Home » Brown, Leigh » JEAN SHEPHERD & LEIGH BROWN Part 5



show gypsies

Leigh’s novel, The Show Gypsies, which I didn’t at first find engaging, eventually led me to an appreciation of what she’d done in it.  As someone unfamiliar with the subject, I found the details about show horses too arcane, requiring previous knowledge, but the overall effect did indeed result in my gaining some feeling for that world. On the Internet I’ve encountered several reviews of the book written by people familiar with the horse-culture described in it, and they all exclaim that Leigh fully and exactly captured that world.

Similarly, many of the detailed conversations between the main characters didn’t add much to my understanding of the characters or to seeing any furtherance of the story, but these dialogues did represent for me a well-understood depiction of peoples’ casual talk, something not often encountered in literature.  So I also see value in the novel (I wonder if she got the idea of people’s casual, seldom-depicted-talk from Jean).


” For Jean Shepherd. . . this fool’s rainbow”

ShowG. dedication

Also, I propose that the book, beyond dedicating it to Jean, is somewhat related to her real life, not in the basic story, but in its themes and personal relationships.  That story, which, in an early draft she co-wrote with her friend Barbara while they were teenagers and both involved in the equestrian world, contains a plethora of ambiance and information on the sport of show horses.  No wonder that people in the horse business love it.  The flyleaf of the book describes Leigh as a professional rider and a member of the Professional Horseman’s Association.  According to Barbara, Leigh added more sex to the original story at Jean’s suggestion so Barbara chose not to be listed as an author—we don’t know what else Leigh might have changed or added once the authorship resided solely with her.  But in addition to the few sex scenes, that in our day seem rather tame, evidence suggests that Leigh included some autobiographical elements.  (Yes, I finally got a copy of the book and read it carefully, ever seeking grains of grail.)  Recognizing the peril of interpreting fiction as fact in an author’s life, I nevertheless believe that some of the relationship between the fictional Diane and Davy suggests a conscious or unconscious connection to the life of Leigh and Jean.

Although specifics of the book’s story are not similar to the lives of Leigh and Jean, the emotional attitudes and kinds of issues between the two main characters resonate with what happened in Leigh’s real world.  There’s at least a hint of soap opera, of a women’s romance novel, in the love story between Diane, an intelligent, sensitive, and idealistic young woman, and Davy, a smart, but rough-at-the-edges horseman.  The story of girl-meets-boy to whom she’s very attracted: girl-rejects-boy/girl-gets-boy situation bears some connection to Leigh and Jean during times that had to be very difficult for her.  Leigh, strongly attracted to Jean, endured the first years while she worked at his side at WOR and he was still with Lois Nettleton, then she endured the decade after his divorce when they were living together but not married while Jean sometimes treated her badly even on the air (which is to say, in public).

Despite what at times must have seemed to be unfavorable odds for her, Leigh’s 1975 dedication of The Show Gypsies links her persistence to the book’s theme regarding the value of pursuing a dream: “For Jean Shepherd…this fool’s rainbow.”  “This fool’s rainbow” is a line from a song by Merle Haggard referred to in a conversation between Diane and Davy late in the story.  “Every fool has a rainbow” go the lyrics, which continue by saying that the singer will give up a bed of roses for thorns and will chase rainbows “every time the dream is born.”  Davy dreams of winning first place in the horse-show world, a world to which he is strongly committed emotionally and financially.  And Diane, in addition to wanting to have a man she can love and admire, also dreams of success—of being chosen for the U. S. Olympic Equestrian Team which, at the time, required amateur status.  But in order to help save Davy’s financially imperiled horse business, she turns professional, sacrificing that part of her dream for him.  Leigh had artistic ambitions in several creative fields before her relationship with Jean began, but early in their relationship she became obsessed with what she saw as Jean’s genius and his dream of ever-more artistic and popular recognition, so, with her desire to be part of his life and art and to promote them, she focused on his creative work, seeming to sacrifice her independent artistic ambitions—her dreams–she chased the rainbow of his art and his love. To her credit, she became an important part of Jean’s creative life, including its commercial component.

Near the end of the novel, Diane somehow finds the stress of her involvement with Davy and his world too much for her and she rejects their relationship (boy-loses-girl).  Regarding Diane’s dreams and feelings, one should remember Leigh’s feelings toward Jean as she had expressed them in one of her letters to her friend: “…I can conceive of a world without sunlight easier than I can conceive of a world without Jean.”  So, after Diane has left Davy, inevitably they encounter each other and dance for what she expects is “one last time,” but:

“…the suspicion that she could actually live without him ran out of her like rain going down a gutter.  She couldn’t leave him….There was no passion in either of them, just an easy fitting together of two halves of a shattered whole.”

Despite the peculiar rain-and-gutter simile, Diane knows what she feels and knows what her life must be. (This is a bitter-sweet variation on the usual romance-novel finale.)  On the last page of the book, with Davy expressing his love in words as best as he can, saying that he couldn’t take it if she left him again, Diane says, “Of course I’ll go with you.  Only I’ll expect you to make an honest woman out of me.”  He responds, “Yeh, I’ll get around to that one of these days.”  (Was this, indeed, Leigh, fiction writer, expressing her hopes for marriage with Jean? One might well think so.) As for such a guarded promise from Davy in the fiction, nearly two decades after Jean and Leigh first met (1961) and a decade after his life with Lois Nettleton ended (1965; divorce 1967) and two years after The Show Gypsies was published (1975)—at the time when their real life in his art of radio was ending, reader, he married her. (Forgive that line evoking, though altering the Victorian Jane Eyre--in our politically-correct world, one should say, “Reader, they married.”) From a song Diane and Davy hear on the radio, the final words in the book are two lines from the Kris Kristofferson lyric that might well describe not only Diane and Davy’s situation, but Leigh’s assessment of her sometimes turbulent but loving life with Jean:

from the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the hearse

the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down

As early as 1971, Jean had dedicated his second book of stories, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories–and Other Disasters: “To little Leigh with love. I hope it’s been worth it all….” Ten years later Jean dedicated a second book to her, seemingly reiterating his maybe guilty fear that their long-time stressful relationship was too difficult to bear: “May they never regret it.” The life she lived with Jean was apparently well worth the dedication and emotional pain.

fig dedDedication page of Jean’s 1981 book
 A Fistful of Fig Newtons,
published four years after Leigh and Jean married.
Daphne is their dog, who played supporting roles
in several of their projects.


Tom Lipscomb, not only editor and publisher of Leigh’s book, but her close friend and confidant, speaking in a way that suggests Leigh’s dedication to her passions, comments that even though she was deeply immersed in Jean Shepherd’s life and career, with the world of horses still in her blood, she would sometimes go to Aqueduct and Belmont just to help exercise the thoroughbreds.  In Shepherd’s 1976 New York Times article about the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, he claimed to have been an enthusiast of horse shows for about two decades–about the time he first met Leigh.  One would like to think that Leigh’s interest in horses had rubbed off on Jean.

With her many-sided work for Jean’s advancement, Leigh’s early artistic ambitions didn’t have the freedom to fully flower—except in the writing of The Show Gypsies. Her book might well be her creative, artistic expression of her dedication to Jean.  And, of course, her practical and artistic involvement in his art developed into what became important work for his benefit, some of which contributed to his artistic successes, which, from time to time, he acknowledged on the air:

Now I’m going to credit where credit is due. I want you to listen carefully–all the lighting, many of the bits that were done in the show–including visual bits, the stuff that was done in the dark during the show–we did a lot of things during the dark–we would cut all the lights and use lights and so on–up on the ceiling and so on–these were the work of a very creative person I never talk much about, and that’s Leigh Brown. Leigh created the show… A really good producer–Leigh is really a director/producer. Yes. So she created the set… and it was beautifully done and I want to congratulate Leigh for this–publicly–for a change. And it was great job. (Broadcast the day after his 1973 Carnegie Hall show.)

Early in their relationship she had wondered if she had anything of value to give him. Her achievements in fostering his career and dreams were of substantial value to both of them.

The modern, fictional, romantic narrative ends with Diane speaking to Davy on the book’s final page, when he expresses the fear that he might loose her again. We can imagine echoes of Leigh to Jean:

“Oh come on,” she said; “since when have I been a cop-out?

Of course I’ll go with you.”



Tom Lipscomb, who knew Leigh well and published/edited her The Show Gypsies, (See my Leigh post Part 4) responded to this current post about the book:

<This was wonderful. Of course a LOT of the choices Leigh made were between us. We talked them over. Jean pushed for the sex scenes and I pushed for the rebellious ones… . Leigh was ordinarily SO quiet. “Too quiet” as they used to say in the Western movies just before the rustling midnight sagebrush turned into a screaming Indian attack.

What was key to me was that these show jumpers were totally dependent for their livelihood on the confidence of the horse owners and their ability to keep winning and running up the price of the horses until they were sold out from under them, JUST when the horse and rider had formed a bond. What I was struck by was the many ways the show jumpers established their independence for their OWN sense of self-worth.

Hence the scene in which they get drunk and start jumping valuable horseflesh over a truck, in which they only risk EVERYTHING… for the sheer illusion of being free….. not really because they were drunk.

I remember Leigh taking me to the National at Madison Square Garden and the line occurring to me as I saw the various Equestrian Teams in their lovely “pinks” and the various show riders in competition  , how elegant it all looked…. “Everything was beautiful at the ballet.”

She laughed and took me with her sideline pass down to the arena where I could see the innumerable darns and patches on the riding coats, invisible from the seats above, but evidence of a thousand falls and missteps and the sheer hand to mouth living most of the riders were enduring. Hardly anyone but members of the National Teams had a backup riding outfit. Leigh said the various repairs each had their own story to go with them the riders remembered well, like the campaign ribbons on a veteran soldier’s chest.

What an eye she had…. And how much I would have missed of her world without the glimpses she afforded me.

“Made you look” might well have been her epitaph ….>




  1. mygingerpig says:

    Daphne the dog– Could that name derive from Daphne Bigelow, a (fictional?) femme de fantasy of Shep’s?

  2. mygingerpig says:

    I note his dedication “to little Leigh,”. If she was as strong an influence on his career as that, to refer to her as “little” is revealing.

    • ebbergmann says:

      Yes, i’m sure it IS revealing. To expand a bit, I believe she WAS physically small; also Laurie Squire, (WOR producer for Shep in his last year there) she says, was also referred to by Shep as “little Laurie,” and under the circumstances, she didn’t feel offended by it. She felt it was just an endearment.

  3. mygingerpig says:

    So she was little in stature and big in character and influence.

  4. mygingerpig says:

    Incidentally, a search under the book’s title yields a raft of absolutely rave reviews from “horsey” people. Leigh apparently knew her stuff and knew how to write an engaging novel. Here is one sample

    “Well-written horsey books were scarcer than hens teeth when I was growing up. I still have all the good ones I did find. My favorite is a rare gem called “The Show Gypsies,” by Leigh Brown. Every detail is accurate and I absolutely reveled in it and still enjoy re-reading it for the illionth time.”

    Unfortunately, copies of the book sell for $95 and up, so one has to be either dedicated to researching Leigh or a horsey person to justify that.


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