New information about Shepherd’s life and work continually arrives. And existing information continues to be continually roadblocked. This is caused by people who have the info but who, for one cause or another, don’t come forth with it for the world to see.
BETTY BALLANTINE, wife and editor for Ian Ballantine, publisher of Shep’s hoax book, I, Libertine (1956), claimed to have written the final chapter of the book when sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon, who reportedly wrote most of it, fell asleep while working toward the publishing deadline. She was interviewed about the book a couple of times, I’m told, though I’ve seen nothing in print, but when I’ve tried to speak with her for publication of what may well be previously unknown aspects, she reportedly said that she was “tired of talking” about the subject. Thus, whatever she knows of importance, she will take to the grave with her.
JOAN WARNER, Shepherd’s second wife and mother of his two children, is aware of my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! their son Randall says, but has not read it and refuses to talk about Shepherd. She’s not interested in that chapter of her life, she said. More info headed for the grave.
OLIVIA TAPPAN, an important associate of the television director/producer of much of Shepherd’s television work, refused my requests to talk about him.
INHABITANTS OF SNOW POND LAKE, vacation home of Shepherd’s whom I have corresponded with for a number of years, say they have some of his material found in the house when they bought it.
Jean and Leigh’s Maine retreat as they abandoned it
Sometime in the 1980s, Jean and Leigh stopped going to their summer place in Snow Pond, Maine. When they last left it, they probably expected to return, because they left parts of themselves there that they would have taken with them if they’d known better. As time passed they must have forgotten their treasured possessions. So eventually the house and its furnishings could be thought of as abandoned until Leigh died and Jean became ill and it was time to sell. A few months before Shepherd died a married couple bought Jean and Leigh’s summer home, not knowing who the seller was: “When we bought the camp we didn’t appreciate who Gene Shepherd was so got rid of a lot of things we should never have sold. The spare bedroom in the camp was filled with all his ham radio equipment. Everything from microphones to call cards to the radios themselves. Wires were hung by nails all over the walls with a large desk on one end loaded with the equipment.”
They found an Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds, with an inscription accompanying an ink drawing of flowers, a bird, and a butterfly. An unexpected encounter, a loving piece of warmth, endearing, and, yes, sweet:
To Little Leigh….”A brightly colored wife-bird noted for its faithful loving habits and cheerful song.
Your hubby with much love, Jean, July 31, 1981. Snow Pond, Maine.
The camp (as such places are referred to in Maine parlance) had been abandoned thirteen years before and was in very bad shape according to the new owners, but instead of tearing it down they spent years repairing it. They found a number of puzzling items that those original owners had left there, some of which, a leglamp, a Red Ryder BB gun, manuscripts, audio tapes, and other material, they shipped to the seller’s representatives in Florida.
Other items remained: duck decoys scattered around the grounds, a baseball bat, a walking stick, ham radio equipment, a collage made of many different beer bottle labels, and a large sign hanging from the rafters—on one side it said EXCELSIOR and on the other side YOU FATHEAD. They had no idea what it meant. Enigmatic indeed! Only when they happened upon a book with those words as title did they discover who Jean Shepherd was:
(I covet this sign)
Year after year, despite my requests, they have done nothing to examine the possibly valuable stuff they say they have stored in a relative’s closet. Who knows what may be there? Maybe a box of very early tapes? Maybe even Shep’s travel diaries? We may never know.
SALVAGE GUY–on Sanibel Island, he had the contract to clear out Shepherd’s final home. He found numerous items of interest, for a few of which he sent photos, including the bronze plaque with which Hammond, Indiana honored Shepherd (photo from http://www.flicklives.com):He found Jean and Leigh Brown’s wedding certificate among many other objects, and now he has disappeared with all the stuff. Will it all end in a dumpster?
WGBH-TV, BOSTON, has much Shepherd material, including all episodes of “Jean Shepherd’s America,” “A Generation of Leaves” mock-documentary partly narrated by Shepherd, Shepherd’s three long-form TV dramas, etc. It’s all locked in their vault. One excuse given is that the rights to use the music remain too expensive to permit re-issuing. Will this or some future generation ever get to see these works?
The second series of “Jean Shepherd’s America” has long been available
in video recordings made with imperfect home equipment–this includes a couple
of the first series episodes that were repeated
for the second series. The rest of the first series (other than the audios)
is only available in WGBH’s vaults.
PALEY CENTER. On January 23, 2012, the Paley Center performed an act for which all Shepherd enthusiasts, now and into the future, must be exceedingly grateful–they presented a tribute to Jean Shepherd with Jerry Seinfeld talking for an hour on the crucial importance that Shepherd had been to his entire comedic career. Their auditorium could not contain their overflow crowd. Numerous people have implored them to deliver a DVD for sale. Despite the unquestioned renown of Shepherd as a radio performer, and Seinfeld as a major media star, they have yet to produce for sale a DVD of the occasion. They have, however, produced, as of this counting, over one hundred DVDs of such stuff as “The Vampire Diaries” (two DVDs), and “Freaks and Geeks,” along with scores of other crud subjects I’ve never heard of. (Maybe I am remiss and should catch up with all the recent dross available in the vast wasteland.) Maybe there’s some copyright or other issue holding them up? Some material can be viewed in little cubicles at their facilities.
JAZZ AUTHORITY. A major jazz authority (several published books) is quoted by a Shep-fan friend of his, as saying that he had taped some of Shepherd’s overnight New York broadcasts in early 1956. But he has been “too busy” to make them available. So they lie, one imagines–tape crumbling into plastic dust, Until his heirs sweep them out into the trash. I have always suspected that if anybody had audios of those early shows, it would be a musician who had a tape machine in those early days of nearly-affordable recorders to capture music of his own and of his/her contemporaries. No one else has ever even said they had such recorded material–these holy grails of early Shep–and maybe no one else ever will. What had been life and art–then sound disassembling into silence, into death.
We capture and hold onto what we can, staving off what Fred Allen described:
“All the [radio] comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation
is the echo of forgotten laughter.”
Shepherd’s art has been served better than that, we know.
We grasp and hold what we can.
He lives on, at least for now.
Is all this typical of most of those we revere? Or has Shepherd been cursed more than most?