Many bibliophiles must have run into the infuriating situation of finding that a book dealer has denied the existence of a book that the seeker knows is for real. Shepherd, who sought a copy of a book of Vic and Sade radio scripts by Paul Rhymer in Doubleday, a major New York City bookstore, and told it didn’t exist because it wasn’t on the dealer’s book list, decided to do something about it. He explained the problem to his late-night radio listeners and suggested that a non-existent novel by a non-existent author, if properly manipulated among the book-list-loving populace of dealers, distributors, and book buyers, would wreak mental and emotional havoc. Thus, a novel of 18th century English sexual dalliance among the nobility, I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing, came into trumped-up, incorporeal being.
Listeners disseminated the hoax in bookstores and elsewhere, and pretty soon the media picked up on what was thought to be true. A title card for the “book” turned up in a library’s card catalog. Students wrote scholarly reports on the book with footnotes. Reportedly a professor gave one report a B+, and knowing of the hoax, added next to the grade Shepherd’s favorite battle cry, “Excelsior!” Phonies at cocktail parties were heard discussing the book’s plot, and a society columnist claimed to have had lunch with the author. It’s said that the Legion of Decency banned the book in Boston. A bogus radio interview with a bogus author added to the shenanigans. Eventually, with Shepherd’s permission, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax.
Publisher Ian Ballantine got together with Shepherd and Sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon, and, within a couple of weeks, hurrying to cash in on the notoriety, based on an outline by Shepherd, Sturgeon had written the book, with Betty Ballantine, Ian’s wife/editor, writing the final chapter when the exhausted Sturgeon, about to miss the deadline, fell asleep. Only a few months after its first bogus inception, the book became the real thing, selling over one-hundred-thousand copies, mostly in paperback, and far fewer copies in the small hardcover printing. (In fact, for years Shepherd fans thought that it was never printed in hardcover.) It’s claimed that the book hit best-seller lists, but those lists in question have yet to be reliably reported.
The photo on the back cover is of Shepherd, looking as hung over as possible, trumped up as Frederick R. Ewing, the dissolute “author.” A bogus image for the formerly bogus book. The book got a knowing and light-hearted review in the New York Times Book Review—pretty good for a book that had started out not only unknown but non-existent. The Times, using the Ewing/Shepherd photo in its review, simply titled it “Jean Shepherd.”
Part of NYT review, 9/16/1956,
showing Frederick R. Ewing
labeled “Jean Shepherd.”
This could be a source of confusion: American Poet Laureate Billy Collins commented to me that he felt that Shepherd looked rather sad, not realizing that the image was a gag.
Now, people who claim to have read it may well be telling the truth—myself included. I’ve read it twice, once when I bought it in 1956, and once recently, not in the paperback (the pages of which are now dark brown and too brittle to open), but in the pristine hardcover. Here’s my capsule review: Badly written and a bloody bore—seems to have been a rush-job. Shepherd, creator of the hoax and the book’s outline, is often credited as the author (especially among his fans).
In addition to having one of the scarce hardcover copies, I have a paperback personally autographed by Shepherd, a second one signed by Sturgeon, but none autographed by Kelly Freas, the Mad Magazine illustrator, who painted into the cover illustration insider-clues as to the actual perpetrators—on a tavern sign, a shepherd’s staff and a sturgeon. On the ornate coach depicted, one can find Shepherd’s watchword, Excelsior. With a wink to the knowing, the cover text proclaims that the contents are “Turbulent! Turgid! Tempestuous!” As a bibliophile and Shepherd-kook, I also have the British hardcover and the British paperback editions, their covers devoid of wit, but full of bogus erotic suggestions regarding content.
A recent edition.
I do not have this edition.
(Electronic, by Kindle)
Additional publishing information regarding the Ballantine editions would be hard to come by, as I was told by an informant at Random House, which now owns Ballantine, that all its records had been lost long ago. Seeking information from Mrs. Ballantine, author of that final chapter of the book, came up against a roadblock—having previously discussed the book on various occasions for ephemeral periodicals, she refused to be interviewed again about it for the only book totally about Shepherd-the-perpetrator. Thus dooming further knowledge to the grave with her.
END OF PART 3
A VISUAL POEM