5 Events and Incidents That Never Happened

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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.

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36 thoughts on “5 Events and Incidents That Never Happened”

  1. An excellent post that could be expanded to book length. I stop reading anything as soon as I find some dumb fact cited as truth. Don’t we all by now know how to get to snopes.com?

  2. With Bob Dylan, I guess it depends which country you’re in. Ask any Dylan fan in England about audiences booing and heckling his electric set and they’ll say: “Oh, you mean the Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1966.”

    Seems the Newport Folk Festival tale falls into a category you didn’t mention: ‘Closely based on actual events’.

  3. Mark, I wonder how old you are?
    You are wrong about the Vietnam Veterans. It dishonors them and disregards their suffering to say that some would embellish and conflate their experiences.
    Shame on you.

  4. Please provide the footnotes for the item on the treatment of Vietnam vets. That there was no harsh treatment of them also is discussed in sociological literature as myth, particularly from the peak of the war in 1968 and afterward.

  5. All very interesting, but unfortunately at least one of these corrections requires a qualification. Regarding number 4 ‘Hats off’, Kennedy did indeed wear a top hat on inauguration day, but was clearly hatless while giving his famous address.

  6. Those of us who lived through the Vietnam era and had friends and family either killed or returned as veterans, know the truth of how they were treated. It dishonors and disrepects them to suggest that this treatment is myth or that they would embellish or conflate it.

  7. Hi,

    I’m kind of a Dylan nerd and, although, as you say, the Newport incident was confusing, it is on film and actually did happen. Now, certainly not all the audience booed, but a good portion of the public did boo and the boos are audible (and Dylan’s unease is evident). Second, it wasn’t Peter Yarrow but Pete Seeger, the father of the folk movement, who went backstage threatened to take an ax to the sound system because he thought the electric guitar was too loud. Third, the set was cut short because of the bad reception and Yarrow coxed Dylan to come back onstage for an acoustic encore that placated the public. So the incident is more complex and nuanced than the legend of a folk legend getting booed offstage, but it did happen and it was very meaningful.

  8. I KNOW that Vietnam Vets were disrespected and in some cases mistreated (in some parts of the country.) I was in uniform and experienced an uncomfortable incident in the San Francisco Airport in 1972. Four obviously drugged out individuals surrounded me and called me things like “baby killer,” “war monger,” and other colorful titles. They seemed to want to pick a fight. They moved on when a group of Marines came by. You are right on one thing, however. They never spit on me. But to say “it didn’t happen” is just revisionist drivel. Those who say things like that never happened are possibly those who did it and now want to change history to hide their shame. To be fair, the exact opposite happened in Dallas on that same trip. I had to wait in the airport bar. I didn’t have to buy a single beer. People bought me a beer and thanked me for serving. I saw both extremes, on the same day.

  9. Jeff:

    I do not claim that “there was no harsh treatment” of Vietnam veterans. Of course there was verbal abuse and physical assault, and perhaps even some spitting, but no epidemic of expectoration. Read the item above again: I said that the reception of returning service members was generally positive, and that mistreatment was anomalous. (There are journalistic and anecdotal accounts of spitting, insults, and attacks, but such stories do not constitute definitive proof.) Evidence that proves otherwise is lacking.

  10. I don’t know the background of the writer of the above, but as a Viet Nam era veteran with 26 months in Nam, I assure you that your statement #2 above is hooey! Upon returning home, we were met with A. Indifference; B. Hostility; and a distant C: Gratefulness. NO EMBELLISHMENT NECESSARY>

  11. Mark, I second providing some footnotes on the reception of returning service members from Vietnam being generally positive. I find that hard to believe based on first hand accounts that I’ve heard from my father, my boyfriend’s father (who didn’t even go to Vietnam, but was simply in the army during the war), and other veterans. “Spitting on veterans” was never mentioned, but their reception was nowhere close to “generally positive.”

  12. I also heard that the incident at Woodstock where Abby Hoffman gets knocked on the head by Pete Townshend with his guitar and thrown off the stage was also an urban legend.

  13. I do not claim to speak for all veterans, but I served when this was supposed to have happened. It did! I was stationed in San Francisco. It got so bad that we were ordered to wear civilian cloths to the office and change in the “restroom.” The few times I had to wear my uniform to work, the results conformed to your so called myth. Don’t go re-writing history saying, “It didn’t happen… It’s a myth…
    It was disgusting.

  14. It’s ironic that you use these selected events to talk about truth in writing. Fact is Viet Nam vets WERE spit on, hit, ignored and persecuted by the general public after they returned home. I don’t know where you researched your facts, but you need better research. Maybe there wasn’t that much actual “spit” but the hatred and disgraceful treatment by fellow country-men was very real. To present the fact that they really didn’t get spit on is to imply their return was uneventful and welcome–which was not the case. I’ve known military men during that era that were attacked, ignored by professors, and cursed at. You’ve done a disservice to any Viet Nam vet that is today a writer and reads your blog.

  15. “These myths and perceptions were largely perpetuated by writing…….” and by late night comics who love a stereotype and know a good hook when they hear one.

  16. I’ll say this one more time, and I will then respond no more on this issue: The idea that maliciously spitting on returning Vietnam veterans was a routine occurrence is a myth. That’s my argument, and I stand by it. However, nowhere did I say that Vietnam veterans were not spit on or insulted or attacked, and, like any other decent person, I condemn such despicable behavior.

    This is not a peer-reviewed journal that requires citations and footnotes. Suffice it to say that I researched the issue carefully. Rebuttals citing anecdotal accounts do not refute my argument. Responses consisting of anecdotal accounts of name-calling and assaults do not disprove my argument.

    Comments that I dishonor Vietnam veterans by referring to isolated exaggerations and conflations and fabrications by returning service members are without merit; a careful reader will note that I criticize only those who were dishonest in their reports of hostile reception.

    This thread makes clear that the Vietnam experience is still an open wound, but it also explicates that many people are careless in their reading and in making unfounded assumptions about a writer’s argument and intent. That provides another lesson for writers: Refutation and rebuttal should focus on what a writer actually wrote, not on what a respondent with an emotional bias about an issue wishes to believe was written.

  17. This is a writing blog, not a political one. The discussion above about being spat upon may derserve another article on figurative v. literal. In some parts of the country, there may have been abhorrent verbal abuse and figurative “spitting” towards a number of Vietnam veterans (i.e., not actual expectoration, as stated above). However, the point is that a case can be made where anomalous and conspicuous events became the hyperbole and representation for all of that abuse which thereafter was taken as literal and widespread………and I’m old enough to remember. So, it may be late in coming, but thanks to the veterans commenting above for your service.

  18. You are probably right when you say that these incidents were “isolated.” Probably most of the returning veterans experience no such hostility. Few returning Vets experienced any reception, hostile or otherwise. Most simply returned to no acknowledgment of our service one way or the other.
    Another commenter reported that he was instructed to wear street clothes off base. I was not ordered to do the same thing, but it was rare that any of us would wear our uniforms in the San Francisco Bay area. Hostility toward servicemen/women was a fact of life at that time in some parts of the country. San Francisco was one of those areas. Although actual spitting may have rarely happened, the prevailing attitude was almost as bad.
    You say “…a careful reader will note that I criticize only those who were dishonest in their reports of hostile reception.” Since you commented just after my comment, I assume that you think my report is “dishonest.” It is not. But you say, “the Vietnam experience is still an open wound.” It will always be an open wound.

  19. Donald:

    I must renege on my commitment to refrain from further comment on this issue to say that I’m sorry you misunderstood me. My reference to “those who were dishonest in their reports of hostile reception” means just that: those who exaggerated or fabricated incidents, not those who genuinely experienced what they reported. And if your own account is typical — and it seems to be — such incidents that did occur were not perpetrated by mainstream individuals, but by provocative extremists.

  20. This is an interesting example of why it is so important to write with clarity – especially when writing about subjects that are so emotional.

    As writers, we need to be as sensitive to these types of painful issues as we are to racial and religious topics.

    We need to continue to tackle these subjects, but let’s make sure our readers do NOT misunderstand us and what we are writing is truthful and fair.

  21. >>This is not a peer-reviewed journal that requires citations and footnotes. <<

    OK, but wouldn't mentioning the sources of the research help readers with the investigation and corroboration you recommend, and help distinguish the researched, factual statements from the very sort of restatement of myths that you are writing about? Readers of these non-peer-reviewed pieces can't be expected to do first hand research on everything they encounter. In other words, why should we believe your accounts over the account you challenge? How do YOU know Olivier wasn't really being snarky to Hoffman?

  22. ApK:

    This post, in providing a handful of examples of the many misapprehensions about historical events and social phenomena that have been perpetuated over the years, illustrates that writers must corroborate such information and verify or correct conventional wisdom. You shouldn’t believe my accounts. You should do your own research before you repeat the Olivier/Hoffman anecdote or any other such lore.

  23. I also beg to differ with you on #2. My husband experienced this, literally being spit at– and he was basically a “nobody” returning from a “non-eventful” tour of Vietnam to a small city in Michigan. If it happened to him, I’m guessing it happened to many others. The odds of him being one of the few are unlikely.

  24. My only comment would be about taking Snopes.com with a grain of salt. I’m less than convinced of their even-handed and non-partisan reporting/debunking. Certainly consult them, but don’t stop there anymore than you’d stop at Wikipedia or any other single source. Do your research, take your notes (copiously) and be sure of your facts; if you fail in this there is always someone who will do it FOR you, and you may not like their results.

  25. @AmaT: …and to clarify further, “5 Events and Incidents That May or May Not Have Happened as Reported by the Media.”

    Mark, I appreciate your myth-busting for these particular topics, and as said above, you could find more and write books on the subject. I understand that what you’re trying to say is, before you shoot your mouth off (or repeat information), make sure your sources are true and correct. I guess that means we need to cross-check YOU LOL!

    Off topic (mostly), I was just a tad young at the time of the Vietnam War; when I was in high school, I was relieved to find out that the mandatory draft was over and the war was over. I had been terrified that my boy friends would have to go into the military. The military was always very spooky to me, like a secret society, since I never actually knew anybody in the military until I was much older (like, a decade later). My friends and I were very much in awe of people who served our country and laid down (or were prepared to lay down) their lives for us. We did hear about all kinds of receptions of Vietnam vets, the good, the bad and the ugly (the receptions, not the vets). In general, it does seem to me from what I can remember that it was mostly no reception at all…the government just sort of ignored them, maybe figured the war was over, get back to your normal lives and move on. The military people whom I know do not speak of their war experiences much, if at all. But I can’t imagine that their lives can be “normal” after what they went through. And how disheartening for ANY of them, no matter how few or anecdotal, to return to any sort of disrespectful reception. I know this is an emotional topic and this is not the forum for it, so I apologize and will get off my little soapbox now.

  26. Mark, I think what I’m getting at is, if my authoritativeness and accuracy are important to what I’m writing, I’d want to convey that authority to my readers.
    If I was writing some non-fiction thing in my own voice, as opposed to character dialog, and the event I was speaking of was only tangential relevant, I might say “People say that…” or “there is a popular account of….” and if the reader wants to verify it, they are on their own.
    But if I was writing about the decline of hats, or Dustin Hoffman’s career, or whatever, then I would want to say “According to an account by…” or “In letters sent to…” or “In a study by…”.
    At best, it points the reader to a place to start getting corroboration, but if nothing else, it makes me SOUND like I know what I’m talking about more than the bulk of unattributed mentions the reader may have encountered elsewhere. And according to a study conducted by the ApK Communication Institute, that makes the piece more effective. 😉
    Of course, if I was writing a fiction piece with some character’s voice, it would not matter what I wrote…let the reader beware, as long as it sounds good. The Dan Brown approach. Repeat winky emoticon here.

  27. @ApK: Oh, meow, meow at that Dan Brown comment!!
    And please change all your “was” to “were”…as in, “If I WERE…” you know better than that!

  28. 2. The absence of proof is not proof itself. I know many Viet Nam veterans who tell me emphatically that they were spat upon, and worse, after returning stateside. Since I was never spat upon personally as a returning VN veteran, I have used the term in a figurative, not literal, manner to illustrate the level of disdain that all returning VN veterans endured, both individually and collectively.

    4. Stories about Kennedy being hatless on the day of his inauguration generally point specifically to the moments during which he recited his oath of office, not the entire day. Even that is hardly meaningful, however, as President Eisenhower was similarly bareheaded when he was sworn, in both in 1953 and 1957, as well as during various presidential motorcades on those days. Indeed the wearing of hats both gentlemen – and ladies as well – began a decline after World War II that continued throughout the fifties and into the sixties.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.”

  32. 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.

  33. venqax:

    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.

  34. 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.

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