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“There is no question that we are a tiny, tiny, tiny, embattled minority here,” spoke the television and radio personality Jean Shepherd to the audience of his radio show on WOR in New York in the 1950s. Shepherd’s show was considered unlike any of the radio programs of his peers, as he favored realistic storytelling and pop culture soundbites over other forms of more popular entertainment on radio of the era. “Hardly anyone is listening to mankind in all of its silliness, all of its idiocy, all of its trivia, all of its wonder, all of its glory, all of its poor, sad, pitching us into the dark sea of oblivion,” he told his listeners.
Shepherd and his show were more popular, however, for his separation of the general public into “day people” and “night people.” The former were the phonies and squares who subscribed to the conformity of everyday life, and the latter were the ones who really made the world go round — the people who look for the truth between the lines, the faithful listeners of Shepherd’s late-night radio program. In retrospect, his radio show was largely a precursor to right-wing pundits in the social media age, especially once Shepherd dreamed up a conspiracy that grew larger than himself.
Shepherd first broke into radio at the beginning of the postwar era, having his own timeslots on regional affiliates in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Toledo. He immediately set himself apart from radio personalities of his time, favoring anecdotes that spoke to the shared cultural experience of Americans during World War II, with strong ties to childhood memories. In a time of change, when millions were flocking to the suburbs for the start of a better life after the war, it also kickstarted an era of repression where there were certain taboo topics that were simply not discussed. But if you were someone who subscribed to the theory that childhood was, in fact, more horrifying than you remember, you would have enjoyed Shepherd’s ramblings if you had tuned into the right frequency.
A Radio Star is Born
In 1955, at age 34, Shepherd decided to make the move to New York City, figuring that was the place to be if one wanted to become a real radio star. Although he was hired for a Saturday afternoon timeslot on WOR, it wasn’t a good fit for anyone involved, as Shepherd’s on-air storytelling was considered unconventional at the time. The following year, the station relegated him to a graveyard shift: every weeknight from 1:00 to 5:30 a.m. This wasn’t exactly a promotion, and Shepherd was even forced to record live from his home in New Jersey when WOR wanted to cut the cost of keeping their NYC studio open late at night.
But like any underdog, Shepherd was never one to back down from a challenge. According to Eugene Bergmann’s biography Excelsior, You Fathead: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, he would ask his audience to participate in what he referred to as “Hurling Invective,” in which listeners were encouraged to put their radios on open windowsills with the volume on full blast so that their neighbors might hear. Before long, with four and a half hours of air to fill in the middle of the night, Shepherd’s program became more inventive and eclectic than any other in New York, and he started accruing a passionate fanbase.
The War on Lists
If there is one thing you should know about Jean Shepherd, it’s that he hated lists. Years later, in 1968, he recounted on another radio show that, upon moving to New York City in the ‘50s, he learned that it was a place that ran on lists. Which then prompted him to ask his listeners, “Has it occurred to you that these lists are compiled by mortals and that they are human just like you are and, in fact, they have many more axes to grind than you?”
Shepherd’s war on lists intensified when, during a daytime excursion to a bookstore, he couldn’t find the title he was looking for. When he approached the clerk for help, he was informed that the book to which he was referring must not exist since it was not on any list he had ever seen. This prompted him to ask his listeners to ponder how bestseller lists are compiled, specifically The New York Times Best Seller List.
Since Amazon and big-box chain retailers didn’t yet exist in 1956, Shepherd imagined booksellers across New York with their own agendas as to which books were selling and those that were not, without ever turning over any legitimate data to the Times. “The people who believe in these lists are asleep. Anyone sitting up at three in the morning secretly has doubts,” he proclaimed. List believers are, therefore, “day people,” individuals who believe in filing cabinets and who are only truly alive at the office from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. “Night people,” on the other hand, are the ones whose lives begin after they leave the office each evening.
Fake Book: Bad Idea, Right?
So, Shepherd once again prepositioned his listeners with a challenge: “What do you say tomorrow morning, each one of us walk into a bookstore and ask for a book that we know does not exist?” He asked them to call in with suggestions for a title, and one came up with I, Libertine, supposedly a unique blend of highbrow and lowbrow literature. The author was Shepherd’s creation, Frederick R. Ewing, a retired Royal Navy Commander known for his prewar radio broadcasts on the BBC discussing 18th-century erotica. I, Libertine was to be the first in a trilogy set in 18th-century English court life.
Not bizarre enough for you? Wait, there’s more. The book was said to have been published by Excelsior Press, an imprint of Cambridge University Press, a nod to Shepherd’s trademark names for people as “excelsior” and “you fathead.” If the bookseller you were talking to didn’t pick up on this reference, it was an immediate signal the person you were speaking with was not a “night person.” And so, Shepherd told each and every audience member and their friends to hit every bookstore in Manhattan and ask for I, Libertine, the greatest novel to never exist.
But then, it did exist.
The Greatest Book That Never Was
Turns out Shepherd wasn’t as unpopular as WOR first made him out to be because requests for I, Libertine at bookstores in New York became overwhelming. Soon thereafter, requests for the book were popping up in Rome and Paris, but no bookseller could ever find it. They conferred with each other, asking if they too had been flooded with requests for I, Libertine, and each and every one was. It was not on any list, so it couldn’t exist, right? But it must, or why else would so many people be looking for it?
But if there was one thing Manhattan “day people” could be counted on for, it was pretension. Since there was suddenly so much hoopla over this I, Libertine novel by Frederick R. Ewing, one bookseller compared him to Proust and proclaimed it was “about time” readers were discovering him. Earl Wilson, a writer for The New York Post, even claimed to have had lunch with the fictional author: “Had lunch with Freddie Ewing today…” The height of the hoax was arguably when I, Libertine was banned in Boston, an accomplishment for any worthwhile piece of literature.
As much as Shepherd took delight in how well his swindle had worked, it also made him lose even more faith in society as a whole since it would leave him nothing real to believe in. Earl Wilson from the Post was rumored to have been in on the joke, but it was Carter Henderson from The Wall Street Journal who would get the better scoop: the truth.
In a phone conversation between Henderson and Shepherd, the writer commended the DJ for hitting on “something very important.” While the notion of “day people” and “night people” were niche definitions believed to have only been understood by the listeners of Shepherd’s late-night radio show, Henderson believed it was a euphemism for an increasingly modern dichotomy: “The believers, and us.” Some had actually seen through the ruse all along, and now someone was finally calling Shepherd on it. “Don’t you think it’s about time to spill the story?” the writer asked him. The DJ conceded.
Dreams Come True, But So Do Nightmares
In an exposé that ran in The Wall Street Journal on August 1, 1956, Shepherd confessed to the hoax. The news made global headlines, allowing “night people” to step out of the shadows and allege that they were laughing at everyone behind their backs the entire time. “What better way to restore the status quo than to shake the Day People’s faith in their organization? And what better place to start than with bookshop clerks whose lists make them the most organized of all?” explained Shepherd in the article.
But even as he admitted to making the whole thing up, the literary world was met with another headscratcher: in the midst of the Wall Street Journal exposé, news broke that the publisher of Ballantine Books was “desperately” trying to secure the paperback rights to I, Libertine. Turns out that Shepherd figured all the fuss was a good excuse to produce an actual book out of the entire ordeal. Along with the Ballantine publisher, Shepherd and his friend Theodore Sturgeon, a science fiction author, helped pull it together.
On September 13, 1956, real-life copies of I, Libertine, published under the name Frederick R. Ewing, appeared on bookstore shelves. Shepherd appeared as the author on the back cover, looking as depraved as possible, although most passages of the actual book are believed to have been written by Sturgeon. And guess what? After concocting an extensive literary ruse to prove that bestseller lists, like the one compiled by The New York Times, were phony, I, Libertine quickly made the NYT Best Seller list. But Shepherd wanted no part in the profits: all of it was said to have been donated to charity.
In an era of conformity and repression, Jean Shepherd’s late-night radio program encouraged its listeners to think outside the box. Although today, the radio personality and his schtick read more as Holden Caufield once removed with a touch of boomer Facebook conspiracy groups, Shepherd’s intentions at the time were arguably admirable: it was less the institution of lists and sales that he encouraged people to challenge, but rather the concept that life is to be lived merely as others tell you to. The great literary hoax of I, Libertine brings to mind the words of Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road: “If being crazy means living life as if it matters, then I don’t care if we’re completely insane.”