Mike McGrady dies at 78; journalist behind sexy bestselling hoax

In the summer of 1966, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady threw down the gauntlet to a trusted coterie of fellow journalists: Produce a novel so poorly written and relentlessly focused on sex that it would fly off bookstore shelves. Two dozen colleagues, including past and future Pulitzer Prize winners, accepted the challenge.

Hoping to rival Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins, the reigning masters of the steamy potboiler, McGrady and his collaborators hid behind the pseudonym Penelope Ashe and in 1969 published “Naked Came the Stranger,” about a housewife who seeks revenge on her cheating husband by bedding as many men as possible.

The book sold moderately well – about 20,000 copies – until the media learned who Penelope Ashe really was. Then sales soared, giving the newsroom veteran and his merry band of literary hoaxers a bestseller.

“What has always worried me,” McGrady told a Newsday reporter years later, “are the 20,000 people who bought it before the hoax was exposed.” Those 20,000 proved his rather depressing point – that junk sells – but he had a rollicking time making his case.

“We basically were a bunch of house-husbands,” McGrady recalled in the Baltimore Sun in 2004. “We didn’t lead glamorous, sexy lives. We just let our imaginations run wild.”

McGrady, 78, who died of pneumonia May 13 in Shelton, Wash., was “a serious intellectual with a really audacious side,” said his wife, Corinne Young McGrady. “He was always afraid that ‘Naked Came the Stranger’ would overshadow the things he did later.”

Born in New York City on Oct. 4, 1933, McGrady was intent on becoming a serious writer. He studied under Robert Penn Warren at Yale, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955. After serving in the U.S. Army, he joined the staff of Long Island’s Newsday in 1962 and was a columnist for 10 years. He later was a movie and food critic.

He wrote 15 books, including “A Dove in Vietnam” (1968), based on a series of antiwar commentaries that won the Overseas Press Club Award.

He also wrote “The Kitchen Sink Papers: My Life as a Househusband,” a 1975 bestseller about the year he stayed home to raise three children while his wife concentrated on her design business.

“Women looked at me as if I were trying to break into prison,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1975. “Men looked at me as though I were Benedict Arnold.”

But after the year was up, he had a stronger marriage and permanently rearranged household duties to alternate weeks in the mom role with his spouse.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughter Siobhan Benoit of Boynton Beach, Fla.; sons Sean of Los Angeles and Liam of Del Rey Beach, Fla.; a brother; and five grandchildren.

His experiences switching roles with his wife turned him into a feminist, which may have influenced his decision to write two books with “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace: “Ordeal” (1980) and “Out of Bondage” (1986), which detailed the abuse she endured in the pornography industry. “Ordeal” became an international bestseller and turned Lovelace into a heroine of the women’s movement.

But, true to McGrady’s fears, he remained best known as the mastermind of an intentionally sleazy hack job, each chapter of which featured an erotic adventure between suburban housewife Gillian and a series of married lovers, who included a rabbi, a mobster and a hippie.

Among the “Naked” writers, who were mostly men and a few women, was George Vecsey, a Newsday sportswriter who later jumped to the New York Times and wrote the bestseller “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Vecsey’s character, named Morton Earbrow, experiences sexual release as “great shudders of total communication” and “explosions of understanding,” which leads him to the epiphany that “there was more to life than mowing a lawn.”

Other authors included Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Goltz and investigative reporter Bob Greene, who banged out his chapter while downing beers.

“In the category of erotic fantasy,” a New York Times critic wrote of the book as a whole, “this one rates about a C.”

Such mediocre results were ensured by the efforts of McGrady and his co-editor, Harvey Aronson, who together rewrote much of their colleagues’ work because it wasn’t bad enough. As McGrady had warned in his memo launching the hoax, “true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.”

When the book was published, McGrady recruited his sister-in-law, Billie Young, to play the pseudonymous author on the publicity tour. The ploy ended when a Wall Street Journal reporter exposed the real authors, causing a frenzy of media attention. CBS newsman Walter Cronkite was so eager to have McGrady and his co-conspirators on the evening broadcast that he dispatched a helicopter to pick them up from the Newsday building.

If imitation is a form of flattery, “Naked Came the Stranger” was rich with admirers. It launched “Naked Came the Manatee,” “Naked Came the Plowman,” “Naked Came the Farmer,” “Naked Came the Phoenix” and the even more improbably titled “Naked Came the Leaf Peeper.” It also inspired an X-rated movie of such questionable merit that McGrady was embarrassed. “I feel like Dr. Frankenstein,” he said before its Los Angeles opening in 1975. “The monster is walking – and I want to go out and warn the villagers.”