Thursday, December 27, 2001

Tony Chopkoski brought this fascinating article to my attention, which illustrates that pop-culture hacking has been going on for as long as cultural institutions have been in existence, waiting to be hacked. In this case, a late-night radio host changes the landscape of bestselling books, and the tale makes for great holiday reading. If anyone knows more about this story, write me and let me know.

Because I haven't been able to find the original web location of this article, it is reprinted here in its entirety.

I, Libertine: Making the List

Late-night radio yarn spinner Jean Shepherd was convinced that the New York Times Best Seller List was a sucker's game. He decided to test his theory: "Some little guy('s) . . . job is to call bookstores and find out what's selling this week. Well, Fred Applerot recently bought 500 copies of Who Shot John?, and he still has 497 copies on the shelf. The guy calls and asks what's hot . . . 'Who Shot John? Big Hit!' The little guy puts it on his list and soon everyone goes out and buys it!"

In 1956, the midnight monologist convinced listeners to ask bookstores for a book that didn't exist. Callers suggested the title: I, Libertine by imaginary author Frederick R. Ewing. Shepherd created the plot and author's bio. Set in England during the 1700s, the historical novel, by an "expert in 18th century erotica," detailed the adventures of Lance Courtnay, courtier and Casanovian rakehell. Ewing was British, Shepherd decided, a BBC radio personality and former World War II commander turned civil servant now living in Rhodesia. Published by a Cambridge University press, he even had a wife, Marjorie, "a horsewoman from the North Country."

According to Shepherd: "The first guy walks into the store and asks for I, Libertine. The owner says he never heard of it. Man #2 walks in asking for it. Now he says 'It's on order.' The next guy comes in. Now he's on the phone to the distributor . . . "

Distributors called Publisher's Weekly. The definitive trade mag wrote up the buzz about I, Libertine and it was soon listed in the New York Times Book Review. More articles appeared. There was a backlash. The book was banned in Boston by the Legion of Decency because of its "racy" content�and defended vigorously. College listeners in on the gag submitted apparently erudite research papers on Ewing. The Philadelphia Public Library catalogued the imaginary author, prompting Shepherd to declare "My God! Maybe there was no Chaucer! It could've been some guy 400 years ago, putting on the whole world!"

Life, Time and Newsweek ran stories. More and more people claimed to have read the novel. It was discussed at faculty parties and celebrated by the smart set. Bookstore owners talked knowledgeably about Ewing's oeuvre. New York Post gossip columnist and society insider Earl Wilson told dazzled readers he'd "had lunch with Freddy Ewing yesterday." Ian Ballentine sought paperback rights. As weeks passed, the book attracted international interest. More articles appeared and worldwide bestseller lists touted the fake novel. Shepherd worried the President would soon give his opinion�"Then I wouldn't believe in anything!"

A Wall Street Journal reporter finally called WOR about Shepherd's open secret and a front-page story appeared the next day, creating a second media sensation. Years later, Shepherd recalled, "It was the beginning of an attitude . . . People up until then never questioned politicians or Big Government like they do now."

Ballentine finally did publish I, Libertine. Shepherd and science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon met and decided to team together as "Ewing." All profits went to charity. "Turbulent! Turgid! Tempestuous!" It was a best seller, of course.

--Joyce Brabner

(WBAI Pacifica Radio began rebroadcasting Jean Shepherd's early WOR programs last month. Tune in to "Mass Backwards" 4 AM Mondays EST in the WBAI New York listening area, or from anywhere on the web at