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10 Pen Names More Famous Than Their Authors

by Gary Pullman
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Writers use pen names, or pseudonyms, for a variety of reasons. Often, their actual, given names and surnames are less well-known than their adopted ones, as is the case with Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, for one. Their professions and achievements offer clues for identifying their true identities. Using these hints, can you identify the authors behind the pen names on this list?

Related: 10 Famous Authors with Failed Books

10 Howard Francis O’Brien

The Grave of Anne Rice – New Orleans, Louisiana 4K

Date: January 15, 2022. A small airplane lands at Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport. A huge bouquet of white roses waits outside. Men and women in black, wearing black masks and carrying black umbrellas, approach through the rain, their faces somber. Two men bear an oversized bouquet to a coffin spread with a purple cloth. As mourners pass by, they pause to touch the casket before moving on, some embracing those who, having preceded them, wait on the tarmac. The coffin is loaded into a waiting hearse.

A police officer on a motorcycle leads a funeral procession into the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, Louisiana. A quotation appears on the screen showing the funeral video, “Bringing Anne Home,” and the words, “I picture heaven as a vast library, with unlimited volumes to read… a great doorway to learning… rather than one great dull answer to all our questions.”

The author’s name follows. It is that of the same writer who entered the celestial doorway thirty-six days before the date at the beginning of the video, the same woman who wrote Blood Communion, The Wolves of Midwinter, and The Sleeping Beauty series, Howard Francis O’Brien, better known as Anne Rice (1941–2021). Rice’s unusual given name resulted from her father’s naming her after himself.[1]

9 Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee

Meet Ellery Queen

Their best-known fictional detective, like the title of their magazine devoted to mystery and detective stories, shared the pseudonym that the two cousins, partners in writing crime-solving fiction, Frederic Dannay (1905–1982) and Manfred B. Lee (1905–1971), created when they entered a mystery story writing contest announced in the August 1928 issue of McClure’s Magazine.

Their stories were “whodunits” in which their detective followed clues to identify killers and other criminals. On February 12, 1948, the co-authors hosted a radio program, A Question of Color, which examined and criticized racism in the United States. They also wrote a second series of mystery novels featuring Barnaby Ross, but it was not as well known as their signature series featuring detective Ellery Queen.[2]

8 Arthur Blair

George Orwell – A Warning to Mankind Documentary

The author of a dystopian novel and a satirical political allegory so famous that their titles would give away his equally famous pen name, Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950), was born in India. He returned to England with his mother and older sister Marjorie at age one. A sickly child with a keen interest in writing, he penned his first poem at age four and published his first writing, another poem, when he was eleven.

An Eton graduate, he joined the India Imperial Police Force but quit five years later, managing, just barely, to keep body and soul together by writing a book that provided “a brutal look at the lives of the working poor.” It was published under his pen name to avoid embarrassing his family. A subsequent book examined the abuses of British colonialism.

Fighting against General Francisco Franco, Blair was wounded and left unable to speak. He and his wife were indicted for treason, but they’d already left Spain. Upon his return to England, he was found to be infected with tuberculosis, which might explain his many previous periods of sickness.

He wrote many well-received essays and was hired as a BBC producer, hosting T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and other literary greats until he resigned after being made to produce propaganda that was broadcast to India during World War II. In October 1949, four years after his first wife’s death, Blair married Sonia Brownell, dying soon after that. Inheriting the estate of the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four , George Orwell’s widow “made a career of managing his legacy.”[3]

7 Mary Ware

Vampire: The Scandals of Gertrude Stein

The host of a Paris salon regularly visited by such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, James Joyce, and Henri Matisse, Mary Ware (1874–1946) wrote a book that “shocked and insulted the most famous writers and artists of the 20th century.” The title alluded to her life’s partner, a well-known female member of the avant-garde scene.

The autobiography also incensed Mattise, whose wife Ware described as having a horse’s mouth; angered Hemingway by accusing him of cowardice and declaring that he’d learned to write by editing one of her own manuscripts; and irked Georges Braque by insisting that Cubism was only “a Spanish affair.”

Perhaps that’s why Mary Ware (aka Gertrude Stein) disguised her memoir as being the life story of her partner, calling it The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.[4]

6 Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

The Controversial Genius Behind Alice In Wonderland | The Secret World Of Lewis Carroll | Timeline

The School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, concedes that mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898) was better known by his pen name and the literary genre with which the pseudonym is associated than for the books he wrote on mathematics under his given name. The books he enjoyed as a child included John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which he’d read by age seven, an indication of his genius. Despite being bullied after enrolling in rugby school, he won many prizes and excelled in mathematics and divinity.

While visiting his uncle, Dodgson entertained the daughters of a family friend by telling them stories he invented for these occasions. When one of them asked him to write them, he obliged, and the author Henry Kingsley, seeing them while visiting the girls’ parents, urged Dodgson to have them published.

The first of them to see print, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, would become a classic of children’s literature, far better known than Dodgson’s stodgy mathematical treatises Two Books of Euclid or The Formulae of Plane Trigonometry. Under his pen name, Lewis Carroll, Dodgson would become a household name in many nations.[5]

5 Marguerite Annie Johnson

The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Maya Angelou

At various times, and sometimes simultaneously, Marguerite Annie Johnson (1928–2014) worked as a singer, a dancer, an actress, a composer, a civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, a Hollywood director, a writer, an editor, an essayist, a playwright, a screenwriter, and a poet.

Her passion and consummate skill in writing poetry established her as one of the best in modern America. Her works earned her not only academic accolades but also the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the first of her six autobiographies, Johnson does not shy away from describing the horrific rape she suffered as a child, which led to five years of muteness. She recounts how she studied great writers, developing a high appreciation of language. Her poetry and many other writings and achievements made Johnson famous as the celebrated Maya Angelou.[6]

4 Jean Baptiste Poquelin

Molière: The French Shakespeare celebrates his 400th birthday • FRANCE 24 English

Playwright, actor, and poet Jean Baptiste Poquelin (1622–1673) is regarded as being among “the greatest writers in the French language and literature,” according to Google Arts & Culture’s biographical sketch. Poquelin’s first attempt at acting did not fare well; the Ilustre Theater he founded with fellow thespian Madeleine Béjart and Bejart’s siblings went bankrupt, and he was jailed for a day for failing to pay his debts.

His luck took a turn for the better when the Duke of Orleans became his patron. In 1655, Poquelin wrote and produced his first comedy, L’Etourdi ou les Contretemps. One success led to another, and, despite a few setbacks and the consequences of his satirizing of the clergy (a five-year ban from performing and lifelong harassment), Poquelin died a success, succumbing to tuberculosis while “coughing and hemorrhaging” onstage, during his final performance as an actor.

Despite priests’ refusal to administer last rites to him and the prohibition against the burial of actors in consecrated ground, Poquelin—better known as ‎Molière, was, by the command of the king, interred in the part of the cemetery set aside for the burial of unbaptized infants.[7]

3 Hector Hugh Monro

The Double Life of Saki (2007) Part 1 of 4

Hector Hugh Monro (1870–1916) was born in Burma, but when his mother miscarried after being charged by a cow and later died, the boy, age two, and his siblings were sent to England to live with their “strict and puritanical” grandmother and aunts. Like Eric Arthur Blair, Monro later became a police officer in Burma. Monro contracted malaria instead of becoming infected with tuberculosis, as Blair had been. During World War I, he turned down a commission, joining the army as a regular soldier. At age 45, he was killed by a German sniper.

During his life, he frequently lampooned Edwardian society by placing its members in natural settings that contrasted sharply with their social customs and manners. His stories typically included twist endings and suggested that nature, despite its risks, was preferable to pretense and better able to sustain people than artifice.

The ironic tales with a twist of Munro, or “Saki,” as he signed his stories, perhaps in reference to “a poem or a South American monkey,” or both, remain favorites among many readers.[8]

2 Francois-Marie Arouet

The Patriarch of the Enlightenment | Voltaire – François-Marie Arouet (Champions of Reason)

During his youth, Francois-Marie Arouet (1694–1778) attended a prestigious Jesuit college, after which he studied law, but he found his calling in his literary pursuits, writing poems and plays that were successful and acclaimed from the start. That is until a disagreement with the Chevalier de Rohan led to his imprisonment in the Bastille prison. Upon his release, he left France for the Netherlands, followed by a trip to England, where he began to write more philosophical work, arguing that England’s political freedom accounted for its great prosperity. Truth, he also suggested, was relative rather than absolute.

One of his greatest works shows, through its protagonist’s suffering, that life is full of trials, tribulations, and suffering despite culture, Christianity, and the consolations of philosophy. It is almost certainly not “the best of all possible worlds” that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had declared it to be. This work was a huge success, selling through eight editions in 1759, the first year of its publication. It was translated into English in the same year under Arouet’s nom de plume, Voltaire.[9]

1 Richard Saunders

Poor Richards Almanack – The Early Years of Benjamin Franklin an Animated Biography

On December 19, 1732, polymath Richard Saunders (1706–1790), “statesman, author, publisher, scientist, inventor, and diplomat,” launched a yearly almanac in which, for the next twenty-five years, he shared an eclectic mix of interesting facts, proverbs, and trivia.

His almanac—Poor Richard’s Alamanc—also featured humorous pieces. In one item, a man argues with his gout. The latter warns, “I have a good number of twinges for you to-night, and you may be sure of some more to-morrow,” before justifying “every stroke [to be] inflicted.” Gout reminds the man that he had reneged on his vow to walk each morning, blaming the cold, the warmth, the wind, or the moisture for his failure to honor his commitment when, in truth, he did not follow through because of his “inseparable love of ease.” Despite the man’s promise to do better, his gout is not convinced and assures him that it will visit the malingerer again.

In his almanac, Richard Saunders, better known as Benjamin Franklin, truly offered something for everyone.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen