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.