If you have ever read the book I, Libertine, you’d be surprised to know about its bizarre backstory. How did DJ Jean Shepherd start the hoax and how did the book come to be?
In the 1950s, DJ Jean Shepherd created a fake book and urged his listeners to help him hype up the non-existent text. Many of his listeners took part in this hoax. Years later, the book was actually written.
Jean Shepherd and the Night People
Jean Shepherd took the WOR radio waves from 12 midnight to 5 am in the early fifties. He discussed an array of topics, delivering dark and comedic monologues that weren’t usual at the time. Alone in the radio station, Shepherd experimented on the concept of radio entertainment, often not following the format provided by the station.
Shepherd developed a devoted following, calling his listeners the night people. His listeners enjoyed a secret, close-knit community as they were the only listeners of the show. Shepherd even developed a way for them to identify each other in public, using the password Excelsior which was supposed to be responded to with a seltzer bottle.
Shepherd frequently talked about the difference between the night people and the day people, often referring to the former as more creative because the night is when people truly become individuals and all restrictions on freedom was removed. (Source: Hoaxes)
The I, Libertine Hoax
In April 1955, Shepherd visited a bookstore and asked if they had a copy of the script of an old radio serial Vic and Sade. Upon checking, the clerk said they didn’t, and in fact, it wasn’t a real book because it wasn’t listed. This upset Shepherd because he knew the book was real. It also epitomized his idea on the difference between day and night people.
Shepherd felt that since the clerk was a day person, the clerk couldn’t imagine that the book existed simply because it wasn’t part of their list. The DJ talked about his experience and thoughts on his radio show, and it suddenly hit him. He asked his listeners to be part of a practical joke he thought of.
Shepherd asked his listeners to visit bookshops and ask for a book that truly didn’t exist. He felt that this would shake up the day people because they wouldn’t find the book at all. His listeners pitched into the idea, suggesting the title I, Libertine. Another suggested that the author should be an expert in eighteenth-century erotica. And another recommended the name of the author to be Frederick R. Ewing.
The Hoax took shape and on the day after Shepherd discussed the idea, it was reported that around 27 people placed an order for the book at the 5th Avenue bookstore. The listeners made their way to bookstores across the country in the following weeks, ordering the fake book. (Source: Hoaxes)
When Did The Hoax Become Real?
Bookstore owners were at a loss with the number of orders for the fake book. They tried finding the book from different publishers but, of course, could not find it. This caught the attention of publisher Ian Ballantine. Ballantine was able to trace back the hoax to Shepherd.
Ballantine thought it would be interesting to capitalize on the hoax by publishing the book for real. He reached out to Shepherd and pitched the idea. Shepherd agreed, and a science-fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, one of Shepherd’s night people, was commissioned to write the book.
Sturgeon finished the book in a month, and it was published. Only 130,000 copies were printed. While the hoax was made public, the publicity helped the sales of the real I, Libertine. (Source: Hoaxes)