Back in November 1991, Forbes FYI, a supplement to Forbes magazine, ran an article that, as had to have been clear to anyone of even piddling intelligence, was an obvious put-on, a joke, a hoax.
The article began with the notice that “It has come to our attention through private channels that the Soviet government is preparing to make a very unusual, indeed unprecedented, offering: the embalmed remains of [founder of Soviet Communism] V.I. Lenin.”
The piece went on to explain: “With its ruined economy fast approaching crisis point, and a severe winter food shortage looming, the Russian government is being forced to undertake some very drastic measures in an attempt to bring in desperately needed hard currency…. The Deputy Minister, Mr. Victor Komplectov, first proposed selling Lenin’s remains last April, pointing to the enormous profits earned by the British government when it sold London Bridge to an Arizona developer in 1962.”
If the analogy between a bridge and a corpse wasn’t enough to tip off even the most credulous of readers, the following should have been:
“In an attempt to save the significant commission that an auction house such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s would charge – as well as to discourage an extraordinary, and to the Russians, unseemly, public spectacle – the [Interior] Ministry has decided to hold a closed, sealed bid auction. Bids must be received by the Ministry no later than midnight (Moscow time) on December 31 of this year…. A condition of the sale is that the Lenin corpse not be used for any ‘commercial, or improper’ purpose, the deed of purchase to be administered by the International Court of Justice at The Hague, in the Netherlands, making the conditions of sale enforceable by that international legal community.”
And if, by chance, there breathed an individual so naïve or intellectually challenged that he still had no idea his leg was being royally pulled, here was the description of the Lenin corpse offered by Forbes FYI: “Mr. Lenin’s body was embalmed at his death in 1924, and stored in a sealed, climate-controlled glass casket. (Shades of Sleeping Beauty!) It has been periodically re-embalmed. Every five to ten years the skin, somewhat yellowish but by no means jaundiced-looking, requires a special application of preservative, or ‘waxing.’ Under the terms of sale, maintenance is to be provided only by qualified Russian mortuary specialists from the Interior Ministry, expenses to be paid by the purchaser. (Estimated annual upkeep: $10,0000-$15,0000; varies with climate.)”
Finally, there was this: “Obviously, the Lenin corpse is not for everyone. But as a conversation piece, it would certainly have no equal. You might have some explaining to do to the lady of the home, but the item is fairly compact and could be accommodated to fit most large dens.”
Several years after the article appeared, Christopher Buckley, the then-editor of Forbes FYI (which would be renamed ForbesLife in 2006) reminisced about the incident on C-Span’s “Booknotes,” describing to host Brian Lamb the transparently phony details of the story and how the piece had been faxed to news organizations at the precise time the day’s evening newscasts were being prepared.
Most journalists were a little too savvy to fall for the hoax, related Buckley. There was, however, one exception.
“I was on my NordicTrack cross-country ski machine that night watching Peter Jennings … and on came a photo of Lenin. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ I felt a little bit like, you know, the kid who puts the rock on the railroad track and the next day hears grownups talking about the train derailment. So that became a big story, quite a big story….”
How big? The interior minister of Russia, no doubt wondering why American networks employ morons as news anchors, had to make an appearance on Russian TV to reassure his people there was no plan to sell off Lenin’s corpse. Jennings subsequently apologized to viewers, saying “we were had.”
Why is the Monitor bringing this story up at this time? Well, August 7 marks the 4th anniversary of Peter Jennings’s passing, and the Monitor detested everything about Jennings – his smarmy demeanor, his skewed reporting, his pronounced anti-U.S. and anti-Israel bias, and the way his colleagues showered him with so many posthumous tributes you’d have thought he was a tribune of unvarnished truth and objectivity, a figure of unimpeachable trustworthiness, Diogenes’s Honest Man personified.
Jennings was none of those things, and apparently he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer either.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org