The Dan Brown Code
With the trail growing cold at Exeter, Storrs wondered what he could uncover from Brown’s days at Amherst College. He reached Alan Lelchuk, who taught the creative-writing seminar that Brown later credited with helping him become a novelist. Brown’s writing from the class left little impression on Lelchuk. Of course, it would have been easy for anyone to be eclipsed by the enormous talent of fellow student David Foster Wallace, the heady prose stylist now regarded as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. “With Dan, he was not the star of the class, as David was, as were one or two others who were really quite good,” Lelchuk told Storrs.
“Dan was good,” he finally admitted, as if for the sake of politeness. “But in a much quieter way.”
Storrs placed a call to the bestselling mystery writer Harlan Coben, who was in a fraternity with Brown at Amherst and later supplied a glowing blurb for The Da Vinci Code book jacket. Coben promptly hung up on him. Storrs then e-mailed the director of the Amherst Glee Club—a group Brown had belonged to—only to get a terse reply: “Sorry, directions from Dan: No comment.” It seemed that word of Storrs’s quest had gotten to Brown.
Storrs was mulling this possibility at his desk in Boston when he was handed a small cardboard package bearing the exotic postal code 61604. Peoria, Illinois. His pulse quickened. He tore open the envelope and shook out several mail-order music catalogs.
In his affidavit, Brown mentioned that readers love to learn about the “secret history” of things. Dan Brown’s own secret history involved the decade or so after college that he spent trying to make it big as a songwriter in Hollywood.
The package Storrs received had been sent by a guy named Ron Wallace who sold cassettes and CDs via mail order. He carried Brown’s first album, SynthAnimals, which was made for kids and billed as “one of those rare children’s tapes that won’t drive you crazy on car trips.” That was followed by three albums geared toward adult listeners, culminating with Angels & Demons, a title Brown would later recycle for his second novel.
Storrs located an old promotional blurb about Brown’s third album. “No expense was spared in the recording of this album. The tracks were cut in some of the nation’s finest studios with some of the most accomplished musicians living today,” wrote a well-connected music publicist named Blythe Newlon. “We believe Dan Brown is an artist destined to become a major talent.”
She would make sure of it.
Pretty much the first thing a prep school student like Dan Brown learns in high school is the value of networking. And when he settled in Hollywood, one of the first things Brown did was join the National Academy of Songwriters, a now-defunct trade organization for composers. There, he met Blythe Newlon, who helped teach young songwriters how to promote themselves. They quickly fell for each other, but worked to keep the relationship a secret lest other struggling songwriters think Brown was getting special treatment.
Through the academy, the nervous performer got a gig at a songwriters showcase, and when Brown bombed, it was Blythe who lobbied to get him another shot (also a bomb). Ever image-conscious, Blythe taught Brown that he needed more than catchy songs to become famous, that he could enlist big names to help him manufacture a reputation. She helped recruit an all-star team of musicians who had collaborated with the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson to appear with him.
“[Blythe] was everything [Dan] wasn’t: an extrovert, a great schmoozer. She understood how the business worked,” said Paul Zollo, a music journalist who worked with Blythe. “At parties, Dan would be shy and stand in a corner by himself. Blythe would be schmoozing, introducing people to him. She was great at all the things he was uncomfortable with.”
The couple’s attraction seemed, at times, rooted in shared ambition. When Zollo published his second book, Songwriters on Songwriting, he heard that Rolling Stone was going to review it. “A lot of people didn’t care, but Dan seemed to come alive—it really seemed to matter to him,” Zollo recalled. “It was clear with Blythe and Dan that commercial success was what they were after.”
On an April day in 1993, Blythe Newlon and Dan Brown lay beneath the swaying palm trees of a Tahitian beach (Brown believes readers like to experience exotic locations). His music career wasn’t taking off. On the beach, Brown picked up a copy of Sidney Sheldon’s thriller The Doomsday Conspiracy and read it in one sitting. Putting the book down, he thought, I can do this.
Coupled with his minor success publishing 187 Men to Avoid—which Blythe had helped sell to a publishing company for $12,500—Brown figured he’d become a novelist. Life seems to be trying to tell you something, Blythe told him. And when Blythe told Brown something, he listened.
By that point, according to one fellow vacationer, Blythe was introducing herself as Brown’s agent. They wed in 1997, and while promoting The Da Vinci Code Brown began one story by saying, “I remember telling my agent, or rather, telling my wife—that was a Freudian slip. Behind every great man….” He didn’t finish the thought. But it was true that Blythe had put her support squarely behind him, announcing to friends in California that she was giving up her career and they were moving to New England so that Brown could focus on writing a novel.
Almost instantly, Brown unemotionally exchanged his music-industry contacts for people who could help him write books. “Dan is very, very compartmentalized,” said Stan Planton, an Ohio librarian who would help him research his novels. Brown belonged to Mensa, and tapped its members for research help on his first novel, Digital Fortress. Jim Barrington, an Ohio attorney who met him through the organization, was struck by Brown’s excitement about his new career. The more he distanced himself from his music-industry failure, the more charming and self-confident he became. “They say Bill Clinton has that quality, the ability to make you feel like you’re the only person in the room,” Barrington said. “Dan is like that.”
The shy musician had disappeared. Ron Wallace, the mail-order music salesman, never heard from Brown after he moved back East. “At some point in his life,” Wallace says, “he destroyed his past. It’s sad—your past is who you are.”
Through Blyth, Brown learned that molding his persona was simply a matter of deciding what he wanted people to believe. He developed a flair for the sound bite. Just as he knew that exotic locations helped create an image, so, too, could dropping the names of famous people. Who can spend time in Hollywood without learning that? Storrs thought. Before Brown abandoned his music career, a local reporter asked him about his day job teaching at a private school in Beverly Hills. “Parent-teacher conferences at a place like Beverly Hills Prep can get pretty interesting,” Brown was quoted as saying. “Try looking Rupert Murdoch or Michael Eisner in the eye and saying, ‘Hey, your kid’s a lazy bum and if he doesn’t shape up, he’s going to fail my course.’ Now that’s exciting!”
In 1998, when Brown published Digital Fortress, he had the foresight to develop a website, DanBrown.com, to go with it. According to the site, Brown had gotten the idea for Digital Fortress after the Secret Service “showed up and detained” an Exeter student who had sent an e-mail threatening President Clinton. The story helped Brown get some press, but it turns out that it didn’t happen the way he told it—in fact, the Secret Service later told Vanity Fair‘s Seth Mnookin that they had never even visited Exeter.
Now Storrs wondered about that Beverly Hills Prep anecdote he’d read. He tracked down a former teacher, who whispered that the school had closed and that it wasn’t the kind of place Brown’s quote implied. Storrs wondered, Did any of Eisner’s or Murdoch’s kids even go there? Eisner’s people wouldn’t say; Murdoch’s spokesperson had only a three-word answer: “They did not.”
In moments of high drama, the minds of Dan Brown’s characters tend to leap around a lot. It’s a device that allows him to shoehorn some exposition into his action.
Storrs’s mind leapt back to his visit to downtown Exeter. He had stopped by the town library, where he’d found a copy of the illustrated screenplay for The Da Vinci Code. In the foreword, Brown poked fun at his failed attempt to write the screenplay himself. “On the universal scale of humbling experiences, attempting to adapt this novel for the screen was on a par with attempting to learn golf,” he wrote. “I’m a natural at neither, and I have since decided both are best left to the professionals.”
On his computer, Storrs called up the website of the United States Golf Association, where players can go to record their scores. He entered Brown’s name.
There was one exact match in New Hampshire.
Storrs appreciates a cliffhanger as much as the next guy, but sometimes Brown’s devotion to his literary tricks meant he had to artificially break the action, only to return to the same scene in the very next chapter.
Storrs learned that the author is a member of the Abenaqui Country Club in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, where he maintains a respectable 9 handicap. It made Storrs wonder about Brown’s boasts about his prowess as a high school squash player—his music producer, Barry Fasman, recalled him saying he was ranked among the country’s top 10 junior players. But alas: Although Brown played for Exeter, he apparently wasn’t quite the phenom he claimed. “I think Dan’s [junior] squash career is a work of fiction also,” said Bill Buckingham, communications director for U.S. Squash. Brown might have been nationally ranked while playing squash at Amherst, as he had also once said, but Storrs had no way of knowing. The college’s records were mysteriously incomplete.
Storrs suddenly realized that getting lost in the job of separating fact from fiction was to miss the point of Brown’s savvy self-promotion. His biography could be a sales tool, his persona a marketing device. In his books, Brown introduces his characters by their lofty accomplishments—renowned curators, famous scientists. In his life, perhaps Brown realized nationally ranked squash players are more interesting than middling ones; people who rub elbows with celebrities more fascinating than plain old English teachers.