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I recently noted an LP record titled “The Best of Jean Shepard.”
So I thought, why not a “Best of Jean Shepherd.”
This proves to be a difficult task to compile, in part because there are so many audios of his broadcasts and so many published stories and other works. My memory is deteriorating and I can’t listen to and reread all his published work. I’d appreciate suggestions about what to add to my list, including sources/dates and reasons for the choices.
As a representative selection for possible inclusion with my EYF! (which never happened–it was nixed by the publisher as too expensive) and for eventual distribution as a premium for WBAI, I compiled a CD-worth of excerpts from Shep programs.
Assume that, as a given, I choose the broadcasts below because I feel or assume they are well-told besides having the particular attributes that especially gab me.
I, Libertine,.First comments and suggestion of a hoax. (4 ?/??/1956) One of the great “Holy Grail” Shepherd broadcasts. I have not heard it but I have thought about it and read little bits about it so often that it is a permanent part of my “memory,” and it must be one of the great moments in literary and shepherdian history.
March on Washington. Narrative told the day after the March. (8/29/1963) Shepherd describes his trip, not as a reporter, but as just another American. This conforms to his attitude as an informed and enthusiastic American patriot.
JFK Assassination. First day back on the air. (11/26/1963) Shepherd, from time to time, had described his feelings about psychological issues in America, and he takes this opportunity to reiterate some of them and link them to the assassination.
“Blues I Love to Sing.” Program I describe and partly transcribe in EYF! (6/16/1957) Shepherd interacts with the singer on the record and expresses his joy in the narrative situation he depicts. This but a ten minute portion of the four-hour program. He uses what is a familiar image from his earlier days of the “figure tattered and torn.”
“Why I am Such a Sorehead.” Discusses Mark Twain and Morse code–I describe in EYF! (1/6/1965) He integrates into his narration, Twain, one of his favorite predecessors. He develops the metaphor of the Mississippi as a dangerous path in life, and relates it to one of his favorite activities, Morse code, suggesting that we all have some activity that, in reality, we are not as good at as we think and hope we are.
“Shermy the Wormy.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (9/4/1964)
“Fourth of July in the Army.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (7/3/1963)
“Lister Bag Attack.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (6/17/1966)
“Boredom Erupts.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (9/18/1969)
“Private Sanderson.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (1/13/1971)
“Naked Baseball in the Army.” Told on the air, published in Playboy.
“Troop Train Ernie.” Told on the air, published in Shep’s A Fistful of Fig Newtons as
“The Marathon Run Of Lonesome Ernie, The Arkansas Traveler”
“Og and Charlie.” He told stories several times about these two cave-man-type-near-humans. They were a good metaphor for how Shep felt that humanity still was–not quite the mentally/emotionally advanced race we think we are.
Peru–The whole group of programs focusing on his trip, from how it came about to when he got home to contemplate the experience. At the time, he felt it was the best travel experience he’d ever had.
In addition to all of the above, one must add some of the innumerable bits and pieces of his delightful and cuckoo musical interludes on his silly little instruments–including on his sometimes silly head.
I made my own classical guitar. I’m fascinated by how the shape/formation of objects combine form with function. (It’s my design training still influencing me after all these years.) How does the form of a guitar contribute to its sound? Encountering a two-semester, adult evening class in constructing (not from a “kit”) a classical guitar from the raw materials one buys in a shop that supplies such to professionals, I took the course.
I kept notes and I took photos. Two parts of the classical guitar that might vary are the shape of the head and the luthier’s (guitar-maker’s) choice of how to configure the inside structural supports for the top of the body. I designed a simple, classical head, and chose internal struts for the body’s top that I thought would enforce high notes on the higher strings, and lower tones for the lower strings. I redrew all the instruction pages for the instructor’s future use–the upper left of the head is one of my pages.
An eb element of the rosette
around the sound hole.
I also designed and made the wooden rosette with my eb initials, and designed and installed my label.
While I was peacefully working on my guitar construction, my then-wife, from Granada, Spain, threatened me with a kitchen carving knife and I grabbed and rolled up for protection, my Sunday New York Times Arts Section (Yes, the Arts Section–it was the closest at hand), and that’s as far as I’ll take that true story. Except that I did incorporate the episode into my fact/fiction unpublished novel, The Pomegranate Conspiracy.
I completed my guitar at the end of the course, and practiced playing, struggling
for several unsuccessful years. Now my guitar is hung on a wall.
I love classical guitars and guitar music. I also like looking at Picasso’s guitar collages. So much so that I played around with one of his collage reproductions. First, with a color copier that scans one color at a time, I let it scan the first colors, then slightly shifted the original for the scanning of the black. Then I printed it and applied black-and-white photo prints of the underneath side of my guitar top, half on each side, with, in the middle, a photo of myself playing my newly completed guitar. One might title it:
“The Picasso/Bergmann Guitar Collage.”
I’m Conflicted About This Artsy Of Mine.
Is it a witty, clever, personal homage to an artist I greatly admire,
done by manipulating one of his works
(that he had first made by manipulating and reconstructing stuff),
or is it a fartsy, esthetic travesty for which I should be ashamed?
→ It is a unique collaged collage ←
Would Picasso have liked it? *
Many bibliophiles must have run into the infuriating situation of finding that a book dealer has denied the existence of a book that the seeker knows is for real. Shepherd, who sought a copy of a book of Vic and Sade radio scripts by Paul Rhymer in Doubleday, a major New York City bookstore, and told it didn’t exist because it wasn’t on the dealer’s book list, decided to do something about it. He explained the problem to his late-night radio listeners and suggested that a non-existent novel by a non-existent author, if properly manipulated among the book-list-loving populace of dealers, distributors, and book buyers, would wreak mental and emotional havoc. Thus, a novel of 18th century English sexual dalliance among the nobility, I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing, came into trumped-up, incorporeal being.
Listeners disseminated the hoax in bookstores and elsewhere, and pretty soon the media picked up on what was thought to be true. A title card for the “book” turned up in a library’s card catalog. Students wrote scholarly reports on the book with footnotes. Reportedly a professor gave one report a B+, and knowing of the hoax, added next to the grade Shepherd’s favorite battle cry, “Excelsior!” Phonies at cocktail parties were heard discussing the book’s plot, and a society columnist claimed to have had lunch with the author. It’s said that the Legion of Decency banned the book in Boston. A bogus radio interview with a bogus author added to the shenanigans. Eventually, with Shepherd’s permission, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax.
Publisher Ian Ballantine got together with Shepherd and Sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon, and, within a couple of weeks, hurrying to cash in on the notoriety, based on an outline by Shepherd, Sturgeon had written the book, with Betty Ballantine, Ian’s wife/editor, writing the final chapter when the exhausted Sturgeon, about to miss the deadline, fell asleep. Only a few months after its first bogus inception, the book became the real thing, selling over one-hundred-thousand copies, mostly in paperback, and far fewer copies in the small hardcover printing. (In fact, for years Shepherd fans thought that it was never printed in hardcover.) It’s claimed that the book hit best-seller lists, but those lists in question have yet to be reliably reported.
The photo on the back cover is of Shepherd, looking as hung over as possible, trumped up as Frederick R. Ewing, the dissolute “author.” A bogus image for the formerly bogus book. The book got a knowing and light-hearted review in the New York Times Book Review—pretty good for a book that had started out not only unknown but non-existent. The Times, using the Ewing/Shepherd photo in its review, simply titled it “Jean Shepherd.”
Part of NYT review, 9/16/1956,
showing Frederick R. Ewing
labeled “Jean Shepherd.”
This could be a source of confusion: American Poet Laureate Billy Collins commented to me that he felt that Shepherd looked rather sad, not realizing that the image was a gag.
Now, people who claim to have read it may well be telling the truth—myself included. I’ve read it twice, once when I bought it in 1956, and once recently, not in the paperback (the pages of which are now dark brown and too brittle to open), but in the pristine hardcover. Here’s my capsule review: Badly written and a bloody bore—seems to have been a rush-job. Shepherd, creator of the hoax and the book’s outline, is often credited as the author (especially among his fans).
In addition to having one of the scarce hardcover copies, I have a paperback personally autographed by Shepherd, a second one signed by Sturgeon, but none autographed by Kelly Freas, the Mad Magazine illustrator, who painted into the cover illustration insider-clues as to the actual perpetrators—on a tavern sign, a shepherd’s staff and a sturgeon. On the ornate coach depicted, one can find Shepherd’s watchword, Excelsior. With a wink to the knowing, the cover text proclaims that the contents are “Turbulent! Turgid! Tempestuous!” As a bibliophile and Shepherd-kook, I also have the British hardcover and the British paperback editions, their covers devoid of wit, but full of bogus erotic suggestions regarding content.
A recent edition.
I do not have this edition.
(Electronic, by Kindle)
Additional publishing information regarding the Ballantine editions would be hard to come by, as I was told by an informant at Random House, which now owns Ballantine, that all its records had been lost long ago. Seeking information from Mrs. Ballantine, author of that final chapter of the book, came up against a roadblock—having previously discussed the book on various occasions for ephemeral periodicals, she refused to be interviewed again about it for the only book totally about Shepherd-the-perpetrator. Thus dooming further knowledge to the grave with her.
END OF PART 3
A VISUAL POEM
Shepherd loved not only books, but their multitudinous components, words. Sometimes on his radio shows he would ask someone in the studio or a listener in “radioland,” to look up a word in a dictionary, just to be sure that he and his listeners understood it properly. During one show he announced with great pride that one of his invented phrases, “creeping meatballism,” a comment on conformism, had been formally attributed to him in a new dictionary of slang. He also enjoyed the references to himself in several New York Times crossword puzzles, and one can imagine his joy when, in 1972, he found that the Times puzzle of the day referred to him and his works in eleven words and phrases. A few years back, hearing a rebroadcast of this announcement, I rushed to the microfilm section of my local library to look it up and print it out, thus participating with Shepherd in his bibliophilia and the thrill of his honor, encountering such treasures in the puzzle as, VERBAL SHEPHERD, AIR SPIELER, and his favorite word, EXCELSIOR.
Although I recognize that many bibliophiles must also have unusual stories to tell regarding their own favorites, as a “Shep-kook,” it seems to me that the strangeness of my ragtag little batch of Shepherd books, references, and ephemera is without parallel and is worth describing.
What Author? What Book?
A publishing episode that must have driven Shepherd, the ever-striving author, crazy, involves a coffee-table book about one of his favorite subjects: The Scrapbook History of Baseball. Except for the acknowledgements page and a foreword, the book consists entirely of un-annotated, photo-reproductions of newspaper articles from the years 1876 to 1974. The book contains no authored text other than the duly attributed two-page foreword by Shepherd. Four baseball experts, whose sole job was to select the articles for reproduction, are listed as “authors.” But at best, those four compilers might more accurately have been titled “researchers.” Creator of that sole text, Shepherd might, in these strange circumstances, have been dignified with the title of “author.” Or have I missed something in the book-world’s definition of “author”?
One encounters Shepherd’s short stories everywhere. There is the hardbound, small publication, A Christmas Story, described on the cover as “The book that inspired the hilarious classic film.” But this book, first published in 2003, did not inspire the 1983 film. The book consists of five of Shepherd’s kid stories first published in the 1960s that were seamlessly synthesized into the film. Twenty years after that film was released, without even an attempt at cobbling them together into a logical storyline, those stories were gathered conveniently into a book. Though no crime, the malfeasance lies in claiming, two decades after the fact, that the book as a “book,” rather than that the selected stories in it inspired the film. This false promotion is a distortion inspired by sales-potential. As we know, a simple lie is more easily believed than a more complicated truth. Every so often I encounter much more important re-printings of individual Shepherd stories. He must have enjoyed seeing these stories in schoolbooks as subjects for studying English composition and style. And what pride to find, in another small volume, The Little Book of Fishing, one of his stories rubbing shoulders with those by the likes of Hemingway, Seamus Heaney, and Red Smith.
END OF PART 2
(25) JAPANESE ART—3 WAYS
I own Japanese art in various formats, mostly in reproduction, some original. On our bedroom wall, a trio of images represents three different ways of being. The two top ones are of 19th century woodblock prints, the traditional technique in which the artist draws on rice paper with brush and ink, artisans adhere this to a flat block and someone cuts away whatever is not the black lines. The line-block is then printed in black and the artist indicates on these sheets what and where each color should be. These sheets are adhered to blocks. Then a woodcutter cuts away on each block, whatever is not to be that color. Then all blocks are printed on each sheet to render the final originals of the work.
The left top print on our wall, by Hokusai (most famous work is the “Great Wave”), is not from the original blocks. It is a second edition, made by gluing first editions down on blocks and re-cutting every line—including every leaf of grass–then reprinting. (I compared my print with a reproduction of a verified first edition to encounter an occasional leaf of grass not properly rendered.) This image is from Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Which consists of 42 views. It’s one of my favorites. I love the dynamism shown by the strong wind affecting humans, papers, hat, trees and leaves, and leaves of grass. I appreciate the dynamic swirl of the footpath, the little objects being swept off to the right, and the immense thin outline of Fuji.
The top right print is a high-quality reproduction of my favorite print by Hiroshige. His work tends to be more flat and stylized than Hokusai’s, which is more “realistic.” Here, in a simple and powerful composition, we see the strong wind and rain, bearing down on humans and the background trees.
As an enthusiast of traditional Japanese art, I spent some time observing, in process, the Japanese section of the American Museum of Natural History’s permanent Asian Peoples Hall. One of the museum’s background painters, Matthew Kalmenoff, worked on the small diorama of a country scene with traditional rice fields. As a coworker and friend of his, I asked to see his preliminary sketch for the curved diorama wall. I expressed delight in it. In his appreciation for the support I’d given him and his work over the years, he signed it and gave it to me. It is a treasure. I enjoy contemplating it and noting some of the painting’s compositional design features.
Two of the berms separating parts of the fields are not parallel with the rest, but come together at an angle at the bottom of the painting so that they enclose it, rather than presenting a visual barrier parallel at the bottom edge.
One of the clouds is perfectly positioned to be reflected in the water, highlighting the farmers.
Regarding the row of farmers planting, the closest one’s round hat is not quite facing the viewer—it’s close enough to a circle to grab attention, but not so much so as to form a bull’s eye that would be hard for the eye to escape. The other hats are even less shown as circles, allowing the eye to move diagonally up the row of them further into the picture. The distant figure with animal is in line to assist the eye to make the little leap even further toward the background.
The design then moves the eye in a zigzag pattern to the right, then, with the help of the land and water there, back to the furthest reaches on the left.
The small building in the middle right is just big enough to give some focus of attention and to prevent the entire right side from being too bare—it almost forms a small framing device, its large tree perfectly placed to block the water there from moving the eye too far rightward–indeed, it caroms the moving eye back to the left.
I see this painting every morning as I get out of bed. I delight in contemplating how Kal’s composition, in what was done as an unimportant, preliminary sketch, but which is so well thought-out, was so elegantly created.
I’ve encountered a photo of the completed diorama, with artifacts in the foreground. I see that, responding to the three-dimensional material, Kal changed a few of the background painting’s details. Magnificent! Rest in peace, Matthew Kalmenoff.
Diorama in the Museum’s Hall of Asian Peoples
Thinking about Shepherd’s important moments and decisions in his life.
How did he get to where he became.
Some repetition and a continuation to not really a conclusion
in enigmatic, unsatisfactory endings–that can only continue.
WHAT DOES ALL THAT MEAN!?
Why–was he happy with his choices–what might he otherwise have done?
This is a difficult area and one which I usually avoid, because it is to a large extent speculative, and based–inevitably–on incomplete/inaccurate information. But maybe by doing little more than listing some milestones, one might get some clues about the Jean Shepherd enigma.
Photo courtesy of
Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.
I believe it of value to note and define, what to my mind are important points of Shep’s life and career. Some relate strongly to his creative world. Surely there will be some disagreements in this list. (It should be noted that, although years of publication are given, some of these activities/creations obviously were in progress at least in the previous year as he worked on the project.)
• • •
Moves to New York City, the center of the artistic/intellectual life he desired. It leads to almost all of his important creative achievements. At some early point in his life in NYC, he becomes involved with many of its artistic activities, including connections to: Greenwich Village and the Village Voice; relationship with Lois Nettleton; his reported introduction by Shel Silverstein to Leigh Brown.
• • •
This is the period I describe as “The Great Burgeoning.” It includes what I can think of as crucial and innovative parts of his professional life: Overnight, improvised radio from January to August 1956; Village Voice connections; connections to the modern jazz world including emceeing important jazz concerts, narrating Charles Mingus’ “The Clown,” and writing periodical columns on jazz; creating his I, Libertine book hoax; promoting John Cassavetes’ Shadows; editing and writing intro to his George Ade book. (From the front page of the Voice, the first image shows left to right: Shep, Lois Nettleton, Anne Bancroft.)
• • •
Convinced (according to Hefner by Shel; Lois said convinced by herself and other friends) to transcribe and edit his improvised stories and get them published (Playboy and in books).
• • •
Creation of first season of the television series
Jean Shepherd’s America.
• • •
Co-creation and narration of movie A Christmas Story.
• • •
Moving to Florida. Shep had numerous times expressed that New York City was his true home because of its vitality, artistic ambiance–why did he move? Finances? Lessening of his intellectual interests? Other?
• • •
Creation of second/final season of the television series
Jean Shepherd’s America.
• • •
Leigh Brown, helpmate, supporter, and love of his life, dies.
• • • • • • • • •
10/16/1999–into the future
Shep dies. Tributes and remembrances flow from many sources.
• • • • • • • • •
(As always, I’d appreciate any and all comments,
including additions, subtractions, corrections,
and further thoughts.)
Excelsior & seltzer bottle
More to come
Shepherd, on his radio program, promoted Greenwich Village, The Village Voice, and other aspects of the then-prominent culture identified with it, such as jazz and the Beats. He narrated a TV video about it and narrated the commercial film “Village Sunday.” (His love, Lois Nettleton, plays the part of a young woman strolling along, observing the scene.) He obviously appreciated the Village culture, and in the 1970s, live there for years.
I recently encountered a 600-page book, The Village–A History of Greenwich Village, 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues (John Strausbaugh, 2013).I’ve read the sections on the 1950s and 1960s, encountering a few good pages with an overall description of Shepherd, especially regarding the I, Libertine affair. My Excelsior, You Fathead! is mentioned in passing and is listed in the bibliography. The chapter with the Shep material, titled “Village Voices,” focuses on, among other items, Shep, Mailer, and the Voice. Epigraphs for that chapter:
You have no idea what a terrible lure this place is to people who live outside of this place. –Jean Shepherd
Greenwich Village is one of the bitter provinces–it abounds in snobs and critics. –Norman Mailer
[I do believe that the Shep quote refers not specifically to the Village but to all of New York City.]
The Shepherd-section, hitting most of the high points in a few pages, containing little if anything not generally known about him, ends with:
Despite his adoring listeners, Shepherd increasingly chafed at limitations of regional radio. After leaving WOR in 1977 he concentrated on film and television with some success, the bittersweet (mostly bitter) 1983 holiday film A Christmas Story, which he wrote and narrated, is considered a seasonal classic. But he never quite achieved the status he thought he deserved as a modern day Mark Twain or Will Rogers and withdrew to Sanibel Island off the Florida gulf coast where, a self-professed sorehead, he lived in relative seclusion until dying of natural causes in 1999. No doubt he’d find some rueful satisfaction in knowing that today copies of I, Libertine are collectors’ items going for as much as $350 for the hardcover and over $200 for the paperback.
[If one has the persistence to wait, one can get a paperback these days for about $50]
I enjoyed and found well-done, the author’s extensive material on the Beats, Shepherd, the folk scene, Mailer, the Voice, the emergence of Bob Dylan, and other surrounding material. There are no major errors regarding Shepherd, and the author seems to have used good and knowledgeable sources. Few if any other descriptions of Shepherd that I’ve encountered seem so on-the-mark. One might assume that the rest of the book is also good.
Village Voice front page,
with Shepherd, Nettleton, and Ann Bancroft.
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?]
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Some time after Shep first perpetrated it (said to have been in April of 1956), a Wall Street Journal writer, who knew of the hoax, it’s said, asked Shep if he could publish a piece revealing the fakery.
Ads appeared in the Village Voice. The authors’ publication day celebration, in September, just a few months after the original hoax was perpetrated, took place at Liggett’s Drugstore on Times Square, NYC.
Ad image from http://www.flicklives.com
WHO WROTE THE BOOK?
Publisher Ian Ballantine, who may or may not have been originally aware of the hoax, it’s said, sought out the author. Eventually he, Shep, and Si-fi author Theodore Sturgeon met and decided to publish the book. It’s said that the basic story idea was by Shepherd. It’s said that Sturgeon wrote as fast as he could, fell asleep before the last chapter was written, and Betty Ballantine, wife/editor, says she wrote the last chapter. Kelly Freas of Mad Magazine fame, did the cover, including a couple of clues regarding the hoax. Some references to the book do not include Shep as the instigator–probably because the writer didn’t know it.
CLUES AND MISSING INFO
(In the scene on the Ballantine cover is a tavern sign. As the book’s narrative puts it, “A shepherd’s crook and a bony sturgeon swung in the bright noon sun over the entrance to the Fish and Staff.” A sign emblazoned on the fancy coach says EXCELSIOR. There is no photo credit of Shep/Ewing on the back cover or elsewhere, but a flier for the book, with a large photo of Shep/Ewing credits Roy Schact. In the back of the book,”Ewing” thanks Shepherd, Sturgeon, and Shep’s Night People for helping bring the book into existence.
The New York Times Book Review did a review and described the photo of the fake Frederick R. Ewing as “Jean Shepherd.” The Authors Guild quarterly, in its timeline of 20th and 21st century hoaxes, lists I, Libertine. My descriptive essay of the hoax appeared in Paperback Parade, February, 2006, a fanzine, under the title “I, Libertine–from Hoax to Best-Selling Paperback.”
Paperback Parade opening page of article
A book on Sex, Scandal, and Celebrity in Late Eighteenth-Century England, by Matthew J. Kinservik includes an entire chapter near the end, recounting the I, Libertine hoax.
The main female character, it seems, was a real person:
“I, Libertine includes all the main events of Elizabeth’s remarkable story, but it also takes great liberties, for which Shepherd and Sturgeon were unapologetic, In an afterword, they invite ‘historically-minded sharpshooters to draw their beads on this narrative….When they are done, let them proceed to Aesop and delete everything they find there about talking animals.’ “
Joyce Brabner wrote an article about it that appears online. (I haven’t been able to find/access it recently). It begins, “Late-night radio yarn spinner Jean Shepherd was convinced that the New York Times Best Seller List was a sucker’s game. He decided to test the theory: Some little guy(‘s)…job is to call bookstores and find out what’s selling this week. Well, Fred Applerot recently bought 500 copies of Who Shot John?, and he still has 497 copies on the shelf. The guy calls and asks what’s hot…”Who shot John? Big Hit!” the little guy puts it on his list and soon everyone goes out and buys it!
Joyce Brabner, also, sometimes co-author with
her husband Harvey Pekar (now deceased) of “American Splendor,”
the autobiographical, episodic, graphic novel
published first as individual comics.
(See the well-done film of that name.)
Further I, Libertine fun includes a radio interview with an impersonator of the bogus “Ewing,” perpetrated in August 1956, which noted that Ewing had received the fake Burbage Award for “outstanding historical research.” And the folk at Montclair State University did an audio reading of the entire tome.
I, Libertine itself is now history—nearly 60 years old, and most of those who made it happen are gone—Shepherd, Sturgeon, Freas and Schatt, and Ballantine, the publisher who brought them together in a collective act of creative wit—the great literary hoax of our time.
[Did I mention that I have 5 copies of it? 1: paper signed personally for me by Shep; 2: paper signed by Sturgeon; 3: U.S.hardcover; 4.: British hardcover; 5: British paperback.]
The book meant as a hoax that became a reality,
remains, in many of its aspects, a mystery.
I think it would be good to enumerate what’s known, what’s a assumed, and what is unknown–except maybe, to those who know but ain’t tellin’. We know that some heard the broadcasts, and probably at least a couple recorded parts, but nothing so far has turned up. (Why are these people waiting for their ignorant heirs to toss the holy grail tapes in a dumpster?)
Note that many statements herein are preceded by such qualifiers as
“seems to be.”
WHICH COVER SEEMS TO BE THE “REAL” ONE?
WHICH MIGHT SELL MORE COPIES, AND
WHO HAD THE SHAMELESSNESS TO PERPETRATE IT?
BASE STORY OF THE HOAX
Shepherd, during his overnight radio shows from January 1956 to mid-August 1956, began to create a hoax with his listeners regarding lists and best sellers. Said to be in April, he began, describing how he went into a bookstore (said to be Doubleday on Fifth Avenue about 56th Street), and asked for a book he knew existed (said to be transcripts of some “Vic and Sade” radio broadcasts by Paul Rhymer). The clerk, upon checking sources regarding the title, claimed (so it’s said) that the book, as it was not listed, could not exist.
Shepherd described the incident on his show , and, it’s said, he was so upset that he decided to play a joke on the book industry and all those who control what we have available to read, and those who depend on lists. It’s said that at that time, newspaper “best seller lists” were compiled not only by number of book titles sold, but number of book titles reported to have been requested for purchase.
Why not create a non-existent title and author, it’s said that he said, and request it in stores. The fictitious publisher was “Excelsior Books, an imprint of Oxford Press.” If the sales clerk asked who the publisher was, the answer should be, “It’s ‘Excelsior’, you fathead!” It’s said that he made up a fake biography of the author.
Listeners asked for the book, some wrote essays on it for school, someone slipped a book index card into a library’s catalog, people claimed to have read it, airline personnel took the hoax overseas, a columnist claimed to have had a meal with the fictitious author, etc., etc., etc.
Indicative of the book’s widespread distribution is the London hardcover edition (that reached a second printing), available from used book dealers in England, Australia, and New Zealand. Dated 1957, there is no copyright notice. The dust jacket, in putrid purple (the New York hardcover sported putrid pink), depicts an eighteenth-century roué eyeing a very modern-looking young blonde disrobing, a far more lurid illustration than the witty and ironically suggestive one on the American edition.
English hardcover edition
Nor does this edition include the witty photo by Roy Schatt of Shepherd posing as the dissolute author, Ewing. Either innocent of the entire nature of the hoax or simply participating in the joke, the English publisher precedes the author bio with: “We do not vouch for the accuracy of this paragraph which is quoted from American sources.” Maybe this was a knowing British wink—a contribution to the mischievous confusion. At any rate, the British public was probably largely ignorant of the hoax (unless airline personnel told individuals about it). Too bad they missed out on the literary fun! I missed out also because, in the spring of 1956, when I was told that there was this late-night guy on the radio, his 1-5:30 AM broadcast hours were far too late for me.
My searches also turned up a London paperback edition. The full-color cover does the London hardcover artwork one—or two—better. A handsome young eighteenth century fellow in full period formal wear including tricorn hat and puffy shirt, charges through the open iron gate of a stone dungeon. The half-naked male prisoners in despair and chains, can only imagine, along with the viewer, the potential delights of what occupies, in prominent foreground, the left side of the scene— a lovely young woman with hands tied high over her head, dark tresses draped over one breast, her well-endowed body partly covered by a torn green dress, one thigh and knee revealed. She is not yet aware of her imminent rescue—her eyes gently closed, her full lips slightly parted as though already experiencing easily imagined post-rescue pleasures. This provocative scene is found nowhere in the text. (See image above.) One wonders how many dissatisfied English customers followed Frederick R. Ewing’s writing all the way to its less-than-orgasmic consummation, to say nothing of the undoubtedly unsatiated bloke whose copy of the tome found its way to a used bookseller in Australia.
I suggest that knowledge of the American hoax didn’t cross the Pond or the Pacific, but that publication in the land of Shakespeare and in the land of the Crocodile Hunter only happened because the publishers perpetrated a different and very common-place hoax on its customers— a provocative title embellished with salacious covers.
Previous comments by me have included other illustrations and words of great import.
See Part 2, soon to come (not a hoax)
Generally considered to be the “holy grails” in the world of Shep are audios of Jean Shepherd’s “overnight shows” from early January 1956 to mid-August 1956. Some people claim to have heard some of these shows that went from about 1 AM to 5:30 AM at least Monday through Friday. These shows included the I, Libertine hoax from first mention onward, almost to publication day in the fall. Lois Nettleton used to listen to the the overnights and got to know Jean by calling him while he was on the air. That led to dating and then to marriage.
It’s my understanding that the overnights, compared to the 45-minute shows most people are familiar with, were more slowly paced, more loosely constructed with stream of conscious effects, more extended musical interludes with more contemporary jazz components. And that the closest we have to them are the Sunday evening shows that went from nine to one AM. To compare them artistically with the 45-minute shows (If we ever have the chance), may be somewhat a matter of taste. But I think they’re important not only for their content, but to be able to hear how his later radio style may have evolved out of this earliest New York work.
Various major figures such as Jack Kerouac and John Cassavetes among others were early enthusiasts. A major jazz critic is quoted as saying that he not only listened but recorded at least some of these shows and still has the audios–but he’s too busy to do anything with them. Have the tapes crumbled to dust, have they been tossed into a dumster, oh, major jazz critic?
I understand that to ask a commercial technician to convert 7″ tape reels to digital format (onto CD disks) is outrageously expensive. I would think that the jazz critic or some Shep enthusiast would have access to a much-reduced cost of doing this.
In hopes that some overnights will someday show up before all record of them has vanished, in one of my odd moments, even before my Shep’s Army became a reality, dreaming a favorite dream, I thought I’d design potential CD case covers for distribution:
Dream on, little Genie,
My recent “Mad As Hell” post focusing on Shep’s invectives inspiring a scene in the film “Network;” scenes in “A Thousand Clowns;” and, maybe as a second generation/once removed from “Network,” Dee Snider’s Twisted Sister mega-hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” inspired Joel Baumwoll to post, in part, “‘Hurling invectives’ was one of several ‘pranks’ in which Shep cajoled his listeners to participate as co-conspirators. As far as I know, this was unique among radio or television performers. He made the listeners feel they were part of his act, and I think that created a strong bond between him and the ‘kids’ who listened to him.” [I emphasize in red some of the aspects of Shep’s clever ways to bring his listeners into participating, exploiting his followers into upsetting the domestic tranquility of the nation’s creeping meatballism.]
Joel goes on to mention several of Shep’s other pranks.
[I’d like to have a word other than “prank” but there may not be a better]:
PRANK, CAPER, LARK, LEG-PULL, PRACTICAL JOKE
Many of us, of course, are familiar with most of these maneuvers, but it took Joel to point out their relatedness. I’m going to elaborate on them, and I hope others will add to the list and elaborate on what I have to say.
HURL AN INVECTIVES
Although well-known as a major caper of Shepherd’s, very few have been noted down or even been available to hear. The most extended, as far as I’m aware, is the one I recorded on my reel-to-reel and quote in Excelsior, You Fathead! in which he builds up to it in part with the prototypical, “Put your radio on your windowsill now!” (Here–top one–is part of the quote from my book):
Myrtle! This is the third time you’ve come home drunk again. What about the kids? What about the kids, I ask ya? How long is this gonna go on? How long?
You don’t think for a moment you’re fooling anyone, do you?
How long do you thin you can get away with this? The jig is up!
You filthy pragmatist!
All right, you guys! Fall in. The doctor will be along in ten seconds. The uniform will be helmet liner, raincoats, and GI shoes, and nothing else! Let’s go!
Drop the gun, you rat! I’ve got the drop on you! Move one more time and you’re gonna get one between the eyes!
The “pragmatist” one was remembered by editor/publisher Paul Krasner. “Drop the gun” was Shep years later quoting himself on the Alan Colmes call-in program in 1998.
Hoax regarding fooling the book-buying-and-selling public by many listeners asking for a non-existent book has been discussed numerous times–here and elsewhere. The book’s afterword is a sly reference to the perpetrators–Sturgeon, Shepherd, Shepherd’s Night People listeners. Of course only those who were aware of the hoax would understand it.
In these, Shepherd asks his listeners to gather at a particular place and time and just quietly walk around aimlessly (“mill”), which, just by its non-confrontational manner, would gently disconcert the clueless. (Later fads maybe mill-inspired: “happenings” and “flash mobs.”)
Burned-out Wanamaker store when he was fired.
Marboro book store.
Early days at “The Limelight Photography Gallery and Coffee Shop.”
Washington Square to fly tiny kites.
Wave a white towel at the beach or flick your light switch off and on at night and look to see how many others (fellow listeners) are doing it.
Related to “mills,” reportedly Shepherd fantasized that many listeners should run to one side of a building to tilt it, or that they jump up and land at the same time to move Manhattan Island.
During a live-at-the-Limelight broadcast, he would sometimes ask attendees to yell in unison to the radio audience:
THIS IS W-O-R AM AND FM IN NEW YORK.
WE BUY SOAP AND WE TAKE BATHS
When being considered “not commercial” by WOR’s management Shepherd suggests that listeners go out and buy Sweetheart Soap, not a sponsor.
WOR management is outraged and fires Shep.
Sweetheart Soap offers and provides sponsorship.
There are a couple of other ways that Jean Shepherd promotes
a sense of community among his listeners:
Refers to them as ” Gang,” “Listeners,” “Fellow Sufferers”
Those who send in interesting comments/news-clippings that might seem to indicate a burgeoning trend: “cracks in the sidewalk,” or “straws in the wind,” he calls:
Although it’s well-known that Shep’s was not a “call-in show,” he did receive from time to time calls from listeners–most prominently from Lois Nettleton, then an aspiring actress–they eventually met, dated, married, and divorced. Usually one did not hear the caller’s voice, but sometimes one did, especially when Shep requested a particular response from the caller. One time he did a kind of communal celebration when he asked and got from the caller, on the air, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Shepherd.” Shepherd also sometimes took calls during commercial or news breaks–then I once got to talk to him but was so nervous, I sounded like the klutz I was at the time (I think I’ve improved a bit over these many decades.)
Shepherd encourages his listeners to listen to and read various works of literature that he likes–at least in part so that they will feel this bond of mutual enthusiasms: including haiku, Thomas Wolfe, Robert W. Service, Don Marquis (Archy & Mehitabel), George Ade, and various specific books which he discusses on the air with enthusiasm.
SUPPORTING THE ARTS
A major form of assisting “the arts” includes his discussions with three of the rare guests on his show, the projects in which they are involved: Herb Gardner, Arch Oboler, John Cassavetes.
Drawn and widely popular before his soon-to-be-produced
play and film, “A Thousand Clowns” was to destroy their friendship.
I heard Shep’s broadcast with Gardner
discussing the Nebbish phenomenon–and I bought a ceramic tray of the above image
and a soft, white statuette of a Nebbish. I still have them.
“Night of the Auk”
I heard Arch Oboler, the well-known radio scriptwriter of such shows as
and various suspense dramas with Shep discussing on his show in 1956,
Oboler’s soon-to-open dystopian sci-fi drama. I attended one of the previews.
An opening title of John Cassavetes’ Shadows.
Shepherd and Cassavetes, actor and aspiring playwright, discuss his need for money to make the
film–so Shep’s listeners send in small amounts totaling about $2,000.
PLEASE CONTRIBUTE MORE COMMENTS TO THE ABOVE IDEAS
→ 2 more appropriate additions from Joel←
SPIES: The very idea of calling us “spies” is so loaded with the us vs them feeling, which is so much a part of Shep’s attraction to adolescents who had any sense of humor. He really was an innovator in the art of getting his audience to feel they were part of his act. In fact, I can’t think of anyone today who is doing anything like this on TV or radio. The internet has created a great wave of participation. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram with followers and likes and such give users a sense of belonging. But a single performer creating the kind of true followers as Shep had has never been duplicated.
AWARD BRASS FIGLAGEE: Another technique he used was awarding a brass figlagee to anyone who could tell me the name of..the color of…the program that did…etc. This was Shep’s version of a tv quiz show, with some long forgotten esoteric person or even as the answer. He would take calls, but rarely put the caller on the air.
I remember one where he described a favorite childhood toy, a metal taxi cab painted in the yellow checkerboard colors and with two characters inside. I knew he was talking about Amos and Andy. He offered his prize to anyone who could name the cab or the program. I shouted at the radio “Sunshine Cab Company–Amos and Andy.” Almost always, the program would end without the answer ever being revealed.
Yet another technique was deliberately getting a name wrong, knowing that many of his listeners would know what he was doing and feeling in on the joke. He often called the Dickens character Ebineezer Stooge, and deliberately got the first name wrong for some famous character like Madeline Monroe, knowing it would drive some in the audience nuts wanting to correct him. All effective ways to make the “in group” feel in.