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'Stranger' stirred interest in Donora with literary spoof

| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

When it was first uncovered as a hoax of sorts, “Naked Came The Stranger,” sparked considerable interest in the literary world.

That was more than 43 12 years ago – in August 1969 – and the book continues to generate curiosity today.

“Do you recall a book that was written about Donora football?” a reader in Rostraver Township asked. “I think they even made a movie about it.”

Attraction to the best-selling novel swelled in 1969 as, piece by piece, the secrets of the naked stranger were bared. That ubiquitous Mon Valley flavor – in reality, only a chapter with reference to “Donita, Pennsylvania” – made it a favorite in this Mon Valley soon after it was published on Aug. 3, 1969.

“Naked Came The Stranger,” created with an “unremitting emphasis on sex,” supposedly was written by Penelope Ashe but it turned out to be the work of 25 authors, all reporters or editors at the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper, Newsday.

Ashe was described as “a demure Long Island housewife.” Billie Young, who posed as the author for initial publicity purposes, was the sister-in-law of Mike McGrady, an award-winning columnist for Newsday who organized the idea for the novel. McGrady, who covered the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, died on May 13, 2012, at age 78.

McGrady got together 24 other Newsday writers (19 men and five women) including two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Goltz and asked them each to write a chapter of the book. His intention was to write a deliberately terrible book with a lot of sex to illustrate the point that popular American literary culture at that time had become mindlessly vulgar. He presented an outline of the main characters to his colleagues and emphasized that, “Good writing will be blue-penciled into oblivion and there will be an unremitting emphasis on sex.”

One of the 25 real authors who revealed themselves not long after the hoopla mounted about the book was John Cummings, a native of western Pennsylvania. His assignment involved a chapter on a character named Ernie Miklos. On Page 25 of the novel Cummings refers to Donita, Pa. It reads, in part:

“Donita was one of those mill towns that edge the Monongahela River on its flow to Pittsburgh. Like all those towns, it was dirty and its people were poor, not as much in money as in spirit. Its people were a potpourri of Polish immigrants, Irish ... . The parents worked hard, reproduced, died young, figured on the same life for their children, only hoping it might happen somewhere else than Donita.”

In a Sept. 20, 1969, story in The Valley Independent, we wrote about “another strong hint of a mill town here and if you haven't guessed by now, take the ‘it' in Donita and replace them with ‘or' and you have Donora.”

“I guess you could draw that conclusion,” Cummings, who was reared in Mt. Lebanon and Dormont, told us in an interview in 1969. “But I had no specific town in mind when I wrote my chapter.”

Cummings' reference to the fictitious Donita drew more local attention when he recalled that the “Donita football teams were the terror of the state, and Ernie Miklos was the terror of the team ...”

We reminded Cummings that Donora High School once had an outstanding football player named Frank Miklos. Miklos matriculated at Fordham University in his freshman year before entering the U.S. Army during World War II and then finished his collegiate career at Harvard University, where he lettered as a quarterback in 1946, ‘47 and ‘48. He also was an outstanding baseball prospect, ranking second, according to some observers, only to Stan Musial.

“That's just a coincidence,” Cummings, who was 38 at the time, said about the names Miklos and Donita/Donora. “As I said, I didn't try to pinpoint any particular community. I based my description on a conglomerate picture of the entire Monongahela River Valley from Homestead to Brownsville.

“I grew up in western Pennsylvania and I can remember visiting towns like Homestead, Roscoe and Brownsville. It's ironic that I chose the name Miklos because I do remember Donora's great football teams of 1944 and ‘45. They had guys like Dan Towler and Bimbo Cecconi and Arnold Galiffa.”

But where did Cummings get the name Miklos?

“I just picked it out of the air while watching a movie,” he told us. “I wanted a good Polish name because I remembered there were a lot of Polish families in that area. The Miklos name came from a character in the movie.”

Cummings, also an award-winning investigative reporter who later authored several acclaimed books including “Goombota: The Improbable Rise and Fall of John Gotti and His Gang,” re-emphasized in our 1969 interview that he didn't have any particular town in mind and that he didn't try to offend anyone.

When the truth about “Naked Came the Stranger” broke in August, Cummings explained, “None of us (at Newsday) knew what the other was doing. Mike (McGrady) put the book together, rewriting some chapters and throwing out others that were repetitious.”

Young, posing as Penelope Ashe and whose picture appeared on the back cover of the book, made a number of public and television appearances and played it straight as the author. All 25 of the real authors revealed their true identities later.

Young later wrote several books using the pseudonym Penelope Ashe.

“Naked Came The Stranger,” tabbed as competition for Jacqueline Susann's “Valley of the Dolls” and “The Love Machine,” sold nearly 50,000 hard cover copies in its first month of publication. Internet references estimate total sales (hard cover and paperback) at 400,000 today.

The book drew mixed reviews before the hoax was revealed and it garnered even more attention after the truth was discovered. It was described as “probably the best sex put-on since ‘Candy,'” and even the authors called it “the worst book ever written.”

Jack Schwartz, a general assignment reporter for Newsday, said in 1969 that the front cover “was the only thing tasteful about the book.”

The jacket cover offered the stern view of an unidentified nude woman.

McGrady, whose 1968 book, “A Dove In Vietnam,” detailed his journey to the war-torn country and drew high praise, wrote about the creation of “Naked Came The Stranger” in a 1970 book titled “Stranger Than Naked Or How To Write Dirty Books For Fun & Profit.” It still makes for good reading.

“Naked Came The Stranger” became a movie in August 1975 and made an inauspicious area debut early that month at the cozy Magic Lantern Cinema in Smithton. The film starring Darby Lloyd Rains as the lead character, Gillian (Gilly) Blake, was rated “X” but it lacked the punch of the novel.

Critics noted that the names of the characters were the same, but not to protect the innocent. One review said, “Anyone connected with the movie is guilty of taking a cleverly written book – a sex spoof – and turning it into a typical run-of-the-mill porno flick. It's rated ‘X' but ‘R' would be more appropriate, ‘R,' that is, for ridiculous.”

In addition to Cummings and McGrady, the only writing credits for the movie went to Harvey Aaronson, Stanley Green, Bill McIlwain, Radley Metzer, George Vecsey and Robert Weimer.

There were no Red Carpet festivities at the Magic Lantern opening.

And anyone anticipating scenes depicting Donora football was more than disappointed.

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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