The 1969 literary hoax that became a bestseller
Richard Nixon,Jumbo jet,Concorde,Apollo 11,Woodstock,the Manson Family rampage,colour TV,Unix,Led Zeppelin,Monty Python,Butch Cassidy,Midnight Cowboy,the Beatles frozen in motion crossing Abbey Road,My Lai in the global memory the watershed year of 1969 means Anglo-American politics,technology,entertainment and warfare. But it was a watershed year for English language publishing,too. The bestsellers included Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse Five,Ursula K Le Guins The Left Hand of Darkness,Desmond Morris The Human Zoo,Henri Charrières Papillon,Paul Gallicos The Poseidon Adventure,Ray Bradburys I Sing the Body Electric,AJ Cronins A Pocketful of Rye,John Cheevers Bullet Park,John Fowles The French Lieutenants Woman,VS Naipauls A House for Mr Biswas,Philip Roths Portnoys Complaint,Irwin Shaws Rich Man,Poor Man and,brooding over them all,Mario Puzos The Godfather.
But one 1969 hit,which spent 13 weeks straight on the New York Times bestseller list,has been conveniently forgotten because it embarrassed the literary establishment. Not because it was soft porn (which it was) but because it took the pants off the unholy nexus of publishers,agents,PR-wallahs,jacket blurb-wallahs,festival-baazes and book review editors who conspire to mug the reading public by promoting certain books and authors at the expense of others,for reasons which have nothing to do with literary value.
Though forgotten now,Penelope Ashes Naked Came the Stranger was a cult hit. Interestingly,it had a character in common with that years blockbuster,The Godfather. At a suburban party in the curiously named Kings Neck,41 minutes from Manhattan and within sight (nine miles,through leaves) of the Connecticut shoreline, radio stars William and Gillian Blake are treated to a surprise performance by rising Mafia-sponsored crooner Johnny Alonga. The resemblance to Mario Puzos Johnny Fontane,who sang at a Corleone wedding,is remarkable. Quite obviously,both Johnnies were Frank Sinatra.
But the identity of the author,Penelope Ashe,was obscure. She came out of nowhere,a one-book wonder like Harper Lee,who had shot her solitary bolt nine years earlier (and who is now suing her agent over To Kill a Mockingbird). And unlike Lee,she did not keep. She fell apart within the year,when she started receiving rather fat royalty cheques. That must have felt weird,because she was actually other people. They came out on the David Frost Show. Nineteen male journalists filed onto the set,to be introduced as Penelope Ashe. Five women hacks kept away,perhaps not wishing to be identified as porn writers. The book was an elaborate literary hoax perpetrated by two dozen frustrated journalists,including two Pulitzer winners.
Perhaps you remember that era in Anglo-American publishing,when bestseller lists were dominated by Linda Goodman,Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins. Perhaps you can empathise with the bitter angst of the books editors of newspapers who were persuaded to run enthusiastic reviews of A Lotus for Miss Quon and The Other Side of Midnight as valuable sociological texts investigating the crucible of modern living.
The quote is from Naked Came the Stranger,actually. Every weekday at five seconds past nine,a radio announcer in Manhattan introduces the Billy and Gilly Show,featuring William Blake and his wife Gillian,New Yorks sweethearts on the air,as a frank and open look into the reality of marriage in the crucible of modern living. But having invested $675 in a gumshoe,Gilly discovers that Billy is cheating on her. Which means that he is also cheating on the 8 lakh adoring New Yorkers who tune into their programme,an act of breathtaking infidelity.
Mulling over this revelation,as she drives into her circular driveway,mashed gravel,one and a half acres,imitation Tudor,water view,$85,000 (expensive at 1969 prices),Gillian dreads the evening party hosted by the neighbourhood wops,Italian immigrants who are cheap and tawdry. (Dont get mad,its 1969.) She is forced to go to the party by her husband,who has spent the more interesting part of his day mounting the down elevator from his office,mounting the downtown taxi,mounting a mousy twenty-two-year-old girl with remarkable breasts. There,while meeting a wide spectrum of male suburbans,she begins to plot sexual revenge.
This trashy but sleek true confessions book was commissioned by Newsday journalists Mike McGrady and Harvey Aronson,who wanted to show that American literature was so vulgar that any bozo could string together a literary hit out of some sexual encounters. They succeeded. Naked Came the Stranger was a palpable hit. Today,after swallowing Fifty Shades,maybe the world is ready for its next dose of sexual hoax.