Naked comes the stranger, once again

1960s authors fondly recall their steamy, sexy literary prank, recently reissued

Publishing

February 22, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun Staff

They are mostly old coots now, gone gray, gone bald, in some cases simply gone. They're a few steps slower than they were in the 1960s, when newspapers were more playful places to be; not as prone to imbibe; and far less likely to engage in the kind of mischief that saw them pull off, if not the literary hoax of the century, at least a darn good prank.

But 38 years ago -- before they went on to far more distinguished journalistic achievements, before any had retired or, as six have, died -- they all had the same thing on their minds:

Sex.

Steamy, sordid, outrageous, page-turning sex.

For one week in the summer of 1966, 24 members of the staff of the Long Island newspaper Newsday, accepted the challenge of a colleague to write, as poorly as possible, a chapter of prose so engorged, so oozing, so tantalizingly brimming with sex that any other concerns -- plot, character development, redeeming social value -- were essentially moot.

"There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex," the ringleader, a columnist named Mike McGrady, explained in a memo a day after the idea was hatched during a boozy evening at a nearby tavern. "Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion."

The plan was to assemble the chapters into a book, get it published under a phony name and laugh all the way to the bank. The authors, meanwhile, would remain in the background, coolly incognito, as it rose up the best-seller list and proved McGrady's contention: that literary quality meant nothing -- and sex meant all -- when it came to book sales.

The plan worked, and the phenomenon that was Naked Came the Stranger was born.

Long before Super Bowl viewers were shocked by a singer's exposed breast, before Hustler and Internet porn and Howard Stern, the not-so-surprising premise that sex sells -- and that shocking sex sells even better -- was proven by a ragtag group of Long Island journalists banging on manual typewriters.

Now, almost 40 years later, the book is back, just as naked, maybe a little less strange. It was reissued recently as a "Cult Classic" by Barricade Books, owned by the same man who originally published it, Lyle Stuart.

By today's standards, it all seems somewhat less naughty -- both the sex depicted and the hoax itself. And compared with more recent journalism scandals (Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass et. al.), the con job was almost childishly pure. The Newsday staffers at least managed to confine their fiction-writing skills to the realm of fiction.

A best seller of 1969

The authors -- 22 men and three women -- were supplied by McGrady with a basic story line and a central character: Gillian Blake, co-host of a morning radio show with her husband, learns that he is cheating on her and decides to get even -- and then some. Each chapter would chronicle another in her series of suburban sexual conquests.

The co-authors took it from there, creating settings that varied from motel room to toll booth, props that ranged from wheelchair to ice cube, and characters that ran the gamut from rabbi to mobster to hippie to pornographer.

McGrady and his co-editor, fellow columnist Harvey Aronson, spent the next 18 months stringing the chapters together, and in 1968, the edited manuscript of Naked Came the Stranger was presented to a publisher via a fictitious author, Penelope Ashe, supposedly a Long Island housewife determined to become the next Jacqueline Susann.

With help from the publisher (one of the few in on the joke), they came up with a cover -- a kneeling naked woman, photographed from behind, with lipstick marks tallying her promiscuous escapades.

The book was released in 1969; amid a heavy advertising campaign, it inched its way toward The New York Times best-seller list. Once the hoax was revealed, it climbed even higher, rising to No. 4. It was the seventh best-selling novel of 1969, according to Publisher's Weekly.

This time around, the reissued book is not setting any sales records. But it did rate a review last month in the Village Voice, which called it "perfectly realized awfulness."

Some of the 19 surviving authors -- the youngest of whom are in their mid-60s -- are promoting the book in a limited way, though more for the sake of nostalgia than profits. Several are expected at a Long Island bookstore signing this week. They don't all agree on their joint contribution to the literary world -- the quality of its writing, its lasting significance, or even whether it's what they want to be remembered for. But all have fond recollections of having pulled a fast one on the literary world.

"We basically were a bunch of house-husbands," said McGrady, now 70 and living in Washington state. "We didn't lead glamorous, sexy lives. We just let our imaginations run wild."

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