She was waiting in the living room for him—the very incarnation of desire in a diaphanous peignoir, with her hair falling in loose waves to her shoulders, her perfume scenting the room. She was sex, excitement, eternal woman. She was all of Melvin Corby’s daydreams rolled into one incredible bundle. She was all the men's magazines he had ever read, all the pieces of ass Charlie Rider had ever talked about. She was Gillian (Ashe 208).
Handsome, superficially wholesome husband and wife team, Billy and Gilly, live in fashionable King's Neck, Long Island and host a popular radio talk show. Gilly learns that Billy has had an affair. She responds by seducing multiple men, in a 1960s novel that goes nowhere beyond various beds-- and bestseller status. The author, one Penelope Ashe, wore revealing clothing to interviews and dispensed such wisdom as "the trouble in America is that most men and women can't communicate on a mattress." She ignored reviews of the book, most of which could not be described as kind.
With reporters moving in on the truth, the actual authors exposed their identities and naked intent. The novel was a hoax, written in imitation of Harold Robbins, Jacquelyn Susanne, and the hundreds of other popular pulp authors who achieved bestseller status with formulaic raciness at a time when respectable people stopped being embarrassed about reading pop trash. They intended to pillory popular American tastes, which they naively believed had reached a low point.
The truth propelled the book to the New York Times Bestseller list.
Mike McGrady, a Newsweek columnist conceived the idea in 1966, and discussed it with colleagues over drinks. They analyzed the trends in both plot conventions and writing styles of popular sex novels. Guidelines encouraged writers to use as many clichés as possible, and to include at least two sex scenes in each chapter. "True excellence in writing will be blue-penciled into oblivion," McGrady told his coconspirators. "There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex" (McGrady xiv).
Each member took a chapter and based it around a particular sexual conquest. The best of these they processed into a somewhat coherent narrative. Chapters and scenes excised include those involving a blind dwarf, sadomasochism, and transsexuality. Contemporary readers may find this list more revealing of the era than the finished novel itself. Some bestiality remains, but only by passing reference, in the chapter where Gilly seduces an impotent pornographer (who often includes such elements in his own writings). McGrady and his colleague, Harvey Aronson, assembled and edited the book. They also addressed inconsistencies. The writers, for example, hadn't agreed on the colour of Gillian's hair before writing. Between each chapter we find brief transcripts from the Billy and Gilly show, which link the events in some broad way.
A publisher initially accepted the novel as a serious submission, but the writers' cabal informed them of the truth in advance. The book was published anyway, appropriately, in 1969.
Naked Came the Stranger remains readable, although a certain amount of ennui sets in quickly. The multiple sex scenes aren't that interesting, and some of the parody is lost on contemporary readers. Fortunately, the chapters are short.
Some chapters easily pass as bad writing from the sixties, and the bad writing of another era often becomes unreadable even a decade later. Anyone hear of Harold Robbins lately? Curl up with a good Marie Corelli? Others seem so obviously absurd that it's difficult to understand how anyone took them seriously. The Hippie/counterculture exploitation chapter veers entirely into the ridiculous. When Suburban Bohemian Arthur Franhop uses Johnson & Johnson baby lotion, Gillian "surmised that it was a religious ceremony, possibly something directly from the Kama-Sutra, and she said nothing irreverent"(87). The gay conversion chapter would be even more offensive than the similar plots and subplots in numerous contemporaneous novels (including Ian Fleming's Goldfinger), except that Naked's author was trying to sound like a misguided hack.
Although McGrady tried to give the novel some consistency, the style varies from chapter to chapter. If I had read it not knowing that many authors worked together, I might have given one positive nod to Miss Ashe, for having adjusted her style to reflect the different kinds of men Gilly encounters. The final chapter features a famous Beat author whose most famous work culminates with "a wild dance in the firelight followed by the hero expressing his love to a twelve-year-old girl and a three-year-old ewe. Gillian had sensed then, sensed again now, that the author had lived the scene" (233).
While Billy remains oblivious to his wife's philandering, it has long-term effects on their community. Several of her conquests die, though often for reasons unrelated to their liaisons with her. Many couples break up. King's Neck seems a very different place at the end of the novel. Beyond that, Naked Came the Stranger comes to a uncertain conclusion, which resolves very little. This ending fulfills the authors' intent, that their book lack meaningful plot development or literary merit.
Naked Came the Stranger, still mildly entertaining, leaves a legacy. Billie Young, who portrayed "Penelope Ashe," became an actual writer of successful but questionable books, including The Naked Chef and Penthouse Press's Viva la Difference. McMurdy retold the story behind his hoax in Stranger than Naked or, How to Write Dirty Books for Fun and Profit (1970). DistribPix released a pornographic film by the same name in 1975, though it purportedly bears only loose resemblance to its source. It received a remastered DVD edition in 2011. Several other group-authored books have riffed on the famous title, most memorably, Naked Came the Manatee, a 1996 detective parody authored by several Miami-area writers.
What else this book might say, decades later, to a culture that has made a bestseller of Fifty Shades of Grey and elected an inexperienced celebrity narcissist to its highest office, I leave as a puzzle for readers to ponder.
For reQuest 2018.
Penelope Ashe. Naked Came the Stranger (1969). New Jersey: Barricade Books, 2003.
Alex Boese. "Naked Came the Stranger." The Museum of Hoaxes. http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/naked_came_the_stranger.
Mike McGrady. "Preface to Naked Came the Stranger." New Jersey: Barricade Books, 2003. i-xxiv.
Richard Saunders. "Naked Came the Bestseller." The World's Greatest Hoaxes. New York: Playboy Press, 1980. 86-89.