I recently noted an LP record titled “The Best of Jean Shepard.”
So I thought, why not a “Best of Jean Shepherd.”
This proves to be a difficult task to compile, in part because there are so many audios of his broadcasts and so many published stories and other works. My memory is deteriorating and I can’t listen to and reread all his published work. I’d appreciate suggestions about what to add to my list, including sources/dates and reasons for the choices.
As a representative selection for possible inclusion with my EYF! (which never happened–it was nixed by the publisher as too expensive) and for eventual distribution as a premium for WBAI, I compiled a CD-worth of excerpts from Shep programs.
Assume that, as a given, I choose the broadcasts below because I feel or assume they are well-told besides having the particular attributes that especially gab me.
I, Libertine,.First comments and suggestion of a hoax. (4 ?/??/1956) One of the great “Holy Grail” Shepherd broadcasts. I have not heard it but I have thought about it and read little bits about it so often that it is a permanent part of my “memory,” and it must be one of the great moments in literary and shepherdian history.
March on Washington. Narrative told the day after the March. (8/29/1963) Shepherd describes his trip, not as a reporter, but as just another American. This conforms to his attitude as an informed and enthusiastic American patriot.
JFK Assassination. First day back on the air. (11/26/1963) Shepherd, from time to time, had described his feelings about psychological issues in America, and he takes this opportunity to reiterate some of them and link them to the assassination.
“Blues I Love to Sing.” Program I describe and partly transcribe in EYF! (6/16/1957) Shepherd interacts with the singer on the record and expresses his joy in the narrative situation he depicts. This but a ten minute portion of the four-hour program. He uses what is a familiar image from his earlier days of the “figure tattered and torn.”
“Why I am Such a Sorehead.” Discusses Mark Twain and Morse code–I describe in EYF! (1/6/1965) He integrates into his narration, Twain, one of his favorite predecessors. He develops the metaphor of the Mississippi as a dangerous path in life, and relates it to one of his favorite activities, Morse code, suggesting that we all have some activity that, in reality, we are not as good at as we think and hope we are.
“Shermy the Wormy.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (9/4/1964)
“Fourth of July in the Army.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (7/3/1963)
“Lister Bag Attack.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (6/17/1966)
“Boredom Erupts.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (9/18/1969)
“Private Sanderson.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (1/13/1971)
“Naked Baseball in the Army.” Told on the air, published in Playboy.
“Troop Train Ernie.” Told on the air, published in Shep’s A Fistful of Fig Newtons as
“The Marathon Run Of Lonesome Ernie, The Arkansas Traveler”
“Og and Charlie.” He told stories several times about these two cave-man-type-near-humans. They were a good metaphor for how Shep felt that humanity still was–not quite the mentally/emotionally advanced race we think we are.
Peru–The whole group of programs focusing on his trip, from how it came about to when he got home to contemplate the experience. At the time, he felt it was the best travel experience he’d ever had.
In addition to all of the above, one must add some of the innumerable bits and pieces of his delightful and cuckoo musical interludes on his silly little instruments–including on his sometimes silly head.
I made my own classical guitar. I’m fascinated by how the shape/formation of objects combine form with function. (It’s my design training still influencing me after all these years.) How does the form of a guitar contribute to its sound? Encountering a two-semester, adult evening class in constructing (not from a “kit”) a classical guitar from the raw materials one buys in a shop that supplies such to professionals, I took the course.
I kept notes and I took photos. Two parts of the classical guitar that might vary are the shape of the head and the luthier’s (guitar-maker’s) choice of how to configure the inside structural supports for the top of the body. I designed a simple, classical head, and chose internal struts for the body’s top that I thought would enforce high notes on the higher strings, and lower tones for the lower strings. I redrew all the instruction pages for the instructor’s future use–the upper left of the head is one of my pages.
An eb element of the rosette
around the sound hole.
I also designed and made the wooden rosette with my eb initials, and designed and installed my label.
While I was peacefully working on my guitar construction, my then-wife, from Granada, Spain, threatened me with a kitchen carving knife and I grabbed and rolled up for protection, my Sunday New York Times Arts Section (Yes, the Arts Section–it was the closest at hand), and that’s as far as I’ll take that true story. Except that I did incorporate the episode into my fact/fiction unpublished novel, The Pomegranate Conspiracy.
I completed my guitar at the end of the course, and practiced playing, struggling
for several unsuccessful years. Now my guitar is hung on a wall.
I love classical guitars and guitar music. I also like looking at Picasso’s guitar collages. So much so that I played around with one of his collage reproductions. First, with a color copier that scans one color at a time, I let it scan the first colors, then slightly shifted the original for the scanning of the black. Then I printed it and applied black-and-white photo prints of the underneath side of my guitar top, half on each side, with, in the middle, a photo of myself playing my newly completed guitar. One might title it:
“The Picasso/Bergmann Guitar Collage.”
I’m Conflicted About This Artsy Of Mine.
Is it a witty, clever, personal homage to an artist I greatly admire,
done by manipulating one of his works
(that he had first made by manipulating and reconstructing stuff),
or is it a fartsy, esthetic travesty for which I should be ashamed?
→ It is a unique collaged collage ←
Would Picasso have liked it? *
Printings, Pricing, Inscriptions.
For someone who is widely unknown among the vast, deprived American public, Jean Shepherd’s books, nearly a half-century after he wrote them, continue to sell, which I can verify because I keep tabs on the current printings of his two best-selling books in paperback. In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, as of this writing, has gone through over three dozen printings, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, And Other Disasters has passed its twenty-fourth printing.
Think Small, the small give-away promotional book published by Volkswagen in the heady days of the original Beetle, contains cartoons and short humorous essays by Charles Addams, Harry Golden, Roger Price, H. Allen Smith, Jean Shepherd, and others. The longest piece in the book, by Shepherd, concerning his teenage experience buying his first used car, unlike the rest of the contributions, has nothing to do with the VW. Think Small, thirty years after original publication, now sells for prices varying from about four dollars to well over a hundred, depending on the ignorance or whim of many internet book dealers. Some years ago I paid ten dollars when that was the lowest-going price.
The bibliographic details of my special subject are not endless, but I, like an object-specific magnet, seem to attract some of the rare and peculiar elements of Shepherd’s writing life. When, sight unseen through the internet, I bought a used first of his Wanda Hickey, it was my surprise and great good fortune to receive in the mail, a Dover, New Jersey ex-library copy with, as an insider’s little joke done decades before, a presentation sticker affixed to the inside front cover proclaiming that its donors were the Dover High School orchestra’s tuba section (as most Shepherd fans know, in some of his radio commentaries, he described his high school experiences playing the tuba). My surprised acquisition of this little treasure is a fortuitous occurrence that some others would have sufficiently appreciated.
Finally, a few words about a specially inscribed copy of Shepherd’s In God We Trust that I had in my covetous hands, but could not possess. After actress Lois Nettleton, Shepherd’s third wife, died in 2008, her executor showed me her copy of Shepherd’s “novel.” She had been an important part of his early radio career and, after his death in 1999 she corresponded with me about him. I may well be the world’s only kook with a special interest in the association of Shepherd and Nettleton, but the executor would not let me buy it for the pittance I could afford, as he expected to sell it for a bundle. To my knowledge, neither Shepherd nor Nettleton fans ever pay even two hundred dollars for material associated with them, and the relationship of the two must not be of much interest to any of them. I very much doubted that the book dealer subsequently offering it for sale would find a buyer willing to part with even a fraction of his two-thousand dollar asking price. I lust after that book, but from my little allowance I could have just about afforded a tenth of the two grand. Recently I found that a Shepherd enthusiast with much deeper pockets than mine, had come up with the many hundreds necessary (how many hundreds?) and now has that copy.
The potential value of the book (dollar value to a dealer, and intellectual value to me) lies in its inscription. Inscribed at about the time that they parted, Shepherd wrote on the half title page:
“To my own Lois, without whom this book would have been finished two years sooner—! Love—Jean Shepherd (Mr. Nettleton).”
By sheer coincidence, I recently encountered a reference to a book written many years earlier, with its acknowledgement attributed to Franklin P. Adams, one of Shepherd’s favorite writers: ”To my loving wife, but for whose constant interruptions, this book would have been finished six months earlier.” So, with a little work, I encountered from another of Shepherd’s favorites, P. G. Wodehouse, his dedication of his book The Heart of a Goof, published in 1926: “To my daughter Leonora Without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” A case of unattributed borrowing? But that is a minor matter to a Shep-kook.
One might wonder what circumstances led to Shepherd’s inscription to his wife—especially in this copy of his book that was a later printing of the first edition (Horrors!). But what were the never-to-be-understood circumstances behind such an apparent attack by Shepherd? I can understand how one might think such thoughts, but I don’t see how a relationship could survive the open expression of such a comment—in ink on paper—in his treasured “novel”! I don’t usually seek sordid details regarding my subject, but gathering bits of evidence, which I have been able to accumulate through single-minded quests for Art and Art alone, I wonder if, soon after Lois had thrown him out of their apartment and changed the locks, he hoped somehow to evoke sympathy leading to a reprieve through this inappropriately tangled wit. Did he thus send her this poisoned copy? (A reliable source told me that Shepherd dearly wanted to return to her.) This all gains some credence as these circumstances happened during the same period during which, from time to time on his radio show, he had mock-seriously, mock-humorously, sung, “After you’ve gone, and left me crying….” Overly intimate matters I’d gathered as I’m not-Shepherd’s-biographer. How in heaven’s name did I ever get caught up in detective work and a soap opera scenario?
I’ll probably never understand some of the enigmatic details of Shepherd’s life. Although interest in personal gossip is mostly a very natural human one, as for me, I’ve never cared about writing a tell-all biography or any other kind. I must remind myself that I am neither his bibliographer nor his biographer. In writing about him I try my imperfect but virtuous best to focus on the work, with essential biography only as it relates to that work. Thus, when I search even under metaphorical beds, salacious tidbits are sometimes inevitable encounters within my major responsibility: dealing with dusty boxes of stuff and foggy memories regarding his significant art, Art, ART!
“The wall is alive with the shapes of music….
The wall fills my heart with the shapes of music.
My heart wants to sing every shape it feels.”
[Lyrics altered from The Sound of Music.]
Despite having a tin ear and no sense of rhythm,
I’m intrigued by the shapes that create the sounds of musical instruments.
I am a “luthier,” a classical guitar-maker. That is, I took a course and made the instrument on the left.
Mom’s violin—while playing she moaned, so as a child I always thought she was in agony. I think that may have been part of my negative feelings about her teaching me to play. I was good and played in grammar school and high school orchestras. Later in high school, violin practice-time was abandoned in favor of tough homework. As an adult I realized that my mother moaned in an agony of ecstasy.
My wife, Allison, gave me the zither, which, for its shape and bulk, forms a kind of solidly emphatic crown atop our display of instruments on our living room wall.
Prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell’s autographed dance slippers evoke, for me, her dancing elegance.
The small guitar-shaped “charango” I bought from a luthier in Cuzco, Peru. This rhythm instrument is almost always part of Peruvian folk music groups. It comes in three forms: a guitar-shaped construction; a bottom that is smoothly sculpted wood in the shape of an armadillo’s back; and the more authentic kind I have, the bottom of which is made of an actual armadillo’s head and back–plates, hair, ears, and all.
My father’s banjo-uke reminds me of the only two songs he sang and accompanied himself on during my childhood: “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo, No Mo,” and “If I Had the Wings of an Angel.” My father was a steadfast and loving husband and father. I always liked it when he picked up his uke to play.
I like the sounds of flutes in many shapes and sizes. Side-blown and end-blown. Wood, metal, bamboo, ceramic, bone.
When Shep Was a Tadpole
For the years in radio before he arrived in New York, the important thing to know about his career would be if we had more audios of this early work to compare with later broadcasts, but basically we do not. So, although people knew him and heard him then and still talk about those good early days, almost all we have other than his last two half-hours in Philadelphia and a few other tiny bits, is their remembrances that he had already developed much of his style and content. His first album, “Jean Shepherd Into the Unknown With Jazz Music” seems to indicate that, but the most interesting thing would have been if the jazz musician who was still alive until recently had only responded to requests to give his remembrances. He never did. He died. After “Into the Unknown,” he had gone on to write the music to the Broadway smash, “Man of La Mancha.” Imagine what he could have told us about early Shepherd in relation to how he worked and in what ways he thought as a jazz artist with words.
When Shep Was a New New Yorker
Photo by Roy Schatt circa 1956
What we know of interest of Shepherd’s early New York years became much more of an open book than it had been through information regarding his relationship with actress Lois Nettleton and with his producer, Leigh Brown.
(That Shepherd himself had kept his friendship and relationship with
Lois and Leigh hidden from his audiences didn’t help.)
I’ve reported in this blog much of what Lois had commented. She had spoken in an interview with Doug McIntyre in 1960, and she had spoken to me by phone and written a letter to me as well as dozens of notes about my EYF! that I’ve also reported here. This information reveals that she had been more than just “the actress Shep had married.” She was a strong influence on him and had helped him in his efforts in his aborted acting career. She also recorded his shows for him and had discussed them with him on what seemed to be a nightly basis. Considering her genius IQ, she must have been a considerable help and might have given us many more insights than I reported in blog posts about her interactions with him. She might have told us more about the I, Libertine affair, relationship with John Cassavetes and his making of Shadows, the making of the Charles Mingus “The Clown” improvised Shepherd narration (all of which she witnessed). She could have had more to say about her and Jean’s interactions with Shel Silverstein, and maybe more memories about his avocation in the field of painting and pen-and-ink drawings. Her additional thoughts were never revealed, because, though she and I had expected to meet in New York on her next trip, before that could happen, she became ill and died in January, 2008.
Because of the many letters that Leigh Brown wrote to her best friend and that I obtained and reported on, we now know that Leigh was far more than the almost nameless cipher she had appeared to most of us. She was a smart woman who helped Jean’s career in important ways previously discussed here. In fact, she is the one brought his manuscript of The Ferrari in the Bedroom to Dodd Mead publishers after Doubleday had turned the book down. We now know that in many ways, she had been crucial to his life and work.
Hokusai’s “Both Banks of the Sumida River”
I’m a great enthusiast of Japanese wood-block-printed pictures, and my favorite artist is Hokusai, whose series of “36 Views of Mount Fuji” contains what is probably the finest and best known image of the genre, showing an enormous wave overarching a small boat and its occupants. On the far horizon is Fuji.
Individual images are the best known and most-collected Japanese woodblock-printed works—because they can be framed and hung on walls. Especially fine first printings of well-known works sell for tens of thousands of dollars. The traditional Japanese woodblock artists, especially in the 18th and 19th century, also made numerous groupings of smaller images designed and published as books. By their very nature books can only be appreciated by turning the pages one by one. Some of these woodblock books achieve the level of the finest “artists books.”
I’m the fortunate/lucky owner of Hokusai’s masterwork in book form, an original printing (1805/1806) of his “Both Banks of the Sumida River.” No telling how many copies were printed or still exist, but I believe that it is extremely rare. Jack Hillier, an authority on Japanese art, in a major publication, uses pages of Hokusai’s “Both Banks…” in color on both front and back of the dust jacket, and describes it as “…justifiably considered as one of the outstanding Japanese colour-printed books.”
Internet Repro of Cover
Internet Reproduction of a Double-spread.
The book, with 23 double pages, is a continuous panorama of the environs of the river that flows through Tokyo. If one opens two contiguous pages, one sees that the work consists of one unending scene.
Scan From my Original Book
(Left Side of a Double Spread)
In the upper left corner of the scan from my copy, one sees a kite with string–if one turns the page over, as one does a Japanese book– one sees that attached string and the continuation of the scene. The double-spread scenes change from season to season, some depict rainy weather, and another shows snow-covered buildings. The entire 3-volume book is one continuous view of the river, its weather, its landscape, and surrounding human activities!
When I encountered a major auction house’s sale catalog that included “Both Banks…” for the first time I recognized my opportunity, not to just see reproductions, but to see and hold in my hands, for a few minutes, an original copy. (At auction galleries, during the exhibition before an auction, one has the unbelievable opportunity to see and snuggle up to masterpieces!) The item was described as “one volume of the two-volume set,” I’d be able to determine which volume was for sale (Only one volume of the two or three?), and why the set was mis-described as consisting of only two volumes, when my Japanese-published book I’d bring with me, apparently reproduces three volumes complete–in color.
My Japanese Book Reproducing Hokusai Works
Showing the Covers of the Three Separately
Bound Volumes and the First-Page-Spread of “Both Banks…”
At the auction house, with the original and my book illustrating all three volumes alongside, I compared them page by page and discovered that the single volume for sale contained all three volumes bound together as one—it was complete! What a find! I bid, I won. For decades I have daily looked at my original Hokusai book displayed in our living room in its full, open, 10¾” X 13” width. I sometimes take it down, fondle it (I own an original masterwork by one of my favorite artists!), and view all the pages, replacing it on its stand with a different double-page opening to view.
How was I able to possess this?
Most rich collectors want art they can display on a wall, and don’t appreciate the value of a book–an art object one can hold in one’s lap.
I recognized the mis-description and proved to myself that it was complete. Most of those who read the catalog (rich collectors and their dealers) would only want a complete work, not “one volume of the two volume set.” After my purchase, a Japanese print authority I questioned told me that sometimes a wood-block-print publisher, after assembling sheets into separate volumes for sale, would indeed, bind additional sets of sheets into a single volume.
As one can see in my scan, the book is water-damaged on the lower corner of nearly every page, and may or may not be a consciously paler-printed, or somewhat faded-copy. Rich collectors only want pristine stuff to show off. (I believe the pristine appreciates in monetary value faster, too.) Yes, I’d prefer the pristine but could never afford the price, even if one did come on the market.
I pursued my quest.
I encountered fortuitous circumstances.
I especially treasure my wounded masterpiece.
THE POSSIBLE DREAM
Of course the “quest” never ends. By persistence, luck, and bumbling happenstance, little grail-ettes have appeared during my searches. Yet he who quests, sometime must recognize that, as for his personal dream of the grail and his being able to listen and contemplate those overnight Jean Shepherd programs of early 1956, the search, for him at least, must end, and the grail, in his imagined future, will surely emerge from somewhere, sometime.
Proposed covers for a boxed set.
Someday this may be more than an impossible dream.
Surely, somewhere, tapes must still exist, the ultimate missing link between Shepherd’s tadpole days in radio and his glorious years on WOR Radio from 1960 onward. Maybe the “Jazzman,” as I call him, who claimed to have tapes of those one-to five-thirty nightly jazz-like performances in words and other sounds, will deliver the goods he’s been neglecting all these years. Maybe the tape hasn’t yet gone to dust—damn you, jazzman! Or maybe some other recording angels will remember their stash of grails and come forth, giving gold to the world of audio art.
With each word I write and publish about Shepherd’s career, I’ve hoped that the grail would appear as in a dream, in time to be written about and published in a book and audios. It has not happened. And I doubt that significantly more new material about Shepherd’s career will emerge that could be formed into another book that would include such a grail. So the permanent and easily accessible format for disseminating information and interpretation about it will probably never happen.
Yet I can imagine that loads of tapes will someday appear, enough to provide reams of transcripts and analysis sufficient for some sort of publication. But who would publish it and who would read it? Maybe a combo—CDs of broadcast excerpts with some written discussion of their content? Only some few supremely dedicated fanatics (Shep-cuckoos such as myself) might buy such a treasure, although the content would surely be such that would entertain, enthrall, and enlighten hordes of listeners.
Should audios appear, and recognizing that they were spoken by Shepherd in a manner to be heard in the late, night-people hours when life is mostly tuned down to an attitude meant for gentle and improvised allurement, I suggest they be listened to, most appropriately, as late at night as the listener can stay awake.
Maybe someone will self-publish and store in dusty closets, boxes of these CDs with text, waiting for sales. That may be my only reasonable hope, but how reasonable is that? Beyond that, maybe Shepherd has the last word regarding what we insignificant humans get so excited about:
“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.”
–Jean Shepherd, 1975
Many bibliophiles must have run into the infuriating situation of finding that a book dealer has denied the existence of a book that the seeker knows is for real. Shepherd, who sought a copy of a book of Vic and Sade radio scripts by Paul Rhymer in Doubleday, a major New York City bookstore, and told it didn’t exist because it wasn’t on the dealer’s book list, decided to do something about it. He explained the problem to his late-night radio listeners and suggested that a non-existent novel by a non-existent author, if properly manipulated among the book-list-loving populace of dealers, distributors, and book buyers, would wreak mental and emotional havoc. Thus, a novel of 18th century English sexual dalliance among the nobility, I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing, came into trumped-up, incorporeal being.
Listeners disseminated the hoax in bookstores and elsewhere, and pretty soon the media picked up on what was thought to be true. A title card for the “book” turned up in a library’s card catalog. Students wrote scholarly reports on the book with footnotes. Reportedly a professor gave one report a B+, and knowing of the hoax, added next to the grade Shepherd’s favorite battle cry, “Excelsior!” Phonies at cocktail parties were heard discussing the book’s plot, and a society columnist claimed to have had lunch with the author. It’s said that the Legion of Decency banned the book in Boston. A bogus radio interview with a bogus author added to the shenanigans. Eventually, with Shepherd’s permission, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax.
Publisher Ian Ballantine got together with Shepherd and Sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon, and, within a couple of weeks, hurrying to cash in on the notoriety, based on an outline by Shepherd, Sturgeon had written the book, with Betty Ballantine, Ian’s wife/editor, writing the final chapter when the exhausted Sturgeon, about to miss the deadline, fell asleep. Only a few months after its first bogus inception, the book became the real thing, selling over one-hundred-thousand copies, mostly in paperback, and far fewer copies in the small hardcover printing. (In fact, for years Shepherd fans thought that it was never printed in hardcover.) It’s claimed that the book hit best-seller lists, but those lists in question have yet to be reliably reported.
The photo on the back cover is of Shepherd, looking as hung over as possible, trumped up as Frederick R. Ewing, the dissolute “author.” A bogus image for the formerly bogus book. The book got a knowing and light-hearted review in the New York Times Book Review—pretty good for a book that had started out not only unknown but non-existent. The Times, using the Ewing/Shepherd photo in its review, simply titled it “Jean Shepherd.”
Part of NYT review, 9/16/1956,
showing Frederick R. Ewing
labeled “Jean Shepherd.”
This could be a source of confusion: American Poet Laureate Billy Collins commented to me that he felt that Shepherd looked rather sad, not realizing that the image was a gag.
Now, people who claim to have read it may well be telling the truth—myself included. I’ve read it twice, once when I bought it in 1956, and once recently, not in the paperback (the pages of which are now dark brown and too brittle to open), but in the pristine hardcover. Here’s my capsule review: Badly written and a bloody bore—seems to have been a rush-job. Shepherd, creator of the hoax and the book’s outline, is often credited as the author (especially among his fans).
In addition to having one of the scarce hardcover copies, I have a paperback personally autographed by Shepherd, a second one signed by Sturgeon, but none autographed by Kelly Freas, the Mad Magazine illustrator, who painted into the cover illustration insider-clues as to the actual perpetrators—on a tavern sign, a shepherd’s staff and a sturgeon. On the ornate coach depicted, one can find Shepherd’s watchword, Excelsior. With a wink to the knowing, the cover text proclaims that the contents are “Turbulent! Turgid! Tempestuous!” As a bibliophile and Shepherd-kook, I also have the British hardcover and the British paperback editions, their covers devoid of wit, but full of bogus erotic suggestions regarding content.
A recent edition.
I do not have this edition.
(Electronic, by Kindle)
Additional publishing information regarding the Ballantine editions would be hard to come by, as I was told by an informant at Random House, which now owns Ballantine, that all its records had been lost long ago. Seeking information from Mrs. Ballantine, author of that final chapter of the book, came up against a roadblock—having previously discussed the book on various occasions for ephemeral periodicals, she refused to be interviewed again about it for the only book totally about Shepherd-the-perpetrator. Thus dooming further knowledge to the grave with her.
END OF PART 3
A VISUAL POEM
Jean Shepherd is my most elaborate and long-lasting artsy fartsy subject matter. My obsession and constant work on Shep-projects, that started roughly 10/19/1999, has no end in sight. It’s a constant theme of my daily life, including my searches on ebay where I encounter false hits such as the differently spelled name of a country/western singer, non-Shepherd encounters such as a 19th century poet, parts of names of actors, movies, books, etc., and objects of other sorts that include the name Shepherd.
I preserve and display my Shepherd files in “The Shep Shrine.” This includes his poster; his books; my Shep-books; books about radio including some with text about him; his original drawings; his films and videos; many audios of his broadcasts; text and audios of interviews of him and me; media articles and audios about him; photos of him; file boxes of my continuously updated book notes and background info; my original handwritten published and unpublished notes and manuscripts of books about him; text and info and props regarding my play about him and my Shep-blog; a box devoted to many “Shep People” associated with him, especially about Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown; a copy of his will; a large “Excelsior” banner; Excelsior Seltzer bottles; a small glass-topped box containing kazoo, jews harp, nose flute, and brass figlagee with bronze oakleaf palm; voluminous esoterica and various etceteras. And a one-of-a-kind Jean Shepherd bobblehead.
The Shep Shrine and Me
Jean Shepherd, as always, needs more recognition and effective promotional methods. He is quoted as having said, “You could be on New York radio for many years and be widely unknown.”
In my Excelsior, You Fathead: the Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd,
preceding the book’s title and the rest of the 495 pages, I begin with accolades:
Shepherd loved not only books, but their multitudinous components, words. Sometimes on his radio shows he would ask someone in the studio or a listener in “radioland,” to look up a word in a dictionary, just to be sure that he and his listeners understood it properly. During one show he announced with great pride that one of his invented phrases, “creeping meatballism,” a comment on conformism, had been formally attributed to him in a new dictionary of slang. He also enjoyed the references to himself in several New York Times crossword puzzles, and one can imagine his joy when, in 1972, he found that the Times puzzle of the day referred to him and his works in eleven words and phrases. A few years back, hearing a rebroadcast of this announcement, I rushed to the microfilm section of my local library to look it up and print it out, thus participating with Shepherd in his bibliophilia and the thrill of his honor, encountering such treasures in the puzzle as, VERBAL SHEPHERD, AIR SPIELER, and his favorite word, EXCELSIOR.
Although I recognize that many bibliophiles must also have unusual stories to tell regarding their own favorites, as a “Shep-kook,” it seems to me that the strangeness of my ragtag little batch of Shepherd books, references, and ephemera is without parallel and is worth describing.
What Author? What Book?
A publishing episode that must have driven Shepherd, the ever-striving author, crazy, involves a coffee-table book about one of his favorite subjects: The Scrapbook History of Baseball. Except for the acknowledgements page and a foreword, the book consists entirely of un-annotated, photo-reproductions of newspaper articles from the years 1876 to 1974. The book contains no authored text other than the duly attributed two-page foreword by Shepherd. Four baseball experts, whose sole job was to select the articles for reproduction, are listed as “authors.” But at best, those four compilers might more accurately have been titled “researchers.” Creator of that sole text, Shepherd might, in these strange circumstances, have been dignified with the title of “author.” Or have I missed something in the book-world’s definition of “author”?
One encounters Shepherd’s short stories everywhere. There is the hardbound, small publication, A Christmas Story, described on the cover as “The book that inspired the hilarious classic film.” But this book, first published in 2003, did not inspire the 1983 film. The book consists of five of Shepherd’s kid stories first published in the 1960s that were seamlessly synthesized into the film. Twenty years after that film was released, without even an attempt at cobbling them together into a logical storyline, those stories were gathered conveniently into a book. Though no crime, the malfeasance lies in claiming, two decades after the fact, that the book as a “book,” rather than that the selected stories in it inspired the film. This false promotion is a distortion inspired by sales-potential. As we know, a simple lie is more easily believed than a more complicated truth. Every so often I encounter much more important re-printings of individual Shepherd stories. He must have enjoyed seeing these stories in schoolbooks as subjects for studying English composition and style. And what pride to find, in another small volume, The Little Book of Fishing, one of his stories rubbing shoulders with those by the likes of Hemingway, Seamus Heaney, and Red Smith.
END OF PART 2
(25) JAPANESE ART—3 WAYS
I own Japanese art in various formats, mostly in reproduction, some original. On our bedroom wall, a trio of images represents three different ways of being. The two top ones are of 19th century woodblock prints, the traditional technique in which the artist draws on rice paper with brush and ink, artisans adhere this to a flat block and someone cuts away whatever is not the black lines. The line-block is then printed in black and the artist indicates on these sheets what and where each color should be. These sheets are adhered to blocks. Then a woodcutter cuts away on each block, whatever is not to be that color. Then all blocks are printed on each sheet to render the final originals of the work.
The left top print on our wall, by Hokusai (most famous work is the “Great Wave”), is not from the original blocks. It is a second edition, made by gluing first editions down on blocks and re-cutting every line—including every leaf of grass–then reprinting. (I compared my print with a reproduction of a verified first edition to encounter an occasional leaf of grass not properly rendered.) This image is from Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Which consists of 42 views. It’s one of my favorites. I love the dynamism shown by the strong wind affecting humans, papers, hat, trees and leaves, and leaves of grass. I appreciate the dynamic swirl of the footpath, the little objects being swept off to the right, and the immense thin outline of Fuji.
The top right print is a high-quality reproduction of my favorite print by Hiroshige. His work tends to be more flat and stylized than Hokusai’s, which is more “realistic.” Here, in a simple and powerful composition, we see the strong wind and rain, bearing down on humans and the background trees.
As an enthusiast of traditional Japanese art, I spent some time observing, in process, the Japanese section of the American Museum of Natural History’s permanent Asian Peoples Hall. One of the museum’s background painters, Matthew Kalmenoff, worked on the small diorama of a country scene with traditional rice fields. As a coworker and friend of his, I asked to see his preliminary sketch for the curved diorama wall. I expressed delight in it. In his appreciation for the support I’d given him and his work over the years, he signed it and gave it to me. It is a treasure. I enjoy contemplating it and noting some of the painting’s compositional design features.
Two of the berms separating parts of the fields are not parallel with the rest, but come together at an angle at the bottom of the painting so that they enclose it, rather than presenting a visual barrier parallel at the bottom edge.
One of the clouds is perfectly positioned to be reflected in the water, highlighting the farmers.
Regarding the row of farmers planting, the closest one’s round hat is not quite facing the viewer—it’s close enough to a circle to grab attention, but not so much so as to form a bull’s eye that would be hard for the eye to escape. The other hats are even less shown as circles, allowing the eye to move diagonally up the row of them further into the picture. The distant figure with animal is in line to assist the eye to make the little leap even further toward the background.
The design then moves the eye in a zigzag pattern to the right, then, with the help of the land and water there, back to the furthest reaches on the left.
The small building in the middle right is just big enough to give some focus of attention and to prevent the entire right side from being too bare—it almost forms a small framing device, its large tree perfectly placed to block the water there from moving the eye too far rightward–indeed, it caroms the moving eye back to the left.
I see this painting every morning as I get out of bed. I delight in contemplating how Kal’s composition, in what was done as an unimportant, preliminary sketch, but which is so well thought-out, was so elegantly created.
I’ve encountered a photo of the completed diorama, with artifacts in the foreground. I see that, responding to the three-dimensional material, Kal changed a few of the background painting’s details. Magnificent! Rest in peace, Matthew Kalmenoff.
Diorama in the Museum’s Hall of Asian Peoples
My ol’ pal, Shep?
There have been people, including at least one reviewer, who think I actually knew Shep–one reviewer refers to Shep as my friend. Those people obviously skimmed a couple of my statements as suggesting that I knew him (read all of pages 17-19, where I say that I spoke to him once on the phone during a program, and once asked him to sign my I, Libertine) without paying attention or remembering this, from page 19: “Although in fact we spoke only those two times, it had always seemed that he was speaking directly to me during all his broadcasts.” The book, in general discusses my personal experience of what Shep’s radio broadcasts expressed to thousands of us.
N. Y. Times best seller list?
On page 29, I refer to In God We Trust as having been on the Times bestseller list–as Shep had said it had been. People continue to say and publish this as fact, but my research has not found any indication that it had ever been on that list. Please, someone, was he on any bestseller list?
“Marshall McLuhan said that…”
I’ve tried to correct this misapprehension numerous times, but people still get it wrong: McLuhan didn’t say (write) that Shep was writing a new kind of novel (or words to a similar effect), McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media that “Jean Shepherd of WOR in New York regards radio as a new medium….” Emphasis mine, indicating that Shep regards, not that McLuhan himself claims. See my page 31.
“South side of Chicago”
Shep with football on the South Side
Photo courtesy of Bill Ek and Steve Glazer
I mention the South Side of Chicago on pages 42-43, but only after EYF! was published did evidence appear that, even though Shep never seemed to tell tales of this location, other than in Hammond, Indiana, he actually spent the first few years of his life in Chicago, until he moved to Hammond.
Date with a minister’s daughter
Near the end of the army life section of EYF! I mention Shep’s metaphorical story of having a date with a minister’s daughter right after getting out of the army–she gets falling-down drunk in a bar. (He told at least one other version of a date right after release from the army.) I remember the minister’s daughter version clearly, but nobody has yet alerted me to the audio of this broadcast.
More parts to come
(24) ARTISTS’ BOOKS
There are many stores in which one can see books about art and artists, but only a rare few that offer what I discovered one day. Browsing in New York’s Museum of Modern Art bookstore, I came upon a tiny blue box on a shelf. I plucked it and shook out the little accordion-style book. It had colored shapes, but the only words of the story were on a front page that showed small colored symbols with a descriptive term for each—it was a shape-equals-words table of contents. It was William Tell by Warja Lavater. Reader, I married it. (I show the first portion here.*)
I had discovered for myself an artists’ book, an object that had the form of a book that was created as an artwork unto itself. I found that I had encountered a previously unknown-to-me world of art unlike any other. A world that perfectly fit with my sensibility toward individual interests in art, words, and books, by merging them. It was a very small world, known (and of interest) only to a relative few, but rich in its variety and creative possibilities. The occasional books I’d previously seen that fit the criteria, were “books of hours,” some pop-ups, and some children’s books–I hadn’t known that they were in a rare class of their own. Thus began a new enthusiasm and collecting mania. Made in various publishing forms from one-of-a-kind to very cheaply mass-produced, I’ve got hundreds of them.
Artists’ books go back hundreds of years if they include some that the creators probably didn’t exactly think of in such a way. For example, the so-called pre-Columbian Mexican codexes I consider to be artists’ books. (These fold-out books begin at what we would call the back.) The large images describe important historical events and the small surrounding boxes with the colored dots and images (acting as we would usually expect to be straight text) are sophisticated calendar notations of days, months, and years, the isolated little images being months, similar to our month of July harking back to the one who gave it its name, Julius Caesar. Almost all of these books were destroyed by the early Spanish conquistadors. A few of the survivors can be had in facsimiles such as seen below. A modern, collaborative artists’ book by Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice, comments dramatically on our society and its history, using the form of the ancient codex in their fold-out book, Codex Espangliensis.
Also, the one-of-a-kind medieval Books of Hours, which combine religious text, illustrations, and surrounding minor flora and fauna, combine words and images/decorations that create objects (books) that are artworks of very high quality—the entire book is the work of art. They were usually made by groups of artisans working together. I have a number of facsimiles, including the over 150-page Visconti Hours, below, the most elaborate one I’ve seen.
The emergence of artists’ books has led to some recently published standard novels and other books that incorporate words-plus-visuals such as Nick Bantock’s widely popular Sabine books with artsy letters inside, and such works as an unusual, visual-expressionism-throughout, 200+ page biography of William S. Burroughs.
The variety of forms that artists’ books take are beyond one’s wildest imaginings.
[The “preview” version of these blog posts do not necessarily show what this draft or posted version will be–so the format of what you see posted will be somewhat unforseen by me. I was not, here, trying to create an “artists’ post.”]
MANY MORE PARTS TO COME
*Note: Undoubtedly the artist, the MOMA Junior Council,
and other collectors felt bamboozled by the printer’s cheap
paper turning brown after only a few years! I own and will
show more of Warja’s work
(produced on quality paper).
On a subject that I believe would be of interest to book-lovers in general in addition to Shepherd fans, I wrote the following article (with illustrations) and submitted it to a high-class magazine devoted to book-collecting. The editor’s response was that he liked it but wanted it to be rather more filled-out with what I felt was uninteresting, difficult-to-ferret-out, pedantic material I had no interest in putting in the required, self-induced and boring grunge work, to accomplish. I much prefer ideas to minutia. Here, with very minor adjustments, is what I believe will be of interest. There are a few details some may remember previously encountering in my work or that by others. But I feel that gathering all of this together, it forms a whole more valuable than the sum of its scattered parts.
STRANGE BUT TRUE ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD
OF A SHEPHERD BIBLIPHILE
I love books and I collect them and a few associated ephemera. Although I have thousands of books, my special gatherings run to a couple of what I call “poor man’s” collections—over the years I’ve bought what my limited budget permitted. I have almost all of Hemingway in first editions, but not all in pristine condition, and a couple of his earliest ones only in facsimile. The facsimiles themselves have risen in rarity and price, gaining admittance among the “collectables.” Although none are signed, when I had more than a bit of loose change, for use as a bookmark for reading his books, I purchased a wine card from a transatlantic liner, which he signed for the booze that he bought one afternoon. I have all of Norman Mailer first editions, many of them signed, most of them in pristine condition. Yet my special treasure is the first edition of his The Naked and the Dead with its rather worn and torn dust jacket, which he signed for me in person. I gather that this jacket is made of rather fragile stuff, so a poor man’s collection is not likely to have a pristine example. His signed letter to me regarding one of my unpublished manuscripts is framed on a wall over my desk. I have most of E. E. Cummings in firsts, but none signed. I make do with a signed postcard written by Cummings to New York’s 8th Street Bookshop. Like the Hemingway wine card, I also use it as a bookmark. So I possess, on a couple of crowded shelves, some ephemeral associations to some of the literature I love.
Cummings wrote poems in lower case,
but signed with initial caps.
In recent years my focus has altered to an area that is more unusual in its bibliographic focus. The subject is the American humorist, active in the second half of the twentieth century, Jean Shepherd. The area is much less well-known, though I find it fascinating, maybe in large part because I wrote the only book about him. In addition to many overflowing file boxes of background information, notes, and audio tapes and CDs of his radio broadcasts, I’ve accumulated the small group of first editions of all the books by this great American creative force, who was a humorist, author, film-maker, and creator of several television series. A major talk-radio innovator, broadcaster of thousands of shows over the decades, and creator of the holiday favorite movie, A Christmas Story, Shepherd talked about everything one can think of, for years improvising 45-minutes a night. Originally he had not wanted to write down his improvised stories because, I believe, as a raconteur he felt that the spoken word was the prime medium not only of humankind in general, but of himself in particular. Besides, he invented his spoken stories without a script and probably liked the idea of keeping them that way.
However, his wife at the time, actress Lois Nettleton, said that she and others urged him to write down some of his stories, and Shel Silverstein, his best friend, cartoonist, and children’s book author, with connections to Playboy, helped convince him to write them down and submit them to the magazine. From the mid-1960s through 1981, Playboy printed nearly two dozen of them, most of them fictions about his Indiana childhood, a couple of them fictions about his life in the Signal Corps during World War II. Many of these stories, and many of his articles on varied subjects published in varied magazines, were gathered into books such as In God We Trust—All Others Pay Cash. (He had a proclivity for making up odd titles for most of his stories and books.) The stories upon which the movie A Christmas Story is based came from these books.
Sometimes Shepherd discussed his love of books during his radio broadcasts. He was obsessed with reading—on one program he commented that if he couldn’t find other material to occupy him, he’d read the copy on Wheaties boxes, and, he said that if even more desperate, he would remove his shoe and read the words impressed in rubber on the bottom of his heel. He said that as an adolescent, he was first inspired to read after having borrowed from the library Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward, Angel, finding it not totally understandable, yet supremely inspiring. It led to his lifelong love of reading and writing, and, undoubtedly, influenced his decision to publish his spoken stories in print. Apparently for the prestige value, he referred to his first book of gathered, strung-together stories, as a “novel.”
END OF PART 1
WHO IS THAT GUY?
Continuing bits from EYF!
[page 12] …Shep was at least three people.
First there was a real Jean Parker Shepherd that an ideal biography would uncover in an ideal world—an accurate, historical Jean Shepherd, not found in this book or anywhere, in part because throughout his professional life he hid this truth and confounded the attempts of others to discover it. Therefore, this is not a straight biography of Jean Shepherd. Yet biography is only a 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. Some biographical information is included for comparison and contrast. The comparisons are interesting and the contrasts can be devastating.
Along with that first, biographically based Shepherd, the second and third Sheps, crafted by Jean Shepherd, artist and fabulist, are ones you will find and know in Excelsior, You Fathead! The second Shep persona was the storyteller who artfully conflated bits of the true Shepherd into the concocted biography of his life (“I was this kid, see…”). The third was the Shep who spoke on the radio, the perceived here-and-now Shep, whom his listeners knew, giving real ideas and perceptions through his on-air persona.
[page 13] Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny, a study of over two dozen “Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” describes Shepherd on the air: “The bemused voice, whether chortling slyly or in full maniacal cry, was by turns self-mocking, seductive, manic, querulous, and reflective. There were digressions, footnotes, parenthetical jokes, random observations, and stories within stories, augmented by an occasional sound effect or snatch of music.”
As for what I attempted in my book, and indicating that it is not a biography:
[page 14] It documents and describes what he produced in many media, and it is an appreciation and analysis of what he accomplished. And, importantly, it attempts to impart to the reader some measure of the great pleasure Shepherd’s art gave to his audiences.
Note that, for those wondering about the sequence of chapters, I include at the end of each chapter a segue toward the following chapter. And at the beginning of each Part of the book, I indicate what it’s going to be about.
More parts to come.
(23) INTESTINAL DISTRESS
Some TV commercials are entertaining—so much so, in fact, that I forget all about what the production advertises. Recently I’ve seen a great one a few times. One that receives my imaginary Charlie Award* for best idea, best script, best director, best actress. It’s about curing gas and diarrhea. (http://www.viberzi.com/what.) It’s the kind of gross health subject that I avoid on television as much as I can. I watch this one with no sound, concentrating on the sheer comedic, quirky brilliance of the actress. Stills do not do justice to her goofy movements and expressions. (The white artwork on her midsection is a stylized graphic of an intestine.) While being thoroughly delightful in her body-stocking nakedness, she does a great job being an unseriously distressing intestine.
C H A R L I E A W A R D
R E C I P I E N T
She explains that she is in charge of your body; she does a cute little drumming on head and back with pencils; she has fun on a bicycle built for two; she does a goofy walk down the street; when the medicine works, she happily gazes at the patient and the patent’s date. She’s lots of fun to be with.
*“Charlie Award“= Charles Spencer Chaplin Award
(aka: “I Wish I Could Be As Wacky & Creative As This ‘Charlie Award’ Winner.”)