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JEAN SHEPHERD and his motorcycle

1958 Cushman motorcycleA 1958 Cushman

(Photo captured from http://www.flicklives.com)

Shepherd drove many different kinds of cars, a scooter, and at least one motorcycle. He and others have described their experiences aboard his Cushman. He apparently liked to drive fast. Reports suggest that the experience was thrilling–and somewhat scary for his passengers. I transcribe some of his broadcast about riding it in my Excelsior, You Fathead! Here’s what he had to say:

I’m riding along on my motorcycle. I’m just going along, and there’s a car behind me and to my right–you see–you know where everything is–and we’re on a one-way street. Namely Second Avenue. And we’re gooing down Second Avenue. Just light to light, and without any warning my ears pick up this pshish-hihihi–the sound of tires doing it–and sure enough, out of the corner of my eye I see this coming like a bat out of hell across my bow! These chicks are just cutting me off for the sheer kicks of it! they go WHOOO! And I go SCHHOOO! I’m pretty good on that little motorcycle now, so they couldn’t really do it–they couldn’t throw me up on the sidewalk. And these chicks are: “Marlon Brando, buddy?”

And they: “All right!”

I was ready to go! Sadly enough they chickened out. It would have been the first true fistfight!

Helen Gee, founder and first owner of The Limelight cafe (which was, at that time, a photo gallery) In a personal interview with me in her Manhattan apartment she described her experience:

He invited me to ride on his motorcycle. What a mistake. I thought he was going to kill himself–or me. [He drove] very fast…he’d swerve and I was hanging on. He did have an accident at one point, and he also didn’t see too well. He was wearing contacts.

Lois Nettleton, Jean’s girlfriend and then wife (1956-1967 in total). She read the inscribed copy of EYF! I’d sent her and wrote many notes about the book to discuss with me, but her final illness prevented such a meeting. Her executor gave me the several dozen small, hand-written sheets. On one she described her memory of riding with Jean on his motorcycle:

We went all over on his motorcycle–even in the rain or dressed formally.

Tanya Grossinger, author and PR person for Playboy. friend of Jean’s in the 1960s:

My relationship with the master storyteller and radio personality began on two levels. His late night radio show on WOR drew an audience similar to avid Playboy readers and with my prodding, he made it a point to mention the magazine, including his own short stories, quite often. He was described by many of his peers as an oddball, detached, and downright bizarre. I, on the other hand, delighted in his idiosyncrasies. Our relationship was platonic from the start and unusual to the end. I never knew when I would hear from him but when I did, I knew the outcome would be unforgettable.

One night very late at the Playboy Club where I periodically entertained him, I received a call. Jean had just finished his radio show; did I want a lift home? Anyone on the corner of E. 59th St. that night couldn’t possibly have missed me. Straddling his waist, not sure where to put my legs and hanging on for dear life, there I was hugging Jean and screaming my head off as we careened down Fifth Avenue, the first time I was ever on a motorcycle. It was late summer and Washington Square Park was bustling. As we approached the famous Arch on lower Fifth Avenue, I let out a cry. “Ouch!” Someone in a nearby apartment house had flung an egg, a raw one, at my head (protective helmets were not mandatory at the time.) Jean turned to check that I wasn’t injured and accelerated to full speed. Two blocks later he pulled up to a local diner. “I’ll be right back.” It took close to ten minutes before he returned, a container in his outstretched hand. “Some bacon to go with your egg, Madame!”

In December, 1958 and early 1959, Shepherd produced (with Lois Nettleton, Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and a few others), his off-Broadway theater-piece, “Look, Charlie.” It only had about a half-dozen performances. Shel drew the folded playbill, on the front of which, as it’s reported, that’s Shep riding up the letter K of the title, so Shep and his motorcycle are immortalized there. (I bought a copy of the program on ebay from Lois’ estate. The first offered for sale went for many hundreds; this one I got for about $60. This cropped image reproduces with a toned background instead of white–the tone is the light brown stain obviously caused by a newspaper clipping on top of  it as it had been stored for decades):

lookcharlie shep on cycle

Shepherd, Cushman, chirpers, and barkers.

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6 Comments

  1. mygingerpig says:

    Nice post, Gene. Gives us a look at the man as he lived.
    Joel

  2. Gene, I so enjoy your work and look forward to your posts.

    This small world of Fatheads just keeps getting smaller.
    I lived at 9 Christopher Street from about 1972 – 1998 and during that time I became a neighborhood habitué of The Lion’s Head, which to me was just a nice neighborhood burger and beer stop.
    Not really being aware of whose shoulders I was rubbing against.
    Because in the 70’s Christopher Street was pretty raw with open mating in doorways and I was becoming a parent I began a block association for our blocks from Greenwich to 7th Ave.
    My friend Tanya who lived just up the street joined and I guess we were kindred souls as a friendship developed and matured in the Lion’s Head.
    We never spoke of Shep- I guess we just had his world view ingrained.

    When her book was published “Growing up at Grossingers” and the cover was nailed to the wall with all the other ‘writers’ I became aware of the notoriety of my bar.

    As a side note- Becoming friends with Judy and Wes Joice the delightful owners. we had my son’s Bar Mitzvah party in the Lion’s head- closing it for Saturday for Hora dancing and family gathering. A memorable Village time.

    Excelsior!

  3. zeke berman says:

    Oh my word  A CUSHMAN!!!  I had one of those bad boys in high school, in the early 1950’s!  It had a Briggs and Stratton engine that vibrated like the very devil. It also went 60 mph, which was way too fast for a scooter.  It was a menace to society. I never thought Shep would ride a Cushman; it certainly was not  cool. On the contrary, it was very nerdy, but boy could it go! I bought it from a kid who bought a real motorcycle, a Triumph, I think. THAT was a cool bike. Oh, no, it wasn’t a Cushman, it was a similar scooter, a Powell. Much the same thing.

    Never Mind!

    Zeke, mumbling to himself in Salem

    • Zeke..when I was in college in Iowa in 1964 everyone was riding Honda 150’s and 250’s and the big boys had Triumph Bonnivilles..a friend of mine and I bought Sears Puch motorcycles..it looked like a German WWII road bike- 175 cc Styer Damlier Puch- one of the Triumph bikers made a tag for it :”the Flying Milk Stool” I actually loved that bike rode it all over South eastern Iowa, took my honey to the drive in with a blanket roll on the back Allstate

    • Got all Nostalgic Puch Motorcycle 2 cycle engine. I did love riding that bike.

  4. mygingerpig says:

    My reaction Zeke. I expected him to have a gutsier bike. I think when he grew up, he did ride a big bike. I think one of his sponsors was Honda motorsycles.
    Joel

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