Shepherd frequently complained about WOR radio. As his friend and coworker, Barry Farber told me, “All Shep had to do was, once in awhile, play one commercial the way it was supposed to be done, or just once, smile at a WOR executive when he passed him in the hallway, and he would have been on his way to super recognition.” Showing his disdain, Shepherd frequently blended the station identification with the subject he was discussing: “Oh, WOR, we love you, even though you hate us…” “Speaking of bad radio, this is WOR AM and FM, New York.” “What a cacophony, gallimaufry, which reminds me, this is WOR AM and FM, New York. Silly,idiotic radio station!” More of his innumerable references to WOR can be found at http://www.flicklives.com as well as in my Excelsior, You Fathead! From that book: Engineer Herb Squire says that until Herb Saltzman arrived, the WOR management was isolated from the day-to-day operations. Regarding Shepherd’s comment during a broadcast that the WOR management didn’t even know he had a show on the air, Squire reacted, “That is entirely possible!”
Shep did have a few friends at the station, among them General Manager Herb Saltzman, Barry Farber, Bob and Ray. The photo, probably taken in March 1975 shows many of the WOR staff. Seated in the middle is Herb Saltzman, to the left is Bob Elliott and two people to the right is Ray Goulding. Jean stands on the far left in a light jacket and dark glasses, smiling shyly, with Joe Franklin in front of him and Barry Farber to his side.
In the 1980s, WOR produced a large-format booklet titled “WOR Radio 1922-1982 The First Sixty Years.” Several of their major morning talk show families got several full pages of photos and text. Others, such as Bob and Ray, Henry Morgan, and Jean Shepherd, had to share photo space on double-spreads with several lesser lights. The extent of WOR’s mentions of Jean Shepherd in the 56-page booklet: “Jean Shepherd also came in at this time, with his spellbinding ability to weave reminiscences of his rural childhood roots in a continuing series of monologues;” “Jean Shepherd continued his program….” Sharp-eyed Shep enthusiasts will note WOR’s error–Shepherd’s Hammond, Indiana never was “rural,” it was a major industrial city, with its oil refineries, junk yards, and steel mills.
Most of the then-major names in the WOR “family” will soon disappear down memory lane, but Jean Shepherd, genius, will still be around in his creations and in his influence on our culture. Excelsior, Shep!
Hurray, Shepherd! There’s nobody in the world like you!
In a 2008 article for the Website “Slate,” Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, refers to Shepherd’s subtle art as of “intrinsic marginality.” My Excelsior, You Fathead! discusses some ways in which this is true, but the subject needs to be described in more detail. In what ways is Jean Shepherd’s art intrinsically marginal?
I’ve quoted Ron Della Chiesa, WGBH broadcaster and Shep’s friend for decades, as having commented that Shepherd would hear his material being culled from his radio show by other performers and they would be far better known than he. As Della Chiesa went on to say, “He became well known among people who knew Shepherd’s work, and who revered him as a cult… He would say to me, ‘What do you mean a cult, Ron?’ He would be offended by that, as opposed to being universally known, like a Steve Allen.” Why a cult?
I’ll pat we cultists, we Shep-kooks, on the back, by suggesting that, as many media professionals and others have said, Shepherd enthusiasts tend to be, as kids, the nerds, the loners, the intellectuals, the more sensitive thinkers among our chronological peers. According to numerous media personalities, many of those who listened as youngsters with their transistors under the covers, in their maturity tended to become part of the media themselves, onstage or behind the scenes. To mention other loners and sensitive observers of the passing scene, three other, disparate, Shepherd enthusiasts are comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Andy Kaufman, and U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who said, “He actually made you feel that you weren’t alone… I think he had the best influence on my sensibility. And I think it helped me kind of pursue that sense of being different, being an individual.” Not the kind of mentality that afflicts millions.
Most listened to him alone—especially because he seemed to be talking to each individual by himself (much more himself than herself, for whatever causes). Much less the mass-market consumer/follower. Not the kind of mentality that afflicts millions.
His style requires quiet contemplation—sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful concentration. He doesn’t deliver jolting punch lines every ten seconds, as Shepherd himself would differentiate his style of humor from that of most of his contemporaries’ fast patter. (Other than his live, on-stage performances, such as those broadcast from the Limelight Café on Saturday nights for a couple of years.) His style requires understanding and deeper mining for truths. As well as his frequent laugh-out-loud comments, his humor not only goes deeper, but last longer, leaving lifelong changes in attitudes. As I like to say, he tickles the better parts of our minds. Not the kind of mentality that afflicts millions.
Jean Shepherd’s essence is an acquired taste accessible to the relatively few, sort of like a taste for olives, and rare wine to be sipped with understanding and an appreciation of its subtle quality. An audience measured not in the millions, but, one can hope, in an optimistic assessment of humanity, of upwards of—dare I say it—only a few hundred thousand poor fatheads.
Radio, despite what some talents have brought to it, has never been given the respect it deserves as a medium. Shepherd recognized this. As I put it in Excelsior, You Fathead!:
By the 1960s, radio was in decline and television became increasingly dominant. Barry Farber comments that “Radio was just bypassed prestige-wise by television. And Jean said something I’ve quoted many times: ‘You could be on New York radio for many years and be widely unknown.’”
Shepherd had, from time to time commented on the potential of radio as he had observed it in the recent past. There were such great writers, performers, and sound effects people who had done marvelous work in radio and now the entire medium was losing out to television. Yes, radio had been the dominant medium for some years, but its very nature—sound over the airwaves that then was lost, despite someone making a recording of it, made it too evanescent to accumulate any enduring prestige. The echoes of forgotten stories and commentaries. Quoted in my book is Fred Allen’s comment from the last page of his Treadmill to Oblivion:
When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished it slinks down Memory Lane into the limbo of yesteryear’s happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.
To quote myself again (EYF! p. 419): “He wanted it all, grasping for the solid gold merry-go-round ring in every media beyond radio—high on the belief that he could create masterpieces in all of them that would achieve artistic, popular, and financial success.” Where’d that optimism come from, Shep? Not gonna happen.
Music is also a medium of sound, but one can listen to music many times over through live performance or recordings, while words in stories and commentary do not lend themselves as well to repeated listening by large audiences.
SHEPHERD’S STYLE OF HUMOR VS. SNAPPY LINES EVERY 10 SECONDS
Shepherd’s style requires minds willing and able to contemplate and appreciate subtleties of ideas and humor, willing to permit one’s mind to be tickled, not just open to someone being wacked with a slapstick or a wise crack. It also requires a certain, slower mindset capable of relaxing for more than a minute and allowing another mind to gently captivate you.
My belief for most of my life has been that education is a supreme virtue. That it leads to greater understanding and appreciation of life and art. That once we have basic requirements such as food, water, warmth and shelter, we move up in our desire for such achievements as comfort, the pleasures of using our minds, esthetics appreciation and creative endeavors. There is a greater ability of the individual and society to grasp at a higher degree of our human potential—toward which evolution has been moving us out of Shepherd’s “muck and mire.” That quality that makes us superior to lesser beings, improving our joy in living and our ability to improve everyone’s life (Abraham Maslow—look him up and see what he had to say about “self actualization.”).
But poor Shep, with all that, still feels relatively neglected, though he can express his feelings with comic style. Jean Shepherd speaking in a much-exaggerated, mock-sorrowful, pleading voice on a Friday night broadcast, March 5, 1965:
I want to hear one person. Just one small person. That’s all I need. Night after night I wring my poor bones dry. Night after night, out of this turnip—this me, out of this rock—this me—I try to draw a little blood—for you. For what? For what? Do you think it’s to sell Miller Beer? Eh? Do you think I get satisfaction out of selling Miller Beer, eh? Eh? You’re doggone well tootin’ dad, you’re doggone well tootin’! [A Miller Beer commercial follows, and Shepherd then continues.]
Ah! That’s all I need. Just one little word—of encouragement. A small word. All I want is just to hear one voice crying out of the wilderness, “Hurray, Shepherd! You’re fantastic! Hurray, Shepherd! There’s nobody in the world like you! Hurray, Shepherd for the president of the world!”
That’s all I want. Just one little word here and there, of encouragement. That’s all we only want—all of us. Just a little cheering, just a little solace from time to time. Just a little indication. Just the smallest clue! That somebody cares. That somebody [said with a sob] cares. That somebody cares [he is crying, pounding on his table]. I sang my heart out for ya just about five minutes ago. I almost blew a gasket for you. For all of you—out there on the Island, for you, you slobs in Staten Island, and for that nothing bunch up in the Bronx.
Fifty years after Shepherd’s adventure with The Beatles, rock and roll has still not died as he’d predicted it would. How pervasive it has become, how vast in its permutations. After The Beatles, who now seem so mild and easy to take, even with their later years of increasing complexity and sophistication and their lurch toward sound and fury hinted at by John Lennon’s occasional primal scream—how varied and how quirky rock has become. Who would have guessed? We don’t know how Shepherd responded to such convulsive developments as the “punk” Sex Pistols and the many “heavy metal” bands such as Kiss and Twisted Sister, but we can imagine. For those in need of enlightenment (!?), heavy metal might be recognized by intense attacks on ears, eyes, sensibilities, and society in general. Depending on the group, one might also be assaulted by intimations of vicious hostility akin to that in violent modern horror movies—imagine bloody monsters and spectacular explosions. Rock has remained alive, diverse, and sometimes wildly provocative.
Twisted Sister is a glam, hair, heavy metal band most visible in the 1980s, though they still occasionally perform. Their performance style and the content of their lyrics are akin to that of artfully controlled intensity, but remain not nearly as fierce as that of some other groups, because they are organized and carefully crafted by the sensibilities of their lead singer/songwriter, Dee Snider. They’re best-known song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” is more unsettling in its video than in the lyrics themselves.
Dee Snider’s most impressive singing style is a frequently screaming-as-loud-as-he-can while remaining artfully in tune. As a seemingly manic primitive, he sports outrageously wild and frizzy yellow hair, red lipstick, blue paint on his cheeks, and tattered sartorial outrage calculated to delight rebellious teenagers and whip most parents into a frenzy of disgust. Dee’s parents had introduced him to Jean Shepherd’s program while he was still a teenager. He’d listened with his transistor radio hidden under his pillow. “Every night I went to bed at ten o’clock and at ten-fifteen the show came on and I fell asleep to Jean.” He’s also enthusiastic about Shepherd’s various television works. Dee Snider is a very big Shepherd kook and he shares some enthusiasms with Shep, including the thrill of motorcycling. When a black Hummer pulled up outside our house, a tall, thin man dressed all in black like a motorcyclist got out and I greeted him at the door. It was Dee Snider in mufti.
Dee, with his yellow hair pulled back under a black baseball cap, the peak turned to the back hiding a good part of the protruding ponytail, now in his fifties and still performing with the band, seems neither extravagant nor berserk. He’s a regular guy offstage—at least for the three hours we spent together—so even his performance persona has its off-duty mufti. We went upstairs to my study, entering my continually expanding “Shep Shrine” of books, artworks, photos, and other assorted relics. (The photo of us in my Shep Shrine shows, on the wall, the right half of my paper towel drawing of the Bugatti limo by Shep. On the table are my four different editions of I, LIBERTINE.)
I gave Dee a short tour and then we two kooks were ready to talk about Jean Shepherd. I set my tape recorder on the table and we began. We chatted at length and I also asked a few pre-written questions.
Dee listened to Shepherd broadcasts from the late ‘60s until about 1974, when he became a full-time musician, playing in bands nearly every night until early morning. So now he’s catching up, listening to tapes of Shep’s shows. As he said, “Now he’s my radio guy—he’s who I listen to.”
He said he’s often been on Howard Stern’s radio show and he credited that radio talker with encouraging him in his radio career. But it had surprised Dee that when he’d said that he loved Shepherd, Stern replied, “I don’t like him—that story crap!” I noted to Dee that in an interview after Shepherd had left radio, asked if he’d ever return, he’d said, “If radio is the kind of medium that can deify a Howard Stern—my God, I don’t want to be involved in it.” Now that might be a contributing factor in Stern’s attitude! Dee himself is now a big radio guy, having had his own very successful talk radio shows for over fifteen years, “talking, pontificating, telling stories, news items, whatever—between songs. And one of the greatest comments I got, one night someone called and said ‘when I hear you talking and you’re telling those stories, it brings me back to Jean.’”
Snider said that, “Jean totally affected my storytelling ability. I think it was by osmosis. We learn from people we listen to.” He’s gotten many accolades for his storytelling and, he commented, “I’m known to have a pretty vast vocabulary, using words and phraseology that others don’t use, and I didn’t know exactly where that came from until I realized, upon this reexamination I’m doing now, that Jean has a massive vocabulary.” About word-usage, Snider referred to lyrics in his song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” including, “Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated.” As he put it, “Not words your average heavy metal rock song would include. I wasn’t very good in English, but I’m taken with Shepherd’s mastery of vocabulary. His mastery of the English weapon.” Dee stopped himself: “I was going to say ‘using the English language as a weapon.’ Jean used the language as a weapon, and it’s a powerful, powerful tool—offensive and defensive tool, you know–and when it’s working for you, boy, there’s nothing like it!”
Dee said that when he couldn’t listen to Shepherd’s broadcasts because of his own work, he still read him: “When I read his books,” he said, “I sit with a little pocket dictionary—I want to know what he means. Why has he chosen this word?! And when you read the definition you go, ‘Ah, my God, this is art—he was a black belt!” Dee went on about Shepherd’s writing: “I adore his books. I think his writing is so much more focused than his talking—when he put pen to paper he was able to refine his rhythm—and you heard his voice, you knew his voice, unlike other authors where you kind of fill your own voice in. When you read Jean’s books, you hear his voice and he had a great-sounding voice.” He said that part of what attracted him to Shepherd on the radio was the cadence and tonality of Shepherd’s voice: “I think I’ve stolen this from him in my own way. There was something very alluring. The way he phrased, there was something going on there that was hypnotic and it pulled you in.”
I asked Dee how Jean’s attitudes and world view may have influenced him.
Dee: “Well, you know, I’m definitely all about sarcasm [He laughed]. It’s at the core of my sense of humor and my sensibilities and certainly Jean was cynical and sarcastic—to a fault. Here’s Jean as a mentor and as a teacher to us, the misguided youth, and he’s got our ear. And every night here’s someone, a grown man, with very strong political, personal, psychological views filling our heads with his ideology. And the biggest thing to come away with, I guess, besides the storytelling, is his sort of cynical views and his condescending attitude—he looked down on most people, and I dare say that that is a part of my personality I struggle to keep in check. [We both laughed.] Because it’s not nice! And we want to be nice. [More laughter.] And it’s wrong to think everybody’s ants and you’re Gulliver.
“But I think also, behind the cynicism, hid a love. I can’t believe it wasn’t there. At the same time he seemed to yearn for some of the simplicity that he experienced in his youth and he seemed to be able to step away from it and appreciate the value that these things had. When I’m in the moment I find it very difficult to really appreciate experience that’s happening. Especially the ridiculousness sometimes, of what’s going on around me. But when I step away, when I get on the mic—what I want to call my biography is Just Give Me the Mic—‘cause I love the microphone, whether I’m singing or talking I seem to be able—now that I’ve stepped back from it—to analyze it and see it for what it was, for better, for worse, the beauty in it, the ugliness in it, the ridiculousness. I don’t know if I got that from Jean, but I think I did.”
I’d saved some of the more difficult subjects for near the end of our talk. I asked what he thought Shepherd would have felt about Twisted Sister and his stage persona and what kind of dialog they might have had. Dee said that Shep “would have had disdain.” Of course, we knew that already—Shep, in some ways was very conservative and we kooks have to overlook some of his rigid attitudes. I thought Dee might have responded with some sort of fanciful exchange between himself and Jean, but he was too smart for that, commenting only that, “I probably would be too much of a fan to engage him.”
He did comment, however, that, “The music Shep was passionate about, jazz, was in its own way, for the Beat Generation, what rock and roll is. A music that challenged the norm. It wasn’t accepted by the mainstream. It was the new jazz, it was against the grain. He didn’t like change.” When I commented that Shepherd stopped playing his favorite, more avant-garde jazz on his show when he had a bigger but less musically sophisticated audience, and that this might have been a compromise, Dee convinced me that other factors could come into play. He commented that on his radio shows, he himself had stopped playing some of his favorite kinds of music because his audience didn’t get it and that it was not a compromise. “It wasn’t a commercial decision, just a recognizing that that wasn’t what my radio show was about. It wasn’t about my musical taste, it was about my world view, and my world view connected and engaged a lot broader audience than my musical taste did.” Equally, he said that he wasn’t going to “go off on a tangent into my world view in my concert environment.” He suggested that Shepherd’s decision regarding what jazz to play on the air might not be “so much selling out. I’m only guessing, I’m relating it to myself.”
But, moving away from Jean’s taste in music, what about a hypothetical interaction between them regarding words and ideas: “If I’d met Jean, I probably would have said all the wrong things. I don’t know if you could say any right things to Jean. I would have said something about Flick or Bruner or somebody, and he would have just blown me off because that was the surface grasp of what he was about. So I think if Jean heard me on the radio by accident, talking on my talk radio show, heard me observing, saw my world view, saw my—I say my last name, Snider, is not a proper noun, it’s an adjective—I’m snider than you are. So I would like to think that he might have gone—‘Yeah, this kid gets it,’ or ‘this kid has something interesting to say.’”
Regarding fans, Dee expanded: “As a performer—and a successful one—I often have people who come up to me and they’re very excited, but they really don’t know me or my band—they really just grasp the surface of what I’m about, but I appreciate their enthusiasm, their excitement, and I don’t expect them to know better.” He commented that Twisted Sister plays many kinds of heavy metal rock, yet they had very big success with a couple of very catchy—what he called “anthemic tunes”—such as “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” As he put it, “That’s what we’re known for, and thank God there was something. That’s what really connected with the masses. Your true, hardcore fans, like you for Jean or me for Jean, may know there’s a greater depth, but the average person, you have to say, ‘Twisted Sister—you know the song ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It,’ and they go, ‘Oh, that work? I know ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’ And with Shepherd you have to say A Christmas Story—that’s Jean’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’”
We talked about how overbearing Shepherd could sometimes be, how full of himself, even when not performing. I commented that it was his concentration, his focus, his personality, his mind, and his feelings, all in one person, that intense self-absorption, that also made him such a great talker.
“Oh, yeah,” said Dee, “that’s the problem of being a front man of any kind—people expect you to get up there essentially naked and hold an audience and then they expect you to walk away from the mic and turn it off. ‘Oh yeah, there’s a switch I throw’—it’s not that easy! It sounds like Jean didn’t have a lot of people wheeling him in either. I’ve got a wife-and-a-half, thirty-two years we’re together. Five-foot-three, a hundred-and-five-pound Italian, and I say, ‘How come you’re so friggin—when you get mad at me you’re so nasty?’ She goes, ‘Look at the size of you [well over six feet tall], look at your persona. It’s the only way I can get through to you. I’ve got to hit you over the head with a club!’ It’s true. I’m just so myopic. But she wheels me in and does not allow me to act out.”
Neither had Dee “acted out” during the 1985 U.S. Senate hearings regarding labeling albums of possibly offensive lyrics—especially focusing on rock music. Thoughtful and articulate in his arguments against censorship, Dee effectively presented himself and his relatively witty and benign Twisted Sister, against the censorious beliefs of Tipper Gore. (The record industry labeled the albums anyway, leading, as one would have expected, to increased sales of those albums.)
Regarding other aspects of his personal life, I learned that Dee is the spokesperson for the March of Dimes “Bikers for Babies” program, and he chairs a Long Island ride for the cause. Bikers for Babies! I never would have guessed. But after getting to know Dee for those few Shep-related hours, it occurred to me that, despite my fear of ever getting onto a motorcycle, if I were to do so, I might chance it on the passenger seat of a bike driven by the kind, thoughtful gentleman named Daniel Dee Snider.
After three hours, Dee had to leave despite our mutual desire to go on and on, endlessly. Looking around at my Shep-infused study as we shook hands, Dee commented, “You’re doing something great for Shep.” We promised to keep in touch and get together again.
Ah, Shep, your influence in the culture is vast and often emerges in unexpected places, even into heavy metal. I’ve started to enjoy some Twisted Sister performances on CD and DVDs. Though I suspect that as a neophyte, all I have so far is what Dee would call “a surface grasp,” it’s (gulp!) a beginning. Without you, Jean Shepherd, we might not have had quite the same driving intensity, intelligence, comic sensibility, and delightful mayhem of a Twisted Sister and the same surprising, thoughtful, many-sided personage of a Dee Snider.
More Than “A Surface Grasp”?
Before we leave Dee and Twisted Sister, let’s think about their loud, slow, insistent melodic line and lyric called “The Price.” Had Shepherd ever heard it, he might not have been able to get beyond the sound and presentation, as good and appropriate to the song as they are, but the words themselves would surely have resonated with him regarding his ambitions and the arc of his career as he contemplated them toward the end of his life. It would be difficult to find a song more forcefully and perfectly attuned to the deeper level of the art and enigmatic life of Jean Shepherd. How inevitable that it’s conceived and performed by one of his most ardent and thoughtful fans. Here’s the beginning:
How long I have wanted this dream to come true,
And as it approaches, I can’t believe I’m through.
I’ve tried, oh, how I’ve tried
For a life, yes a life I thought I knew.
Oh, it’s the price we gotta pay, and all the games we gotta play
Makes me wonder if it’s worth it to carry on,
‘Cause it’s a game we gotta lose, though it’s a life we gotta choose
And the price is our own life until it’s done.
He talked about his college days in Cincinnati, at a time when, referring to two comic strips, he was “just beginning to see that there was more to the world than ‘Flash Gordon,’ there was more to drawing than, say, ‘Prince Valiant,’ and I was beginning to suspect things.” As he was, in the best sense, about to learn a lesson—in an extracurricular class one Saturday morning—it was appropriately a teacher who took him and a couple of other students to a garage in order to expose them to an extraordinary work of art.
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.
What had captivated Shepherd about this low-slung Bugatti 57SC sports car back in his college days? Through newly encountered information, I’ve come to understand that Shepherd had, over the decades, obviously conflated two similar but distinct Bugatti 57SC models. The one he spoke of during the broadcast with such enthusiasm, the one famed as a great masterwork of widespread renown, is not the plum-colored convertible he had originally seen, but the more rare and bizarre, hard-backed 57SC Atlantic. Only three originals of it exist, including a blue one that sold for over twenty million dollars in 2010, and a black one owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren. From a race car historian: “The Bugatti Atlantic is one of those very rare, very great, very charismatic masterpieces of automotive art. Every line of it is thought-provoking.” From the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which had featured the Lauren one in an exhibit of elegant cars, “It speaks a little of evil, I think it’s so wickedly designed. This black beauty, though, it’s extraordinary.” Evil? Wicked? You have to see photos and videos of this beast!
Evil and wicked are responses to a design that creates jarring mental and emotional contradictions, going against ordinary expectations regarding this otherwise aerodynamic car. What had Bugatti done to accomplish this feat of seeming inconsistency, of wicked design? Reportedly some manufacturing problem had inspired Ettore Bugatti’s son, designer Jean Bugatti, with an artist-alchemist’s wicked caprice, leading to the birth of what appears to be some antediluvian oddity. One source suggests that the sheet metal surface of the body was to be a special alloy that would burn in the usual welding process. This circumstance, or a design decision growing out of an earlier such situation, led to a brutish-yet-elegant oddity in the erotically rounded, voluptuous, crouching beast—down the centerline of this otherwise fluid and carnal body—like a stark reptilian spine, lies a rigid, riveted flange pure and unadorned in its severity. Evil? Wicked? How can such a thing exist? How can such a being be described? Confounding ordinary assumptions with bold wit, Jean Bugatti created a technically ingenious aberration seemingly out of some lost-world fantasy—a sleek dolphin with spine crossbred from a small dinosaur, a wondrous creature about to vault from some primitive sea. He brought forth a piece of sublime art.
Enthralled by the 57SC and other masterpieces of automotive design, Shepherd extolled the art of Bugatti until the end of the program. His usual style in radio art was a jazzman’s manipulation of words into improvised compositions, but only rarely had he crafted a program with such thoughtful and seemingly preconceived precision as he devoted to the elegance of line and form in Ettore Bugatti’s sensuous art. Despite having a variety of unusual cars over the years, Shepherd never held title to a Bugatti, but he did retain that lesson in art taught by the sublime Bugatti 57SC, and some years later he held a Bugatti Royale limo long enough in his mind’s eye to own it by sketching it. And now I, Shepherd-cuckoo and new-born admirer of Bugatti, possess that sketch. Thus, in my eternal quest through Shepherdland, I’ve learned a bit more about Jean Shepherd’s eye, and he’s given me an introduction to Bugatti and to the esthetics of the automobile—to the car as art.
* * *
[My comment that appeared in the following Bugatti Club publication follows]
Although Jean Shepherd had an extensive memory, he occasionally conflated some details, as he seemed to do in his broadcast description of his view of the 57SC. The Gangloff [Bugatti 57SC] was the right color and in the right place at the right time for him to have seen it; however, the passing of a quarter of a century between his view and his remembrance, and the front-end similarity and body type designation of T57SC for both the Gangloff and the Atlantic, seemed to cause him a problem. The even more eccentric Atlantic and far more words and images subsequently devoted to it argue persuasively for it being the 57SC that Shepherd came to describe as “An alive, magnificent, evil, sensual-looking machine that lay low.”
My foregoing article—parts 1 and 2 here— appeared in the American Bugatti Club’s quarterly publication, Pur Sang Spring, 2010. At the club’s invitation, I attended their annual New York City luncheon at midtown Manhattan’s Sardi’s Restaurant. Parked out front were three Bugattis, one of which was one of the five reproductions of the 57SC Atlantic, so I got to see and photograph an exact replica. Jay Leno owns one of the other replicas. The photos in this article are of one of the originals, owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren. (Many photos of two of the original ones can be found among Google’s images by searching for “57SC Atlantic.” However, a similar Bugatti is also shown there, as well as photos of scale models of the “evil, wicked” beast.)
Regarding my collection of Sherperdiana, the paper towel sketch of the Bugatti limo had been just half of the sheet, the other half consisting of a totally separate, rather elegant still life of table items. The combined length of the paper towel roll sheet was 57” by 12” high, a rather difficult size to frame in one piece. Through a tough rationalization on my part, based on the two subjects being totally disconnected in subject as well as style and separation on the sheet, I cut the them apart (having done so hurts me still) and framed them each, mounting them on the wall of my Shep Shrine side by side, almost visually connected.
AN EXTRACURRICULAR LESSON IN ART
Jean Shepherd was a connoisseur of many arts, including the design and driving of cars, motorcycles and the like. His interest in them extended to his role as emcee of the Greenwich Village sports and antique car rallies from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, to the scores of columns he wrote for Car and Driver magazine in the 1970s and, not least, to his penchant for racing perilously through the streets of New York City and environs on his motorcycle or scooter, in his Morgan or Porsche, or in some other exotic species of automobile, such as a funky little Goggomobil, whenever he could. He was, indeed, a motor-cuckoo—a car-cuckoo.
And I quest tirelessly for every immortal relic of his artistry, whether for the holy grail of his lost broadcasts or for just some lines on a scrap of paper. Through that obsession, which includes a daily scanning of ebay, I encountered and bought one of his creations, done sometime in the early 1960s, a large pen-and-ink drawing of an antique car. Shepherd’s drawing is in a loose style, done quickly, maybe because the impressive vehicle was about to move, or because he didn’t want to attempt a too-smooth rendition that would fail utterly in comparison with the elegant object in front of him. In short, my treasure is a lowly paper towel with a rough sketch of a fine car on it.
I wanted to know all about that car. My quest led me through innumerable glossy tomes filled with glorious photos of old cars until I encountered a possible match—had Shepherd portrayed a stately Bugatti? With a query and a photo of the drawing from me, the folks at the American Bugatti Club checked their meticulously detailed files and narrowed it down, not just to the species–Bugatti Royale–but to the exact specimen of that grand limousine itself, the Park Ward. Ah, to encounter such admirably precise authorities as these—what comfort for a cuckoo on a quest! My pursuit has a glorious culmination. As Shepherd talked about virtually anything and everything that interested him over the years, it’s no surprise to me that, in hot pursuit through my own meticulously detailed files, I encountered a 1976 tape of him discussing his love of antique cars and his special admiration for those designed and built by Bugatti.
I discovered that, although Shepherd usually dealt with many subjects during a show, this entire broadcast was devoted to the virtues of Ettore Bugatti and his cars, concentrating not on the Royale limo in my ink drawing, but on a low-slung, sporty model. He began this particular show by commenting that the world had created a new artistic form in the first quarter of the twentieth century: “It existed briefly for ten or twelve years in its really flowering form and then began to decline as all art forms do—they ultimately decline.” After this general introduction, he began his story about a Bugatti.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2
“I’m thinking of having an exam for the show. Would you guys like to take an exam? We’ll have the exam for Shepherdiana.” (Jean Shepherd May 14, 1963)
People who talk and write about Jean Shepherd, including professionals in the media who should know better, innocently repeat false information about him. There seem to be two main causes: basing comments on a limited knowledge of his work; once stated, misinformation is perpetuated by people who simply repeat it without checking primary sources to verify its truth. I have discussed some of these myths before, but I thought it useful to gather them together, so here are some of them:
MYTH: Jean Shepherd was on the air 45 minutes a night.
PERPETRATOR(S): Mostly people unfamiliar with his whole career.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: In New York, beginning in 1956, he was on from 1 A.M. to 5:30 week-nightly; then on Sunday 9:15 to 1 AM; on Saturday morning, then Saturday afternoon for more than an hour; on Saturday night live at The Limelight Café for well over an hour; and, for many years, in the format most people remember him, on weeknights for 45 minutes in a variety of timeslots.
MYTH: Jean Shepherd broadcast on AM radio.
PERPETRATOR(S): Mostly people unfamiliar with his whole career.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH From early 1955 he broadcast simultaneously on AM and FM—until July 28, 1966 when federal regulations required separate programming on AM and FM, causing his program to be dropped from FM.
MYTH: He talked about his real life.
PERPETRATOR(S): Shepherd himself in the very deceptively personal way he told his “stories.” Also, his listeners were to some extent self-deluded if they did not pay attention to the disclaimers in his books.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: Shepherd made most of it up, using some real-life aspects, changed and elaborated-on as he felt necessary to create his art. This he freely admitted—and insisted upon—in later interviews.
MYTH: Shepherd wrote a “novel.”
PERPETRATOR(S): Shepherd called In God We Trust a “novel” on the air various times. Ads for it, and copy on the dust jacket refer to it as a novel.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: His books are compilations of short stories (and later, also articles), and the short linking chapters between the short stories do not overcome this fact—the stories are self-contained, with no continuity, sense of progress, or other criteria for even loosely calling the books “novels”.
MYTH: He disparaged nostalgia.
PERPETRATORS: Shepherd himself and many others.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: Although he rightly insisted that most of his stories and comments on the past were anti-nostalgic, sometimes a bit of nostalgia does slip in. As with so much else, he simultaneously loved and hated it.
MYTH: He had no call-in phone calls and no guests.
PERPETRATORS: Mostly people unfamiliar with his whole career
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: He had only four guests that are known of, all from 1960 or before: John Cassavetes, film actor and independent film-maker; Arch Obler, radio script writer of sci-fi and horror stories; S. J. Perelman, humor writer; Herb Gardner, cartoonist and later stage and film writer (A Thousand Clowns and others). As for callers, occasionally he asked for some listener to call in to respond to a subject he was discussing, and on rare occasions one can hear a few words of the caller. Most prominently, in the 1950s, actress Lois Nettleton would call (known only as “the listener”), leading to their meeting and eventually marrying.
MYTH: He was never a “disk jockey.”
PERPETRATORS: Mostly people unfamiliar with his whole career, but also Shepherd himself, who was understandably hostile toward any reference to him as a “disk jockey,” because it implied that this was the focus of his art—thus negating the fact that he primarily used pre-recorded sounds (including music) only as adjuncts to what he was saying.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: Although during most of his New York radio career he rightly fought against being referred to as a “disk jockey,” in his early days (including in New York) he did play much more music, and on one early program, caught on tape, he says at the beginning of a broadcast, “We have records.”
MYTH: M. McLuhan wrote that Shep created a “new kind of novel.”
PERPETRATORS: All those who repeat the original person who misread Marshall McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: McLuhan did not state that as a fact, but made reference to Shepherd having regarded it thusly. The wording in McLuhan’s book is: “Jean Shepherd of WOR in New York regards radio as a new medium for a new kind of novel that he writes nightly.”
Jean Shepherd was an enigma. What exactly do I mean by that and what are the enigmas he embodied? A dictionary will tell you that an enigma is a puzzle, or is something ambiguous or inexplicable. To my thinking the word also suggests something that might also be beyond everyday logic because it might seem dichotomous and even self-contradictory. Jean Shepherd was an enigma.
Some might feel that the titles and the contents of both of my books suggest a negative moral judgment, but that’s not the intent. That some ways in which Shepherd was an enigma, and indeed seemed to embody negative attributes, is unavoidable, but part of the fascination with him and his art was his complexity, his nature of holding the good, the bad, and the self-contradictory within himself—a trait he shared with many, if not most, of those whose high level of creative ability we esteem. My purpose has been to find, describe, analyze, and celebrate his art, and, in describing his enigmas as I see them, to tie them to that art.
He seemed to be telling fact but it was mostly fiction.
He seemed to be telling the truth, which he may have been doing about his thoughts and feelings, but as for his biography, he frequently made it up.
He seemed to have an extraordinary memory, but it was of two kinds. He confused many simple facts about his own life, yet he remembered to an extraordinary degree ”what it was like to be….”
He seemed to be revealing a lot about himself, but he was very private and secretive—even toward those to whom he was closest.
He seemed to be everybody’s pal, but he wouldn’t let most people get near him.
He seemed to be a mentor for young people (and indeed, he was), yet he avoided his own two children and usually denied their existence.
He seemed so self-sufficient, yet at times he showed a strong need for encouragement from those around him.
He seemed joyous about life to those who feel, and despondent about life to those who think. For those who feel and think at the same time, he sometimes seemed to be both simultaneously.
He seemed to be telling entertaining stories, yet—as for his art—more often than we realized, he was speaking in parables. As for his life, he may or may not have realized that it epitomized “Jean Shepherd’s American Life of the Artist.” A Gordian Knot, a parable itself from which he couldn’t disentangle his high level of success from his feelings of failure to succeed at his highest potential. Somewhere in that mix we have his art and his enigma.
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.
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 , 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.”
The biggest “miscellany” in my life is a section of our house in which I store all my Jean Shepherd material. This interconnected space of three rooms began as my large study (large enough to fit my forebears’ heirloom pool/billiard table), full of books and artwork and odds and ends that strike my fancy; a smaller “annex” area also full of books and off-season, stored family clothing and decorations; and, beyond a locked door, the “hardware area” with its sharp and otherwise dangerous equipment in which I sometimes make minor handyman repairs. As I began my intense re-interest in Shepherd back in early 2000, the previously sedate but impressive collection of books, artwork reproductions, and hardware inherited from my father, began to be muscled aside by Shep-materials in those three rooms. I do my best to keep the mess organized. (My wife, a genius of categorical organization, refuses to participate as my Shep-oriented organizer and file clerk. She has her own hobby horses to ride.) Now the three rooms and a few minor outliers form a rich and complex conglomeration which I self-deprecatingly, yet with humor and kindly forbearance toward myself, refer to as my “Shep Shrine.” This miscellany I’ve compiled here may well be, for Shepherd’s wide-ranging creations, and for my collecting and organizing the related fragments, a decent description of his and my efforts and an all-encompassing metaphor.
I won’t mention all the effluvia which, in these Shep-cavalcade areas of our home, must remain on the sidelines without description. (Nothing about my reproductions of astrolabes and a small collection of kaleidoscopes; nothing of several shelves filled with a chronologically arranged collection of books on art through the ages and my collection of that insufficiently appreciated field of art, artists’ books; nothing of my collection of poetry books and volumes on music I treasure; and I won’t say a word about books on Spain and bullfighting and a small, shriveled, desiccated pomegranate sitting atop a little paper model of the Alhambra, with all its associations that hark back to my previous, disastrous marriage to a woman from Granada. Nada.) None of those who drive by this otherwise undistinguished house in Massapequa, New York could imagine the dusty but stalwart clutter inside that helps keep alive the memory and artistry of an insufficiently recognized genius of their recent American past. I must focus on this that I have found, written about, bid on and bought, gathered out of the electronic ether, archived on printouts, clustered on real shelves and in real boxes.
This is the biggest and most impressive exhibit in my mini-museum. The dominating pool table in the middle of the room has a scattering of tear sheets and printouts waiting to be dealt with and filed in Shep-folders. On one corner of the table is the enlarged repro of the cover of Excelsior, You Fathead! attached to the stick I held high, advertising my forthcoming wares to conventioneers as I did the rounds of the annual Old Time Radio convention in late 2004. There is a bookcase with a miscellany and shelves devoted to creativity and writing, on one side of which is a signed letter from Norman Mailer and an Esquire magazine cartoon showing Charon’s boat to Hell, filled with despairing sinners, Dante, complacently in the back, commenting, “I don’t mind it really—I’m only here to gather material for a book.” Most importantly, I maintain several shelves with first editions and signed books by Shepherd, including all four different editions of his I, Libertine, some books with introductions by him, such as The Scrapbook History of Baseball, several books with partial chapters discussing him, and other books focusing on nighttime radio and talk radio. Various Shepherd ephemera fill out every spare inch. There is a set of the nine CD boxes containing my program notes for the Syndicated Shep audios being produced, and copies of my Excelsior, You Fathead! alongside my scrapbook loose-leaf books containing reviews of it and other noteworthy collectables. There is a loose-leaf book I’ve titled “Lois Nettleton’s Jean Shepherd Album,” full of reproductions of the many Shepherd-related materials she had saved and that were auctioned after her death.
On the wall near that bookcase is one of the elaborate, hand-crafted valentines Lois made for Jean and the lone hand-drawn valentine Jean did for Lois, plus several framed original ink drawings by Shepherd. Filling out the crowded walls are reproductions of paintings and drawings by Picasso, Miro, John Marin, and Arthur Dove. Small photos of Picasso, Hemingway, Cummings, Mailer, Blaise Cendrars, and Charles Wright hang near the window. Among them, two disparate American masters, Henry James and Henry Miller face each other. Up near the ceiling, right next to a grouping of Excelsior seltzer bottles, and dominating the room, is the framed, poster-size version of the photo of Shepherd that also graces the cover of my Excelsior, You Fathead! His upraised hand seems to bestow his benediction upon the scene.
Opening from the study is the small area I call the annex, full of important but less picturesque items, although it does contain a copy of my favorite Van Gogh, a Krazy Kat poster, a personally autographed eight-by-ten photo of Soupy Sales, a signed, original Cerebus drawing (he’s the hero of the graphic novel originally issued in a three-hundred-month, comic book format), a very small bobble-head of American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar, and a very large hand-made banner of the saying “Excelsior, You Fatheads.”
Less visually impressive but having exceeding import for me are: in plastic shirt-storage boxes, many hundreds of cassette tapes and CDs of Shepherd audios covering his broadcasts from 1953 through 1977; CD copies of my special Shepherd high-light selections; copies of my manuscripts on CDs; the original tapes of my dozens of interviews done for Excelsior, You Fathead!; a file box of my promotional ideas, a file box of folders containing materials of special Shepherd-related people; and my treasure chest—a file box with notes and ideas for the still hoped-for TV documentary featuring Shepherd. I can dream, can’t I? As for family-related nostalgia, there in a net bag are the finger puppets I used to tell and sing to our two very young sons, the ditties of Old McDonald, Red Riding-hood, Goldilocks, and the Three Little Piggies.
Originally muscling aside the tools had been those cassette tapes, but, realizing their vulnerability in the unheated room, I’d shifted them to the Annex and left the space for other Shepherd matters. Besides reference books about the Beats, Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, and others, there’s a collection of Shel Silverstein volumes and a file box full of miscellaneous folders labeled “Shep, Shel, and Herb,” etc. There are many file folders based on the wide-ranging chapters of Excelsior, You Fathead! , full of an ever-expanding collection of notes and references to Shepherd’s career; there are folders with Shepherd’s occasional writings, articles and obituaries of him; a pile of stuff about the Hammond, Indiana A Christmas Story/Jean Shepherd celebration; and, to appropriate the “Rhinestone Cowboy,” regarding some of the comments about my book, cards and letters from people I don’t even know. There is also a small box of Shepherd-related musical instruments: nose flute, kazoo, and jews harp, plus a couple individually designed and made brass figlagees. And, a large box of real excelsior.
In addition to the main Shepherd rooms there are a few odds and ends scattered elsewhere. On my wife’s desk in her study is a zip-locked bag with an inscribed copy of Excelsior, You Fathead! and our living room coffee table has my worn reference copy of the book I use all the time. On the dining room bureau, where my wife says we can keep it all year long, is an eighteen-inch high version of A Christmas Story’s infamous leg lamp. On my bedroom bureau, courtesy of our younger son, are bobbleheads of Ralphie and the Old Man. In the small room we call “The Attic,” with its computers and wrapping paper, is a framed photo of Shepherd, virtually unknown except maybe to myself, because it came from the photographer’s studio, taken in 1956, showing a young, confident man at the beginning of his New York career. Maybe for me, the most important object in our house, aka The Shrine, is The Attic’s authentic piece of nostalgia—recently bought on ebay.com, the exact model of my original “maroon plastic Zenith AM/FM radio with the big simulated gold dial” on which, fifty years ago, I had originally heard and recorded ol’ Shep.
NEW YORK CITY—THE LATER YEARS
1960-1977 The relative proportion of Shepherd’s early, “night people” adult fans diminished to the subsequent, much larger student population who listened and who attended his many high school and college appearances, and his many live talks around the country. He broadcast from the Limelight Café in the Village on Saturday nights from early 1964 through 1967. The basic week-nightly studio broadcasts were mostly 45-minutes long—in later years interrupted by too many *%@#*$$$$ commercials. One never knew what sort of subject or mood he would be in and what seemingly incongruent mix he might dish up on an evening. The variety and quality of the broadcasts remained very high. Sometimes he would tell a story or comment on the passing scene, read a bit from one of his favorite authors, sometimes play on his kazoo, nose flute, and jews harp, or head-thump a tune. Some programs mixed all of the above and more. As he loved traveling, by taking his tape recorder with him he would bring back audio samples and commentaries for his programs from such places as the Peruvian Amazon, Ireland, Indonesia, Germany, Australia, and the Windward Islands.
Several times over the years attempts were made to extend his listening audience by syndicating the programs nation-wide. In one instance, over 200 new programs were specially taped in 1964-1965, but little distribution was done before the project was lost and, for years, forgotten about in a warehouse. In other activities, Shepherd performed in several plays in the late 1950s and early 1960s. No record exists for any acting on stage after the mid-1960s.
For most of his career Shepherd concentrated on performing his own material on radio, television, and in live appearances. His early attempts to tell stories by simply facing into the camera on television were not successful. Later, he created, narrated, and performed in nearly two dozen half-hour programs for PBS, Jean Shepherd’s America. In those, for the most part, the small video crew traveled the country filming subjects that struck them as relevant parts of American culture (1971 and 1985). He also created Shepherd’s Pie (1978), a shorter series of half-hour programs featuring several subjects each, related to aspects of the culture that interested him. He created three humorous, hour-and-a-half television dramas based on groupings of his originally published stories. Most of his television work included Shepherd himself as narrator, and he often appeared on-camera. He also created and appeared in a number of other individual television programs from the 1960s on.
Although his short stories told on the air were so good and so popular, it seems that only a concerted effort by friends Shel Silverstein and Lois Nettleton convinced him to write them down and submit them to Playboy. (He felt that the human voice was the most direct medium, and therefore best, for telling tales.) The first printed story appeared in June, 1964 and the last of the twenty-three in August, 1981. He also wrote one humorous commentary for the magazine, and, despite his antipathy toward rock-and-roll, Playboy sent him to the British Isles in 1964 for their Beatles interview, which appeared in February, 1965. Read all about it here—one can picture him scampering down fire escapes fleeing the Fab Four’s fans. Playboy gave him its “humor of the year” award four times.
Over the years, Shepherd wrote scores of articles for diverse periodicals, and wrote forwards and introductions to books that related to aspects of his wide-ranging interests regarding American culture and mores. Many of his short stories and some of his articles were published in his popular books. He inevitably created odd and funny titles for his stories and books, using such phrases as: Infamous Jawbreaker Blackmail; Gravy Boat Riot; Banjo Butt Meets Julia Child; 47 Crappies; and Miss Bryfogol and the Case of the Warbling Cuckold. Although some of the names in his stories refer to actual people of his childhood, Shepherd’s short stories are mostly fiction. Flick’s family insisted that he had never had his tongue stuck to a pole. And devious Shepherd sometimes tripped us up with the names—there actually was a Hammond school teacher named Miss Bryfogol. Shepherd claimed that the themes of some of his tales were metaphorical. For example, he noted that the BB gun story was an anti-war metaphor, and one finds an anti-war message in “Murderous Mariah,” his story of two battling, toy tops. Readers of the present volume will encounter, further down the road, his self-reflexive, bloody fish tale.
Shepherd loved radio, but its importance began to decline in the 1950s with the coming of television. His creative interests in other media expanded and his WOR Radio work ended April Fools’ Day, 1977. Upon leaving WOR, he and his new wife, Leigh Brown, moved to Florida, and in 1984 they bought a house on Sanibel Island, on the Gulf Coast, where they lived, becoming increasingly isolated, even from friends, for the rest of their lives.
1978-1999 Shepherd resented the inadequate renown he received from his years on radio, and he frequently reacted with hostility when, in later years, he was questioned by his many enthusiastic fans regarding his radio work. You’d be disgruntled, too, if people focused only on your past, rather than on your wonderful present and your fantastic future. He best expressed his sorrow and well-deserved hostility toward the not-very-smart public in a rare and wonderful, vicious little animated cartoon for Sesame Street called “Cowboy X.” Deep in the depths of this current quest-filled book, find it, read about it, and weep.
Although he did some very short commentaries for several radio stations in the last two decades of his life, and over the years frequently appeared on radio discussion programs, mostly to promote his newest book, he concentrated on combining his existing stories into longer works for video and film. His most popular and commercial success is the 1983 movie based on several of his short stories, A Christmas Story. He co-wrote the script with wife Leigh Brown and the movie’s director, Bob Clark, he narrated the entire movie, and has a cameo role in it. He’s the guy in black who tells the kids where the back of the line waiting for Santa is. His narrative style in the movie was appropriated—but not credited—for the popular television series, The Wonder Years. A Christmas Story, almost ignored when it was theatrically released, is now seen yearly by over fifty million people during its continuous 24-hour run on cable television beginning each Christmas Eve. All that, yet even with the enormous audience for the movie, and despite the fact that his name is plastered all over the opening credits, few who watch it can answer the simple question “Who is Jean Shepherd?”
Shepherd participated in a number of television programs on varied subjects and he narrated a video about the Chicago White Sox. He appeared in several documentaries as one of many commentators, giving his thoughts on such Americana as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Babe Ruth, and Norman Rockwell. Near the end of his life he claimed to be working on a major motion picture.
Upon his death from natural causes on October 16, 1999, many tributes to his work appeared in the media, mostly concentrating on his radio work. Many hundreds of his radio shows, on cassettes and CDs, originally recorded by loyal fans at the time of broadcast, continue to be widely distributed freely or at little cost, especially through the internet. By far the best of the websites devoted to him is http://www.flicklives.com, containing loads of fascinating information about Shepherd that you didn’t even know you didn’t know. He was posthumously inducted into the national Radio Hall of Fame in 2005, the same year that saw the appearance of Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. An email discussion group, internet blog commentaries, mentions of his movie A Christmas Story, and other references, continue to keep his work alive in the American conscience. And yours truly does his best, too. Read on—I even manage to bring ol’ Shep back from the dead.
NEW YORK CITY—THE EARLY DAYS, 1955 TO 1960
In New York City on WOR AM and FM until mid, 1966, when FCC rules required different programming on the two, so FM was dropped for Shepherd’s show. Although he claimed that he had come to New York City to become the host of television’s Tonight Show, evidence seems to deny this. Apparently he came to the city because it was the most important radio broadcasting center in the country, and because it was the intellectual and artistic goal of most creative types. He burgeoned.
He arrived in the New York Metropolitan area with his wife, Joan Warner and his young son Randall. His daughter, Adrian, was born soon after he left the family in New Jersey for life in the City.
1955 Beginning February he had several radio time slots on WOR during the day. Nothing is known of these programs.
1956 In January of 1956 he began his daily “overnight” shows, from 1:00 to 5:30 A.M. This was the beginning of “The Night People” phase of his radio work. Although the phrase continued to be used for his later broadcasting, the seven-and-a-half month overnight period most properly owns this appellation. Although recordings of these shows have yet to emerge, memories suggest that they consisted of Jean’s extemporized and laid-back, jazz-inspired talk, interspersed with occasional complete pieces of contemporary jazz recordings in addition to some classical cuts. Among his cult-like listeners were major artists, musicians, writers, and other creative types. Young actress Lois Nettleton was among his early fans. Because she called him during a broadcast and he continued the custom of speaking to her by phone while on the air, she soon became “The Listener.”
Although he never told his friends where he lived, Shepherd probably lived in Greenwich Village starting in his early New York days. Especially during this overnight period in 1956, and into a few following years, he immersed himself in the creative environment of that time, writing columns for the early Village Voice, emceeing major jazz concerts starring performers such as Billy Holiday and Charles Mingus, writing columns for jazz magazines and being named jazz personality of the year by one of them. He improvised the extended narration for the Mingus piece, “The Clown.”
He was a cult figure among the creative and disaffected, especially in the New York area and as far as WOR’s voice could be heard—twenty-six states and pirated elsewhere. Listeners included Jack Kerouac, jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus, and many others. But since the late hour of his broadcasts found few sponsors, station management considered him “non-commercial.” Because of this criticism and his refusal to play more music, he did a commercial for Sweetheart Soap, not a sponsor, and played even less music. In August 1956 they fired him. Fan protests and a late-night gathering of enthusiasts at the downtown burned-out shell of New York’s Wannamaker Building, the fans quietly milling around, led to major media attention. (Over the years, one of Shepherd’s pranks was to ask his enthusiasts to gather, move about silently, and then disperse, an act he referred to as a “mill.”) Sweetheart offered sponsorship. He was rehired to do a Sunday night show from nine P.M. to one A.M.
SUNDAY NIGHTS, 1956-1960 Sunday night programs began in early September, when Shepherd was rehired after the Sweetheart Soap and less-talk brouhaha. The few partial recordings of these shows that have emerged suggest the style that Shepherd probably used in the previous over-night period. Only four in-studio guests are known: comic writer S. J. Perelman, radio script writer of horror and science fiction stories Arch Oboler, cartoonist and playwright Herb Gardner, and actor John Cassavetes, for whom Shepherd on the air promoted the making of the first major American Independent film, Shadows, written and directed by Cassavetes. Among the film’s opening credits: “Presented by Jean Shepherd’s Night People.”
He edited and wrote a major introduction for a book of tales by humorist George Ade, perpetrated a major literary hoax, “hurled invectives” through his listeners’ radio loudspeakers, performed in off-Broadway theater pieces, and created his own “Look, Charlie,” theater piece staring himself and his friends Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and Lois Nettleton. Silverstein drew the show’s program, Gardner demonstrated his incompetence at juggling, and Nettleton is said to have fed grapes to Shepherd. Gardner created the play and film A Thousand Clowns, the protagonist of which had unmistakable Shepherd-like characteristics. Shepherd claimed he sued.
Although he occasionally spoke for a few moments on the phone with a listener, call-ins were not part of his programs. He just talked and performed with the only tool available to him—sound. A tape of a television panel show immortalizes his performance of thumping knuckles on head to a sprightly tune. Among his familiar habits on the air was the use of words and phrases that became associated with him, such as “Excelsior,” “Excelsior, you fathead,” “Keep your knees loose,” “Flick lives,” “night people,” and “I was this kid, see.”
With the earlier time period, more college and high school kids, many of them outsiders, loners, intellectuals, males, were able to hear his broadcasts, and they became the majority of his fans. His direct and implied commentary of the cultural and commercial life that his young listeners had begun to question affected many—an early published piece was his 1957 article in Mad Magazine, “The Night People vs. ‘Creeping Meatballism.’” Many listeners were “Shep-cuckoos,” some of them fanatical. Some fans were thought of in their teen-years as nerds, yet many were influenced by Shepherd and made their careers in radio, some becoming prominent professionals in the arts and media. Among these were chess champ Bobby Fischer, U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, cartoonist Shel Silverstein, and comics Andy Kaufman and Jerry Seinfeld.
Shepherd and Lois Nettleton married in December, 1960, though he kept their friendship and marriage secret not only from listeners, but from many of their close friends, reportedly to maintain his image as a swinging single and libertine. Lois said that they sometimes assisted each other in their theatrical roles, and also said that Jean was a gourmet cook. In the mid-1960s, Lois terminated their marriage in large part because of what she called his “secret life,” probably referring to his relationship with Leigh Brown, the hippie chick who would change and dominate his art and life. Her tell-all letters to her best friend lay bare mind, heart, aspirations, and intimate schemes to seduce and abduct our hero from his beautiful bride. Wow, what an expose! Leigh in the early 1960s began working at WOR as Jean’s go-fer, then assistant, editor, protector, producer, and eventually, when he was about to leave WOR in 1977, his wife.
NEW YORK CITY—THE LATER YEARS