shepquest

MY BOOKS ABOUT JEAN SHEPHERD

SHEP'S ARMY: BUMMERS, BLISTERS, AND BOONDOGGLES, Opus Books. Nearly three dozen of Shepherd's army stories never before in print introduced and transcribed. Foreword by Keith Olbermann. (published August 2013)

EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD, Applause Books (published March, 2005)

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JEAN SHEPHERD Afterwords–etceteras to come

Here’s the agonizing truth. (Be aware that sometimes a taped show is rebroadcast at a later date—maybe when he is out of town or for some other just cause, and at least once, a significant tape is chosen to fit an occasion.) Most dramatically and sadly, he chooses his broadcast tape of April 1, 1968—April Fool’s Day in sixth grade—to stand in metaphorically, after twenty-two years with the station, for his final WOR broadcast, on April Fool’s Day of 1977. Shepherd and several other long-time radio talkers on WOR are asked to leave because of management’s change in programming philosophy. The week before, Shepherd tells his listeners of his imminent departure and claims that he has chosen to devote more time to his many other creative projects, saying that the decision is his alone, not connected to WOR’s new policy.

This is somewhat of an obfuscation regarding the whole truth—surely he would prefer to have chosen his departure totally on his own terms and at his own time. We’re told that he is furious about being dismissed. This hurts, and he will never forget and never forgive. WOR has been cruel to this broadcaster considered to be both supreme in his field and one of America’s great humorists.

Instead of the anguish of having to improvise for forty-five minutes and say goodbye on his last day, he chooses the old tape from 1968—a kid story. Surely he chooses it because of the description of cruelty perpetrated on him in sixth grade—a powerful metaphor for his present situation. Terminating his creative life on WOR, the rebroadcast of his kid story about being April-fooled by his friends ends:

“Humiliated before the entire world. They heard! I couldn’t figure out why they did it to me. Why did they do this to me? And we walked our separate ways.”

[A long pause before this recorded voice of Jean Shepherd ends

his last broadcast on WOR]

April Fool’s Day.”

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JEAN SHEPHERD kid story afterword continued

Other “truthing” might be some details in describing his first day in kindergarten; his being forced from a natural left-handedness to society’s rule of right; his first encounter with a library and with the writings of Thomas Wolfe; some parts of his ham radio tales and his musical adventures; and some of his background working in a steel mill.

Sometimes Shepherd’s truth is in giving us a life-lesson in a parable. Fellow-broadcaster Barry Farber says that Shepherd enjoyed when he, Farber, recognized these parables for what they were. They were truth, but what kinds of truth? Where else do some truths intrude on Shep’s multifaceted fictions? Could Shepherd’s April Fool’s Day story be symbolic of something important—maybe some agonizing truth—beyond his life as a kid?

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JEAN SHEPHERD more afterwords

For coming-of-age, the escargot story, opening up the “Jean Shepherd” persona to a wider world of endless possibilities, in its specifics, is very probably a fabrication. The craftsmanship, the artistry he put into it! It’s so perfect and the moral so pat that it’s too good to be true. Building up the image of himself as the unsophisticated bumbler—never having been to such an affair, and then the “Oh, my God!” repeated so that one is tricked into assuming the worst until the revelation: “It is so good I can’t believe it!” Long after that moment of recognition while he’s just lying in the dormitory room he will remember this epiphany—“there’s an aftertaste.”

The Bugatti tale might be one of the few Jean Shepherd stories in this book that with justification could be considered, in the main, autobiographically true to his life. Ironically, his long-term memory seems to have failed him regarding some specifics (there are two similar but distinct Bugattis with nearly the same designations), but the incident leading to the epiphany is corroborated by accurate details regarding the where and when of the particular car he saw. The 57SC as retained in his memory as being so widely celebrated, subsequently owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren, was the centerpiece of a recent major exhibit of Lauren’s cars at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. As the Museum’s director commented about the car, “It speaks a little of evil, I think it’s so wickedly designed. This black beauty, though, is extraordinary.” As Shepherd predicted, cars exhibited and esteemed in an art museum!

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JEAN SHEPHERD Kid stories afterword

AFTERWORDS—WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT [1]

 

Bugatti and Other Little Realities

Among the thousands of audios of Jean Shepherd’s broadcasts, we sometimes encounter several variations describing incidents from his real or fictional life. For this book, but for exceptions such as the inclusion of several divergent descriptions of how he began work at the steel mill, I’ve chosen one version of each story idea.

So Jean Shepherd can remember—or create—more than one version of an incident. Shepherd wants people to understand that he does not remember all his tales from actual occurrence, but that he is a creator—an artist. In his later years he especially emphasizes that, as he puts it, “I want my stuff to sound real. And so when I tell a story, I tell it in the first person so…that it sounds like it actually happened to me. It didn’t….I’m a fiction writer. I’m not sitting there doing a biography or an autobiography.”

His style of telling and the details are what entertain us, and it’s Shepherd’s underlying take on life as a kid, and his view of human life as a whole, that gives his stories their substance and their truth to life. Often crucial are the lessons Shepherd learned. Important truths reside in how he sees the world and how he expresses in these stories a kid’s growing maturation: his education.

What then, is true and what’s fiction in all these stories? We don’t know for sure other than to suspect that, although Shepherd understood a lot about what it was like to be a kid, most of the story details are the product of his imagination. True? “Bolivia exports tin,” is one of the almost totally inconsequential truths Shepherd said he learned in school. But what else can we suppose might be true to fact?

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JEAN SHEPHERD Bugatti story ending

I wish some really serious biographer, instead of an automobile cuckoo—would do the life and times of Ettore Bugatti, because he is such a symbolic figure.  Such a fantastic figure and it would take somebody who is a really top biographer who would deal with Bugatti the way you would deal with, say, a Picasso—and incidentally, he is very much in the same league.  He is in the same league.  Don’t you forget it.  So I would say that a thousand years from now Bugattis will be in museums the way Picasso paintings are.  And for the same reason.  For their artistic values.

[END OF PART 11]

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JEAN SHEPHERD Bugatti–nearing the end!

And so, Ettore Bugatti, this great artist, would create a car specifically for the man involved.  And, by the way, money wasn’t the criteria.  So, if you were a big bootlegger from Chicago, you couldn’t just go over to France and talk to Ettore Bugatti and say you would like a car.  Not like you know, today, it’s money.  You buy a car and that’s it.  It doesn’t make any difference who you are.  If you want to buy a Rolls, you can buy a Rolls Royce.  Not a Bugatti.  Many people were turned down by the maestro.  And all cars were ordered personally.  You didn’t go to your Bugatti dealer and order a car.  Any more than you went to your Rembrandt dealer and ordered a Rembrandt painted up.  And so if you came to the enclave there and he didn’t like the way you were, he didn’t feel that you were fit to be driving a Bugatti, you simply did not get a Bugatti.  That was simply all there was to it.  He would suggest perhaps an Isotta Franschini would be more suitable to you.  Possibly a Maserati.  But certainly not a Bugatti.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Bugatti story continued

Now, you want to hear a little more about Bugatti?  You know, we’re not used to thinking of the car as an art form.  We’re used to thinking—beautiful cars—there’s a great–looking, maybe a classic car, and so on.  But we’re not used to thinking of the car as an art form.  But for a long time, considerably longer than we have, the Europeans have recognized it as such.  It is an art form.  And unfortunately, it is an art form that is in decline.  And this is not anything to do with nostalgia, it has to do with the changing world, that the car has become a utilitarian object, pure and simple.  It wasn’t always that way.

When Bugatti created his cars it was the day when dukes, duchesses, kings, rajahs, maharajahs, viscounts, field marshals, Ali Khans, people of that kind—when they wanted an automobile, when they wanted a car, they treated the car like the rest of their life.  If they wanted a fine home they didn’t just go out and buy something off the plain pipe racks.  There would be a fine house, a chateau that would be created for them.  Their suits were done that way.  If you were a maharajah you would travel to Savoy Row in London.  Seven or eight thousand miles by boat and finally you’d arrive at your tailor—Bond Street possibly, and he would create a wardrobe for you.  And it would take months.  You wouldn’t just go there and get fittedHe would create a wardrobe.  And so it would take months of fitting a client, who would stay in a magnificent suite at a hotel in London while he was being fitted.  Well, his car was really a carriage—when he was out, his automobile was not a car, really, it was not a means of transportation (it was that of course), it was an extension of his personality, like everything else.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Bugatti & (167) ARTSY WEDDINGS

But it was a car the way you would never conceive of cars being.  The difference between Ettore Bugatti’s 57SC and what we would consider a beautiful car today is the difference between one of those dollar coffee mugs that you buy with a picture of Donald Duck on the side, and a silver chalice turned out by Botticelli—to add style to the life of a Venetian grand duke, to the great world, a whole cultural world.  In fact it sort of spanned time.  Ettore Bugatti was a Renaissance artist who somehow had been reincarnated in the twentieth century, and he lived a baronial style.  As a great artist should.

And he had helpers and devoted assistants who worshipped the ground he walked on.  His factory was in France, not in Italy, but in France, and the Bugatti enclave is legend today among people who know anything about twentieth century art.  And every car was turned out with a kind of care, love, and total artistry that, say, a Rembrandt would turn out his work.  And incidentally, a Rembrandt also had his apprentices who would fill in the background and deal with the little details—or did you know that?  Oh, yes.  And so Bugatti—Ettore Bugatti–created this fantastic method, and I’d never heard of him!  I just knew there was this thing called “foreign cars.”  I didn’t realize that there was one man to whom a car was not a car, and he spoke in a universal language.  It was an art—pure and simple.  Ettore Bugatti.

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WEDDINGS

Amazing how varied the simple wedding ceremony can be from couple to couple.

FIRST EVENT

I married my Spanish wife in her church of the patron saint of Granada,

Spain, Nuestra Senora de las Angustias.

.

I translate that as “our lady of the anguishes.” Very sadly ironic as, for four years, starting on our honeymoon, I experienced anguish and cried nearly every day. I felt obligated to be tolerant of her traditional Spanish belief that people and cultures with different customs were inherently evil, and that some day she would recognize that I was not the Devil. (Note the fierce violence of the Spanish Civil War.) That ended on the Sunday morning as I was contentedly working on the construction of my Spanish classical guitar in our finished basement when she descended the stairs and threatened me with a carving knife. I defended myself with the rolled-up Arts Section of the Sunday Times. Did this really happen to meek, mild, innocent little Eugene B. Bergmann? Yes.

The next act of our anguish-filled, real-life Garcia Lorca tragedy, was narrated to me by the Queens County Sheriff:

He arrived at the house my parents had paid for and found my then-former wife at a second floor window threatening him with a pistol. He retreated and returned with a squad of the local police in bullet-proof vests. They broke in the front door, rushed up the stairs, and disarmed her—it was a toy plastic pistol. As she did not go gently, they had to remove her in a strait jacket.

I restrain myself from describing further scenes, but did gain from my Spanish experience: some little insight into the interior life of Andalucía; and inspiration for one of my unpublished novels.

SECOND EVENT

Allison and I connected through a personal ad.

As one might note, folks, I robbed the cradle.

Encountering Allison and falling in love at first phone call, we wed on the first anniversary of our first date in a delightful, traditional church in Rutherford, NJ. We had the reception at a Jersey Ramada Inn’s elegant atrium complete with tropical plantings and a pool. A string quartet provided classical music.

We’ve been married for over 31 years.

THIRD EVENT

Our younger son, Drew, met Linda in college. They’ve been significant others for 10 years. They were wed in June, 2018 in an outdoor ceremony and reception, complete with large backyard plantings, enormous tent for protection, and an inviting pool.

Brian, our close family friend since he was born, officiated. Years ago he’d told his family that he felt the calling and he began services with a few attendees in their family room. Soon he had a wife, two sons, and a crowded church. His congregation, CenterPoint, moved to a former synagogue on Jerusalem Avenue where he has about a thousand members. (They now have two other Long Island locations.) On the large front stage they have a Christian rock group in attendance, and are backed by three enormous video screens. Brian is forceful, entertaining, informative, and very personal in his talks to his congregation. I much admire his natural persuasiveness.

Brian performed a traditional, yet personal and loving ceremony.  Linda and Drew read their own loving decorations to each other, the content of both bringing a surprising, wonderful, and emotional jolt to all.

Part of their declarations:

Linda, I love you because of your tenacious attitude, beautiful smile, and unique sense of humor. You are the only thing I need when the silk is rough, when the open road looks closed, or when I’m unemployed, broke, and wearing a linen suit. And most of all I can’t live without you because of how you make me whole every single day I am with you.

Linda, I vow to: Continue to dedicate myself to you first because without a strong US our family cannot survive

I vow to: Be a good father; Keep our family safe; Listen to your every need and desire; And become rich together, not just in monetary wealth, but family and emotional riches as well.

Drew, Out of all the many great loves stories out there, ours is my favorite Out of the 10 years we’ve been together there have been two of my favorite days. 1. The day u told me you loved me and 2.Today.

And it wasn’t because anything crazy happened, it was because of the way I felt.

So when things aren’t always so easy, like when u pretend to be awake and have a conversation with me, or when u take all the blankets. I promise to hold on to this feeling

I vow to always root for you, support you, bring out the best in you, I vow to grow old with u I vow to share my crazy dreams with you,  I vow to make more favorite days with you.

You’re my best friend, lover, father to our daughter. I vow to continue to make our story the best love story.

 

I danced with the bride, I danced with the groom.

For all his success, Pastor Brian has remained (to my delight) a child at heart. As evening fell, Brian and Drew agreed to a little wrestling match to see who could throw the other in the pool. The moist result shows that they both won.

An important participant in the festivities was Linda and Drew’s

six-month-old daughter, the most beautiful baby in the world.

CHARLI GRACE BERGMANN

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JEAN SHEPHERD even more Bugatti

And I couldn’t believe what I saw.  It was that unreal.  He had reached up and flicked on a neon light and that light made it look even more spectacular.  This thing began to gleam with that light.  And there it was.

We were looking at one of the great automobiles.  I mean one of the great automobiles.  By ‘great’—this car had appeared in probably two or three hundred catalogs of great masterworks—that specific car.  Even today that car is almost priceless.  It was one of the finest works of one of the great artists of the twentieth century–considered possibly his prime work.  Ettore Bugatti.  Did you ever hear of the name?  Ettore Bugatti.  The maestro.  A man who created automobiles the way Michelangelo created altar cloths.  He created them as works of art.

And there, resting on the floor under that flickering neon light was a dark, rich, plum-colored 57SC, one of the great moments in the career of Ettore Bugatti.  An automobile that had been created for a French duke late in the 1930s—around 1937.  A car built specifically for mountain driving.  An alive, magnificent, evil, sensual-looking machine that lay low.  It didn’t’ really squat on the floor, it just sort of lounged, stretching out low and flat—sensual.  And looking at that car you felt flight in every inch of it.  Not only flight but movement and statement.  And a curious kind of truth.  It was so honest.

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JEAN SHEPHERD more Bugatti

An acquaintance of mine was a teacher at the University.  One Friday afternoon he asked a couple of us if we were really curious to see something.

I said, “Yeah.”

“You be at this address tomorrow at eleven in the morning.”

I woke up that morning and said to myself, “Oh well, what the heck,” I got in my battered old Ford, and drove over to the address.  It turned out to be a garage.  A plain, ordinary, crummy-looking garage.  Nothing except a couple of swinging doors and a couple of shade-covered windows.

Outside, the teacher was waiting with three other students, and he said, “Okay, you really want to see something?  I want to prepare you for this.”

We didn’t know what to expect.  He said, “First of all, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”  He played it very well, theatrically.  He said, “Alright, are you ready?”  He took his key and opened the lock on these big garage doors and he swung them open and the four of us walked into the gloom of this garage on a gray Saturday morning in Cincinnati.

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