Everyone knows the adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” In 1969 that aphorism got an extra dose of validity when Penelope Ashe, a bored housewife from Long Island, NY, wrote the trashy sensation Naked Came the Stranger.
As part of her book tour, she appeared on talk shows and made the bookstore rounds. But the Long Island housewife was anything but. She certainly wasn’t what her book jacket claimed. Penelope Ashe was as fictional as the novel she supposedly wrote. In reality, both were the work of Mike McGrady, a Newsday columnist disgusted with the lurid state of the modern bestseller. Instead of complaining, he decided to expose the problem by writing a book of zero redeeming social value and even less literary merit.
He enlisted the help of 24 Newsday colleagues, tasking each with a chapter, and instructed them that there should be “an unremitting emphasis on sex.” He also warned that “true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.” Once McGrady had the smutty chapters in hand (which included acrobatic trysts in tollbooths, encounters with progressive rabbis, and cameos by Shetland ponies), he painstakingly edited the prose to make it worse. In 1969, an independent publisher released the first edition of Naked Came the Stranger, with the part of Penelope Ashe played by McGrady’s sister-in-law.
To the McGrady’s dismay, his cynical ploy worked. The media was all too fascinated with the salacious daydreams of the “demure housewife” turned author. And though The New York Times wrote, “In the category of erotic fantasy, this one rates about a C,” the public didn’t mind. By the time the journalist revealed his hoax a few months later, the novel had already moved 20,000 copies. Far from sinking the book’s prospects, the negative press pushed sales even higher. By the end of the year, there were more than 100,000 copies in print, and the novel had spent 13 weeks on the Times’s bestseller list. As of 2012, the tome had sold nearly 400,000 copies, mostly to readers who were in on the joke. But in 1990, McGrady told Newsday he couldn’t stop thinking about those first sales: “What has always worried me are the 20,000 people who bought it before the hoax was exposed.”
–brought to you by mental floss