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I try to avoid psychoanalyzing Jean Shepherd–or anyone else. (My Excelsior, You Fathead! indicates some bits about Shep’s attitudes, but mostly these are described by those who knew him, rather than through my own interpretations.) But–after perusing a new book about Shakespeare’s evolving attitude toward women as seen in his plays–I thought it of interest to attempt to objectively describe some aspects of Shepherd’s life and works as it relates to what might be interpreted as his changing attitude toward women.
Shepherd, in his talk and writing, infrequently deals with the female of the species, so the following is not suggested to be any kind of encompassing description–much less a conclusive analysis–it’s just some observations that might have some connection to Shepherd’s way of being and his creative works.
His kid stories mainly relate to young boys at play, and a few of his teenage stories do relate to dating. His army stories infrequently relate to encounters with women. One, in my Shep’s Army concerns a sexual encounter (implied). Another story, about when he was stationed in Ft. Monmouth, NJ (a very short stay, I imagine) relates to he and a buddy encountering a sad woman–I don’t remember the details and don’t like the story much. Not much else.
Some of the material and thoughts here are based on comments found in Excelsior, You Fathead! Chapter 13, “Tiny Embattled Minority.”
MOM AND SOME EARLY “LOVES”
Fictional mom in A Christmas Story
Some really young females in Shep’s early life–
Dawn Strickland, Esther Jane Albery, Dorothy Anderson
[Dawn Strickland cropped from photo courtesy Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.]
Mom is traditional, nurturing, hard-working over the kitchen sink and cooking the conventional meat loaf. Conventional both in fiction and as one might gather about her when Shepherd speaks of his “real” mother. Soon after he graduated from high school, his father left the family forever by driving off with a young female co-worker in a convertible.
Shepherd told various stories of his experiences (mostly in fictional form) with grammar-school and high-school girls, sometimes on dates, some of whom he had a crush on. He reportedly wrote love letters to Dorothy Anderson while he was in the army in his early 20s.
Years later (1959), in Shep’s theater piece “Look, Charlie,” it’s said that, in a very old-fashioned image of female-as-underling/slave girl, he scripted actress Lois Nettleton, his girlfriend at the time, to feed him grapes as though he were a Roman emperor and she a servant:
Lois, as subservient hand-maiden,
presumably as seen in the theater piece,
depicted in Shel Silverstein’s
for “Look, Charlie.”
In those early days, Jean Shepherd seemed to have a very traditional image of girls and women. His early marriages seem to show him with a similar attitude.
Only recently has it been confirmed that Shepherd had been married very early on. Nothing much is known of this brief and well-hidden marriage except for this:
Credit: Steve Glazer
Jean Shepherd’s second marriage was to Joan Warner, mother of his two children. (Joan does not want to be interviewed regarding her former husband–I’ve tried several times.) Evidence from some general comments and actions by Shep suggest that she had traditional ideas of what marriage should be. Here they are, the happy couple:
Shepherd had some general comments to say about adult women/wives. One comment related to a husband whose wife arm-twisted him into doing some work on their house– because of his digging around the house foundation, the end of the house sank. In another similar instance, the digging under the house demanded of the wife resulted in unearthing a den of rattlesnakes. He seemed to be suggesting that doing what a wife nagged one to do could result in horrible disasters.
Regarding the entire idea of a permanent commitment such as marriage, Shepherd seemed negative. In what one might be forgiven in interpreting as a comment on clinging women, Shepherd on a broadcast commented that some people were the hulls of ships while other people were the barnacles that clung to their undersides.
In an earlier post I suggested that Shepherd wanted to be free and able to do just exactly what he wanted without being tied down to a little house with a lawn and a picket fence, and that this may well have caused him to leave the family he was married to and seek freedom and further fame in the Big Apple.
Lois Nettleton, in an early interview after Shep’s death responded to a comment by saying that he had strongly disliked family get-togethers: “Oh, hated them!”
WOMEN’S LIB AND EQUALITY
Shepherd sometimes had strong opinions about women’s lib. On July 31, 1960 on his program he said:
“I’ll tell you–most chicks today want to be treated as though they are tender flowers–and they prefer to act like King Kong. You see there’s that neat split–you want me to pick up your handkerchief while you are kicking me in the duff–with a pair of hobnailed boots. Now which do you want? Now I can do either, and can take either.”
Maybe he’d just had a bad day, but there are other Shepherd quotes in a similar vein.
Shepherd’s third wife, Lois Nettleton, was a very intelligent, very independent woman. She wrote that she felt that they were both independently successful in the entertainment field and were a good match for each other. She may have agreed to playing the subservient woman in a scripted part in “Look, Charlie,” but it doesn’t seem her general style. She believed in and assumed that she had total equality with Jean.
Mr. and Mrs. (Lois) Jean Shepherd, early 1960s.
Lois Nettleton a few years later as a Hollywood star.
Lois commented, “To me, our marriage was an ideal pairing of two famous career people who didn’t need to lean on each other, who enjoyed getting to know more about each other each day. Who made no demands, were flexible, and loved getting back together again after long absences. Glamorous, exciting! Very naïve of me—but actually very good for him in many ways—even after divorce, which he tried to avoid, he wanted to keep the relationship.”
When Leigh Brown and Jean first became friends, he was married to Lois. Leigh became obsessed with Jean’s mind–and with his genius on the radio. She would do anything to have him. And eventually she managed to separate Jean from Lois. According to WOR General Manager Herb Saltzman, she began at WOR as a gofer and “She bought into the myth [that he was a genius].” She had seemingly given up all her early ambitions in order to be with Jean. But, little by little, she became Jean’s editor, agent, producer, co-creator (to some extent). By the time his career in radio was about to end, she could hold her own with his dominating personality. At the time that Jean left his radio career, they had been living together for some time, and in 1977, they married.
By the time Leigh Brown died in 1998, she had seemingly become a major force in Jean’s professional as well as in his personal life. Laurie Squire, their coworker and close friend for decades, puts it (quoted in my EYF!): “They were Jean Shepherd. She sublimated, but she had a very--I can’t emphasize enough–she had a very strong personality. And I think he admired that….Quite a temper. She could hold her own! The power behind the throne. He was the creative genius. She knew how to operate in the real world.”
From those who knew them well, it seems as though Jean could not live without her. He died the year after she died.
I’d say that by the end, she and he were equals.
She had made them so.
Although Shepherd didn’t seem to discuss food often, he did so more than I’d remembered. Enthusiastic Shep fan, Steve, commented that there is an extensive description of food in Shepherd’s fictional tale, “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” the opening story of Shep’s book of stories, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories–and Other Disasters (Doubleday, 1971). This is of special interest because it is the lead-up to the theft of the family’s holiday dinner by the neighbor’s dogs–the Easter ham in the book, transformed in the A CHRISTMAS STORY film into the Christmas turkey.
“Don’t Touch that Turkey!”
The book’s description of preparation for the holiday surely shows the delight Shepherd, as author, had in the anticipation and consumption of food:
When we got the ham home, my mother immediately stripped off the white paper and the string in the middle of our chipped white-enamel kitchen table. There it lay, exuding heavenly perfumes–proud, arrogant, regal. It had a dark, smoked, leathery skin, which my mother carefully pealed off with her sharpened bread knife….It just sat there on the stove and bubbled away for maybe two hours, filling the house with a smell that was so luscious, so powerful, as to have erotic overtones….The ham frenzy was upon him….
Grunting and straining, my mother poured off the water into another pot. It would later form the base of a magnificent pea soup so pungent as to bring tears to the eyes. She then sprinkled a thick layer of brown sugar dotted with butter, over the ham. She stuck cloves in it in a crisscross design, then added several slices of Del Monte pineapple, thick and juicy, and topped it off with a maraschino cherry in the center of each slice. She then sprinkled brown sugar over the lot, a few teaspoons of molasses, the juice from the pineapple can, a little salt, a little pepper, and it was shoved into the oven. Almost instantly, the brown sugar melted over the mighty ham and mingled with the ham juice in the pan….
All night long, I would lie in my bed and smell the ham….
By 1:30 that afternoon, the tension had risen almost to the breaking point….Finally at about two-o’clock, we all gathered around while my mother opened the blue pot–releasing a blast of fragrance so overwhelming that my knees wobbled–and surrounded the ham with sliced sweet potatoes to bake in the brown sugar and pineapple juice….
My father picked up his carving knife again, for one last stroke on the whetstone. He held the blade up to the light. Everything was ready. He went into the living room and sat down.
His eyes glowed with the primal lust of a cave man about to dig into the kill, which would last for at least four months. We would have ham sandwiches, ham salad, ham gravy, ham hash–and, finally, about ten gallons of pea soup made with the gigantic ham bone.
When it happened….It was going to be a day to remember. Little did I suspect why.
We know what happened because we’ve seen the movie every year. We have been built up to the glory of the feast by the careful preliminary descriptions so that the invasion of the Bumpus hounds, exaggerated in their act–the slavering gustatory delight anticipated by the family: …the hounds–squealing, yapping, panting, rolling over one another in a frenzy of madness….
Ham anticipated by Parker family.
Ham devoured by Bumpus Hounds.
From Ham to Hohman.
The same Shep story about Easter/Christmas feasting includes his classic description of his hometown, Hohman (aka Hammond, Indiana). Just reacquainted with it, I feel that it deserves more recognition:
Ours was not a genteel neighborhood, by any stretch of the imagination. Nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries and encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers, our northern Indiana town was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial heartland of the nation. there was a standard barbershop bit of humor that said it with surprising poetism: If Chicago (only a stone’s throw away across the polluted lake waters) was Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Broad Shoulders,” then Hohman had to be that city’s broad rear end.
Hammond Steel Mill.
What’s Shep all about, anyway?
I wish I knew.
Chapter 1 ??? Chicago South Side??? I’m a kid, see. Hammond, W. G. Harding.
Chapter 2 …Dorothy Anderson, Helen Weathers, Flick, Eileen Ackers, Patty Remaley, Ester Jane Albery, Randy Shepherd, et al…..
Chapter 3 !!! Steel-mill mail boy!!!
Chapter 4 !?!?→↑→↓ Crowder, Murphy. T/5 →↑→↓,!?!?
Chapter 5 Cinci, Philly, married (Barbara Mattoon), divorced, married Joan Warner.
Chapter 6 NYC, Jazz, WOR, burgeoned, night folk, divorced.
Chapter 7 Libertine, ↓ fired/rehired=Sweetheart, married Lois Nettleton↑.
Chapter 8 Playboy, IGWTAOPC, divorced.
Chapter 9 TV
Chapter 10 ACS (aka In God We Trust, etc.)
Chapter 11 Married ↑Leigh Brown. April Fool=1977: bye bye, WOR.
Chapter 12 Lady Finger Lake Road on Snow Pond Lake: Sanibel Island.
↓Leigh died 1998. JPS died: RIP 1999↓.
Chapter 13 ↑Radio Hall of Fame, EYF!
Chapter 14 Seinfeld nails it↑.
Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, Oscar, Obie, etc., etc., etc., (Not altogether true.)
But why doesn’t Shep have far more important tributes–like Harvey Pekar, creator of the American Splendor graphic/autobiographical novels? Recently a statue was created in Pekar’s honor, installed in his favorite Cleveland library:
Pekar stepping out of a “comic book page”
on a real library desk.
Oh, sure, Shep got a Community Center:
But, is Shep immortalized in a booblehead? Pekar is!
[Bobblehead is ridiculous, right?
But how many of us would like to see (and possess)
a Jean Shepherd bobblehead?
Damn near all of us fatheads, right?]
Recently encountered, and very common comment on the internet:
“Storyteller Jean Shepherd (born July 26, 1921) was a fixture on American radio from the 1950s to the 1970s. He is best remembered as the voice of the narrator in A Christmas Story, a classic holiday film based on his semi-autobiographical tale.”
A word that I’ve encountered innumerable times in regard to Jean Shepherd’s work.
Some familiar with my belief know that I consider this balderdash!
Some definitions of the word found on the internet:
1. pertaining to or being a fictionalized account of an author’s own life. Pertaining to or being a work of fiction strongly influenced byevents in an author’s life.
2. Dealing partly with the writer’s own life but also containing fictional elements.
3. Of, relating to, or being a work that falls between fiction and autobiography: a semiautobiographical novel.
4. Of or relating to a work that combines autobiography and fiction
Semi- or half-fiction is a blend, a percentage, estimable by the writer and sometimes by “characters,” of what actually has taken place and what could have taken place. It begins to replace what in fact did take place….
“Creative nonfiction” is intensely cumbersome as the name of a literary genre, and yet it must be the best name for it so far…. “creative nonfiction” to mean the factual basis or sequence of life events — not meaning “plot” in fiction — matters less than the artistry or creative arrangements at play in the work.
EXACTLY IN WHAT PARTS OF A Christmas Story–or any other Shep story–does the autobiographical part reside? Only in the general location of the story and having parents and a kid brother.
HOW MANY ENCOUNTERS HAVE WE ALL HAD COLLECTIVELY–in which we have reliably been told or discovered that any of the plot details of a Shep kid or army story (beyond a character’s name, or a location) have actually occurred?
I’ve never encountered any.
Example: Flickinger family denies Flick got tongue stuck to a pole.
[And yes, I know that the base story references “The Cleveland Street Kid.”]
* * *
Here’s what we can verify as non-fiction in his stories:
•SOME ACTUAL NAMES OF PEOPLE THAT HE KNEW AS A KID.
•NAMES OF HIS BROTHER AND SOME FRIENDS.
•PLACES HE IS KNOWN TO HAVE BEEN AS KID AND IN THE ARMY.
Shepherd told his stories on the radio as though they actually happened to him, but he explained (to my satisfaction) that it was all fiction–on Alan Colmes 1998 show he said, “I want my stuff to sound real. And so when I tell a story, I tell it in the first person, so it sounds like–by the way, that’s the best way to tell a good story, in the first person–that it sounds like it actually happened to me. It didn’t….I’m a fiction writer. I’m not sitting there doing a biography or an autobiography.”
The quotes from Shep’s books are his author statements at the front of each book.
IN GOD WE TRUST: “The characters, places, and events described herein re entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, accidental, or the result of faulty imagination.”
WANDA HICKEY: [No statement found]
THE FERRARI IN THE BEDROOM: “Large parts of the following are fiction, other parts based on fact. Still others are pure mythology. Some characters are real, others are figments of a harassed imagination. To the real, I apologize. To the others, the back of my hand.”
A FISTFUL OF FIG NEWTONS: “This book is a work of the imagination. However, some essays are observations and conclusion. The characters depicted in the short stories are fictional. They do not represent any actual individuals, living or dead.”
HENRY MORGAN, RADIO COMIC [Quoted in The Realist, 1960]: “He has talked about that youth of his in such detail that I suspect it lasted about forty years.”
JEAN SHEPHERD: [On Alan Colmes interview, 1998] “I’m a fiction writer.”
HUGH M. HEFNER, PLAYBOY PUBLISHER: [interview, 2002] “The fact is that Jean’s stories were invented—and not personal experiences.”
Although on his own show he maintained the illusion that the stories were real, in the author’s declaration in his books, he insisted that all those stories (transcribed and augmented from his radio stories) were fiction. As I put it in EYF! “He went to extremes…in order to refute the idea that, rather than being a creative artist, he was merely remembering. He was a victim of his own success in creating the illusion of truth.”
I googled “semi-autobiographical” and came up with lots of stuff, but only the image that appears below seemed appropriate. The only reference I found to it: thenewdaughter.com would not open. I don’t know what the creator meant to suggest in the picture, but for me, I’ll use it to suggest that Shep found himself unable to escape from his box of self-created fiction masquerading as non-fiction:
A “real” guy in his self-created (fictional) box.
I say that, to describe Shep’s stories (kid and army) we do not use
“autobiographical” or “semi-autobiographical,” but
The happy couple(s)
As with virtually everything else about the life of Jean Shepherd, even the number and the details about his marriages are confused. Until now! Of course we know that Shep himself was mostly guilty of hiding and confusing the facts of his life.
The most mysterious and unknown aspect was about his first marriage–did it really exist–before he married Joan Warner, mother of his two children, Randall and Adrian? That mystery has been solved by Shep fan Steve Glazer, who recently emailed me and Jim Clavin with what seems to be definitive evidence. Shep’s first wife was Barbara Mattoon. of Hammond, IN.
Puzzle and enigma.
Let’s do the accounting backwards.
[From most recent and familiar to earliest and most mysterious.]
Leigh Brown (Nancy Prescott), married March 2, 1977 until her death July 16, 1998, she was his constant companion, his assistant, editor, producer, co-creator, steadfast support for some years before and then after their wedding in March, 1977 (just as he was about to end his WOR Radio career).
[The person charged with clearing out their Sanibel home
claimed he had the marriage license for Jean and Leigh.
He has disappeared with various important items
in the life and art of Shep.]
Lois Nettleton, married December 3, 1960 until the divorce papers sometime in 1967, “The Listener” to his “overnight” broadcasts in early 1956. She was an actress, most famous for her staring role in The Twilight Zone episode about the sun nearing the earth. She recorded many of Shep’s programs and they would discuss them when he returned after work.
[The New York Times, in its obit (by stating as fact what was obviously a
misunderstanding by whoever gave them the info),
erroneously states that Randall Shepherd “…was not aware of his father’s
second marriage to the actress Lois Nettleton….”
Randall was not aware of Lois having married Jean twice, because it is not true.]
Regarding more details about Leigh and Lois,
see my previous posts. (see my blog’s left column
and click on their names.)
Joan Warner, married September 9, 1950-1957. Shep, Joan, and son Randall moved to New Jersey when he began radio broadcasting for WOR in 1955. Without telling Lois Nettleton about his married state, Shep began seeing her, until Lois said she found out and stopped the relationship–until he produced his divorce papers.
Barbara Mattoon, married 29 March, 1947. When Shep got out of the army in late 1944, according to Steve Glazer, “Shep’s first professional broadcasting job as an adult was apparently also at WJOB, shortly after his discharge from the Army. Working at WJOB at the same time as Shep was a young and pretty Hammond resident named Barbara Mattoon, who helped maintain the radio station’s library.” During the war she had reportedly written to dozens of military personnel, in a way that could be described as “flirting.” At some point Shep moved to Cincinnati. (Jean and Barbara were married for about three years or less–until about 1950.) Then Jean married Joan Warner, who had graduated from the U. of Cincinnati in 1950.
Regarding Barbara, for many years, only Lois Nettleton and Randall Shepherd
seemed aware of this early marriage. Steve Glazer,
whom we thank for this information about Barbara and Jean,
believes that after their divorce, for whatever reason,
they both did what they could to make their marriage disappear.
They almost totally succeeded.
Jean Shepherd’s personal life is not of prime interest to me. Yet his relationships with four women in his early days in New York City have some connection to the nature of his work, and much of this has been unknown to the vast majority of Shep enthusiasts. Some unexpected and interesting facts have come my way in my quest to learn as much as I can about his creative life.
As I began to seek new information about the important early years in the New York area, I began to realize that the interconnections in Shep’s life, regarding some important women, were becoming too involved for me to keep clear in my mind without a chart.
Many are aware of Joan Warner, to whom Shepherd was married before they came to the New York metropolitan area in 1955. According to those who knew Jean and Joan before they came to New York, they had a son, Randall. At about the time they separated, their daughter Adrian was born. Although the Cincinnati newspaper clipping below has been circulating for some time now, many may not be aware of it. Note how Shep’s radio persona was being described in the paper even before his New York days. Joan refuses to be interviewed about Jean.
JEANNE KEYES YOUNGSON
Soon after my Excelsior, You Fathead! was published in March of 2005, I received an email from Jeanne Keyes Youngson (of whom I was not aware), saying she had encountered my book and that she had been a “romantic interest” of Jean’s before he began dating Lois Nettleton. Jeanne told me she had participated in the I, Libertine hoax and the Wannamaker protest in 1956. At some time I will describe my meeting with her. I refer to her (not in any negative sense of the term) as “The Vampire Lady.” The recent photo of her below is from her website.
Young actress Lois had listened to Shepherd during his overnight phase in 1956. I made contact with her after my Excelsior, You Fathead! was published. I’ve had much to tell about her and her relationship with Jean. She was a very important part of his early creative life in New York. See some of my previous posts.
Lois as Miss Chicago of 1948, and another early photo of her.
As attractive as she appears in these images, after she began work in Hollywood, she transformed into a strikingly attractive woman.
Leigh Brown, it’s said, was introduced to Jean by their mutual friend, Shel Silverstein. Eventually she began working at WOR, became an important part of Jean’s career, and became his fourth wife. There is much more that I’ve had to say about Leigh–see some of my previous posts.
Leigh Brown (Nancy Prescott) in high school
There is more information to come about Jeanne, Lois, and Leigh regarding Jean’s creative life. Stay tuned for more posts down the road. Meanwhile here is my two-part chart (click to enlarge the parts):
Shepherd told many stories about American traditions. One of his favorite subjects was the 4th of July, and the favorite story is about the neighbor, Ludlow Kissel, and his disaster setting off a bomb. Another, lesser known Shepherd story is the one about him as a teenager helping out his old man during the Independence Day celebrations.
Fireworks were an integral part of my life as a kid. There were three things my old man was hung up on. There was the White Sox, used cars, and fireworks. He was an absolute nut on fireworks. He had gone into the business and he was selling them.
There was a law saying you could not sell fireworks inside the city limits, so outside of town, half the cops were selling them. For miles around you would see these little wooden stands that had been selling tomatoes and pumpkins and stuff suddenly have red, white, and blue bunting and a great big sign that would say EXCELSIOR FIREWORKS. Excelsior was one of the big names.
They sold fireworks at a stand until the evening when, with his unsold products, the old man had his own display to give joy to the neighborhood:
Everything has been going fine. Big pinwheels he’s got. He’s got great American flags that fly up in the air and come down on parachutes. Everything’s going. Finally he takes out the Roman candle, which he always loved more than any other kind. He lights it. Everybody’s waiting.
Choooo! Off goes the first one, a big green ball goes up and everybody goes “Oooooooooooh!”
At the third ball, just as my old man is winding up, that Roman candle shoots backward—right out the back end of this thing comes a ball—Woooooops! like that, right up his sleeve and right out the back of his shirt! He spins around, another ball goes out the front and then quickly two of them come out the back! He is going on like he is insane. He throws the damn thing, it flies up and goes into Flick’s backyard, right in the middle of the geraniums. Boom! Boom! Out both ends. He turns around and he screams bloody murder— his pongee shirt is on fire. “My shirt! Oh no, my shirt!”
He runs up the alley and we can see him trailing smoke and flames. He runs down in our basement and turns on the hose. People are pouring water on him and then rubbing goose grease on him. What has to be pointed out is that nobody worries, it’s just natural in the fireworks world. That attitude toward infernal destruction.
Five minutes later he’s out in the backyard shooting off rockets, shirt hanging out, shirttail tattered, one sleeve missing. That is a picture of an American celebrating something—but who knows what?
“Celebrating who knows what?”
Shepherd does not answer his own question.
It is an irony, a conundrum, a metaphor of something.
We might guess that Americans are celebrating any of it and all of it:
→the whole uproarious conglomeration! ←
Happy Independence Day!
WHY IS LEIGH IMPORTANT?
* * *
THE MOMENTOUS NANCY PRESCOTT/LEIGH BROWN NARRATIVE
For those who need to know, Leigh Brown was the steadfast, all-purpose, vital element in the life and art of Jean Shepherd beginning in the early 1960s: the power behind the throne.
First a little back-story. Barbara, Leigh Brown’s best friend from her teenage and young adult years, wrote a comment on the http://www.flicklives.com guest page, saying she’d like to talk to someone about Leigh, who was born and raised as Nancy Prescott. I leaped at the opportunity. I’d been especially interested in when and how Leigh met Jean and first got her job at WOR, beginning their lifelong personal and professional relationship that were so important to Jean’s creative life. One assumed, without a shred of evidence one way or the other, that only after she began work at the station did their relationship develop. It was a totally blank page in the story. In fact, almost everything about Leigh was a blank. All we knew was that she began at WOR sometime in the early 1960s, starting at the bottom and working her way up so that she would eventually become an important, many-faceted assistant to Jean, aiding him in all of his projects.
Maybe Barbara could tell me something about that professional and personal relationship. And what was the intellectual and emotional makeup of the person who would put all her abilities to work for Jean Shepherd for the rest of his career? Was she just, as was assumed, the meek but efficient acolyte who put up with being brow-beaten on and off the air by him—at least until near the end of his radio years at WOR, when she reportedly could hold her own and, as we know, actually married him? If this be gossip, make the most of it—because it’s on the highest level, in which we better understand what makes people tick and interact with each other for their mutual benefit. What, me gossip? No, no, no, it’s entirely to learn more about the Art! All that kind of important stuff.
Now listen closely, gang—I’ve got heretofore unknown true tales to tell, right from the horse-lovers’ mouths. (Both Barbara and Nancy were horse fanciers, owned farms, raised horses, and collaborated on a novel about show horses. When Jean eventually suggested that the manuscript should either be geared toward kids or have more sex, Leigh added sex, Barbara chose to bow out, and Nancy changed her name to Leigh Brown when it was published in 1975.)
Barbara told me that Nancy Prescott, eighteen, had eloped with a classmate right out of high school because she was pregnant.
Nancy Prescott/Leigh Brown high school photo
Soon she left her husband and their baby because she couldn’t see herself as a conventional woman with a spouse and kid living behind a picket fence in small-town New Jersey. She moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, where the action was. The understanding is that Jean Shepherd left his wife and kids because he couldn’t see himself as a conventional guy with a spouse and kids living behind a picket fence in small-town New Jersey. He moved to New York’s Greenwich Village where the action was. Can you see where these monumentally fascinating circumstances are heading, gang? Read on and don’t feel guilty—remember that it’s all about Art and captivating Ancillary Matters.
Lois Nettleton (The Listener and Actress) was forming an emotional attachment to Jean by 1956, not knowing that he was married. Jean left Joan (Wife Number Two and Mother of his Kids), and the picket fence for the Village in 1957. Lois, after an on and off four-year, possibly unconsummated relationship, got her wedding ring in December 1960 although Jean wouldn’t let her wear it in public. (It spoiled his “free-spirit” image.) Jean was then forty and married to a beautiful actress, Lois, who was thirty-four, and Nancy, free-spirited escapee from the picket fence in Jersey, who would probably meet Jean some time in 1961, was then a chick of twenty-two.
Nancy/Leigh became friendly with young Shel Silverstein, for whom, it’s said, she did the coloring for the Playboy version of his Uncle Shelby’s A B Z Book.
–and whom she annoyed by disapproving of his having shaved his head, saying he looked like “Mr. Clean.” Of major importance for our true-to-life chronicle, it seems that Shel introduced her to his ol’ pal, Shep. Gees, that Shel sure was an intimate part of Shep’s life!
Picture the scene. Barbara reported that Nancy met a lot of Village people who would one day be famous. Artists, actors, playwrights, cartoonists, a late-night radio broadcaster. You know the type. Among those Nancy got to know was Rip Torn, who performed in numerous television productions in the late 1950s and went on to act in many Broadway plays and Hollywood films, and actor Jason Robards, Jr., who, in 1956, played the lead in the off-Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and a few years later starred in Herb Gardner’s play and film, A Thousand Clowns. But how much could be filled in from the long-ago insider information and memories of Barbara, who’d been at home in New Jersey while Nancy lived the aspiring artist’s life in the Village?
Here’s how much more fill is available—Nancy had typewritten dozens of long letters to Barbara, who sent the eighteen she could find to me, just in case they might be of interest. “Just in case,” she said!
At night Nancy/Leigh is a full-fledged, aspiring creative type, reciting her own poetry in coffee houses such as Raffio and Café Wha, drinking with pals at the Cedar Tavern and the White Horse, working on a play script and a flick, working on the horse-show novel—and she is her true self, not tied to picket fences, spouse, or kid. In one of the first letters, she describes herself, all caps:
I AM A BEATNICK, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! WHY WON’T ANYBODY REALIZE THAT. I WAS BORN BEAT FOR CHRISSAKE. I BEEN BEAT FOR YEARS, SINCE WAY BEFORE KEROUAC ROTE ON THE ROAD.
The postman had no idea what treasures, what intimate grails, he’d just delivered to me from Pocomoke City, MD. So the gates are open and we’re off and running. The first letter I have is dated September 25, 1961, so Leigh and Jean knew each other by then.
Here, in chronological order, are relevant excerpts from Nancy’s letters (From now on, let’s just call her Leigh)—who seems mature-beyond-her-years, but she sometimes writes in an exuberant, schoolgirl style that only adds to our appreciation of what she was experiencing and was able to express on paper. Through these primary sources we can observe, just as though it were a well-constructed story, Leigh’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, regarding herself and her developing relationship with Jean. We may always want more, but what we’ve got is plenty!
Note that Leigh already knows Jean well enough to want him
for her very own. (Click on images to enlarge for reading–
read all of them–it’s essential in order to know Leigh Brown
and her importance to Shep’s life and work.)
Remember that Jean had married Lois Nettleton, Miss Chicago of 1948, less than a year before, and as an actress, she is often on the road. During the crucial period of this real-life drama, Lois acts in five television programs including three Naked City episodes, a Great Ghost Tales, and has the starring role in the Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun.” She also features in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment. Busy girl away from home. If you have to ask me what connection that has to anything, fuhgeddaboudit!
October 1961 looms large in the combined Leigh/Jean legend, so keep your knees loose and your eyes glued to the screen. By sometime this month, Leigh tells Barbara, “After meeting Jean, how could I dig another guy?” She is freaking out because Jean is asking Shel about her and Shel tells her that, “I think you have made an impression on Jean.” She exclaims to Barbara, “Oh god, I would dump every man in the world for a shot at him.” Leigh reports that by that time, “Jean is talking to me now on a different level.” On October 2 she writes:
Speaking of Jean, although I have given up plotting and etc., as far as he is concerned, I still think he is the END great guy and all that. I suppose I shall go through the rest of my dumb life having a half-assed crush on Jean,… J. F. thinks that I should ball Jean to shatter my illusions; he says that if I DO ball him, it will make him much more human and I will probably find out that he is a lousy ball, or eats crackers in bed, or something. But I look on the whole thing as a typical assy F. idea—the last time he talked me into something it was the whole wild scene with Shel. Rest assured—I am not going to ball Jean. Anyway, I don’t mess around with married guys. I am going to be very straight arrow and moral in my old age. Something I should have done YEARS ago, for crying out loud.
Anyway, suppose he WASN’T a lousy ball? Then I would probably (probably, hell, CERTAINLY) get hung up on him (I am the type to get hung up) and end up with my ass in a sling as per usual. I am sick and tired of getting knocked flat on my emotional duff every 4 minutes over some clown, and fooling around with J. is just ASKING for trouble. Like looking up an elevator shaft to see if the elevator is coming down!
I am really trying very hard to talk myself out of it. Write me a letter and tell me in 2500 words or less why I should NOT ball Jean, and why I should not even THINK of balling Jean. It might help.
By October 4, the doctors are divided over what fatal disease Leigh has. One doctor thinks it might not be as serious as the other doctors believe:
But I will tell you one thing. If my days on this kooky earth are numbered, Jean and I are going to have the wildest love affair you ever saw in your life. We are going to swing, but SWING, and it is going to be the absolute WILDEST! After all, what would I have to lose?
You know, it might be worth it after all. Sort of like “See Paris and die.” Or is it Naples, anyway, you know what I mean. After all, after J. I am sure I would be sort of spoiled, to say the least, and wouldn’t be CAPABLE of digging another guy.
Leigh is very conflicted about Jean and her own life. Regarding her baby, who’s been left in Jersey, she has a crib in her NY apartment, so the kid has not been abandoned. Leigh is smart and sensitive and young and hasn’t “gotten it all together” yet, but she’s working on it:
I want something real when I really love again, when I REALLY commit myself wholly to a man.
Jean? Maybe. But in years, not weeks. We have time. I will wait and see how I feel, and how he feels. We have a good and warm relationship now. We like each other. We enjoy each other. I like everything about him. Everything he does pleases me. But hopping into the sack with him would be idiotic because I do not KNOW Jean. Knowing ANYONE is hard enough, but Jean is an unusually complex man, and his needs go much deeper than the average non-aware clown. I do not know if I can give him anything of value. Love, you know, IS giving. Real love. So I am not IN LOVE with Jean. But he is just the greatest ever, as a human being. He is good for me now that I am getting mature enough to put the whole thing in its proper context, not just give in to the Romantic Myth. I am beginning to be a person instead of just a chick. And he is good in the sense that he sees me as a person. He really does. This is rare, for a woman, you know—especially in the Big Apple where a pretty chick is just something to ball.
I will not trade my relationship with Jean, which is now a real friendship based on reality, for the Love Myth—based on sex appeal, or insecurity, or God knows what. And with Jean in my life, I am learning how to live—I am growing up.
Recognizing what other women have noted, at one point Leigh writes about Jean’s emotional distance from others:
I can see from my own relationship with him, tentative and tenuous as it is, how this type of thing works against closeness and involvement. On the surface, at least. I love Jean, love and respect him as a rare and warm human being. But I do not think I could be IN LOVE with Jean, at least not soon—not fast—not really IN LOVE. There is a detachment about Jean that is always there—a feeling of closeness without closeness, dig? I mean, Jean is not the TYPE a chick can commit herself to—he is not so wrapped up in himself that he NEEDS this sort of total emotional commitment from a chick. Or wants it. Jean is so aware of the world, the whole wild fantastic surreal WORLD, rather than just himself, and so alive and so interested in it all, so INVOLVED that he has no TIME for just one chick. Dig? This is what prevents me from losing my head and getting totally hung up on him. This is why I can trust myself to keep a relationship on a friendly basis—a mutual digging of each other—and not make demands…..
Funny thing about Jean—every time I see him, or talk to him, I feel that I am in some way back in touch with Reality. He is such an honest, straight, no-horseballs kind of guy….but Jean is sort of a balancing wheel for me—you know my way of jumping on my horse and galloping off in all directions—for me, seeing him is touching the earth. Sort of gets things back in focus. Dear Jean, my good good friend—in fact the first MALE friend I ever had, really. I think he is the only man, other than my father, I ever trusted completely.
In a late January 1962 letter Leigh writes on page one about how she and her lover, R., had been breaking up, making up, breaking up, and that he is so jealous of Jean even though Leigh says she is just friends with him. She writes that R. “is always hollering that I am carrying on a love affair with a radio.” [Shep-kooks, myself included, have heard that accusation before, haven’t we?]
Then we turn over to page two, top.
It’s more than a simple page-turning in this story we’re reading about.
The preface is long past and the introduction has ended.
The lives of Leigh, Jean, and Lois, are about to be transformed.
STAY TUNED, FOLKS
[Below is a small part of Joel’s thoughts about this post. See his
complete comment in the “comments” section of this post.]
Fascinating stuff Gene. Nancy/Leigh is a caricature of the beatnik wanabee chick from the late 50s/early 60s. She is so conscious of acquiring the outer trappings of the cool and hip, it seems that this is her costume to gain admittance to this club. She picks up on Jean’s narcissism very well. —”a feeling of closeness without closeness, dig?”