Leigh’s letters can’t hurt any of the protagonists now. But they can help us. Through them we know more about the simple, complex, wise and foolish, foible-filled humanity of people we’d had only a shallow image of before. And we can maybe understand better both the personal and professional relationship between Leigh and Jean.
The letters we possess straddle the crossroads of Jean and Leigh’s lives. He’d recently married the up-and-coming actress who was beginning to surpass him financially and in renown, and he’d left behind his longer, later-at-night, more contemplative, expansive style of broadcasting for the shorter and tighter format compatible to his larger, newly predominant, school-age audience. And he had begun expanding into more commercial fields such as soon beginning to write for Playboy. As for Leigh, the artistically ambitious young hippy chick, in her quest for her own, not-quite-yet-articulated personal grail, began an affair with this man she idolized, and she took a job at WOR as a gofer. She would have to endure, for at least a couple of years, the role as the secret lover of a married man who would have hung onto his wife at all costs, and who, though losing the wife, sometimes tormented that lover, sometimes publicly, for another decade before they shared that wedded bond that continued sustaining the two of them emotionally and professionally for another two decades.
What follows are thoughts of two other women on the issue of “standing by their men.”:
“Most girls took on the life of their boyfriends unquestioningly and made their own lives within those boundaries. Instinctually I chafed at that but did my best until I couldn’t breathe.” So wrote Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s lover for four years, in her A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. Lois Nettleton, with her ever-more successful acting career in the 1960s, felt this same difficulty and forty years later expressed it to me: “Leigh must have been perfect for him in some way—being an adoring, devoted, worshipful fan. I left him out of self-preservation.”
Leigh, with her own artistic aspirations and activities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, managed to successfully work both sides of a couple’s creative urges. She stuck with her man, supported the genius, and with her professional world tied to Jean’s, she raised herself up to be his assistant, producer, editor, co-writer, and even sound-and-scenic designer—his all-around artistic associate.
Although Jean seemed to have had a positive relationship with his mother, we hadn’t known much about Leigh or about the other women in his life until recently. We know virtually nothing about the real or imagined girls of his youth except for Dorothy Anderson Martin, to whom he wrote unavailable “love letters” while in the Army and to whom he sent a number of photos of himself, at least one of which he inscribed with his love. But what do we know beyond that? (I wouldn’t believe what he may have said in any of his “stories.”)
Until very recently we’d known very little. There was the totally unknown first wife, there was wife number two, Joan Warner, who refused to say anything. ” The Vampire Lady” I interviewed, after my first book was published, appeared miraculously out of the e-mail-world, but would say nothing except that she’d been a “romantic interest” of his in the earliest New York years (before Lois).
Then Lois Nettleton who, thanks to new information, we began to understand by herself and in relation to Jean and his work. And then the previously almost imperceptible Leigh Brown. Lois’s executor and friend told me that Jean wanted to continue with Lois even after she’d discovered his “secret life” and dismissed him from her presence. As we know, sometimes during the period when Lois first threw Jean out around 1965, he sometimes sang mock-plaintively on his broadcasts, “After you’ve gone and left me crying….you’ll feel blue, you’ll feel sad, you’ll miss the dearest pal you’ve ever had.” Now when we rehear one of those mid-1960s renditions, it’ll have a bit more resonance, won’t it? Apparently, Shep wanted to have his cake and more cake and more cake but Lois decided that she wasn’t giving him any more of hers.
As we can see by Leigh’s written observations of Jean’s mind and attitudes, he must have talked a lot to her, even beyond what she heard of him on the radio, but we don’t know what she might have said to him or even if she managed to get a word in edgewise. So what did he think of this cute, artsy, smarty little adorable acolyte back in the early 1960s? We have no clue—it’s tantalizing and forever beyond more than unreliable surmise. But as for me, Nancy Leigh Brown won me over. I used to think she was a cute chick, clever, intelligent, strong, and a shrewd home-breaker. She was so much more than that. Yes, Leigh Brown Shepherd had her faults—her sins—but she was a more fascinating person, a better person, than I ever would have imagined. Now I know her at least a little bit, and my own life is richer for it.
Leigh Brown, now flesh and blood, emotion and intellect, self-aware and clever enough to pursue, grasp, and hold onto for the rest of her life that clever egoist and libertine, Jean Shepherd. With all her being she not only held his body and soul (at least we can imagine so) but would make herself part of his creative ambitions. She helped guide her Shepherd through creative fields—the competitive, no-holds-barred jungle of the sometimes cruelly unfair and unappreciative Great American Wasteland of show biz life known as Entertainment. Fred Barzyk, Jean’s director/producer on many of his TV projects, says: “Leigh was the tenacious one who tried to keep it organized–tried to keep the space around him clear so he could continue to do his thing….She was sort of his enabler.” She was essential in providing what he needed to bolster his confidence in his creative genius and to carry on his quests in his career. What Laurie Squire, their broadcast producer for 1976-1977, saw manifest during that last radio year, was that Leigh, by then, had the wherewithal to hold her own with the best of them.
And knowing Leigh through her letters, we can understand how she managed it. Ready for this? She was wise, perceptive, inventive, creative, vulnerable, thoughtful, funny, and truly a match for ol’ Shep. She had street smarts, plain luck, skill, she was dogged, dauntless, and driven, she was single-minded, tough, and unyielding, and she knew when to throw caution to the winds. She was a quick read and knew how to put her skills to use. From her earliest days at WOR, she grew in professional stature and for nearly forty years, she was Jean Shepherd’s enabler. Ladies and gentlemen, put it all together—she was quite a woman.
Yes, there’s even more.