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Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Libertine Christmas

Christmas is a good time to remember Jean Shepherd, the iconoclastic radio raconteur of the 1950s and 60s who is best remembered today as the author of the stories on which the holiday film A Christmas Story (1983) was based.  But he was also the driving force behind the most hilarious hoax in book publishing history, the "best-selling novel" I, Libertine.

Back in the mid-1950s, the Times best-seller list was based not only on actual book sales but also on reader requests for new and forthcoming books.  Shepherd always had an eye for the ridiculous, and one night on his radio program he not only talked about how odd and prone to manipulation this system was, but also suggested to his listeners that they do something about it.  He urged them to visit their local bookstore and ask for a copy of I, Libertine by the noted British author Frederick R. Ewing.  If the manager asks for a description of the book, Shepherd suggested, say it's a bawdy tale of life in eighteenth-century London.

Of course, neither the book nor the author really existed.  But Shepherd's prank, abetted by his thousands of loyal fans, caused an uproar.  Soon booksellers everywhere were contacting distributors and demanding deliveries of I, Libertine.  Publishers Weekly was flooded with inquiries about this hot new title.  Gossip columnist Earl Wilson boasted about having lunch with "Freddy Ewing" to celebrate the success of his novel.

Eventually the publisher Ian Ballantine, himself a colorful iconoclast, decided this situation was too good to pass up.  He took Shepherd and a mutual friend, science-fiction novelist Theodore Sturgeon, out to lunch and convinced them to actually write I, Libertine.  Sturgeon reportedly tried to finish it in a single marathon session but fell asleep on the Ballantines' couch, whereupon Betty Ballantine wrote the final chapter.  The book was published in 1956 with a suitable paperback cover by Kelly Freas, best known as one of the creators of Alfred E. Neuman for Mad magazine.

It has been too long since we had a really entertaining publishing hoax.  (Anyone remember Naked Came the Stranger?)  Where is Jean Shepherd now that we really need him?


  1. Good short review of the I, Libertine affair. I've written more extensively about it in a periodical, PAPERBACK PARADE, and in my 500-page book about Jean Shepherd's entire creative career in radio, television, writing, and live performance. (EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD, Applause Books, March, 2005)He was a fascinating person--and a genius. I recently completed a second book-length manuscript about Shephered, including much new information and fascinating interviews with Shepherd enthusiasts such as Dee Snider of Twisted Sister! (By the way, Jerry Seinfeld said: "He formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.")

    "Where is Jean Shepherd now that we really need him?" He's in one big book by me and another book waiting to be birthed. Plus, in his own books, films, videos, and over a thousand readily available audios of his radio broadcasts. Just ask me, just read my books!

  2. A less benign literary hoax is Clifford Irving's fraudulent Howard Hughes biography. His prank resulted in some hard time in prison. A lesson there might be don't mess with reclusive billionaires with no sense of humor. The author of the Hitler Diaries similarly did not receive a warm reaction from the German legal system, as I recall. As for Naked Came the Stranger, it succeded initially as a racy novel. When the group nature of the authorship was exposed, it became a bestseller, proving that hoaxes can be both fun and profitable.

  3. Thanks for checking in, Mr. Bergmann! You can probably answer this question: Did I, Libertine actually make it onto the Times list? The sources I've looked at were vague on the question. I'll be looking for your books.

  4. Despite the claims that I, Libertine made best seller lists, through an extensive search of microfilms of the NY Times, I have not located the book on a list.

    It's also said that the book sold over two hundred thousand copies, which would seem to qualify with a best-seller listing. I'm told by a source at Random House, owner of the Ballantine business, that Ballantine's records were "lost" years ago, so there is no good way I've found of checking this. The vast majority of sales were apparently in the simultaneous paperback edition, which is maybe why figures and lists are hard to come by--paperback sales back then were not considered for such rankings. Only in recent years has it been known by Shepherd fans that there was even a hardcover edition.

  5. Fascinating. Two hundred thousand would normally be enough to make a best-seller (depending on rate of sale), although as you say, paperbacks would have been considered ineligible at that time. Thanks for these sidelights on a remarkable bit of publishing history--as the life story of an amazing character.