Naked Came The Stranger: The Story Of A Literary Hoax

By | June 15, 2022

test article image
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.”   

test article image
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.