When he started climbing the corporate ladder, Gil Schwartz also needed an outlet for the opinions he couldn't suppress. But as a self-described "peon," he also didn't want to take the risk of writing under his own name. In 1983, as Stanley Bing, he landed a column in Esquire magazine, taking shots at the laughable ways of the business world. Since then, he has also written for newspapers, a cigar magazine, Seventeen and, most recently Fortune, current home of Bing's monthly business column. Bing has also authored numerous top-selling books. The latest, Rome, Inc. is a serious-minded sendup of "the first multinational corporation."
Schwartz also has also risen to professional heights in his "real" life as a corporate henchman, becoming the top spokesman for CBS. His day of reckoning came in 1992, when he appeared without disguise as Bing on Good Morning America, then again in early 1996, when The New York Times wrote a story about him. "Can the person who must put the shine back on the Tiffany network continue to paint a mustache on the rest of corporate America?" reporter Mark Landler asked.
We got ahold of Schwartz, treated him to lunch at a choice table he procured, then made him and Bing sit down for an e-mail Q&A about what it's like to be corporate cog by day, sharpshooting business humorist by night, weekends and every other spare moment.
Mediabistro: What does writing under a pen name do for you that writing under your own name doesn't?
Schwartz/Bing: Well, for a long while I was hidden completely, and it was really terrific. When I was a kid, I always loved stuff about guys with secret identities. Zorro in particular. Big nerd by day. Guy in a silky black cape at night, flying through windows, saving people, being sort of dangerous and legendary. This was as close as I could get to that. I was younger, and didn't understand at that time how splendid senior management generally is. I settled scores. I reported on people's weirdness without endangering them or betraying them in any way. Nobody knew who I was. People used to send me my own column with a little note at the top saying, "I think you'll enjoy this. It sounds like you." I'd send it back to them with another buckslip on top that said, "Stop bothering me with this crap."
Mediabistro: If you had to start over again, would you do it the same way? Would you recommend writers starting out who also may be in some other world professionally use a penname?
Schwartz/Bing: It depends on how you feel about getting credit for things. I used to be an actor. I'm comfortable playing a role and accepting recognition within that role. Outside that role, I'm as dull as toast. But when I put on the Bing skin, it feels a little different. Not totally. I don't, like, drool and grow big bushy eyebrows like Andy Rooney or anything. I just tip about 18 percent to one side and see a bit differently, and write that way, too. I don't know if I'd have gone this route if I hadn't started out as a mole within the corporate government, but once Bing popped out he sort of had a life of his own that was a nice addition to my own. He does better at parties, for instance, and almost never disgraces himself with certain forms of outlandish behavior as I sometimes do.
Mediabistro: Even with a pen name, why did you want to take the risk? Why not keep your ideas about business to yourself, and not risk losing your job?
Schwartz/Bing: They say you're supposed to write about what you know. I don't know anything. So I write about business. Actually, I take that back. I don't really write about business. I write about organizations and how they work on people. I write about festering, bleeding, suffering humanity, put to work in stultifying social structures that attempt to squeeze the life out of them and almost never succeed. I write about madness and struggle and triumph in a constricted, formalistic environment that brings both the best and worst out of people. My stuff is as much about business as Moby Dick was about whales. Okay, it was partly about whales. But there was other stuff in there too.
Mediabistro: You're not just in the business world, you're a spokesman for crying out loud. That must get a little dicey at times.
Schwartz/Bing: I really see no reason to comment on that at this time.
Mediabistro: Rome Inc.: How does it apply to your life as a writer? Have you had a lot of pokes in the eye with a stick? Are you the type to poke folks in the eye?
Schwartz/Bing: Look. We're not Greece. We're not the British Empire. But there's a lot, if we look at Rome in a squinty way, that we can recognize about that particular corporate culture. They were very competitive. They liked to eat and drink and have kinky sex all over the place. They liked to dominate their opponents and competitors, and their world. They killed people without compunction when they had to. And in the end they over-extended the capabilities of their management and their empire. They lived in a much different time than we do, so we're not really permitted, in a business meeting when somebody pisses us off, to reach out and pluck out their eyeball the way Augustus was said to have done on a bad day. We can, however, take away their expense account. And that's almost as bad, you know, prices at Michael's being what they are.
Mediabistro: You may separate Bing and Schwartz, but at this point can you expect other people to? When Bing writes in Rome Inc. about the Caligula-like behavior of the guys "on the 23rd floor," for example, don't you think some of the guys in Schwartz' office building might wonder for just a moment if he's talking about them?
Schwartz/Bing: I specifically chose the 23rd Floor because we don't have anybody on it. So I don't think anybody's going to be worried.
Mediabistro: How do you manage to juggle a real career (as Gil) and a real career (as Bing)? Does it ever become difficult to juggle the two? Ever forget who's talking, what event, etc?
Schwartz/Bing: Sometimes we get pretty tired of each other. Schwartz may want to go to sleep, but Bing has to write a column. Bing may want to work on a book that's three months overdue, while Schwartz has to attend an industry event hosted by Henry Schleiff. So that's not easy. Other than that, no, I'm not a complete madman yet. I can tell Bing from Schwartz for the most part, I think. Bing's the one with the washboard stomach.
Mediabistro: How was it being "outed"? How did it feel? Didn't you expect it? Are you glad for it now? Is it actually a relief?
Schwartz/Bing: I was outed because blabbermouth Randall Rothenberg, who likes to call himself "R2" and is now a consultant someplace, which is fitting, was gassing around at drinks with a reporter and felt it was appropriate for him to trade on inside poop he acquired while working a Esquire, where I used to write before I graduated to Fortune. So a piece was written in the Times on a Monday in January 1996 that blew my cover and inquired whether it was appropriate for me to be Bing and Bing to be me and all that censorious jazz.
My chairman at the time, Michael Jordan, had a satisfying reaction. He referred the call to his spokesman, which was me. John Huey (now Time Inc. editor-in-chief) had a hilarious comment for the record. When asked if I had violated the PR standard of ethics, he remarked that he didn't know there was one. I'd been outed internally a while before, so very few insiders were shocked, maybe that made things easier. Since then, I find it kind of annoying. Like, every review, everything written about me has to mention Schwartz. When Tony Curtis appeared in Spartacus, did they reveal that it was really Bernie Schwartz in the little leather skirt? Did George Orwell get a lot of questions about Eric Blair and his career at the BBC? I took a pseudonym for a reason, for God's sake.
Mediabistro: You said everyone's being nice about your life as Bing. What about all the eye-pokers in the biz you told us about?
Schwartz/Bing: What. Are you trying to make trouble for me?
Mediabistro: Any advice for writers (or publicists, or ad execs) who might be pseudonymously writing on the side? Any words of warning, consolation or encouragement? Should they tell the boss?
Schawartz/Bing: Sure. Your pseudonym is a delicate, precious fellow. He's hiding because he wants to. He's Boo Radley, secreting himself in the basement of your ramshackle consciousness. Don't haul him out into the light of day! He may die of exposure!
Mediabistro: Do you hear from folks asking for advice? Do you think there are many doing this?
Schwartz/Bing: I think there are a lot of people with plays, screenplays, novels in their desk drawers. I don't want to give any of them any advice. I don't need the competition.
Mediabistro: Is it even possible these days to remain anonymous?
Schwartz/Bing: Sure. Try writing literary fiction for a male demographic.
Dorian Benkoil is the editorial director of mediabistro.com