What is the biggest media hoax in history? Several contributors to Quora, a crowdsourcing site for questions and answers, took on this challenge. Many mentioned Orson Welles and War of the Worlds broadcast, the impact of which may be mythic, as well.
My favorite tale, however, featured late-night radio/TV personality and writer Jean Shepherd. Back in April of 1955, Shep, as he was known, became annoyed when a bookstore clerk told him that a book that he sought could not have existed because it wasn’t on any publisher’s list.
On his [radio] show, he railed about the Day People who believed in their silly lists. Bestseller lists, he said, got made by bored reporters who would call book dealers to find out what was selling. All it would take for a book to make the list would be for lots of inquiries for the same title at different dealers.
Then came his brilliant idea for the hoax.
“What do you say tomorrow morning each one of us walk into a bookstore, and ask for a book that we know does not exist?” …
The next morning, hundreds of Shep’s listeners invaded bookstores in New York asking if they had I, Libertine [by Frederick Ewing] in stock. When told “no” by mystified clerks, they would ask if they could have it ordered…
Sure enough, by early 1956, I, Libertine made the New York Times bestseller list.
The kicker is that, eventually, there was an I, Libertine book, written by Shep, Ted Sturgeon, and Betty Ballantine, the wife of book publisher Ian Ballantine. And it made the best-seller list AGAIN.
Fast forward a few decades.
A Christmas Story is a 1983 American Christmas comedy film based on the short stories and semi-fictional anecdotes of author and raconteur Jean Shepherd, based on his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, with some elements derived from Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. It was directed by Bob Clark.
The film has since become a holiday classic and is shown numerous times on television during the Christmas season, usually on the networks owned by Turner Broadcasting… In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Yes, the same hoaxer from the 1950s was the primary source of one of America’s most beloved movies of the 1980s, a story that generated so much interest that people now visit the house where it was filmed.
Yet the cynical genius behind A Christmas Story is largely forgotten, in part, because those seasonal marathon showings only started a few years before Jean Shepherd died, in 1999.