The ‘I, Libertine’ Hoax (1956)

I, Libertine book cover by Kelly FreasCrowdsourcing, flash mobs and viral hoaxes are nothing new. As a radio DJ, Jean Shepherd used all these tools decades before the Internet, creating a book hoax to get back at a snotty bookstore clerk.

It started when Shepherd went into the Doubleday Book Shop on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and asked for a book containing the scripts from “Vic and Sade,” a radio serial that ran for 14 years during the 1930s and 40s. The clerk told Shepherd that no such book existed, because it didn’t appear on any publisher’s list.

It may be that the clerk was right: Abebooks lists numerous “Vic and Sade” copies for sale, none before the 1970s. Nevertheless, Shepherd was annoyed by the clerk’s unreasoning faith in his lists and resolved to do something about it.

So that night, hosting his 1 to 5:30 a.m. shift at WOR, Shepherd enlisted what he called his “Night People,” on a crusade against the Day People, the ones who listened to authority instead of their own instincts, who believe in a well-ordered, well-scheduled world, who follow best-seller lists, critics’ lists, magazines’ lists.

Shephard asked his Night People to walk into a bookshop the next day and ask for a book that didn’t exist. He opened the phone lines and took suggestions, and the result was “I, Libertine,” by Frederick R. Ewing. Shephard outlined Ewing’s biography: an Oxford graduate who lectured on BBC radio before World War II on “Erotica of the Eighteenth Century.” A civil servant in Rhodesia, Ewing intended “I, Libertine” to be the first book in a trilogy concerning the 18th century adventures of Captain Lance Courtenay.. For the plot, Shepherd drew upon the true story of Elizabeth Chudleigh, the English aristocrat who was caught up in a bigamy scandal in the 1770s that resulted in a trial in the House of Lords.

The next morning, the clerk at the Doubleday Book Shop heard twenty-seven requests for “I, Libertine.” More requests were heard at bookstores in the northeast, and in the face of the customers’ certainty, the denials changed to “it’s on order.” Distributors were besieged with calls from the bookstores. Libraries began placing orders, and newspapers began listing “I, Libertine” as a recently published work. Public relations people in on the joke convinced newspaper columnist Earl Wilson to claim in print that he “had lunch with Freddy Ewing yesterday.” By this time, “I, Libertine,” became the subject of cocktail chatter, with some people claiming to have read the book.

It was publisher Ian Ballantine who twigged what to do next. Hearing from his salesmen about the incredible demand for a book that didn’t exist, he tracked down Shepherd and cut a deal. Science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon was recruited to write “I, Libertine,” which he did in one marathon typing session (supposedly, Ian’s wife, Betty, finished the last chapter after Sturgeon conked out).

On Sept. 13, 1956, Ballantine Books published “I, Libertine” in hardcover and paperback editions. Shepherd portrayed Ewing in the author photo on the back cover. Today, copies of the book start at a hundred bucks at Abebooks.

Born: Gustave Aimard (ps. Olivier Gloux), novelist, Paris, 1818; Sherwood Anderson, playwright, poet, short-story writer, Camden, Ohio, 1876; J.B. Priestley, critic, playwright, novelist, Bradford, Yorkshire, 1894; Roald Dahl, children’s author, Llandaff, Wales, 1916; Judith Martin, etiquette authority, journalist, Washington, D.C., 1938.

Died: Michel de Montaigne, essayist, translator, Chât de Montaigne, France, 1592; Elias Canetti, novelist, playwright, Zurich, Switzerland, 1994.

Quote for the Day: “Did it ever occur to you that lists are compiled by mortals? When the Oscar is awarded for Best Picture was it really the Best Picture? Well, everyone is influenced by these critics. You may laugh at the people who read the Daily News, but then YOU believe in the New York Times ! Did ever occur to you that the guy responsible for compiling these lists was some little guy who was stuck for four years doing obituaries. Now it’s his 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! Well, the little guy puts it on his list and soon everyone goes out and buys it!” — Jean Shepherd, Radio disk jockey and author, ranting about the supremacy of the listmakers.