American literary hoax.
Most people nowadays remember Jean Shepherd for his childhood desire for an airgun. Some, a bit older, remember his "Jean Shepherd's America" series, videotaped inside his car, as he gave his observations about what he saw to a cameraman in the back seat. But for most of his career, he held a unique place in radio.
During the Fifties, radio was in a state of flux. The old soap operas, mystery series, and regular live music broadcasts ("Live from high atop Rockefeller Center, in the world-famous Rainbow Room...Peter Duchin and his orchestra...") were, mostly phased out. The age of rock was yet to come. Jazz was beginning to lose its mass audience.
WOR, the Hearst Corporation's toehold in radio, mostly went with the trend towards easy listening during the evening hours...on the graveyard shift between midnight and five they didn't even bother to keep their main studio in Manhattan open. Instead, they broadcast directly from the transmitter in an obscure location in New Jersey.
All this was just fine with Jean Shepherd, a then-young DJ fresh out of the Midwest. Somewhere early in his career with WOR, he found that not only were his bosses asleep, but the censors, and for that matter, the FCC. His response, as radio history will tell, was not to indulge in "shock jock" tactics, but to treat his five hours a night as absolutely blank canvas.
Speaking in a low, intimate voice that seemed to come from the next bunk over, he would speak of everything and nothing: tales of growing up in Indiana, the hot and spooky nights he spent during the waning days of WWII on a Navy ship in the Pacific, the recent election, the meaning of life and...the trees are changing late this year, wonder if it's going to be a mild winter, or what? All this, interspersed with occasional jazz records, readings of Beat and parlor poetry, oddball commercials, digs at the competition (a full-time easy listening station, WPAT), and phone calls from what he called the "Night People", whom he flattered as being more skeptical, intelligent, and ahead of the workaday "Day People". Do the Day People even know we exist? he wondered. If we formed a conspiracy, would they even know where to look?
One of Shepherd's favorite subjects was the then-prevalent tendency of New Yorkers to rely on reviewers' blurbs and lists over their own judgment: as he said "If a play got a great review from Clive Barnes, and you fell asleep in the first act, you felt that it was your fault." The best-seller lists, he pointed out, were more likely to be a barometer of the lowest common denominator, not literary merit. One evening in 1956, he decided to put the question to his "Night People": let's create a best-seller. Better yet, let's create a nonexistent best seller. Any suggestions? Taking calls...212-321-0710...
By 4:30 AM, they had agreed on a title, and a general plot. The novel was to be an 18th century version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with a staid, highly placed nobleman who turned, under cover of darkness, into a skirt-chasing, drinking, gambling, whoring rakehell out of a Hogarth or Rowlinson. Styling himself a "moral adventurer", the book dealt with his liasons with three very different women, each time posing as their perfect lover. Free-associating, Shepherd created an author, Frederick Ewing, a British Commander during WWII, now a civil servant in Rhodesia, educated in English Literature at Oxford with graduate studies at Cambridge (which had printed the book under their Excelsior Press line), who had given a series of lectures about 18th Century erotica for the BBC. His wife, Marjorie, was a well-known horsewoman from the North Country.
It was a well-calculated move from the start. Erotica was very much "in the news", as obscenity trial after obscenity trial proved that Lady Chatterley's Lover, Howl, and Lolita were not, as was often charged, "smut", but important, life-affirming works of literature in their own right. A similar book, Forever Amber, had already caused a world-wide stir, dealing, as it did, with a royal mistress's memoirs during the Restoration -- American Modernism being, as it was, at high noon, the British Enlightenment, a few years later, was held up as being its distant mirror and exemplar. Clearly, the mix of hot, boozy sex and cool, skeptical cerebration was just right for the times. More to the point, most of the publishing industry, centered in New York, were unabashed Anglophiles (a factor that was to help spark the James Bond phenomenon several years later): a University-educated Colonial, with BBC credentials and a horsey wife, was just the kind of chap they, themselves wanted to be: certainly they'd want to seek him out socially, and so would go the extra mile to please. The next day, the leading bookstores in New York began to get requests for a book called "I, Libertine".
Results were sluggish at first. Brentano's, at that time the flagship of the bookselling trade in Manhattan, responded at first with puzzled clerks taking down the title, and promising to special order. Distributors puzzled over the fact that there didn't seem to be any "Excelsior Press" associated with Cambridge University. Cambridge itself had no clue, nor was there a Frederick Ewing. The BBC drew a blank on any program specifically about 18th century erotica, and certainly no Frederick Ewing. The Royal Navy, Oxford, equestrian associations across Britain, the Rhodesian government, similarly drew a blank: no Frederick, no Marjorie. Publisher's Weekly and other booksellers' trade magazines began to run sidebars asking readers to write in with any information they had about a strange book that it seemed, everyone had read, but no one had ever seen.
And unexpectedly, the title began to take on a life of its own. A woman reported mentioning the book to her bridge club: the other three women had not only heard of the book, but began discussing it, and concluded they all hated it for different reasons. A student from Rutgers handed in a paper on the book's historical background, with footnotes and quotes from Frederick Ewing's BBC broadcasts and got a B+ with the comment "Great research!".("Almost makes you wonder whether Chaucer existed." he added.) The New York Public Library readied a file card, and a leading Catholic cleric forbade the book to his parishioners. Airline pilots, Shepherd fans all, began to ask for the book across the country and in several European cities, touching off I, Libertine crazes wherever they went. Gossip columnists, fed tidbits by Shepherd-loving publicists, began to mention F. Ewing's stay in New York, and one claimed to have had lunch with him. After seven weeks, the book began to be mentioned in the Best-Seller lists. Several national magazines devoted articles to the world-wide "I, Libertine" phenomenon, speculating hand-to-hand distribution, luxurious small-press editions for the wealthy, mimeographed copies, Russian-style samizdat... Shepherd began to fear the day the President would mention the book and the FBI would investigate him for peddling "smut". And all over a book that no one had ever seen a copy of, much less read, whose nonexistence was being cheerfully admitted (and discussed) every night over WOR!
Then, one morning, just after Shep had signed off, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal quietly asked if the time had come to break the story. Exactly two hours later, The Journal hit the streets with the news. Oddly, only The Journal, Pravda (which translated the story word-for-word, with no editorial interpolations, a rarity in those days), and The Times of London bothered to get the facts straight: it was not a case of a DJ selling a nonexistent book to listeners, but the DJ's listeners selling a nonexistent book to the world. Clearly, the Day People were not amused.
The epilogue came three weeks later, when a representative from Ballantine Books asked Shepherd for world-wide rights to "I, Libertine". When he repeated, for the thousandth time it seemed, that there was no book "I, Libertine", the fellow smiled and said "Well, we're just going to have to work on that. Didn't you say you wanted to create a best-seller?"
The next day, Shepherd had an uncharacteristic daytime lunch with SF titan Theodore Sturgeon, who had not only followed the story, but actually had the background in historical erotic literature to write such a book, and the equally distinguished illustrator Kelly Freas. The story of how the book was finished, finally, by the publisher's wife (Sturgeon himself having passed out from exhaustion) to beat a printer's deadline is legendary, but another tale altogether.
The book sold moderately well, and acknowledging the work as a group effort, as much the American public's as their own, all three co-creators donated their royalties to charity. Copies today fetch $300-400 at Alibris, and there is at present, no plans to reprint.