Everyone knows you can’t judge a book by its cover. But the aphorism got an extra dose of validity in 1969, when Penelope Ashe, a bored Long Island housewife, wrote the trashy sensation Naked Came the Stranger.
As part of her book tour, Ashe appeared on talk shows and made the bookstore rounds. But Ashe wasn’t what her book jacket claimed. The author was as fictional as the novel she supposedly wrote—and 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.”
McGrady co-edited the project with his Newsday colleague Harvey Aronson, and among the other collaborators were well-known writers including 1965 Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Goltz, 1970 Pulitzer Prize winner Robert W. Greene, and journalist Marilyn Berger.
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, because they were originally too well-written.
In 1969, an independent publisher, Lyle Stuart, then known for controversial books, many with sexual content, released the first edition of Naked Came the Stranger, with the part of Penelope Ashe played by McGrady’s sister-in-law. According to Stuart, he appropriated the cover photo (a kneeling nude woman with very long hair down her back, photographed from behind) from a Hungarian nudist magazine; the model and photographer later demanded and received payment.
Gillian and William Blake are the hosts of a popular New York City breakfast radio chat show, The Billy & Gilly Show, where they play the perfect couple. When Gillian finds out that her husband is having an affair, she decides to cheat on him with a variety of men from their Long Island neighborhood. Most of the book is taken up by vignettes describing Gilly's adventures with a variety of men, from a progressive rabbi to a mobster crooner.
* On the dedication page: "To Daddy."
* "She was driving, floating actually, toward her new house, floating past the freshly butchered lawns dotted with the twisted golden butts that were the year's first fallen leaves, past the homes built low and the swimming pools and the kempt hedges and all the trappings that went into the unincorporated village of King's Neck."
* "Her skin, the color of India tea at summer's end, flowed nicely over a slender frame. The breasts were small but she wore them well at age twenty-nine. Her legs were superbly designed. The hips, though trim, were deceptively full."
* "She knew she had aroused the creature in the torn paint-spattered T-shirt."
* "I've fucked more broads than the sultan of Baghdad or somewhere. And I've fucked your kind before. You broads who think your ass is made of gold because you went to college."
* "With that he thrust Gillian back onto the bed and made a flying leap with the clear intent of pinning her down to stay. But she swerved to one side and the holy man, stiff with lust, came down standard-first on the bedpost. For a full two minutes he did not rise; he lay there, crumpled up, hissing incoherently."
* "Then he pulled off the black net panties – there was a cellophane sound as they were peeled past her knees."
* "She was at that moment gently massaging him at his point of greatest altitude with a bottle of pink Johnson & Johnson baby lotion."
* "Then methodically she drained him a second time, emptied him, calmed him and gentled him."
* "She stretched the tiny member to its full length, and it seemed to shrink even more in embarrassment."
* "But he knew nothing would happen. Not with a woman. He simply couldn't." (He could.)
Naked Came the Stranger is more fun to read about than it is to read. In fact, reading it is a chore. Not only are the mores of the period awkward by today's standards, the book itself is deliberately and methodically awful. Oh, there are moments. Like when Gilly asks a pornographer where he gets all his kinky ideas and he replies: "Like every other writer, I draw from the human condition." But on the whole, McGrady did a thorough job of eradicating anything of value from the manuscript.
To the journalist’s dismay, his cynical ploy worked. The media was all too fascinated with the salacious daydreams of a “demure housewife” author.
Book reviewers in major markets, including Stern, Le Monde, and the New York Times, used phrases like "sizzling" and "thought-provoking" and compared the ersatz Penelope Ashe to John Updike and Philip Roth. She appeared on talk shows, was interviewed about sexual liberation in women's magazines, and advised aspiring writers to impale themselves on their typewriters. 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 McGrady revealed his hoax a few months later, the novel had already moved 20,000 copies. Far from sinking the book’s prospects, the 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.”
In 1970 McGrady published Stranger Than Naked, or How to Write Dirty Books for Fun and Profit which told the story of the hoax.
Naked Came the Stranger later became the basis for an X-rated film in 1975 directed by Radley Metzger and starring Darby Lloyd Rains. As reported by the Washington Post, "Mr. McGrady and the other writers had nothing to do with a hardcore 1975 film with the same title. They did, however, see the movie at a Times Square theater. During one vivid scene, Aronson told the Charlotte Observer, someone shouted 'Author, Author!' 'Seventeen of us stood up.'"
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