his fantasies were deliberately contrived lies designed to help him manipulate others. At some stage, did they became pathological delusions which he actually believed to be real?

I've read Hill's published writings. They are turgid pieces of prose, verbose, self-indulgent, self-reverential. They are far from original – he plagiarises a number of 19th century writers and pastes together some of their (questionable) ideas and claims in order to present himself as an intellectual and man of science.

Hill's greatest delusion was that he was a 'philosopher' – I suspect he actually believed this. He was, in fact, simply a con man.

So who was the real Napoleon Hill, and why is he worthy of a screenplay?

Hill is worthy of research, worthy of a screenplay, worthy of a range of magazine articles not because he has any relevance as a thinker, but because he’s been able to sell so many lies. Hill's story has to make you sit back and ask, "How can anyone continue to sell the message that he worked for the White House or met Carnegie when these are clearly lies? Why are the lies not pointed out every time a book or a website carries his name?"

Napoleon Hill has been marketed and the Internet used to dupe millions into believing he had something to contribute. It's an exercise in exposing the emperor's new clothes for what they are. And it really is about the emperor's new clothes. There are over 16 million references to Hill on the Internet - I haven't looked at them all, but I'll lay odds very few challenge the accepted account, few will question his claims to a meeting with Carnegie or to working in the White House.

It's the emperor's new clothes - if everyone else is singing the praises of the outfit the emperor is supposed to be wearing, you don't want to be the first to point out he's actually naked. You don't want to be the first to demonstrate that it's all a con.

I live in Scotland - I'm not going to visit the USA anytime soon. But, hidden in newspaper archives, in libraries, in court and police records, etc., there must be evidence of the real Napoleon Hill. Exposing his lies and fraud in the USA could make a name for a number of journalists - ironic, given Hill’s claim to have interviewed Carnegie as a "young special investigator"!

Hill served at least one prison sentence for fraud - I suspect there may have been others. He may also have been admitted to hospital for treatment for psychosis - although, I admit, that's speculative on my part (his writings suggest that he did have psychotic episodes). And, given his delusions / false claims about working in the White House, would the FBI have looked at him? Are records accessible?

Hill claims that he lectured to thousands - one of the few occasions where he actually lists a place and date (Canton, Ohio - July, 1926), he also reveals that there were only a dozen people at his meeting. That's the reality. Hill was a salesman, selling his correspondence course. He was delivering a sales pitch in back rooms and sitting rooms. He claims "hundreds of thousands of people heard this lecture" - he was talking to groups of a dozen or less. This was no evangelical meeting proclaiming a new philosophy to crowded halls of worshippers - he was selling a correspondence course.

He wasn't delivering a message of hope to humanity as he claims, he wasn’t "invited to go on a countrywide speaking tour", he was selling a product … and he was enjoying being centre stage, being allowed to perform for a crowd. It's an ego trip … albeit it a commercial one. It's an ego trip. Hill transforms a squalid little job (conning people out of money to sign up for his course), into something worthy. He really does present himself as some evangelist offering salvation through the breadth of his personal vision and claim to unique insights.

And, don't ignore the fact that Hill was also looking for women. He abandoned his wife and family to disappear lecturing for months at a time. He makes it quite clear that he was on the lookout for sex when he was "lecturing", looking to seduce some ambitious waitress or bored secretary.

And the evidence will be there - in the classified ads of scores of local newspapers, advertising Hill's "lecture" and his correspondence course. Where did he speak, what sort of audience turned up? Who bought his correspondence course (his businesses went broke with such frequency, I suspect a lot of people buying his course were simply sold a bunch of manuals, but no correspondence, no 'course')? It would be interesting to see what some keen young journalism student could dig up.

Scope for a screenplay, then? No benign, Walter Mitty character here, but a dark, malicious creature ready to exploit others. A seedy little man - think Dustin Hoffman in 'Midnight Cowboy', only better dressed, more urbane ... and more predatory. No Billy Liar getting lost in romantic, heroic images to ease his boredom, but the cynical manipulation of others to secure advantage - I can see Hill chatting up women with his claims to having worked in the White House or to being a confidant of Henry Ford, etc. Was that where his inspiration for the fraudulent claims was first conceived and refined, as a seduction script over a bottle of bourbon in a series of hotel rooms?

There’s a screenplay in there, and there are any number of exposés open to an energetic researcher.
So, allow me to serve up some ideas - and a few more questions - by deconstructing Hill’s 'official' biography.

Next - Napoleon Hill - A Life in Lies 3