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A basic description of Shep’s basic books.
Only those which he entirely wrote as stories and articles. So this does not include The Phantom of the Open Hearth, which is the script of the video drama based on several of his previously published stories.
IN GOD WE TRUST: ALL OTHERS PAY CASH
The book’s title doesn’t reference a story title, but refers to a sign in Flick’s Tap when Ralph is leaving, described on the last page of the book:
I glanced back over the mob of lumberjacketed, safety-shoed beer drinkers. Above the bar, under a Christmas wreath I noticed for the first time, a sign:
IN GOD WE TRUST
ALL OTHERS PAY CASH
On a WOR program, Shep announced that he had written a novel and had delivered it, complete, to his publisher. The dust jacket of the book says, “a novel by.” The full-page ad by Doubleday, appearing in the New York Times Book Review refers to it as a novel. The author’s disclaimer states:
The characters, places, and events described herein are entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, accidental, or the result of faulty imagination.
Other than the specific wording, that kind of disclaimer is rather standard, but here Shepherd does his best to insist that the entire book is fiction, despite what listeners and nearly everyone subsequently has called autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. The book’s dedication states:
To my Mother, and my Kid Brother
And the Rest of the Bunch…
Many of the stories originally appeared in Playboy. The contents consists of Ralph Parker (Shep) returning to his home town as a reporter. He visits Flick in the tavern his father had run, and which he now owns and in which he tends bar. They discuss old times in short chapters that alternate as lead-ins to short stories about their past when they were kids. All the short stories concern their young childhood when they were about ten or twelve, up to and including dating age. Reports indicate that the book sold exceedingly well.
WANDA HICKEY’S NIGHT OF GOLDEN MEMORIES: AND OTHER DISASTERS
The book’s title is a reference to one of the book’s stories of that name. The stories originally appeared in Playboy. The stories are of Ralphie as a kid, but also includes “The Return of the Smiling Wimpy Doll,” the story of Shep as an adult grown up, living in Manhattan and receiving a box with a note:
Merry Christmas. I was cleaning out the basement the other day and I came across all kinds of junk you had when you were little. I figured rather than throw it out, I’d sent it on to you. A lot of it is still good and you might want to play with it, especially the Kangaroo Spring-Shus that Aunt Min gave you for Christmas.
After looking through the mementos of his childhood, he considers hauling the box-full out to the garbage landing of his apartment:
But I chickened out. Staggering under the load, I dragged my childhood to the hall closet.
We note that his childhood is, symbolically, a staggering load, and that he can’t just trash it. He saves it all (nostalgically), on his closet’s top shelf. A wonderful and ironic way of dealing with his past. Yes, the Jean Shepherd persona succumbs to nostalgia!
THE FERRARI IN THE BEDROOM
Dodd, Mead 1972
The book’s title is a reference to one of the book’s articles of that name. Most of these articles (not fictional stories) are curmudgeonly commentary on a variety of subjects that Shepherd found annoying. Many of the comic articles are reprints of his nearly-monthly columns in the magazine Car and Driver. (Note that some of the Car and Driver articles of his have nothing to do with cars or drivers, but they published them anyway. Shep’s then-editor at C. and D. told me that he often had trouble getting Jean’s article in a timely manner for the magazines deadlines. Sometimes Jean, during their phone call regarding the submission on time, simply spoke the article–apparently off the cuff–during their conversation, and that is what was published.)
Why did Leigh Brown have to go peddling the Ferrari manuscript as Jean’s agent, rather than Doubleday being delighted to publish it? Recently I asked Tom Lipscolm, who was then editor and publisher at Dodd, Mead. Our correspondence went like this:
EBB: A question that has been occupying my thoughts for a long time. As Jean’s first two books of stories, IN GOD WE TRUST, and WANDA HICKEY, both sold well with Doubleday, why did he and Leigh seek publication of THE FERRARI IN THE BEDROOM with another publisher?
Did Doubleday feel that, as the manuscript wasn’t exclusively of kid stories, that it wouldn’t sell well enough? For some reason had they had enough of Shepherd? Did the manuscript come too closely on the heels of the previous one? What might explain that they went elsewhere?
TL: My recollection is that the editor at Doubleday whose name I forget, simply wasn’t able to get a collection of auto magazine stories through the editorial board. Jean and Lee liked him, but felt he was narrow gauge given the larger list of subjects they wanted to cover. They were snobs. I am not sure anyone there on their ed board READ them. I thought they were charming and a look at American culture that foreshadowed what would become his PBS series.. JEAN SHEPHERD’S AMERICA.
In short… I simply lucked out.
Title page with portion of a Shep ink drawing
The Shepherd line drawings scattered through the book are mostly of New York City buildings and other inanimate objects. Although the book was published in 1972 (same year as Wanda Hickey), my impression is that Shepherd was most involved doing his drawings in the late 50s and early 60s, when he would go out on sketching expeditions with Shel Silverstein, Leroy Neiman, or others. Indeed, of the dates seen in a few of the drawings, they are late 50s up to 1960. I can imagine that, to give this miscellany of text material some additional interest, Jean and Leigh sifted through sheaves of old drawings.
A FISTFUL OF FIG NEWTONS
The book’s title is a reference to one of the book’s stories of that name. There are a couple of actual fictional stories scattered among the articles. The items are mostly reprints from magazines such as Playboy and Car and Driver, etc. However, the much-loved army story, “The Marathon Run Of Lonesome Ernie, The Arkansas Traveler” (aka “Troop Train Ernie”) seems not to have been previously printed–STRANGE! Shep told the story several times on his broadcasts.
“The Whole Fun Catalog of 1929” article, an appreciation by Shep of the quirky catalog of curiosities and gags, was recycled several times after originally being written as the introduction to the reprinting of the Johnson Smith and Co. Catalog original.
[Note: although I have these four books, I took the easy way out and copied/pasted
the images here from http://www.flicklives.com.]
In June, 2014, after posting my series on Leigh Brown, it occurred to me that such a story of a woman who fulfilled (at least a good part of) her dream, would be an appropriate subject for MS Magazine. She had intelligence, talent, love, and perseverance. I condensed the posts into what seemed to be the appropriate emphasis, word-count, and number of illustrations for MS requirements. I submitted it, and about a month later I got the manuscript back with a form-rejection letter. With the slight variation and considerable condensation from the original 7 posts, I thought it would be useful to post it here.
* * * * *
LEIGH BROWN, CREATOR AND ENABLER
The Lives and Love of an Arty Village Chick
by Eugene B. Bergmann
Leigh Brown, from the early 1960s through the late 1990s, was the steadfast, all-purpose, vital element in the life and art of the raconteur and wit, Jean Shepherd. Considered a worthy successor to Mark Twain and James Thurber, Shepherd was the master of talk-radio, known for his nightly improvised broadcasts from the mid-50s to April Fool’s Day 1977 on New York’s WOR, entertaining and intellectually tickling the better parts of the minds of generations. Jerry Seinfeld exclaimed: “He really formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.” Shepherd published twenty-three of his short stories in Playboy and interviewed The Beatles for the magazine. He created successful television series including Jean Shepherd’s America, and created the popular holiday film about the kid who wants a BB gun and nearly shoots his eye out, A Christmas Story.
Leigh and Jean married in 1977 and she died in 1998. He died the year after—those who knew them surmised that he could not live without her. What hasn’t been sufficiently known until now is that Leigh Brown was the power behind the throne and fulfilled some of her own aspirations—not all she hoped for maybe, but more than any of us ever imagined she had.
A little back-story. Leigh Brown’s best friend from her teenage and young adult years, Barbara, on the main Jean Shepherd web page (www.flicklives.com), said she’d like to talk about Leigh. I, as the author of the only book about Shepherd’s work, leaped at the opportunity. I wanted to understand the personal and professional relationship Leigh had with Jean and in what way it all mattered to his life and art. All we Shepherd enthusiasts knew was that she began at WOR sometime in the early 1960s as Shepherd’s gofer, worked her way up, contributed to many of his projects—and eventually published her own novel.
* * * * *
Who was Leigh Brown, the person who would put all her abilities to work for Jean Shepherd for the rest of his career? Just the meek and efficient acolyte, brow-beaten by him on and off the air—at least until near the end of his radio years, when she could hold her own? If this be gossip, make the most of it—because it’s on the highest level, in which we understand what makes people tick and interact with each other for their mutual benefit. The story proves to be a revelation regarding the creative life of Leigh Brown.
Leigh Brown, aka Nancy Prescott, 1957 high school photo.
Barbara told me that Leigh, eighteen, had eloped with a classmate right out of high school because she was pregnant, then left her husband and their baby because she couldn’t see herself as a conventional woman with 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. Imagine where these coincidences are heading.
* * * * *
Before Leigh arrived on the scene, Lois Nettleton, actress and Miss Chicago 1948, an avid radio listener of Shepherd’s, was forming an intellectual and emotional attachment to him by 1956, not yet knowing that he was married. She found out and ended the relationship until he got a divorce and she got his wedding ring in December 1960. Jean wouldn’t let her wear it in public because it spoiled his radio audience’s image of him as a “free spirit.” Jean was now forty, married to Lois, the beautiful actress of thirty-four. At that time, free-spirited Leigh was twenty-one. Lois, during this crucial period of this real-life-drama, acted in television programs including Naked City, Great Ghost Tales, starred in the Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun,” and featured in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment. Busy woman away from home. If you have to ask what connection that has to anything, fuhgeddaboudit!
* * * * *
Picture the scene. Barbara reported that Leigh associated with many Village people who would one day be famous: artists, actors, playwrights, a cartoonist, a late-night radio broadcaster. You know the type—soon-to-be-known actor Rip Torn, and Jason Robards, Jr. who played the lead in The Iceman Cometh and later starred in the play and film, A Thousand Clowns. Leigh had a desk job, and at night was a full-fledged, aspiring, creative type, reciting her 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 her novel. Leigh, the free spirit, apparently had an affair with young cartoonist Shel Silverstein, who would introduce her to Shepherd.
How much more could be filled in by Barbara? Leigh had typewritten dozens of letters to her, and Barbara sent all she could find to me, just in case they might be of interest. “Just in case,” she said! In an early letter Leigh described 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.
In her letters Leigh seemed mature-beyond-her-years, but sometimes wrote in an exuberant, schoolgirl style that adds to our appreciation of what she was experiencing and expressing on paper. We observe Leigh’s thoughts, feelings, and actions regarding herself and her developing relationship with Jean. She already knew him well enough to want him for her very own. She was enamored of his mind— the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his thinking, his understanding about all things:
He is courageous enough to detach himself to a certain extent—stand back far enough from involvement to SEE what is going on, and see it clearly and objectively.
Jean Shepherd, circa 1956.
October 1961 looms large in the Leigh/Jean legend. Leigh writes Barbara, “After meeting Jean, how could I dig another guy?” 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 “Jean is talking to me now on a different level.” Yet, she is what we call “conflicted.” 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,…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.”
She continues that Barbara should “tell me in 2,500 words or less” why she should not have an affair with Jean. Also in October, her doctors are divided over what fatal disease Leigh might have. One doctor thinks it might not be as serious as the other doctors believe (and he would later prove to be correct):
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….After all, what would I have to lose?
You know, it might be worth it after all. Sort of like “see Paris and die.” 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.
Yes, Leigh is very conflicted about Jean and the rest of her life that fall and winter. Regarding her baby, who’s been left with relatives in Jersey, she has a crib in her NY apartment, so her daughter has not been totally abandoned. Leigh is just going through a complicated period—she’s 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.
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.
On page one of a late January 1962 letter Leigh writes that her sometime-lover is jealous of Jean even though Leigh says they are just friends. She writes that R. “is always hollering that I am carrying on a love affair with a radio.” (A familiar complaint regarding Jean Shepherd’s devoted radio fans—enthralled by the tenor of his discursive and entertaining mind, Lois Nettleton and Leigh have both been captivated.)
Then we turn to page two, top.It’s more than a simple page-turning.The preface is long past and the introduction has ended. The main event is crashing in. The lives of Leigh, Jean, and Lois, are about to be transformed:
Then Jean called. He asked me if I wanted a job. I will tell you one thing—if he is serious about this job business, I will take it….I will probably end up falling wildly in love with him and being miserable for the rest of my life…I can conceive of a world without sunlight easier than I can conceive of a world without Jean.
She continues that she doesn’t think she’ll ever get married because “the guy I’m hung up on is already married and intends to remain so. I dig tapdancing. You can’t tapdance if you are married. Who would marry a chick who has a sign in her bedroom: Help Stamp Out Reality.” Oh, Leigh, Leigh, Leigh! You are about to start working with the guy you are hung up on. Leigh, forchrissake, you shoulda admitted to yourself right then and there that you’d gone off the deep end! The next letter I have is dated February 1, 1962. It appears that the serious “tapdancing” started at some time during the last week in January:
I’ve been deciding something important—I’m not fooling around with any more men—only with Jean. I love him plenty and don’t want anyone else.
By March, in the last letter I have, she writes an elaborate script for bamboozling Shel Silverstein, saying that he is “rather simpleminded at times, and easily distracted—like a horse—and will believe ANYTHING.” She intends to manipulate him so that he will unknowingly help her in what he would tell Jean, who’s returning from an overseas trip. She’d say she is in love with a married man, etc., etc. but make sure Shel doesn’t realize she is talking about Jean. She knows Shel will fall for it because “In spite of the beard, and the swearing, and the Playboy routine, deep down underneath (about 1/4 inch) Shel is a big, fat, lovable, Sentimental Slob—in fact I suspect that he still believes in the Easter Bunny.” When Jean gets back he’ll hear all about her from Shel, who will be on her side.
The letters I possess straddle this crossroads of Lois and Jean and Leigh’s lives. We can see with these letters that Lois Nettleton—innocent, intelligent, beautiful, thoughtful, appreciative-of-Jean’s-genius-Lois—unbeknownst to herself despite her own genius-IQ, was threatened by a complex and unstoppable force. And then, three years later, Lois discovered Jean’s secret life and they divorced.
Leigh, with her own artistic aspirations, from the early 60s onward, managed to successfully work both sides of a couple’s creative urges. She supported the genius, and with her professional world tied to Jean’s, she raised herself up to be his assistant, producer, agent, editor, co-writer, and even sound-and-scenic designer—his all-around artistic associate to the end of their lives. As he put it on his broadcast the night after his 1973 Carnegie Hall one-man show:
Now I’m going to credit where credit is due. All the lighting, many of the bits that were done in the show—these were the work of a very creative person I never talk much about, and that’s Leigh Brown. Leigh created the show….and I want to congratulate Leigh for this—publicly—for a change. And it was just a great job.
* * * * *
Through the letters I know more about the simple and complex, wise and foolish, foible-filled humanity of people I’d had only a shallow image of before. More understanding of the personal and professional relationship between Leigh and Jean. And, in a subsequent gift-from-the-gods, I now know even more about the two of them because Tom Lipscolm contacted me. Tom, publisher and editor, had met with Leigh in the early 1970s when she acted in her literary-agent role for Shepherd’s The Ferrari in the Bedroom. Tom published Jean’s book and later published Leigh’s novel. He talked with me about Jean and Leigh. What I hadn’t anticipated was that he would provide new understanding of how Leigh’s talents, some of it acquired and honed years before she met Jean, became, from 1962 onward, the essential force that enabled his unique gifts to flourish.
Tom talked to me about Leigh’s novel, The Show Gypsies, and about Leigh as an expert horse-woman, an expert in show-jumping, the subject of her book. He learned from her that “The show-jumper’s job is to sell horses. That’s their real job. The riders would work for certain owners. The rider had to deal with the personality of the owner, the objectives of the owner, the personality of the horse, and the competition. That’s pretty sophisticated stuff—commodity traders don’t have that tough a life. Plus, the riders must have their own athletic ability to make it all translate. So you think of what she did in life for a couple of years there, as an attractive blonde—that’s pretty interesting.” He was obviously telling me all this not only to explain why he published the novel but also to show how Leigh’s many-faceted abilities translated into her successful efforts to promote Jean’s works in all media.
“She was toe-to-toe with anybody,” Tom told me. “She was just a delight. When you were inside her world, she never missed a trick. Everybody’s name, she’d know what this was and what that was and she’d have the horse’s weight, whether it was a crummy horse or a good horse, why the horse shied away. So it wasn’t just that she’d been a show jumper—she was that kind of observer of absolutely everything.”
“When she sat in a room with Jean and somebody else and they’d have a long conversation, she wouldn’t say a word, and afterwards Jean would say, ‘Well, what do you think? How’d it go?’ And it was like listening to an intelligent computer that cut through all the crap and that did the three deal-points that mattered in the entire four-hour conversation. Then she’d come with, ‘I wouldn’t trust him. I don’t think that gig will ever happen. Consider it a free dinner, Jean. That’s what you got out of this.’ “
Tom saw how the workings of Leigh’s mind enabled Jean’s success:
“Jean’s always in a sales mode. He seldom picks up that he’s pissing off somebody magnificently. Whatever he’s doing, he’ll keep on doing. And Leigh would pick it up and say something like, ‘Well, Jean, why don’t you tell him about the time you were training in the Army down in Florida.’ And he’ll move right over. He won’t know what ditch she pulled him out of.”
Then Tom put it another way:
“No gearshift on Jean. Jean was always flat out. What Leigh did is she would direct him, she knew what his hot buttons were. She pushed the right button and the lawnmower, instead of heading up the front steps or into a wading pool full of toddlers, would go back to another patch of lawn that needed mowing.”
“She was incredibly loyal to Jean, spent all kinds of time talking to me about his talents and abilities—and what to do with them,” Tom told me. “And her thinking was top notch.”
Way back in 1972 Leigh told Tom that “If we can ever get A Christmas Story made as a movie using the Red Ryder BB gun tale, he will have it made.” It would be the ultimate perennial Christmas movie like It’s a Wonderful Life. She never forgot. Eleven years later A Christmas Story proved that Leigh Brown, co-writer of that film with Jean and director Bob Clark, just as in so many other circumstances, was right on the money.
Script credits for A Christmas Story.
[Computer monitor surround to be removed.]
* * * * *
We see Leigh Brown, now flesh and blood, emotion and intellect, essential in providing what Jean Shepherd needed to bolster his creative genius and succeed in his career. She was dogged, dauntless, and driven, she was single-minded, tough, and unyielding, she had street smarts and skill. She was wise, perceptive, inventive, creative, vulnerable, thoughtful, funny, and truly a match for Shepherd. Early in their relationship she had wondered if she had anything of value to give him. We come to recognize the substantial value to their careers and their dreams—and to their increasingly professional as well as emotional dependence upon each other.
Beyond her value to Shepherd’s life and work, as a stand-alone artist Leigh published her novel The Show Gypsies, highly regarded in the show-horse world and now only available in the rare book market. Typical of the reviews: “Absolutely the best novel ever written about life on the American ‘A’ horse show circuit in the 1970s. Every detail is 100% accurate.”
The Show Gypsies, considered
to be a major story and an accurate
portrayal of the world of show-horses.
Despite what at times must have seemed unbearable stress in her sometimes turbulent but loving life with Jean, Leigh joins her real life’s persistence to the book’s main characters. In a conversation late in the story, Diane and Davy refer to a line in a Merle Haggard song: “Every fool has a rainbow,” continuing that the singer will give up a bed of roses for thorns and will chase rainbows “every time the dream is born.” Her book dedication:“For Jean Shepherd…this fool’s rainbow.” Leigh Brown: the persistent and gifted optimist. Ladies and gentlemen, put it all together—she was quite a woman.
* * * * * *
Eugene B. Bergmann is the author of Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. He edited and introduced three dozen of Shepherd’s radio stories for the 2013 book Shep’s Army—Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles. He regularly posts his commentaries about Shepherd on his blog, http://www.shepquest.wordpress.com
This current post is the last of this series of “Manifestos.” The following story was scheduled for near the end of the Keep Your Knees Loose book manuscript. Does eveyrbody like green icing?
* * * *
A STORY IN KYKL I’VE BEEN SAVING TILL THE END OF ITS MANUSCRIPT
(The sweet green icing flowing down)
A couple of years before Shep died, a number of us Shepherd cuckoos contacted his childhood friends Flick, Dawn Strickland, and Wanda Hickey, and we all made regular pilgrimages to his home, maintaining contact with him despite our shyness and his justified grumpiness. It helped if we could get songwriters Jimmy Webb and Gene Raskin, and Chicago White Sox first baseman “Banana Nose” Zeke Bonura, to tag along. I’ll never forget those times we spent with Shep in his later years on Sanibel Island, when the temperature on those cool winter evenings had plummeted to 130 degrees above zero (centigrade), and the crappies were jumpin’ out of the swirling steam. Just as when listening to his nightly radio broadcasts, we thought those times would go on forever.
Ol’ Shep sometimes entertained guests by serving us highballs of meatloaf and red cabbage, if he could find the recipe. (I’m telling the truth! I’m not exaggerating!)
He would tell stories that inevitably began, “I was this kid on the north side of Juneau, see….” Then he’d go on to relate how, “With both hands tied behind my back [Laughs.] I’d wrestle alligators.” He referred to these anecdotes as his “Crock Tails.” If one of his old radio engineers was present at the gathering, he’d fix the guy with narrowing eyes, grab a 6SJ7GT mike and, daring him to cut him off, add, “Or I call these my Tales of Crocks of…” and let the unuttered word hang in the air like the stench of an abandoned latrine.
Inevitably he’d take us to his ham radio room [“shack”], where he’d have us listen while he tapped out some Morse code, and then, on what he called his “Victrola,” he’d carefully put on LPs, one by one, and scat along to “Boodle-Am Shake” and “The Bear Missed the Train.” He could often be persuaded to get out his jew’s harp and, with his inimitable way with a tune, but straining it a bit, he would render “Escargot” to the consistency of consommé.
It is said that he retained within a crystal case, on the rump-sprung remnant of a red chenille bathrobe, a fragment of broken table lamp in the shape of a woman’s well-turned leg. This is one of those Shep-myths it’s my duty to expunge from the record—the remaining shard is more likely part of a slender calf, or a hunk of inner thigh.
He would occasionally clear his throat—”HARUMPH!”—and could be heard to mutter, “What a gallimaufry! Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Finally, he would haul out an old wooden crate with a label, tattered and torn, that read, MADE WITH PRIDE IN HOHMAN, INDIANA. Within, he had a preserved, well-worn knee-handle, nestled on a bed of purest excelsior (you fathead!).
During those days and nights it seemed as though it was always raining. Maybe that’s why ball-bumbling Banana-Nose Bonura would drop another easy pop fly and Jimmy, nowhere near MacArthur Park, in his stripp-ed pair of pants, would go bounding out into the downpour screaming that he’d “never have that recipe again.” Yes, the recipe died with Shepherd. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end, we’d have our Shep forever and a day. But Jimmy (“MacArthur Park”), nostalgic songwriter Gene Raskin (“Those Were the Days”), and steadfast writer Gene Bergmann (“Excelsior, You Fathead!”) were wrong–he’s alive. Fortunately, Shep had baked us thousands of recorded broadcast cookies to savor, whether on our brightest, sunshiny days, or during a deluge.
* * * *
Thank you, cousin Raymond B. Anderson, for content and editorial advice on this entire project, leading to what I believe is a better book. Thank you to my friend Margaret Cooper, for her eagle eye and sharp mind not only for editorial corrections, in what might have appeared to be only gentle nudges and minor suggestions, but which were important comments resulting in a much stronger result.
Of course Jim Clavin’s www.flicklives.com continues to be the best source of Shepherd information. Members of the email shepgroup sometimes post new Shep-related news and respond to my queries, for which I’m grateful. Contacts from people who were aware of EYF! and my own detective work led to much new material, and I must also thank my able research assistant, Serendipity—hugs and kisses, doll.
Several people have provided powerful jolts of important revelations for our knowledge of Jean Shepherd. I thank Lois Nettleton, actress and third wife of Shepherd, for her enthusiasm for my first Shepherd book and her offer to invite me to visit her when she returned to the New York apartment she’d shared with Shepherd. She carefully read the book and wrote extensive notes—notes that provided much fascinating information about her and Jean’s personal and professional life, all of which contributed greatly to Keep Your Knees Loose! Thank you to director and producer John Bowab, Lois’s long-time close friend and her executor, who gave me two hours of his time in her New York apartment, and who rescued her notes from probably inaccessible university archives and generously gave them to me. Thank you, Doug McIntyre, for providing me with a copy of Lois’s year 2000 interview with him. Thank you Barbara Tiedermann Simerlein for the background information regarding Leigh Brown’s early years and for providing many letters from Leigh to her, written during Leigh’s early contacts with Jean. Thank you Tom Lipscomb for providing much important commentary regarding his friendship with Jean and Leigh. Thank you, Shepherd fan Mark Snider for providing contact with his brother, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and thank you, Dee Snider, for the great discussion and interview. Thank you also, Dee, for your cool blurb for my Shep’s Army book.
Thank you, Nadine Metta Bordogna and Charles Bordogna for alerting me to the Jerry Seinfeld comment about Shepherd on Seinfeld, Season 6 DVD set —I use the quote at every opportunity—and thank you, Jerry Seinfeld, for saying it.
Thank you Jeanne Keyes Youngson (“The Vampire Lady”) for telling me about your friendship with Shep and his early New York radio days. Thank you, Joyce Brabner for attempts to locate Jeanne’s misplaced and long-gone box of tapes from Shep’s overnight broadcasts. Many will recognize that Joyce was co-creator of some of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” graphic novels and that her essay on I, Libertine remains available on the Internet. I discuss in my graphic novel reproduced in my early blog posts, her help on that project.
Thank you, film director Raul daSilva for providing me with a copy of the heretofore undiscovered 1973 half-hour film, No Whistles, Bells or Bedlam, narrated by Shepherd (one gets to see him a bit, too!). Thank you Robert Blaszkiewicz, for permitting me to quote from your column about the JSMIGWTAOPC Tollway (described in an earlier post). Marc Spector, an associate producer at WOR in 1975 contacted me with his observations regarding Shep’s later period at WOR Radio. Thanks to Bill Myers for helping to expand on the meager information regarding Shepherd’s Cincinnati radio days. Thank you, Murray Tinkleman for alerting me to Shepherd’s commentaries in the 1987 PBS program “Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait.” Thank you George Irwin for providing a video portion of the TV panel show “I’ve Got a Secret” showing Shep musically thumping his head.
When’s the last time you saw Shep with a jacket,
white shirt and tie–and a crew cut?
This Part includes more front matter from my unpublished
Keep Your Knees Loose, as well as additional stuff.
Because so many describe my Excelsior, You Fathead! as a “biography,” I thought it might serve to include near the front of Keep Your Knees Loose, a notice setting the record straight (as though that might do some good):
There! That gets that off my mind! HA!!
What follows are a version of a Preface and, probably in forthcoming Part 4, short titles/descriptions of the proposed chapters of KYKL! As I’ve mentioned, some of this material has already been cannibalized from the manuscript and used for this blog. “Cannibalized” is such a horrific word–let’s just say I’ve served it in a civilized manner and cooked it up with a bit of extra seasoning after seeking it out in the fertile soil of the manuscript in which it grew, and then tearing the living matter out by its roots.
Gentle reader, I’d like to relate to you my adventures in a Shepherd-world of both reality and illusion (one may observe here rogues and heroes, whores and heroines, beggars, and noble primitives neither better nor worse than you or I in the vast heart and mind of American culture), adventures told by this scribbling picaro. Hark back to that knight-errant Don Quixote, as you think of me, a modern, though less-saintly adventurer. I unsheathe and raise on high my rusty falchion (a quaint word for sword used by none other than our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his immortal ditty, “Excelsior”). Seeking glory and the incorporeal embrace of my Muse, the lusty slattern of my dreams whom fatheads might call Dulcinea del Toboso, I, on my wobbly nag, galumph headlong in all directions.
In a certain town on Long Island, New York, which I do not wish to name (but it may slip out), there lives this scribbler—one of those who always has a lance and a ballpoint pen in the rack, a battered shield and serviceable computer on his desk, and an obsession with literature and the creative life. Only a few years past, this muddleheaded gent managed to publish a book whose title exclaimed, with its very first word, “Excelsior,” his own reckless optimism. Despite trying to make that first book as complete as possible, he knew that many details about Jean Shepherd’s life and work were hidden in dusty minds and forgetful attics throughout the land, just waiting to be made manifest, in part after being nudged into consciousness by Don Quixote de la Massapequa.
My original intention for KYKL! was merely to describe the new material that had accrued both through happenstance and by my ferreting it out. The material would be a permanent part of the recorded history of our culture. But my best friend and severest critic complained: “This book could and should be more. Write a book about your fascinating adventures in the world of Shepherd and Shep-kooks! What’s it like to live in a world surrounded by Shepherd mania? Have fun with it or it’s not worth doing.” Yes, I must have fun and create a work of art— nothing-but-the-truth picaresque adventures through the land of Shepherdiana.
(Remember that quests for grail tend to be never-ending and that
“the journey is the destination.”
That’s why unexpected encounters, such as mine in ShepQuests
can be so appropriate and enjoyable.)
EXAMPLE OF THE UNEXPECTED
Unexpected: my unexpected hearing of Shep’s story about the film “Play ‘Misty’ For Me” and claiming that he’d been stalked, leading to six deaths. I kinda believed this despite my general attitude that Shep’s stories were almost all fiction. I posted several essays on Shep and the film. Tom Lipscomb, who’d known Leigh and Jean well and been their editor and publisher, and whose intelligence and perception I admire, comments:
I’ve heard them ALL, and Shep and OTHER authors tell these stories when they are trying to impress someone they are doing business with like ME and he had plenty of opportunities… and he repeated them… He told me about what a s[**]t Herb Gardner was “stealing” 1000 Clowns about 1000 times AND I NEVER HEARD THIS ONE…. Shep acutely felt that he needed to drop names when he was feeling unimportant…. Otherwise he didn’t. He was filled with resentment at times about people he felt were more important than they deserved to be when he hadn’t broken out yet.
I don’t believe the story.
The key is that he NEVER wrote it down. Don’t you think he pushed Leigh to push that story a Zillion times….? And it never appeared… Tells me Leigh didn’t believe it either and was able to keep Shep from pushing it and embarrassing himself. But once he is on the air, there isn’t a damned thing she can do about it.
Oh me, oh my!
They’re slippery, inseparable maneuvers.
Who can pry ’em apart?
Back to KYKL in Part 4
Yes, here’s even more.
We know that from time to time Jean would refer to Leigh on the air, and we know that sometimes he demeaned her–on the air. (See especially, my EYF! pages 293-300). At least once he also made a point of emphatically complementing her during a broadcast. (See EYF! pages 298-299.)
What else can we know? Regarding my Excelsior, You Fathead! in 2008, I received an email from Mr. Tom Lipscomb, with whom I’d never had contact. He wrote, noting with obvious surprise that indeed, as I’d never known Shepherd, “I don’t know HOW you did this book. This is the Jean that Leigh and I knew! Lipscomb had published Shep’s 1972 The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and subsequently at another publishing house , Leigh’s 1975 novel, The Show Gypsies. One does not know why Doubleday, who’d published Shep’s In God We Trust and Wanda, didn’t publish Ferrari–maybe, because it was not Shep’s kid stories, but humorous articles that they didn’t think would sell enough to make their bean-counters happy. (Years later, a publishing conglomerate that includes Doubleday has the rights to it and other Shepherd trade-paperback books, all of which have sold in dozens of trade paperback printings. Stick that in your pot o’ beans!) For whatever cause, Leigh, in her literary-agent role, brought the Ferrari manuscript to publisher Dodd-Mead, where Lipscomb was its Editor-in-Chief. This began a strong professional as well as personal relationship with Leigh and Shep. Tom has the utmost admiration for Leigh. In one email to me, he explained in part:
Tom asked me to come over for a chat. Though unlike Quixote’s steadfast peregrinations through the arid plains of La Mancha, most of my picaresque travels in quest of Shep have been mental rather than geographical–but on a fine summer day I sallied forth in my minivan, voyaging from the ancient Indian “land of many waters,” Massapequa, Long Island, to Tom’s home just south of the wildly wooded glacial moraine of Forest Park, Queens, NY. As sole provisions, I packed my tape recorder, blank tapes, and fresh batteries. We met to discuss Jean and Leigh.
What I didn’t anticipate was that, just as Leigh’s letters had given her self-portrait from 1961-62 when she and Jean first became intellectually and emotionally involved, Tom’s comments would provide new understanding of how Leigh’s talents, acquired and honed years before she met Jean, became, from 1962 onward, an essential force that enabled his unique gifts to flourish. Tom gave me a bit of background on his encounters with Leigh and Jean and why he published Shepherd’s book and hers.
Tom said, “I’d known his work for years. I have a weakness for Americana. You’ve got to go out to where the market is. I like George Ade, I love Robert Benchley, a list of people—that doesn’t mean I don’t love Dorothy Parker, too–but basically, I knew there was a market in the United States for American stuff, and the thing that puzzles the New York Times people and my friends in the literary group always is, ‘Why would anybody buy a book by Bill O’Reilly?’ And I said, ‘Because they think it’s terrific stuff!’ They love it! They’re normal Americans.” Looking at me, Tom said, “You’re not a normal American—you’re a neurotic New Yorker. And you worry about all kinds of things nobody else in the country gives a shit about. They’re worried about the NASCAR races.”
So Tom published Ferrari and a couple of years later, when he co-founded a new publishing company, he did Leigh’s The Show Gypsies. He talked about Leigh as an expert horse-woman, an expert in show-jumping, the subject of her novel. She seemed to be fearless. Tom said, “She lost all her teeth jumping. She had total plates.” He learned from her that “the show jumper’s job is to sell horses. That’s their real job. The riders would work for certain owners. The rider had to deal with the personality of the owner, the objectives of the owner, the personality of the horse, and the competition. That’s pretty sophisticated stuff—commodity traders don’t have that tough a life. Plus, the riders must have their own athletic ability to make it all translate. So you think of what she did in life for a couple of years there, as an attractive blonde—that’s pretty interesting. So I thought The Show Gypsies was a good book—I enjoyed publishing it.” He was obviously telling me all this not only to explain why he published that book but also to show how Leigh’s many-faceted abilities translated into her successful efforts to promote Jean’s works in all media.
“She was toe-to-toe with anybody,” Tom told me. “She was one of the boys when it came to that kind of role. She was just a delight. When you were inside her world, she never missed a trick. Everybody’s name, she’d know what this was and what that was and she’d have the horse’s weight, whether it was a crummy horse or a good horse, why the horse shied away. So it wasn’t just that she’d been a show jumper—she was that kind of observer of absolutely everything.
“When she sat in a room with Jean and somebody else and they’d have a long conversation, she wouldn’t say a word, and afterwards Jean would say, ‘Well, what do you think? How’d it go?’ And it was like listening to an intelligent computer that cut through all the crap and that did the three deal-points that mattered in the entire four-hour conversation. Then she’d come with, ‘I wouldn’t trust him. I don’t think that gig will ever happen. Consider it a free dinner, Jean. That’s what you got out of this.’ And Jean would kind of weakly protest, ‘Gee, he seemed like such a nice guy. And all the things he’s done and all the people he knows.’ She said, ‘I wouldn’t bet on it.’”
So Tom felt that Leigh was a major force behind Jean’s success in his career. “Jean’s always in a sales mode. He seldom picks up that he’s pissing off somebody magnificently. He won’t pick it up. Whatever he’s doing, he’ll keep on doing. And Leigh would pick it up and say something like, ‘Well, Jean, why don’t you tell him about the time you were training in the Army down in Florida.’ And he’ll move right over. He won’t know what ditch she pulled him out of.”
In that regard, I mentioned that Bob Clark, director of Jean’s A Christmas Story, commented that Jean became a problem on the set and that after a while Clark had to see that Jean went home, and that when Steven Spielberg met Jean to talk over doing the narration for the forthcoming sitcom, The Wonder Years, Spielberg told Clark that there was a problem. Tom, who had discussed Jean with Clark, said that:
“It wouldn’t be anything Jean said that turned Spielberg off—it’s rather, how do you get a nozzle on this fire hose? You can’t have him take up all this time. Production companies are as efficient as they can be—you’ve got to shoot—a movie has to shoot on-budget in 21 days, 34 days, whatever. You can’t have a fire hose drowning everybody, delaying everything, screwing everything up.”
Then Tom put it another way: “No gearshift on Jean. Jean was always flat out. What Leigh did is she would direct him, she knew what his hot buttons were. She pushed the right button and the lawnmower, instead of heading up the front steps or into a wading pool full of toddlers, would go back to another patch of lawn that needed mowing. That’s one of the things that goes wrong with careers of entertainers—quite often they get too big for their britches. Now, some of it’s arrogance. It wasn’t arrogance with Jean, it was this extraordinary manic personality. Manic in the sense of inexhaustible energy on full throttle at all times.”
I said that I would have thought it was also ego.
“I don’t think it came from ego as much as from a childish sense of wonder—at the world and everything in it,” Tom said. “He seemed fresh all the time, and like the child who tells you ‘the grass is green’ with wonder in his voice, Jean is seeing everything new all the time. He would tell you the same story fifteen times, changing it each time, not because of his ego, but because it would occur to him again—it would pop up, and I quite enjoyed it. I found it quite interesting. I like talent. I put up with a lot of crap from talent.”
So Tom, with his extended contact with Jean and Leigh, encountered many aspects of their professional life in addition to some of their personal conflicts. He got to know Leigh especially well. “What a gal she was! She was just a remarkable person. Remarkable person. And she and Jean would have these terrific fights and I guess I got to hear what it looked like from her side, and she had a dry wit about her. She wasn’t just a crazy lady screaming about her boyfriend. She was very, very, very funny.”
As a close friend of theirs and using his professional observation, Tom recognized Leigh’s importance as Jean’s enabler in the real world. “She was incredibly loyal to Jean, spent all kinds of time talking to me about his talents and abilities—and what to do with them,” Tom told me. “And her thinking was top notch. After all, what does a publisher do—our job is to husband talent and bring it to the marketplace—so I had a lot of skill-sets that she wanted to hear about.” To her own innate perceptions and abilities, she added Tom’s knowledge of the creative world’s marketplace.
For Tom, here again is one important example of what he sees as Leigh’s effect on Jean’s career: When Leigh and Tom first met in 1971 she said that it was the Red Ryder BB-gun story that would eventually become Jean’s most important success. She was convinced it would be the ultimate perennial Christmas movie like It’s a Wonderful Life and make him a fortune. She never forgot. Fourteen years later A Christmas Story proved that Leigh Brown, co-writer with Jean and Bob Clark, just as at so many other times, was right on the money.
Jean Shepherd had many women in his life, and sometimes, over the span of it, he might truthfully have been called an MCP, but that would not have been the whole truth–there’s more to the story. There were times when he loved and appreciated some of the women in his life—and through our new-found knowledge encountered during our diverse, picaresque episodes, we’ve come to much better understand and appreciate the women, too. Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown, we see, were important in his world.
Some of the material in my blog posts comes from my miscellaneous thoughts and gatherings subsequent to Excelsior, You Fathead!’s publication. The subtitle of one of those two resultant, unpublished book manuscripts is: “Questing for Jean Shepherd.” Part of that manuscript’s original dedication belongs here:
….And to the memory of two women who were so important
to the life and legacy of Jean Shepherd,
Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown.
MORE ESSENTIALS ABOUT LEIGH BROWN FOLLOW