Yes, here’s even more.
We know that from time to time Jean would refer to Leigh on the air, and we know that sometimes he demeaned her–on the air. (See especially, my EYF! pages 293-300). At least once he also made a point of emphatically complementing her during a broadcast. (See EYF! pages 298-299.)
What else can we know? Regarding my Excelsior, You Fathead! in 2008, I received an email from Mr. Tom Lipscomb, with whom I’d never had contact. He wrote, noting with obvious surprise that indeed, as I’d never known Shepherd, “I don’t know HOW you did this book. This is the Jean that Leigh and I knew! Lipscomb had published Shep’s 1972 The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and subsequently at another publishing house , Leigh’s 1975 novel, The Show Gypsies. One does not know why Doubleday, who’d published Shep’s In God We Trust and Wanda, didn’t publish Ferrari–maybe, because it was not Shep’s kid stories, but humorous articles that they didn’t think would sell enough to make their bean-counters happy. (Years later, a publishing conglomerate that includes Doubleday has the rights to it and other Shepherd trade-paperback books, all of which have sold in dozens of trade paperback printings. Stick that in your pot o’ beans!) For whatever cause, Leigh, in her literary-agent role, brought the Ferrari manuscript to publisher Dodd-Mead, where Lipscomb was its Editor-in-Chief. This began a strong professional as well as personal relationship with Leigh and Shep. Tom has the utmost admiration for Leigh. In one email to me, he explained in part:
Tom asked me to come over for a chat. Though unlike Quixote’s steadfast peregrinations through the arid plains of La Mancha, most of my picaresque travels in quest of Shep have been mental rather than geographical–but on a fine summer day I sallied forth in my minivan, voyaging from the ancient Indian “land of many waters,” Massapequa, Long Island, to Tom’s home just south of the wildly wooded glacial moraine of Forest Park, Queens, NY. As sole provisions, I packed my tape recorder, blank tapes, and fresh batteries. We met to discuss Jean and Leigh.
What I didn’t anticipate was that, just as Leigh’s letters had given her self-portrait from 1961-62 when she and Jean first became intellectually and emotionally involved, Tom’s comments would provide new understanding of how Leigh’s talents, acquired and honed years before she met Jean, became, from 1962 onward, an essential force that enabled his unique gifts to flourish. Tom gave me a bit of background on his encounters with Leigh and Jean and why he published Shepherd’s book and hers.
Tom said, “I’d known his work for years. I have a weakness for Americana. You’ve got to go out to where the market is. I like George Ade, I love Robert Benchley, a list of people—that doesn’t mean I don’t love Dorothy Parker, too–but basically, I knew there was a market in the United States for American stuff, and the thing that puzzles the New York Times people and my friends in the literary group always is, ‘Why would anybody buy a book by Bill O’Reilly?’ And I said, ‘Because they think it’s terrific stuff!’ They love it! They’re normal Americans.” Looking at me, Tom said, “You’re not a normal American—you’re a neurotic New Yorker. And you worry about all kinds of things nobody else in the country gives a shit about. They’re worried about the NASCAR races.”
So Tom published Ferrari and a couple of years later, when he co-founded a new publishing company, he did Leigh’s The Show Gypsies. He talked about Leigh as an expert horse-woman, an expert in show-jumping, the subject of her novel. She seemed to be fearless. Tom said, “She lost all her teeth jumping. She had total plates.” He learned from her that “the show jumper’s job is to sell horses. That’s their real job. The riders would work for certain owners. The rider had to deal with the personality of the owner, the objectives of the owner, the personality of the horse, and the competition. That’s pretty sophisticated stuff—commodity traders don’t have that tough a life. Plus, the riders must have their own athletic ability to make it all translate. So you think of what she did in life for a couple of years there, as an attractive blonde—that’s pretty interesting. So I thought The Show Gypsies was a good book—I enjoyed publishing it.” He was obviously telling me all this not only to explain why he published that book but also to show how Leigh’s many-faceted abilities translated into her successful efforts to promote Jean’s works in all media.
“She was toe-to-toe with anybody,” Tom told me. “She was one of the boys when it came to that kind of role. She was just a delight. When you were inside her world, she never missed a trick. Everybody’s name, she’d know what this was and what that was and she’d have the horse’s weight, whether it was a crummy horse or a good horse, why the horse shied away. So it wasn’t just that she’d been a show jumper—she was that kind of observer of absolutely everything.
“When she sat in a room with Jean and somebody else and they’d have a long conversation, she wouldn’t say a word, and afterwards Jean would say, ‘Well, what do you think? How’d it go?’ And it was like listening to an intelligent computer that cut through all the crap and that did the three deal-points that mattered in the entire four-hour conversation. Then she’d come with, ‘I wouldn’t trust him. I don’t think that gig will ever happen. Consider it a free dinner, Jean. That’s what you got out of this.’ And Jean would kind of weakly protest, ‘Gee, he seemed like such a nice guy. And all the things he’s done and all the people he knows.’ She said, ‘I wouldn’t bet on it.’”
So Tom felt that Leigh was a major force behind Jean’s success in his career. “Jean’s always in a sales mode. He seldom picks up that he’s pissing off somebody magnificently. He won’t pick it up. Whatever he’s doing, he’ll keep on doing. And Leigh would pick it up and say something like, ‘Well, Jean, why don’t you tell him about the time you were training in the Army down in Florida.’ And he’ll move right over. He won’t know what ditch she pulled him out of.”
In that regard, I mentioned that Bob Clark, director of Jean’s A Christmas Story, commented that Jean became a problem on the set and that after a while Clark had to see that Jean went home, and that when Steven Spielberg met Jean to talk over doing the narration for the forthcoming sitcom, The Wonder Years, Spielberg told Clark that there was a problem. Tom, who had discussed Jean with Clark, said that:
“It wouldn’t be anything Jean said that turned Spielberg off—it’s rather, how do you get a nozzle on this fire hose? You can’t have him take up all this time. Production companies are as efficient as they can be—you’ve got to shoot—a movie has to shoot on-budget in 21 days, 34 days, whatever. You can’t have a fire hose drowning everybody, delaying everything, screwing everything up.”
Then Tom put it another way: “No gearshift on Jean. Jean was always flat out. What Leigh did is she would direct him, she knew what his hot buttons were. She pushed the right button and the lawnmower, instead of heading up the front steps or into a wading pool full of toddlers, would go back to another patch of lawn that needed mowing. That’s one of the things that goes wrong with careers of entertainers—quite often they get too big for their britches. Now, some of it’s arrogance. It wasn’t arrogance with Jean, it was this extraordinary manic personality. Manic in the sense of inexhaustible energy on full throttle at all times.”
I said that I would have thought it was also ego.
“I don’t think it came from ego as much as from a childish sense of wonder—at the world and everything in it,” Tom said. “He seemed fresh all the time, and like the child who tells you ‘the grass is green’ with wonder in his voice, Jean is seeing everything new all the time. He would tell you the same story fifteen times, changing it each time, not because of his ego, but because it would occur to him again—it would pop up, and I quite enjoyed it. I found it quite interesting. I like talent. I put up with a lot of crap from talent.”
So Tom, with his extended contact with Jean and Leigh, encountered many aspects of their professional life in addition to some of their personal conflicts. He got to know Leigh especially well. “What a gal she was! She was just a remarkable person. Remarkable person. And she and Jean would have these terrific fights and I guess I got to hear what it looked like from her side, and she had a dry wit about her. She wasn’t just a crazy lady screaming about her boyfriend. She was very, very, very funny.”
As a close friend of theirs and using his professional observation, Tom recognized Leigh’s importance as Jean’s enabler in the real world. “She was incredibly loyal to Jean, spent all kinds of time talking to me about his talents and abilities—and what to do with them,” Tom told me. “And her thinking was top notch. After all, what does a publisher do—our job is to husband talent and bring it to the marketplace—so I had a lot of skill-sets that she wanted to hear about.” To her own innate perceptions and abilities, she added Tom’s knowledge of the creative world’s marketplace.
For Tom, here again is one important example of what he sees as Leigh’s effect on Jean’s career: When Leigh and Tom first met in 1971 she said that it was the Red Ryder BB-gun story that would eventually become Jean’s most important success. She was convinced it would be the ultimate perennial Christmas movie like It’s a Wonderful Life and make him a fortune. She never forgot. Fourteen years later A Christmas Story proved that Leigh Brown, co-writer with Jean and Bob Clark, just as at so many other times, was right on the money.
Jean Shepherd had many women in his life, and sometimes, over the span of it, he might truthfully have been called an MCP, but that would not have been the whole truth–there’s more to the story. There were times when he loved and appreciated some of the women in his life—and through our new-found knowledge encountered during our diverse, picaresque episodes, we’ve come to much better understand and appreciate the women, too. Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown, we see, were important in his world.
Some of the material in my blog posts comes from my miscellaneous thoughts and gatherings subsequent to Excelsior, You Fathead!’s publication. The subtitle of one of those two resultant, unpublished book manuscripts is: “Questing for Jean Shepherd.” Part of that manuscript’s original dedication belongs here:
….And to the memory of two women who were so important
to the life and legacy of Jean Shepherd,
Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown.
MORE ESSENTIALS ABOUT LEIGH BROWN FOLLOW