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JEAN SHEPHERD & me Part 1

In three parts, here is an extensive Internet interview of me in Ryan Glazer’s Perishable Press (several times it’s changed its name since then.) Whenever I’m reminded of it I realize that it’s a good, comprehensive overview of my relationship with Shep’s legacy, and therefore, I believe, worth presenting and preserving here.

P. Press: You met Jean Shepherd in 1957 at one of his old haunts, the Horn and Hardart Automat. This was a period where he was more of a cult radio figure and perpetrator of the great literary hoax, I, Libertine, than the television and film personality who later took great pains to distance himself from his WOR radio days. Are there any immediate memories that come to mind from that first encounter?

Bergmann: My only face-to-face encounter with Jean Shepherd was when he suggested that listeners meet at a Marlboro bookstore in April of 1957. After awhile some of us gathered on the balcony of the nearby Horn and Hardart restaurant. I had my paperback copy of I, Libertine with me and I asked him to sign it. As he was signing, I snapped a flash picture in his face. He probably silently cursed me out for that. 1957-04-08_010_signing_genes_libertine_frontBut the photo is now a permanent part of my book about him as well as it being on the flicklives.com site.

                 i libertine JS signed

i libertine jpeg i hope And I still have the book. The pages are too brown and brittle to open and read, but I now have a good hardcover copy of the book also. Only in recent years was it known by most Shepherd fans that hardcover copies were also produced (in a very small print run). And only within the last couple of years did I discover a British paperback and a British hardcover edition. I have both of them, too. As a fan, it was a great experience for me, but I don’t remember anything else about it. I’d kept the photo along with a number of Shepherd clippings in a folder, saved through various moves over the decades.

P. Press: The breadth of Shepherd’s work is staggering, including his output in the 1950s. Were you solely a fan of his radio work from that period or were you aware of his myriad magazine articles and humor pieces as well as his work with jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus?

Bergmann: The only thing I knew of Shepherd’s work in the 1950s and 1960s was his radio work, his first television show, his first short story published in Playboy (which I still have, torn from the magazine), and a couple of his first television programs in the Jean Shepherd’s America series. I didn’t much care for any of them because they were not the Jean Shepherd I knew and loved on the radio. I remember when he said that his narration of “The Clown” mingus clown EP

[EP stand-alone version of “The Clown.” Lois Nettleton

told me that she had been present at the recording,

an “all-night” affair.]

with Charles Mingus was to be aired on some radio program and I recorded it reel-to-reel, as I had recorded his radio broadcasts in the 1950s and early 60s. Only in recent years, as I began to study his work, did I come to admire the broader range of his output.

P. Press: I know you mention in your book that you’d stopped paying attention to Jean Shepherd for a number of years before re-familiarizing with his work. What sparked your interest some years on in Shepherd and what ultimately led to the writing of the only comprehensive biography available, Excelsior, You Fathead!?

EYF cover

Bergmann: I’d nearly forgotten about Jean Shepherd from the mid-1960s [except for watching some of the Jean Shepherd’s America early series] until I read his obituary in the New York Times in October, 1999, and, as I mention in my book, I realized that I’d lost an old friend who’d been so important in shaping the person I became. I began to listen to Max Schmid’s rebroadcasts of Shepherd on WBAI FM in New York, and I joined a Shep discussion group, shep@yahoogroups.com. I began to comment about Shepherd’s radio content to that group and got some very positive feedback. Then I heard that West Coast radio broadcaster Doug McIntyre was beginning to write a biography of Shep, and, contacting him, I began giving him my thoughts and copies of my clippings. I started writing notes about Shepherd and filing them in many labeled file folders when, somehow, Doug could no longer be contacted. I got frustrated—so many ideas and nowhere to put them! I realized that I could write the book I’d thought should be written. [Not so much a “biography” as a description and appreciation.]

When my book was published in March 2005, Doug contacted me, congratulating me on the book which he’d tried to write but had given up on. I think he found that a strict biography was not something that could be done successfully. Note that, as I write on page 14 of my book, it is NOT a biography. As I say in part, “… it works toward several related ends. It 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.” My publisher insisted on calling it a biography and most interviewers, reviewers, and readers call it that. A biography would have had to dig into much more personal matters that I didn’t think were the most important thing to get down on paper for the historical record. At most, the book is organized in part on a biographical framework, because he told so many kid stories, then some army stories, followed by early radio days, etc. Much of this material is fiction, not biography, but it gives some sense of a life in progress, mainly lived as an artistically constructed fabrication by Shepherd.

P. Press: During the research for the book, was it difficult to focus mainly on the art and output of Jean Shepherd opposed to the scattered and enigmatic, if not somewhat unsettling, aspects of his personal life?

Bergmann: My research mainly consisted of studying his artistically created works. When my publisher asked me to interview people who knew and worked with him, I discovered much of the biographical bits in the book. Thus, I had to determine where this “real” material fit and gracefully insert it, leading to various modifications because of the way this material from interviews altered what I’d written about his work. I did find that the biographical material, as it revealed some unpleasantness, was rather unsettling, but I’m glad I encountered it. I do believe that the interviews and other modifications make it a stronger book by relating his life to his very personal-seeming radio style.

P. Press: There’s mention in your book of his son, Randall Shepherd, working in the same building as his father, who had long since abandoned the family. Having spoken with both his son and his daughter, Adrian, did you get the sense there is any affinity or appreciation for his work from his children, or has the fact he had little to do with them or their mother superseded his genius in their minds?

Bergmann: Randall Shepherd is a sensitive, articulate guy who had wanted to write about his father, but apparently he’d found it too emotionally difficult except in a couple of short pieces he did. I feel lucky that he had thought about the material and was thus able to respond so well to my questions, most of which were through email correspondence. Adrian had found it even more difficult to accept her father’s poor behavior, but, as I describe in my book, she did come to some sort of acceptance of him and at the time of the book’s publication, she was listening to and enjoying recordings of Shep’s broadcasts.

P. Press: Shepherd’s work spanned many disciplines: from radio, to books, to television work, to writing screenplays. You interviewed friends and coworkers from every stage of his career; can you offer any insight into why Jean was so flippant about disassociating himself from his previous work?

Bergmann: Jean was very resentful that radio as a medium he’d loved and which had such possibilities for him and others, had failed to continue providing the opportunities for him to fulfill himself artistically. Then WOR chose to change formats and cancel his radio career and those of several other major, longtime broadcasters, a bit before he was ready to make the final decision himself. That his fans continued to focus on his past radio work instead of sufficiently appreciating the new artistic projects that were occupying his heart and soul was to him good cause to become hostile when his radio work was mentioned. It rubbed salt in his wounds and denied his then-current achievements.

P. Press: As a follow-up, I can recall numerous instances where Shepherd claims he was brought to New York and WOR by an agent keen on getting him work on Broadway opposed to on radio, disregarding the fact he’d worked heavily on the radio in markets like Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Even in one his last interviews, with Alan Colmes in the ’90s, he claimed radio was but a steppingstone to greater pursuits. Was it merely that he felt pigeonholed by his cult status as a radio personality/inventor of talk radio or had he outgrown the medium as a means of storytelling?

Bergmann: The chronology of his arriving in New York and how he began on WOR as it related to his other media possibilities (such as the “Tonight Show” sequence of events) seem clearly to indicate that radio, not TV or the stage, was what drew him to the Big Apple.

_____________________________

Week of April 20, 1955 to May 13, 1955 Weekday Shows – WOR New York – Mon – Fri 11:15pm to 11:30pm
(Source: NY Times Radio Listing)
June 14, 1955 to December 2, 1955 Weekday Shows – WOR New York – Starting in the 5:30 to 5:45pm time slot and ending in the 4:45 to 5:00pm time slot.

[Shedule above–from http://www.flicklives.com–indicates that Shepherd

was broadcasting in NYC  well before the “Tonight Show”

began seeking a replacement for Steve Allen.]

_____________________________

There is even a major story he told on radio that indicates the undeniable pull that New York radio had had on him when he worked in the hinterlands. I quote some of it my book: he had the opportunity to manage radio stations in Alaska and three of his fellow broadcasters say, “If you go anywhere, man, the only place to go—New York! I mean, the Big Apple—that’s the big time!” and Shepherd says to them, “You’re right!” Shepherd never got over his resentment over how radio mistreated him in the final years and he never was reconciled to having people remind him of that past. He liked what he did later and he wanted accolades for that more than for his past. He always said that he looked forward, not backward, in his life.

[In interviews over the years, Shepherd had several times

misstated that he began NYC radio broadcasting in 1959, when

he obviously began in 1955, and had been through the

I, Libertine and the being-fired/rehired-from-WOR affairs, in 1956]

___________________________

More to come

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4 Comments

  1. mygingerpig says:

    I think that Shepherd also came to feel uncomfortable with the adoration of kids. He viewed his radio persona as just that, a persona, and not the total person. He saw himself as a professional performer, actor, writer, humorist who operated on many levels, above the juvenile fawning of his young radio fans. I recall him talking about himself as a professional, using the analogy of a major league baseball player. He said that he wanted people to see him that way, and not as just the idol of high school or college kids. I think that is why he was so dismissive of the radio persona when asked about it. It was a gig and only that.

    Joel

    shepquest wrote:

    > ebbergmann posted: “In three parts, here is an extensive Internet interview of > me in Ryan Glazer’s Perishable Press (several times it’s changed its name > since then.) Whenever I’m reminded of it I realize that it’s a good, > comprehensive overview of my relationship with Shep’s” >

    • ebbergmann says:

      I agree with most of what you say, but I hope that when you say that radio “was a gig and only that,” you’re saying that he said that–in his most disgruntled and untruthful self, not that you’re implying that you agree with him–or that he truly believed this in his innermost self.

  2. shepblog says:

    Of course, I don’t agree with him, but I understand what was behind him saying that. He wanted to say that the radio program was a part but not the total of his oeuvre. He saw himself as a multi-talented professional performer and entertainer, and wanted people to know that.

  3. shepblog says:

    Today, ACS is how people know him, and for all it’s merits, his written and spoken work, as well as his PBS films show the breadth and depth of his talent. We fans see all of this in context. How many people new to him will listen to the hundreds of recorded programs, as we have many times? Their loss if they don’t.

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