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Mike McGrady, the man behind sexy, '60s literary hoax, has died

May 15, 2012 |  9:20 am

NakedcamethestrangerMike McGrady, a cigar-smoking, hard-drinking reporter who rallied his Newsday colleagues to write 1969's suburban sexcapade "Naked Came the Stranger" under a pseudonym, has died. He was 78.

Published as the supposedly true-life tales of a highly sexed suburban housewife, the book was attributed to Penelope Ashe, who turned out to be a wholly invented character. Like J.T. Leroy after her, Ashe was represented publicly by an actual human -- Billie Young, McGrady's sister-in-law -- who had nothing to do with the text.

That book had been written by McGrady and others on the Newsday editorial team. Inspired by popular bestsellers by the likes of Jacqueline Susann, McGrady challenged his newsroom buddies to write their own terrible, trashy, sex-filled bestseller. McGrady and 24 other writers each took a chapter; in every badly-written one, Penelope Ashe engaged in fantastical sexual exploits.

"It was great," McGrady said in an August 1969 Times story, after the scheme had been exposed. "Everybody sat down and wrote his chapter in one night. It was terrific for morale at the paper. We would all pass our chapters around to see how bad everybody else was writing. The only problem was that we had to send several back for rewriting. They were too good."

That was in 1966. McGrady and co-editor Harvey Aronson spent some time knitting the pieces together and finding a publisher. Lyle Stuart, known for its racy books, published "Naked Came the Stranger" in 1969 without being aware of its true origins. 

The actual authors were exposed in the summer of that year, with McGrady happily telling the story of the book. He talked to newspapers and appeared on the television show "To Tell The Truth."

Not everyone was delighted by the ruse. "Mike McGrady and cohorts' bestselling novel 'Naked Came the Stranger' is not only evidence of a decadent American society, but a perverted one as well," fumed Times reader Dona Gregory in a 1969 letter to the paper. "The fact that 25 journalists baited fellow Americans with all the sickness their little minds could conjure up was matched, (perhaps surpassed) only by those who bought 20,000 copies, the $127,000 Dell paid for paperback rights and the 20 movie companies now considering it for film possibilities."

McGrady hoped that a film version would be as deliberately bad as the book itself. "Would anyone in Tinseltown have the guts to make a consciously bad movie?" he asked in The Times in 1970. "The movie, as I see it, should be a compilation of all the great Hollywood cliches. I envision an endless series of naked backsides, flames flickering in nearby fireplaces, fireworks being set off against night skies ... "

Negotiations over a film version never panned out; a pornographic film of the same title was released, but it was not made in conjunction with the book's authors.

In 1970 McGrady published a how-to book for aspiring writers, "Stranger Than Naked: Or, How to Write Dirty Books for Fun and Profit."

Maybe that's the secret to E.L. James and her wildly popular series, "50 Shades of Grey."

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"Mommy porn": "50 Shades of Grey"

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The mysterious hoax Nobel Literature Prize website

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: The Dell paperback edition of "Naked Came the Stranger." Credit: Goodreads

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