September 28, 2006
An Itsy-Bitsy Lie
Earlier this week, a Danbury CT paper reported that Paul Van Valkenburgh, who wrote "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" under the name Paul Vance, had died at the age of 68. The A.P. picked up the story and it ran in yesterday's New York Times. You know who was most surprised to read it? Paul Vance, who wrote "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."
What makes this story interesting is that it wasn't just some sort of mix-up on the part of the Obit. columnists. Paul Van Valkenburgh (the dead one) had apparently been telling his family for years that he wrote the song. It's one of those perfect lies that you tell at your high school reunion - like that you invented post-its. It's a great exercise in what I'm sure Van Valkenburgh thought was harmless fakery, and his wife and kids believed him.
Unfortunately, Paul Vance's family also believed it, and understandably freaked out. While the media has withdrawn the original story, Vance is more concerned with the financial ramifications. Two racehorses that he owns were scratched from races yesterday because he was thought to be dead. And as for royalties: “Believe me," he says, "if they think you’re dead, they ain’t going to send the money.”
P.S. - In this week's NYT "Talk to the Newsroom" feature, obituaries editor Bill McDonald answers reader questions including one that addresses this case. What he doesn't address is that in this instance, the Times apparently didn't do any independent fact-checking.
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