Gary Belkin's done well for a kid from the Bronx. He began with Sid Caesar back in the 50s, and went on to write for Sesame Street, The Carol Burnett Show and a few sitcoms that he'd rather forget. He was also busy at MAD during the magazine's heyday. By any standards, he's had a successful career as a comedy writer.
According to Belkin, he's also one of the world's most popular poets. Muhammad Ali just gets all the credit.
It's 1962, and Columbia Records hires Belkin to work on I Am the Greatest. The Cassius Clay album is set for release in '63, just in time to capitalize on Clay's upcoming championship bout against Sonny Liston. "The idea was that I would write 60 percent of the album," Belkin says, "but I ended up writing the whole thing. My poems pushed his image a little further. It wasn't 'I am the prettiest,' but more about 'I am the greatest.' I hated that they put in rim shots at the end of every joke, but I couldn't change that. I was just the ghostwriter."
At least he was supposed to be a ghostwriter. The 1999 CD reissue credits Belkin as cowriter, but the original pressing discreetly listed him as a producer. No one would have known better if New York Post sportswriter Milton Gross?hired to do the album's liner notes?hadn't reported Belkin's larger role.
The record went on to a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album, but bombed after the new champ promptly changed his name. Muhammad Ali would keep using the poems from I Am the Greatest. Belkin would keep getting royalties from networks and publications?although his lawyers would often have to prove that he wasn't, as he puts it, "some kook."
But as the years passed, Belkin would face something more irritating than legal concerns. He'd discover that his mere existence put him at odds with Ali's adoring literary groupies. First notice came courtesy of sports skag George Plimpton.
"I was on the board of the Television Academy in New York," Belkin relates, "and we had Plimpton speak at a luncheon around '72. I mentioned that I was Cassius Clay's ghostwriter. Well, Mr. Plimpton demanded to know how dare I say such a thing. I thought he was offended that I wasn't keeping quiet about a ghostwriting job. Then he starts going on about how he's a personal friend of Ali, and that Ali has never needed a ghostwriter. He tells me, 'I know he's a poet because I saw him write a poem.'
"You know, that's just snotty. I was representing my organization, so I didn't make a big deal out of it. But years go by, and I'm watching the Ali documentary When We Were Kings, and there's Plimpton quoting Ali by reading one of my poems. He didn't even do the poem right."
Ali's celebrity hadn't just dwarfed Belkin's exposure as a ghostwriter. The beloved myth of the illiterate poet had made Belkin a nonperson. Initially, this all seemed fair to the writer. He didn't realize how bad things would get until 1999, when David Remnick came out with his Ali bio King of the World.
"That's the guy," says Belkin, "who really pisses me off. I watched him on The Charlie Rose Show, and he's talking about how his thorough investigation reveals that Ali never had a comedy writer. Then I read his book, and Remnick's writing about how 'Song of Myself' is the greatest poem Ali?or anybody else?ever wrote. He says that Ali would 'farm out' some work, but 'Song of Myself' is pure Cassius Clay. He prints it, and every word of that poem is mine. He gets one of the lines wrong, too."
Belkin doesn't hold any grudges, though. He didn't even cancel his New Yorker subscription when Remnick became editor. And it's not like Belkin wants credit for all of Ali's work. In particular, he won't take credit for eight words. "I didn't even want 'Float like a butterfly/Sting like a bee' to be on the album. They weren't my words, but the people at Columbia were insisting. I had Cassius' people clear me in writing so that I couldn't be accused of plagiarism."
And for those who wonder, Belkin stayed on pretty good terms with the champ. He was brought in to do some writing for the broadcast of a Muhammad Ali retirement party in 1978. Belkin wasn't surprised to get the call. "Ali wouldn't know about the lawsuits over the years," he says. "I'm having to sue over the movie that just came out, and anything like that gets settled through lawyers. It's probably never even occurred to him that he was using my poems.
"You know," Belkin adds, "writers are supposed to stay behind the scenes. It's part of my job. The only thing I really resent is the smugness of the literati. I don't mind when Muhammad Ali says he wrote my poems. I mind when David Remnick says I don't exist."