Naked Came The Stranger: The Story Of A Literary Hoax

Nine of the twenty-five authors of the book. Mike McGrady seated in the middle, holding the book. Source: (Getty)

In 1964, in Grove Press v. Gerstein, the Supreme Court decided that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer had literary merit and should not be censored. This opened the door to the likes of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, and they topped the bestseller lists. Then, in 1969, Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe was released. In the book, a married couple, Gillian and William Blake, host a New York City breakfast radio show, The Billy & Gilly Show. On the show, they are the perfect couple. He starts to have an affair, and when she finds out, she starts to cheat with the men in their neighborhood. The men she sleeps with range from a progressive rabbi to a mobster and most of the book is comprised of vignettes about her sexual exploits. At first, she sleeps with other men because she is seeking revenge, and then she starts sleeping with them because she enjoys it, and by the end, she is sleeping with them to destroy their happy marriages. It quickly sold 20,000 copies.

The Book Was Written To Prove A Point

Here’s the thing though: Penelope Ashe was a group of 24 journalists. At the helm of this group of writers was Newsday columnist, Mike McGrady. He had been discussing the sad state of the literary landscape with colleagues in 1966. He decided to write the book to make the point that American literature had become mindlessly crude. They believed that any book, no matter how bad, could find success as long as it had enough sex. He started by creating a plot outline, and then he wrote a memo and distributed it to his colleagues at Newsday. In the memo, he invited them to write a book with absolutely no social value or literary merit. As he told them, “There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex. Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.” The team of 24 included the 1965 Pulitzer Prize winner, Gene Goltz, the 1970 Pulitzer Prize winner, Robert W. Greene, and journalist Marilyn Berger, although her chapter didn’t make it into the book, probably because it was too well written. Within three weeks, they had 24 chapters, and they kept 14 of the worst to complete the book. Each writer wrote a separate chapter so to make sure that the writing was an inconsistent mess, and they each dealt with a specific perversion. In the case of George Vecsey, he composed his chapter in a half-hour, while he was supposed to be mowing the lawn. The lawn mowing crept into his chapter, where, after having sex, his character thought, “I’d forgotten there was more to life than mowing a lawn.”   

Billie Young, posing as Penelope Ashe. Source: (Rialto Report).

Finding An Author, Title, And Publisher

McGrady and Harvey Aronson edited the book to make it worse since some of the chapters were too well written, and to make it seem that it was all written by one writer. They created the pseudonym “Penelope Ashe” to submit the book for publication. They needed a face behind the name, and so McGrady’s sister-in-law, Billie Young, stepped in for photos and meetings with publishers. To come up with a title, they scanned the lists of bestsellers and saw that several books had the words “naked” and “stranger” within their titles. And there was their title. They also found their publisher, Lyle Stuart, an independent publisher that had a reputation for publishing controversial books. For the cover image, Stuart appropriated a photo from a Hungarian nudist magazine. 

The authors. Source: (Pinterest).

It Continued To Sell

Turns out that they were right, as the book became a bestseller. It sold even more copies after they revealed themselves in August 1969 on The David Frost Show. They were first introduced as “Penelope Ashe” as the orchestra played “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” With the music playing the male authors walked out on stage, single file. By October 13, 1969, they had sold 90,000 copies of Naked Came the Stranger, and it spent 13 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. It continued to sell, and by May 2012, it had reportedly sold 400,000 copies.

It Was Adapted Into A Film 

McGrady followed the book with Stranger Than Naked, or How to Write Dirty Books for Fun and Profit in 1970. Naked Came the Stranger was adapted to film in 1975, although according to The Washington Post, “Mr. McGrady and the other writers had nothing to do with the hardcore 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, that someone shouted ‘Author, Author!’ ‘Seventeen of us stood up.’”