I try to avoid psychoanalyzing Jean Shepherd–or anyone else. (My Excelsior, You Fathead! indicates some bits about Shep’s attitudes, but mostly these are described by those who knew him, rather than through my own interpretations.) But–after perusing a new book about Shakespeare’s evolving attitude toward women as seen in his plays–I thought it of interest to attempt to objectively describe some aspects of Shepherd’s life and works as it relates to what might be interpreted as his changing attitude toward women.
Shepherd, in his talk and writing, infrequently deals with the female of the species, so the following is not suggested to be any kind of encompassing description–much less a conclusive analysis–it’s just some observations that might have some connection to Shepherd’s way of being and his creative works.
His kid stories mainly relate to young boys at play, and a few of his teenage stories do relate to dating. His army stories infrequently relate to encounters with women. One, in my Shep’s Army concerns a sexual encounter (implied). Another story, about when he was stationed in Ft. Monmouth, NJ (a very short stay, I imagine) relates to he and a buddy encountering a sad woman–I don’t remember the details and don’t like the story much. Not much else.
Some of the material and thoughts here are based on comments found in Excelsior, You Fathead! Chapter 13, “Tiny Embattled Minority.”
MOM AND SOME EARLY “LOVES”
Fictional mom in A Christmas Story
Some really young females in Shep’s early life–
Dawn Strickland, Esther Jane Albery, Dorothy Anderson
[Dawn Strickland cropped from photo courtesy Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.]
Mom is traditional, nurturing, hard-working over the kitchen sink and cooking the conventional meat loaf. Conventional both in fiction and as one might gather about her when Shepherd speaks of his “real” mother. Soon after he graduated from high school, his father left the family forever by driving off with a young female co-worker in a convertible.
Shepherd told various stories of his experiences (mostly in fictional form) with grammar-school and high-school girls, sometimes on dates, some of whom he had a crush on. He reportedly wrote love letters to Dorothy Anderson while he was in the army in his early 20s.
Years later (1959), in Shep’s theater piece “Look, Charlie,” it’s said that, in a very old-fashioned image of female-as-underling/slave girl, he scripted actress Lois Nettleton, his girlfriend at the time, to feed him grapes as though he were a Roman emperor and she a servant:
Lois, as subservient hand-maiden,
presumably as seen in the theater piece,
depicted in Shel Silverstein’s
for “Look, Charlie.”
In those early days, Jean Shepherd seemed to have a very traditional image of girls and women. His early marriages seem to show him with a similar attitude.
Only recently has it been confirmed that Shepherd had been married very early on. Nothing much is known of this brief and well-hidden marriage except for this:
Credit: Steve Glazer
Jean Shepherd’s second marriage was to Joan Warner, mother of his two children. (Joan does not want to be interviewed regarding her former husband–I’ve tried several times.) Evidence from some general comments and actions by Shep suggest that she had traditional ideas of what marriage should be. Here they are, the happy couple:
Shepherd had some general comments to say about adult women/wives. One comment related to a husband whose wife arm-twisted him into doing some work on their house– because of his digging around the house foundation, the end of the house sank. In another similar instance, the digging under the house demanded of the wife resulted in unearthing a den of rattlesnakes. He seemed to be suggesting that doing what a wife nagged one to do could result in horrible disasters.
Regarding the entire idea of a permanent commitment such as marriage, Shepherd seemed negative. In what one might be forgiven in interpreting as a comment on clinging women, Shepherd on a broadcast commented that some people were the hulls of ships while other people were the barnacles that clung to their undersides.
In an earlier post I suggested that Shepherd wanted to be free and able to do just exactly what he wanted without being tied down to a little house with a lawn and a picket fence, and that this may well have caused him to leave the family he was married to and seek freedom and further fame in the Big Apple.
Lois Nettleton, in an early interview after Shep’s death responded to a comment by saying that he had strongly disliked family get-togethers: “Oh, hated them!”
WOMEN’S LIB AND EQUALITY
Shepherd sometimes had strong opinions about women’s lib. On July 31, 1960 on his program he said:
“I’ll tell you–most chicks today want to be treated as though they are tender flowers–and they prefer to act like King Kong. You see there’s that neat split–you want me to pick up your handkerchief while you are kicking me in the duff–with a pair of hobnailed boots. Now which do you want? Now I can do either, and can take either.”
Maybe he’d just had a bad day, but there are other Shepherd quotes in a similar vein.
Shepherd’s third wife, Lois Nettleton, was a very intelligent, very independent woman. She wrote that she felt that they were both independently successful in the entertainment field and were a good match for each other. She may have agreed to playing the subservient woman in a scripted part in “Look, Charlie,” but it doesn’t seem her general style. She believed in and assumed that she had total equality with Jean.
Mr. and Mrs. (Lois) Jean Shepherd, early 1960s.
Lois Nettleton a few years later as a Hollywood star.
Lois commented, “To me, our marriage was an ideal pairing of two famous career people who didn’t need to lean on each other, who enjoyed getting to know more about each other each day. Who made no demands, were flexible, and loved getting back together again after long absences. Glamorous, exciting! Very naïve of me—but actually very good for him in many ways—even after divorce, which he tried to avoid, he wanted to keep the relationship.”
When Leigh Brown and Jean first became friends, he was married to Lois. Leigh became obsessed with Jean’s mind–and with his genius on the radio. She would do anything to have him. And eventually she managed to separate Jean from Lois. According to WOR General Manager Herb Saltzman, she began at WOR as a gofer and “She bought into the myth [that he was a genius].” She had seemingly given up all her early ambitions in order to be with Jean. But, little by little, she became Jean’s editor, agent, producer, co-creator (to some extent). By the time his career in radio was about to end, she could hold her own with his dominating personality. At the time that Jean left his radio career, they had been living together for some time, and in 1977, they married.
By the time Leigh Brown died in 1998, she had seemingly become a major force in Jean’s professional as well as in his personal life. Laurie Squire, their coworker and close friend for decades, puts it (quoted in my EYF!): “They were Jean Shepherd. She sublimated, but she had a very--I can’t emphasize enough–she had a very strong personality. And I think he admired that….Quite a temper. She could hold her own! The power behind the throne. He was the creative genius. She knew how to operate in the real world.”
From those who knew them well, it seems as though Jean could not live without her. He died the year after she died.
I’d say that by the end, she and he were equals.
She had made them so.