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Radio Replay: Loving the Lie

Dec 8, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2018 12:58 pm

Authenticity is a trait we all prize. We all want the real thing - whether that thing is a designer purse, or a loving relationship.

But the two stories you'll hear today raise profound questions about authenticity and nature of human belief: If you believe something is real, if you can fall in love with someone or stand in awe of a painting, is it possible that it doesn't actually matter whether the object of your affection is fake?

Later we'll explore the art of forgery, with a tale of a painter who tricks the world's greatest art experts into believing they are looking at masterpieces.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: Hey. This is your host, Shankar Vedantam. Today's episode is part of our Radio Replay series, where we bring you episodes from our radio show. Today's show is all about fake identity.


Parth Shah, what are you doing?

SHAH: Hey, Shankar. I thought I could pretend to be you to tee up this episode. I'll just go back into the control booth.

VEDANTAM: This is the real Shankar Vedantam. Today on the show, we're looking at things that are not what they seem. Authenticity is a trait we all prize. We all want the real thing, whether that's a designer purse or a loving relationship. But the two stories you'll hear today raise profound questions about authenticity and the nature of human belief. If you believe something is real - if you can fall in love with someone or stand in awe of a painting - is it possible that it doesn't actually matter whether the object of your affection is fake?

In the second half of our show, we'll explore the art of forgery with the tale of a painter who tricks the world's greatest art experts into believing they are looking at masterpieces. First, though, the story of a balding, middle-aged man who impersonates women and cons thousands of other men to fall in love with his creations. It's a con that unfolded very slowly over the course of two decades. I first reported the story for an episode of This American Life called The Heart Wants What It Wants. The thing that fascinated me most about the story is that when the con was finally exposed, many of the victims were heartbroken. They wanted it to go on. They wanted to keep believing.


VEDANTAM: So here's how the con worked. Guys around the country signed up for a pen pal service. It would put them in touch with women they could befriend and correspond with. And then they'd start to receive letters.

JESSE: They come from Hillsdale, Ill. Some of them are white, pink, green.

VEDANTAM: Jesse is a sweet, soft-spoken man with fake, plastic Aviator glasses. He started receiving the letters in 1985 when he was in his 30s. Back then, he was overweight. He'd never had a serious girlfriend, always lived with his parents. After his mother died, he spent most of his time taking care of his sick dad and working at his family's restaurant. Jesse's favorite letters came from a woman named Pamela.

JESSE: Yes. I usually took it at the end of the day when I got them in the mail, went into my room and laid on my bed and just sat there and read them.

Dear Jesse, deep down, you know as well as I do that you could be a lot better off than you are if you only had someone on your side - someone who would help you, encourage you, work with you or stick with you, even when things get bad. What I'm talking about, of course, is a true friend. But that kind of person is hard to find today, isn't it?

VEDANTAM: Jesse had never met or talked to Pamela. But he was curious. He wrote back, telling her a little about himself. And Pamela replied again and again. The letters were typed in a girlish font and signed in a blue pen with big, gloopy letters. In another letter, Pamela wrote, (reading) just before I sat down to write this letter to you, I was thinking how lucky I am that in this great, big, crazy world, I found you. I hope I can be part of your life for a long time, darling. And I hope as time goes by, I'll be able to make you happier and happier.

This mystery woman seemed to know him. She made Jesse feel understood. She made him feel loved.

JESSE: You can tell when you meet a person that they're not superficial. This is coming from their heart. Everybody's looking for that perfect love and everything. And this pops up. So I thought, well, could this be something different?

DON LOWRY: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: This was Pamela. He was middle-aged, balding and had a small, gray mustache. His real name was Don Lowry.

Was any of it difficult - to come up with these characters. Did the characters bore you? I mean, tell me about it as a writing project.

D. LOWRY: (Laughter) No. No. I looked at a photograph of a girl and said, what kind of girl is this? Where's she from? What does she like to do? It was fairly easy after a while. The first 20 were a little bit rough. But the next 80 were not hard at all.

VEDANTAM: And you enjoyed making up these characters?

D. LOWRY: I loved it (laughter). Yeah. I loved it. I admit that (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Don died in 2014. But I met him in 2011 in a rundown house in Butler, Penn. He was 82. If you have trouble understanding Don's voice, it's because he was a lifelong heavy smoker. The desk in his living room was covered with ash. His sofa smelled of smoke. Don told me he always wanted to be a writer, but his real talent was in being a hustler. He always had a scheme going. In his early 30s, Don visited Mexico and wrote a traveler's guide where he explained how American men could live cheaply there, pick up women and get by with rudimentary Spanish.

D. LOWRY: It was called "Mexico, Bachelor's Paradise."

VEDANTAM: It didn't sell. And then he tried something most writers would never consider. He changed the name of the book's author to a woman's name. Sales skyrocketed, he said. Apparently, lonely American men didn't want tips from a guy. They wanted tips from a girl. Don realized there was a market waiting to be exploited. He rented mailing lists from magazines that catered to single men and started writing letters to them, posing as different women. Men like Jesse were invited to join a club where, in exchange for a small fee, they could receive love letters. In a moment of inspiration Don decided to call the women who wrote the letters angels. Angel Linda, angel Kristina, angel Pamela. He purchased stock photos of models and printed catalogs with photos and bios for each angel. Angels came in different flavors. Some were compliant, helpless and pure. Others were raunchy and sent nude photos of themselves. Most were young. And all were eager to please - dream women for a certain kind of man dreamed up, of course, by another man. In one brochure, angel Linda Scott is pictured in a one piece swimsuit on her hands and knees. Angel Kristina looks like an idealistic woman. She's shown hugging a tree and holding a flower. I prefer a certain type of man, Kristina says. He can pick up a handful of dark, rich soil and feel a kind of reverence and joy. But he's awfully hard to find.


VEDANTAM: Don mailed these brochures to men like Jesse. If a man wrote back, Don began sending letters to him as angel Kristina or angel Linda. Don told me he didn't want members who were just looking for sex. He wanted men looking for meaningful relationships who would be in it for the long haul. He thought this would be better for business and better for the marks.

D. LOWRY: A guy - his wife died. You know, he was living alone. He didn't have any friends - you know, that kind of thing. He needed this. He didn't have anything or anybody else to cheer him up. Nobody. We did. These girls would boost your egos - things like, oh, your handwriting is so masculine (laughter) things like that - little things. Give the guy a boost. And they loved it.

VEDANTAM: After a few letters to Jesse, Pamela let him know that the only thing she wanted was a little help. (Reading) Darling, I want you to know that I really love writing you every day. It has filled a great need in my life, and I know I'd be very sad if I had to stop writing you and being your friend. I hope you feel the same way about me and my letters to you. I think it's fair and reasonable for me to ask you to help with the expenses of paper, envelopes, postage, photos and the other things I'll be sending you. If you could send me just ten dollars a week for my letters, I could continue writing every day, as I have been.

Jesse was fine with that. He figures he sent in $4,000 or $5,000 between 1985 and '88. It wasn't a big deal to him.

JESSE: My business was prospering pretty well. We ran over $100,000 three years in a row. So it was no problem for me to be sending money and stuff. So...

VEDANTAM: Pamela often sent Jesse stories about the two of them for a little extra money. In one, Pamela and Jesse go on a picnic together. In another, he literally rescues her as a knight in shining armor. There's one story that has them both lying on a bear-skin rug in front of a fireplace. And, of course, it goes away you think it will go if two people are lying on a bear-skin rug in front of a fireplace. But it's romantic, not explicit. The language is tame. The letter concludes, (reading) I lay beside you and whisper, good night, sweet darling. Let us drift away to paradise in our dreams and wake up together to a new and wonderful day. I kiss you gently and fall asleep in your arms.


VEDANTAM: OK - obviously cheesy. Don Lowry was not a gifted writer, but he was a gifted manipulator. When I first heard about the story, I assumed the men who signed up for the letters from the angels must have been such easy marks, so naive. Who else would buy such absurd fantasies? But then I read the dozens and dozens of letters that Pamela sent Jesse. He saved them in a large binder, each letter in its own plastic sleeve. And as I read the letters I started to understand the power of the psychological tools Don used to hook men like Jesse.

Most of the letters aren't epic fantasies. Most are about the minutiae of Pamela's life. She goes to the bank. She talks to co-workers. She tells Jesse her thoughts on televangelists. Over and over, Pamela tells Jesse how much he means to her. She praises him, encourages him. When you read the letters one after the other, like Jesse did day after day after day, it paints a picture that feels real. I felt the Pamela in the letters was a real person, and I knew Don was writing them.

There were other tricks. In one letter, Pamela asks Jesse to keep a picture of hers nearby as he read her letters, so he would feel she was in the room with him. Jesse put up two photos of her on the wall. She once sent him a dime. In that letter, she told Jesse she had just had a strange day. Another driver bashed her car but didn't leave a note. Just when it looked like the day couldn't get any worse she lost her purse. Depressed, Pamela spotted this very dime on the street. She picked it up, hoping it was a lucky charm. Later, a little boy showed up with her purse. A woman called and took responsibility for the car. Pamela told Jesse she was giving him her lucky dime. Here's Jesse reading from the end of that letter.

JESSE: (Reading) Keep this dime, darling. Let it always remind you that good people can still come into your life, and good things can still happen to you. And also think of this as a small token of my affection for you. If you're hold it in your hand and squeeze it hard, you'll feel the warmth of my love coming out of it.

VEDANTAM: Did you actually do that, Jesse?

JESSE: Yes, I think I did do that and everything.

VEDANTAM: Like I said, Jesse's mother had recently died, and his dad had heart trouble. He spent a lot of time looking after him. He wrote letters to Pamela, confiding in her about his depression. She sent him heartfelt letters about bad relationships she'd had. And she told him about visiting her grandfather, who was suffering from dementia.

JESSE: That really took its toll on her. So I kind of bonded with that, knowing that she was going through the same thing that I was. Me and her kind of more or less bonded more than any other person I've ever talked to.


JESSE: It was kind of like a beacon from outside. Like, if you were a ship out at sea, and you were looking for a lighthouse, which - they used that in the deal to look for the light and everything and guide yourself towards it were, you know that you'll have safe haven.

VEDANTAM: I'm not sure exactly following you. Is this something from one of the letters where they basically talk about the lighthouse?

JESSE: Yes. And in fact, I got a little wooden figure of a lighthouse that she sent to me at one time and everything and said let this beacon know that somebody is out there looking out for you and everything.


VEDANTAM: If Jesse had wanted to see it, there were plenty of signs the letters were mass produced. They look typed, but the paper doesn't have the indentations that come from typewriter keys. The signatures look like they've been stamped or printed. All the specifics in the letters are about Pamela's life.

In the letters, did Pamela ever ask you how you were handling your mom's death.

JESSE: Not that I remember. No, I don't think so.

VEDANTAM: Did she ask how your dad's health was?

JESSE: Not that I remember at this time, no.

VEDANTAM: In fact, when I read Pamela's letters to Jesse, she never mentions any of the things he has told her. When Pamela talks about Jesse's life, she switches into generalities. I know you're sad. I know you're lonely. I know you're having a hard time. The only way the letters are personalized is that Jesse's name is sprinkled throughout - autofilled like a Madlib sheet. To Jesse, it didn't matter. He saw what he wanted to see.

JESSE: At the time, I wasn't really fully absorbing all of that. I had a lot on my plate, kind of in turmoil with everything that was going on. So I just read them and kind of took some encouragement out of it.

VEDANTAM: Did you ever have doubts about what was going on as you were receiving the letters?

JESSE: Well, no, not at the time and everything. Like I said, I was glad to be getting letters from somebody and even though you're paying money for that because you have blinders on and not really paying attention to all of that. Like I said, when you're not the best-looking person in the world, that somebody out of the blue that write to you and tell you things and kind of build up your spirits and everything and stuff because everybody looks at you and stuff - it's kind of like the deal with the hunchback of Notre Dame. You'll never find anybody that will care for you. But there at the end, he wound up making a friend with the people that befriended him and everything.

VEDANTAM: At a certain point, Pamela became the thing that kept Jesse afloat when he had to work long hours, when he had to close his restaurant and rush his father to the hospital.

JESSE: Yes, there was one thing that really kindly touched me and everything. I was telling I'm ready to give up and everything. And she just told me get back on your feet and everything, so that really was a word of encouragement and everything.


VEDANTAM: As Don went on, he realized his members were hooked and he could take the fantasy further - much further.

D. LOWRY: All kinds of people were members. We even had a priest join the Call, really.

VEDANTAM: Wait, that's not a Catholic priest.

D. LOWRY: Yeah, a Catholic priest.

VEDANTAM: What was he hoping to get out of it?

D. LOWRY: Who the hell knows? He was probably just bored.

VEDANTAM: How Don finally got caught when we come back. You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Today's show is about forgers and the victims of forgers. We're exploring the mindset of people who do the duping and the people who get duped. Our first story is about a man named Don Lowry who ran a fake pen pal service. He fooled thousands of men into believing they were corresponding with beautiful young women. Over time, many of the men fell in love with Don's inventions. As he ensnared his victims, Don came to understand that human gullibility runs very, very deep.


VEDANTAM: He invented an epic world for his angels with a magical backstory and a fantastic future. Here's how it worked. The angels supposedly lived together in a retreat hidden away from the world. Most were lost souls, escaping drugs and bad men. These were women who needed a steady hand and a strong shoulder. As he invented more angels, Don came up with interweaving backstories. Some angels were good, some bad. Angels helped one another, backstabbed each other. All the men who signed up to join the Lonely Hearts Club understood they were joining an organization of good-hearted men who were devoted to taking care of the angels. The organization was known as the Call.

Don promised members of the Call that they would one day move with the angels to a valley paradise into a giant building shaped like a naked woman lying down on the grass. This lady-shaped building would house meeting rooms and auditoriums. The paradise was to be called Chonda-za. In exchange for their contributions, the members would have their needs looked after at Chonda-za - all their needs.

At the center of the entire fantasy was a matriarch, a saintly woman named Mother Maria. Maria collected and managed the money from the members, and she organized and disciplined the angels. She was said to have mystical powers and could revirginize fallen women. There were photos of Mother Maria. She was beautiful. Maria's photos were actually of a woman named Esther. She was Don's wife.

Not all the members of the Call believed in Chonda-za. Jesse stuffed the letters describing Chonda-za in the back pocket of the binder. He figured it was just some wacky idea Pamela had and just ignored it. But there were other fish who found this hook tempting.

KEN BLANCHARD: In my mind, you know, I always held this area of - tried not to be convinced, you know, 100 percent about it, you know? Surely, you know, this is too good to be true.

VEDANTAM: This is Ken Blanchard. He's a big, gentle man and was another member of the Call for many years. He was single when he joined, and he was still single when I met him in 2012.

What was the draw? What did you tell yourself when you said, you know, this is too good to be true?

BLANCHARD: Well, I think with me it was the prospect of maybe at least having some sort of communication with some women, you know, maybe my age, maybe, you know, maybe a little bit too much - too young for me maybe, you know, even then. But it sounded like a kind of a neat idea, you know, to, you know, be kind of on the leading edge of something like that, you know. Oh, geez, I don't know...


BLANCHARD: You know, like I say, I don't know what else or how else to try to explain my part of it or, you know, belief in it or anything. They got me hooked, you know, on what they were saying and everything, and I believed them, so...


VEDANTAM: Don got hundreds of new sign-ups every year. Millions of dollars flowed back to Don's headquarters in Moline, Ill. He bought himself expensive cars, a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes. He bought his sons and Esther everything they wanted. He got a big office in downtown Moline and operated a print shop. He hired assistants, salespeople and ghostwriters to expand his operation. By the mid-1980s, Don was writing love letters to more than 30,000 men.

D. LOWRY: We had lawyers, doctors, professors, mechanics, bakers - you name it. All kinds of people were members. We even had a priest join the Call, really.

VEDANTAM: Wait, that's not a Catholic priest.

D. LOWRY: Yeah, a Catholic priest.

VEDANTAM: What was he hoping to get out of it?

D. LOWRY: Who the hell knows? He was probably just bored.

VEDANTAM: To exploit this growing market, Don constantly experimented with new schemes and products. He started selling cassette tapes where the angels flirted with the men. He got into merch - mugs, puzzles, commemorative coins - all with angels' faces printed on them.

D. LOWRY: And we sent out a pillowcase with Angel Terry's face on it, and it said, now you can sleep with Angel Terry every night (laughter). We did a lot of things like that.

VEDANTAM: The members weren't just sending in cash and checks. They were sending gifts. Ken sent Angel Vanessa a windbreaker. Others sent coats and shoes, even gardening equipment so the angels could grow vegetables at their secret retreat.

Did you encourage them to send personal items?

D. LOWRY: Oh, God, no, no. I hated that. Here's a guy - his wife died. And she left all kinds of jewelry and dresses and so on. He put them in a big cardboard box and mailed it to us. What the hell are we going to do with it?

VEDANTAM: Now, what you wanted, of course, was you wanted them to send a check.

D. LOWRY: Yeah, of course or money order or cash or anything (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Did you tell them not to do it?

D. LOWRY: Very subtly. I didn't want to hurt their feelings. They thought they were doing a great thing for the angels by sending these clothes. And I didn't want to hurt them.

RICO LOWRY: My dad would blazenly (ph) just - he would have sidewalk sales - lingerie and gifts and jewelry.

VEDANTAM: This is Don's son, Rico Lowry.

R. LOWRY: And my dad would blazingly just - he'd be selling the lingerie on racks in front of the print shop.

VEDANTAM: He would actually put up racks on the sidewalk in front of the print shop.

R. LOWRY: Yep, yep. My dad had a very sarcastic and wicked sense of humor.

VEDANTAM: A local police officer told me men from all over the country started showing up in Moline asking where they could find the angels. If they found their way to the print shop, Don called the cops on them. Dumbfounded police tried to explain to the men that there was no Angel Vanessa, no retreat, no Chonda-za. But occasionally, if Don was in the mood, he'd actually allow them to meet female employees whom he had asked to pose as angels in photos.

In time, Don even set up events for his most loyal members to meet the angels. He called them gatherings. At the gathering in Chicago, an advice columnist offered dating suggestions, a comedian told jokes. Angels in yellow-green dresses leapt around onstage in an interpretive dance. Jesse went to the Moline gathering. He was excited to finally meet Pamela. She looked just like she did in her pictures. In fact, she was one of Don's employees, and her name really was Pamela. She greeted Jesse warmly, but Jesse's excitement was tempered by the fact that there were a dozen other men at the gathering. Jesse was shocked to find that every man thought he was in a personal relationship with Pamela, too. They crowded around her, vying for her attention.

JESSE: And then that's when it dawned on me, and I said, hey, this is not what I thought it would be or anything, that it was a rip-off. Well, that was kind of like getting a kick in the stomach. It was upsetting and everything. We sent all that money and this and that and the other. And it wasn't what it was meant to be. It got you down to reality and stuff, so...

VEDANTAM: Jesse knew that Pamela liked music boxes, so he bought her an expensive one with a tiny record in it that played "When The Saints Go Marching In." Pamela loved it. He says she stared at it and let the record play. It went on and on and on. The other men stood around them and looked at Jesse. They looked at Pamela, then back to Jesse. He liked that he was making them jealous.


VEDANTAM: Jesse didn't blame Pamela. He wasn't exactly sure how the scam worked, but he was sure that the woman standing before him was the same woman who wrote to him, that she was the one who had read his letters. The proof - Pamela's dog jumped into his lap.

JESSE: She jumped on my lap twice and everything. That really surprised Pamela and them. So I guess she smelled my scent on the letters I was writing to her everything and stuff. So...

VEDANTAM: So we got in touch with Pamela to see if she remembered any of this. But she declined to be interviewed on tape for the story. She did confirm that she hadn't written the letters. Jesse made friends with a couple of other men at the meeting, particularly two guys named Lenny and Al. They were all like strangers who had independently watched the same soap opera for many years.

JESSE: And we got to talking about it. I said, well, why did you write to this and everything? Instead of bonding with the girls, we ended up talking to each other and meeting new friends and talking about the troubles we had. So we kind of - they were just like me and everything. So we stayed in correspondence like they said. They wrote me letters. They even called me at my restaurant to ask me how things were going and everything and finding out, asking about my dad and everything. So that kind of was encouraging to hear somebody calling to want to check on you and everything.

VEDANTAM: In other words, they asked about all the personal stuff Pamela never asked about. Lenny and Al stayed in touch until they died.


VEDANTAM: What finally brought Don Lowry's scam to an end was a woman named Susan Rosseau (ph). She was a model that Don had worked with. She'd gotten into a car crash and called Don for help. He showed up at the hospital with a photographer. They unbandaged her wounds and took pictures. They sent these to all the men who were corresponding with angel Susan and asked them for help in paying her medical bills. But Don didn't give Susan the money. She went to the cops.

KENNETH REXROTH: And she came to our office. She revealed the promises Mr. Lowry had made to her and broken. The return that Mr. Lowry received was staggering in terms of dollars and cents.

VEDANTAM: This is Lieutenant Kenneth Rexroth of the Moline Police Department. He'd been aware of Don Lowry for years. He turned away many men who'd come to the police station in search of the angels. And he'd been looking for a way to lock Don up.

REXROTH: He was very diabolical. He's a sinister person. I consider Mr. Lowry to be an evil man.

VEDANTAM: But thanks to Susan Rosseau, the police finally had evidence to obtain subpoenas. They raided Don's print shop. They found out that some man sold everything in order to give their life savings to the angels. One man lived out of his car and forwarded his Social Security check to his angel. When the police got in touch with these guys, many of them realized for the first time that their treasured letters were written by a man.

BLANCHARD: What I was turned out to be angry about and more embarrassed about more than anything was the fact that he was even involved - that any man at all was even involved.

VEDANTAM: Again, this is Ken Blanchard, who spent years receiving letters from angel Vanessa.

BLANCHARD: When I found out that these letters I'd been getting all these times - and I thought were some girl sharing something, you know, with me. Well, then I found out it was him (laughter) writing the darn thing, I thought, my God. What the hell am I getting into? But I can laugh about it now. But I think at the time, I did have some feelings about that weren't very charitable.


VEDANTAM: Don's lawyer said that if members believed the angels were real, that was on them. As Don told me many years later...

D. LOWRY: People believe what they want to believe. You cannot dissuade them. Most members believed the angels live forever in a never-never land called Retreat. We told them they lived forever and never grew old. Does that tell you anything? Huh?

VEDANTAM: You're surprised that they believed you?

D. LOWRY: Yeah (laughter). It had helped them. It made them happy. So big deal.

VEDANTAM: Don and Pamela were charged with mail fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. The press mobbed the trial. Don was shamed in the press, called a snake oil salesman at People magazine - which brings me back to what got me interested in the story in the first place, the thing that really surprised me. Many members flew from all over the country to show up at the courthouse in defense of the Call. Some stood outside with picket signs defending the brotherhood. Jesse and his friend Al were both there. As they waited outside the courtroom, Jesse saw Pamela come up. He rushed over to her.

JESSE: She was walking up. And I noticed she was cold, so I took off my jacket and draped it over her shoulders. And we walked all the way up to the courthouse. I was kind of like a security guard. And after she went indoors, I took my coat off. And I backed off and everything.

VEDANTAM: Did she say anything to you at that point?

JESSE: No, not really.

VEDANTAM: Members testified on the stand and said the call had been a critical, beautiful part of their lives. One man said letters from the angel saved him from alcoholism and thoughts of suicide. Jesse testified, too. This is him reading a court transcript of what he said on the stand.

JESSE: (Reading) Well, it gave you, like I said, inspiration to continue. No matter what the circumstances that you were going through - that if you persevered, you could make it.

VEDANTAM: Do you remember saying this at the trial?

JESSE: Yes, I do.

VEDANTAM: Would you say that you still stand by what you said at trial?


VEDANTAM: So here's the thing, Jesse. You know, Don Lowry lied to you and sent you letters on behalf of someone else for many years. And you formed an emotional connection with this woman who was writing to you, when, at the same time, you showed up at trial to essentially defend Don Lowry. And I'm trying to understand how and why you did that.

JESSE: Well, like I said, it wasn't actually defending him, but it was actually Pamela was the one that we were all - we turned her attention to help her. And that meant helping Don also and everything.

VEDANTAM: I understand that Don was really the mastermind of the operation, but when she showed up at these meetings, and she presented herself as the same Pamela who was the Pamela in the letters, wasn't she lying to you?

JESSE: Well, I guess you could think about that that way, yes.

VEDANTAM: Did you ever think about it that way?

JESSE: No, not until now and everything, when all of this has been rebrought out and everything.

VEDANTAM: Don and Pamela were both found guilty. Pamela served two years in prison. Don was imprisoned for ten years. When I met Don, I asked him whether he felt he did anything wrong.

D. LOWRY: I think I did something very wrong. I suppose I made it a little bit too real. I did. I made it too real.

VEDANTAM: Jesse lives alone now with his dog, Chewbacca. He's in his 60s and is still single. He's had some complications from diabetes recently and had parts of his foot amputated. It hasn't been easy. My producer, Stephanie Foo, visited him at his house in Texas.

JESSE: I was in the hospital after my amputation, running around on my knee scooter - said, you can still do this. Keep going and everything. So - and I remember those words she told me - get on your feet. So I do that and everything and keep going.

STEPHANIE FOO, BYLINE: Wow. Even now, even today.

JESSE: Even today and everything and stuff. So...

FOO: But, basically, that line you know, get on your foot - it doesn't really matter who wrote it.

JESSE: No. You think back, but it brings back fond memories of way back when, and you could be in your hundreds and everything or older. And I hope to have this on my mind down the line and everything and stuff. So...

VEDANTAM: Jesse still has the little, wooden lighthouse Pamela sent him. It's on his dresser in his bedroom. And he still has two photos of Pamela in his den - one on the wall, one on his desk. In one, she's sitting in an office chair, hands in her lap - not glamorous or sexy or anything. Jesse says she's just sitting there, being herself. It's just a little something to say, I made a friend.


VEDANTAM: Don Lowry got what he wanted from his con - money and lots of it. But it turns out that many forgers are not motivated by the bottom line. They're really after a windfall that is psychological.


NOAH CHARNEY: If I'm allowed to have a favorite forger, which I know sounds a little bit funny, it would be Eric Hebborn, who's really the prince of art forgers.

VEDANTAM: This is Noah Charney. He's the author of "The Art Of Forgery." In his book, he writes about the forger Eric Hebborn.


CHARNEY: And his story is one of revenge over monetary gain. That's why he turned to forgery. He initially had been a failed artist. He couldn't get traction with his own original artworks, even though he had some serious talent. And he had been at a flea market. And he'd purchased some drawings that he thought might be of value. He brought them to an art gallery in London. And the gallerists said, you know, this is pretty good. I'll take it off your hands. It's not bad. So he sold them. And he made a profit. So he was quite pleased. But then he came back past the gallery a little bit later and saw that it was in the window - the very object he had sold - for much more than he had paid. And he felt that he had been essentially swindled by the gallery and decided to get revenge.


VEDANTAM: When we come back, we find out how this con artist went about getting his revenge. You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This hour is all about fakery, forgery and the psychology of the con. Noah Charney is the author of "The Art Of Forgery." Before the break, he told us about the painter Eric Hebborn, who failed to get the art world to take him seriously. I asked Noah about the decision Eric Hebborn made to get revenge.


CHARNEY: The decision was to try to make his own drawings in the style of old masters and try to pass them off as originals. And by doing so, he gains a sort of passive-aggressive revenge that is the primary initial motivation for the majority of art forgers in this book. And there are two components to it. On the one hand, if he creates a drawing, and the experts think that it's by a great master, then he can convince himself that he must be as good as the master. But the second part is that if he's able to fool these so-called experts, he demonstrates how foolish they are. And the implication is that they were foolish not to endorse his own original artworks.

VEDANTAM: When Hebborn decided to forge the great masters, he decided to do it in a way that was quite unique. What was that way?

CHARNEY: The majority of successful art forgers in the 20th century used variations on what I call a provenance trap. And the essential component is it uses provenance - or the documented history of an object - as a trap to lure the researcher to authenticate the work. Let's be honest. Every art historian wants to be Indiana Jones and wants to find lost treasures. And you may or may not know that the majority of works that we know of made by old masters are lost. In some cases, as much as two-thirds of the oeuvres of these famous artists of the Renaissance - we know of them through documented references to them, but we don't know where they are. So provenance trap uses documented history and then creates lost works that match the real documented history. And Eric Hebborn is an example of that. He very cleverly would create what appeared to be these preparatory drawings for works like the one I'm looking at in the book right now, Anthony van Dyck's "Crowning With Thorns" (ph), which is in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. He created what looked like a drawing in preparation for that. And we know logically that van Dyck made lots of preparatory drawings, but they simply aren't extant anymore.

VEDANTAM: I wonder if you could just walk me through these two drawings that I'm looking at in the book here. I'm seeing the original on my left-hand side, and I'm seeing Hebborn's preparatory drawings for this work on the right. What am I seeing here in Anthony van Dyck's "Crowning With Thorns"?

CHARNEY: In the original painting, which was finished around 1620 - is an oil on canvas. It's a substantial size, and it shows Christ having the crown of thorns lowered on him as he's bound. And he's surrounded by people who would've been his torturers, and he seems resigned to his fate. And it's very beautiful. It's very glossy. There's brilliant use of oil paints. You can have an almost sculptural quality to Christ's body. There are a number of figures.

There's one, two, three, four, five figures in the background, including people peering in through a grated window in the back to spy on what's happening. And Christ is seated quite comfortably facing front out to the viewer. Now, when we turn to the preparatory drawing, the positioning of the figures and the number of the figures is different, but this is entirely normal. Artists, when they're coming up with a concept, or invenzione, of the artwork, will do various sketches to try to get a composition that they like. In fact, it would be suspicious if there was a drawing that looked exactly like the finished product.

But here, you have this idea - Christ is leaning far to the side. He's being physically supported by one of his executioners as another one pushes the crown of thorns more violently onto his head. It's more dynamic, and there's more movement to it, more diagonals. And it essentially looks like initial concept that he decided not to follow through with for this drawing. It's very clever because it's not hitting you over the head with the fact that this must be preparatory drawing.

VEDANTAM: What I find really, really clever about this was that when Hebborn is basically presenting a preparatory drawing that looks actually quite different from the finished drawing, he's allowing the expert to connect the dots. That is psychologically very clever because he's taking advantage of the fact the expert has vanity and wants to make these connections, and the best con game is where the mark essentially executes the con for you. But the second thing was, by so doing, he's also demonstrating to himself that the expert really is not an expert.

CHARNEY: It's true. It's very clever on his part. And the majority of successful forgers use some variation on the theme that you describe. They set a trap without being too specific, and allow the experts to dive headfirst into it and enthusiastically authenticate the work because it feels to them like a great discovery that they are making personally. And once an expert goes out on a limb and says, this is authentic, it is very hard for them to go back on it. So they wind up tangling themselves in this net that's been laid out by the forger.

VEDANTAM: We've been talking to Noah Charney. He's the author of "The Art Of Forgery." I asked Noah about forger Eric Hebborn's extraordinary attention to detail.

CHARNEY: Well, Hebborn was particularly meticulous. Getting the technique right is something that you can do essentially by practice. Getting the materials correct is much harder, and it's more expensive. It is also not strictly necessary because most forgers that I looked at got the style just about right. They had a very clever provenance trap, and they didn't really need to get the materials correct because it's not normal for objects to be forensically tested unless some red flag is raised stylistically or in terms of the object's history. Nobody does forensic testing. This is part of a residual gentlemen's agreement in the art trade that dates back hundreds of years, that if an expert says it's good...

VEDANTAM: It's good.

CHARNEY: Then it's good. There really has to be something very wrong for them to forensically test it.

VEDANTAM: Or maybe the experts disagree.

CHARNEY: Or if the experts disagree - if they can't reach a consensus, then the tie breaker is broken by scientific testing. These days, it doesn't have to be the case. Forensic testing is neither particularly expensive, nor is it invasive, necessarily, into the object. But Hebborn took that level of detail because he was a perfectionist, because he loved what he was doing - he was very passionate about it - and because I think he wanted to genuinely feel that he was doing exactly what the old masters were doing.

VEDANTAM: It is so interesting that he spent so much time thinking about his technique but also thinking about what he needed to do to himself in order to be able to pull off these forgeries. What did he do?

CHARNEY: Well, he's a real character. And he volunteered all of his secrets because he was looking for notoriety, and he wrote a book called "The Art Forger's Handbook," which, incidentally, has been found in the studio of many in an art forger arrested since it came out.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

CHARNEY: And one of his tricks was to get drunk. He would get drunk while he was making the drawings, and it would achieve a certain fluidity of line and body. He would not overthink things. You wouldn't have the mental or physical capacity if you drink enough to be too painstaking about it, and a painstaking line is a giveaway to an expert that something funny's going on. He would do dozens of sketches to prepare the fluidity of line he was after, but then he would start drinking heavily and then do his sketches as well in order to ensure that he wouldn't overthink things.

VEDANTAM: I'm really intrigued by the idea that the motivation for so many of these forgers Hebborn included is not money. Clearly, you would think that the value - the financial value the forger is deriving is - has to be a big part of it, and I'm really intrigued by the idea that it's really a psychological motivation that comes first.

CHARNEY: It's true. The reason that many forgers continue into a career of forgery is eventually, they realize, this is a source of income. But that initial motivation is this passive-aggressive revenge. However, there's a caveat here because the revenge is a private victory until you're caught. The reason is that they have to enjoy this revenge entirely in private until somebody discovers them. But the moment they are discovered, then all of a sudden, they're shown as a great artist, and they have publicly shamed the experts who they were out to shame when they set out. So this is the completion. The self-actualization is only when they're caught.

A lot of these forgers actually inserted what one forger by the name of Tom Keating called time bombs, and these are intentionally inserted anachronisms that could be used if the forger chooses to announce that the work is a forgery, even if no one would otherwise believe him. One of my favorite stories is a German forger named Lothar Malskat, who was a restorer of medieval frescoes just after the Second World War. And he was commissioned to restore frescoes in a church that had been damaged by Allied bombs.

But when he got there, he found that the frescoes were so badly destroyed, there was nothing he could do. And the photographs in the archives didn't show enough to reproduce it, but that didn't stop him. He decided to make his own medieval frescoes. And when they were revealed, it was a big national sensation, so much so that the German government printed 4 million postage stamps with a detail from the frescoes on it. But he didn't want this private victory. He wanted to get credit for what he had done. And nobody believed him. So he took the very unusual step of suing himself so that he could have the public forum of a courtroom in which to argue his case that he was the artist of these frescoes.

VEDANTAM: He was both the prosecutor and the defender.

CHARNEY: He was. It's a very weird case in legal history. And still, nobody believed him until he pointed out two time bombs that he had inserted intentionally in case no one believed him. One was a turkey. Turkeys are indigenous to North America, and there would've been no turkeys in 13th-century Germany. And second was Marlene Dietrich, whose portrait was hidden in the background, and she definitely wasn't around in the 13th century.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) So this is so interesting because, of course, when you think about stories about swashbuckling Robin Hoods, the leaving behind a motif in your crime, that you rob a bank, and you leave behind a white glove, or you rob something else, and you leave behind the same white glove - the desire to leave a stamp on what it is that you have done changes this in some ways from the world of just straightforward crime, where you really want to cover your tracks completely, to something quite different.

CHARNEY: One of the issues here, and the reason that forgers are quite happy to be caught in the end, is that forgers tend to get very low sentences. Some of them don't even go to jail at all. From a public perspective, there is no fear of art forgers. If you go to a cocktail party, and I whisper to you that this intriguing-looking gentleman in the corner is a Ponzi schemer, you would say, ugh, I don't want anything to do with him. However, if I say he's an art forger, you'd be intrigued. You'd probably head straight over and start chatting.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I would.

CHARNEY: They're nonthreatening. They're not scary. And there's something to admire in them.

VEDANTAM: Is it possible, though, that Hebborn's desire for revenge and the psychological forces that were driving him kept him from accomplishing what might have actually been his life's work?

CHARNEY: It's entirely possible. But on the other hand, I think that he would say that his life's work shifted to being the greatest art forger in history. And I think he makes - he could make a good case for that. And he's in good company. There are forgers in my book who include Michelangelo, Luca Giordano, Marcantonio Raimondi - very famous Renaissance artists who also dabbled in forgery.

And he is up there in terms of his physical ability to reproduce another artist's style, the care that he put in, both the concept of playing with the artist's existing oeuvre and reproducing the materials in an accurate way. He is a genius, but he's a genius at art forgery, and I don't think it panned out as a genius of original artistry.

VEDANTAM: Noah Charney, I want to thank you for talking with me today. This has been a pleasure.

CHARNEY: Thanks for having me.

VEDANTAM: Noah Charney is the author of "The Art Of Forgery: The Minds, Motives And Methods Of Master Forgers" (ph). When you look at a masterpiece, you aren't just looking at paint on canvas. You're thinking about Monet's hand holding the paintbrush. You're thinking about history, the passage of time. The meaning of a painting is tied up in what you, the viewer, bring to it. This is what made Eric Hebborn and Don Lowry so successful. They both understood that a con game requires technical skill.

But much more important, a successful con involves a deep understanding of human nature. The art experts that Eric Hebborn duped wanted to believe they had made a grand discovery. Jesse wanted to believe that, against all odds, love had walked into his life. Prosecutors can take con men and forgers to court, try them and get them sentenced to prison. But the real drivers of con games can't be brought to trial. They are the psychological hungers that lie within all of us - loneliness, ambition, hope.

This week's show was produced by Lucy Perkins, Stephanie Foo and Kara McGuirk-Allison. Our team includes Tara Boyle, Maggie Penman, Jenny Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Renee Klahr and Parth Shah. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Please also subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, or the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

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