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.
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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.
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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