In the spirit of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” radio segments.
Let’s call this the bestseller that never was, adapted from author J. Mark Powell’s version of the incident.
“Shep” (that’s how he referred to himself) was born and raised in Indiana but after serving in World War II had a radio career in Ohio before becoming the overnight voice of WOR in New York City.
Broadcasting in the 1950s was in a period of transition. Television had killed off the golden age of radio. The old medium had lost its way, and the new medium was still finding its way. The time was ripe for something new to be done with radio, and Shep a gifted story teller and master of sarcastic wit was the perfect broadcaster to do it.
He just talked to his audience, whom he called his Night People, and invited them to call in and talk to him. It was more or less the beginning of what we now call talk radio.
New York City in the 1950s, Shep observed, was big on Top 10 lists — 10 best restaurants, well-dressed women, hot new trends and on and on. Chief among them was the New York Time’s bestseller list. At that time, it wasn’t just sales that put a book on the list — customer requests for a book and questions about it were among the criteria.
Shep the cynic believed people were so influenced by such lists that they didn’t even bother to think for themselves, and he ranted on the air one night that if enough people requested a book that didn’t even exist, it would make the bestseller list.
His Night People responded with glee and in the spring of 1956 helped Shep create what some would later call the hoax of the century. Based on audience suggestions, he came up with a name for a nonexistent novel — “I, Libertine” — and invented an author, Frederick R. Ewing, a retired British military officer and scholar who lived with his wife Marjorie on their English country estate.
The Night People went to work, bombarding bookstores with requests for the novel and talking it up in various social circles, and reporting the hilarious effects on air. One listener reported a particularly snooty clerk responded to the query with, “Frederick R. Ewing? It’s about time people began noticing his work.” Another related that members of her bridge club said they had read it, and then proceeded to argue over which chapters they liked and those they didn’t. A third, a college student, wrote a lengthy term paper on “F.R. Ewing: Eclectic Historian” and got a B+.
Requests for “I, Libertine” started coming in from London, Paris, Rome and West Germany. And, in the crowning success of the hoax, a church congregation in Massachusetts condemned it.
And in the summer of 1956, the book that did not exist made the New York Times bestseller list — and then began to move up on it. A literary gossip columnist wrote in a leading newspaper, “Had a delightful lunch the other day with Frederick R. Ewing and his charming wife, Marjorie.”
The book might have gone all the way to No. 1. But Shep and his good friend Ted, having a good laugh over the hoax at lunch one day, decided it was time to fess up and, just for laughs, write the book for real. The Wall Street Journal broke the story (though it hadn’t exactly been a national secret) just weeks before the book came out, written by Ted, with a disreputable looking Shep posing on the back cover as author Ewing.
And, yes, that book, the real one, also made the bestseller list. (All profits went to charity.) Today, you can still buy “I, Libertine” on Amazon.com. You can also read many other works by Ted — noted science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon.
And you will probably watch the film version of the master hoaxer’s most famous work on television for the 10th or 20th time — Hoosier humorist Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story.” And imagine him on the radio — that’s his voice doing the narration.
So now you know yada, yada, yada.*
*Among those influenced by Shepherd is Jerry Seinfeld, who has said, “He really formed my entire comedic sensibility — I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.