I got an email from Jeanne Keyes Youngson, who had encountered my first Shepherd book. She described herself as a romantic interest of Jean’s before he took up with Lois Nettleton. Jeanne had known him during his earliest WOR days and was around during the I, Libertine broadcasts. I spent several hours at her penthouse apartment on Washington Square interviewing her. She is a sweet, smart, blond-haired lady in her early eighties. She has more in that apartment than can comfortably fit in it, including two Christmas trees, one of which has exclusively hundred-year-old ornaments. She has a doctorate and her apartment is a clutter full of her wide-ranging interests, including a narrow hallway lined with shelves chock-full of hundreds of books about Dracula and his ilk. Surely the following broadcast fragment about vampires from near the end of Jean’s WOR days is but a mere coincidence:
I turn on this television set. It goes bwaaaawaaad, awaaaaaay—you know how the sets go, and the picture flops over about twenty-eight times and suddenly it stops. I’m lookin’ at it. Oh my god NO! Out of my ancient past—Count Dracula! I’m looking at Dracula! (March 25, 1977)
Jeanne, the Vampire Lady, married film director Robert Youngson, and they sometimes dined with Jean Shepherd and Lois Nettleton. She does not know if Lois was aware of her earlier association with Jean. She commented that Jean kept many different parts of his life in closed “compartments.” (We have encountered that comment previously from Helen Gee, Lois Nettleton, and others.)
Jeanne relates that Jean would sometimes come to the Youngson apartment to watch old movies with them. He gave Robert Youngson “hundreds of seven-and-a-half inch audio tapes” of his programs, which I assume would be of Shepherd’s broadcasts in early 1956, those “overnight” programs, the long-sought holy grail for Shepherd enthusiasts. These would reveal what his early, formative style was all about. When Youngson died in 1974, Jeanne donated his film archives to Kent State University. Upon learning of this possible cache of Shepherd’s “overnight” broadcasts from early 1956, I began my dogged search for them.
What was that about vampires?! Jeanne is the leader of the Vampire Empire and the Bram Stoker Society. You can look it up.
Jeanne Keyes Youngson, “The Vampire Lady,”
in her Washington Square apartment.
She says the Shepherd tapes might have been mistakenly shipped to Kent State or to a Middle-European Dracula Museum that has vanished into thin air. Her airy balcony has a panoramic view of Manhattan, from which I did not see any roosting mammals. Yet, as they might say in the rarefied world of vampire gourmets, the plot races and the blood thickens—or something like that.
My graphic novel about my search for the Shepherd tapes with Joyce Brabner, Harvey Pekar’s wife, got posted quite a while back. See early posts and this sample showing the unfortunate end to our search:
Are we ready now for some deeper “foibles” stuff? Some of that gossipy and psychologically-related personal material I’d promised myself. In part I can blame Shepherd himself because of the intriguing enigma with which he surrounded himself and the reality that his chummy persona sometimes slipped into when he was on the air. Let’s delve a bit and ferret out a foible. My dictionary defines foible as “a minor weakness or failing of character, slight flaw or defect.” Remembering the Shepherd comedy album titled “Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles,” I think we ought to consider that the quirky sound of the word and the humorous context of it in a comedy recording suggests a whimsical connotation. That seems about right and puts it some distance from where the word finds itself in a thesaurus, surrounded, one hopes unfairly, by “blemish, vice, taint, moral flaw, and besetting sin.” So much for a definition; now onward to some more specific foibles, the first regarding his head-thumping skills, when he said:
…and so it is with kopfspielen. I have spent weeks working on one phrase—believe it or not. Even unbeknownst to some of my best friends. You don’t tell people about the things you’re really serious about. (Syndicated broadcast)
“You don’t tell people
about the things
“You don’t tell people about the things you’re really serious about.” How self-contained! How enclosed within himself, how isolated! From a number of Shepherd’s friends, family, and coworkers, one gathers evidence of his frequent lack of empathy and even cruel treatment of others. Though only rarely does this become apparent in one of his broadcasts, one’s first reaction is that Shepherd could be cold and cruel. Although I don’t have a radio program to broadcast it, I know that I sometimes have similar sentiments—don’t you? And I can remember a friend telling me that I was secretive—don’t we all keep a certain part of ourselves to ourselves? If there’s a part of ourselves that remains inside and not out there, none of us tell people about some of the things we’re really serious about. That, in part we are all disconnected. That, as some mystics complain, few (or maybe none) of us are all in tune with the universe and our fellow humans. Here comes the cliché, folks: we have our bad side as well as the good. Broadcaster Larry Josephson had said:
“I don’t think it’s possible to perform at the level that Shepherd did and have that kind of ego and drive…and yet be a sensitive, caring, loving human being.”
And with all that, I suggest that we many-sided humans respond to the many-sided genius of Jean Shepherd’s real self out there on the airwaves, his improvised—and thus sometimes uncensored—persona, because, maybe more often than we’d like to admit, he’s expressing part of all of us—in spades!
Maybe the following “barnacle story” coming up in Part 2 is one of the times when what he says expressed something one can interpret with some certainty as essentially true about himself. The following transcript, with no context or other indicators of a concocted riff, sounds like a genuine self-description. The effect is a Jean Shepherd with a cold and unfeeling attitude toward friends and loved ones. He was “just being funny,” maybe? No doubt he would have said he was merely telling the truth about human nature—that this attitude is far more common than we are willing to admit.
I don’t fix things. I’m a non-fixer. When a house goes bad I throw it away. You know, that’s the way life is. I’m not a grubber. Never have been. In fact I’m profligate. Yeah! I’m probably the only guy you know who throws away ballpoint pens that don’t work anymore. I know people that keep ‘em. I know one guy that’s got ‘em stacked up like cord wood in his basement. He figures, “You never know,” you know?
I said, “What do you mean, ‘You never know’?”
He said, “You never know. May start working again.”
I said, “No, it won’t. Nothin’ starts working again.”
You’re listening to the only guy who ever actually threw away their watch! Just threw it away! Why? It was rotten. I threw it away. Why do you throw anything away? Why do you throw away potato peelings? Or don’t you? Heh heh. Well, nevertheless—I’m profligate. I’m very profligate. Reminds me of a story.
Folks, the barnacle Shep-story is in Part 2.
Here’s the anatomy—
The purpose of this blog, besides amusing myself and helping to keep me off the streets, is to inform, entertain, and add to the historical record, regarding the work and life of Jean Shepherd. In 2006 I decided that it would be interesting to pursue an idea I wrote of in Excelsior, You Fathead! regarding the many faces of Shep–with the idea of suggesting that the never-to-be-fully-resolved enigma that is Jean Shepherd might have been made manifest–at least superficially–by the curious multiple ways he presented himself to the world through his changes of face over the years.
I put together
a loose-leaf book of images
In EYF! I’d quoted from a broadcast of his:
I might as well tell you the truth about this thing. There is no Jean Shepherd. Jean Shepherd is a composite name. It’s an entertainment concept and there’s actually a stable of Jean Shepherds.
This tongue-in-cheek comment of his, like much humor, may reveal some truth. Much more along these lines can be found in one of the opening chapters of EYF! titled, “Foibles: The Real Jean Shepherd.”
Also, in “Summing Up to a Boodle-am Shake,” my book’s recapitulation chapter, a section is titled “The Many Faces of Jean Shepherd: A Metaphor?” I introduce a written description of some of his guises thusly:
Complementing the many-sided and often self-contradictory aspects of Shepherd’s stories, biography, and persona were the many faces he presented to the world over the years. Examining photos may yield some clues to the real Jean Shepherd.
From a rough paste-up I also did,
here are a few of his faces:
And, yes, it’s more than just the facial hair!
He may have been searching for his real self. He may have wished that he could have remained as he had been during the youthful and innovative days of “Great Burgeoning” in New York–on the mountaintop around 1956.
Author photo on the back jacket of
In God We Trust–All Others Pay Cash,
published in 1966–one might wonder why
he used this ten-year-old photo from 1956.
(Also used for the VW booklet think small © 1967.)
Another 1956 photo, a little-known,
wonderful image by Roy Schatt, who also took
the “Frederick R. Ewing” photo of Shep
for the back cover of I, Libertine.
The photo here probably taken at the same time as the author photo above it–note shirt and the background wood paneling. Curiously, neither of the images of Shepherd–for IGWT and for I, Libertine–both by Schatt, have any photo credits.
Here below is another photo, taken by Fred W. McDarrah at the same photo-shoot as that of the iconic Shep poster shot of 1966. McDarrah sent Jim Clavin a copy of it years back and he has it on http://www.flicklives.com
Apropos of varied photos of Shep,
here it is, Shepherd raising both hands–
in exaltation perhaps?
Note that in his right hand, he delicately holds
the end of the word
Talk Radio is a 1988 American film starring Eric Bogosian, directed by Oliver Stone. From what I gather, the script was almost entirely based on Bogosian’s original performances, with some biographical information about Alan Berg, a Liberal talk show host in Denver who was murdered in 1984 by white supremacists.
Eric Bogosian as a talk show host, expressing
himself in a very emotional and hostile manner,
reveling in bringing up controversial topics
and probing the minds and
motivations of those faceless listeners
who call into the show.
In silence in darkness in the studio conceding to the audience that he and they are stuck with each other. Part of an extraordinary monolog:
“I’m here, I’m here every night, I come up here every night. This is my job, this is what I do for a living. I come up here and I do the best I can. I give you the best I can. I can’t do better than this. I can’t. I’m only a human being up here. I’m not God….I may not be the most popular guy in the world. That’s not the point. I really don’t care what you think about me. I mean, who the hell are you anyway? You…”the audience”… you call me up and you try to tell me things about myself…you don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. You’ve never seen me. You don’t know what I look like. You don’t know who I am, what I want, what I like, what I don’t like in this world. I’m just a voice. A voice in the wilderness.”
Despite the differences in delivery and content, Bogosian, in his uncensored bile, touches here on a few indicators of the relationship between broadcaster and listener that suggest to me that he might have been a Shep-listener. Not to suggest that their attitudes or content are similar.
<Talk Radio is a misanthropic tragedy, following Bogosian’s slide into an abyss of spite and self-loathing. Bogosian has lost the ability to love or to relate to anything or anyone except in cynicism, bitterness and pain. As someone who finally realizes that he has nothing left but his contempt, he is a “fallen” man. The horror of his situation and the source of his contradictory behavior at times, is that he is aware of his own fall but cannot stop it. In the final broadcast, he is straining for some connection, something to almost “save” him, but when this presents itself, he must attack and humiliate it – it is as though he can no longer help himself. At one point he chose this manner of communication, but now he feels as though he has no choice.>
Bogosian on the radio.
In the darkness of his studio world.
(This extraordinary sequence can be seen on YouTube)
Most of the film is done in the studio and is visually dark. Closeup above of Bogosian talking, alternating between contemplative low volume and screaming into the microphone at listeners. The camera seeming to be slowly circling him, 360° continuously, unstopping, him in the center. Actually, the camera continues to be unmoving in its focus on his face, the background studio slowly revolving. (I imagine that Bogsian and his desk, along with the camera, were mounted on a revolving turntable that slowly turned, keeping him seemingly unmoving. The entire, 360° studio set constructed around him, seeming to revolve, remains still.)
“Marvelous technology is at our disposal. Instead of reaching up to new heights we’re going to see how far down we can go, how deep into the muck we can immerse ourselves. What do you want to talk about? Baseball scores? Your pet? Orgasms? You’re pathetic. I despise each and every one of you. You have no brains, power, no future, no hope, no god. The only thing you believe in is me. What are you if you don’t have me?….Pearls before swine (he muses to himself. Pause). If one person out there had any idea of what I’m talking about, I….”
This horror of a movie vision is like an improvised, reversed, antithetical image of Shepherd. Recognizable in some of the intimations one might get of our hero if he only once lets it all out–but this hostile Talk Radio madman created so marvelously by Bogosian, this near-psychotic who has lost all control, is only recognizable as a perverse, other side of a coin, only as the near-opposite of the Shep we so rightly embrace for the positive delight and encouragement he has given us–perfect human being he is not, but we should remain overwhelmed by the positive mentor-ship he gives to every one of us. Seeing the Hell depicted in this movie, this antithetical vision, we should be grateful that Jean Shepherd, whatever his inner (almost entirely unrevealed) demons might have been, lived and created as he did.
Continuing about talk radio and truth/fiction below in bold and indented text, Frank Rich discusses the relationship between the real performer and the seemingly real persona he/she acts out in performance.
Note the subtitle of Frank Rich’s piece:
To Play Oneself May be the Greatest Illusion of All
[bold text by Frank Rich]
Lily Tomlin, Eric Bogosian
When Lily Tomlin and Eric Bogosian are not inhabiting any of the many fictional personae they create during the course of their solo recitals, are they Lily Tomlin and Eric Bogosian?….The clothes tell us that Ms. Tomlin and Mr. Bogosian are humble players when they are not metamorphosing into bag people or addled hipsters. But one wonders if the truth is so simple. Might not ”Lily Tomlin” and ”Eric Bogosian” be manufactured roles – masks as cleverly designed as the other characterizations the performers assume during their entertainments?
[Penn and Teller] do not present themselves as magicians or clowns – but as two regular fellows named Penn Jillette and Teller. Yet it’s immediately apparent that we are not seeing Penn and Teller, but characters who share the names of the performers. We know that, in real life, Penn could not be as persistently hostile and aggressive as the on-stage ”Penn”; we know that Teller, unlike the mute ”Teller,” does not go through his daily routine playing dumb….As a result, the theatrical payoff of ”Penn & Teller” [proves to be] the quiet moment when ”Penn” sits down to tell us the autobiographical story of how he first fell in love with the circus and its magicians, then hooked up with Teller and began his career. For a moment ”Penn” has become the real Penn….
In his recent performance, ”Mistero Buffo,” the Italian performer and playwright Dario Fo presented himself, somewhat as Ms. Tomlin and Mr. Bogosian do, as a folksy inheritor of the commedia tradition, portraying comic types who stand in sharp relief to the unassuming performer Dario Fo. ….one couldn’t help feeling that Dario Fo had also become a character: ”Dario Fo,” international star and controversial political iconoclast.
[Spalding Gray] makes no attempt to impersonate any fictional stage characters whatsoever. Instead, he sits at a table, looking like a sedentary teaching assistant in a large university course, and reminisces about his own life in a manner that suggests a Yankee answer to New York radio’s longtime memoirist, Jean Shepherd.
What makes Spalding Gray so theatrical in his seemingly nontheatrical way is not only his talent as a storyteller and social observer but also his ability to deepen the mystery of the demarcation line between performer and role. His disciplined, scripted recital leaves us uncertain where Spalding Gray leaves off and ”Spalding Gray,”…begins.
[We know that Penn Jillette is a Shep enthusiast; is Frank Rich?
and what of others Rich mentions?]
Where does Jean Shepherd leave off and
“Jean Shepherd” begin?
Stay tuned for PART 3.
A CHRISTMAS STORY & some of my other truths
When I began writing the manuscript of my Excelsior, You Fathead! I wasn’t sure how to start my introduction and how I should deal with the movie A Christmas Story. You see, I hadn’t cared very much for it, having only seen it once years before–it wasn’t the same as Jean Shepherd’s radio broadcasts. Yet I knew it had to be a decent part of the book because it’s a part of his legend. Because of this, and because I therefore felt it important and useful as well as appropriate to open with such a prominent part of Shep’s legacy, I began the introduction:
where much of his current fame resided.
That was written in about 2003. Subsequently, having watched the movie well over a dozen times just for the pure pleasure of it, I enjoy it tremendously and promote it whenever I can. I’ve written about it on this blog, and my introduction to the book A Christmas Story–Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic is an extended essay. For me, among the totality of his creative work, it is only surpassed by his radio-studio broadcasts.
When I began working on EYF! in early 2000, I got out my file folder of Shepherd material. ( A rather thin file–now, over a decade later I’ve got bookshelves and closets full of Shepherd-related files) As for Shepherd’s short stories–another confession. I found in my thin file the torn-out first story Shepherd published in Playboy, June, 1964: “Hairy Gertz and the 47 Crappies.” I think it was the only Shep story I read at the time, probably because- it was not like Shep on the radio! After the ’70s, 80’s and 90’s I had a lot of catching up to do when I realized (thanks to the New York Times obituary) that he was gone–my oldest and closest friend who had done so much to form me and entertain me way back in my late-teens and twenties, whom I had neglected for so many of my adult years.
Regarding the movie Network, with its famed scene of the TV broadcaster Howard Beale, in a version of Shep’s invectives, telling his listeners to yell out their windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” I’d seen that bit a dozen times over the years. But I can’t remember seeing the whole movie–until a couple of months ago when my wife and I watched it. We were both caught up in it. I especially enjoyed the extent to which Beale/Chayefsky railed against the culture–of American in general and of TV in particular. I also recognized how Chayefsky’s attitudes and Shepherd’s could be similar in subject matter, but Chayefsky’s projections were much more fierce, with a scathing brutality as a forecast of what might happen based on current trends. Shepherd’s lampoons I consider to be much more lighthearted and not up to the level of his stories and other radio material.
Go for it, Howard!
I was especially stunned to see him
shot to death live-on-the-air.
It’s Paddy Chayefsky all the way!
Great, but that ain’t Shep,
who mostly wished to stay on the sidelines
observing, reflecting in his stories–
or slyly mocking.
PLAY “MISTY” FOR ME
I don’t know why I never paid attention to this movie in regard to Shep. I’ve never even been aware of anybody else mentioning it regarding Shep, so I had no clue. What I may or may not have known about it, I was undoubtedly put off by the apparently consistent violence of Eastwood’s movies–joy for sadists and masochists alike. Only the recent reference to it by Jim Clavin of http://www.flicklives.com, when he received the audio of Shep’s “Misty” broadcast and passed it along to me, got me involved. Then I realized that I’d have to force myself to watch the horrific, bloody movie–I’m obligated because of shepology. My wife says it’s “just a movie”–that “just” is something we’ll have to talk over one of these days. I’ve now forced myself to watch it and I’m perusing the paperback novelization-based-on-the-movie for any other clues to Shep’s world.
Not Shep’s usual subject matter.
I’ve seen clips from it recently and now I’ve read some about it. Brrrr! Not Shep’s style of radio to be sure. I felt obliged to some day soon see this damn, rotten, fantastic flick! Finally saw it. Powerful! Grim. Not like the Shep we know. Even more to come about it.
Shepherd’s work belongs in the general category of “talk radio.” But, considering what talk on the radio by its most popular practitioners has essentially become in recent decades, he represents a contradistinction. He would not want to be categorized with those other talkers. Or by Alan Berg, a talk show host, an inflammatory and (unusual for most) a Liberal commentator, who paid the ultimate price for his style/attitude by being assassinated by neo-conservatives (white supremacists?) in 1984. More about Berg later.
Asked in 1998 if he’d consider returning to radio, Shep commented that he would not want to work in a medium in which one of the most flagrant, with his very high talents, broadcast (pandered) to hordes. Content of these talkers encompassed lewdness, racial prejudice, reactionary vitriol–riling them up like demented Neanderthals. A “shock jock” is a type of radio broadcaster who entertains listeners using melodramatic and confrontational exaggeration. Nasty, offensive, and corrosive, with their hundreds-of-thousands of rabble eager to be emotionally aroused—equivalent to fans of wrestling and demolition derbys of minds and emotions. (I’m not an expert on that form, but I think I get the general drift.)
Jean Shepherd entertained by being amusing, by commenting on the passing scene and human foibles, by advancing our sensitivities and knowledge in a mostly gentle and polite sort of way by what he said and how he said it in stories and other forms. Even though over a period of careful listening one might put together, from his rare implications, curmudgeonly grumpiness and surprising negativity, he could be anti-social, but he was by no means what one might consider corrosive.
Sometimes silly—definitely not corrosive.
Much of the following is inspired by something enthusiasts of Shep have been aware of: My EYF! puts it this way:
“Yet, biography is only grasping at an entertaining and probable hunch—especially unreliable if combined with an attempt to analyze a creator through comparison with the creator’s work. Even more perilous when trying to understand the slippery relationship between truth and fiction, as they interweave in what Shepherd gave as his life story.”
I continued by commenting that Shepherd seemed to have three aspects of his being. First, the biographically based Shepherd (As I wrote, virtually unknown). The second “persona was the storyteller who artfully conflated bits of the true Shepherd into the concocted biography of his life. Third, “the Shep who spoke on the air, the perceived here-and-now Shep, whom his listeners knew, giving real ideas and perceptions through his on-air persona.”
Recently I encountered online an essay from The New York Times, by Frank Rich (published 6/29/86). The Rich piece greatly augmented my ideas on the subject, and I quote his piece extensively in PART TWO
Where does Jean Shepherd leave off and
“Jean Shepherd” begin?
What do Lily Tomlin, Penn & Teller, Dario Fo,
Spalding Gray, and Eric Bogosian
have to do with all this?
Stay tuned for PART 2 of 3.
“I’VE GOT A SECRET” HEAD-THUMP STORY
Oh how we Shep-cuckoos have sought the elusive video of Shepherd performing by thumping on his head (kopfspielen) as his secret on that early TV game show, I’ve Got a Secret, originally aired August 31, 1960. Seated with host Gary Moore, the guest would be questioned by a celebrity panel of four until they guessed the secret or time ran out. “The Game Show Network” occasionally replays that program but despite entreaties by hordes of anxious fans, they won’t say when it or the I’ve Got a Secret anniversary broadcast of June 21, 1961, containing just the Shepherd performance itself, would be aired. The only way to snatch a copy would be to set one’s video recorder going day after week after month, search while running the recordings at fast speed, and some year luck out. You see the kinds of things that make anxious fans spend fitful days and sleepless nights. Eventually a couple of fans managed to capture a showing of the anniversary program and it’s now part of the Jean Parker Shepherd Historical Record.
In that visual record, in glorious and blurry black and white, Gary Moore introduces: “Here is Norman Paris and his quartet [piano, drums, guitar, and bass] featuring Jean Shepherd on head, playing ‘The Sheik of Araby.’” Shepherd, in front of the musicians, wears a suit, white shirt with cuff links, and tie. As the music starts, he quickly massages his short crew cut (part of the tuning process?) and then rapidly thumps his knuckles on his head, mouth opening and closing to various degrees, performing the piece. At the end he bows his head slightly, gives one of his shy smiles, and it’s over.
Shepherd with knuckles and head.
Anyone who has heard Shepherd head-thump on the radio knows how it sounds. The song is recognizable by the rhythm and the rise and fall of the “notes”—tune-appropriately—though nowhere near on pitch. Shepherd shows off his skill by rapid embellishments to the base “melody.” This talent is extraordinary and one must remain in awe—he can thump out at least a half-dozen notes, but on the many occasions I’ve given it a shot, I manage only two notes and a sore head.
On a radio broadcast he comments that he performed head thumping on several other programs and was “always well-received critically.” He muses:
The only problem is, they typecast me. They never ask Zsa Zsa Gabor to thump her head. And I can be funnier than Zsa Zsa, although I’m consciously so. She’s unconscious, but that’s something else. And so I’ve given it up….What if the word had gotten out that Ernest Hemingway, for example, used to make music by cracking his knuckles? What if Hemingway sat around and played “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” crackin’ his knuckles, and he was invited on Bookbeat to do that?…No one would take his writing seriously. No way. No way. And if tomorrow morning, say, Norman Mailer suddenly announces that he is a fantastic, secret, closet tap dancer. And the next thing you know he’s out there tap dancing on the “Sonny and Cher Show.” (April 12, 1976)
Another bizarre instrument in Shepherd’s bag of musical tricks is the kazoo. Sometimes he plays it straight, sometimes he does a jazz rendition, and sometimes he does the equivalent of “scat.” The extraordinary Italian composer/performer, Paolo Conte, in about 1988 performed with his group, his “Lo Zio” (“Uncle”) , on the piano, singing, and playing the kazoo (and for some moments, playing two kazoos at once!) See YouTube for his “Lo Zio,” plus his “Come With Me,” and “Sotto le Stelle del Jazz.”
Shepherd: “I think the kazoo is a kind of amalgam of all of us,” adding:
You know there’s something very irritatingly, maddeningly true about the kazoo. I think the kazoo in a very real way, Don—I think it takes the human voice, it takes music, it takes it all and puts it together in one almost unbelievably, realistically, irritating package.” (June 1964)
The nose flute is played by placing the instrument (frequently seen as a small brightly colored plastic piece) flat against the nose and mouth. One exhales through the nose, adjusting the tone by changing the volume of one’s mouth cavity. Preferably one plays when one does not have a drippy nose. (I can get about three distinct notes, Shepherd gets a lot more than that.)
Shepherd played the jew’s harp from time to time, and claimed that Lincoln was an expert and played it frequently. According to Weldon Petz, one of America’s leading Lincoln scholars, “Lincoln played the jews’ harp at the debates with incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas during the 1858 Illinois state election campaign.”
Henry Fonda as “Young Mr. Lincoln”
(1939 film) playing the jew’s harp.
Shepherd claimed that he made his first entertainment money at age 15 playing jew’s harp for the Colorado Cowhands group. Describing a letter he’d gotten accusing him of pandering when playing his strange instruments and that it wasn’t the “real” him, he responded:
Baby–this is the real me in spades!
Recently I discovered on a blog (see below) Leonard Cohen in Ghent (August 12, 2012.) playing the jew’s harp for about 10 seconds! WOW! http://onboogiestreet.blogspot.com/2012/08/magical-moment-leonard-cohen-playing.html.
Leonard Cohen in concert with jew’s harp
In June, 2014, after posting my series on Leigh Brown, it occurred to me that such a story of a woman who fulfilled (at least a good part of) her dream, would be an appropriate subject for MS Magazine. She had intelligence, talent, love, and perseverance. I condensed the posts into what seemed to be the appropriate emphasis, word-count, and number of illustrations for MS requirements. I submitted it, and about a month later I got the manuscript back with a form-rejection letter. With the slight variation and considerable condensation from the original 7 posts, I thought it would be useful to post it here.
* * * * *
LEIGH BROWN, CREATOR AND ENABLER
The Lives and Love of an Arty Village Chick
by Eugene B. Bergmann
Leigh Brown, from the early 1960s through the late 1990s, was the steadfast, all-purpose, vital element in the life and art of the raconteur and wit, Jean Shepherd. Considered a worthy successor to Mark Twain and James Thurber, Shepherd was the master of talk-radio, known for his nightly improvised broadcasts from the mid-50s to April Fool’s Day 1977 on New York’s WOR, entertaining and intellectually tickling the better parts of the minds of generations. Jerry Seinfeld exclaimed: “He really formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.” Shepherd published twenty-three of his short stories in Playboy and interviewed The Beatles for the magazine. He created successful television series including Jean Shepherd’s America, and created the popular holiday film about the kid who wants a BB gun and nearly shoots his eye out, A Christmas Story.
Leigh and Jean married in 1977 and she died in 1998. He died the year after—those who knew them surmised that he could not live without her. What hasn’t been sufficiently known until now is that Leigh Brown was the power behind the throne and fulfilled some of her own aspirations—not all she hoped for maybe, but more than any of us ever imagined she had.
A little back-story. Leigh Brown’s best friend from her teenage and young adult years, Barbara, on the main Jean Shepherd web page (www.flicklives.com), said she’d like to talk about Leigh. I, as the author of the only book about Shepherd’s work, leaped at the opportunity. I wanted to understand the personal and professional relationship Leigh had with Jean and in what way it all mattered to his life and art. All we Shepherd enthusiasts knew was that she began at WOR sometime in the early 1960s as Shepherd’s gofer, worked her way up, contributed to many of his projects—and eventually published her own novel.
* * * * *
Who was Leigh Brown, the person who would put all her abilities to work for Jean Shepherd for the rest of his career? Just the meek and efficient acolyte, brow-beaten by him on and off the air—at least until near the end of his radio years, when she could hold her own? If this be gossip, make the most of it—because it’s on the highest level, in which we understand what makes people tick and interact with each other for their mutual benefit. The story proves to be a revelation regarding the creative life of Leigh Brown.
Leigh Brown, aka Nancy Prescott, 1957 high school photo.
Barbara told me that Leigh, eighteen, had eloped with a classmate right out of high school because she was pregnant, then left her husband and their baby because she couldn’t see herself as a conventional woman with 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. Imagine where these coincidences are heading.
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Before Leigh arrived on the scene, Lois Nettleton, actress and Miss Chicago 1948, an avid radio listener of Shepherd’s, was forming an intellectual and emotional attachment to him by 1956, not yet knowing that he was married. She found out and ended the relationship until he got a divorce and she got his wedding ring in December 1960. Jean wouldn’t let her wear it in public because it spoiled his radio audience’s image of him as a “free spirit.” Jean was now forty, married to Lois, the beautiful actress of thirty-four. At that time, free-spirited Leigh was twenty-one. Lois, during this crucial period of this real-life-drama, acted in television programs including Naked City, Great Ghost Tales, starred in the Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun,” and featured in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment. Busy woman away from home. If you have to ask what connection that has to anything, fuhgeddaboudit!
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Picture the scene. Barbara reported that Leigh associated with many Village people who would one day be famous: artists, actors, playwrights, a cartoonist, a late-night radio broadcaster. You know the type—soon-to-be-known actor Rip Torn, and Jason Robards, Jr. who played the lead in The Iceman Cometh and later starred in the play and film, A Thousand Clowns. Leigh had a desk job, and at night was a full-fledged, aspiring, creative type, reciting her 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 her novel. Leigh, the free spirit, apparently had an affair with young cartoonist Shel Silverstein, who would introduce her to Shepherd.
How much more could be filled in by Barbara? Leigh had typewritten dozens of letters to her, and Barbara sent all she could find to me, just in case they might be of interest. “Just in case,” she said! In an early letter Leigh described 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.
In her letters Leigh seemed mature-beyond-her-years, but sometimes wrote in an exuberant, schoolgirl style that adds to our appreciation of what she was experiencing and expressing on paper. We observe Leigh’s thoughts, feelings, and actions regarding herself and her developing relationship with Jean. She already knew him well enough to want him for her very own. She was enamored of his mind— the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his thinking, his understanding about all things:
He is courageous enough to detach himself to a certain extent—stand back far enough from involvement to SEE what is going on, and see it clearly and objectively.
Jean Shepherd, circa 1956.
October 1961 looms large in the Leigh/Jean legend. Leigh writes Barbara, “After meeting Jean, how could I dig another guy?” 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 “Jean is talking to me now on a different level.” Yet, she is what we call “conflicted.” 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,…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.”
She continues that Barbara should “tell me in 2,500 words or less” why she should not have an affair with Jean. Also in October, her doctors are divided over what fatal disease Leigh might have. One doctor thinks it might not be as serious as the other doctors believe (and he would later prove to be correct):
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….After all, what would I have to lose?
You know, it might be worth it after all. Sort of like “see Paris and die.” 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.
Yes, Leigh is very conflicted about Jean and the rest of her life that fall and winter. Regarding her baby, who’s been left with relatives in Jersey, she has a crib in her NY apartment, so her daughter has not been totally abandoned. Leigh is just going through a complicated period—she’s 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.
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.
On page one of a late January 1962 letter Leigh writes that her sometime-lover is jealous of Jean even though Leigh says they are just friends. She writes that R. “is always hollering that I am carrying on a love affair with a radio.” (A familiar complaint regarding Jean Shepherd’s devoted radio fans—enthralled by the tenor of his discursive and entertaining mind, Lois Nettleton and Leigh have both been captivated.)
Then we turn to page two, top.It’s more than a simple page-turning.The preface is long past and the introduction has ended. The main event is crashing in. The lives of Leigh, Jean, and Lois, are about to be transformed:
Then Jean called. He asked me if I wanted a job. I will tell you one thing—if he is serious about this job business, I will take it….I will probably end up falling wildly in love with him and being miserable for the rest of my life…I can conceive of a world without sunlight easier than I can conceive of a world without Jean.
She continues that she doesn’t think she’ll ever get married because “the guy I’m hung up on is already married and intends to remain so. I dig tapdancing. You can’t tapdance if you are married. Who would marry a chick who has a sign in her bedroom: Help Stamp Out Reality.” Oh, Leigh, Leigh, Leigh! You are about to start working with the guy you are hung up on. Leigh, forchrissake, you shoulda admitted to yourself right then and there that you’d gone off the deep end! The next letter I have is dated February 1, 1962. It appears that the serious “tapdancing” started at some time during the last week in January:
I’ve been deciding something important—I’m not fooling around with any more men—only with Jean. I love him plenty and don’t want anyone else.
By March, in the last letter I have, she writes an elaborate script for bamboozling Shel Silverstein, saying that he is “rather simpleminded at times, and easily distracted—like a horse—and will believe ANYTHING.” She intends to manipulate him so that he will unknowingly help her in what he would tell Jean, who’s returning from an overseas trip. She’d say she is in love with a married man, etc., etc. but make sure Shel doesn’t realize she is talking about Jean. She knows Shel will fall for it because “In spite of the beard, and the swearing, and the Playboy routine, deep down underneath (about 1/4 inch) Shel is a big, fat, lovable, Sentimental Slob—in fact I suspect that he still believes in the Easter Bunny.” When Jean gets back he’ll hear all about her from Shel, who will be on her side.
The letters I possess straddle this crossroads of Lois and Jean and Leigh’s lives. We can see with these letters that Lois Nettleton—innocent, intelligent, beautiful, thoughtful, appreciative-of-Jean’s-genius-Lois—unbeknownst to herself despite her own genius-IQ, was threatened by a complex and unstoppable force. And then, three years later, Lois discovered Jean’s secret life and they divorced.
Leigh, with her own artistic aspirations, from the early 60s onward, managed to successfully work both sides of a couple’s creative urges. She supported the genius, and with her professional world tied to Jean’s, she raised herself up to be his assistant, producer, agent, editor, co-writer, and even sound-and-scenic designer—his all-around artistic associate to the end of their lives. As he put it on his broadcast the night after his 1973 Carnegie Hall one-man show:
Now I’m going to credit where credit is due. All the lighting, many of the bits that were done in the show—these were the work of a very creative person I never talk much about, and that’s Leigh Brown. Leigh created the show….and I want to congratulate Leigh for this—publicly—for a change. And it was just a great job.
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Through the letters I know more about the simple and complex, wise and foolish, foible-filled humanity of people I’d had only a shallow image of before. More understanding of the personal and professional relationship between Leigh and Jean. And, in a subsequent gift-from-the-gods, I now know even more about the two of them because Tom Lipscolm contacted me. Tom, publisher and editor, had met with Leigh in the early 1970s when she acted in her literary-agent role for Shepherd’s The Ferrari in the Bedroom. Tom published Jean’s book and later published Leigh’s novel. He talked with me about Jean and Leigh. What I hadn’t anticipated was that he would provide new understanding of how Leigh’s talents, some of it acquired and honed years before she met Jean, became, from 1962 onward, the essential force that enabled his unique gifts to flourish.
Tom talked to me about Leigh’s novel, The Show Gypsies, and about Leigh as an expert horse-woman, an expert in show-jumping, the subject of her book. 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.” He was obviously telling me all this not only to explain why he published the novel 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 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.’ “
Tom saw how the workings of Leigh’s mind enabled Jean’s success:
“Jean’s always in a sales mode. He seldom picks up that he’s pissing off somebody magnificently. 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.”
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.”
“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.”
Way back in 1972 Leigh told Tom that “If we can ever get A Christmas Story made as a movie using the Red Ryder BB gun tale, he will have it made.” It would be the ultimate perennial Christmas movie like It’s a Wonderful Life. She never forgot. Eleven years later A Christmas Story proved that Leigh Brown, co-writer of that film with Jean and director Bob Clark, just as in so many other circumstances, was right on the money.
Script credits for A Christmas Story.
[Computer monitor surround to be removed.]
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We see Leigh Brown, now flesh and blood, emotion and intellect, essential in providing what Jean Shepherd needed to bolster his creative genius and succeed in his career. She was dogged, dauntless, and driven, she was single-minded, tough, and unyielding, she had street smarts and skill. She was wise, perceptive, inventive, creative, vulnerable, thoughtful, funny, and truly a match for Shepherd. Early in their relationship she had wondered if she had anything of value to give him. We come to recognize the substantial value to their careers and their dreams—and to their increasingly professional as well as emotional dependence upon each other.
Beyond her value to Shepherd’s life and work, as a stand-alone artist Leigh published her novel The Show Gypsies, highly regarded in the show-horse world and now only available in the rare book market. Typical of the reviews: “Absolutely the best novel ever written about life on the American ‘A’ horse show circuit in the 1970s. Every detail is 100% accurate.”
The Show Gypsies, considered
to be a major story and an accurate
portrayal of the world of show-horses.
Despite what at times must have seemed unbearable stress in her sometimes turbulent but loving life with Jean, Leigh joins her real life’s persistence to the book’s main characters. In a conversation late in the story, Diane and Davy refer to a line in a Merle Haggard song: “Every fool has a rainbow,” continuing that the singer will give up a bed of roses for thorns and will chase rainbows “every time the dream is born.” Her book dedication:“For Jean Shepherd…this fool’s rainbow.” Leigh Brown: the persistent and gifted optimist. Ladies and gentlemen, put it all together—she was quite a woman.
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Eugene B. Bergmann is the author of Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. He edited and introduced three dozen of Shepherd’s radio stories for the 2013 book Shep’s Army—Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles. He regularly posts his commentaries about Shepherd on his blog, http://www.shepquest.wordpress.com
Although Shepherd occasionally commented on his theme music, after the late 1950s he seldom played any music for itself. Yet, at least until some early broadcasts on Sunday nights in the Fall of 1956 (When he came back on the air after his 1 AM to 5:30 programs) he might begin a program with “We have records.” He almost always used music only as background, played with it using his own kooky instruments, or scatted along with it. In a syndicated recording, he describes the beginnings of his serious involvement with music and I wrote about it in the liner notes:
In “Playing the Tuba,” Shepherd expresses his lifelong devotion to music. He organizes this show in a progressive sequence, commenting on the common habit of meaningless humming—then moves us from this mindless noise to the beginnings of artful sound. Only humming that constitutes a tune, he points out, is music. He tells how in eighth grade he began practicing the tuba for his school orchestra and that from the beginning he was obsessed: “I was a dedicated tuba man.”
In the telling, he has fun making a beginner’s awkward tuba notes with his mouth. Shepherd has always been a master at entertaining his audience with sound effects, especially using his mouth as an instrument to produce all the sounds one might expect from some zany orchestra, and here he renders the tuba, assisted by cuckoo kazoo, with utmost fun and skill.
He goes on to describe playing in the orchestra, commenting that it was the first time he’d ever created beauty. We are learning about his joy in making art. He concludes with a paean to great composers—especially of difficult, modern music—and to the musicians who play the music, explaining that no one appreciates great compositions as do those who have to perform them. Shepherd has done more than entertain us—he has given us his personal take on the evolution of sound from meaninglessness to art in a forty-five minute artistic riff on his own love of music. All music lessons should be this much fun.
Classical music, jazz, and opera were Shepherd enthusiasms, but he said little about this music. That he might have heard and been inspired by it in his childhood growing up in the Chicago area would fit with this from pages 89-90 of Susan J. Douglas’s book Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination: “So the airwaves in Chicago were, in these early years [as early as the 1920s], marked by musical extremes: opera, the sine qua non of cultural elitism, and jazz, the exemplar of bottom-up cultural insurgency.“