5 Events and Incidents That Never Happened

By Mark Nichol

Remember when they booed Bob Dylan for going electric at the Newport Folk Festival? And isn’t it disgusting how military personnel returning from serving in the Vietnam War were routinely spat on by antiwar protesters?

Those were more or less reprehensible behaviors — or they would have been if they had actually occurred. But these incidents, and a few others also outlined below, are all overstated or outright fabricated, loosely based on actual events but bearing little or no resemblance to them.

1. Electric Dylan

The accounts that suggest that Bob Dylan was not well received the first time he, backed by members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, played live with an electric guitar stemmed from Dylan’s own misperception of the audience reaction and some faulty memories. Some audience members were upset, but only because Dylan’s set was so short. And master of ceremonies Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame), who was said to have been incensed at the sound, was not angered by electrified Dylan but by the poor quality of the amplified sound.

Some concertgoers and critics alike did later complain about Dylan, but it was his perceived shift toward more commercial songwriting that caused their ire, with perhaps some confused bandwagon-jumping criticism of his amplification.

2. Spitting on Veterans

There were isolated incidences of hostile behavior toward soldiers returning from tours of duty in Vietnam, but their reception was generally very positive. Only later, when antiwar sentiment grew and some veterans traumatized by having fought in a hellish war — and doing so on the losing side — returned Stateside, did a few of them and their sympathizers begin to embellish these anomalous events and conflate them with isolated nonexpectorating protesters into a frequent and widespread occurrence.

3. Bra Burning

In September 1968, in Atlantic City, a group of female protesters symbolically shed their adherence to society’s standards for femininity by tossing bras, girdles, cosmetics, and other beautification accouterments into a garbage can. Though there was supposedly a suggestion that the accumulation be ignited, no bras were burned at this seminal feminist event.

Two years later, in Berkeley, California, a similar event that took place did involve combustion, but no widespread bra burning ever took place. (At neither event were bras actually removed and discarded.) One journalist’s metaphorical association of the demonstrators with draft-card burners apparently gave rise to a widespread misunderstanding that numerous such conflagrations occurred.

4. Hats Off

It was once widely believed that just as Clark Gable, by not wearing a T-shirt under his dress shirt in the early screwball comedy It Happened One Night, supposedly inspired men to refrain from buying undershirts, with catastrophic results for their manufacturers, John F. Kennedy doomed the chapeau industry by going hatless at his inaugural ceremony.

It’s easy to believe that if he did indeed go bareheaded, he was only following, and not precipitating, a trend, because hats were already going out of fashion. However, the entire premise is false: Multiple photographs depict him wearing a silk top hat as part of his formal attire throughout that day.

5. “Try Acting”

Sir Laurence Olivier supposedly derided Dustin Hoffman’s efforts to prepare for the torture scene in the political thriller Marathon Man by going without sleep, asking him, “Why don’t you try acting?”

In truth, Hoffman, whose first marriage was failing while he was filming the movie, showed up on the set one day looking bedraggled after partying at Studio 54. When Olivier, his costar, noticed his condition, Hoffman evasively said he had been staying up all night to get himself in the mind-set for a grueling scene. Olivier did offer the advice “Why don’t you try acting?” but it was in jest, and they shared a laugh over it.

Relation to Writing

So, what do these corrections have to do with writing? A great deal, it turns out. These myths and misperceptions were largely perpetuated by writing — by people distorting facts in articles, books, and other written accounts of the events, followed by others regenerating the errors. The lesson to be learned is this: When you write about something, be sure you know what you’re writing about. Do not bolster fallacies by blindly accepting what you read or heard. Before incorporating historical events great or small into your fiction or nonfiction, investigate and corroborate.

36 Responses to “5 Events and Incidents That Never Happened”

  • venqax

    1. No, that never happened. It was talked about, in a letter, but it never actually happened. Let alone was it ever a policy pursued by the Evil White People or Satanic White Government against the poor natives. No one says it’s impossible, just very unlikely that you’d get smallpox from blankets. Of course, there were all those people who got AIDS from toilet seats and doorknobs– tiny cuts in the buttocks and palms, probably. That was another enormous public health problem, too. And AIDS was being purposely spread to out-groups by the govt, too. That should undoubetly be in the history books of the near future if it isn’t already.

    3. The difference is that most people have see both play basketball. Few in the world ever heard Pete Best drum. Nonetheless a myth has grown up over the past 50 years that Best was a better drummer than Starr was. It is commonly believed and often referred to as “fact” even tho what evidence there actually IS– testimony from most who were there at time– doesn’t support it at all. And judging musicians’ abilities is not an entirely arbitrary matter, style nothwithstanding.

  • ed


    1. Actually, there was a documented case of a Brittish officer giving two blankets and a handkerchief to two chiefs at Fort Pitt. The items where taken from a smallpox hospital. It was actually purposely gave to them for the reason of infecting them. It is not likely that this caused a wide spread outbreak, but it did happen.
    “you probably wouldn’t even catch small-pox that way” is like saying you can’t catch the flu by touching used tissue. Smallpox is caused by the Variola virus, It can be spread from direct contact, contact with infected fluid or objects, or air.

    3. Unless your joking, isn’t that like saying Koby is a better basketball player than Lebron?

    Please don’t act like an elitist. Nobody is pefect.

  • venqax

    Steve: It didn’t end the Depression and it didn’t revive the economy. Period. Again, ask the resident expert, Morganthau. If he’s “right-wing” then I don’t know what your plane must look like. Exactly how many millions of people do you think would have died of starvation, disease, and floods and rains of brimstone if not for FDR and his magic wand? The expensive, unpaid-for, and enormous programs you cite are the root of most of our economic problems today. Try reading some economic history by someone other than Arther Scheslinger or one his accolytes.

    As for your service in Vietnam, if you are ashamed of it, that is your prerogative. You could try another country that you could be pround of. Like Cuba, maybe.

  • steve in oakland

    As a GI from 1966 to 1969, I can assure you that anti-war demonstrators were treated much worse than anything seen by returning vets. The demonstrators were beaten by cops, hardhat “patriot” thugs, and good old boy bullies who wanted to show their love of country by beating people who wouldn’t fight back. The US was guilty of multiple war crimes in Viet Nam; the youth that was sent there were victims, willing or unwilling, of a neocolonial, racist government. There is no honor in that history, just shame.

    And for those whose husbands or brothers remember having been spit upon, let’s remember…these were returning vets who just accepted their being spat upon? I can assure you that I was one SP/4 who would have kicked some ass if somebody had done it to me.

    Venqax–your claim that the New Deal “didn’t work” is inane. It’s a very popular rightwing talking point, but it’s true only if that’s what you want to believe. While the New Deal didn’t cure all the ills of the country, specifically long term unemployment, it saved capitalism in the US (whether or not that was a good thing). It kept millions of people alive–now, is that a failure? It included the end to child labor, created Social Security, the minimum wage, the right to join a union, the TVA, WPA, SEC, FDIC and PWA. It hired millions of men and women, and rescued hundreds of thousands more through the CCC. Bridges, tunnels, sewage treatment plants and roads were built where none had existed. Through the Rural Electrification Administration, the percentage of farms with electricity rose from 10% to 100% in 20 years…during which time corporate interests argued against government “interference” in “free enterprise.”

  • venqax

    A few others– some more rumors, really– I run into frequently from writers (mostly college students who are learning, and from media figures who are too stupid to know and too lazy to check) who like to reinforce their arguments with “facts” that are not true.

    1. Indians were never poisoned by small-pox-infected blankets. You probably wouldn’t even catch small-pox that way.

    2.The New Deal didn’t work. Henry Morganthau himself, FDRs treasury secretary, openly admitted that all the money spent on ND programs was wasted and hadn’t improved a thing. (this is in the Congressional Record, for those who think Morganthau’s statement is the verbal urban myth). Many if not most economists today agree.

    3 Pete Best was not a better drummer than Ringo Starr. Producer George Martin didn’t think Ringo was a lot better than Best, at first. But he thought he was better enough to give him a shot. A shot he didn’t give Best. All the Beatles were agreed that Ringo, besides his fitting persona, was also a very good drummer and he was widely regarded as such in the Liverpool music scene. Best was comparatively perceived as mediocre.

    4 The vast majority of William Shakespeare scholars think his plays were written by…wait for it…William Shakespeare. The conspiricist idea that any number of others—Bacon, Oxford, etc—really wrote them, as a current movie uses for its plot, remains an old, fringe view among mainstream scholars who tend to rely on the scientific requirement of empirical evidence instead of the principle of “make up wild accusations that will sell books and scripts”. This is also known as the Dan Brown/Oliver Stone school of historical methodology.

    5 No one jumped out of a window when the stock market collapsed in 1929. No record of a single one.

  • venqax

    My God. What about a list of Things That Were At Least Hugely Overblown If They Ever Happened At All. MN has clarified this enough, FGS. No one is saying Vietnam vets didn’t face poor treatment or even that some weren’t spit at. But the notion being addressed here, that spitting at VVets was a routine activity at the time, like protests in general were, is simply not true. There is absolutely nothing more than some anecdotal stories, some undoubtedy true, that returning vets were ever spit at or on. Isolated anecdotes don’t constitute evidence of what is portrayed by some as a common occurance at the time. I remember it too, and from a military family’s POV. Such poor reading comprehension and hypersensitivy doesn’t reflect well on those protesting here.

Leave a comment: