The Bizarre True-Life Tale Of The Hoax Behind The Book I, Libertine

Illustration for article titled The Bizarre True-Life Tale Of The Hoax Behind The Book I, Libertine

Have you ever read I, Libertine? The book itself may be less interesting than how the book came to be. Hear the story of the book that started as a hoax.

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Jean Shepherd, a 1950s radio DJ, was very slightly embittered. He had reasons. He was given the 1:00 to 5:30 slot at his radio station. In fact, he wasn't even at the station, since he did his broadcasting right at the broadcasting tower. He did rejoice in his loyal fans, and shared his slight bitterness with them. Shepherd, and the emerging beats who listened to him, grumbled about the fact that they, the "night people," had to live in a world run by the "day people," with their lists and their rules and their phoniness.

Illustration for article titled The Bizarre True-Life Tale Of The Hoax Behind The Book I, Libertine

In 1956, after a visit to a bookstore that showed him that most people in the publishing business would blindly follow wherever the right kind of popular opinion led, Shepherd came up with a hoax. Today we might call it an attempt to "hack" the system. He wanted to get a book talked about so much that it made to the bestseller list. And he wanted it to be a nonexistent book.

That was how I, Libertine, authored by Frederick Ewing, and published by Excelsior Press of Cambridge University, burst onto the literary scene. Night people went into stores asking for it, bookstore owners began making inquiries, and the hoax was helped along by Shepherd's contacts in the media, who mentioned lunches with "Freddie Ewing." Naturally, some people who weren't in loop played along, talking over the merits of the fake book and giving the story credibility. One college student even got a B+ for a paper discussing Frederick Ewing's historical fiction.

Eventually news of the hoax broke. Some people were humiliated, but some decided to have no shame. The head of Ballantine Books decided that all publicity was good publicity. He contacted Shepherd and novelist Theodore Sturgeon, whose latest book, The Perfect Host, came out in 2014. Shepherd outlined the story, Sturgeon wrote the book, and Ewing is still listed as the lead author on Amazon's listing for I, Libertine.

Today people seem more pleased with the story of the book than the story in the book. A review with the title "Excelsior!" - Shepherd's catchphrase - only gives the book two stars. Still, two stars are arguably better than nonexistence.

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Sources: The Man Behind the Brilliant Media Hoax of "I, Libertine", Night People's Hoax on Day People Makes Hit With Book Folks, I, Libertine.

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DISCUSSION

I listened to Jean Shepherd all the time in the '60s. I had an Airline 6 transistor radio, but from my home in Maryland I could only hear WOR in New York by winding the power cord of my electric blanket around the radio, coupling its wiring to the radio's loop-stick antenna. I'd be up all night with Jean, laughing into my pillow, then stagger through my high school classes the next day half dead from insomnia and hypothermia. Jean originated the term "night people", and wrote extensively for magazines like Playboy. His stories were collected into trade books, one of which, In God We Trust, All Others Play Cash, was adapted into the now-classic Christmas movie A Christmas Story. He narrates the movie and makes a cameo as the irritated man waiting in line for Santa. Jean died in 1999 at age 78.

There are numerous examples of Jean's humor on YouTube.