The 1969 novel Naked Came The Stranger by Penelope Ashe was a hoax written to prove that Americans will read any piece of trash as long as it contains enough sex. The plot made no sense, there was no character development and the writing was awful. However, it was jam-packed with sex scene after sex scene. Add to that the fact that the author was a beautiful woman, and there was a naked woman on the cover, and Naked Came The Stranger was an instant best seller
In fact, there was no Penelope Ashe. Naked Came The Stranger was written by 24 Newsday journalists and their literary friends lead by Mike McGrady. They went out of their way to write a bad book. Each of them wrote different parts of the book, and had no discussions with each other about the plot during the writing. This is why the plot seems so disjointed, and the writing styles vary from chapter to chapter. When the first draft was completed Mike McGrady insisted that some of the chapters be re-done, because then were too well written
Once this collection of garbage prose was completed it was time to try to get it published. Everyone agreed that sex novels written by beautiful young women, somehow seem much more titillating than those written by middle-aged men. Billie Young, Mike McGrady’s sister-in-law, therefore agreed to pretend to be the author Penelope Ashe, although she had not written a word.
The next step was to choose a publisher. That was easy. They chose Lyle Stuart, a Fort Lee New Jersey publisher of sleaze books, who was also a Las Vegas casino owner and an overall “colorful” character. Rumors were that Mr. Stuart might be “connected” to some people. (If you live in New Jersey you know what that phrase means). Lyle Stuart did not question the book’s authenticity. He accepted Billie Young as the author Penelope Ashe.
In fact, Lyle Stuart decided to make a sexy book even sexier. It was Lyle Stuart who decided to put a naked woman on the cover. Of course, there still was some censorship in 1969, so the photo was an “artful” picture showing only a nude young woman from behind, submissively kneeling on a rug. The photograph suggests much more than it actually reveals.
Lyle Stuart had actually plagiarized the photograph from a Hungarian nudist magazine and did not pay or credit the photographer. Later on when Naked Came The Stranger became a best seller, the Hungarian photographer successfully sued Lyle Stuart, and received payment.
When Naked Came The Stranger was published, it became an instant best seller. Before the end of 1969 it had sold 20,000 copies. At that point, the real authors decided to shame the American public and reveal the truth. They all appeared on The David Frost Show and exposed the hoax.
But the American public was not ashamed of its poor taste in literature. After the revelations on the David Frost Show, sales of Naked Came The Stranger skyrocketed. The book eventually sold over 400,000 copies.
After the book was revealed as a hoax, Americans had the best of both worlds. The could go out and buy Naked Came The Stranger and pretend they were not really just reading it for the sex parts. People could now openly carry a copy of Naked Came The Stranger and say they were just interested in the hoax and wanted to see just how bad the writing was.
Naked Came the Stranger became the topic of conversations at middle-class suburban cocktail parties throughout 1969 and into the early 1970s. Suburbanites could now openly discuss a raunchy sex book and pretend it was really a literary discussion.
In its own way, Naked Came The Stranger did reveal quite a lot about American culture in 1969 . Today, Americans can see or read or hear any kind of sexually explicit material instantly on the internet. However, 1969 was a different world. Only 10 years earlier, even such classics as the D.H. Lawrence masterpiece Lady Chatterly’s Lover were still banned throughout the United States. Only a series of long and expensive court cases allowed publishers to begin to print and distribute books that a few years earlier would have landed them in jail.
Released from their Puritanical bonds, Americans were eager to buy and read everything that had been denied to them for so long. If a book like Naked Came The Stranger was released today, it would hardly cause a ripple in the literary community. In 1969 it was a Tsunami.
So remember – books, movies or songs don’t have to be good to be “classic”. What makes something classic is its power to perfectly capture a specific period of time. In 1969, that classic was Naked Came The Stranger.