HOW DO I TRUTH/FICTION YOU? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS
One can simply write one’s version of the “truth.” As in a news report of other reportage. Or in a description of a trip one has taken, as I believe Shepherd does to a great extent when he gives a broadcast travel-tale of his.
One can give a subjective description of the issue at hand, indicating that one is telling the truth within this context. I’d say that Shepherd’s descriptions of occurrences such as his “straws in the wind” could be considered to be in this category.
Moby Dick is constructed as a fiction with interspersed true chapters about whaling. And it’s understood that the true parts are the context to make for the reader of the fiction, a fuller, more complex experience. Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money) does the same through the interspersed short segments of true, historical context in “Newsreels;” “Headlines;” Autobiographical “Camera Eye” pieces; and biographical vignettes of historical figures. There is no confusion about which is which. I tend to feel that the Melville and the Dos Passos are each the Great American Novel of its century. Many historical fiction authors write using their own interpretations of actual historical figures portrayed within their novels–leaving the readers uncertain and probably misled regarding what indeed was the truth of the matter. This is why I don’t want to read novelizations of important events–soon one can easily confuse the real event one knows with parts of the fictional re-telling.
Hemingway, among many others, sometimes made use of his autobiographical experiences, reconstructed into his fictions. Some of this is recognizable for the truths to his life. When done to a large extent, in some authors this becomes the “portraying of identifiable people more or less thinly disguised as fictional characters,” a roman a clef. (I just read a review of a new John Updike bio, which states that much of Updike’s fiction–including sexual escapades–is based on his own experiences.)
An important critical analysis, Hemingway, The Writer as Artist, by Carlos Baker, fascinated me decades ago and strongly influenced my writing of three unpublished novels (Rio Amazonas, is available through the self-publishing company, XLibris). Baker shows instances of how Hemingway—and thus, many other novelists, make use of experiences true to the author, then transform that material into fiction. I made use of this idea by constructing my novels with short “true-to my-experiences” chapters alternating with the much longer fictional chapters which can be seen as having been, in one form or another, loosely based/inspired by my true experiences. There is thus an ironic relationship between the true and fiction parts. Rio Amazonas relates the fictional story of museum professionals “raping” Peru of its treasures, inspired by my five-months of Fulbright-Grant true experiences in Peru’s coast, highlands, and jungle. (The young woman I photographed in the Amazon jungle was my immediate inspiration for the story.) The Pomegranate Conspiracy is my novel of an idealistic American (a fictionalized me) involved with Spanish urban guerrillas in an assassination plot, inspired by my life-long love/hate relationship with Spain and Granada. (FYI—I was married for a couple of hellish years to a young woman from Granada, Spain. In Spanish, “granada” =pomegranate, and also = hand grenade. As one might imagine, I’ve had a number of intimate, personal experiences of Granada –“Granada, I’m falling under your spell. And if you could speak what a fascinating tale you would tell.”)
(Design and execution of these two covers by eb)
Somewhere in all of the above is the rough location of where Jean Shepherd’s kid stories and army stories fit. People following my thinking on this matter may remember that my strong belief is that Shepherd was inspired by his extraordinary ability to understand what it’s like to be a kid and a soldier, and this facilitated his related, extraordinary ability to transform such perceptions into mostly fictional material. One might remember Shepherd’s comment at the opening of his first book of kid stories: “The characters, places, and events described herein are entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, accidental, or the result of faulty imagination.” Also of some relevance is the report that when Shepherd encountered that the New York Times had listed the book as non-fiction, he contacted them to insist that it was fiction.
Jean Parker Shepherd–truth-teller/fiction teller, depending.
“Then Jean called. He asked me if I wanted a job.”
I hope you can hear the trumpet fanfare—not your simple-hearted “Bahn Frei” hokum—we’re talking serious classical bombast. The main event crashing in on all of us. Fellow diggers after gold, I believe we’ve struck the mother lode. Read on:
I said, I have already got a job but I would certainly dig getting a better one. He said, okay I will call you tomorrow night and tell you about it. He hung up.
I will tell you one thing—if he is serious about this job business, I will take it.
I must assume that everybody has read the essential fragment of Leigh-letter above. Yet she continues the letter by saying she doesn’t think she’ll ever get married because “the guy I’m hung up on is already married and intends to remain so,” and she is too lazy to start making the domestic scene again. “I dig tapdancing. You can’t tapdance if you are married. Who would marry a chick who has a sign in her bedroom: Help Stamp Out Reality. Mainly—I don’t feel like it.”
Oh, little Leigh, Leigh, Leigh! You are about to start working with the guy you are hung up on. Leigh, forchrissake, you shoulda admitted to yourself right then and there that you’ve gone off the deep end!
The next letter I have is dated February 1, (1962). I assume that the serious “tapdancing” started at some time during the last week in January, and that Leigh and Barbara are concerned that Barbara’s husband might see the letters, so:
There’s almost two pages of this and I’m no Navaho code-breaker and I don’t sprecken Deutsche but I believe I’ve mastered the pidgin German sufficiently to understand that: the German writing is a wonderful idea for confusing Mr. stupid-ass house-sharer (Barbara’s husband) when discussing life. And the next paragraph’s “bullenshitter on der peepencrackler” is the extemporizing spieler on the radio. I translate some more as saying that the bullenshitter had been ringlejingle plenty on the telefunken, promising to take the subway (tunnel geroarer) up to make the scene with her but had made excuses and maybe he is just playing it cool—“After all, der frau [Lois] is pretty smartisch und vas not born yesterday!” Breathless readers, I’ll bet my bottom pfennig that Jean and Leigh have begun their affair.
Leigh comments that “Ich wish der bullenshitter from der hausen der frau ist gekicken, but nicht will happen.” My understanding though, is that her wish that the bullenshitter from the house the wife would kick would be about two-to-three years down the road.
Lois said in her interview of 2000 that by 1965, two years before the divorce, she and Jean had separated in good part because she was offended by his secrets—the secret life he had been leading. She preferred not to divulge personal matters, so she never said what that was but we think we know some of it now and we’d love to have all the details, wouldn’t we, my dears?
In another pidgin German letter of late February, Leigh says she listens to Jean’s shows at night and then awaits his phone calls. Jean has been in a touring musical show in Toronto and Leigh is having fun getting info about him from a slow-witted friend of his who confides to her that Jean is “in der baddisch mooden, because of der frau [Lois], und because of der swinging chick in der Village [Leigh] ist behinden leften and Johann [Jean] is alles der time sulking und complainin.” She continues that with Jean she is worried all the time and sad and wondering:
which end ist uppen, for outgecrying loudisch! But mitout der Johann der world is stinkisch holen fur sure, und ich mit der Johann ist deciden to stay,…
[Without having studied any pidgin German, I translate the essential part: “But without Jean the world is a stinking hole for sure, and with Jean I’ve decided to stay.”]
In a P. S. she writes (again, pardon my translation):
“I’ve been deciding something important—I’m not fooling around with any more men—only with Jean. I love him plenty and don’t want anyone else.”
By March, the last letter I have (though we can always hope for more), Leigh is back to English, writing, “OH GOD HOW I PITY ME!” Jean is flying to Frankfurt and then on to Nigeria and she is worried:
Of course telling him to be careful is about as constructive as pissing up a rope or shoveling you-know-what in the teeth of a high wind. The crazy sonofabitch DIGS insane danger! Why not! I’M the one who has to do the worrying!
In this letter she writes an elaborate play script for bamboozling Shel Silverstein, saying that he is “rather simpleminded at times, and easily distracted—like a horse—and will believe ANYTHING.”
She intends to manipulate him so that he will unknowingly help her in what he would tell Jean when he returns. She’d say she is in love with a married man, etc., etc. but make sure Shel doesn’t realize she is talking about Jean. She knows Shel would fall for her whole scam because “In spite of the beard, and the swearing, and the Playboy routine, deep down underneath (about 1/4 inch) Shel is a big, fat, lovable, Sentimental Slob—in fact I suspect that he still believes in the Easter Bunny.” When Jean gets back he’d hear all about her from Shel, who would be on her side, and that indirectly Jean would find out:
1. I love him (which he probably already knows. He’s no stupe)
2. All I want is for him to be happy.
3. I realize that, at best, Our Love is doomed (which just MIGHT start him thinking “How come?”)
4. I don’t want to make any demands on him…I will not ask him to be Serious…I love him enough to Suffer Silently for him (This #4 serves a multiple purpose: (a) gets him off the hook, (b) keeps him from getting nervous about any possible Big Scene with me, (c) shows him how Sincere I am, (d) and how much I Really Care, (e) MAY (I hope) make him feel a little bit guilty about being such a sneak, (f) is a general con-job on his ego.
When I see him, I will be (REALLY!) happy that he is back, and ready to resume, should he wish, the Tapdance, if he wants, on HIS terms, should he still want me. (It is very important here to let HIM call ALL the shots, since he hasn’t called a shot on her in years).
So, gang, I see “tapdance” as code for their heel-clicking, now sexual, undercover love affair, and Leigh believed that Lois had been “calling the shots” since she met Jean way back in 1956. Leigh decided that at least at that point, he should not feel that she also was going to try to control their situation. What we can see now with these letters is that Lois—innocent, intelligent, beautiful, thoughtful, appreciative-of-Jean’s-genius-Lois, unbeknownst to herself, was threatened by a complex and unstoppable force.
I recently heard a Shep-tape from late October 1971 in which I found a detail of special interest to me. He said he’d owned an MG-TD sports car. I’d owned one myself—it was pretty much the last of the older breed of rugged-looking and rakish little cars. It had a squarish hood and a rectangular grill with vertical louvers, sweepingly curved front fenders, freestanding chrome headlamps, and cut-down door panels on which to jauntily rest your arm. I can feel how he felt driving it. I felt a kinship with young Shep, especially when I calculated my age when I first got my MG in 1961 as 23, and, as his official Army discharge papers puts his story in late 1944, his age would also have been 23.
He said he owned it just after he left the Army and a few months before he was to return to school the next February after the fall fishing trip he was to make in the car, driving to northern Michigan. He described how cold it was driving north from Indiana and I knew this would be true, having experienced my MG’s weak heater and drafty roof and side curtains.
Later, as I contemplated that nice little connection to Shep, I realized a discrepancy. Discharged in 1944, but a quick internet search confirmed my understanding that the MG-TD had only been produced between 1949 and 1953, meaning that he could not have had one right after his discharge. If he really took a car trip to Upper Michigan then, it would seem that he drove some other car or maybe he drove his MG to Upper Michigan after 1949. Not likely he’d have forgotten the year he was discharged, and as a great car enthusiast, he must have known when the MG-TD was produced. (It, and the even gutsier prior model, the TC, had established the sports car craze in this country.) Consciously or unconsciously he conflated his discharge, trip, and car ownership. Maybe he just liked the idea of a story that combined the driving of a sporty little car on the open road and a wilderness expedition up in Michigan after his Army days.
MG TD, MG TC
–note among other more subtle differences,
the more up-tight front fenders on the TC
The story of this trip is a slight one—a mere anecdote—but maybe there’s something more and deeper to it—maybe he had in mind some reference to Hemingway’s short story of the discharged World War I soldier’s withdrawal from civilization to the woods up in Michigan in “Big Two-Hearted River.” Shepherd never appeared traumatized as did Hemingway’s Nick Adams. Hemingway and his Nick Adams were in the thick of World War I battlefields and indeed were quite shaken by the experience, whereas Shepherd spent his military service at a stateside radar training installation. But both Hemingway’s protagonist and the Shepherd persona choose isolation in nature and in fishing as a transition between war and regular civilian life. Before arriving at nature’s balm after the war, Nick must first pass through the warlike devastation of a burned out town and countryside—a conflagration, though not caused by war, that must have been horrific. Moreover, the smoke would have darkened the sky.
Shep’s tale ends with him fleeing, not traumatized but spooked, peremptorily quitting the wilderness after just one night because of a strange darkness the next morning—instead of daylight. Later he found out that it had been caused by the thick black smoke of a far-off fire. Had there ever been for Shepherd such a trip, such a darkness, such an uneasy MG race back to civilization?
The discrepancy in chronology regarding discharge and the make of car have little import, but what kind of reality was Shep giving himself and us? As has been suggested, when Shepherd told a story, it was real to him, he honestly believed it, and total accuracy was not essential. The Hemingway story is all inference as to the cause of Nick Adams’s responses to his circumstances, so we can draw conclusions because we know of the other more direct stories of Nick’s combat experiences in World War I. But Shepherd, having spent his World War II service far from enemy fire, has not given even the most subtle hint of a cause for his strong reaction. Maybe he was trying to suggest the harsh reality of that war way across the seas, which remained for him as well as for the rest of this country, too distant to sink sufficiently into our psyches. The scary, dark cloud of a far-off fire might well have been his metaphor for World War II, but as real as this story may have been for him, it needed a bit more connection to the horrors to make his circumstances and his reactions real enough for us to comprehend. Yet, maybe inspired by the subtle reality of the Hemingway story, our Shepherd had climbed into the ring with the best of them.
* * *
My next post will be Part 2 of the Leigh Brown Story
WHY IS LEIGH IMPORTANT?
* * *
THE MOMENTOUS NANCY PRESCOTT/LEIGH BROWN NARRATIVE
For those who need to know, Leigh Brown was the steadfast, all-purpose, vital element in the life and art of Jean Shepherd beginning in the early 1960s: the power behind the throne.
First a little back-story. Barbara, Leigh Brown’s best friend from her teenage and young adult years, wrote a comment on the http://www.flicklives.com guest page, saying she’d like to talk to someone about Leigh, who was born and raised as Nancy Prescott. I leaped at the opportunity. I’d been especially interested in when and how Leigh met Jean and first got her job at WOR, beginning their lifelong personal and professional relationship that were so important to Jean’s creative life. One assumed, without a shred of evidence one way or the other, that only after she began work at the station did their relationship develop. It was a totally blank page in the story. In fact, almost everything about Leigh was a blank. All we knew was that she began at WOR sometime in the early 1960s, starting at the bottom and working her way up so that she would eventually become an important, many-faceted assistant to Jean, aiding him in all of his projects.
Maybe Barbara could tell me something about that professional and personal relationship. And what was the intellectual and emotional makeup of the person who would put all her abilities to work for Jean Shepherd for the rest of his career? Was she just, as was assumed, the meek but efficient acolyte who put up with being brow-beaten on and off the air by him—at least until near the end of his radio years at WOR, when she reportedly could hold her own and, as we know, actually married him? If this be gossip, make the most of it—because it’s on the highest level, in which we better understand what makes people tick and interact with each other for their mutual benefit. What, me gossip? No, no, no, it’s entirely to learn more about the Art! All that kind of important stuff.
Now listen closely, gang—I’ve got heretofore unknown true tales to tell, right from the horse-lovers’ mouths. (Both Barbara and Nancy were horse fanciers, owned farms, raised horses, and collaborated on a novel about show horses. When Jean eventually suggested that the manuscript should either be geared toward kids or have more sex, Leigh added sex, Barbara chose to bow out, and Nancy changed her name to Leigh Brown when it was published in 1975.)
Barbara told me that Nancy Prescott, eighteen, had eloped with a classmate right out of high school because she was pregnant.
Nancy Prescott/Leigh Brown high school photo
Soon she left her husband and their baby because she couldn’t see herself as a conventional woman with a spouse and kid living behind a picket fence in small-town New Jersey. She moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, where the action was. The understanding is that Jean Shepherd left his wife and kids because he couldn’t see himself as a conventional guy with a spouse and kids living behind a picket fence in small-town New Jersey. He moved to New York’s Greenwich Village where the action was. Can you see where these monumentally fascinating circumstances are heading, gang? Read on and don’t feel guilty—remember that it’s all about Art and captivating Ancillary Matters.
Lois Nettleton (The Listener and Actress) was forming an emotional attachment to Jean by 1956, not knowing that he was married. Jean left Joan (Wife Number Two and Mother of his Kids), and the picket fence for the Village in 1957. Lois, after an on and off four-year, possibly unconsummated relationship, got her wedding ring in December 1960 although Jean wouldn’t let her wear it in public. (It spoiled his “free-spirit” image.) Jean was then forty and married to a beautiful actress, Lois, who was thirty-four, and Nancy, free-spirited escapee from the picket fence in Jersey, who would probably meet Jean some time in 1961, was then a chick of twenty-two.
Nancy/Leigh became friendly with young Shel Silverstein, for whom, it’s said, she did the coloring for the Playboy version of his Uncle Shelby’s A B Z Book.
–and whom she annoyed by disapproving of his having shaved his head, saying he looked like “Mr. Clean.” Of major importance for our true-to-life chronicle, it seems that Shel introduced her to his ol’ pal, Shep. Gees, that Shel sure was an intimate part of Shep’s life!
Picture the scene. Barbara reported that Nancy met a lot of Village people who would one day be famous. Artists, actors, playwrights, cartoonists, a late-night radio broadcaster. You know the type. Among those Nancy got to know was Rip Torn, who performed in numerous television productions in the late 1950s and went on to act in many Broadway plays and Hollywood films, and actor Jason Robards, Jr., who, in 1956, played the lead in the off-Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and a few years later starred in Herb Gardner’s play and film, A Thousand Clowns. But how much could be filled in from the long-ago insider information and memories of Barbara, who’d been at home in New Jersey while Nancy lived the aspiring artist’s life in the Village?
Here’s how much more fill is available—Nancy had typewritten dozens of long letters to Barbara, who sent the eighteen she could find to me, just in case they might be of interest. “Just in case,” she said!
At night Nancy/Leigh is a full-fledged, aspiring creative type, reciting her own poetry in coffee houses such as Raffio and Café Wha, drinking with pals at the Cedar Tavern and the White Horse, working on a play script and a flick, working on the horse-show novel—and she is her true self, not tied to picket fences, spouse, or kid. In one of the first letters, she describes herself, all caps:
I AM A BEATNICK, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! WHY WON’T ANYBODY REALIZE THAT. I WAS BORN BEAT FOR CHRISSAKE. I BEEN BEAT FOR YEARS, SINCE WAY BEFORE KEROUAC ROTE ON THE ROAD.
The postman had no idea what treasures, what intimate grails, he’d just delivered to me from Pocomoke City, MD. So the gates are open and we’re off and running. The first letter I have is dated September 25, 1961, so Leigh and Jean knew each other by then.
Here, in chronological order, are relevant excerpts from Nancy’s letters (From now on, let’s just call her Leigh)—who seems mature-beyond-her-years, but she sometimes writes in an exuberant, schoolgirl style that only adds to our appreciation of what she was experiencing and was able to express on paper. Through these primary sources we can observe, just as though it were a well-constructed story, Leigh’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, regarding herself and her developing relationship with Jean. We may always want more, but what we’ve got is plenty!
Note that Leigh already knows Jean well enough to want him
for her very own. (Click on images to enlarge for reading–
read all of them–it’s essential in order to know Leigh Brown
and her importance to Shep’s life and work.)
Remember that Jean had married Lois Nettleton, Miss Chicago of 1948, less than a year before, and as an actress, she is often on the road. During the crucial period of this real-life drama, Lois acts in five television programs including three Naked City episodes, a Great Ghost Tales, and has the starring role in the Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun.” She also features in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment. Busy girl away from home. If you have to ask me what connection that has to anything, fuhgeddaboudit!
October 1961 looms large in the combined Leigh/Jean legend, so keep your knees loose and your eyes glued to the screen. By sometime this month, Leigh tells Barbara, “After meeting Jean, how could I dig another guy?” She is freaking out because Jean is asking Shel about her and Shel tells her that, “I think you have made an impression on Jean.” She exclaims to Barbara, “Oh god, I would dump every man in the world for a shot at him.” Leigh reports that by that time, “Jean is talking to me now on a different level.” On October 2 she writes:
Speaking of Jean, although I have given up plotting and etc., as far as he is concerned, I still think he is the END great guy and all that. I suppose I shall go through the rest of my dumb life having a half-assed crush on Jean,… J. F. thinks that I should ball Jean to shatter my illusions; he says that if I DO ball him, it will make him much more human and I will probably find out that he is a lousy ball, or eats crackers in bed, or something. But I look on the whole thing as a typical assy F. idea—the last time he talked me into something it was the whole wild scene with Shel. Rest assured—I am not going to ball Jean. Anyway, I don’t mess around with married guys. I am going to be very straight arrow and moral in my old age. Something I should have done YEARS ago, for crying out loud.
Anyway, suppose he WASN’T a lousy ball? Then I would probably (probably, hell, CERTAINLY) get hung up on him (I am the type to get hung up) and end up with my ass in a sling as per usual. I am sick and tired of getting knocked flat on my emotional duff every 4 minutes over some clown, and fooling around with J. is just ASKING for trouble. Like looking up an elevator shaft to see if the elevator is coming down!
I am really trying very hard to talk myself out of it. Write me a letter and tell me in 2500 words or less why I should NOT ball Jean, and why I should not even THINK of balling Jean. It might help.
By October 4, the doctors are divided over what fatal disease Leigh has. One doctor thinks it might not be as serious as the other doctors believe:
But I will tell you one thing. If my days on this kooky earth are numbered, Jean and I are going to have the wildest love affair you ever saw in your life. We are going to swing, but SWING, and it is going to be the absolute WILDEST! After all, what would I have to lose?
You know, it might be worth it after all. Sort of like “See Paris and die.” Or is it Naples, anyway, you know what I mean. After all, after J. I am sure I would be sort of spoiled, to say the least, and wouldn’t be CAPABLE of digging another guy.
Leigh is very conflicted about Jean and her own life. Regarding her baby, who’s been left in Jersey, she has a crib in her NY apartment, so the kid has not been abandoned. Leigh is smart and sensitive and young and hasn’t “gotten it all together” yet, but she’s working on it:
I want something real when I really love again, when I REALLY commit myself wholly to a man.
Jean? Maybe. But in years, not weeks. We have time. I will wait and see how I feel, and how he feels. We have a good and warm relationship now. We like each other. We enjoy each other. I like everything about him. Everything he does pleases me. But hopping into the sack with him would be idiotic because I do not KNOW Jean. Knowing ANYONE is hard enough, but Jean is an unusually complex man, and his needs go much deeper than the average non-aware clown. I do not know if I can give him anything of value. Love, you know, IS giving. Real love. So I am not IN LOVE with Jean. But he is just the greatest ever, as a human being. He is good for me now that I am getting mature enough to put the whole thing in its proper context, not just give in to the Romantic Myth. I am beginning to be a person instead of just a chick. And he is good in the sense that he sees me as a person. He really does. This is rare, for a woman, you know—especially in the Big Apple where a pretty chick is just something to ball.
I will not trade my relationship with Jean, which is now a real friendship based on reality, for the Love Myth—based on sex appeal, or insecurity, or God knows what. And with Jean in my life, I am learning how to live—I am growing up.
Recognizing what other women have noted, at one point Leigh writes about Jean’s emotional distance from others:
I can see from my own relationship with him, tentative and tenuous as it is, how this type of thing works against closeness and involvement. On the surface, at least. I love Jean, love and respect him as a rare and warm human being. But I do not think I could be IN LOVE with Jean, at least not soon—not fast—not really IN LOVE. There is a detachment about Jean that is always there—a feeling of closeness without closeness, dig? I mean, Jean is not the TYPE a chick can commit herself to—he is not so wrapped up in himself that he NEEDS this sort of total emotional commitment from a chick. Or wants it. Jean is so aware of the world, the whole wild fantastic surreal WORLD, rather than just himself, and so alive and so interested in it all, so INVOLVED that he has no TIME for just one chick. Dig? This is what prevents me from losing my head and getting totally hung up on him. This is why I can trust myself to keep a relationship on a friendly basis—a mutual digging of each other—and not make demands…..
Funny thing about Jean—every time I see him, or talk to him, I feel that I am in some way back in touch with Reality. He is such an honest, straight, no-horseballs kind of guy….but Jean is sort of a balancing wheel for me—you know my way of jumping on my horse and galloping off in all directions—for me, seeing him is touching the earth. Sort of gets things back in focus. Dear Jean, my good good friend—in fact the first MALE friend I ever had, really. I think he is the only man, other than my father, I ever trusted completely.
In a late January 1962 letter Leigh writes on page one about how she and her lover, R., had been breaking up, making up, breaking up, and that he is so jealous of Jean even though Leigh says she is just friends with him. She writes that R. “is always hollering that I am carrying on a love affair with a radio.” [Shep-kooks, myself included, have heard that accusation before, haven’t we?]
Then we turn over to page two, top.
It’s more than a simple page-turning in this story we’re reading about.
The preface is long past and the introduction has ended.
The lives of Leigh, Jean, and Lois, are about to be transformed.
STAY TUNED, FOLKS
[Below is a small part of Joel’s thoughts about this post. See his
complete comment in the “comments” section of this post.]
Fascinating stuff Gene. Nancy/Leigh is a caricature of the beatnik wanabee chick from the late 50s/early 60s. She is so conscious of acquiring the outer trappings of the cool and hip, it seems that this is her costume to gain admittance to this club. She picks up on Jean’s narcissism very well. —”a feeling of closeness without closeness, dig?”
”Let’s say I have intimations that I’ll never make it—
because I’m on radio.” (Shep, in a 1960 Realist magazine interview.)
Nobody worth his salt is listening to the radio at this hour of the night. I can tell you that. And I can tell you this—nobody worth his salt is doing radio at this hour of the night. (Jean Shepherd on the radio, 8/22/1964)
HOW DO YOU GET TO BROADWAY?
Shepherd had his problems with other writer’s characterizations of people in plays (and with films and books, also). He felt that most of the plays he saw were unrealistic—they did not portray people as they really were. His own view was that people mostly live rather mundane lives, but that theater displays its characters doing very unusual things, and that the plots were not true to peoples’ lives.
Shepherd also very much wanted to get into live theatrical performance, even though, at the same time, he wanted to deliver his own words rather than those of another author. As he’d put it in 1960, he was less interested in “reading other guys’ lines” than in doing his own material. His friend Pete Wood remembers that around 1961 “He talked a lot about the fact that he was going to study to become an actor.” One might wonder if another factor was that his wife was the up-and-coming actress Lois Nettleton.
Village Voice Obie Awards dinner, 1959.
Shepherd with Lois Nettleton, who had won an award.
Anne Bancroft, far right,
“Greenwich Village Sunday,” 1960-61 short documentary.
Narrated by Shepherd from script by Stewart Wilensky.
Lois portrays a visitor to the Village.
One might also imagine that his desire to be on the stage had something to do with a perception that radio was losing its driving force to television, a medium he wanted to be a part of, but which he could not break into sufficiently. (Television represented a bigger audience, more celebrity, more money.) Remember that he claimed that Johnny Carson said to him, “Look, Shepherd, forever they’re going to think of you as a radio guy. You better get out of that damn medium.” (Jean Shepherd commenting on the Alan Colmes interview show, 1998.)
In addition he sometimes felt that he was too isolated in the radio studio and thus, did not have an audience with whom he could be in immediate contact. (This is undoubtedly why he enjoyed his Limelight and other live-before-an-audience performances, which were in front of devoted fans.)
Drawing by Herb Gardner Mephistopheles
Shep as “Destry”
In the late 1950s and into the early 60s Shep engaged with live theater, including several multi-person “revues,” for which he wrote his own material. In 1958 Smalltacular, and in his revue with Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and Lois Nettleton, Look, Charlie. He was especially busy in 1961, playing Mephistopheles in A Banquet for the Moon; acting in The Voice of the Turtle, Destry Rides Again, and The Tender Trap. He featured in New Faces of 1962 (again his own material). He acted in 1963 previews of Arthur Kopit’s Asylum or What the Gentlemen Are Up To Not to Mention the Ladies, which Kopit closed “for rewriting” just before opening night. No subsequent theater work by Shep has been encountered. Fred Barzyk, his main PBS director/producer, quoted Shepherd as having said: “I’m an actor. I’m a good actor.”
LOIS NETTLETON ON ACTING
A letter she wrote indicating her preference for live theater:
In notes to me regarding my book, Lois had several comments, indicating Jean’s desire to act and his troubles accomplishing the feat. Note that Jean and Lois were together during the entire period during which he pursued acting. (Remember to click on the scans to enlarge them.) In a note about my book, she comments that Jean helped her develop a comic character for an unnamed play in which she performed. Lois also mentioned that before performances, in Jean’s dressing room she assisted him in getting ready.
Lois, in parts of each of the notes that follow, refers to aspects of Jean’s acting experience. They depict a sad, yet probably very true image of Shepherd’s frustration in a field that was in conflict with his improvisational nature. He had trouble memorizing the script. I include the entire note in each case because I hope that most people will find all of her words of interest. (I describe Lois’ notes in an objective manner, but writing about them, I am thrilled to have and to hold all of her hand-written comments she wrote for my benefit!)
In an interview with Doug McIntyre, January 2000,
(Just a few months after Shep’s death)
Lois commented that Jean’s improvisation
on radio was a higher art than acting:
“…acting is not shallow, it is an art with depth and all of that, but it seems almost–almost, less profound, less important than what he was doing. I mean I think what he was doing was so–it was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”
Generally considered to be the “holy grails” in the world of Shep are audios of Jean Shepherd’s “overnight shows” from early January 1956 to mid-August 1956. Some people claim to have heard some of these shows that went from about 1 AM to 5:30 AM at least Monday through Friday. These shows included the I, Libertine hoax from first mention onward, almost to publication day in the fall. Lois Nettleton used to listen to the the overnights and got to know Jean by calling him while he was on the air. That led to dating and then to marriage.
It’s my understanding that the overnights, compared to the 45-minute shows most people are familiar with, were more slowly paced, more loosely constructed with stream of conscious effects, more extended musical interludes with more contemporary jazz components. And that the closest we have to them are the Sunday evening shows that went from nine to one AM. To compare them artistically with the 45-minute shows (If we ever have the chance), may be somewhat a matter of taste. But I think they’re important not only for their content, but to be able to hear how his later radio style may have evolved out of this earliest New York work.
Various major figures such as Jack Kerouac and John Cassavetes among others were early enthusiasts. A major jazz critic is quoted as saying that he not only listened but recorded at least some of these shows and still has the audios–but he’s too busy to do anything with them. Have the tapes crumbled to dust, have they been tossed into a dumster, oh, major jazz critic?
I understand that to ask a commercial technician to convert 7″ tape reels to digital format (onto CD disks) is outrageously expensive. I would think that the jazz critic or some Shep enthusiast would have access to a much-reduced cost of doing this.
In hopes that some overnights will someday show up before all record of them has vanished, in one of my odd moments, even before my Shep’s Army became a reality, dreaming a favorite dream, I thought I’d design potential CD case covers for distribution:
Dream on, little Genie,
ARE THESE SHEPHERD HORROR STORIES REAL?
DAMNED IF I KNOW.
PART OF ME SAYS ABSOLUTELY NOT.
THE OTHER PARTS SAYS THAT
I CAN TELL THAT THEY’RE REALLY FOR REAL
In the last part of his broadcast, with all the commercials out of the way, Shepherd gives more details about the young woman who killed six.
I’ve got something to tell you tonight about “Please Play ‘Misty’ For Me,” and it’s a pretty scary story. It’s–it’s actually scarier than the events that occurred with Clint Eastwood in the film. That was very straightforward. A girl got hung on this whole loneliness thing and she wound up wanting to kill. But I can tell you a story, that to this day, is inexplicable, and I’ll guarantee you somebody along the line connected with that film…either heard of this case or knew about the incidents that were around it. I’ll just let it stand for that.
Laurie Squire, who worked at WOR with Shep in the 1970s reports: “I actually remember an off-air casual conversation where Jean said, in essence, “And you know that Play Misty For Me was based on me.’ (Followed by a chortle.)”
Does the chortle represent that “I’m just putting you on”? Or does it represent that, “See, here’s another example of my life and work being referred to in the media.”?
I feel that the scary stories are for real for a couple of reasons:
- I’ve never heard Shep so awkward/repetitious/unsure–as though this is affecting him more than a fictitious story ever does.
- Someone telling a “horror” story does not begin by calling it “scary” and “inexplicable,” because that undercuts the story-teller’s attempt to make the fiction seem believable.
- I’ve never heard Shep tell such a true-sounding “story” about his real self before. He speaks more like telling an anecdote than telling one of his kid or army “stories.”
I feel that I can tell they’re fictitious because:
- They seem overwrought/overly horrific.
- Why have we heard nothing about these occurrences before in the professional life of Shep?
He talks about fans and groupies and assures us he doesn’t mean their kind of enthusiasm. He says:
“The media groupy is a solitary person. A solitary in a solitary room, and often, in the case of the neurotic, the only communication they’ve got–with the outside world–is this radio set….Radio presents a curious set of conditions to the neurotic. First of all he often believes he’s the only one who is getting this. Now a normal person wouldn’t think that way. But the neurotic we’re talking about, remember, he’s crossed the line of reality.” [He comments that in this case it’s a female.]
“…she believes that this thing that’s coming out is for her, and it’s only for her. That all the others are intruders. Incidentally, for your benefit, there have been two attempts on my life….the incident occurred right here [laughs] on Broadway at 1440 on a Saturday morning. And it was a wild fantastic moment. Every bit as frightening as the moment when the girl attempted to stab Clint Eastwood….
Well, before we go any further, I’m going to tell you a really hair-raising story–you better turn your lights on–that makes the Clint Eastwood story look like greasy kid stuff….This happened to me personally. This is not fiction, I’m not inventing it. This really happened.
Alright, I will tell you the story of what happened to me. [pause] and a–it was–it was–it, it forever changed my thinking, I suppose you might say–rationality, reality, all the other things we take for granted in our lives. Ah–it was a very odd experience. And I will tell you exactly what happened without embellishing it.
Radio is part of lonely peoples’ lives–three in the morning they’re out there in those dark hives, in the–in those unimaginable cells, with the radio going and this voice is talking to them and they begin to have all kinds of fantasies.
Well, I began to get, just out of the blue, one day–this was in Cincinnati, as a matter of fact….I began to get letters–of course you get thousands of letters in the media,…but there’s a certain kind of pattern that begins to develop. Immediately your senses–if you’re in this business enough, your senses begin to raise the little hackles in the back of your neck….there was something curious about these letters. Was a certain tone about them. Ah–they were written in green ink, a rather exotic handwriting–it was kind of backwards slanting and quite flowery and ornate. And the letters always came with some kind of face powder–had been sprinkled into the letter, so that when you opened it, this face powder drifted down….an odd combination of English and a few French phrases thrown in….This woman, or this girl, assumed that I was French [Because, he thinks, of his name, Jean] so I knew the language.
The letters began to get more and more verbose….They were verbose about things which had no relationship to anything I was doing. For example, she would say, “Well, of course you know that today I went to the bank….” the letters were getting longer and longer and after about three or four months, every day they began to arrive….Suddenly I was getting seven, eight, nine, ten letters in one mail, all in this green ink. and getting more and more–I can only say–feverish–is the best word–feverish.
Well now, it just so happened that I was doing at that time–just about–I started to do a show in a nightclub. I was doing a nightclub show–in Cincinnati. and the show actually, was broadcast at the same time.
From July 1949 to Spring of 1951 Shep did an
evening show from WSAI in Cincinnati.
This, according to current knowledge appears
to be the last time he had an evening show
in Cincinnati before going to Philadelphia.
Is this restaurant setting the “nightclub”?
Well, out of the blue I got a package–just came to the station. and it was like many packages some people send things to you. But this package was unbelievable–it was heavy, big, it was a big, thick package. About the size of a Sears Roebuck catalog it was. Opened it up and it was the biggest, longest, most unbelievable letter. It was a letter of about a thousand pages in length, written in green ink. A continuous letter. Imagine–can you imagine getting a thousand-page letter? Finely written in tiny handwriting?
I was getting worried about this. Really worried, because it seemed to have overtones that–that really started to scare me. Well, one night–a–we were setting up, and there were people arriving in the nightclub….So that night I see down in the crowd–I instantly knew-there was a strange-looking, very thin, hawk-faced girl, with unbelievably burning eyes, wearing what looked like a big leopard-skin beret. Strange-looking hat. And just looking. With no-blinking eyes. Just intense–intense, looking at me. And she’s down in this crowd.
And I turn to my friend–“Look out! I think we’ve got something going tonight.”
And he says, “Yeah, I think we have.”
When, right in the middle of the show–as I’m performing on stage–she got up off of her seat and walked forward and laid on the stage right in front of everybody–she laid a package–that was thinly wrapped with tissue paper in a box. [Shep’s 2-minute closing theme music starts] And–a–I paid no attention to it.
Bob very carefully opened it–off-stage–and in the box was a doll. Painted black. Wearing a red-lined cape. Well, wait a minute. Think about this. This is a male doll painted jet-black wearing a cape that had been put on it. Red-lined. Just–that’s all there was to it. At that point I began to see–that there was more going on here, friend–than I had bargained for.
And that was the beginning of one of the most bizarre, fantastic events–well, can you imagine coming out two years later–coming out of a television/radio station in Philadelphia–at two o’clock in the morning in a driving rain, with my MG parked out front. And standing in the doorway across the street–is the girl. Wearing the same leopard-skin beret, just watching me. Everywhere I went. What it finally resulted in–would make–I have to say–it would make the Clint Eastwood movie look like an episode of the Bobbsey Twins. It wound up with six people dead.
And it was a saga that went–over seven years. This woman constantly pursuing–a girl, really. She was only in her early twenties roughly. And she changed until she finally became a wild shrike with burning eyes, with only one desire–and that was to kill.
And guess who.
That is right.
Yes, and, perfectly timed, Bahn Frei ends with those last word of his story: That is right,” and with the music’s conclusion there is Shepherd’s familiar “Ahhhh.”
Don’t we get any more odds and endings than this?
“And you know that ‘Play ‘Misty’ For Me’
was based on me.”
(followed by a chortle)
THE SHOCKING CONTINUATION
I’ve just heard what seems to be a recently discovered audio–probably originally from 1971– in which Shep discusses in some detail his having seen the movie “Play Misty For Me,” directed by and starring Clint Eastwood (1971). It’s about a late-night disk-jockey on a small radio station in the late 1960s.
→ Hear Shep show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yqbnLs0FF4 ←
Shepherd’s discussion is a far-ranging one regarding his early days in radio as having almost always been on stations with 50,000 watts (top notch!); describing neurotic notions caused by the nature of modern media such as radio especially, notions which he refers to with what he believes is his own coinage, “the media neurotic.”
Shepherd describes the DJ in “Misty” as one who doesn’t play the Top-40, and that he has a very personal kind of radio monolog. (Already this sounds a bit like Shepherd himself. Is this movie another Shep-inspired concoction?) A woman calls frequently, asking the DJ to play “Misty.” She manages to meet him and they have sex. She then becomes jealous of his regular girlfriend, she murders several people, and she tries to murder him. [I’ve just seen the movie for the first time and find that she seriously injures one person and kills a cop, threatens to kill the DJ’s girlfriend after binding her up, and tries to kill him, wounding him several times with a knife before he, defending himself, accidentally pushes her so that she falls over the balcony to her death.] Shepherd says that most people who see the movie would just feel that it’s a fiction–a horror movie and not like something that could really happen. He wants us to realize that what happens in a horror movie–such as in “Misty”–is something that can happen in real life. (He is leading up to his revelation about someone who stalked him.)
Film critic Roger Ebert comments:
“The movie revolves around a character played with an unnerving effectiveness by Jessica Walter. She is something like flypaper; the more you struggle against her personality, the more tightly you’re held. Clint Eastwood,….He is strong but somehow passive, he possesses strength but keeps it coiled inside. And so the movie, by refusing to release any emotion at all until the very end, absolutely wrings us dry. There is no purpose to a suspense thriller, I suppose, except to involve us, scare us, to give us moments of vicarious terror. ‘Play Misty for Me’ does that with an almost cruel efficiency.”
Well, I am not going to say any more about that except to say that–that there are very close parallels in that film–not only close parallels but actual repetitions of actual events–that have happened to me–in this business….
Now it’s long been my feeling–working in media–it’s long been my feeling that we’ve created a new kind of psychosis in our time….A new kind of mental problem. The media sicky….
Shepherd tells a fragment of an extraordinary story about himself in which a woman was obsessed with his radio persona and ended up killing six people. Are we to believe this? Curious people want to know. Quick, somebody, track down every such murder story–Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York–that made the newspapers. Later in the program he continues the story, locating it mainly in Cincinnati.
He tells this as actually having happened to him. (Not to be confused, apparently with his kid stories and army stories, because he is connecting it to his whole real world as a radio person who has really experienced this.) After some commercials, as he returns to his monolog, he refers to what he is describing as a “story.”
Alright, lets get back to life here. You know, I–I–I have–I have–mixed feelings about this media neurosis. And I don’t often tell stories–I suppose you might say–or a–I suppose they’d be stories–about what’s actually happened to me personally–in media. Very rarely hear this.
What are we to make of this?
What seems to make this a real–true–true–occurrence–
is that this whole telling about
“Misty” and media neurosis and his own problems with cuckoos–
is that it all seems
to have discombobbled Shepherd–
he is awkward rather than smooth,
he nearly stutters, he repeats–
he does not seem able to keep his “story” under control.
It seems as though the movie of a crazed listener
stalking a DJ
has hit him
very close to home.
Radio presents a curious set of conditions to the neurotic. First of all he often believes he’s the only one that is getting this. Now, a normal person wouldn’t think that way. But the neurotic we’re talking about, remember, he’s crossed the line of reality. And–or she–it’s most generally–in this case it was a she. She’s crossed the line of reality and she believes that this thing that’s coming out is for her, and it’s only for her….
Incidentally, for your benefit, there have been two attempts on my life. That’s no joke. If you’re here to say I’m laughing–these are serious.
One of them involved a knife–much like in the movie that you saw. And in fact, curiously enough that knife almost looked exactly like the one she used….
It was a big, twelve-and-a-half-inch bread knife…and the incident occurred right here [laughs] on Broadway at 1440, on a Saturday morning. Every bit as frightening as the moment when the girl attempted to stab Clint Eastwood….
A woman was attacking me from behind and I had no knowledge of it–didn’t see it. But an elevator operator happened to be standing there at that point and he saw her charging at me with a twelve-and-a-half-inch bread knife ready to plunge into my back. He floored her, he just left his feet and knocked her flat. And there was a hell of an uproar, the knife was skidding across the floor, and she screamed, “You can’t do this to my life. You can’t do this to my life!”
What was I doing to her life? Well, she was hearing on the radio. And the show had become, in her neurotic way, bound with her life. She would build her whole day on listening to this show….whatever I would say would seem to be about her. About her….It seemed that I was privy to her life. You notice that most other media are not connected with the daily life…. But there is in radio. It’s an instantaneous medium. So you begin to believe “he’s like me, he’s living my life.”
Shepherd is connecting it to his whole real world as a radio person who has really experienced this. This is not just a matter of Shep’s art of radio story-telling. This seems to be a matter of what really happened to Jean Shepherd.
Does he call it a “story” so that we may not quite take it as real truth?
Is his confused manner for real or is it so good an act that he convinces us truly?
I do not know.
I want to know.
In the last portion of the broadcast he goes into some detail about the young woman in Cincinnati who, through listening to him on the radio writes him strange letters and eventually turns up during a broadcast he’s doing in a “night club.” She puts on the stage a very disturbing present for him during the show.
WHERE IS ALL THIS LEADING?
Stay tuned for Part 3
Let’s talk about cuckoos. Most well-known people encounter them. Shepherd seems to attract more than his share. I broached the subject in my EYF!, starting on page 184:
“Fan” after all, is a derivative of “fanatic.” The peculiar showed up, as they tend to do in a performer’s life–Shepherd seemed to attract a large share of especially strange people. The older brother/mentor feeling and the direct communication that Shepherd inspired attracted some listeners who had excess enthusiasm. Possibly odd loners who had trouble connecting to real people in their lives found Shepherd’s special intimate style attractive and they “glommed” onto him.
Of course most listeners to Shep weren’t/aren’t cuckoos. Remember that, in fact, the most famous “listener” called in during Jean’s overnight broadcasts in early 1956 and eventually married him–actress Lois Nettleton, who, based on my knowledge of her, was an extremely rational and sensitive person–with a genius IQ. A few years later, when she discovered aspects of his “secret life,” I understand that she simply changed the locks on their apartment door and he was finished. Bobby Fischer, strange and neurotic chess-champ, was another kind of brilliant acolyte of the Shepherd persona, and they became friends–Fischer’s recent biographer confirms these facts as Shep related them. Oddball genius Andy Kaufman was a fan. Shepherd’s earliest comments about cuckoos that I’ve heard is in a 1965 broadcast in which he comments in part:
I would like to tell you–all you nuts out there. A special message to the nuts who are with us tonight. If you have suppressed calling, you know–I understand that it’s not easy being a nut and I understand that suppressing you nuttiness is one of the most difficult parts of being a nut….There ain’t gonna be no more nut calls tomorrow night. okay?”
Several other cuckoo-contacts I’m aware of, as described in my book, are from the early-to-mid-1970s. Again from EYF! a report from Barry Farber is that a thirteen-year-old girl was so infatuated with Jean-on-the-air that when he responded innocently to her fan letter, she fantasized that he visited her at night. Look ’em up. Here’s a bit more:
Shepherd on the air in 1972 asked, “Have you ever wondered why I have a funny look in the eye, when this stuff keeps coming in over the transom?” As general manager of the station, Herb Saltzman remembers, “They showed up, and we ended up having, I believe, to put a security guard into [WOR’s offices].”
From a broadcast in the Fall of 1970, closely related to what he discussed in his broadcast about ‘Play “Misty’ For Me”:
Once in a while you’ll have the misfortune to actually run into one of these people in person at a show, see, and they’ll be a lot of people coming up–you know, they want to talk to you about things–autographs or whatever it might be, see.
I’m not talking about just Shepherd. I’m talking about all kinds of people. By the way, it might surprise you to know there are other listeners to my show other than you, friend. Which always surprises people. But you’ll go to some place in person, and somebody will come up and say, “Hello!”
And you say, “Oh, hello.”
“Well–ah–hello!” they’ll say. “I’m Clarisse!”
And you say, “Oh, yes, well, hello, heh, heh, glad to meet you. My name is Jean Shepherd. Is there–“
Girl says, “What do you mean? I’m Clarisse!”
You’ll say, “Yes, well–well, is there anything I can do for you, Clarisse? Do you want–“
“But I’m, [bewildered tone] I’m Clarisse!”
And you’ll say, “Do I know you?”
“Of course. I’m Clarisse!”
By that time, of course, the guards, wherever they are, are beginning to edge forward, see, because they can recognize the cuckoo eye. The cuckoo eye is usually a kind of watery eye, where one eye spins faster than the other in its socket.
The foregoing is but a calm introduction to the most incredible and scary Shepherd broadcast I’ve ever heard–that’s dated January 28, 1975–thought to be a rebroadcast of the audio originally broadcast in 1971, at about the time “Misty” came out–a program that must make one rethink what Shepherd had to say about truth/fiction in the past. On that, in part, I said in my last post about “foibles”:
That what Jean Shepherd said and wrote could not be relied on as real-world-literal-truth is well substantiated. This could be caused by any combination of the following: conscious creation of an artistic fiction as he said above in reference to In God We Trust; conscious deception in order to give a false image of himself; faulty memory.
What other possibilities are there? In that scary broadcast we are faced with a serious issue– as he describes having seen Clint Eastwood’s movie “Play ‘Misty’ For Me” and he discusses how it relates to his true life. Shep, is what we’re hearing real truth?
Stay tuned for the shocking continuation.
[I seek any/all info regarding cuckoo-threats against Shep.]
This post continues the description of publications in which Shepherd contributed an intro or foreword. (FYI, the books illustrated in these posts are from my collection housed in the Shep Shrine.)
Foreword by Jean Shepherd
This book consists of many hundreds of photocopies of entire news articles about baseball from 1876 through 1974. Of this multitude of high points and mind-deadening trivia, for game seven, the deciding one of the 1955 World Series, a one-half inch by less than three inch box score is the book’s only indicator that, in the Boys of Summer’s entire history as the “wait-till-next-year kids,” the Brooklyn Dodgers had won their only World Series. Unbelievable and inexcusable.
The book’s only text besides the foreword by Jean Shepherd is the “authors'” acknowledgements, so there is no part of the book to which the book’s actual authorship could be attributed. Those listed are not “authors,” they are compilers. Here’s a bit of Shep’s foreword, its beginning and its end:
My very earliest memory of my Old Man is of him sitting in the kitchen, waiting for supper (they always called it “supper” in the Midwest; “dinner” was something that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard had), reading the sports page and muttering. My mother, hanging over the sink, knew from long experience that it was time to keep her mouth shut. The Old Man was getting his daily dose of bad news. He was a White Sox fan, who grew up on the South Side in the very shadow of Cominsky Park….
They’re all here in these pages, alive, slugging, booting ground balls, winning, losing, making predictions, getting fired, going off to war, and even sometimes coming back. It is always Summer in these pages, and the Pennant Races of 1924,1932, 1941, 1950 still hang in the balance.
VIC AND SADE
The Best Radio plays by Paul Rhymer
Edited by Mary Frances Rhymer
Foreword by Jean Shepherd
Shepherd loved the quirky, dry humor in Vic and Sade, and on the air sometimes read from its scripts. He was also fond of giving some of the bizarre names of people in Vic and Sade and quoting bits of it. In my Excelsior, You Fathead! I describe the book this way:
Shepherd often referred to a 1930s and 1940s radio show called Vic and Sade that might (inadequately) be referred to as a situation comedy. This fifteen-minute program concerned a small family, talking of everyday small matters in small ways in a small town in the Midwest. It had a dry, unforced wit that required close attention. Shepherd was amused by the program’s focus on mankind’s obsessions–giving disproportionate importance to trivial matters. For example, one of the character’s extensive dishrag collection….his appreciation for Vic and Sade came through in a variety of ways that related to his own work:
…Rhymer created true humor. He did not deal in jokes, but human beings observed by a sardonic, biting, yet loving mind.
…Judging from his scripts, if Rhymer were alive today he would probably snort in derision at the pompous tone of this foreword, but I also suspect he would secretly have enjoyed it. Rhymer was an artist, and no artist who ever lived ever turned down a tribute to his work.
Selected by Ken Graves and Mitchell Payne
Introduction by Jean Shepherd
Now why the heck would Shep have bothered about a book like this? Here’s why–it fits so perfectly into his interest in, as he puts it, “Humanus Americanus (common).” Let him tell it:
Don’t ever let this book, this definitive collection of twentieth-century American folk art, get out of your hands. I say this for two very good reasons. First, it is a touching, true, Common Man history of all of us who grew and lived in America in this century, in addition to being very funny and highly informative. Second, it is a collection that will grow in value, both historically and intrinsically,with each passing year….
They are all of a piece, each piece part of our own lives, and Graves and Payne, George Eastman, and Uncle Clifford or Aunt Mabel have captured that piece of all of us, for all of us, for now and forevermore, like a tiny high school cheerleader frozen for all eternity.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN HEARTH
A Film For Television
Co-ordinated by Leigh Brown
Introduction to the Film Script by Jean Shepherd
This book documents the first part of a trilogy of 90-minute television films based on some of Shepherd’s short stories. One might wonder what Leigh did to be the “coordinator,” but it’s nice to see her get some credit for all the hard work she obviously did over the years on behalf of Shep’s creative works. The book has many black-and-white stills from the production, interspersed with the script. The intro is about twelve pages long, so Shep seemed to care about it a lot:
Since this was a comedy, director Fred Barzyk and I worked together very closely on every scene. My humor is not the one-line insult-joke style of, say Rhoda or M*A*S*H but rather humor that arises out of inflection, a character’s attitude, the predicament he’s in, and the constant struggle to remain afloat in a sea of petty disasters….
The Narrator is actually the voice of Ralph, grown up, but at the same time he is somehow mysteriously, in communication with the viewer. The viewer then becomes the second half of a dialogue between the Narrator and himself. The Narrator is both viewing the scene as it occurred or as he lived it and commenting to you about it, but never directly.
One will note this Narrator-technique used by Shepherd in 1976 (two years before the script version was published). One will recognize that technique as it was used again by Shepherd in the movie A Christmas Story in 1983, and then by others appropriating it without attribution for the TV sitcom The Wonder Years starting in 1988. More about this in my EYF! Ah, what a sad story that is–but back in 1978 Shep could not know of the malingering distress it would cause him, what internal kerfuffle.
[Side note: The technique of the Narrator that Shepherd used, and the tone of that narrator’s style in The Wonder Years, were essential parts of why the series was so good and why it was so popular. For years enthusiasts, frustrated, longed for its availability on DVD or in some other form. It was said that the many contemporaneous musical clips from the turbulent era depicted (the late 1960s and early 1970s) would cost too much to gain permission to use. Recently, parts of the series appeared on Netflix. Oh joy? No, not quite. 1. Opening musical theme, Joe Cocker’s rendition of The Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends,” was mimicked well by another voice, but not quite the same; 2. A majority of the rock and roll musical clips–that were important to set the scene and, indeed, provide a touch of ironic leitmotif–are absent; 3. The original Narrator is gone, replaced by another voice that misses the tone that had contributed so much to the original.]
♥♥♥♥In mid-February a company announced the upcoming production of the complete Wonder Years series that suggests they are fixing all the problems and will produces it exactly as originally broadcast–I hope so!♥♥♥♥
[Another side note: I just encountered a newer sitcom that uses the narrator-looking-back-on-his-childhood–“The Goldbergs.” The one episode I watched was better than most sitcoms, but that’s not necessarily saying much. I have not found any acknowledgement that the narrator-technique comes from Shep.]
NEW JERSEY RESTAURANT GUIDE
by (?) Ruth Alden
Nobody I’ve encountered knows a damn thing about this book. I’ve done some futile research and that’s about it. Why would Shep have been interested in a NJ restaurant guide? Here are two maybes: 1. He often made fun of Jersey and lived for a while in Jersey, so he must have eaten in some restaurants there; 2. Lois Nettleton, his wife from late 1960 to about 1967 says that he was such a gourmet cook that she happily cleaned up after his mess in the kitchen–there’s a surprise talent of our ol’ Shep! (Greatly appreciated would be knowledge of what he wrote for the book.)