Ferdinand Demara and the joys of being a Great Imposter

Sometimes, I wish I was Ferdinand Demara.

One of the problems with being you is that you’re more or less stuck with you, and the same is true for me. Each of us is changing all the time, sometimes several times a day. We’re different people when we’re with different people and in different situations, and our dreams and fears and desires change all the time, but whatever decisions or choices or errors we happen to make stay binding even when we change to someone else. We’re temporary creatures but we’re forced to live as though we’re permanent, and therein lies a great deal of our frustration and confusion. Ferdinand Waldo Demara avoided all that.

Ferdinand, or Fred to his friends, seems from the outside to have been the most blessed of humans. Fred wasn’t bound to being Fred, the bulky, ungainly high-school dropout: Fred lived as many lives as it occurred to him to live. He was more than 50 different people in his lifetime, doing an impressive range of different things. He was a professor of psychology, a cancer researcher, a civil engineer, a Latin teacher, a hotel accountant, a deputy warden in a maximum security prison in Texas, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, a Franciscan monk, a Cistercian monk and probably some lesser known sorts of monks as well.

Fred, in short, was one of the world’s most enthusiastic and incorrigible con men. When asked why he did it, he answered, “Rascality. Pure rascality.” Most famously, he once impersonated a doctor named Joseph Cyr, secured a position in the Canadian navy as a trauma surgeon, and sailed away to the Korean War armed only with a borrowed scalpel, a jovial manner and a suitcase filled with second-hand surgeon’s manuals.

He managed to successfully conduct a number of shipboard procedures, including some intricate work on the infected tooth of the ship’s captain, but his finest moment came one day bobbing about off the west coast of Korea, when a boatload of critically wounded South Korean guerillas were brought aboard, requiring urgent attention. Did Ferdinand do what you or I might have done? Confronted with a demand from the world for which he was patently not equipped, did he hide in his cabin or jump overboard or confess? He did not. He propped up his textbooks and set to work, operating under the most pressed of conditions on a pitching, rolling ship. He amputated a foot. He removed a bullet from a man’s chest. He saved sixteen lives and didn’t lose a patient. He did so well that he was nominated for a medal and his name and photograph were published in all the papers back home, eliciting a startled letter of enquiry from the real Dr Joseph Cyr. The navy was so impressed by the fake Joe Cyr, they declined to press charges.

Calling himself Brother John Payne, Ferdinand founded a religious college in Maine and had it certified by the state. It still runs today. Knowing no Latin, he taught Latin at a private high school in Massachusetts and improved the school pass rate by 23%. In 1959 he appeared on a TV game show with Groucho Marx and won $2000.

Oh, wouldn’t it be something to be Ferdinand Demara? To live so many lives, to be so many people, to move forever into the future so unburdened by your own history? Surely such lightness would give you unending strength, and wouldn’t you use that strength ceaselessly to perfect your life? Surely you would be fearless. Surely you would be free. If only freedom didn’t hurt so many other people.

In 1961, Robert Crighton wrote a book about Ferdinand’s life. The Great Imposter became a bestseller and was made into a smash Hollywood film starring Tony Curtis. Ferdinand became close friends with Crighton, overcoming Crighton’s wife’s reservations, living in his home, babysitting his children. Here at last was another human being with whom he could share his secret self, and Crighton reciprocated. They made themselves vulnerable to each other, they were real and loving and true. Ferdinand told Crighton that he wanted to stop pretending, to start anew. Crighton vouched for him, found him work, lent him money. Theirs was a beautiful, redemptive friendship that ended when Crighton discovered that Ferdinand had for some time been impersonating him.

Ferdinand Demara died in 1981, in a hospital where he had been posing as a chaplain. No one from any of his lives visited his deathbed.

Times, 1 November 2017