The Story of "I,
by Bob Kaye
Let me start by saying that I am a musician and not a writer,
I hope you forgive my humble attempts at relating this great
story, but someone had to do it. The info that I am about to
relate is pretty much verbatim, as I culled it from a January
1968 tape of Shep being interviewed on The Long John Nebel Show
on WOR in New York.
When Jean Shepherd first came to New York from the midwest, he
had a very different idea about what radio should be. At that
time, (and especially now) radio was highly formatted. Back in
the early 50's there were still radio-dramas held over from the
40's, but mostly djs were the prevailing format. Shep's idea
of radio was to treat it like a blank page, in which to express
his ideas, about whatever. The fact that he was on all night
was a strong influence on how the show developed. Up until then,
the 12-5 am slot was for background (what would today be called
"elevator") music. WOR didn't think it paid to even
keep the studio open so they put Shep out at the transmitter
in Carteret, NJ!
Well, this was the very beginning of what became known as "black
comedy ". Satire was unknown. Comics like Mort Sahl,
Lenny Bruce, and Shelley Berman were not on the scene yet. Shep
was a true revolutionary in this medium.
Anyway, as Shep said, "New York was a city that was entirely
run by lists." Nobody dared go to the theater without reading
ten reviews first! If Clive Barnes said the show was good, it
was good. "Even if you fell asleep in the first act, you
somehow felt that it was your fault!
Did it ever occur to you that lists are compiled by mortals?
When the Oscar is awarded for Best Picture was it really the
Best Picture? Well, everyone is influenced by these critics.
You may laugh at the people who read the Daily News, but then
YOU believe in the New York Times !"
"Did ever occur to you that the guy responsible for compiling
these lists was some little guy who was stuck for four years
doing obituaries. Now it's his job is to call bookstores and
find out what's selling this week.
Well, Fred Applerot recently bought 500 copies of "Who Shot
John", and he still has 497 copies on the shelf. The guy
calls and asks what's hot? 'WHO SHOT JOHN"! BIG HIT! Well,
the little guy puts it on his list and soon everyone goes out
and buys it!"
"At 3:00 am the people who believe in lists are asleep.
These are the people who get all the latest hit show tickets.
Anyone still up at 3 am secretly has some doubts. There are only
two kinds of people. Us and Them. And they don't know that we
It was about this time that Shepherd created a term which became
part of the language. "Like hot diggety dog!, or Gosh!"
He said that there were two kinds of people. First, there was
the guy who believed in day time. He felt most alive from 8-6.
Meetings, lunches, deals, that was his thing. When he came home
and flopped in front of the tv with a beer, it was dead time.
Over. To sleep.
Then there's the other guy. His time is at 2 or 3am. He might
still have to get up at 7 am but at 3 am, that is when he is
in his own private world. He is a NIGHT PERSON.
The point was that these two types rarely meet, or know much
about the other's world. (Shep was given credit in The American
Dictionary of Slang and Usage for creating the terms "Night
People and Day People".)
"Now, these two groups are constantly battling. but they
don't know that they are!"
The Day People truly believe in lists. And prices. A $20 ticket
HAS to be better than a $1 ticket. The Top Ten Movies MUST be
better than the Second Ten! "Now, when this guy turns on
my show, he thinks we're crazy! What is that idiot talking about?
Then he puts on WPAT (Muzak), the opiate for the masses."
At about 2 am one night, Shep said to his listeners, "let's
all go to the local book stores tomorrow and ask for a book,
that we, the Night People, know doesn't exist." Since it
was a communal thing, he asked the listeners for suggestions
for a title. Finally, at about 4:30 am someone came up with "I,
Libertine". Shep then created an author, Frederick R. Ewing,
formerly a British Commander in World War II, now a civil servant
in Rhodesia, married to Marjorie, a horsewoman from the North
Country. He was best known for his BBC broadcasts, on 18th century
erotica. He was published by Excelsior Press, an imprint of Cambridge
University. Now who's gonna argue with that? British--Cambridge--a
wife named Marjorie?
So what's next? The first guy walks into the store and asks for
"I, Libertine". The owner says he never heard of it.
Man number two walks in asking for it. Now he says "it's
on order." The next guy comes in. Now he's on the phone
to the distributor. " Well, after 350 more guys ask for
it, Publisher's Weekly is in shambles!"
You must remember that the listeners KNEW that this was a nonexistent
By the next day, reports started to come back. One guy said:
"For years this guy in the 8th Street Bookshop had me buffaloed.
You got the feeling that HE actually wrote Kierkegaard! That
he was behind Spinoza! If I mentioned Proust he would say, 'the
trouble with Proust was that he never matured.' So I asked him
about Ewing and "I, Libertine". 'It's about time the
public discovered him!' I had him! It was great!
A woman at her bridge party mentioned it. Immediately a discussion
broke out and three women decided that they hated it!
Airline pilots, who were listeners, started asking for it all
over the world. Then a kid who was going to Rutgers wrote Shep:
"I'm taking this course in the History of English Writing.
I did my term paper on F. R. Ewing, British Historian, with footnotes
and quotes from the BBC broadcasts. I got a B+ and the professor
wrote 'Superb Research!' My God, maybe there was no Chaucer!
It could have been some guy 400 years ago putting on the whole
Then, in Earl Wilson's column appeared a blurb, "had lunch
with Freddy Ewing yesterday." The PR people who fed the
columns were also Shep listeners! It was even reviewed by one
of the major book supplements of the time! The reviewers were
also fans, and Shep told all the listeners to "put your
little hooks in, wherever you can."
As Shep said, "I felt like a guy at the bottom of a mountain
who threw a couple of pebbles up and suddenly a 400 trillion
ton avalanche falls on him!" Comments continued to appear
all over in newspapers. One guy's boss asked him what he thought
of the book. Did he read it? "What could I say?"
Shep said he was afraid the the President would mention it. "Then
I wouldn't believe in anything!"
There were articles in Life, Newsweek and Time, however the ultimate
was yet to come.
It was placed on the proscribed list by the Arch Diocese of Boston!
Banned in Boston!! At the end of the 7th week it was on a nation-wide
best-seller list! It was now a best seller in Rome, Paris, London.
Remember, the people asking for this KNEW that it didn't exist.
On a hot, humid August day, Shep got a call from a reporter on
the Wall Street Journal. He told him that he thought it was time
to break the story. He said, go ahead. The following day, the
story came out-front page, middle section. It hit the newsstands
at about 3:00 pm.
"At 3:01 pm about six countries called. It became a world-wide
It was also one of the only stories that was reprinted word for
word by Pravda! Remember, that at no time was there any PR done
for this. As Shep would say, "It was the beginning of an
attitude that people have had up to today. People up until then
never questioned politicians or Big Government like they do now."
There was an amazing follow up to this tale. After the story
broke, Shep was having lunch with the late, great writer, Theodore
Sturgeon. "Ted said that Ian Ballantine was running all
over the world looking for the paperback rights to "I, Libertine".
I told him I'd introduce you to him." Well, they all got
together over lunch. Shep, with Ted Sturgeon, knocked out the
book, and it really then became a best seller! (Incidentally,
all the profits went to charity.)
I happened to be lucky enough
to find a copy years ago in a used book shop, and still have
it. Autographed by Shep, no less! The cover was illustrated by
Kelly Freas, who you might remember as one of the main Alfred
E. Neuman artists over at Mad.
As Shepherd later said, "Few touched on the real point of
the story. Most papers got it wrong, and said things like-'Disk
jockey sells non-existent book to listeners'. It was the LISTENERS
who sold a non-existent book the to WORLD! Only The Wall Street
Journal, and the overseas press got it right." The Day People
didn't like being had.
The London Daily Express wrote of it as one of the greatest hoaxes
of all time.
Well, there you have it. At least what I know about it. You see,
there's more to Jean Shepherd then nostalgic Christmas Stories.
Judging from the response that Jim Sadur and I have been receiving
from our Shepherd pages, maybe someone out there would consider
playing on the air, or selling some of those old radio shows.
Lots of folks would sure be interested.
Keep your knees loose, gang.