I, Loafer or Ralphie (Jean Shepherd) Pulls a Good One
‘Tis the day after Christmas…
Is everybody sick and tired of watching “A Christmas Story” all day yesterday on TBS? I know, it’s a great movie and I love it and I put the marathon on every single year, but somewhere around the fifth airing you get a little tired of it.
Well, here’s something about Jean Shepherd—the man who both wrote the story and narrated the movie—that you may find interesting, entertaining and possibly, even, inspiring.
Shepherd will forever be known as the real-life Ralphie from what has become a classic Christmas movie but, long before he rose to fame in his pursuit of the Red Ryder BB gun, he worked in New York city as a late night disc jokey on the graveyard shift—midnight to 5 am.
If you’ve ever worked nights, or known anyone who has, you know it’s easy to develop a penchant for the unusual, the strange and even the disturbed. Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation. Jean Shepherd—the man behind what may be the most wholesome Christmas tale ever—was no exception. Some folks thought he was just plain crazy (and I do mean “plain crazy”—not the fancy kind).
Shepherd’s shows typically featured weird, rambling monologues about current events, anecdotes and whatever else struck his fancy. He designated his listeners as “night people’ and drew a clear distinction between them and the “day people”—for whom, he made clear, he had little respect.
One day (or one night, I mean) in 1956, Shepherd decided it was time for him and his audience to have a little fun with the day dwellers. He invented a fictitious novel named I, Libertine written by a non-existent author, Frederick R. Ewing. He outlined a quick plot and instructed his audience to go out the next day and try to purchase it. So convinced was he of the gullibility of the day people, he didn’t think twice about broadcasting this secret plot over the public airwaves.
Within days, every bookstore in New York was beseiged by hollow-eyed, yawning patrons asking for copies of I, Libertine and insisting that it be ordered when told it was not in stock.
The booksellers, of course, began calling around, trying to find copies and, before long, the demand became almost frenzied. Nowadays, they would say it “went viral.” The “sophisticated” day people in New York’s literary circles were soon discussing the book’s themes and symbolism at cocktail parties and one prominent reviewer even wrote a column in which he claimed to have dined with the author to discuss his next project. At one point the book literally made the New York Times bestseller list.
Meanwhile, Sheperd and his “night people” audience were laughing all over the radio from midnight until 5 am knowing that the “day people” were safely asleep and unaware of the hoax.
At first, that is. The word finally began to leak out at which point Shepherd was approached by Ballantine Publishing and asked to work with a ghost writer to actually write the novel. They even drew up a cover design (although, don’t forget, you’re not supposed to judge the book by it).
Eventually, the Wall Street Journal officially exposed the hoax, embarrassing a number of prominent publishers, editors and literary agents in the process.
After all that, it’s a wonder they ever let him make “A Christmas Story” into a movie—BB guns or not.
For a little more on I, Libertine check out this piece at the Museum of Hoaxes website.