The Radio Host Who Urged Listeners To Buy a Book That Didn’t Exist

In the 1950s, a DJ named Jean Shepherd hosted a late-night radio show on New York’s WOR that was unlike any before or since. On these broadcasts, he delivered dense, cerebral monologues, sprinkled with pop-culture tidbits and vivid stretches of expert storytelling. Shepherd inspired fierce loyalty in his listeners who would tune in to listen to him in the middle of the night. In fact, they were so loyal that when he urged them, night after night, to rush to their local bookstores and buy a book called “I, Libertine” by Frederick R. Ewing, which was a fake book he made up, they did exactly as they were told, invading bookshops in the hundreds to seek their copy. The initial requests were easy to dismiss, but once two or three people had stopped by their local bookstore asking for the book, bookstores were forced to take notice. Confused bookstore workers called one another, each asking the next if they had heard of the book or had any idea where copies could be found. The book wasn’t on any lists, but it had to be somewhere, right? At the height of the hoax, Shepherd received a call from Carter Henderson, a writer at the Wall Street Journal, who wanted to do a story on the book. Shepherd gave his consent to the story and an exposé laying out the entire story of the fake book was published in the journal’s afternoon edition on August 1, 1956. It hit the stands at 3 p.m., and by 3:05 all hell broke loose. Over the next week, accounts of the hoax appeared around the globe. In the end, author Theodore Sturgeon decided to write a novel entitled “I, Libertine.” That allowed the public to dismiss the hoax as a cheap publicity stunt whose true intent had always been to sell a book. Embittered by an unceremonious dismissal from WOR, Shepherd denigrated his work there at every opportunity thereafter, attempting to consign his radio work to a dark corner where it would never be discussed again.