I, Libertine

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I, Libertine
I, Libertine (book cover).jpg
Cover of first edition (paperback)
Author Frederick R. Ewing
(Theodore Sturgeon)
Cover artist Frank Kelly Freas
Country United States
Language English
Genre Fake novel, Literary hoax
Publisher Ballantine Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 151

I, Libertine was a literary hoax novel that began as a practical joke by late-night radio raconteur Jean Shepherd.

Creation of the hoax[edit]

Shepherd was highly annoyed at the way that the bestseller lists were being compiled in the mid-1950s. These lists were determined not only from sales figures but also from the number of requests for new and upcoming books at bookstores. Shepherd urged his listeners to enter bookstores and ask for a book that did not exist. He fabricated the author (Frederick R. Ewing) of this imaginary novel, concocted a title (I, Libertine), and outlined a basic plot for his listeners to use on skeptical or confused bookstore clerks. Fans of the show eventually took it further, planting references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to it being listed on The New York Times Best Seller list.


Bookstores became interested in carrying Ewing's novel, which allegedly had been banned in Boston. When publisher Ian Ballantine, novelist Theodore Sturgeon, and Shepherd met for lunch, Ballantine hired Sturgeon to write a novel based on Shepherd's outline. Betty Ballantine completed the final chapter after Sturgeon fell exhausted asleep on the Ballantines' couch, having tried to meet the deadline in one marathon typing session. On September 13, 1956, Ballantine Books published I, Libertine simultaneously in hardcover and paperback editions with Shepherd seen looking as dissolute as possible, as Ewing, in the back cover author's photograph. The proceeds were donated to charity.[1]

A few weeks before publication, The Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax, already an open secret.[2]


Rife with jokes and wordplay, the novel can still be read as an entertaining historical romance. It tells the story of a social climber who styles himself Lance Courtenay, and most of the plot is closely based on the historical personage Elizabeth Chudleigh. An afterword states "The story of Elizabeth Chudleigh is substantially true ... ." which could easily be taken as part of the hoax, but the deception is double, for the seemingly fantastic story of Elizabeth Chudleigh actually is true.[3]

Cover painting[edit]

The front cover displays a quote: "'Gadzooks,' quoth I, 'but here's a saucy bawd!'". The cover painting by Frank Kelly Freas includes hidden images and inside jokes: The sign on the tavern, Fish & Staff, has a shepherd's staff and an image of a sturgeon, referencing both Sturgeon and Shepherd. A portion of the word often spoken on the air by Shepherd – "Excelsior!" – can be seen on the paperback cover in a triangular area at extreme left, where it is part of the decoration on the coach door. The hardcover dust jacket, with more of the illustration to the left, shows the entire word.

See also[edit]

  • J. R. Hartley – author of another fictitious book, written after it became famous.


  1. ^ An interview with Shepherd on the hoax from Long John Nebel's radio show Long John Nebel's radio show
  2. ^ Henderson, Carter. "Ballantine Books Makes Hoax Come True". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 27 April 2002. Retrieved 27 February 2014. 
  3. ^ T. H. White, The Age of Scandal, Faber & Faber, 2011, ISBN 978-0571274765

External links[edit]