“I’LL AWARD THE BRASS FIGLAGEE
WITH BRONZE OAK LEAF PALM
TO THE FIRST PERSON WHO CAN TELL ME…”
From time to time, Shepherd awarded the above. (That’s my interpretation of what it looks like, nestled on a bed of excelsior, as photographed by Jim Clavin.) Some of the following I quote from my “Cracks in the Sidewalk” chapter of Excelsior, You Fathead! :
Shepherd awards it for a manifestly minor feat of knowledge and memory. Every Shepherd listener heard that request for a piece of trivia many times. Within the sphere of humanity’s array of foible-filled activities, there lies the peculiar fascination with trivia, the often arcane and frequently inconsequential detail. Shepherd, with his pleasure in details, and his insistence that there is often more to life than most of us perceive, delighted in showing off his knowledge and his ability to make unexpected connections. It has been suggested that he originated the use of the word as used today to designate minor, nonessential facts of our existence….Of course, we see that, for him, the minor often signaled the major.
Trivia represents the culture of the common man, with whom Jean Shepherd had an uneasy love/hate relationship–because the common man is the dominant stuff of American culture, the frequent subject of his humor, and because he was both the harshly critical observer and the self-aware participant enjoying the foible. Big ideas and high culture are not the concerns of the common man–it’s the little things that define his life. Besides, these little things dominate not just the common man’s thoughts, but occupy more of everybody’s time than mot of us are willing to admit. He once commented that rather than concentrating on great thoughts, even the best of us are too often deeply preoccupied with what kind of gas millage we get.
As my informant Tom Lipscomb put it to me, some of New-York-types may be absorbed in big issues, but most other Americans are obsessed with NASCAR. To put it bluntly, regarding trivia, Shep was full of it (full of trivia). And frequently said, “Why do I remember this stuff?” As I continued in my book in full Shep-trivial-pursuit, I wrote, “…the implication was that knowing the tiny piece represented knowledgeable familiarity with its surrounding gestalt. It represented the ability to make connections from a vast mental storehouse of information (not the result of a college education, but of his intelligence and far-flung interests).”
And why. indeed, are we pursuing this now? Recently, Shep sleuth Steve Glazer encountered and produced an article from Drexel University, January 28, 1966, by a Mike Wedler (a Shep fan, naturally):
What was the name of the Green Hornet’s car? Who was his manservant? What high school did Jack Armstrong attend?
With these, and with questions of similar import, the game of Trivia was invented in 1957 by WOR radio personality Jean Shepherd….:
A Christmas Story enthusiasts will remember the trivia-moment at the Shepherd Hammond-homestead when the old man, working on a newspaper contest, asks, “What was the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse?” An outrageous trivia question (did the Lone Ranger even HAVE a nephew? If he did, did the nephew have a horse?) In a bizarre piece of knowledge, Mrs. Shepherd comments that its name was “Victor.” As she nonchalantly puts it, “Everybody knows that.” In a perfect Shepherd world, everybody would always know everything like that crumb of immortal American history.
By the way, the next time anyone asks who invented “Trivial Pursuit,”
knowledgeable Shepherd fans (who believe everything a
university newspaper puts in print), will be able to say
“Jean Parker Shepherd invented the pursuit of trivia–everybody knows that!”
The previous post contained a proposed cover for a book of Shep’s travels. I continue with more of the book’s “front matter.” You’ll note that some “Chapters” contain various parts–each part is a separate, extended travel narrative.
by the same author
SHEP’S ARMY: BUMMERS, BLISTERS, AND BOONDDOGGLES (2013, Editor, Introduction)
EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD (2005, Author)
For all those who listened, recorded, and distributed
Jean Shepherd’s travel narratives so that we may follow him.
“I have traveled around the world a couple of times and I’ve been many places. I’ve been to the regular places that the usual American tours. To me the tourist is on a very different kind of journey than a traveler is on. A traveler is usually an ex-tourist. There’s a big difference between the two though. He is not going after the same thing….After having traveled for a couple of years, I became a traveler. I found myself looking at a country with a knowledgeable eye.” –Jean Shepherd
Traveling With Jean Parker Shepherd, Adventurer
[Table of Continents]
CHAPTER 1. March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963
CHAPTER 2. Maine Deciding to be Beautiful
CHAPTER 3. The Middle East
a) Trouble in Beirut
b) The Negev Desert
c) Tel Aviv
d) Beersheba and The Desert Inn
e) The Bedouin’s Tent
f) Bedouin Bazaar Visions
g) Skin-diving in the Red Sea
CHAPTER 4. John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Shep
CHAPTER 5. Irish Blood in Me
CHAPTER 6. The Last Time I Saw Paris: French Farce, Le Drugstore, Riot
CHAPTER 7. Around the World with Shep
a) And Here’s How it Happened
b) Tehran and Tokyo
c) Bangkok and Tokyo
d) Tokyo: I Really Came Here For Serenity and Peace and Koto Music
CHAPTER 8. Australia
a) Sharks and Martinis
b) ANZAC Day
CHAPTER 9. Amazon and the Headhunters
a) Hey, Shep, How’d You Like to Go to Peru?
b) Don’t Go, It’s Dangerous!
c) I’m Going!
d) One of the Truly Great Experiences of My Life
e) I Guess I Came Back Changed
f) We Have Never Seen This Kind of White Man
CHAPTER 10. Nigeria
a) A Peculiar Kind of Flavor
b) Nothing Works Like at Home.
c) You are Enrolling, Please, for How Long, Sir?
d) How are You, Sir? How? Hi, hi, hi, Sir.
e) In a Year or Two He was Right in the Same Boat With the Rest of Us, You Know
f) No Matter What I do, I am an American
CHAPTER 11. Sailing the Windward Islands
b) Pig Roast
CHAPTER 12. Maine is a Foreign Country
CHAPTER 13. Travel Homilies of a Nomadic American
Sources of the Audios
A basic description of Shep’s basic books.
Only those which he entirely wrote as stories and articles. So this does not include The Phantom of the Open Hearth, which is the script of the video drama based on several of his previously published stories.
IN GOD WE TRUST: ALL OTHERS PAY CASH
The book’s title doesn’t reference a story title, but refers to a sign in Flick’s Tap when Ralph is leaving, described on the last page of the book:
I glanced back over the mob of lumberjacketed, safety-shoed beer drinkers. Above the bar, under a Christmas wreath I noticed for the first time, a sign:
IN GOD WE TRUST
ALL OTHERS PAY CASH
On a WOR program, Shep announced that he had written a novel and had delivered it, complete, to his publisher. The dust jacket of the book says, “a novel by.” The full-page ad by Doubleday, appearing in the New York Times Book Review refers to it as a novel. The author’s disclaimer states:
The characters, places, and events described herein are entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, accidental, or the result of faulty imagination.
Other than the specific wording, that kind of disclaimer is rather standard, but here Shepherd does his best to insist that the entire book is fiction, despite what listeners and nearly everyone subsequently has called autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. The book’s dedication states:
To my Mother, and my Kid Brother
And the Rest of the Bunch…
Many of the stories originally appeared in Playboy. The contents consists of Ralph Parker (Shep) returning to his home town as a reporter. He visits Flick in the tavern his father had run, and which he now owns and in which he tends bar. They discuss old times in short chapters that alternate as lead-ins to short stories about their past when they were kids. All the short stories concern their young childhood when they were about ten or twelve, up to and including dating age. Reports indicate that the book sold exceedingly well.
WANDA HICKEY’S NIGHT OF GOLDEN MEMORIES: AND OTHER DISASTERS
The book’s title is a reference to one of the book’s stories of that name. The stories originally appeared in Playboy. The stories are of Ralphie as a kid, but also includes “The Return of the Smiling Wimpy Doll,” the story of Shep as an adult grown up, living in Manhattan and receiving a box with a note:
Merry Christmas. I was cleaning out the basement the other day and I came across all kinds of junk you had when you were little. I figured rather than throw it out, I’d sent it on to you. A lot of it is still good and you might want to play with it, especially the Kangaroo Spring-Shus that Aunt Min gave you for Christmas.
After looking through the mementos of his childhood, he considers hauling the box-full out to the garbage landing of his apartment:
But I chickened out. Staggering under the load, I dragged my childhood to the hall closet.
We note that his childhood is, symbolically, a staggering load, and that he can’t just trash it. He saves it all (nostalgically), on his closet’s top shelf. A wonderful and ironic way of dealing with his past. Yes, the Jean Shepherd persona succumbs to nostalgia!
THE FERRARI IN THE BEDROOM
Dodd, Mead 1972
The book’s title is a reference to one of the book’s articles of that name. Most of these articles (not fictional stories) are curmudgeonly commentary on a variety of subjects that Shepherd found annoying. Many of the comic articles are reprints of his nearly-monthly columns in the magazine Car and Driver. (Note that some of the Car and Driver articles of his have nothing to do with cars or drivers, but they published them anyway. Shep’s then-editor at C. and D. told me that he often had trouble getting Jean’s article in a timely manner for the magazines deadlines. Sometimes Jean, during their phone call regarding the submission on time, simply spoke the article–apparently off the cuff–during their conversation, and that is what was published.)
Why did Leigh Brown have to go peddling the Ferrari manuscript as Jean’s agent, rather than Doubleday being delighted to publish it? Recently I asked Tom Lipscolm, who was then editor and publisher at Dodd, Mead. Our correspondence went like this:
EBB: A question that has been occupying my thoughts for a long time. As Jean’s first two books of stories, IN GOD WE TRUST, and WANDA HICKEY, both sold well with Doubleday, why did he and Leigh seek publication of THE FERRARI IN THE BEDROOM with another publisher?
Did Doubleday feel that, as the manuscript wasn’t exclusively of kid stories, that it wouldn’t sell well enough? For some reason had they had enough of Shepherd? Did the manuscript come too closely on the heels of the previous one? What might explain that they went elsewhere?
TL: My recollection is that the editor at Doubleday whose name I forget, simply wasn’t able to get a collection of auto magazine stories through the editorial board. Jean and Lee liked him, but felt he was narrow gauge given the larger list of subjects they wanted to cover. They were snobs. I am not sure anyone there on their ed board READ them. I thought they were charming and a look at American culture that foreshadowed what would become his PBS series.. JEAN SHEPHERD’S AMERICA.
In short… I simply lucked out.
Title page with portion of a Shep ink drawing
The Shepherd line drawings scattered through the book are mostly of New York City buildings and other inanimate objects. Although the book was published in 1972 (same year as Wanda Hickey), my impression is that Shepherd was most involved doing his drawings in the late 50s and early 60s, when he would go out on sketching expeditions with Shel Silverstein, Leroy Neiman, or others. Indeed, of the dates seen in a few of the drawings, they are late 50s up to 1960. I can imagine that, to give this miscellany of text material some additional interest, Jean and Leigh sifted through sheaves of old drawings.
A FISTFUL OF FIG NEWTONS
The book’s title is a reference to one of the book’s stories of that name. There are a couple of actual fictional stories scattered among the articles. The items are mostly reprints from magazines such as Playboy and Car and Driver, etc. However, the much-loved army story, “The Marathon Run Of Lonesome Ernie, The Arkansas Traveler” (aka “Troop Train Ernie”) seems not to have been previously printed–STRANGE! Shep told the story several times on his broadcasts.
“The Whole Fun Catalog of 1929” article, an appreciation by Shep of the quirky catalog of curiosities and gags, was recycled several times after originally being written as the introduction to the reprinting of the Johnson Smith and Co. Catalog original.
[Note: although I have these four books, I took the easy way out and copied/pasted
the images here from http://www.flicklives.com.]
Jean Shepherd told dozens of tales of his
multifaceted trips to various parts
of the globe. I’ve transcribed many
of them and put them together into a
This version of Stanley meeting Livingston
should be familiar to most people—
especially to those who encountered it
in one of my previous blogs.
Shepherd traveled all over the world and he loved it. He spoke about his travels a lot on his radio programs, just as he spoke a lot about his army time and his time as a kid. All of these are worth preserving in print. My overview of his career, including commentary on his kid-life, his army-life, and his love of travel, is in my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! (March, 2005). My selection and extensive commentaries on his army stories are in my SHEP’S ARMY: BUMMERS, BLISTERS, AND BOONDOGGLES (August, 2013). My selection and commentary on his travel narratives are in my book manuscript tentatively titled TRAVELS WITH SHEP.
I’m now beginning to post some of that travel manuscript material
interspersed with other Shep-based subjects
As you’ll see, Shep’s travel writings don’t conform to the usual travel book—they are more personal than most travel writing, and each episode more informally put together, because he mostly broadcast his comments very soon after he returned from each trip—he didn’t take weeks or months to ponder the form or the content. This makes them all of a piece with his other radio work. This spontaneous tone will be appreciated by lovers of his other radio broadcasts, by those wanting to learn about unusual experiences filtered through a perceptive sensibility, and by those entranced by a raconteur delivering the goods at the heights of his narrative euphoria.
COVER IDEA #1
As is my custom, I like to design potential covers for my books.
I was fortunate that my design for the front cover of
Excelsior, You Fathead!
was used (but unacknowledged) just as I conceived it.
This and further cover ideas were conceived and printed
before my Shep’s Army book had received its final title.
The only book-manuscript illustration is the frontispiece photo of
Shep talking to amazonian Indians while holding a jews harp.
The other illustrations for these blog posts are not part of my
book manuscript, but are included
to visually enliven the gray textural matter.
The happy couple(s)
As with virtually everything else about the life of Jean Shepherd, even the number and the details about his marriages are confused. Until now! Of course we know that Shep himself was mostly guilty of hiding and confusing the facts of his life.
The most mysterious and unknown aspect was about his first marriage–did it really exist–before he married Joan Warner, mother of his two children, Randall and Adrian? That mystery has been solved by Shep fan Steve Glazer, who recently emailed me and Jim Clavin with what seems to be definitive evidence. Shep’s first wife was Barbara Mattoon. of Hammond, IN.
Puzzle and enigma.
Let’s do the accounting backwards.
[From most recent and familiar to earliest and most mysterious.]
Leigh Brown (Nancy Prescott), married March 2, 1977 until her death July 16, 1998, she was his constant companion, his assistant, editor, producer, co-creator, steadfast support for some years before and then after their wedding in March, 1977 (just as he was about to end his WOR Radio career).
[The person charged with clearing out their Sanibel home
claimed he had the marriage license for Jean and Leigh.
He has disappeared with various important items
in the life and art of Shep.]
Lois Nettleton, married December 3, 1960 until the divorce papers sometime in 1967, “The Listener” to his “overnight” broadcasts in early 1956. She was an actress, most famous for her staring role in The Twilight Zone episode about the sun nearing the earth. She recorded many of Shep’s programs and they would discuss them when he returned after work.
[The New York Times, in its obit (by stating as fact what was obviously a
misunderstanding by whoever gave them the info),
erroneously states that Randall Shepherd “…was not aware of his father’s
second marriage to the actress Lois Nettleton….”
Randall was not aware of Lois having married Jean twice, because it is not true.]
Regarding more details about Leigh and Lois,
see my previous posts. (see my blog’s left column
and click on their names.)
Joan Warner, married September 9, 1950-1957. Shep, Joan, and son Randall moved to New Jersey when he began radio broadcasting for WOR in 1955. Without telling Lois Nettleton about his married state, Shep began seeing her, until Lois said she found out and stopped the relationship–until he produced his divorce papers.
Barbara Mattoon, married 29 March, 1947. When Shep got out of the army in late 1944, according to Steve Glazer, “Shep’s first professional broadcasting job as an adult was apparently also at WJOB, shortly after his discharge from the Army. Working at WJOB at the same time as Shep was a young and pretty Hammond resident named Barbara Mattoon, who helped maintain the radio station’s library.” During the war she had reportedly written to dozens of military personnel, in a way that could be described as “flirting.” At some point Shep moved to Cincinnati. (Jean and Barbara were married for about three years or less–until about 1950.) Then Jean married Joan Warner, who had graduated from the U. of Cincinnati in 1950.
Regarding Barbara, for many years, only Lois Nettleton and Randall Shepherd
seemed aware of this early marriage. Steve Glazer,
whom we thank for this information about Barbara and Jean,
believes that after their divorce, for whatever reason,
they both did what they could to make their marriage disappear.
They almost totally succeeded.
July 26, 1921-October 16, 1999
The strip above, a tribute to Jean Shepherd done soon after he died, is from “Zippy the Pinhead” by Bill Griffith. The original published strip, of January 9, 2000, is without color. (Click this colored one to enlarge.) This reproduction is from the Zippy website, showing the hand-colored version that can be bought (www.zippythepinhead.com). Griffith is a big fan of Shepherd’s and he gave free permission for me to reproduce its original black and white form in my Excelsior, You Fathead! It is a perfect ending for the series of illustrations in the book. My caption for it is: “….This strip testifies to the importance of Shepherd’s work for many creative people as well as for his legions of devoted fans, many of whom stayed awake listening, long after bedtime, captivated by Shepherd’s voice in the night.”
In the Internet site: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=18342, interviewed by Alex Dueben, Griffith says, “My comedy influences came from people like Lenny Bruce and Jean Shepherd. Also, I like to think of Harvey Kurzman [of Mad Magazine] as a humorist as much as a cartoonist. His ‘voice,’ his cadence, are still a big influence. And then there are my favorites from fifties TV: Phil Silvers (“Sgt. Bilko), Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Jonathan Winters, and especially Ernie Kovaks. Woody Allen, too. And that one-of-a-kind hipster, Lord Buckley.”
“Zippy the Pinhead” is a surrealistic, unpredictable, wild commentary on human nature, commercialism, and society in general. It illustrates how, out of the mouths of innocents (such as Zippy), often comes a kind of wacky sense. I highly recommend it–in the newspaper strips and in compilations gathered into books.
In another interview, by Gary Panter, Griffith says, “My eccentricities and non-sequitors just seem to come naturally.”
The above comments indeed suggest a sometimes close similarity to Jean Shepherd’s form and mindset, as do the descriptions below. These two descriptions are from Griffith’s Zippy website. Both, though they seem contradictory, mostly describe Shepherd himself.
ZIPPY THE PINHEAD =Zippy. GRIFFY=Bill Griffith.
The well-known and often-used comment shown below,
is, unbeknownst to most people,
an original Zippy-ism!
Shepherd, though he
might have seemed to be
frequently engaged in irony and negativity,
at the same time insisted that, in our lives, we have fun.
Jean Parker Shepherd, you commented in 1975 that, “Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory? Think about it, friends. It’s not just a possibility. It is a certainty.” Nearly 40 years later, more immortal than most people (including your comic contemporaries), your memory in people’s minds and in the media is still alive and well. Not just the memory of what you did, but the influence you had on the lives and works of so many of us.
WHERE ARE WE HEADED? A WORLD IN UNREST
“Jean Shepherd Arrives”
Recently a long-time, enthusiastic Shep-fan, Pete Delaney, encountered “The Metropolitan,” the student newspaper of Fairley Dickinson University dated February 15, 1967, with a report of a Shepherd appearance before a capacity audience. Shep was one of several who spoke on the subject of where we are headed. (Remember, we’re talking the 1960s here!):
Jean Shepherd Speaks on Dream Reality
At Midway Point of Weekend Conferencc
Quick and cunning on the outside, but carrying a message of deep importance on the inside, Jean Shepherd spoke to an audience of over 900 in the Recreation Building as winter Weekend entered its final stages.
The front-page report of the newspaper summarized each speaker’s talk, describing our hero: “Jean Shepherd, beneath a humorous exterior, imparted a serious message to the theme. One can’t think in terms of the future when the present is so tenable. One can never predict the future. Yet, Man persists in living in a dream world. Perhaps the future is to become a dream. That is impossible to say.” On an inside page, spotlighting Shepherd, a certain Sanford Freiman (probably a Shep enthusiast, working at the height of ridiculdockle), contributed a short piece, transcribed in full below:
Text of Jean Shepherd’s Speech
In case you missed Jean Shepherd’s speech, we thought it would be interesting to reprint the text of his speech last Saturday afternoon, so here it goes:
Charlie Schmiddtlein, mouths, models, Moderately Ridiculous, Drive-In Movies, Playboy, drugs, Mets, Pizza, Vogue, New York, The “Garden State,” Indiana, Sophia Loren’s bras, Charleton Heston, Route 3, Lincoln Tunnel, “crud,” reality, the future, “making it,” Cracker Jacks pirzes, Robert Hall jackets, Howard Johnsons, rusty Mustangs, Mabel, Dimitri Tyompkin, Esso, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, inflatable bras, beer cans, religion, sweaty slaves, tire pumps, root beer, Holland Tunnel, “Go to a movie” billboards, Jersey “meadows,” creeping hands, Moses’ P-R Man, “Girlie pictures,” “boyie pictures,” the New Jersey Turnpike, Secaucus, dreams, “Score,” Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, parks, and Clarence.
Shepherd listeners will recognize and applaud the reporter’s skill in capsulizing Shep’s style and content. Regarding the Metropolitan’s cartoonist (named “Kallas,”) in capturing a variety of attendees, we surely know that in the Shepherd portion, the snoozing audience represents not the reality of the response to Shep’s words, but a symbolic treatment of the “Dreamworld” Shep described his audience as inhabiting:
We know from our own response to Shep
that the co-ed’s exclamation:
“I touched him!”
represents the way we all feel
in the presence of The Master.
What a contrast in the images of the two of them! (On Shep’s Foibles and Shel’s Hairy Jazz, appearing within a few months of each other) In a full-color photo, against a white background Shepherd wears a sports jacket over a long-sleeved white shirt, closed at the neck by a tight little bow tie. His posed smile is weak and wimpy. Presumably this is they way the powers that be wanted him marketed. (With considerable wit, Shel’s front and back covers’ drawn little people undercut the cover.) Then see Shel’s photo, the unbuttoned neck of his shirt and his tangled black hair and beard, in an intense, edge-to-edge orange monochrome, in extreme close-up, seemingly shot in action, his mouth wide open in what must be a manic howl. We don’t know the inside story, but maybe Shep’s contract insisted on the conventional cover and maybe Shel’s was open-ended and allowed for the “hairy” result. whichever–the final results seem to confirm something regarding the difference of the two (covers, and careers). Note: the word “hairy” was sometimes used on the air by Shep to describe some wild-and-wooly, grundgy act/occurrence/object.
One unconventional trait they shared, although each manifested it in his own way, was a penchant for extemporaneous action. Both enjoyed improvisation. Shepherd’s great artistic glory was his ability to talk on his radio program with only the skimpiest of notes. His art-on-the-wing was jazzy improvisation, although he seemed to have organized his life much more thoughtfully. Shel lived much more unconventionally. His drawings are said to have been created and left basically unaltered in their original form as pen first touched paper. With the financial success of his books for kids, he could force his freaky forays into cringe-worthy ideas and obscenity upon his commercial associates, and he could frequently and abruptly change how to spend his creative energies and where and with whom to spend his days and nights. He did what he wanted when he wanted, although reportedly he was very focused and workmanlike when immersed in a creative project.
Shouldering a large leather mailbag as his only suitcase (so it’s said) in his travels through his three score and nine years, Shel carried little baggage up and down every happy-go-lucky hill and vale of leers and jokes. He enjoyed a rare, unencumbered luxury—he could revel in a spontaneous, perpetual childhood—to a large extent he improvised his life.
Few people ever get the chance to improvise much of anything. Shel improvised both personal life and how it affected his career. As art, his cartoons, drawings, and songs are a delight—absurd and hilarious. But his bizarre and clever kiddy poems, for all their over-the-top quirkiness and all their popularity are for me unengaging and artistically insubstantial—they lack the absurd edge of the work of a Lewis Carroll. For me, Shel should have stuck to his drawings, cartoons, and songs and to the extraordinary artifact that was his life. Evident to a careful observer, a darker outlook was often written between the lines he wrote and woven among the lines he drew. Parents showing his kid-poetry books should note this attribute.
The New York Times Book Review section, in its”Bookends” page deals with Shel’s The Giving Tree on its 50th anniversary of publication. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/the-giving-tree-tender-story-of-unconditional-love-or-disturbing-tale-of-selfishness.html?ref=books&_r=0 One columnist, Anna Holmes says she never liked the book and says that a very vocal minority of Internet site reviewers seem “to find the story an affront not just to literature but to humanity itself. “Holmes, the first columnist, describes the book: “Boy meets adoring, obliging apple tree and eventually, through a combination of utter impotence and blatant manipulation, makes ff with her branches, her trunk and, of course, the literal fruits of her labor.” She continues, “The boy uses the tree as a plaything, lives off her her like a parasite,…Readers cite it as a cautionary tale regarding both the social welfare state and the obscenity that is late-stage capitalism.” The other columnist, Rivka Galchen, feels that it is a “great book.” As she says, “The actual story doesn’t extol the tree, or endorse the boy. The tree and the boy both do the very particular they do, and say the very particular things they say, and, talking tree notwithstanding, their relationship seems emotionally realistic. She notes that the word “happy” is used many times and says, “The Giving Tree is in part a disturbing tale of unconditional love, in part a tender tale of the monsters that we are.” She ends, “Silverstein would have made it funny, if that was what it was meant to be.”
Shep should have stuck to his radio work, his decades of radio art at the highest level—a unique form of genius. His very short commentaries for a couple of radio stations were fairly scripted by corporate decree and not much longer than sound bites. But his main foray into improvisation after he left radio in 1977 was the sometimes more and sometimes less improvised Jean Shepherd’s America television episodes. Beyond that he wrote little and spoke little except for personal appearances such as an annual one at Princeton. His films, including A Christmas Story, were scripted refinements of his written stories. One wonders what happened to the earlier jazzy temperament and involvement and its creative expressions. No more “narration improvised by Jean Shepherd” as the late 1950s record of “The Clown” with jazzman Charles Mingus puts it. Improvisation? In his later years he seemed to lack both the creative opportunities and, worse, the impulse. Except for occasionally accepted phone calls and whatever ham radio contacts he made, the narrative of his life became an increasingly scripted descent into solitude— nearly incommunicado—nearly solitary self-confinement.
Where does that leave us? Shel created some fine art and triumphed in life. Shep fell short in his life but triumphed in the unequaled levels of his radio art that ended April Fool’s Day, 1977. Because current knowledge of Shep and Shel’s interactions seems confined to the early years, one wonders to what degree they remained close for the last thirty years of their lives.
How did they view each other’s increasingly divergent paths in life and art? What else are we missing of their friendship?
Shel Silverstein said in 1963 that Jean was his closest friend. We know of many instances in which they added to each other’s creative efforts, especially those we encounter from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Regarding Shel Silverstein’s first album, Hairy Jazz, we have information. Shel’s bizarre voice and wacky rendition in it perfectly complement the unrelievedly raunchy lyrics of every song. The “hairy” Dixieland music is by The Red Onion Jazz Band. In 1959, besides playing a part in Shepherd’s theater piece Look, Charlie, Shel drew the comic playbill for it, and just as Shel frequently wrote fanciful liner notes for friends, he wrote the absurd liner notes for Jean’s first comedy album. Now Jean’s silly liner notes for Shel’s album have come to light, probably written soon after Shel’s for Jean. Here is part of Jean for Hairy:
Once in a generation an artist of first magnitude appears full blown and instantly communicates with his public. Silverstein’s delicate phrasing and breathtaking technical brilliance coupled with his superb acting talents led the usually conservative Italian critics to a veritable competition among themselves in a search for adjectives. Overnight he took his place among the all time greats of the operatic world.
Besides writing each other’s liner notes, a book introduction, a book dedication, Shel (without any doubt in my mind) surreptitiously immortalized Jean in his lyrics of “A Boy Named Sue.” An internet source suggests, with possible justification, that although the “core story of the song” was Shep, the particular song title might have been related to the name of one of the prosecutors at the 1927 Scopes Trial, a Mr. Sue K. Hicks. Yes, but the Sue in the song is best buddy Jean.
In Lisa Rogak’s A Boy Named Shel, Lois Nettleton is quoted as saying that she and Shel spent some days wandering through Manhattan together while Jean was at the station preparing for his broadcasts. Rogak emphasizes the wide variety of Shel’s interests, talents, and creative enterprises.
I suggest that Shep and Shel’s similar attitudes toward life and art, and the diverse, though sometimes divergent, activities they enjoyed, are likely reasons for their close friendship. They must have enjoyed each other’s responses to the world around them. Their mutual love of books, their writing, drawing (sharing the impulse to draw on napkins or whatever came to hand), music, travel, friends, their delightfully skewed—though different—humor and outlooks on life. Their shared distaste for some of what they considered the idealistic and uninformed attitudes of some folk singers and assorted protesters. Their need for change, to explore, to move on and not just be, as Shep once put it, barnacles. Their nonconformity. And despite all these interests and many friends, their common need to be loners. Their both having little patience for kids. Their I, Libertine-like attitude toward women. (Until Leigh Brown—strong enough, persistent enough, clever enough to rein in Jean for their decades together.) Shep and Shel were a perfect pair of buddies. Yet they were far from identical.
One’s impression is that in the late 1950s they were both wild and crazy guys and that Shel had always been the wilder and crazier. While Shepherd at least outwardly toned down with the years, Shel remained consistently the more free and unconventional—exasperatingly difficult and quirky, yet lovable. What might be symptomatic, at least in their public images, is the difference between the cover of Shel’s first album, Hairy Jazz, and that of Shepherd’s first comedy album, Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles, both from 1959.
WHAT A CONTRAST!
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO
Shep on the radio:
But being profligate has its advantages. You do not find yourself burdened with junk. There are some people who like to surround their lives with junk. What was the name of those two guys who lived in this townhouse in New York, and they had their whole house filled with all the junk and crud and just absolutely nothing-stuff that they had collected all of their lives? They couldn’t throw away a newspaper, an old sardine can, and they had everything piled up in this house until finally, there they were living in this cave and that’s all. They had a hole hollowed out and it was getting smaller. [Laughs] Yeah! Remember that famous story?
Well, you know, that’s only an extension of the way a lot of people are. You go down to the basement of many people’s houses and you’re gonna find tennis rackets from 1910. “You know, maybe one day I’ll get it restrung.” Forget it. You know, you find old lost hobbies. People who can’t throw away stuff that they collected once when they were nine. When they were making wooden canoes out of balsa wood and now they got pieces of balsa wood—“Never know, I may start that again, you know. It’s a great hobby.”
So I—. [Laughs] I just throw everything out. People—everything.
I like to clear my life out about every three years. See, I tell everybody around me. I say, “You know, the time for the chute is comin’ soon.”
They say, “What do you mean?”
I say, “Well, I have this chute. And every three years I just reach over and grab ahold of the big old handle there—crank—bruuup! brrrrrgg! Down it goes! Everybody. Crash! Oh!”
And then I start over again. It’s a great feeling, I’ll tell you. Like—it’s like, you know, after you haven’t shaved for about a month and you take a shave. You feel clean and lean. Just wonderful. I just wonder how many people out there would like to get rid of everybody in their life. [Pause] We’re allowing you a few seconds to contemplate that glorious thought. [Pause, laughs] Oh my god, [Laughing] I can see, you know, all over the Eastern Seaboard people are saying to other people, “What does he mean? [said in his little old lady voice] This man makes no sense.” And Charles is just sitting there saying, “Oh well, heh, you know [in embarrassed voice], he sure don’t.” [Laughs]
Oh, well. But nevertheless you know, man was not born to have barnacles live on him. Right? Friends, there’s two kinds of people in this world. There’s the sturdy ship bottoms, and then there’s the barnacles. Which one are you? A ship bottom—or a barnacle? Everybody thinks, “Oh, I’m a ship bottom.” [Ha ha ha] Oh yeah! Listen, the louder you holler that, the more inclined and apt you are to be a real dedicated barnacle! I’ll tell you that. First of all, ship bottoms aren’t listening to this show—for starters. [Laughs]
Shepherd continues, talking about his friend, George, who had a wife:
Talk about barnacles—I’ll tell you, she had shells growing on her.”
“Barnacles” on skin.
“She had shells
growing on her.”
She nagged him about adding an addition on the house…. This should be a warning to you. Should be a warning. Now that doesn’t mean it will be. Very few people take advantage of a real warning—it can be dangerous to do little things around the house.
Shep says a guy working on his house
…was out there banging away and he cut the wrong piece of wood and the whole back of the house just slowly settled like a balloon, you know, without any gas in it. [Laughs]
So if you’ve got a barnacle living with you I suggest that you listen carefully to this terrible story. He says that the house was nice, all right, and George’s wife.…got the playroom-rumpus-room bug. George gave in to her, cut through walls of his house and encountered a giant nest of rattlesnakes…. And that ends tonight’s public-service salute to Norman Mailer and Philip Roth.
MAILER (barnacle?) ROTH (barnacle?)
I suggest that the general tone of the above represents a Shepherd who may have been cold toward most of those around him.Might the “barnacle” description refer to his attitude toward his first wife of short duration and maybe to the mother of his two children. In one of those comments he sometimes made that seemed to apply to his real attitudes, not his radio performance persona, on his January 22, 1976 show he commented, “I don’t ‘need people.’ I’m a lone type—you know that Barbra Streisand song, ‘People Who Need People’—I hold my own counsel.” Maybe aspects of this, as Larry Josephson suggested, represent an inseparable part of what made Shepherd a genius.
Of his other two wives, Lois Nettleton apparently gave up trying to get from him enough emotional response and openness regarding his sneaky actions during their marriage, locking him out after about five years. Shepherd once mused about “Nesters and Movers,” which may also relate to his attitude toward being tied down. (He considered himself not a nester but a mover.) Leigh Brown, who stuck by him through all kinds of grief, and to whom he was in later years devoted and on whom he was dependent and with whom he seemed to have enjoyed a mutually strong emotional bond, never left him during their thirty-five year relationship. She died the year before he did.