Home » Nettleton, Lois » MY VALENTINE FOR LOIS NETTLETON AND JEAN SHEPHERD

MY VALENTINE FOR LOIS NETTLETON AND JEAN SHEPHERD

The two valentines shown here I bought on ebay where they were auctioned among much of Lois Nettleton’s saved mementos of Jean.  My files indicate that six of her valentines to Jean appeared for sale, and one by Jean to her. What follows are excerpts from my writings about their relationship.  First using an interview she did for Doug McIntyre, the second part based on some of the notes she wrote regarding my book,  Excelsior, You Fathead!   I focus here on their personal relationship.  Further material about them will appear later under my name.

JS to LN valentine          LN to JS valentine

Because actress Lois Nettleton had been an important part of Jean Shepherd’s early life in New York City, and married to him for about six years in the early 1960s, I had wanted to interview her for my first book but a newspaper article years before I began writing quoted her as saying firmly that she didn’t want to talk about her relationship with Shepherd, and I decided that it would be an exercise in futility even to try.  I later found out that in the year 2000 she had spoken about her relationship with Shepherd in an interview with Doug McIntyre, the West Coast broadcaster.  He had begun working on his never-to-be-completed Shepherd biography, and his actress wife knew Lois, so they set up a taped interview, which he never used.  He sent me a copy of that interview, in which she confirmed, augmented, and shed new light on several aspects of Shepherd’s life and work.

During the interview she talks about how she and Jean met: “I was a big listener and a big fan of his and I would listen to him.”  She says she first heard Shepherd and met him when he was on all night, from January to August, 1956.  She remembers that one night Shepherd asked listeners to call if they had ever made up a joke, so she called and spoke to him during a commercial or news break, and told him her riddle.  He responded, “That is the worst joke.  That is so terrible!”  She says that the question became a running joke of his on the air: “What kind of cereal do ghosts eat?”  Many guessed that it was Ghost Toasties, but the right answer was Shrouded Wheat.

Nettleton recalls that a few weeks later, Shepherd asked about something else that she no longer remembers.  She called and they talked about it on the phone.  A little later he called her back for more talk, and over a period of weeks he began to refer to her as The Listener.  Shepherd would say on the air, “Let’s see what The Listener thinks,” and he would call her and they’d talk by phone during his program.

She says he found out that she was an actress, though not yet well known, and eventually he asked her out to dinner.  She was thrilled because she was “a huge fan.”  They had dinner a number of times, and she participated in the “mill” at the burned-out Wanamaker Building, which Shepherd called for when he’d been fired from WOR for advertising the non-sponsor, Sweetheart Soap.  Because she was frequently on the road, the friendship/romance proceeded slowly.  She comments that they were both leading exciting lives in New York at the time, and she thought he was as single as she was.  Eventually she learned that he was married, though he claimed he’d been separated from his family for a long time.  She ended their relationship and then he called to say he was divorced and they started up again and eventually married in December of 1960.  She recalls that Jean did not tell her of his very brief marriage to his first wife (the one before Joan Warner and her two children with him) until after she married him.

She says that he wanted to keep their marriage a secret.  She could only wear her wedding ring when they were with close friends.  “I think he wanted to just be thought of as—and it was right for his work—he didn’t want to be put into a category.  He didn’t want anybody to think ‘Oh, that’s the kind of man he is.’  He wanted to be a free spirit and be this kind of Playboy kind of guy that just goes through the world and does all these things, and he has his women and he has this and that but he’s not like a married man with a house and kids and all that.”

Asked how he liked family functions, Lois replies, “Hated them! Oh!  Hated them!  In fact at Christmas we went with my family on Christmas Eve—terrible!  Christmas day we spent the day with his mom—and he was okay then….No, he was not one who liked family.”  She did speak of one surprising domestic quality he had: he was a wonderful cook.  She said he used loads of pots and pans, which she volunteered to clean up after because of the great dishes he invented.

Lois comments that right from the first phone conversation she and Jean talked a lot, “…we just talked endlessly—endlessly—and laughed endlessly.  I just thought he was everything.  Everything he said I was laughing at.  That was the basis of our marriage…my admiration of him, and the excitement, you know, of his life, and the fact that he was so funny.”  She comments that he was not only brilliant in his work but in life: “…the things he’d say and realize and think about politically in world affairs and all sorts of things.”

Commenting on Shepherd’s need to talk constantly, she says, “I think he pretty much needed people.  I think that’s pretty true because for one thing, being a ham operator, he’d be talking and doing his show all day and then come home and talk to the whole world on—Yeah, I think he needed to communicate constantly.  It’s almost like as distant as he was in his own inner being—from everyone—he had to have that contact with people.”

Lois continues, “About the secrecy, you know.  From the beginning—not knowing that he was married.  Yes, things that I found out about later.  A whole life that he lived that I didn’t know about.   We were separated a lot [by their career travels] but I think he knew pretty much what I was doing.  What was happening.  I didn’t know much at all about what the rest of his life was like.  I probably still don’t.”

===================

So much for Doug McIntyre’s interview, only a foretaste of the interview I intended to have with Lois.  McIntyre sent me her Hollywood address and I sent her a package of Shep material and a letter asking her to get in touch with me.  She called from the Coast and invited me to visit her in her New York apartment she had shared with Jean over forty years ago.  I was ecstatic!  I sent her a copy of my book and waited for her to set a date for our visit.  She wrote me how excited she was about the book, indicating how important it was for him to be recognized as the genius he was, and saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  I typed out a series of questions that I hoped would fill in much about Jean’s creative activities and professional relationships of the Legendary Time and the early 1960s.  I bought a bunch of blank tapes and a second cassette recorder just to be sure I’d get every word.  She died before coming back to New York, so we never met in person, but I have a batch of hand-written notes she’d made in response to what she’d read in my book.

Lois writes in her notes that whenever she was in town, she taped Jean’s shows and when he got home that night they would discuss them.  She believes she gave all the tapes to him when they divorced. [One mislabeled box remained, and eventually her friend and executor gave me those tapes from the late 1950s.]

“To me, our marriage was an ideal pairing of two famous career people who didn’t need to lean on each other, who enjoyed getting to know more about each other each day. Who made no demands, were flexible, and loved getting back together again after long absences.  Glamorous, exciting!  Very naïve of me—but actually very good for him in many ways—even after divorce, which he tried to avoid, he wanted to keep the relationship.”

“After divorce, never spoke to him again—except picking up more of his things.”

Lois Nettleton has given me a grail. Her communications and her comments are priceless treasures for me personally and for the world of Shep.  So she is more than a movie star to me, she is my real, not illusory, Dulcinea.  As I contemplate her notes, I realize that her story—her earlier interview and these notes together—constitute a love story, just as Leigh Brown’s typed letters to her friend (which I have) are a love story.  The difference between these romances is that Leigh wrests the beloved Jean from Lois and she holds on better.  In the encounter, Lois doesn’t even know there’s a competition until there is nothing left but the shouting.

LOIS NETTLETON’S JEAN SHEPHERD ALBUM

And then more grail.  My chalice runneth over!  A few months after the sad emptying-out of Lois’s New York life, some of her Shepherd-related keepsakes begin appearing on ebay.com.  Yes, indeed, Lois seemed to keep everything.  Remember, she had boxes full of old photos and clippings of herself, going back to before she won the Miss Chicago contest in 1948.  I feel an affinity toward her for that—my parents, my wife and I, all savers—too much of the actual, physical pieces of our past to have and to hold.  Sentimental, maybe even a bit romantic.

Artifacts out of Lois’ closet, these closely concealed fragments of art and passion are exposed to the light of day and watchful eyes of anonymous collectors through whom they would be dispersed and never put together into a more complete and cohesive history.

To preserve that history, I’ve snatched from the internet and printed out the images of those objects and have them in a loose leaf binder I’ve titled “Lois Nettleton’s Jean Shepherd Album.”  Archeologist, conservator, curator of art and life.  The question for me is how her mementos of Jean, the man she revered and loved, the only man she ever married, can achieve real meaning in the story of his art and the story of their lives.  Which is to say, what can I, author, historian, kook, learn from it all.

Beyond all that and more unequivocal, there’s a batch of stuff that’s maybe too personal for either of these two very private people to ever have contemplated would be out there on the internet for oohing and aahing by all and sundry and then have hung on even the most reverential of walls. Postcards from Jean to Lois, and handmade valentine cards from Lois to Jean.  Although he didn’t want her to call him “dear” or wear her wedding ring in public, he didn’t seem to care if the postman read cards from his extensive travels—from a postcard written early in 1957, soon after they began dating: “Darling,” and “Love love love!!”  And one says, “Lois my love.” For just about every year they were together, there is a large, hand-made, collaged valentine card from her to him.  Lois’s valentines for sale on the internet say: “Lois Loves Jean,” “Jean—I love you—Lois,” and “Will You Be My Valentine—Always?”  For all this I feel uncomfortable for their memories.  But I bought a valentine from her, and a postcard from him.  If not I, blushes the supreme rationalizer, who better?  Had Lois and Jean known, they’d have burned the lot.

And, unpredicted but gratifying to know he thought to do this, there’s one valentine from Jean to Lois, a valentine from the closet Libertine to the movie star wife.  It’s an overlapping sequence of hand-drawn heart-faces, suggesting some cryptic little story known only between them, ending with his written words, “I can’t fight it, I love you, J.”  Beyond my full comprehension, this is the most unexpected and most intimate piece of their lives for sale.  It is sweet, it is loving, it is enigmatic.  Reader, I bought it.

Lois began as a fan—a beguiled listener—became a loving wife, and remained to the end of her life, an enthusiastic advocate of his work.

“I didn’t meet Jean until [1956], didn’t know he was married—when his wife contacted me I was stunned and furious and would not see him again.  [Her original underlining has double lines.]  “A year or so later he contacted me—brought his divorce papers to me—and we began seeing each other again—gradually—until we finally married and got an apartment together.” In December 1960.

Despite a coment by a friend of them both, she says that after Hollywood called, “I never stayed in Hollywood—I would always come home.  After each film or TV show, even after my second movie, Come Fly With Me, I remember hurrying home to Jean.”

“To me, our marriage was an ideal pairing of two famous career people who didn’t need to lean on each other, who enjoyed getting to know more about each other each day. Who made no demands, were flexible, and loved getting back together again after long absences.  Glamorous, exciting!  Very naïve of me—but actually very good for him in many ways—even after divorce, which he tried to avoid, he wanted to keep the relationship.”

“After divorce, never spoke to him again—except picking up more of his things.”

An informant who says he lived next door to them says he once heard terrible shouting in the hall and Lois would not let Jean back into the apartment.  This may well have been the moment when she learned about some of Jean’s secret life.  Lois’ friend and executor comments that when Lois broke up with Jean he “wrote and begged and pleaded” that they stay together.  “I think,” says the friend and executor, “that the trauma he went through at that time affected him for a long while.”

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7 Comments

  1. joelbaumwoll says:

    Nicely done, Gene. I like how you are parsing our the story of Shep in your blog. I wish you had more photos of your Sheperabilia. Joel

  2. Don Koenig says:

    I am so glad you have made such large efforts to research and relay the story of this great American humorist. The hero of my youth is now, to me, a man with dramatic flaws. Such an enigma. The more I read the more my esteem and disappointment grows Thank You, Gene..

  3. Sam West says:

    Great talent but a failure as a man. I hear his WOR shows on archive.org every night.

  4. Sam West says:

    I feel very sorry for Lois. She was an absolutely gorgeous woman and great actress. Lots of roles a a vulnerable, but decent person. She did several walk-bys in “This is Greenwich Village” that Shepherd narrated.

  5. Sam West says:

    Lois could have done better than this creep for a “husband,” so to speak.

    • ebbergmann says:

      They also had good times together and were compatible in some important, intellectual ways. She didn’t ultimately “do better” with Frank Sinatra either, though they were together for about a year and a half, I understand–until he acted nastily and she cut him off too.

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