The most important Internet site regarding Jean Shepherd
is Jim Clavin’s www.flicklives.com.
It is extraordinarily comprehensive and always up-to-date on all things Shepherd. I make use of it all the time as an important research source. Two other websites, http://www.keyflux.com/shep/ and http://www.bobkaye.com/Shep.html have worthwhile stuff but have had nothing new to say in years, and thus do not follow any developments in the continuingly evolving and expanding world of Shep.
The Wikipedia entry for Shepherd was a problem. When I first looked at it a number of years ago, I encountered lots of misinformation. I corrected as much of it as I saw and added a single short reference to my Excelsior, You Fathead! Subsequently somebody added a redundant second reference to my book. My cursory glances over the next years have not encountered more errors, but don’t depend on it.
When Citizendium, another Internet encyclopedia-like site, began I wrote the Jean Shepherd page. I don’t know to what extent it may have been subsequently amended and/or may have been infiltrated with errors.
A major Shepherd reference is the
Paley Center for Media site which did their
“Remembering Master Storyteller,
Jean Shepherd: With Jerry Seinfeld” http://www.paleycenter.org/
on January 23, 2012.
Jerry Seinfeld spoke with New York Times writer Bill Carter. The site has a four-minute clip of Seinfeld talking during the tribute. They produce for sale DVDs of their events but have not yet done one for this tribute. I got to meet Seinfeld, had a front-row seat for the event, and got to make a couple of comments from the audience.
Paley curator for television and radio, Ron Simon, titled his essay on their website, “Seinfeld and Shepherd: Much Ado About Nothing.” It begins:
“The late radio raconteur Jean Shepherd and the master of his domain Jerry Seinfeld are obsessed with the minutiae of daily life. Nothing is too small in the detritus of human existence for contemplation. For Shepherd and Seinfeld, meaning is not found in pondering the huge metaphysical questions that have perplexed Plato onward; life is discovered in the lint, that small detail that informs us who we really are.”
[Recently on http://splitsider.com/2013/04/jerry-seinfeld-on-jean-shepherd-the-voice-behind-a-christmas-story/ in an essay titled “From the Archives,” Ramsey Ess wrote extensively about Shepherd and the Paley tribute.]
On his site www.scratchbomb.com, Matthew Callan sometimes writes extensively and intelligently about Shepherd.
Several years ago, Donal Fagen of Steely Dan wrote for Internet site, Slate, “The Man Who Told A Christmas Story,” subtitled “What I Learned From Jean Shepherd,” (now in a recently updated version) It’s a long and very good article. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2008/12/the_man_who_told_a_christmas_story.html
He writes, “Shepherd did a nightly radio broadcast on WOR out of Manhattan that enthralled a generation of alienated young people within range of the station’s powerful transmitter. Including me: I was a spy for Jean Shepherd.” He describes Shep as with sort of “a contemporary urban twist: say, Mark Twain after he’d been dating Elaine May for a year and a half.” He goes on to say, “The guy is a dynamo, brimming with curiosity and ideas and fun. Working from a few written notes at most, Shepherd is intense, manic, alive, the first and only true practitioner of spontaneous word jazz.”
OTHER COMMENTS ABOUT JEAN SHEPHERD
Other books and Internet sites have had comments on Shepherd, but the above posts of mine indicate the major ones I’ve encountered. For me, outrageously ignorant/unconscionable lapses in knowledge/judgment have resulted in many seemingly authoritative sources of information on the media, and on radio in particular, including big books on the history of radio, with no mention or only inadequate coverage of Shepherd. To slightly paraphrase a time-honored saying, “A Shepherd is not without honor, except in his own country, …”
Even more to come
Manhattan Memories (2009) by John Wilcock
John Wilcock wrote the “Village Square” column for the early Village Voice, knew Shepherd, and wrote about him. I interviewed him for my book. He writes about Shepherd in his Chapter 3: “Our favorite Radio DJ, the all-night talker Jean Shepherd, was the complete opposite of our nagging novelist [Norman Mailer, a co-founder of the Voice]: an amiable, offbeat intellectual with the ability to get his way through charm and humor….An entire generation grew up listening to him, utterly captivated by his personality and, who knows? Having their views shaped for years to come.”
Top portion of a chapter in a comic book
biography of John Wilcock
by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall.
Backing into Forward (2010) by Jules Feiffer Feiffer knew Shepherd from the early days of the Village Voice, where Feiffer drew the immensely popular, weekly cartoon, early-on titled “Sick Sick Sick.” He became a playwright, film script writer, and book author. In Backing into Forward he says he used to listen all through the night to Shepherd in 1956 while he worked on his cartoons. In his interview for my book as well as in his own book, he goes out of his way to disparage Shepherd, especially in his misunderstanding of Shepherd’s antipathy toward Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns.” (See my Excelsior, You Fathead! pages 176-177 where I describe the connection and probable cause of Shepherd’s anger. My belief is based on what are significant aspects of the play/film that relate to Shepherd. My publisher recently wrote that Herb Gardner told him that the impetus for his lead character in “A Thousand Clowns” was indeed Shepherd.)
The chapter on Shepherd is titled “A Voice in the Night.” He knew Shepherd for years and I interviewed him for my book. I traveled to Boston to be interviewed about my book on his WGBH radio program. In his book he comments, “I like to think I ‘got’ Shepherd, through all the walls he might throw up, despite his tending to relentlessly be ‘on’; that I understood the chronic need, this business, to be appreciated and heard.” He ends this chapter with a very enthusiastic comment on my Excelsior, You Fathead!
More to come
In recent years a number of publications, in traditional print form and on the Internet, have contained articles about Jean Shepherd. My book Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd (March 2005) remains the only book entirely devoted to him.
Following is an annotated compilation of those books and articles that have come to my attention. It’s not necessarily complete, and neither is it definitive in its descriptions. All comments in the books and articles are laudatory with a few negative criticisms (mostly about Shepherd’s personal life), and most have at least some misstatements.
BOOKS WITH ARTICLES OR SIGNIFICANT MENTIONS
Helen Gee founded the Limelight in the 1950s as both a photo gallery and coffeehouse. Jean Shepherd and Lois Nettleton visited frequently and became friends with Helen. He wanted to broadcast from there, but Helen wanted to keep the Limelight focused on the photo gallery aspect. She writes a bit of her friendship with Jean. I interviewed her for my book and quote her. Until a photo of Jean and Lois surfaced among Lois’s effects after she died in 2008, no photo of Jean and Lois together had been known. Note that this, the only photo of them known at the time, ironically consistent with Jean’s desire to keep his private life a secret, only shows the back of Lois’s head. Jean on far left, Helen top center,
Lois with back to camera
Sounds in the Dark (2001) by Michael C. Keith
This book discusses the nature of listening to the radio at night. A lot of people in the radio industry are quoted in the book. It has about six contiguous pages about Shepherd, as well as short references on other pages.
Seriously Funny The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (2003) by Gerald Nachman.
As I was awaiting my book’s publication I heard about this book and feared that it might have so much about Shep as to be competition for mine. I needn’t have worried. It contains essays on about two dozen of the prominent, new voices in comedy of the period, with the Shepherd material being but the first eighteen pages of a chapter shared with Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding.
The book has many good pieces of information on all these important comedians, but at least in the Shepherd article there are numerous inaccuracies. For example, his programs were never, to anyone’s knowledge, called “Voice in the Night” (this mistake could have been picked up from the title of the NPR tribute); he did not tell yarns of growing up “in the thirties and forties,” but, as he was born in 1921, yarns of the twenties and thirties (in the forties, he was in the army during the war, followed by the post-war years); Shepherd was not “a more blue-collar, urban comic,” but lower middle class, as his father had a white-collar job at the Borden milk company.
Cropped image at beginning of article
Incidentally, the small and poorly cropped iconic photo of Shepherd that begins the article is the version that has a thin black negative scratch line going from under his upraised arm down almost below the table in front of him. Most prominent of those who noted the line as obviously a scratch was Jim Clavin of www.flicklives.com. The line is far too sharp for the slight blurring in the rest of the photo, and a magnifying glass used on the clear 8 X 10 glossy I was given for my book’s cover shows that it’s not one of the headphone lines because it stops just before it reaches the table below which one might think it disappeared. Over the phone I said this to the photographer, who was outraged at my accusation. This photo, when reproduced for the large Shepherd poster for sale in the 1960s has no thin line–the scratch must have occurred in later years. For the book jacket of Excelsior, You Fathead! I had the offending line removed, as seen below in detail:
Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd (March 2005) by Eugene B. Bergmann.
I tried to make this book as comprehensive as possible regarding Shepherd’s creative work in all fields, with biographical information as it seems to relate to his work. Most who refer to the book (including the publisher) do so as a “biography,” although I don’t. In the book’s introduction I make this clear. So that his career can be seen as an unfolding enterprise, and as he used bits of his own biography in his work, I do indicate in the introduction that, “I describe his artistic career as a whole in an attempt to grasp the unique artifice of his constructed art and persona in a biographical framework, using the range of his stories, ideas, observations, and themes in chapters arranged within that chronology.” I also point out that the book “documents and describes what he produced in many media, and it is an appreciation and analysis of what he accomplished. And, importantly, it attempts to impart to the reader some measure of the great pleasure Shepherd’s art gave to his audiences.” Professional reviewers and most Customer Reviewers concur in believing that I was successful. Other than adding some recently emerging material and thoughts, I stand by what I wrote.
New information has arrived on the scene subsequent to the book’s publication. Some is in the form of newly encountered, minor created works by Shepherd, and some has added important information regarding his life as it affected his works. I’ve also done much additional study and contemplation of his work, resulting in some published articles and sufficient numbers of essays on important and dramatic matters that add up to two completed book manuscripts desperately seeking publication. My blog is also evidence of some of this activity.
Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation (2007) Marc Fisher.
Most of the “Night People” chapter of this book concerns Shepherd, written by an author who is obviously a Shepherd enthusiast. As he writes, “I heard Shepherd through my pillow, from the transistor radio cradled in my palm. He told me bedtime stories. I would stay up into the night because Shep was revealing himself and I never knew what might come next.” He continues, “Everyone who followed Shepherd’s path on the radio—and there is hardly a creative soul in the medium who does not trace his work back to Shep’s stories—was enraptured to discover that in the darkness and quiet of a windowless studio. One person could step inside an audience’s imagination.”
This book, despite my comment to Shep’s photographer in 2004, also uses the image with the black scratch line as noted above.
More to come.
ARCHY AND MEHITABEL and ROBERT W. SERVICE
Shepherd also read on the air other material that some call poetry. The lives and times of Archy and Mehitabel consists of mostly short verse by newspaperman Don Marquis. Archy is a cockroach who lives in a newspaper office and has learned to use a reporter’s typewriter, but he can’t depress the capital key, so he only writes in lower case. Mehitabel is a devil-may-care alley cat, who, to be polite about it, one could call trash. Archy’s stuff is funny, with an observant, mordant wit regarding the human condition. Shep loved it and read some on the air, maybe as frequently as once a year.
Robert W. Service is most well-known for his rhymed story verse such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Shepherd’s 1975 LP album for Folkways Records contains eleven of Service’s poems. On the air, Shepherd read some of these with such over-the-top exaggeration and glee that he seemed to feel obliged to disparage as “slob art” and yet he apparently enjoyed them tremendously, a mixed attitude that Shepherd reserved for a small number of such common-folk-type creations.
A few other poems he enjoyed reading included “Casey at the Bat,” Longfellow’s “Excelsior,” “Evolution,” “The Hellbound Train,” and “The Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.” The last two fall under a category called “recitations,” which folk in the 19th century used to read and recite at local gatherings. As I’ve previously commented, he read this overly sentimental and moralistic material in his self-consciously, overly dramatic fashion that perfectly fit the corn. Material full of platitudes and tears. Enjoying and disparaging slob art and trivia, he had it both ways. After one reading on the air of “The Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight” he commented, “Oh, that’s a magnificent piece of glop, I’ll tell you!” One Christmas Eve he read a long epic, “Rattling Home for Christmas,” complete with railroad sound effects. He commented that only an American could have written it. “You can hear echoes of Thomas Wolfe, echoes of Wordsworth, echoes of Edgar Guest, echoes of Jack Kerouac, echoes of protesters everywhere.”
Another favorite of Shepherd and his listeners was Sax Rohmer’s tales of the fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu, which also got the over-the-top treatment on the air.
In contrast, one weekend during a New York newspaper strike, just as New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had done decades before, Shepherd described and read the Sunday funnies on the air.
FABLES BY GEORGE ADE
Turn-of-the-19-20th century writer George Ade was best known for his fables written in slang. They were funny and cynical, and Shepherd loved to read them on the air. For his 1960 book, The America of George Ade, Shepherd edited and wrote the enthusiastic introduction, indicating his affinity toward Ade’s ironic attitude toward his culture.
VIC AND SADE
Paul Rhymer’s fifteen-minute slightly bizarre, slyly witty, and dryly amusing sitcoms of 1930s and 1940s radio concerned a Midwestern, married couple who live a very, very ordinary life “halfway up in the next block,” with quirky twists in the action and dialog that only the scriptwriter and the listener recognized. The characters take their situations very seriously indeed—while listeners shake their heads in disbelief, chuckling at what silly folk we mortals be, though recognizing that such simple-minded foolishness is part of everyone’s life. In his foreword to a book of “Vic and Sade” scripts, Shepherd described Rhymer’s style thusly: “He did not deal in jokes, but human beings observed by a sardonic, biting, yet loving mind.” Shepherd occasionally read parts of the scripts and made use of a few bits and pieces of Rhymer’s comic style in his own performance, such as using the saying of Vic’s lodge brothers at The Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, the ersatz Latin, “In hoc agricola conc.” Shepherd loved the absurd-but-possible names of people concocted by Rhymer such as Slobert Hink, Y. Y. Flirch, and H. K. Fleeber. (Shepherd frequently used odd names in his own stories.) Sade, the prototypical housewife, sometimes slyly amusing, but rather witless, had one great enthusiasm—she had an extensive and actively evolving dishrag collection.
Ade and Rhymer are two of Shepherd’s favorites. Shepherd reverberated to their humor. Obviously, with their clever observations and pointed satire, they were among his forerunners and probably influenced his turn of mind. He paid tribute to both in print and on his broadcasts.
Reading the works of all of those mentioned above, Shepherd probably spent on the air far less than one-percent of his time, but the renditions entertained and intrigued the minds of many of his listeners, who were hungry for the intellectual nourishment that he provided through his own improvisational talents and through exposing listeners to his enthusiasms. He influenced many to go out and buy and absorb works by many whom they may not have been aware of elsewhere. He was a mentor and a Pied Piper of the best kind.
Jean Shepherd always improvised on his radio broadcast. Except when he didn’t. (As I quote Shepherd’s fellow broadcaster Barry Farber regarding Shepherd in my Excelsior, You Fathead!, “Never had a script or anything. Good Lord! Don’t ever use the word ’script’ anywhere in your book!”) Others who saw Shepherd perform on his radio broadcasts say the same thing. So we know it’s true. Those who saw him enter the studio report that sometimes he would have a couple of words scribbled on a scrap of paper to remind him of subjects, and, it’s apparent from some of his broadcasts (and his statements that he did “work” on some of his material in advance), that, though he did not write out any details, sometimes he had a good plan in mind regarding where and how he would proceed with his improvisation. As he once put it, he was like a jazz musician knowing the “Tea for Two” melody and creatively taking off from it.
But on rare occasions he did read from published material. “When?” you might ask in disbelief. Not to worry. As far as we know, he was always upfront about it. All Shepherd listeners will recognize what I’ll be describing, and no one will be offended by the truth—as obvious this all is to many listeners, it remains of some interest to put it on paper to contemplate. Let’s just mention the kinds of stuff he occasionally read right off the printed page.
NEWS NOTES—STRAWS IN THE WIND
Sometimes he read short news notes from periodicals, usually of odd little occurrences found down at the bottom of the newspaper page or on back pages. He would refer to the location as “the silly section” of the paper—usually The New York Times. Some of these he found himself and some were sent to him by listeners. He would comment on the article, suggesting that humanity was certainly foible-filled.
STORIES FROM HIS OWN BOOKS
On a couple of holidays, he might read from his own works. These stories he had first improvised on the radio, then had published in magazines and then in his books. Some years at Christmas he read his BB gun story, “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid.” Near July Fourth he would sometimes read his story of Ludlow Kissel and his fireworks disaster.
HAIKU and other POEMS
Occasionally he read a few poems by a variety of poets, mostly American. Usually they would only occupy a small portion of a program.
Haiku, a short, condensed form of Japanese poetry, limited to seventeen syllables, especially fascinated him. He devoted considerable portions of at least a few programs to them. Under his readings he would have traditional Japanese koto music played softly. Shepherd must have inspired many listeners to delve into haiku themselves—my first edition paperback is copyright 1958, and I know that he inspired me to buy and read it. I have subsequently enjoyed haiku for many years.
What is it about haiku that attracted Shepherd? My copy of An Introduction to Haiku, with translation and commentary by Harold G. Henderson notes that “Primarily it is a poem; and being a poem it is intended to express and to evoke emotion.” Haiku has been exceeding popular in Japan for hundreds of years–millions of the short poems are written yearly by millions of ordinary citizens. Henderson mentions that most haiku suggest a season of the year. He also writes that, “they usually gain their effect not only by suggesting a mood, but also by giving a clear-cut picture which serves as a starting point for trains of thought and emotion.” The back cover of the book comments that Henderson’s analysis shows that “haiku is a very exacting form indeed, requiring compliance with the strictest aesthetic standards of concreteness, objectivity, and suggestiveness.”
I suggest that all of this struck a strong cord, appealing to Shepherd’s own propensity for seeing his world with acute observation and expressing it with exactness.
Translation into English must alter the original enormously. I doubt that many of the original Japanese rhymed. Here’s an early one from my haiku book—thus maybe not quite of classic style—that I imagine appealed to Shepherd:
Dewdrops, limpid, small—
And such a lack of judgment shown
In where they fall!
JUST THE “COWBOY X” FACTS!
ARE THESE THE FACTS?
According to http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Episode_0560 , Shepherd “co-wrote the screenplay and narrated it in 1971.” But apparently it wasn’t aired until December 21, 1973–and , it seems, not after that. They indicate an EKA = Earliest Known Appearance of December 21, 1973.
They quote Shepherd on his September 7, 1971 broadcast:
“ I just had a magnificent professional coup…. I just don’t know how to recover from it…. Well now, what I did today was I played X, the letter X, on Sesame Street. You know how they have these letters, you know, B D C Q? Well, I played all the voices in a little drama introducing letter X. I played the townspeople, it was a beautiful little Western, it was a shoot-out right there in the town… I played Cowboy X, I played the townspeople…. Silly. Well, here I am, a grown man, and finally I’ve reached the peak of my professional prowess, and I’m playing an animated letter X on the Sesame Street show… In fact, the guy who produces those letters looks almost exactly like the Cookie Monster…. Then I threw a Nabisco in his trap, and we start business. Oh man, I tell you it’s groovy…. I talked to the producer, and said ‘How come X?’ There’s a long pregnant pause, and he says, ‘Well, it’s typecasting. You should realize that you’re a perfect letter X.’ “
Shepherd also noted that the voice for Cowboy X was hard on his throat: “It’s not easy to holler ‘Yippee!’ like that.”
NOT EASY TO HOLLER
“YIPPEE!” LIKE THAT
This post is mainly about the Sesame Street “Cowboy X.”
Please also note that the first of images of it posted on Youtube were abominably blurry. But a more recent one at CLASSIC SESAME STREET-COWBOY X, www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRj0oub2TLY is much sharper, but with lesser color intensity. Anyone with a source of a sharper and more colorful version of “Cowboy X” please contact me.
One never knows when or where some little Shep gem will crop up. Some people (those of a special, rare, and persistent turn of mind) have been searching for a minor project he created in the early 1970s, “Cowboy X,” a learn-the-letter animated cartoon for television’s Sesame Street. Inveterate and often frustrated researcher, I bought several of the Sesame Street video compilations of letter cartoons without success, except for my now near-perfect ability to sing along to the “Alphabet Song” as joyously rendered by Lena Horne and a mass of Muppets. See where my money goes? Then I encountered the one-minute, nine-second video in June 2007 on www.Youtube.com where it had been posted just three months earlier. Here I’ll admit that though I’d heard the audio years before, until I saw the video with audio, I’d not thought much about it. You can probably tell by the way I’m telegraphing my punch that what’s about to come holds much significance!
IN THE EARLY DAYS OF THE WEST, THE
PEACEFUL TOWN OF SNIDDLER’S GULCH
[Sniddler’s Gulch, a town like any-town
or every-town, U.S.A]
Picture the tiny Western town, hear the hoof beats. In the Old West of cowboys and Indians, Cowboy X has been riding into town branding his X everywhere.
The town’s people want him to stop. A little boy suggests that X simply be asked to cut it out. Cowboy X responds “Why, sure ah’ll stop!” The people give a collective sigh of relief and Cowboy X says, “From now on ah’ll be known as Cowboy O,” and, as he gallops out of town, he stamps his letter O everywhere. The narrator concludes the episode with, “And the citizens of Sniddler’s Gulch lived happily ever after because they really weren’t very smart.”
Cute, but why did Shepherd bother? I think I know, so read on. On a 1971 broadcast, he commented that he’d just done the cartoon: “Finally I’ve reached the peak of my professional prowess and I’m playing an animated X on Sesame Street.” We don’t know who did the script, but it’s got too much essential Shep to be mere coincidence, so I’m sure he wrote every word. And, probably only recognized by some scant few fans, that’s Shepherd’s voice in this cartoon world, embodying all its stock character types with his skillful mimicry—besides narrator he’s the three male citizens, a female citizen, the small boy, and X himself. As with nearly all he put his hand to, when closely studied, this mere children’s cartoon reveals his familiar attitudes about himself and others.
Shepherd as narrator describes himself in the person of Cowboy X as “one of the meanest desperados of all time” and we know how unpleasant he could sometimes be, but of foremost importance is the nature of X itself.
COWBOY X LEFT Xes EVERYWHERE
Shepherd claimed on that 1971 radio broadcast that he’d talked to the producer, who “looked almost exactly like the Cookie Monster.” Shepherd said he’d asked him, “How come ‘X,’ man? Now come on. Don’t give me that cookie jazz. You’ve had all the cookies I’m gonna give ya. Now tell me what it is.” Shepherd reported that after a long, pregnant pause, the producer said, “Well, it’s type-casting. You should realize you’re a perfect letter X.”
THE CITIZENS FINALLY DECIDED THAT
COWBOY X HAD TO BE STOPPED
WHAT IF WE JUST ASK COWBOY X
TO PLEASE STOP
MARKING UP OUR TOWN WITH Xes?
Another time on the air he said it was ironic that his Sesame Street character was the unknown X, and we know how much of his real self he kept from public scrutiny, but more pertinent, we know he considered himself, as he’d once put it, “widely unknown” professionally, despite his many efforts to leave his mark in many public media. In addition, as narrator, Shepherd concludes the episode by saying in effect that, by not realizing the import of what Cowboy X continues doing, the citizenry is stupid—X’s motivation and public performance being widely misunderstood/under-appreciated, just as Shepherd believed his own professional activities were. More irony: substituting for the unknown “X,” letter O is visually indistinguishable from the zilch of zero.
FROM NOW ON I’LL BE KNOWN AS COWBOY O
Very rarely in Jean Shepherd’s career had he created anything in which his performing self had not been evident right out there for all to encounter. Though this self-reflexive specimen is certainly not titled “Jean Shepherd’s Cowboy X,” it hasn’t been seen on Sesame Street in recent memory, and he apparently received no credits for it, yet he’s dominant—Ol’ Shep’s brand is present everywhere within “Cowboy X,” not only through his performance but in his very being. Superficially this cartoon might have seemed like a meaningless throwaway but it ain’t—it’s a keeper, cleverly amusing and fraught with irony, disillusion, hostility, and even a bit of despair.
LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER BECAUSE
THEY REALLY WEREN’T VERY SMART.
The baseball season
Shepherd loved baseball and referred to it in many contexts over the years on the radio, on television in a “Jean’ Shepherd’s America” episode, and in a filmed documentary devoted to the Chicago White Sox.
Radio humorist, author, and multi-faceted creative force, Jean Shepherd, loved baseball above all other sports, and seeing it as a metaphor for life as we know it, loved it for what it signified for him and all of us. His belief that life requires good offensive as well as defensive maneuvering is illustrated in the movie A Christmas Story (which he created and narrated throughout), as every idea and action ends in disaster or its near equivalent–just a few examples include the kid who gets his BB gun for Christmas and nearly shoots his eye out, the longed-for secret decoder only decodes a “crummy commercial,” and dogs run off with the family’s Christmas dinner. Shepherd’s view is that life needs to be regarded with wry suspicion every step of the way, and the movie provides examples of his favorite rule for dealing with it, a metaphor taken especially from baseball: “keep your knees loose.”
Throughout his radio career he’d repeat the saying, meaning by it that life will frequently slap fast ground balls toward you across the uneven, rocky infield of your existence, and you’d better not be rigid, but be loose-kneed and ready to quickly dodge, or better, lunge to your right to glove the incoming missiles—or they will probably take bad bounces and give you a fat lip. He had a great joy in his life, but he knew that the Management Upstairs would eventually choose not to pick up his option, and that the price of conditional joy was eternal vigilance and loose knees.
Despite his world-view that argued that he’d never win a batting title, Shepherd’s involvement with baseball was much more widespread and successful than most of his well-informed enthusiasts were aware of. He even claimed to have been a professional ballplayer in his early days, but that tale is unlikely to be substantiated. The closest we’ve come is to learn that his kid brother, Randy, had played at a high level in the Cincinnati Reds organization, and Shepherd is said to have sometimes latched onto and honed his brother’s stories of sporting exploits for his own storytelling purposes. But even so, Shepherd had the skill in managing his life and his creative efforts to metaphorically bunt for a base hit, inside-out a swing that punched the ball to the opposite field, and even sometimes loft one over the fence.
Shepherd’s stories, anecdotes, and commentary on the radio usually illustrated his view of life, starting with supposed incidents from his childhood, frequently told to make a point and often straying far enough from the truth to be considered bald-faced lies. That the local team, the Chicago White Sox, were perpetual losers at the time, gave veracity to his symbolic stories and attitude toward human woe. Using his father, known as “the old man,” as a foil and frequent subject of subtle derision, Shepherd had at least three versions of one such family legend. In one, Shep and the old man were watching a Chicago White Sox vs. Yankees game from the left field stands, his father mercilessly heckling Yankee pitcher Marius Russo to the extent that Russo, usually a very weak hitter, blasted a home run in retaliation that not only won the game but “almost decapitated the old man!”
A similar story, this one in what looks to be the strictly historical portion of a 1987 White Sox video documentary, has Shepherd telling of Babe Ruth hitting the first home run in All Star Game history, the ball, naturally, just missing his father, who went lunging for it and fell empty-handed into a woman’s lap. The third story, this one also the result of his father’s heckling, has Yankee slugger Lou Gehrig aiming a home run ball and just missing him. This version of the tale was well known enough—and believed—for a radio interviewer to ask Shepherd to tell about his father and Lou Gehrig, to which Shepherd responded, “Don’t forget, I’m a storyteller, not a historian.”
Continuing his multi-faceted chronology into young adulthood, Shepherd tells stories of playing for a ball team named United Brethren and one summer broadcasting the play-by-play for an Ohio minor league team, the Toledo Mudhens. These may well be so, but one might well question the truth of his story published in Playboy, May 1971. This tale, “The Unforgettable Exhibition Game of the Giants Versus the Dodgers, Tropical Bush League,” is about his days in the Signal Corps, stationed in the subtropical wilds of Florida. Shepherd tells of a game in a secluded jungle field between his fellow inductees, the day being so hot and humid that the two entire teams stripped down naked. This would have served well if an army vehicle hadn’t pulled up, carrying a surprised but maybe delighted spectator, a general’s daughter. Our man Shepherd apparently led an exciting youth, with many fascinating moments, but one believes all the details at one’s peril.
Years after his military service, when Shepherd moved from the Chicago area, lived in New York City, and broadcast from station WOR, he continued his lifelong passion for baseball. Fellow WOR broadcaster Barry Farber remembers seeing Shepherd come into their shared office space with all his baseball equipment, exhilarated, just in from playing a game, who knows where, in Manhattan. Though Shepherd never forgot his fondness for the perpetually trounced Chicago White Sox, he began observing, critiquing, and rooting, not for the Yankees, who, it seemed to him at the time, always won, but for those world famous underdogs, the New York Mets. He continued recognizing “the American pastime” as a long-running parable for our lives. In September of 1969 he spent a program talking about the Mets game he’d seen the night before, and discussing the unavoidable problem in all our lives of winning and losing—how do we manage to deal with it? The Met’ struggles just seemed the perfect example of all our human inadequacies and foibles. In mid-October he devoted another program to them, this one dealing with that amazing happenstance—the Mets had won the World Series! Shepherd was overjoyed—he commented that it had not been luck but the result of the high degree of skill with which they’d played. Heaven knows how he reconciled his usually negative attitude with this miraculously positive outcome!
Sometimes Shepherd talked of lesser baseball matters and sometimes of the larger picture—baseball as major metaphor. Sometimes there just seemed to be good magic in the air of baseball, such as that which had enveloped the Amazin’ Mets, while at other times there were obviously gremlins in the works. A recent find gives evidence of gremlins, devoted to denying a rightful place to those other perpetual losers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and denying rightful acknowledgment for their great accomplishment. Regarding appropriate acknowledgment, recently an old book emerged from obscurity, published, diabolically, in both Shepherd’s home state of Indiana, and in Brooklyn’s state of New York: The Scrapbook History of Baseball.
This book consists of many hundreds of photocopies of entire news articles about baseball from 1876 through 1974. Of this multitude of high points and mind-deadening trivia, for game seven of the 1955 World Series, a one-half inch by less than three inch box score is the book’s only indicator that, in the Boys of Summer’s entire history as the “Wait till next year kids,” the Brooklyn Dodgers had won their only Series.
(As a member of the Pratt Institute
ROTC in Brooklyn, I got to march
onto the middle of the outfield and
salute the flag on opening day, 1956,
when they raised the World Series
flag for the first time–oh, glory days!)
The other book-gremlin must have bedeviled baseball fan Jean Shepherd, because the only words besides his two-page foreword to this “scrapbook,” is the half-page acknowledgment of sources and the source listings themselves, presumably compiled by the book’s four listed authors. That’s worth repeating: four presumed experts in the history of baseball (with a blind spot regarding the 1955 World Series), who wrote nothing in the 320-page tome except the acknowledgment half-page, are glorified as “authors.” How does one define “author”? Ah well! The tiny text on the dust jacket just above the four expert names, says, “Foreword by Jean Shepherd.” Did Shepherd tear out his hair and jump up and down in a rage at the unfairness of it all, or did he keep his knees loose?
Maybe Shepherd kept his cool because he knew well what it was like not to receive sufficient credit for one’s work. He probably just chalked it up to one more lousy call by life’s Umpire-in-Charge. Ya can’t win ‘em all. Each year near the beginning of baseball season he’d read “Casey at the Bat,” commenting on humanity’s hopes and failures, one year half-jokingly describing the poem as “probably as close to a true American classic as you can get.”
His special perception often led to unexpected truths. For example, when Astroturf first appeared under a domed stadium in Texas, he decried the artificiality of the matter by noting that the blocking off of a natural phenomenon, wind, lessened the need for skill in an outfielder’s tracking and catching a fly ball and also in a pitcher’s ability to manipulate the path of a thrown ball. As he put it, “Actually, they’ve taken the blood out of the game now.” On another occasion, when he had the chance to speak several times in a Babe Ruth TV documentary, he commented, undoubtedly having his own manipulation of truth and fiction in mind, that the public’s erroneously believing that the Babe “predicted” a homerun shot, was, at worst, only a harmless myth. Shepherd’s take on baseball and life was observed by a New York Times reporter during Shep’s radio commentary for the Armed Forces Network during the 1964 World Series. The writer who interviewed him wrote of Shepherd’s love of “seeing things as few others see them.” The article continued, “Thus, though he was only one among 67,101 customers at Yankee Stadium, he spent the afternoon looking, not only at the players on the field, but also the players in relationship to the customers, and both groups in relationship to the stadium, and the stadium in relationship to Western civilization.”
Yes, for Jean Shepherd, baseball and all other human activities
are irrevocably entwined. As he said after one commentary
on baseball and life, as the ball flies into the outfield,
“just keep your knees loose, look up into that sun,
go back there as it’s drifting back towards the fence.
Make sure that you judge for the windage.
Drift a little to your left.
And just stand there and wait.”
WHITE SOX FAN
The Beacon Street Gang of East Chicago
Photo courtesy of Bill Ek and Steve Glazer
How much of Jean Shepherd’s stories are true and how much fiction has been the subject of many an hour of dispute and befuddlement. It is my intention to add to that.
Shepherd told his stories as though they were true. He said there were no people with the names he used. His friend Flick’s family said he never got his tongue stuck to a frozen pole. Shep said he used some names but changed the people. The dedication in his first book of stories, based on his improvised versions told on the radio, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash is: “The characters, places, and events described herein are entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, or the result of faulty imagination.” Scattered shards of real history of The Region (Northwest Indiana), found in newspaper clippings and high school yearbook images, reveal names and photos of various kids and adults whose names appear in his stories. “As though they were true,” “entirely fictional,” “shards of real history.” Some truth has trumped total fiction.
Some evidence indicates that, though he created fictions, he took off from some little crumb of fact—most artists do that. Sometimes he simply confused and accidentally conflated bits of his memories into new incidents he well may have thought were true—delving into his comments sufficiently lead one to recognize that sometimes Shepherd’s memories were as scrambled as everyone else’s. (For example, in later years he claimed he began his New York radio career in the early 1960s, when incontrovertible evidence proves that some of his best work and most interesting activities happened in NYC in the late 1950s.) And, as he once put it, “Do you ever have the feeling that half the stuff you remember just didn’t exist at all? That you sort of made it up?” How much of that statement was just kidding with credulity? How much was an attempt to get our minds questioning the authenticity of our own memories?
Something else he did, a little bit different from the foregoing, was to consciously rearrange some bits of truth and mush them together to make the whole conglomeration more coherent—more artistic. And maybe just to confound us. When he tells a kid story, or just describes his early youth on the radio, it’s Hammond he refers to, but the same stories in print, where he’s determined to emphasize that it’s fiction, Hammond becomes Hohman. And, yes, there is a Hohman Avenue in Hammond–and it’s not far from where Jean grew up.
The Case of Dawn Strickland, my dear Shepherdites, is an interesting specimen to examine. As young kids, Dawn and Jean both lived in East Chicago, Indiana. Although Jean usually said he simply went to the Warren G. Harding grammar school in Hammond, Indiana and described kindergarten there, we know that he was born on the south side of Chicago and first went to the William McKinley grammar school in East Chicago. In a story he claimed that at six, his first love was Dawn Strickland and that one day his father came home to tell the family that he’d been promoted in his company and they were all moving (probably referring to their move to Hammond), so, as he tells it, little Jeanie never saw Dawn Strickland again (Is this true or not?). And yet, every broken fragment of his little romantic heart had hold of Dawn because in his (sometimes faulty)memory he transferred her to Hammond:
I made my debut in show biz in an oral hygiene pageant. I played “Bad Breath.” No, no, I’m wrong! I’m just being rotten here. Actually, what I played was “Decayed Tooth.” They had me all dressed up in a “Decayed Tooth” costume. Dawn Strickland played a toothbrush, Jack Robinson played a squeezed tube of toothpaste, and Alex Joshaway played “Mouthwash.” I’ll never forget it. The lavish reviews came out the day after in the Warren G. Harding School’s Daily Bugle.
Oh, the teeny weensy complications! McKinley School, Harding School—why dredge up these two old presidential farts and their schools? It all comes about because of a major discovery in the historical record of our hero. Until now, the earliest image we had was from his high school yearbook. And then, that intrepid researcher into arcane Shepherd matters, Steve Glazer (with archival assistance from Jim Clavin and shown in Jim’s http://www.flicklives.com home page), discloses a photo of Jean Shepherd (with distinctive dimple in his chin, age 6!) and Dawn Strickland in East Chicago.
Of some interest regarding Shepherd’s memory of his first true love of forty years before, is that he describes her as having had a Prince Valiant haircut (A wall of bangs on the brow). See evidence below. Shep, with dimpled chin, in the overall image above, holds the football.
DAWN STRICKLAND AND JEAN SHEPHERD
WHAT A LOVELY COUPLE!
Although Shepherd claimed he never saw Dawn again in person, he says that when he was in the Signal Corps, in 1942, he encountered a newspaper wedding announcement—of Dawn and a European baron who was a brigadier general. An actual newspaper photo story has surfaced—of Dawn Strickand and her new husband, a naval reserve lieutenant. (Not quite European, not quite a baron, not quite a brigadier general.) As Shepherd describes her in the photo, she does indeed look a bit like the Elizabeth Taylor of National Velvet.
Dawn and Lieutenant Ek, newlyweds, 1942
Regarding Shep’s truthing, how much has the foregoing
resolved the disputes and befuddlement?
Not so very much,
but hasn’t it been fun delving and discovering?
An artist’s creative process will always be an enigma.