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Caught Up in a Chain Reaction

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What started out as a benign, hip joke among the “A list” of American media powers has spun out of control, harassing many of its recipients again and again.

Depending on your point of view--and the number of times it has crossed your mailbox--it’s either the chain letter of the stars, real or wanna-bes, or the chain letter from hell. Columnist Erma Bombeck has written that she’s received it at least three times. Publicist Frank Mankiewicz is on his fifth go-round, and Tom Goldstein, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, claims at least 10 hits.

Some pass it on; others, trying to break the chain, let it sit. Neither approach works. It won’t quit.

The letter claims its roots in the Netherlands, but no one is quite sure when it began. Some versions carry a little story about a down-on-his-luck Dutch farmer who started the letter, enjoyed his best harvest ever, and then concluded that “God touched his land.”

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Most versions, though, consist of just one paragraph:

“This letter originated in the Netherlands, and has been passed around the world at least 20 times, bringing good luck to everyone who passed it on. The one who breaks the chain will have bad luck. DO NOT KEEP THIS LETTER. Do not send money. Just have a wonderful efficient secretary make four additional copies and send it to five of your friends to whom you wish good luck. You will see that something good happens to you four days from now if the chain is not broken. This is not a joke. You will receive good luck in four days.”

Regardless of its origins, the letter’s current U.S. tour seems to have begun in the latter half of 1989. The missive rarely arrives alone. Rather it is accompanied by a brief, usually witty, note from the sender and a list of who else will receive the letters.

The big attraction usually is a sheaf of earlier responses, all on impressive letterheads from the country’s major publishing houses, television networks, newspapers and magazines, studios, law firms, and public relations agencies. (In late 1989, illegibility set in. Photocopies of anything earlier seem to have been caught in a flood and require either sensitive equipment or a deeply motivated name-dropper to decipher them.)

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These accompanying documents, most recipients admit, are what prompt them to play the game and write their own “I can’t believe I’m doing this” notes, as they pass the letter on.

“I was too intimidated not to (send it),” says Los Angeles lawyer Ron Olson of Munger, Tolles & Olson. Jane Gross of the New York Times’ San Francisco bureau sent hers out with an admission: “Having never been on the A party list, I’m too flattered to decline the invitation.”

Others, including Michael Kerns, co-owner of Paramount Recording Studios in Hollywood, claim superstition as the motivating force behind their correspondence. Kerns says he handled his copy like a hot potato, and unlike most others, he kept nothing as a memento.

“Oh no, I just made my copies and sent them all on,” he said, laughing, but sounding only half-joking. “I didn’t want them around. Those things scare me to death.”

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Did he notice any good luck coming his way? “No. I’m still in a lawsuit. I got (a new) house around then, but it wasn’t like it was a free house. But maybe I was saved from a terrible accident.”

Peter Osnos, associate publisher and senior editor at Random House, sent the letter last March, writing: “I’m baffled by this, but not bowed.” So far, he has not received it back. However, he says, at least once a week he hears about someone who got it again. “It’s incredible. This is one chain that actually is a chain.”

Ten-time loser Goldstein says he has begun to notice special branches of the letter showing up, one from a long line of regulatory lawyers. But Goldstein has received the bulk of his letters from people in the media, and says, “This demonstrates the narcissism of journalists in a remarkable way.”

He speculates that “the chain letter could be a plot of the photocopying companies.” Goldstein says he throws away the chain letters, but he does have a recycling program: All those letterheads with all those phone numbers are useful he admits, for “adding to my Rolodex.”

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Those who might feel most chained are the wonderful, efficient secretaries the letter offers up for copying duty. Laurel Laidlow, secretary to Hill & Knowlton Vice Chairman Mankiewicz, will say only that “we’ve sent that thing out four or five times.” Her boss is more enthusiastic: “I always send it. It’s a function of having a secretary. Besides, thinking up who to send it to next takes up at least half an hour, and then you have to spend time going through the letters tracing how it got to you.”

Emphatically disassociating himself from those who have soured on it, he says, “On the contrary. I love it. It’s proof . . . that there are only 1,400 people in the world, and they all know each other.”

While the letter continues its circuitous and by now capricious route, it has spawned a whole separate chain of media attention.

The December Spy magazine devotes six pages to its “Chain of Foolishness” spread, complete with flow charts. December’s Esquire offers a little blurb on the letter, “I’m On the ‘A’ List, Pass It On.”

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There is some chance that the Netherlands letter is a poor relative of a more descriptive one that made the rounds almost 15 years ago.

Both Paramount’s Kerns and Los Angeles writer Nikki Finke spoke of additional information included in some of the letters. They told of the fate of certain people who were powerful in 1923, but subsequently came to a bad end--except for one, a golfer, who was still going strong 50 years later. The admonition was essentially to “stop worrying about business and play golf.”

In May, 1976, Times columnist Jim Murray wrote about a chain letter that cited the same people and events of 1923, made the same claims for the golfer and offered the same advice. Unfortunately, he has no idea where the 1976 letter is now, Murray says, but it seems safe to say the current letter is either a crazed mutation or its direct descendant.

No one is sure what good luck awaits those who continue to add links to the chain. But Finke, who has received 10 mailings in the last 12 months, may have pinpointed the curse for those, like herself, who break it:

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“That’s it. Maybe that’s the bad luck: You keep getting the letter.”


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