‘Stranger’ Days: Remembering the Penelope Ashe Hoax

How 24 newspaper writers teamed up 50 years ago to create the sex-soaked novel "Naked Came the Stranger."

Author Penelope Ashe, collectively.

In my teens, I learned a lot about the world from my parents’ subscriptions to Time and Life magazines. There was plenty to absorb a half-century ago, in the summer of 1969.

The moon landing? Sure. But there were other, more elemental things for a curious, hormone-saturated 15-year-old to discover. True, there was little national coverage of the Stonewall riots until a couple of years after the fact. But there was plenty of copy on the Woodstock music festival (with photos of alarmingly nonchalant skinny-dippers). There were also details about Oh, Calcutta, the Off-Broadway revue, packed with nudity and sex stuff.

And then there was the Naked Came the Stranger literary hoax.

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The Naked novel — penned by a “demure Long Island housewife” named Penelope Ashe — tells the tale of a married couple, William and Gillian Blake (not so coincidentally, also from Long Island). Their morning radio program, the Billy and Gilly Show, is popular with listeners throughout the greater NYC area. Their supposedly perfect marriage, however, is a sham: William is having an affair with Phyllis Sammis, “a twenty-two-year-old Vassar graduate with stringy hair, gapped teeth, horn-rimmed glasses and peculiarly upright breasts.” The book, oddly, has no actual scenes involving Phyllis. The bulk of the story involves the adulterous adventures of Gillian, who goes on a sexual rampage, coupling with a variety of men in (fictional) suburban King’s Neck — a gangster, a boxer, a rabbi, an abortionist, a partnered homosexual — all in retaliation for William’s faithlessness.

The photo of Penelope Ashe on the back of the dust cover showed a young woman bearing a striking resemblance to novelist Jacqueline Susann, whose The Love Machine was also published in 1969: a follow-up to her immensely popular Valley of the Dolls (1966). The resemblance was no accident. The woman in the picture was, in fact, not the author of Naked Came the Stranger. Rather, the book was a collaborative effort by a group of reporters — male and female, but mostly male — from the Long Island daily Newsday.

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Mike McGrady, who hatched the “Naked Came the Stranger” scheme.

The writers had patterned their book after torrid, pulpy-but-glam novels by the likes of Susann, Harold Robbins (The Adventurers) and Evan Hunter (Strangers When We Meet). At the time, explicit sexual content was creeping into the works of more seriously considered writers, including Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint) and John Updike (Couples). But Naked Came the Stranger aimed lower. It strove to be what the mastermind behind the hoax, Newsday writer Mike McGrady, would define as a Big Money book: a slick best-seller, overstuffed with carnality, shy on literary elegance. The whole point was to succeed by writing a smutty, badly written book.

As for the Susann lookalike featured on the dust jacket, she was McGrady’s sister-in-law, Billie Young. The imposter also held press interviews to help publicize the book.

McGrady had proposed the project at a bar frequented by Newsday writers back in June of 1966. He had interviewed Robbins and attempted — unsuccessfully — to read Valley of the Dolls. He was distressed by what he felt were signs of decline in American letters, and he spoke out about it that night. Fueled by alcohol and consternation, he proposed to create a novel as an elaborate, cynical prank, intending to demonstrate that it didn’t take much to crank out a tawdry literary sensation.

McGrady’s idea didn’t fade or fizzle in the sober light of day. Soon, he circulated a memo to Newsday employees — not just reporters, but virtually anyone who might be interested in participating. Eventually, 24 writers were lined up, each slated to write a chapter depicting a new sexual conquest by Gillian Blake. Among the participants: reticent Harvey Aronson (who wound up co-editing the book with McGrady), investigative reporter Bob Greene (who wrote the chapter on the King’s Neck gang lord), and young Jack Schwartz (who took on the “rabbi” chapter and today writes for The Daily Beast). Absent from the roster: Bill Moyers, then the publisher of Newsday. The team was charged with turning in their copy within a week (some writers missed the deadline). “There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex,” McGrady instructed. “Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.”

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Until this summer, I’d only read snippets of the book when it first came out in paperback — furtively, in a local small-town drug store. Reading Naked Came the Stranger in 2019 is like opening a time capsule encasing the now bizarre-seeming mores of the late 1960s: the goal of the Newsday writers was to include a different “perversion” in each chapter. And in those days, what was considered perverted was pretty much up for grabs. Instances of consensual oral sex, for instance, were branded as sodomy in many a statute at the time. Granted, the key oral-sex chapter in the novel is a special case: it takes place in a car, close to a tollbooth, near Pelham, NY. Gillian Blake is fellating the driver, accountant Marvin Goodman, when the den mother of a troop of Cub Scouts interrupts them at exactly the wrong moment.

Much creepier to read these days is the chapter in which Gillian trysts with the doctor who performed her illegal abortion (necessitated by coupling with one of her earlier conquest). Then there’s the chapter with the gay man, Willoughby Martin, a stereotypically mincing fellow turned straight by Gillian’s allure. To provide continuity among the chapters, Gillian is, early in the book, said to have a chameleonic talent for intuiting and projecting exactly what each of her sex partners finds most compelling. In the case of Willoughby, of course, she outdoes herself.

In retrospect, the stylistic differences among the novel’s chapters seem obvious, despite McGrady and Aronson’s efforts to make them uniformly awful. A couple of chapters (Schwartz’s, for instance) fell short of achieving the requisite dumbing-down, while others succeeded in the aim to exclude most words of more than two syllables. As McGrady revealed in his tell-all book about the novel’s creation, Stranger Than Naked, or How to Write Dirty Books for Fun and Profit, only critic William Trotter suspected the novel may have been written by committee.

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Readers and critics at the time also seemed to miss the book’s intentionally comic elements; perhaps they were blinded by all the garish sex scenes. In fact, the book has a jokey tone throughout. And, frankly, that comic, often satirical approach makes the book distinctly un-sexy. McGrady seemed to be aware of this. As he writes in Stranger Than Naked: “[A] surprising number of adults seemed to be excited by an erotic book that wouldn’t arouse an adolescent stranded on a desert island.”

Much of the comedy, of course, springs from intentionally execrable writing. Take this passage involving boxer Paddy Madigan (penned by sportswriter Bob Waters):

Paddy preened. The muscles on his shoulders stiffened into chunks and he unconsciously drew in his stomach, drew up his buttocks and inhaled. Mentally, he whomped a left hook into a body bag.

“Don’t overdo it, honey,” Gillian said. “Don’t waste all that muscle until I get there, will you?”

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McGrady seems coy in Stranger Than Naked about just how secretive he and his colleagues wanted to be about the novel’s construction. Though he insists attempts were made to keep the hoax from being exposed — at least until the book reached the best-seller lists — one suspects that the writers believed from the outset that the truth would and should come out. So many people in or around Newsday were aware of the book’s authorship that someone certainly would have leaked the truth at some point, intentionally or accidentally. For print ads, some of the contributors tempted fate by posing for photographs as the characters they’d created. And though Young, posing as Ashe, did a good job of answering tricky questions during those promotional interviews, she occasionally stumbled. How long would it be before someone in the press thought there was some funny business going on?

The eventual exposure of the hoax, soon after publication, certainly didn’t stop interest in Naked. Indeed, it led to more book sales and a great deal more publicity, capped by a famous appearance on David Frost’s TV program in which the novel’s male contributors paraded for the camera to the tune of “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.” Earlier fanciful talk about a motion picture version, with the starring role of Gillian going to Jane Fonda, Doris Day or even an out-of-retirement Grace Kelly seemed suddenly not so far-fetched. (OK, no. The Princess Grace idea was always laughable.)

Eventually, the novel was filmed — but not until 1975, and not with any big names. Rather, it starred a relative newcomer, Darby Lloyd Rains, as Gilly. Weirdly apropos, the film was not a Hollywood production but an artsy porn project, shot in NYC in fall of 1974 by Henry Paris, a pseudonym for director Radley Metzger, who’d already helmed at least one non-pornographic feature, 1961’s Dark Odyssey. Porno chic was now in its heyday. Art-house cinemas were being converted into adult theaters. Actors from Broadway and Off Broadway (Georgina Spelvin, for one) were plying their trade in sexually explicit films.

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Darby Lloyd Rains and Levi Richards as “Gilly” and “Billy” in the film version of “Naked Came the Stranger” (1975).

Maybe it was the passage of five years, or maybe it was Metzger’s involvement, but the film of Naked Came the Stranger retells the story of Billy and Gilly in a much more gentle, honest and entertaining way than the novel. Metzger, who died in 2017, had a breezy European sensibility regarding both filmmaking and sex. For instance, one of his earlier films, Score (1974), depicted male and female bisexuality without the snide contempt one senses in Naked’s Willoughby Martin episode. The Naked screenplay was even given a happy ending, with Gilly and Billy back together after Gilly has a lesbian tryst with the woman with whom Billy has been having an affair. Rains’ charming onscreen presence could have led to a career acting in mainstream romantic comedy. And the movie has beautifully photographed Manhattan exteriors, including one sequence shot in somber late November at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain.

In short, Metzger/Paris turned a dirty book into a playful, erotic movie.

According to The Rialto Report, a website focused on the lively early days of sexually explicit filmmaking, the Newsday collaborators were invited to the film’s premiere in NYC. It did not go well. Neither McGrady nor Aronson was happy with the film. The writers had brought their wives to the event and were taken aback by just how explicit the movie was. They were scandalized when the actors stood up in the theater to be acknowledged for their performances.

Metzger was puzzled by their bemusement. “[T]he theater where it played was the most prestigious house of porn in America,” he said. “I don’t know what they were expecting.”