Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, June 29, 2023


 I, Libertine by "Frederick R. Ewing" (Theodore Sturgeon)  (1956)

"Gadzooks!" quoth I, "but there's a saucy bawd!" -- from the front cover of I, Libertine.

Also from the front cover:  Tubulent!  Turgid! Tempestuous!  (And when was the last time you heard of a book proclaiming itself "Turgid!"?)

But this is no ordinary book.  This is I, Libertine -- a literary jape turned quasi-literary hoax with all proceeds donated to charity.

It happened like this.  Popular late night radio host Jean Shepherd (he of A Christmas Story, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories: and Other Disasters, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss, and so many other great works) had an on-air discussion on how easy it was to manipulate best-seller lists, which were based on both demand and sales.  Shepherd fabricated an author (Frederick R. Ewing) and a book title (I, Libertine) and an outline of a basic plot.  Shepherd then asked his listeners to request the book from their local booksellers.  Shepherd's listeners were so effictive that the non-existent novel ended up on The New Times Bestseller List.

The publisher Ian Ballantine, author Theodore Sturgeon, and Shepherd met for lunch one day, and Ballantine hired Sturgeon to ghost-write the novel from Shepherd's basic outline.  Reportedly, Sturgeon fell asleep on Ballantine's couch while trying to meet his deadline in one marathon typing session, and it was up to Ballantine's wife Betty to write the final chapter for the exhausted Sturgeon.  The book became a best-seller.  The cover painting by Frank Kelly Freas did a remarkable job of slyly planting Easter eggs.  The back cover showed a rather disolute Shepherd and had this author's bio:

"I, Libertine, first volume in a project trilogy, is the intial major work of F. R. Ewbng.  Mr. Ewing, an Oxford graduate, was known prior to World War II for his many scholarly contributions to British publications and for his well-remembered series of broadcasts for the B.B.C. on 'Erotica in the 18th Century.'  During the war Mr. Ewing served with the Royal Navy and was retired in 1946 with the rank of Commander,  He saw much action with the North Atlantic Fleet, serving abord several minesweepers.  He resumed his career as a civil servant, and while stationed in Rhodesia, Ewing completed work on I, Libertine."

The back cover also had this to say about the book (which reportedly had been banned in Boston):

"Against the rich mosaic of 18th Century London court life is etched the meteoric rise of Lance Courtenay -- moral adventurer, first of his breed.  To the three women in his life he was three different men and to the world at enigma.  The seldom-discussed, delicate theme and final startling decision of Lance Courtenay have already given to great moral controversy, but each reader must draw his own conclusions.  Greeted with unprecedented acclaim by the English press, I, Libertine is a novel which American readers will no doubt agree is destined to leave its mark on English letters."

I mentioned the book was a quasi-hoax.  It was officially outed by The Wall Street Journal as a fabricated book a few weeks before its publication.  The outing did not deter the book's sales.  Ballantine Books had a single hardcover and paperback release in 1956.  The was a British hardcover in 1957, as well as a British paperback in 1959.  Despite its now cult status, the book lingered out of print until 2013, when Open Road Media released it in e-Book format.  I am unaware of any other editions.  Copies of the book are pricey; on abebooks, they range from $87.95 to $930.00, including shipping.

You should be able to judge the book by the quotes on the cover.  Gadzooks, 'tis turgid prose, indeed.  Another indication comes from this sentence from the first page, describing Lance Courtenay:  "His teeth were excellent, especially the right upper incisor, which was extraodinary."  (We learn more about that specific tooth later on in the first chapter.)

Courtenay himself is extraordinary.  He is really Lancaster ("Lanky") Higger-Piggott, the son of a low-born London ostler, pretending his way through the upper levels of London society as a person with mysterious and unspoken missions for His Majesty's government.  One interesting true-life character in the novel is Elizabeth Chudleigh, a well-connected, scandalous, bigamous figure in British society, whose licentious behavior provided fodder for many a rumor and many a literary work. 

A witty novel of manners and mores as if written by a rather arch Georgette Heyer.  The book is pure fun and is meant to be enjoyed and not taken seriously.

Shepherd, Sturgeon, and the Ballantines have outdone themselves with this one.  If you ever get hold of a copy, you are in for a treat. 


  1. I had a copy of I, LIBERTINE and sent it to Bill Crider because he had been searching for it for years. I'm surprised no small press has reprinted it. You GOODY BOX should arrive tomorrow.

  2. Probably a complicated copyright history, or fear that only a very few would have any memory of it. Still odd that it hasn't been reprinted, nonetheless. features the cover and cover analysis...