WHY IS LEIGH IMPORTANT?
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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?”