P. Press: I grew up reading Shepherd’s first books, In God We Trust: All Other Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters. To me they represent the pinnacle of his storytelling abilities, largely honed on his radio program. Where do you feel Shepherd ranked his books in lieu of his expansive creative output?
Bergmann: Because Shepherd more than once on the radio commented on how important the written word had been in his youth, and how important all through his life, I believe he was always proud of his published work. I’m sure it was why he insisted on referring to his book of linked short stories, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, as a “novel.”
P. Press: I know Jean wanted to be discussed in the same manner as one talks about Mark Twain and only in later years came to acknowledge that he would be forever wed to the movie A Christmas Story. Though he had a few movies produced for PBS, do you feel he was pleased by the final product of the movie?
Bergmann: Shepherd was certainly very happy about his movies. As he wrote in a book commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Videography, a magazine for the professional video production industry, “But when I’m asked what I’ve enjoyed most, I must say big-screen movies beat them all.” He loved to hear the audience laugh at the humor in his movies. I don’t know specifically what he felt about A Christmas Story, but I know that, although I didn’t like it much at first, after watching it many times, I now consider it a masterpiece.
P. Press: Jean Shepherd’s wit and comedic sensibilities seem to have been more influential—I’m thinking of far flung personalities from Jerry Seinfeld to Keith Olbermann—than appreciated today. How do you think he would have assessed his legacy as it stands?
Bergmann: Despite all those in the media who were obviously influenced by his work, it doesn’t measure up to what he felt was his rightful place as a major American creative force.
P. Press: I know that you’re currently at work on another book about Jean Shepherd. Curious to know why you feel compelled to write a second volume about him and what the book may entail?
Bergmann: [The following describes my book manuscript that indeed, still seeks a publishing contract, but my next Shep-book is my Shep’s Army, published August 2013.] I knew that as people encountered my book Excelsior, You Fathead! many would emerge with previously unknown material. Not only that, but I’ve quested onward and upward on my own. My main project has been the gathering of this new material and my further ideas for my follow-up book on Shepherd. I’ve incorporated it and other unpublished material about him into a format that conforms to the organization of the first book, and I’ve written it in a way that illustrates my quests as a Shep enthusiast (aka Shep-cuckoo) to locate Shepherd’s earliest nightly New York broadcasts, and which details my picaresque encounters with much unexpectedly important and fascinating information. The manuscript is ready to submit to publishers. Among the subjects included:
—Extensive written and telephone comments to me about Shepherd and his work from his third wife, actress Lois Nettleton.
—Letters from Leigh Brown, Shepherd’s producer and fourth wife, regarding her early relationships with Shel Silverstein and with Shepherd, and her intense fascination with Shepherd’s mind and body. The letters, written in 1961-’62 to her best friend, describe her emotional turmoil and then successful maneuvering to steal him away from his wife, Lois Nettleton (Miss Chicago of 1948).
—An interview with an early romantic interest of Shepherd’s, whom I refer to as “The Vampire Lady,” that led to a search for Shep’s earliest New York broadcasts. Through talking with graphic novelist Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and working with his wife/collaborator, Joyce Brabner, we searched for Shep’s early broadcasts, ending with the probability that the missing tapes are lost in the underground vaults of some middle-European Dracula museum.
—Shepherd’s real attitude toward his highly regarded kid stories and his 45-minute radio broadcasts.
—The meaning of his Sesame Street animated cartoon, “Cowboy X,” (narration, Cowboy X, adult male and female and kid voices all by Shepherd) and its significance to his entire career.
—Excerpts from a three-hour recorded discussion with enthusiastic Shep fan, lead singer/songwriter of Twisted Sister, Dee Snider.
—The complete script of my full-length, one-man play about Shepherd, which had a couple of performances in a tiny theater on Long Island, and for which I’m eager to find other venues.
More to come