ASSASSINATION OF JOHN F. KENNEDY
In my memory, Shepherd never made a political comment in his decades on the air, although some of whom I interviewed for Excelsior, You Fathead! said that, privately, he often spoke vociferously about political and social matters. A few months after the March on Washington, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Shepherd’s wife at the time, actress Lois Nettleton, said in a recorded interview that she, her mother, and Shepherd, were intensely disturbed by the news, watching on TV, “We even went down, walked around, went over to St. Patrick’s and saw all the people sitting on the steps and everything. And he was—he had a very emotional side—very strong feelings, but I think you have to know that if you know his work.” Nettleton commented that she and Jean had been strongly pro-Kennedy.
In regard to the assassination, Shepherd did not travel to another geographical location as he did in the other experiences gathered here, but he used the occasion not only to express his strong feelings about Kennedy, but his strong feelings about the state of the American psyche in those early days of the 1960s. He took a heart-felt journey–a 45-minute odyssey–into the psychic innards of the deep mental and emotional problems he saw in the American culture of that time.
The power of his words about the president and about the feelings he had might be compared to Walt Whitman’s elegy upon the assassination of Lincoln in 1865: Whitman’s ruminations on death, and his homage to the president he loved, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”
Shepherd’s style the week after the assassination was not typical in that, instead of his usually engaging in an apparent, informal dialog with listeners, he spoke as though delivering heartfelt lectures regarding Kennedy and American culture and personal psychology. He suggested that the recent ferment of student unrest, the civil disobedience, demonstrations and riots in the streets, with the America-bashing of those days, probably contributed to the atmosphere that led to Kennedy’s killing. He commented that there was a trend of righteousness in the country, “a super, hyper-thyroid Holden Caulfield.” Shepherd admitted that America had problems, but said that other countries had more problems. He recognized that America was not living up to its ideals. His somber tone that week was underscored by his comment that he was not playing his usual, ironic, pompous, musical theme music at the programs’ beginnings and endings. Shepherd talked about Kennedy’s intelligence, humor, zest–all of which make people nervous. He talked about the problems of being a president in a democratic system.
I remember the first time I heard about Kennedy, and I suppose many of you remember… I’ve always been a Kennedy man. And–for probably different reasons than you can always state–how you like a certain person–very hard to know all the personal things that make you lean towards a man–make you believe in a man, and so on. The one thing that I have always noticed about Kennedy, that appealed to me specifically, was that Kennedy was a realist. And being a realist in today’s world is very dangerous. Because realism is not a thing that is easily accepted by Americans in the 1960s. And I always felt sorry for Kennedy because I recognized the fact that Kennedy did not give people a soft pap that most of them somehow wanted–on both sides of the political fence….
Noted by Shepherd–and probably by no others–at the end of the
Arlington Cemetery’s TV coverage:
Here was just this little, simple grave–and–it was just a hole in the ground–there was this little, simple bronze coffin. And there was a quick shot, which they cut away from, I don’t know whether you saw this or not–but it was one of the most poignant shots of all. It was a little moment after the funeral party had left Arlington and–the cars were winding back up the drive over the bridge, back over the river to Washington. And the four soldiers were still standing guard over the grave. You saw coming down from the lower left hand corner, two workmen. Did you see them? Dressed in overalls? Just two workmen with baseball caps, and they were coming to do the inevitable.
And I have a–tonight I have a feeling inside of me–there is a great sense of–apprehension–I suppose you might say–a kind of feeling of–I hate to say fear, because it’s not that clearly defined. It’s a kind of free-floating thing–a strange unreasonableness–a fanaticism that brought about this unbelievable weekend–is not only still around but is slowly beginning to grow in this land.
For the days right after the assassination, regular broadcasting on Shepherd’s station and most others was suspended for coverage of the event. Shepherd was quoted as saying, “For crying out loud, finally have something to talk about–they took us off the air!“ But it gave Shepherd some time to think carefully, not be forced to immediately improvise as he usually did on his broadcasts. It gave him time to compose his elegantly crafted eulogy for his first night back on the air, in which he suggested how the mood of the country had been changing to an unsettling dissatisfaction with the world, and that this mood-change probably contributed to the tragic events. He ended by saying, “It was a terrible weekend. And I’m not so sure that we’re not in for a few more in the next hundred years.” He concluded the broadcast in a way very unusual for him, that suggested to me that he knew he had expressed something very special in this night’s program–he did the equivalent of signing his name to the eulogy, ending it with: “This is Jean Shepherd.”
A close friend and I had taken a train from New York to Washington
and we stood in line overnight to walk past Kennedy’s coffin in the Capital Rotunda.
Then we stood outside on the curb, watching with thousands of others
as the Kennedy family and foreign dignitaries slowly walked by in tribute.
Afterward, the public then dispersing, I removed one of the no-parking signs
from a street-pole along the route. I saw it almost daily
hanging in my workroom
for over 50 years.
Yes, it has been over fifty years.
I still can’t think about the events or see documentary footage of them,
without welling up with tears.
I can’t watch those images–I have to avert my eyes.
[Now, over 50 years later, Shepherd would advise us
to keep our knees loose and not avert our eyes.]
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gang, although the following material previously appeared in my blog posts
on Shepherd’s travels, I feel that this small grouping,
condensed and rethought from the earlier postings,
brings together important elements of Shepherd’s ways of responding
to his experiences of life and to humanity in general.
That all four happened to Shepherd (and to us as listeners)
in only a bit over two years, is extraordinary. –eb
JEAN SHEPHERD, TRAVELER
MARCH ON WASHINGTON
On his radio programs, Jean Shepherd sometimes described traveling–one of the great enthusiasms of his life. Several times on his broadcasts he talked about what it meant for him, once in mock-melodramatic tones, wondering why he did it:
Deep down inside of me is a little violin playing that says, “Yes, why, why me? Why am I a Flying Dutchman, forever sailing over the seas—the seven seas of this benighted globe? Always looking, always searching, always hunting and never finding?”
In reality, he was forever finding. He emphasized that being in new places promotes new ideas, new ways of understanding our world. As the cliché has it, “travel broadens one.” Beyond expressing himself to others–conveying his experiences and observations—broadening his listeners’ understanding obviously added to his pleasure.
Shepherd not only traveled around the world, but to many parts of the United States, including an important bus ride from New York City to our nation’s capital. He told a lot of fictional stories about his kid-hood in the Midwest. He was an enthusiastic American patriot. He expressed his feelings and understanding of American ideas and cultural attributes in many of these stories–as in much of his work, including his creation and narration of nearly two-dozen half-hour programs in his television series, “Jean Shepherd’s America.” This series, but a partial, potentially much longer opus, should be recognized as a central marker in his creative world:
The period from mid-summer 1963 through late summer 1965 especially, provides important and expressive examples of his special turn of mind, his focus on the American experience, and his proclivity to travel in an engaged and perceptive way.
Because he was a serious traveler, he told a lot of true narratives about his experiences traveling the world. (I chose and edited, in an unpublished book-length manuscript, dozens of his travel-based broadcasts) I believe that his travel narratives are, in almost all details, true, especially because, as a mentor for thousands of listeners, he was expressing to them truly, why experiencing other places and peoples was important for understanding America and the entire human condition. Yes, he enjoyed travel:
“As far as I’m concerned, travel—I have found travel to be one of the most—oh—use all the clichés, but it is the one thing that I find that really, truly, does give me a kind of a final sense of involvement and satisfaction.”
MARCH ON WASHINGTON AUGUST 28, 1963
Most written and spoken words on this great American gathering come from those reporters who arrived in Washington in an official capacity and viewed the experience from an official news perspective. Shepherd however, wanted to experience it as a typical American—he traveled to the nation’s capital on one of New York City’s cross-town buses with other typical Americans. Thus, as a perceptive traveler, he could describe the occasion based on a participant’s vision of what really happened, and describe this to his fellow Americans. (On the fortieth anniversary of the event, National Public Radio regarded Shepherd’s vision highly enough to re-broadcast a ten-minute segment of his original, 45-minute program.) What follows is a collage of comments taken from his original broadcast. This is Jean Shepherd’s unique historical document about what over two-hundred thousand participants experienced, and as such, it contains much objective truth and authentic feeling. As for Shepherd, he was overwhelmed. [Excuse a few politically incorrect words that were okay at the time.]
I had all kinds of ideas about the way it would be. Just like all of us have ideas in our head about how history is. I’m sure you have ideas about how it must have been to be in Germany in the 20s. Well, it wasn’t. Not the way you think it was. I’m sure you have ideas of how it must have been when Washington was crossing the Delaware. Forget it. It wasn’t. I was not there but I know one thing—it wasn’t the way you think it was. I’ve found that very few things are the way you think they are.
I went down on this thing very specifically as just a marcher. Just one of the people in a delegation, because I have learned through long experience—and hard experience—that the only real way that you ever get to have even a vague understanding about events is, if you can, possibly, be part of or in the group, or be in with people to whom the event is occurring.
I wonder just how much a newsman ever learns about anything—standing up on the platform. I’m curious. I listened to a lot of jazz yesterday from the newsmen and almost all of them were up on the platform, they were in the news section, which was very, very, very much roped off from the great herd of people who walked along the streets. The great multitude who gathered under the trees, who pushed up through past the Coke stands and finally stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
And every last man that I saw involved in this situation—the police, the MPs, the Red Cross people—was in the most wildly great, holiday mood. You just don’t expect it from officials. Everybody cheering when you came in. I don’t know how much of this has been reported! I haven’t seen much of it reported in the press.
So we were walking along and thousands and thousands of white people and colored people are standing on the sidelines waving. Guys in offices are cheering and waving. Nobody reported on this! And I want to go on record saying that during the entire day, I did not hear one word that I could construe as being the kind of word that you would hear in demonstrations, I did not hear one moment that I could call a moment that gave me even one instant a feeling of imminent rabble-rousing or any of that stuff. There was just an amazing attitude towards everything. You know, I hate to use such words as “love.” These are ridiculous, meaningless words, but there was a feeling of humanity in the air.
We were coming in and millions of people were gathering, and I don’t know how they can estimate the number of people who were there. There would be no way to estimate it.…and suddenly through the crowd was this tiny band of people coming with a little sign that said “MISSISSIPPI.” That was really a moment, I’ll tell you! That was a moment. They came all the way up on some crummy old bus. And everybody was hollering at them and talking and they were laughing and hollering. Incidentally, in that Mississippi group there were more than just a few white people. That should be pointed out. People were slapping them on the back as they walked through.
Well, we were all standing around in this great crowd—it’s going to sound like I invented this. Please listen carefully. This is exactly what happened. There was a man standing back of me who had a big white Panama hat on and like so many of the demonstrators, it was obvious that this was a very big moment for him and he was all dressed up, as were so many. That’s an interesting thing—my delegation was told to wear a jacket and a tie and white shirt, because “this is a thing we’re going to that is very important.” So everybody was all dressed up. As we came into Washington, all the guys were putting their jackets on. And it was hot—oh boy was it hot on the bus. Putting their ties on. Trying to straighten up their clothes and everything, because, as somebody said, it was like going to church with two-hundred-thousand people. The man behind me, a great guy, a short, stout, negro man with glasses clouded-up because he was sweating like mad, was holding up his little sign that said, “NAACP Boston Branch.” It’s a long way from Boston to Washington on a bus.
And Marian Anderson started singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The usual kind of “Star Spangled Banner” where it was through a PA system and we were so far away we could hardly hear. You couldn’t distinguish the words, but it was “The Star Spangled Banner.” Everybody standing there.
Suddenly, a few feet from me, a big colored lady with a big red hat with big white flowers—the official kind of lady who’s always organizing—starts to holler, “Will the Brooklyn Corps representatives please assemble over here. Please get over here. Brooklyn Corps representatives.” She was hollering in the middle of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Well, the guy back of me says, “Madam, madam.”
She looked at him. “What?”
He said, “They are singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ We usually are quiet during the singing of ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Please. They are singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’”
And he stood there sweating, with his hat off, as Marian Anderson sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” Don’t anyone say to me, “The Uncle Tom.” Stop it, man. You know not whereof you speak.
Coming back….It was like a great company picnic where everybody knew everybody else. Waving, talking, eating. And finally the busses assembled and one by one the busses took off. Our bus backed out, going north and, all along the route through town—and this was late, about eight-thirty or so—there were people walking, waving at our bus, which didn’t have any big, jazzy sign, it was just a busload of plain, ordinary people sitting in there. And they were waving and hollering and grinning. It wasn’t a feeling of, “Boy, we showed ‘em, didn’t we!” but it was a feeling of, “Boy, it was wonderful that you came!” People were riding along in their cars, just ordinary people, and they were all waving at the busses from their cars as we were going out of town, going north.
Out along the highway, millions of busses one after the other. One after the other! A fantastic parade. And in the end, I’m sure it was a parade that no one will ever forget. A truly historic moment. Not a historic moment politically even. It was a historic moment for a lot of people who did not conceive of people being this way. It’s a new concept, really. For a moment there. At least for a moment it was there.
* * * * * *
Although I’ve posted on this subject before, I’m interrupting the kid story posts to do a variation on Shep’s important travels, etc.–just 4 of them. I’m making a special point regarding Shep in this short series. Here is how I’m beginning:
JEAN SHEPHERD, TRAVELER
On his radio programs, Jean Shepherd sometimes described his travels–one of the great enthusiasms of his life. Several times on his broadcasts he talked about what it meant for him to travel, once in mock-melodramatic tones, wondering why he did it:
Deep down inside of me is a little violin playing that says, “Yes, why, why me? Why am I a Flying Dutchman, forever sailing over the seas—the seven seas of this benighted globe? Always looking, always searching, always hunting and never finding?”
STAY TUNED FOR SHEP TRAVEL
This advertisement from General Electric has fascinated me since I first
saw its recently born, furry, TV personality.
“Imagination at work.”
I admire the focus on innovative ideas and I see their symbol for it
as akin to my thinking about my ARTSY FARTSY posts.
He’s sort of like a mascot for me so I named him.
“Ideas are scary.
They come into this world ugly and messy.
Ideas are frightening because they threaten what is known.
They are the natural-born enemy of the way things are.
Yes, ideas are scary—and messy and fragile.
But under the proper care—
They become something beautiful.”
∞ ∞ ∞
[To me he seems sorta ARTSY FARTSY.]
The film, annotated, in part.
Years ago I wrote and submitted to a movie magazine, my overall description and commentary on that great American Christmas movie. But it was rejected, the editor said, because the mag had published a general article about the movie a few years before. Here’s a slightly-edited part of the introductory matter I wrote, plus a paragraph from the 2016 holiday issue of the magazine Vanity Fair.
• • • • • • • • •
“Was there no end to this conspiracy of irrational prejudice against Red Ryder and his peacemaker?”
In case the reader doesn’t know, A Christmas Story (1983) is the movie about a kid who wants a BB gun for Christmas. His mother, teacher, and even Santa Claus, tell him that he’ll shoot his eye out. He (a cute kid with glasses), his kid brother (very whiny), his parents and friends, live in the steel mill town of Hohman (actually Hammond), Indiana. Their world is just as we remember life used to be or feel it should have been. Yet almost every incident in this sort of picturesque, just-like-it-should-be world, ends in disaster. But then the kid gets the gun and the parents show mutual affection, so all imperfections convert to life as we dream of it. The End.
• • • • • • • • •
NOSTALGIA (Jean Shepherd: “Get it out of your skull!”)
Although director Bob Clark once said that they worked hard to give A Christmas Story a recognizable sense of what many people would remember from their past, he did not suggest that the film was seriously meant to be an exercise in nostalgia. Clark called it “an odd combination of reality and spoof and satire.” That is not nostalgia.
Jean Shepherd, for all the humor and joy he expressed in his decades of nightly radio programs, had a negative view of life’s ultimate meaning, and often expressed an intense dislike of nostalgia. From his earliest radio days he insisted that, despite evoking the past, his stories showed that the past was no better than the present. On one radio program he put it this way: “My work, I think, is anti-sentimental, as a matter of fact. If you really read it, you realize it’s a putdown of what most people think it stands for—it’s anti-nostalgic writing.”
A QUOTE FROM THE VANITY FAIR HOLIDAY ISSUE, 2016
Shepherd’s biographer [sic*] Eugene Bergmann points out that the line in the film that best describes Shepherd’s attitude toward life is when they’re getting ready for Christmas dinner and the Old Man is sitting in the living room reading the funny papers. “The viewer can see the Bumpuses’ hounds starting to trot past him, but he doesn’t see them, because the paper is blocking his view. And, of course, we know what’s going to happen—the hounds are going to get hold of that Christmas turkey.” So Shepherd says, in his voice-over narration, ‘Ah, life is like that. Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.’”
*As I continually explain, my book is not and never was intended to be a “biography.” It’s a description and appreciation of his art.
With all of this, A Christmas Story is the funniest, most enjoyable, wittiest, clever and most satisfying film you’re ever likely to see yearly for twenty-four hours straight starting Christmas Eve.
Over fifty million people watch at least parts of it every year as it’s shown on Turner Cable television. Some families, in their Christmas passion, have memorized the dialog and the narration, repeating them along with the film. (Despite watching it yearly and remembering most details, my wife and I laugh unfailingly at the same places.) Most watch it yearly, filled with the teary-eyed nostalgia they bring to it, though most of them undoubtedly do not know what the film is meant to be about and that there is only the tiniest bit of authentic happy-days that I think was probably (through a producers’ arm-twisting of the script-writers) tagged onto the end. The viewers’ ignorance is bliss. Yet, they might increase their pleasure in this delightful creation by understanding more about the film, because knowledge and insight, as we know, is a very satisfying sort of adult bliss worth adding to one’s heretofore innocent enjoyment. Viewers will come to understand why the kid nearly shoots his eye out.
• • • • • • • • •
Let’s follow A Christmas Story
from its opening titles to its picture-postcard, sugarplum end.
Of course not enough people read opening titles, but in this case, it’s worth taking the trouble,
because who created the film and narrates the entire thing is of much relevance to what it’s all about.
Probably a vast majority of viewers don’t know who Jean Shepherd is, despite the fact that,
prominent among the opening titles they would read the following four:
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Presents
A film from the works of Jean Shepherd
• • • • • • • • •
Ralphie as an adult
• • • • • • • • •
Based upon the Novel
In God We Trust
All Others Pay Cash
By Jean Shepherd
• • • • • • • • •
Jean Shepherd & Leigh Brown
& Bob Clark
• • • • • • • • •
The title “Ralphie as an adult,” refers to Jean Shepherd doing the entire narration we enjoy so much. He had previously used this narrative style in his 1970s television drama, “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” and he described the style in his introduction to the published script of it, writing: “The Narrator is actually the voice of Ralph, grown up, but at the same time he is somehow mysteriously in communication with the viewer.” Fans of the 1988-1993 sitcom, The Wonder Years may well recognize that form of narrative. Shepherd, who, because of his use of it for A Christmas Story in 1983, had been considered for the narrator role in the sitcom, but had then been turned down, apparently because his adamant beliefs regarding his creative endeavors were considered too difficult to deal with. Bitter for many years, he claimed that The Wonder Years producers had stolen from him not only his technique, but some plot lines.
For those unfamiliar with Jean Shepherd, note that he improvised his nightly radio program in the 1950s through early 1977, and that most of the film’s content was told by him on his shows in the early 1960s without a script. Then he wrote down the stories and they were published in Playboy, then in his books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’ Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters. Shepherd, a major jazz personality in the late 1950s, is also known for his other films, several television series he created, as well as for hundreds of live performances around the country for decades, and for perpetrating one of the great literary hoaxes of all time: the I, Libertine affair. (You can look it up.)
Merry Christmas to all,
and may none of you ever
shoot your eye out.
• • • • • • • • •
Even to this day that scene goes on and on and on. The irises are out there growing. The chain reactions that we make in our lives. And every time now, when I pass a salesman in the hall, without fail I have that funny feeling down in the pit of my stomach. I have the feeling that somehow, I can’t explain it, that somebody is going to sentence me to go back to selling seeds again. Somehow it’s still out there, those doors—knock knock—“There’s nobody home I hope I hope I hope I hope.”
By the way, kids, that preceding lecture will be filed under “Real Education,” as opposed to the education you’re actually gonna get.
THUS, WITH A SHEP-LESSON-TO-BE-LEARNED, ENDS “SELLING SEEDS”
NEXT KID STORY FORTHCOMING
BOOKS Intro and Chapter 1 of 1
As a Boy Scout, Second Class, for the reading merit badge I began my list of books read, passed the test and got the badge. I kept up my have-read-list for about sixty years, and found that, over the decades, it averaged roughly three books a month read. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, James, Hemingway, Faulkner, Mailer, various fiction and non-fiction titles, and lots of books on art and literature. I’ve written several unpublished novels and over 150 poems, of which two were published in a poetry journal.
When I’d already begun my fascination with books as a kid, I didn’t want to be an astronaut or a baseball star, I wanted to be a librarian or win the Nobel Prize in literature. I did neither, but I’m married to a librarian, and between us, spread throughout the house, we have about 7,000 books, some featured in our headboard.
Our King-size Headboard
Although I continue to read, my books-read list numbers fell calamitously. Now I read very little “great literature” (historically acclaimed novels)—I’ve been too busy researching and writing all my stuff about radio humorist Jean Shepherd. Regarding this current obsession, I’ve two published books and several articles in periodicals, and nine separate descriptive folders included in boxed CD sets of his recorded programs for syndication, and posted over 400 illustrated blog essays about him. Shepherd came along, probably, just in the nick of time to satisfy my need to read and write, as well as providing a birthplace to accommodate my ARTSY essays.
BOOKS–WRITING AND READING
In my own defense for not keeping up my pace of reading, I’ve written and designed
the potential covers for three unpublished novels:
The fictional story of a young American man who is convinced that he’s the modern return of Jesus. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters synopsizing chronologically, the entire history of the Earth in what I see as a vast outwardly spiraling evolution. (Outrageous.) Never published.
Inspired by my disastrous marriage to a young woman from Granada, Spain. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters—of my life. A young American fellow, inspired by reading about the Spanish Civil War, joins with Spanish terrorists in Granada to kill the Crown Prince. (Rageous. Dramatic.) Never published.
Inspired by my anthropology-based sojourn in Peru. The fictional chapters alternate with “true” chapters—of my life. A young American exhibit designer bests (is sort of responsible for the deaths of) several American anthropologists, thus gaining the love of a young American woman. (Never published.) Except for no-cost self-publication.
Yes, the fictional protagonist of each of these extravaganzas seems like me. The true/fiction nature of my novels was inspired by the influence of two books that did similar things with truth and fiction: Moby Dick, and John Dos Passos’ U. S. A. Trilogy. And inspired by Carlos Baker’s critical analysis, Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, in which Baker describes how various real-life interests and experiences of Hemingway became the inspiration for aspects of his novels.
A Designed “Poem”
About Designing a Poem
Eventually, all readers and writers have got to try poetry. I read some, I understood little. I read books on what poetry means, how it’s written, and how to write it. I wrote over 150 poems, some not too bad. I got two published in a serious Canadian poetry journal:
Oh, Yes, and Poems Published in
The Magnetic Poetry Book of Poetry
The company that produces the kit with little magnetized words to be made into word-groupings to stick on refrigerators, devised a contest for a book based on poems that only use words from their kits. They published two of mine, one of which has a typo. (Discover below!) Decades later, the book can still be found in book stores, meaning that these two poems of mine have probably been read by more people than any poems by great American poet Robert Frost. (Holy moley!)
A Magnetic Poem
While in my poetry-writing phase, I encountered a poetry-writing contest at a crafts fair.
“In a few minutes, write a poem on the special star-filled paper provided.”
Tribute to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
Worthy of my egotism as are the above mighty efforts,
I’m most proud of my multiple published and unpublished works
about that great American humorist,
Jean Parker Shepherd.
So I had sold all my seeds. Somehow I felt like a real crook, a real cheat. But I learned a lot about salesmanship and the fact that I never could do it. And I had the dollar and a quarter and the next day I went in to Miss Shields and I plunked it down. Jack Robinson plunked it down, Maurine Robinson plunked it down, Joshaway came in. He’d only sold three packages so he had a cheapy old man. Everybody plunked it down. Well, now that I think about it, it was obvious that everybody’s family bought the seeds. But nobody would admit that Uncle Fred bought them all.
So my old man bought all the seeds, and here’s the way it all ended. I came from a family that was totally urban. We had never ever grown anything, ever, in our entire existence. We lived nearby where there were people who grew things. Well, about four months later, out back of the garage, my mother was digging. Our backyard was made entirely of ashes. My mother was out there digging a hole in the ashes. Clearing ashes out from behind the garage, of course she was finding old tire irons and stuff, and she made a little plot that was about as wide as the garage. About seven feet wide and about four feet the other way and she planted all our little seeds, the whole shebang back there in this little plot, and she made a little fence out of string.
Incredibly enough, this stuff grew. We had three inch high hollyhocks—the new dwarf hollyhocks my mother created. Another thing she created out of those original seeds was the morning glory scourge. The morning glories took hold like they were out of their skulls. They completely covered the whole neighborhood, they killed what little lawns there were, they killed seven trees. Some of those morning glory vines went over four miles into the next county.
Tremendous success with the morning glories. So my mother got that look in her eye. Since that day, because of the seeds, every year my mother was out in the soil of Indiana, trying to grow orchids. She’d bought orchid seeds. Of course they never grew. She was trying to grow rare tropical plants, all kinds of things which can never make it. And she had the greatest collection of crummy looking, shaggy, rotten, smelly irises.
ONE MORE “SELLING SEEDS” TO COME!
It’s getting kind of dark by now and I’m slowing up. I am no longer wound up like a spring. I’m getting real slow. I get down by the woods where the Beegees live. The Beegees are a large Germanic family. They all have very wide faces and they have wide-faced dogs named Fang and Claw. They live in the woods. They have about nine gigantic girls named Brunhilda. I knock on the door and a large girl says “Vat do you Vant?”
I say. “Seeds. I have seeds.”
“Ve don’t want no seeds.” Boom! Pow!
Down the stairs I go, I turn right and by now it’s suppertime. As I come home, my seeds are trailing behind me, leaving a whole long line of little nasturtium seeds behind me. I can see them shining in the moonlight.
I’m home and I take my seeds and I put them on the dining room table and my mother’s out in the kitchen stirring the red cabbage and my kid brother’s in the john. Home. It’s home for supper and stuff and I’m fooling around, I’m very depressed. I’m failing the World Book people and everything. We want the World Book for our own classroom. Every class should have a World Book and here I am lousing up already. No World Book—we’re going to have a rotten, lousy, terrible, terrible party at Halloween where there’s not gonna be any candy corn, not gonna be any streamers.
Then I begin to worry about the other kids. Obviously other kids like Jack Robinson and Maurine Robinson are out there selling like mad. I’m in the living room and my mother’s paying absolutely no attention. She knows I’ve been out with the seeds.
Finally the supper’s ready, the old man comes out of the basement. He comes in, sits down. I’m sitting.
My mother says, “How are the seeds? Did you sell any seeds?”
Well, I did not realize—never did I realize until that very minute, what kind of a life my old man must have had. Forever and ever and ever, it turned me away from the whole field of selling. I could never do it ever again. And I never realized until that moment what my father’s life must have been like all of his life. Nothing to do with Willy Loman either. I remember that always there was on the wall of my old man’s office a big thing called the sales chart. As a kid I thought it was great, ‘cause they had red ribbons on it. They had different guys’ names like Zudock, Gertz, Shepherd. I never realized that those lines were life and death to those poor clowns, and represented fifteen million hours of defeat.
The old man says, “What are you doing, selling seeds?”
I say, “Yeh.”
He says, “Well, how’d you do?”
“Mrs. Bruner’s gonna think it over.”
Mrs. Bruner is going to think it over. Oh boy! He knew the Bruners. Even at that hour we could hear Mr. Bruner starting to yell. He’s falling up and down the basement stairs. What he did—in the basement he made stuff out of raisins in between true drunks when he’d go out and buy stuff. I don’t know how he did it but he made it out of raisins and apricots, which they got from the relief. So Bruner’s yelling and falling and Mrs. Bruner’s thinking it over whether to buy nasturtiums. I, as a kid, believed it.
My old man says, “Oh, she’s going to think it over. Well, how many do you have? Let’s take a look at these.” Our family is definitely a non-garden family. Our family is also a non-dog family. I come from a long line of dog-kickers, actually. “What about the seeds? Let me look at the seeds.”
So I get the seeds from the dining room. My mother says, “These are very interesting.” The nasturtium seeds are falling out of the bottom. She’s looking. We’re all sitting around with the red cabbage. She says, “You mean you can grow these flowers?”
On the cover, of course, are these gigantic morning glories that are about three feet across, seventeen different colors and the hollyhocks are thirty feet tall. Red, purple, green, blue, white. So she says, “That’s very interesting. How much are these?”
I say, “Well, they’re ten cents apiece.” I had about twelve packages. The total investment was roughly a dollar and a quarter. My entire stock. That’s at retail. I don’t know what Miss Shields paid for them.
She says, “Very interesting.”
My old man says, “How do you sell seeds? What do you tell ‘em?” This is very definitely a non-seed neighborhood.
I take out the little folder. “It says everybody wants seeds.”
He says, “Everybody wants seeds?” Well, my old man works for a milk company. You would believe that everyone wants milk, wouldn’t you? Have you ever tried to go out door to door to sell people milk? More guys prefer beer. You’d be surprised. There are more non-milk drinkers, who, if told that everybody wants milk would bust a gut laughing!
So the old man says, “You know, that’s a funny thing.” He says, “That’s what they tell us at the office: ‘Everybody wants milk.’” Visions of Mr. Bruner are dancing in his mind, you know, trying to sell Bruner a half a quart of milk. Ridiculous scene.
So I say, “Well, everybody wants seeds.”
He says, “I’ll tell you what. Go get my wallet.”
I get it from the top of the refrigerator.
He says, “How many are there?”
I say, “There are ten or twelve.”
And he gives me a dollar and a quarter and says, “Is this enough, now?” And he takes the seeds.
He’s got a handful of packages and he throws them like cards across to my mother and says, “Here, you’re always hollering about flowers. You always want flowers. You’re always saying I never give you flowers. Here’s some flowers. Make your own. Here.”
[Well, gang, in one short spurt, ol’ Shep has denigrated (1) selling stuff as a way of making a living; (2) dogs as pets*; and, despite a positive mark showing his dad’s love/compassion in buying little Shep’s seeds, (3) his father exhibiting nastiness toward his wife.]
* Some time later, as he gives doggie roles in two of his video productions, he will apparently come to love his dog Daphne.
MORE SEED-SELLING TO COME
And now I was at the next house. A green-shingled house.
I have to explain something to you about the Staffords. Mr. Stafford was a mailman and they were very mysterious. They belonged to a very peculiar church where they would gather at night in the basement and holler. I don’t know exactly what that was but my old man used to call them “holy rollers.”
They were very straight people. Mrs. Stafford wore her hair plaited with black stuff and pulled right back in a bun about the consistency of a brass doorknob. Mrs. Stafford was a very very righteous lady and Mr. Strafford looked very much like Stan Laurel if you can imagine Laurel after a bad bout with a virus. He would go out and deliver his mail and come back, and they would read things together. Mr. Stafford was a very embarrassing man in our neighborhood now that I think about it. Once in a while Mr. Stafford would stand on a street corner and give people little tracts. It’s very hard when your neighbor’s giving you a tract and he looks you right in the eye and says, “Have you prepared to meet your Maker?” Well, that’s hard to say to Mr. Bruner, who prepared different ways. There’s a lot of ways to prepare to meet your maker, and Mr. Bruner prepared by drinking a lot of corn liquor. He knew he was going to meet his Maker and he wanted to be ready for it.
When I got to the Staffords they were warming up in the basement. They always warmed up immediately before supper. I don’t think they had supper. I think they broke bread. It’s a very different thing.
I knocked on the door and the door opened and there was Mr. Stafford. Mr. Stafford was a true tract dealer. Watery blue eyes, very thin, straight, combed-back hair and he wore cardigan sweaters, those gray, baggy kind. He wore a sort of a funny, bluish checkered socks and brown slacks that kind of hang. There was Mr. Stafford.
“Oh. You’re the young Shepherd, aren’t you?”
“What do you want?”
“Well, I…” It’s very hard to talk to a tract-giver. I’ve always had that trouble. I find it difficult to talk to drunks, and to people who hand out tracts. Somehow I think there is a parallel.
“Mr. Stafford, I…I…I have seeds. Miss Shields said that everybody likes seeds.” Now that I think about it, it’s too bad I didn’t have a line of mustard seeds.
But he looked at me and he said, “What kind of seeds do you have?” A very Christian gentleman.
I said, “I have these seeds. I have nasturtiums.”
The Staffords were the only ones in the neighborhood who had a terraced lawn and also a garden.
He said, “What kind do you have?”
I said, “Well, I have nasturtium seeds, I have morning glory seeds, and, ah, peonies.”
“Do you have any vegetable seeds?”
“And I have chrysanthemums and I have button peonies.”
“Do you have any tomato seeds?”
“Ah, I’ve only got flower seeds. We only have flower seeds.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I get my flower seeds from the Burpee people.”
“The Burpee people. When you get some vegetable seeds, come over.” With that he closed the door.
“Oh.” Up to that point I didn’t even know the principle of competition. The Burpee people. Somehow the Burpee people were cutting me out. Who were the Burpee people? The Burpee people undercut the entire second grade of Miss Shields that year just like a knife. Boom! Just like that.
Theft or Not?
Art lovers with limited means may sometimes have the idea of
art-theft cross their minds. And there must be occasional
opportunities when it seems like a relatively risk-free
temptation. It’s happened to me at least twice.
THE ROMAN FORUM
On my Grand Tour of Western Europe, solo, in ’66, naturally I had to spend time in Florence and Rome. Michelangelo’s “David” was far too big and heavy to stick in my camera bag and skulk out. Then I got to the center of the Eternal City and paid my way into the Roman Forum where I ambled around acres of ancient ruins from the glory days. Fascinating.
It being early June, a bit before the dreadful tourist hoards, I had the place almost to myself. There I encountered a giant mound of dirt and stone rubble, with a bulldozer busily adding to the pile. Obviously meant for an off-site landfill. What were they dozing (never-to-be-seen-again stuff), into that garbage dump? Well, what do you know—a small piece of broken off marble or granite architectural fragment. A discarded, soon to be gone-forever hunk of the Roman Forum! It appeared to be an 8.5″ long bit of “dentil,” the long row of teeth-like rectangular bits often found just below the roof line of Roman buildings. Just the right size to fit in my camera bag.
I carted it in the VW through France, Spain, France, Belgium, and to the VW dealership in Amsterdam’s airport, where, having realized that, too heavy and conspicuous to install in my luggage where it would be seen by U. S. customs agents at JFK, I put it below the spare tire under the VW’s front hood where, once I’d returned to the States and the Bug had arrived in port for me to pick up at a Brooklyn pier, I’d have it again in my possession. Surrounded by books and artworks, it’s been an important part of my study in six houses.
“It’s an emotional weakling who can’t rationalize
doing what he wants to do so badly,”
a friend once said to me.
Is that true?
Am I guilty of “theft”?
I don’t think so.
I’ve rescued a tiny piece of architectural history
From a garbage dump.
A GAUDI PIECE OF ART
In the summer of 1968 I was on my honeymoon in Barcelona with my Spanish wife. Naturally, I’d gotten reservations at the pension in one of Antonio Gaudi’s most admired buildings.
He was the early 20th century Catalan architect whose best-known, nature-fenestrated and engineering-innovative works is Barcelona’s Templo de la Sagrada Familia. The pension is in the Casa Mila (known as “La Pedrara”). Hardly a straight-lined dead-looking line in the place. I can’t get enough of his stuff!
La Pedrara (The Rock Pile)
Even the individual rooms of the pension are designed with specially sculpted ceilings, walls, doors, and, as I found, brass handles—which I would love to possess. Opening a closet door to hang up our clothes, the lovely Gaudi handle came off in my hand. The devil’s dulcet voice whispered in my ear. “If not you, who then?” he cackled.
An angel whispered: “You’ll destroy the composite integrity of the whole!”
What should I do? What should I do!
I replaced the handle on the door.
For years I’ve thought about that handle loose in my hand.
I recognize that, despite a part of myself, I’d done the right thing.
Finally that damned angel gave me a reward by allowing me to encounter and buy, in New York’s MOMA Gift Shop, replicas of two of Gaudi’s door knobs for sale, including, I believe, the one I’d almost sinned to possess. The other reproduction is from another Gaudi down the road a piece, the Casa Batllo:
VIRTUE IS ITS OWN REWARD
IF YOU’RE DAMN LUCKY!
I got home with my kit and put it on the dining room table. My mother came in and she looked at that thing and she said, “Oh, no.” She knew. It was beginning to start—the business of selling the tickets, selling this, selling that. Selling the chances on the big mop they’re giving away down at the school, or on the Ford or whatever. “Oh, no!”
And I said, “Yes, I am going to sell seeds. Miss Shields says it’s very easy.”
That afternoon I began on my career, which has not yet ceased, I’d like to point out. Not yet has it ceased. I went next door to Mrs. Bruner. Big, old, fat Mrs. Bruner. Mr. Bruner had not worked for about five years and when he did work he drank it up immediately. About the only thing that Mrs. Bruner owned was a complete set of used clothespins. I went right up and she came out and said, “Junior’s not here.”
I said, “Mrs. Bruner, would you like to buy some seeds?”
“Would you like to buy some seeds?”
“Seeds? What kind of seeds?”
I said, “Peony seeds.”
Well, Mrs. Bruner’s backyard consisted of large pieces of tin, it consisted of old tires, it consisted of piles of wood and a couple of things that were dead.
She said, “Seeds? What kind?”
I said, “Peony. I have nasturtium, I have here morning glory. Look at these beautiful morning glories.”
She said, “I’ll think about it. You come back later.”
Well, there was a nibble. So I turned around and went down the steps and about fifteen feet away, at the next house, I’m knocking on Mrs. Vanhusen’s house. Mrs. Vanhusen’s husband ran away from her thirty-seven years before. Mr. Vanhusen was only a legend in the neighborhood. So Mrs. Vanhusen was a very angry lady. As a little kid you don’t think about these things. Tennessee Williams was only a rumor.
So I knocked on the door and I said, “Mrs. Vanhusen?”
“What do you want?” I’m a kid. She never had a kid.
“I have seeds.”
“I don’t want no seeds.” Bang!
Well, now I know, Mrs. Vanhusen, I understand. I know what it’s like when a kid comes around and sells dreams and flowers—nasturtiums and stuff.
So I pulled down my earflaps and I proceeded next door to the Emdees. I have to explain to you about the Emdees. That was another problem. The Emdees had the only true juvenile delinquent in the whole block. The Emdee kid was fantastic. I’ll tell you, you talk about a precocious kid? I think Emdee, at the age of about four or five months, was already making some of the more Freudian experiments in the neighborhood. And he was about seven when already mothers of daughters were calling up to complain. This is the kind of kid this guy was. I came up on the steps and I knocked on the door. Mrs. Emdee appeared, like the wrath of god.
Mrs. Emdee was used to people knocking on the door, and she said, “Dick is not here, and he’s not been here for over a month. He’s visiting his grandmother in Indianapolis. Now I don’t care what your mother says, tell her to come over herself.”
Oh boy. So I turn around and go down the steps. My little kit is getting heavy. I’m only in second grade, you know, and my seeds were dripping out. My nasturtiums were dripping behind me and they were getting kind of sweaty from my picking them up and showing them.
MORE SEEDS TO COME
FOUND IN TRANSLATION A Humument
A “treatment” of a corny, 3-decker Victorian novel, described as
“An 1892 Victorian obscurity,
A Human Document by W. H. Mallock,” transformed into
a modern artist’s book by Tom Phillips.
Browsing in one of New York City’s wondrous art book stores about a quarter century ago, I came upon a book I’d never heard of, A Humument, described as “a treated Victorian novel” by Englishman Tom Phillips. I flipped through it and bought it, fascinated. About 5” X 7” it had about 360 color-pages of strange artwork with words peeking through—the original text of the 1892 novel.
Eventually Phillips Produced 5 Editions,
Each With Some Changed Layouts.
The flyleaf of said marvelous book states:
In this unique fiction, word and image meet with a richness scarcely seen since Blake. Already with a cult following via literary and art magazines it is now available for the first time in book form produced under the direction of its author.
He writes “I took a forgotten Victorian novel found by chance. I plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems, erotic incidents and surrealistic catastrophies which seemed to lurk within its wall of words. As I worked on it, I replaced the text I’d stripped away with visual images of all kinds….
FOUR DOUBLE-PAGE SPREADS
I feel rather sorry for and yet envious of the original, forgotten author, W. H. Mallock, poor fellow-novelist, arbitrarily plucked and thrust into a kind of ignominiously glorious, wacky, and marvelous immortality. Creator Phillips ends the book’s introduction—which he places at the end of the book—“In a sense, because A Humument is less than what it started with, it is a paradoxical embodiment of Mallarme’s idea that everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book.
I SINGLE THIS ONE OUT
FOR ITS TEXT.
JEAN SHEPHERD Kids Stories, Encounters Selling Seeds 2 & (65) ARTSY Artists Books -Willie Masters’ & Turn Over
About forty-five kids immediately put their hands up for morning glory seeds. They were way ahead of their time. The next thing I knew I was leaving the second grade classroom with a seed kit that included nasturtiums, morning glories, and peonies—very big on peonies and hollyhocks. I was also very big on miniature chrysanthemums guaranteed to grow in many beautiful, multifarious colors.
Well, I left there with a kit, which also included instructions on how to use it. It told how to approach a prospect. The first thing it said was to assume that everybody wants seeds. It is very wrong to assume that you have to convince people to want seeds. You must go up on the porch and know that people want seeds. It is only up to you to uncover the latent desire to own seeds. That’s all there is. They all want ‘em.
I remember they came in these little envelopes. They were ten cents a package. And the first thing that happened, of course, was that one of them leaked. I was not more than a half a block out of the school and one of the peony envelopes was leaking all over the place from the bottom of my little kit and the seeds were bouncing around. It was a terrible thing. I tried to stick them back in the envelope. Already bad merchandise. Already I was ten cents down.
MORE SELLING SEEDS TO COME
WILLIE MASTERS’ & TURN OVER
In my artists’ book collection I have two that are strikingly unusual/strikingly similar/strikingly different books, both featuring a naked woman.
One embodies the primacy of words, the other completely dispenses with words as unnecessary.
• • •
THE PRIMACY OF WORDS
Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife
William Gass, renowned literary critic and author of works on the theoretical nature and uses of words, created the short fictional work, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, in 1968, the 6-1/4” X 10” paperback, which has a front cover of a naked woman from the front, and back cover of the naked woman from the back.
Front & Back Covers
A commentator notes about the book that:
“…we are presented with a strong correspondence between the physicality of the human body and of the work of literature, not to mention the overt sexualization of writing. Literature as a form of seduction.”
Larry McCaffery in a publication of the U. of Illinois writes:
Gass never allows the reader to forget that literature is made of words and nothing else; …the narrator of the work…is that lady, language herself….the central metaphor of the whole work: that a parallel exists—or should exist—between a woman and her lover, between the work of art and the artist, and between a book and its reader.
(Lawrence Levy is credited with the book design.) A different colored paper is used for each section, suggesting changes happening in the sequence of the lovemaking described. Thus, every aspect of the book’s design emphasizes a metaphor of reading books, words in our life, and in our metaphorical love(making).
• • • • • • • • • • • •
Turn Over Darling
At a Long Island Antiquarian Book Fair some years ago, I unexpectedly encountered a bookseller of artists’ books! Among his books was one made of hand-crafted paper impressed with wire-formed images of a naked woman slowly turning over, page-spread-by-spread, forming a complete turn of her body in the eleven full spreads—and a half-spread each at its beginning and its ending.
As each sheet has the convex impression of the wire arrangement on one side and its concave impression on the reverse–the right side of each spread is a reverse of the following page’s left-hand side–forming a continuity from the beginning of the book to the end. As one turns the page, that repetition in reverse image gives a feeling of motion. See the first two images for this.
I was not familiar with the work of Ronald King, British artist-bookmaker. King is connected with London’s, Circle Press, which made this 7 – 3/4” X 6” boxed volume, Turn Over Darling.
One needs no words to feel the sensuality of the paper and the curvaceous lines forming the body of the woman changing positions, created by using the essence of “the book”–incorporating the act of turning pages in sequence. Thus, the title’s double usage of the words “turn over,” for the woman is being told to turn over, and to appreciate the book, we readers must engage with the pages by turning them over.
Note right-page’s image above
left-page’s image below.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
These books were made through the creative fusion of each artist’s intellect and sensuality. Only recently did I recognize the similarity and contrasting relationship between these two volumes—which will now always remain bound together in my consciousness and also, found on the same shelf, snuggled side by side.