Jean Shepherd died last weekend at the age of 78… More than 40 years ago, this most gifted of radio monologists — a lost breed, to be sure — perpetrated one of the great hoaxes of the century and, in the process, taught us a great deal about intellectual pretension masquerading as critical judgment.
Shep was an icon all along the East Coast, especially in New York. For 21 years, he broadcast on WOR-AM, mostly on an all-night show and, on Saturdays, live from the Limelight Cafe in Greenwich Village.
Working in free form, seemingly without a script, he spun hilarious tales from his Indiana boyhood and delivered social commentary on the culture of the ’50s and ’60s. Marshall McLuhan hailed him as “the first radio novelist”; a series of stories from his book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” was made into the 1983 film “A Christmas Story” (written and narrated by Shepherd) which TV Guide called “one of the great Christmas classics of all time.”
But for all his penchant for nostalgic story-telling — and no one could weave a tale as skillfully as he — Shepherd was no homespun hick. On the contrary — he championed the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sax Rohmer and Robert W. Service, produced an acclaimed PBS series, “Jean Shepherd’s America” and was one of the earliest writers for the Village Voice. Harper’s Magazine once called him “radio’s noble savage.”
He also delivered the kind of trenchant and cynical observations on popular culture that quickly won him a cult following. Which is what led him to prick a few balloons in the mid-’50s with his celebrated “I, Libertine” hoax — in which Shepherd and his listeners created a national furor over a totally non-existent book.
“It all started when I got into a discussion one day about people who pretend to know everything,” Shepherd wrote later in the Voice. “We thought it would be a good gag to undermine their faith by creating a demand for something that didn’t even exist. We dreamed up the name and the author on the spot.”
Set in England during the 1700s, “I, Libertine” chronicled the exploits of Lance Courtnay, by day a respected man about town, by night an uninhibited rake. Its author was said to be Frederick C. Ewing, an acknowledged expert in 18th-century erotica who completed the book while serving as a British civil servant in Rhodesia. Naturally, Ewing didn’t exist, either.
Shepherd told his listeners to go into their local bookstores the next day and ask for “I, Libertine.” They did — and the uproar began.
Prompted by the sudden demand, booksellers started calling Publisher’s Weekly trying to locate the distributor. Articles began appearing everywhere about the publishing sensation; the New York Times Book Review even included “I, Libertine” in its list of newly published works.
Some of Shepherd’s college listeners expanded the gag by writing serious-seeming papers on the book. A Columbia student submitted a review of “I, Libertine” as his thesis — a B-plus. A Rutgers professor returned one meticulously footnoted paper on the fictitious Ewing with a note commending the student on his “superb research.” The Philadelphia Public Library even opened a card file on Ewing.
“Friends would call to tell me that they’d met people at cocktail parties who claimed to have read it,” Shepherd wrote. “One of the professors at Rutgers casually mentioned the book at a Sunday literary meeting and somebody present said he’d just finished it. When pressed, he was evasive about the plot.”
In Boston, the book was banned by the Legion of Decency. New York Post gossip columnist Earl Wilson published a blurb, claiming he’d “had lunch with Freddy Ewing yesterday.”
After about four weeks, the Wall Street Journal exposed the deception and it attracted international attention. In the ultimate irony, publisher Ian Ballantine — who had been pursuing paperback rights to “I, Libertine” — persuaded Shepherd to actually write the book, together with science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, under Ewing’s name.
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