How to Run a Con
Austin McConnell: So it’s April of 1956, and radio host, Jean Shepherd, is on a roll during his overnight show on WOR Radio in New York. The latest source of his ire: people who pretend to know everything, the snobs, the posers who fancy themselves scholarly critics, the day-people who blindly follow every manufactured fad, the vain townsfolk who compliment the Emperor’s New Clothes. New York, Shepherd bemoans, is nothing but a society of pseudo-intellectuals bound by lists. Nobody cares about a show unless it’s nominated for a Tony, or a movie until it gets an Oscar nod. Nobody buys a book if it’s not a New York Times Best Seller. But once something gets on a list, suddenly everybody’s got an opinion on it. Everybody becomes an expert. So Jean has an idea, why not play a trick on these know-it-alls and expose them as the frauds they really are? At two o’clock in the morning, Shep hatches a plan with his late night/early morning listeners.
Jean Shepherd: 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?
Austin McConnell: The idea is simple: make up a pretentious sounding novel, written by a pretentious sounding author, create a fake demand, and then see how many supposed scholars of the world suddenly know everything there is to know about it. Over the next few hours, Jean and his loyal listeners invent a fake best seller by the title of I, Libertine, the first volume in a trilogy on 18th century court life. Written by one Frederick R. Ewing, a supposed Oxford graduate and former World War II British commander, currently a civil servant of Rhodesia, where he spends his free time in the pursuits of scholarly writing. I, Libertine is naturally a very scholarly work, set in England during the 1700s. Chronicling the exploits of Lance Courtenay, by day, a respected man about town, by night, an uninhibited rake. Jean Shepherd tasks his audience with this mission: in the morning, walk into a bookstore and ask for a copy of the book. Then sit back and watch the fireworks.
Jean Shepherd: Now you go in, and don’t crack a smile! Don’t do anything. And you’ll walk in and say, “I would like to have a copy of I, Libertine by Frederick Ewing.” And he’ll take out a list, and he’ll look it up, and he’ll see that it is not listed. He will turn to you and say, “There’s no such book.” Then, leave! The next guy that comes in and asks for this, he’ll say, “Uh-uh (negative), it’s on order.” And the third one that comes in, he’s gonna be on his phone calling the distributor! Well, if four hundred and twenty-two bookstores call in, he’s gonna be calling Publishers Weekly! I says, “Now, get out and go! And we’ll sit back and see what happens.”
Austin McConnell: Shepherd’s listeners do as instructed, and before long, the publishing world is in a frenzy. Doubleday gets dozens of calls in the morning for the title. Book sellers all over are stumped by the sudden demand for a book they don’t have on any of their lists. And they slam Publishers Weekly with queries on locating the distributor. Before long, I, Libertine is in such demand that the New York Times Sunday Section places the title on its list of newly published works and the phonies fall for it.
Jean Shepherd: Sure enough, by the next day a guy says, “Y’know”, he says, “For years, this guy in this 8th Street Bookstore with this beard has had me totally buffaloed.” He says, “I went in there today and I said to this guy, ‘I’d like a copy of I, Libertine by Ewing.'” And he says, “He looked up from behind the cash register and said, ‘Ewing! It’s about time the public discovered him.'” And I’m getting these calls from people all over! One woman wrote in and she says she was sitting in her bridge party, and she just casually mentioned, “I’ve been reading I, Libertine.” And three ladies started to discuss it! They not only had read it, they finished it, and two of them didn’t like it! Two weeks later, they’re coming in from all over the country saying, “What’s happening?!”
Austin McConnell: All over, social scenes are filled with people who have an opinion on the book, almost all of whom are, of course, making up that they’ve read it, just to fit in. And Jean Shepherd spends the next few weeks of his overnight program, keeping his listeners up to date on just how absurd the hoax is getting.
Jean Shepherd: A student at Rutgers – he says, “I’m in this ‘History of English Writing’ course.” And he said, “I wrote a term paper on F.R. Ewing: Eclectic Historian.” And it was about a nine-page paper with footnotes, quotes from Ewing’s earlier BBC broadcasts, references. And to think… He sent it to me! And it had a big red thing on the front of it – it said, “Superb research!” He got a B+! And the guy says, he says, “What?! My whole education is probably phony!” And I says, “Wait! Let’s sit back.” I says, “Don’t say anything. Just keep asking.” Well, do you know within four weeks, there was a piece appeared in the Earl Wilson column. It said, “Had lunch with Freddy Ewing on his way to India with his wife, Marjorie.” I’m not kidding you!
Austin McConnell: Scales fall from the eyes of his audience. The experts and critics and supposed academics around them have utterly fallen for the gag, and unknowingly perpetuate the tall tale. The Philadelphia public library opens a card file on author, Frederick Ewing. A New York Times columnist does a write up of the book. The Village Voice reviews it, calling it, “A rousing swashbuckler”, and, “A must-read”. Various newspapers begin printing articles about I, Libertine, offering their intellectual opinions. And before long, the night listeners start to get a pretty good idea of just how many of these list makers, reviewers, and self-proclaimed bookworms are actually total frauds.
Jean Shepherd: By now, I was a little afraid. Y’know, the next thing you know, the President’s gonna mention it.” Y’know, that he loves this book, see. Then I wouldn’t believe in anything!
Austin McConnell: Articles mentioning I, Libertine appear in LIFE, Newsweek, and TIME magazine. Seven weeks into the scheme, it was listed as a nationwide best seller in Rome, Paris, and London. Then finally, August rolls around, and Shepherd gets a call from a Wall Street Journal reporter who has spent the better part of the past few months trying to get to the bottom of I, Libertine. That’s right, one reporter, finally, brave enough to go against the grain, realize the book is a total lie, and track down its origins. He convinces Jean to go on record. And the following day, the story breaks. Front page, middle section, the Emperor has no clothes. I, Libertine doesn’t exist. And anyone claiming to have read it were lying to follow the trend.
So ask yourself this, why did it take so long for folks to realize the papers and literary critics were lying to them? Why was everybody lying to each other? And if you were in New York in 1956, and somebody asked what you thought about the new smash hit, Ewing’s I, Libertine, what would you have said? Maybe the most important question, what are the I, Libertines everyone’s reading today?
Oh, by the way, the story does have a bit of a lighter ending. The whole business was such a talk around the world that Shepherd was quickly approached by a publishing house that offered to write an actual I, Libertine book to capitalize on the frenzy. By the middle of September, I, Libertine from author, Theodore Sturgeon, using the pen name, Frederick Ewing, hit shelves and became an actual best seller. The author photo on the inside cover, none other than Jean Shepherd, doing his very best author impression, trying to look as dissolute as possible. Shepherd made sure that the book’s proceeds went to charity.
THANK YOU TO ALERT RABBIT-HOLER JEFF SEXTON
FOR BRINGING THIS TO STORY TO OUR ATTENTION