When I was a young child growing up outside of New York City one of the most popular late-night radio personalitues was the wonderful raconteur Jean Shepard. Although he became better known for writing the classic holiday film A Christmas Story, I will always remember him as a story teller on the radio. I recently learned about a hilarious literary hoax that Shepard perpetrated in 1956.
Irritated at the way bestseller lists were compiled Shepherd asked his listeners to visit bookstores and request a nonexistent book, I, Libertine, by the imaginary author Frederick R. Ewing. The large number of requests drove the title onto the New York Times bestseller list, and, encouraged by its popularity, bookstores began to order the novel. So Shepherd and publisher Ian Ballantine got the sci-fi writer and novelist Theodore Sturgeon to write the book, following the plot that Shepherd had described to his listeners.
Ballantine Books published the novel in hardcover and paperback in September 1956, using a photo of Shepherd in place of the fictious Ewing on the rear cover, and donated the proceeds to charity.
The front cover displays a quote: “‘Gadzooks,’ quoth I, ‘but here’s a saucy bawd!'”. The cover painting by Frank Kelly Freas includes hidden images and inside jokes: The sign on the tavern, Fish & Staff, has a shepherd’s staff and an image of a sturgeon, referencing both Sturgeon and Shepherd. A portion of the word often spoken on the air by Shepherd – “Excelsior!” – can be seen on the paperback cover in a triangular area at extreme left, where it is part of the decoration on the coach door. The entire word is visible on the hardcover dust jacket, which features more of the illustration.