After bamboozling thousands of bibliophiles and booksellers with a grand hoax that involved fabricating a novel and its author, and instructing hoax participants to request that book at bookstores across the country en masse, late-night radio show host Jean Shepherd’s hoax is exposed by an article in the Wall Street Journal on this day in 1956.
As a deejay and radio host working the less-scrutinizsed midnight to 5 AM graveyard shift, Shepherd had the freedom to experiment on air and developed a devoted following of listeners who enjoyed belonging to a secret community of sorts. Shepherd called his listeners the “night people” and frequently mused on the difference between “night people”—creative, individualistic, free—and “day people,” who he said were bound by convention, expectation, rules, and schedules.
One day Shepherd walked into a bookstore in New York and asked for a book. The clerk consulted a list of published books and told Shepherd that not only did they not have the book, but that it didn’t exist because it wasn’t on his list. The ensuing exchange infuriated Shepherd who felt it epitomized the unimaginative day people. He recounted the story on air and as he did, devised a practical joke whereby he asked his listeners to request a book—en masse—that truly didn’t exist. Shepherd and his listeners came up with a fake novel about 18th century erotica, I, Libertine and its fictional author, Frederick R. Ewing, and set the hoax in motion.
The next day, 27 requests were placed at the New York bookstore that inspired the joke at the onset. In the following weeks, requests for the fictional book were made across the US and even in England and Scandinavia. Booksellers were perplexed. They contacted publishers, one of whom, Ian Ballantine of Ballantine Books, traced it back to Shepherd. But Ballantine didn’t want to stop there. He proposed taking the hoax a step further by actually publishing the made-up book. Theodore Sturgeon, a science-fiction writer and fan of Shepherd, was commissioned to write the text. Sturgeon finished the novel in 30 days and Shepherd posed as fictional author Ewing on the back cover.
However, before it could be released, the Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax in an article published 1 August 1956. Entitled “Night People’s Hoax On Day People Makes Hit With Book Folks,” the article introduced the book and the hoax behind it. “Strangest of all, perhaps, is the fact that the book was born of a hoax—and Ballantine knows it,” wrote staff reporter Carter Henderson. “Not the least intriguing, however, are the characters in this weird story-behind-a-story: An all-night disk jockey with a whimsical turn of mind, a cocksure book store clerk, a publisher searching for a non-existent bestseller, and the quite unsettling Night People.”
I, Libertine was published 20 September 1956 with a print run of 130,000 copies. And this time, when readers asked for the book, booksellers had a ready supply.