How Little Billy's letters fooled the great and the not-so-good

John Major, Charles Manson and the Mormons all fell for 15-year prank

His name is Billy Geerhart, he's eight years old and he lives in Los Angeles. If you happen to be rich, famous and influential, he may have sent you a cute handwritten letter, earnestly seeking expert advice.

Billy once asked John Major how to be elected class president. The British PM merely sent back a signed photo. Billy also contacted former US Defence Secretary Robert Macnamara, asking him whether a moat would protect his treehouse from invasion. "It will work if you dig it deep enough, and your enemies can't swim," was the response.

His letter to bra-burning feminist Gloria Steinem wondered: "If the Six Million Dollar Man hit the Bionic Woman in a fight, would that be wrong?" Her reply: "The short answer to your question is yes ... it would only be fair if it was done in self-defence." One summer, Billy contacted some of America's most notorious serial killers, asking if he ought to drop out of school. David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, told him to stay in education and not "do self-destructive things". Charles Manson sent him pages of gibberish.

They were all victims of a big prank. Billy Geerhart was actually a bored adult, who has spent 15 years scrawling fake letters to public figures. The highlights have now been compiled in a book, Little Billy's Letters, which is due out in the UK next month.

William Geerhart, to use the author's proper name, invented Little Billy in 1994, when he moved to Los Angeles hoping to become a screenwriter, but found himself temporarily unemployed.

His first letter was fake fanmail to Dan Quayle. The former US Vice President's reply suggests that he accepted, without question, the proposition that an eight-year-old had recently ploughed through his turgid memoirs.

After that, Mr Geerhart began sending a letter every few days, squirrelling the replies away in a private collection. He has narrowed down the 1,000 or so replies to little Billy's letters to 120 for his book. Highlights include a letter from OJ Simpson's attorney, Robert Shapiro, offering advice on how Billy might get away with having destroyed his sister's doll: he should accuse the family dog of eating it and hire "a good forensic dentist".

Mr Geerhart said yesterday that he'd had trouble pitching the book to publishers because of concerns about copyright. But William Morrow eventually took it on, hoping to mimic the success of similar bestsellers, such as William Donaldson's Henry Root Letters.

His favourite chapter, said Mr Geerhart, sees eight-year-old Billy write to the heads of religious organisations, saying his parents have allowed him to choose a faith, and asking if they think he should join theirs. The Mormons sent missionaries to his doorstep, while the Church of Scientology sent him a letter with a pamphlet entitled: "Becoming an Operating Thetan".

"It contained a list of self-improvement courses they'd send me on," he said. "Some cost tens of thousands of dollars. It was fascinating that they saw fit to send that to an eight-year-old."

Written evidence: Little Billy's letters and the replies

*Dear Church of Scientology, My parents have allowed me to choose my own religion. Could you tell me what's cool about yours? My friend Eddie says you like aliens and volcanoes which sounds cool! Thanks, Billy

Dear Billy, Scientology is not a religion based on aliens and other such things. Scientology means: "knowing how to know in the full sense of the word." Do you have internet? I say this because you can get loads of information that [sic] if you go to scientology.org!? Love, Brittany Garrett, LA Registrar

*Dear Governor Palin, This is a project for my school. We're supposed to write to ask someone we admire a question. My grampa helped me find your address. He likes the way you wink at him from the TV. My question is we visited Alaska would you take us wolf hunting from your helicopter? That would be really cool! Could you also send a picture? Sincerely, Billy

Billy, Thank you for your letter to Governor Palin. I'll get it to her tomorrow. Like your Grandpa, I also like the way Sarah winks. I'm helping her with the mail... No wolf hunting from helicopters here. The news media thought that up. It is done in Russia, though, where pictures came from. Best Regards, Chuck Heath (Sarah's dad)

*Dear [segregationist senator] Strom Thurmond, This is a project for school. We are doing a unit on Black History and we are allowed to write to a public official for extra credit. I want to ask what it was like to own slaves. What were your slaves' names? How many did you own? Could you send me a picture of you with your slaves? Thank You, Billy Geerhart

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