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Naked comes the stranger, once again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Over the years, the book has had a slew of imitators: In Florida, a group of 13 writers including Dave Barry and Elmore Leonard, wrote Naked Came the Manatee. Thirteen Illinois writers penned Naked Came the Farmer. There was also Naked Came the Sasquatch, Naked Came the Plowman and Naked Came the Phoenix, written by 13 mystery novelists.

"I know there are some who would say, 'Oh God, we really proved something' or 'The writing was fantastic,' " said Aronson, McGrady's co-editor. "It was crappy writing, and I think the disclosure of the hoax is what made it a best seller. I'm not sure it proved anything other than people like junk."

Launched over drinks

Three names dominated the best-seller lists in the late 1960s -- Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace and Harold Robbins, all of whom were churning out steamy, sex-peppered novels. Newsday columnist McGrady had interviewed them all, and found their success "extremely depressing."

"The amount of money they were making was criminal," McGrady said, "and I didn't see any reason we shouldn't make that kind of money."

Over drinks in a Long Island restaurant, McGrady talked up the idea with other Newsday staffers. That night, he wrote a memo, inviting all interested staffers to submit, within a week, a chapter of 2,500 words.

Among those taking up the challenge were past and future Pulitzer-Prize winners: Gene Goltz, now deceased, and Bob Greene, Newsday's investigative reporting maestro. He wrote his chapter, about Gillian's dalliance with a mobster, while sitting at his desk, drinking beer.

Bob Mayer, a reporter, wrote his chapter in four hours, sitting in his shorts in his hot basement apartment. (It was deemed too good, and combined with three other chapters to form the book's ending.) George Vecsey, now a New York Times sports columnist, whipped out his chapter the fastest. It took him about an hour, he recalled. Aronson took a full week, off and on, to write his -- about Melvin Corby, a meek real estate lawyer, unsatisfied in his marriage yet incapable of adultery, the only character in the book thus afflicted.

"It's was hard to write good bad writing," Aronson said. Especially when it came to sex. "We knew about as much about sex in those days as we knew about fettuccine."

A break from bad news

When the book was released, its fake author began a book tour. It wasn't long before suspicions began to arise.

"People began to pick up on it," McGrady said. The publisher was running advertisements in The New York Times that featured the actual authors of specific chapters disguised as the characters they'd created.

"I denied it as long as I could," McGrady said. "I made all kinds of Faustian bargains -- 'hold off on the story and I'll give it to you exclusively.' I had about 40 people sitting on the story."

Then a Wall Street Journal reporter decided to expose the hoax, McGrady said. But before he could, McGrady called the Associated Press, assuring the news would be distributed to newspapers nationwide. The next morning, the hoax was on front pages across the country. Telephone calls flooded the Newsday office; CBS sent a helicopter to take some of the writers to an interview with Walter Cronkite.

"The news had been unrelievedly drab," McGrady said. "There was terrible news from Vietnam day after day after day. The day the story broke, I think editors everywhere were looking for a break in the monotony."

Once the profits were divided, each of the writers made more than $5,000. The book was eventually reprinted in 13 languages, and was made into a movie in 1975 -- a "disgusting" hard-core porn movie that most of the writers would rather forget, Aronson said. Apart from that, though, the experience was a "lark," said Vecsey. "It was grand fun to watch the thing happen, like Tom and Huck witnessing Tom's funeral from the choir loft of the church."

Creating Penelope

McGrady interviewed several women to play the part of author "Penelope Ashe," including a cocktail waitress, a model and an exotic dancer who, when he asked for her "favorite author," answered, "Godfrey."

But the role went to Billie Cook, his sister-in-law, a 38-year-old mother of six who worked as a reporter at a small Long Island newspaper and had written an unpublished novel of her own.

The ruse, McGrady told her, would involve posing for an author's photo, giving interviews and generally portraying Ashe as an ambitious, sexually liberated novelist. Cook left her job to promote the book and, after some coaching by McGrady and Aronson, made numerous television and radio appearances.

"Michael practiced with me, but I guess I'm really a ham at heart," Cook says now. "Once I did the first show, it came easy."

After the hoax was revealed, her fame faded, but she continued to write -- as Penelope Ashe. She authored an aphrodisiac cookbook called The Naked Chef; Viva La Difference, a book about sexual practices; and articles for numerous magazines, including Penthouse.

Taking part in the hoax probably helped her writing career, said Cook, now a yacht broker in Florida. As for the hoax itself, she said: "It proved that if you go about it the right way you can sell anything to anybody."

Maverick publisher

The bad boy of publishing is 82 now.

Back then, when McGrady stepped into the Fort Lee, N.J., office of Lyle Stuart, to interview him for Newsday, this is what he saw:

"A girl singing, ringing telephones, fish in an aquarium, poster-sized photographs of Che Guevara and two large cardboard cartons filled with books and carefully labeled, 'Sex Soft' and 'Sex Hard.' "

Known as a maverick, a muckraker and a man willing to push free speech to its limits -- some say beyond -- Stuart was the publisher of The Anarchist's Cookbook, which describes how to build bombs, set booby traps and cut throats; Dirty Work, a 1978 book that exposed 700 government agents in western Europe; The Turner Diaries, a racist novel said to have served as the blueprint for the Oklahoma City bombing; and Confessions of a Pedophile, based on interviews with a man who claims to have abused 1,200 boys.

For the Stuart of 1969, publishing yet another sex book was no big deal -- he also came out with The Sensuous Woman that year -- but the chance to be in on a hoax appealed to him.

"I was doing sex books. I was exposing J. Edgar Hoover. I was doing a lot of stuff that got people shocked," he recalled. "So when [McGrady] came to me ... and said, 'A bunch of us have done a gag book and we don't know how to market it,' I said, 'Let me see it.' "

The book immediately sold well; Stuart said he sold paperback rights even before it was unveiled as a hoax. The publicity that followed that revelation, though, was "a publisher's dream," he said. The story ran on front pages across the country.

The new release of Naked Came the Stranger is the latest in a line of "cult classics" published by Stuart's current imprint, Barricade Books, including I Cover the Waterfront, Sex and the Single Girl, and Stuart's own The Secret Life of Walter Winchell.

Stuart knows a thing or two about comebacks.

He started Lyle Stuart Inc. in 1956 with just $8,000 he'd won in a libel suit against newspaper columnist Walter Winchell.

In 1989, he sold it for $12.5 million and retired, but only for about a year. At 70, bored with a life of leisure, he started Barricade Books, where, despite declaring bankruptcy after losing a $3 million libel judgment to casino owner Steve Wynn, he says he expects to keep publishing -- " 'til they carry me out."

Where they are now

Late last year, former Newsday editor Bill McIlwain was going through the mail at his home in North Carolina when he came across a letter from his old colleague McGrady.

"Mike McGrady wrote everybody -- everybody who was still alive -- and said Lyle Stuart was going to publish the book again. He got a $1,000 advance, so we each got about $40."

McIlwain, before the spoof, had published one novel. After it, he went on to write A Farewell to Alcohol, a memoir of his battle with alcoholism. Now 78, he has another novel he's trying to get published. But he says his participation in Naked Came the Stranger is likely the most profitable writing he has ever done.

Like the other writers, he is proud, in a way, of having been in on the hoax, and even lists Naked Came the Stranger in his Who's Who entry. Then again, he also lists being dorm leader at a rehabilitation center.

George Vecsey, a sports columnist for The New York Times, has been one of the more prolific of Naked's 25 writers, penning eight children's books and 11 other books, including one that was made into a movie: Coal Miner's Daughter.

"It wasn't all that bad," he says now of Naked Came the Stranger. "I have read worse -- any time I poke around the Top 10 section of Barnes & Noble."

Bob Mayer moved to Santa Fe, N.M., to write books. It took him five years to get published. His first novel, Superfolks, remains the best-selling of the seven he's published.

At 64, Mayer is still writing, but finding it harder to get published in a world where shortened attention spans and desire for profits have "conspired to favor schlock over better books."

That's exactly what the Newsday hoax proved 35 years ago, Mayer acknowledged, but things have only gone downhill since then.

"In the past few decades," he said, "publishers have only promoted potential best sellers, at the expense of more literary works." he said. "The most common all-purpose rejection slip these days is that a manuscript is not enough of a page-turner."

Harvey Aronson also left Newsday to write books -- they include High Hopes: The Amityville Murders, The Killing of Joey Gallo, The Golden Shore and The Defense Never Rests, with F. Lee Bailey -- but returned to the newspaper 21 years ago. He doubts the hoax he took part in then could occur today.

"I don't think it could happen the same way ... because of the corporate nature of journalism in our time. I don't think the management of most papers would look very favorably on it," he said

As for Mike McGrady, he now lives in a small town on Puget Sound, where he continues to write, most recently completing a book on an opera singer / spy for which he is seeking a publisher.

While the reissuing of Naked Came the Stranger gave him and the others "a shot of adrenaline," he doubts it will sell well.

McGrady spent most of his career at Newsday, while writing books as well, including two about porn star Linda Lovelace. He served as the newspaper's restaurant and movie critic, and covered civil rights and Vietnam.

There is work he is prouder of than Naked Came the Stranger, but McGrady suspects -- just as he and his fellow schemers joked long ago -- the hoax book will remain his best known, and best selling.

He can see the obit now.

"Mike McGrady, who once had a hand in writing a dirty book ..."

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