P. Press: Has interviewing so many people who both knew and worked with Jean given you any profound insight into what drove this intensely gifted man to work so tirelessly for the better part of his life in any medium that would accommodate his abilities?
Bergmann: I simply believe that Jean Shepherd was a great creative force in many media, and like other driven artists in whatever field, he did what he did out of intense feelings of power, pleasure, and ego. He wanted it all, including widespread recognition for his art.
P. Press: He spent the last years of his life–after the passing of his fourth wife, Leigh Brown–in relative seclusion on Sanibel Island, Florida. What role do you feel Leigh played in facilitating his work?
Bergmann: Leigh Brown seemed to be the force that supported, protected, and held him together. She was his enabler. In my book I quote Laurie Squire, Jean and Leigh’s friend and their radio producer for his last year on WOR [1976-1977]: “She could hold her own! The power behind the throne. He was the creative genius. She knew how to operate in the real world.” He died just a bit over a year after she did. It seemed as though he couldn’t live without her. By the way, not many people are aware that Shepherd was married four times, not just three. There was a short and mysterious marriage (known of by his son, Randall, and by Lois Nettleton). Second, he was married to Joan Warner, mother of his children Randall and Adrian, third to actress Lois Nettleton, and finally to Leigh Brown.
P. Press: How far along are you on your current book and do you have a publisher committed to releasing it?
Bergmann: I’m waiting for some final private editing of my manuscript before submitting it to my publisher or to whatever publisher might like to look at it. [That manuscript still quests for a publishing contract. Shep’s Army was published in August of 2013] I’m also hoping that a proposed, major documentary on Shepherd, with a major role for me, would greatly enhance the prospects of this book in finding a publisher and a market far greater than simply that of Shepherd’s many enthusiastic fans.
P. Press: If there’s one story, radio program, drawing, monologue, or secondhand recollection about Shepherd that crystallizes his genius to you, what would it be?
Bergmann: Three of his monologues stand out in my mind, and I discuss them in Excelsior, You Fathead! The first is the 1957 excerpt from his four hour Sunday night programs in which he is in his early, laid-back mode, building up to his jazzy interaction with a Duke Ellington song, “Blues I Love to Sing.” I still find the few pieces of his early, longer-form work to be examples of his most innovative style, all of which we have far too little to listen to. The second is from his 45-minute programs, a finely honed broadcast about “being a sorehead,” and how there will always be some people who can outperform you, no matter how good you are. The third is his extraordinary elegy broadcast when he got back on the air after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This melds together his introspective style, his insights into our common humanity, the nature of America at the time, and his acute ability to recognize the seemingly insignificant detail that says more than anyone else would have imagined. He had that whole horrible weekend in November, 1963 to feel and think about it, and though it still must have been improvised, it was so well-composed that I wouldn’t change a word of it!
P. Press: I’ve visited Jean’s boyhood home in Hammond, Indiana–a locale he almost exclusively used to weave his stories—on several occasions, and have talked with local residents about Shepherd. I can’t help but think Shepherd would get a real kick out of their largely indifferent/unaware view of his cultural status. Would you agree with that assessment?
Bergmann: I think, Ryan, he would have been both amused and sardonic in his attitude.
P. Press: Shepherd loved the work of men like Robert Service and George Ade, opposed to contemporaries like J.D. Salinger and Woody Allen. Can you think of instances where he was capable of acknowledging the work of his peers?
Bergmann: I can’t think of instances of his praising his contemporaries. He did have good words to say about some of his friends such as Shel Silverstein and a couple of comics, but most of those he admired came a bit before him, such as Jack Benny.
P. Press: What is it about Jean Shepherd after all these years that keeps you so engrossed in his legacy?
Bergmann: His mind is a fascinating thing to hear at work, his improvisations tickling the listener’s ears and sensibilities. He continues to entertain me and make me laugh. And that’s just his radio shows. New and fascinating material continues to emerge! New aspects of his creative talents. Recently I’ve written a couple of articles about different areas of his interests. An essay about his drawing of a Bugatti limousine and devoting a broadcast to a Bugatti sports car, the rare and transcendent 57SC Atlantic, described by some who, considering it the finest, wondrously-strange of vehicles, refer to it as “evil” and “wicked.” The American Bugatti Club expects to publish my piece in their magazine in September. [Indeed, it was published.] Another article I’ve based on his almost unknown ink drawings, many of which have recently emerged from Lois Nettleton’s closet after her death last year. [in January 2008] An article about his ambiguous relationship to nostalgia is scheduled for some future date by a nostalgia magazine. Another article almost ready to seek publication is about Shepherd’s many forays into the joys and significance of baseball. For me, Shepherd’s world is ever-expanding and ever-fascinating.
I also write all the program notes for a continuing series of CD sets of nearly unheard syndicated recordings Shepherd made in 1964-1965, done exactly as he did his WOR broadcasts, but the audios of which were lost in a warehouse for decades. They’re being produced in 4-and 8-CD boxed sets. There are over 250 of the shows and so far only 48 have appeared, released by www.radiospirits.com. I get to be nearly the first to hear them. It’s almost like turning on the radio nightly when Shepherd was there, live and funny as hell!
[Oh, yes, and as of 2/2013, I also post a blog about Shep.]