Winter 2011-2012

Faking out the Fatheads

Jean Shepherd’s I, Libertine hoax

John Strausbaugh

Jean Shepherd stopped broadcasting on New York radio in 1977, but he still has a following. “To this day I get asked by Jean Shepherd cult groups to talk about what it was like to share an office with him,” long-time talk show host Barry Farber says.

Shepherd was born in 1921 and raised in the small town of Hammond, Indiana. His memories of growing up as a boy named Jean are believed to have inspired his friend Shel Silverstein to write the Johnny Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue.” In 1955, he came to New York, which he called “the East of golden promise.” He felt especially at home in Greenwich Village, among the jazzbos, Beat writers, and assorted eccentrics and misfits. His métier—long-form, extemporaneous storytelling—was close to both to the riffing of jazz and the Beats’ love of spontaneous creativity.

By 1956, Shepherd was hosting a late-late night program on WOR-AM from 1 am to 5 am, which he filled with long, wandering monologues. “I used radio the same way that a writer uses a sheet of paper, to say what he has to say about the world,” he once explained. Along the way he spun recordings of jazz and wacky old-time music, sometimes playing along on a Jew’s harp or nose flute. He chatted with listeners who called, though the technology available at the time only allowed his end of the conversation to go out over the airwaves. He was inventing free-form radio before there was a term for it.

He described his listeners as Night People—“‘soreheads,’ ‘eggheads,’ ‘long-hairs,’ ‘outsiders,’” he once wrote—as distinguished from the conformist, nine-to-five Day People. Unlike free-thinking Night People, he believed, Day People were such sheep that they’d clamor to buy any book, see any movie, or line up outside any restaurant that the media was buzzing about. One night in April 1956, he decided to test this hypothesis. He asked his listeners to help him invent a fictitious book. He and his callers came up with the juicy title I, Libertine, penned by one Frederick R. Ewing, a gentleman-scholar, retired from the Royal Navy and currently residing in Rhodesia, who specialized in eighteenth-century erotica. They gave him a fictitious British publisher, Excelsior Press. Shepherd then asked all his listeners to go into a bookstore the next day and ask for a copy of I, Libertine. If the clerk asked who published it, they were to reply indignantly, “Excelsior, you fathead!” It became an enduring Shepherd motto (and the title of a posthumous 2005 biography).

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