Elna Strout, a housekeeper at the Bar Harbor Inn in Maine, remembered well the strange letter she received last year from a guest named Ted L. Nancy, who asked about a pair of rubber gorilla feet he believed he had left in the men’s restroom.
“We laughed and laughed and laughed about that letter,” said Strout, who has worked at the inn for almost 30 years and handles its lost-and-found inquiries. “We’ve had some strange requests of things left behind, but rubber gorilla feet stood right out. I thought he was really strange.”
Strout wrote back to Nancy on hotel stationery, telling him she did not find his gorilla feet. Her handwritten note is the first of many letters featured in “All New Letters From a Nut,” the latest in a series of compilations of gag correspondences by author Ted L. Nancy. The author’s identity has long been the subject of speculation, and will be revealed Thursday night on national television by comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
Seinfeld will appear on “Larry King Live” to reveal Nancy’s identity because, as he wrote in the foreword of the book, “I can conceal the secret no longer. I can’t live with myself.” He will also appear Friday on TODAY to talk about the book. Nancy’s identity, known to only a handful of people, has been “a carefully guarded secret,” said Seinfeld’s publicist Tom Keaney. “I do know, so it’s obviously not a group of very powerful people.”
The consensus is that Nancy is really Seinfeld, who has written introductions to all four ”Letters From a Nut” books, which have garnered a cult following and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the past 15 years. The previous one, “Even More Letters From a Nut,” was published 10 years ago.
“Jerry doesn’t lend his name to many situations,” his literary agent Dan Strone said cryptically. “Many people think that Jerry is the author; the more he denies it, the more the mystery builds. At its core, the book is really funny. The mythology certainly helps, but if it didn’t deliver the humor, the myth would not be sustained.”
Who’s the man behind the myth?
The myth began in 1995, as Seinfeld tells it in the first book, when he discovered a bunch of letters written by someone named Ted L. Nancy sitting on a coffee table. He read them aloud to friends and “the whole room was laughing,” Seinfeld wrote. Those letters and the responses to them became the first book. In the introduction to the original book, Seinfeld implied even he did not know who Ted L. Nancy really was.
In the newest book, Nancy writes letters to large hotel chains, to various municipal and government agencies, to several heads of state, to shoe companies, Vons supermarket, the Hershey candy company, colleges, museums, the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, even the Neil Diamond fan club. He pretends to be, among other things, a martial arts instructor, an actor in a play involving 300 live hamsters, the manager of a jewelry store, the inventor of a nose-blowing machine, a competitive eater, and the owner of a company that supplies portable toilets. In most cases, however, he is writing as simply an ordinary citizen, albeit a very peculiar, incomprehensible, and sometimes deranged one.
The correspondence is signed Ted L. Nancy or in some cases F.D. Nancy — he also goes by Fred — and lists as his address 1413 ½ Kenneth Road, #193, in Glendale, Calif. The address is actually that of Mail Mart Etc. on West Kenneth Road, owned for the last eight years by Hossein Rahimi and his wife. The Rahimis, who have a copy of the first “Nut” book, rent hundreds of mailboxes and have gotten calls from people to whom Nancy has written.
“As soon as we say this is a mailbox rental, they hang up,” Rahimi said.
He said he has never seen Seinfeld or anyone famous in his store to retrieve mail, and says he has never met Ted L. Nancy. If he knows his customer’s true identity, Rahimi is not telling.
‘A life of its own’
The speculation and the mystery surrounding Nancy’s identity “took on a life of its own,” said Ellen Folan, a publicist for Crown Publishing, which published Nancy under its Broadway Books imprint. “They did not dispel rumors, but they did not create this mystery on purpose. It became a pop-culture phenomenon.”
All of which would not have been possible without the unwitting participation of the people and companies Nancy wrote to. This kind of stunt humor is not new or unique. The comedian and actor Sacha Baron Cohen built his career on the same premise, sometimes with seemingly cruel, if also painfully funny, results. But no one really gets hurt in the “Nut” books, Folan said.
“He asks crazy things,” she said, “but he also says very complimentary things.”
To the Bar Harbor Inn, for instance, Nancy wrote “you have a fine hotel and are most courteous to your diners. I enjoyed my dinner there. P.S. You have great bread.”
A week before the book was published, housekeeper Elna Strout received a call from someone claiming to be or represent Nancy. That person left a message notifying Strout that hers was the first letter in the book.
“At first, I thought it was a hoax,” Strout said. “It made me a little nervous. I didn’t remember the letter or recognize the name.” That night, Strout drove to Mr. Paperback in the nearby town of Ellsworth, Maine, purchased the book, and found her letter.
“I called my boss right up,” she said. “We had quite a laugh about it.”
Not everyone included the book was notified. Ron Sprenger of Satellite Industries Toilets in Minneapolis wrote several e-mail letters to Nancy about a large order of portable toilets for a company Nancy called Papa’s Johns Commodes. In later letters, Nancy changed the name of his company to Elton’s Johns and finally to Nincompoops.
“Nobody called me,” Sprenger said. “I vaguely remember the letters. But once the e-mails get to be six months old, they get deleted. I remember that he wanted to change the name, that’s all I remember. When he wanted to call it Nincompoop I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is kind of bogus.’ But I’ve had people call their company Number One and Number Two. People actually put that on their truck. There is one company called Pooper Scooper. Why would you want to degrade your business like that?”
The sincerity with which Nancy’s correspondents respond is key to the books’ appeal. And until Thursday night, so is the mystery behind the author’s identity.
“Jerry’s always been intrigued by the mythology of Clark Kent and Superman,” said Seinfeld’s agent Strone, “and you never see Superman and Clark Kent in the same room, do you? Who knows what you’re going to see this week.”
Tune in Friday, Sept. 24 to see Jerry Seinfeld discuss this and more on TODAY.