The thing I remember most about Naked Came the Stranger is that Mike McGrady and Harvey Aronson shared the profits. This is such stunning behavior that it needs to be put in a separate category from Mike’s (a) being a superb journalist and (b) coming up with a noted publishing hoax or scram or prank or whatever it was.
When he passed this week at 78, Mike was celebrated not only in respectful obits in the Washington Post and New York Times but also in an editorial in the Times. It said he should be most remembered as a columnist; Mike went to Vietnam for Newsday in 1967 and his point of view was stated in the title of his series, later a book: A Dove in Vietnam.
When Mike got back, having sniffed out the hypocrisy of that mad endeavor, he and his colleague Aronson came up with an idea for takeoff on all the bad sex novels that sold zillions of copies. Proposing a novel about infidelity in the suburbs, they invented the main character, a scorned wife on a mission, and they encouraged co-workers to write our own steamy chapters.
(I was in the sports department at Newsday until 1968. Like many ball players, I have fond memories of my first team – a great newspaper back in those days, built by the visionary publisher, Alicia Patterson. Miss P. Harvey Aronson -- who called himself H. Casey Aronson -- was mostly the manager of the Nightside Softball Team. In his spare time, he sometimes edited and wrote and nurtured young talent.)
A lot of us received printed memos in the office mail, inviting us to take part. (Kids, this was before there was such a thing as e-mails, or computers.) Some of us contributed our foolish little chapters and became co-authors for life.
McGrady and Aronson cobbled together our efforts and sent forth into this land a cover, lurid for its time, and words that might have been erotic if they had not been so hackneyed. But at least we were trying to be ridiculous. It was not an accident.
The results are well-known – a novel under the Nom de Smut of Penelope Ashe. We were all Penelope Ashe, whether our scribblings were accepted or blended into one chapter, or merely noted with grace by Mike and Harvey.
Some in the so-called reading public – even reviewers -- were fooled; some suspected nothing could be this bad unintentionally; some people actually bought the damn thing and read it. We went on the David Frost show with a naked model based on the figure on the cover. Ultimately, somebody made a porn movie with the same title, and Stan Isaacs rented a hansom cab to take a few of us to the, um, grand opening.
But the most astonishing part was that McGrady and Aronson divided the income into equal parts – one-twenty-fifth, as I recall. The occasional checks financed the odd trip to the city, or milk and diapers for growing families, or an after-hour round set up by Leo at the Midway bar and grill in Garden City. Mike and Harvey had the idea, they did most of the work, they publicized it, and yet they shared the booty. I used to ask them about their egalité, and they just shrugged. This was the right thing to do. Tell that to people who collaborate in show business or web ventures or high finance or politics or lottery partnerships. Fairness is not a given.
A word about my own miserable efforts. While working an occasional shift on dreaded rewrite on the overnight sports desk, I was waiting for night baseball games to end on the West Coast. Having taken typing in junior high school, I batted out a chapter in an hour. Then the Dodgers beat the Giants, or vice versa, and I finished my excursion into soft porn.
I'm still not sure if this is a good thing or not, but mine is the cleanest, most tasteful, chapter in the book. For the hapless schnook in my chapter I gave the name Morton Earbrow. I remembered that Casey Stengel once said Gil Hodges was so strong that he could “squeeze your earbrows off.” I wasn’t quite sure what an earbrow was, but it sounded like a word I could resurrect in my one-hour career as 1/25 novelist. (Oh, yes, a sample of my dreadful prose -- intact, as I recall -- was cited in Mike’s Washington Post obit. Recognition at last.)
We all went our separate ways. Mike settled in western Washington State, and urged his pals to come visit. I wish I had, but I could never get further west than the pho emporiums on Aurora in Seattle. I’m left with fond memories of a colleague with talent and humor. And integrity.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.