I get a strange letter in the mail. It’s from Marquis Who’s Who. The envelope looks like something from Publishers Clearing House minus Ed McMahon’s cheerful visage. IMPORTANT INFORMATION ENCLOSED from the Editorial Department. The letter within congratulates me on my nomination and approval to join the ranks of the most successful and the most famous. There’s a link to an online questionnaire where I can list my accomplishments to cement my place among the créme de la créme. No purchase necessary. What do I have to lose? 

I like a good scam as much as the next guy. A while back I kept up communications with someone claiming to be from England who pretended to be buying artwork from me long enough to get their phony money order. I tried to cash it a currency exchange to confirm it as fake, then reported them to the FBI. I know that this was an exercise in futility but there was that tiny bit of satisfaction in catching on in time not to be taken. Nobody wants to be a mark, do they? 

But what if the people trying to shake you down aren’t in a boiler room in Nigeria or the former Eastern Bloc? What if they’ve been selling their success snake oil on Main Street since 1898? Before typing the link to their online questionnaire, I look them up. The company was established by Albert Marquis at the end of the nineteenth century and has been publishing their directories of “accomplished” people ever since. There’s a recent CEO with the last name Marks. Surprisingly, no references of PT Barnum’s involvement. But on their website, a ringing endorsement from Warren Buffett is featured repeatedly. Seems the Oracle of Omaha attributes much of his success to his inclusion in Who’s Who. Who’d’ve thunk? And no purchase necessary. I’d be a fool not to join.

I’m charmed by the idea that an antiquated thing like Who’s Who still exists. A fat dictionary-like thing that lists prominent people lives in a universe of rotary phones, typewriters, and citizens who can read the face of a clock AKA most of my life. There’s a part of me that wants to believe even a fraction of their con is the real McCoy. 

I fill out the form and wait for the sure windfall. What I get instead is a ringing phone. I don’t answer the first three times they call because I don’t recognize the number. Aside from my parents the only calls I get are from spambots, but the same number keeps coming up so one day I pick up. The woman on the other line has an accent I can’t place. It takes her repeating it several times for me to understand that she’s with Marquis. She needs to interview me for fifteen minutes to iron out the details of my inclusion in “the most exclusive country club in the world.” She says their book is one of the few included in a time capsule to Mars and among the select, rarefied number of tomes on display in the Oval Office. She knows how to wow a guy like me. 

It’s clear that this woman hasn’t read the form I’d submitted because she wants to know about my accomplishments, how I got started in my “field” (she has no inkling in even the vaguest terms). It’s kind of like being on an ersatz blind date with someone reading boilerplate “personal” questions. She details the many benefits sure to come my way once the press-release and bio they’re preparing is complete. I will be in rare air among others of the highest echelons.

I wonder how much longer it will take until she gets to the ask. When it comes, her bedside manner remains blasé and clinical—a Premier membership was $900; a Standard, $600. When I repeat for the third or fourth time that I will not be sending any money, she asks if I want to take just the plaque for $199? I wonder how much Buffett was charged to have his life changed in this way? I would have asked her but she doesn’t give me the chance. She can’t get off the line fast enough. Not even a goodbye.

Marquis claims in their literature that you have to be nominated to be in their book. So who nominated me and, if someone actually did, why? As great a privilege as it might be to throw $900 away, I’m not worthy.

Who am I if I’m not in Who’s Who? My interviewer wanted to know at one point if I had a motto, words I lived by. To what did I attribute all my success? I replied that I’d leave it to Marquis to sum it all up since they were the experts.

Now I’ll never know.