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Printings, Pricing, Inscriptions.
For someone who is widely unknown among the vast, deprived American public, Jean Shepherd’s books, nearly a half-century after he wrote them, continue to sell, which I can verify because I keep tabs on the current printings of his two best-selling books in paperback. In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, as of this writing, has gone through over three dozen printings, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, And Other Disasters has passed its twenty-fourth printing.
Think Small, the small give-away promotional book published by Volkswagen in the heady days of the original Beetle, contains cartoons and short humorous essays by Charles Addams, Harry Golden, Roger Price, H. Allen Smith, Jean Shepherd, and others. The longest piece in the book, by Shepherd, concerning his teenage experience buying his first used car, unlike the rest of the contributions, has nothing to do with the VW. Think Small, thirty years after original publication, now sells for prices varying from about four dollars to well over a hundred, depending on the ignorance or whim of many internet book dealers. Some years ago I paid ten dollars when that was the lowest-going price.
The bibliographic details of my special subject are not endless, but I, like an object-specific magnet, seem to attract some of the rare and peculiar elements of Shepherd’s writing life. When, sight unseen through the internet, I bought a used first of his Wanda Hickey, it was my surprise and great good fortune to receive in the mail, a Dover, New Jersey ex-library copy with, as an insider’s little joke done decades before, a presentation sticker affixed to the inside front cover proclaiming that its donors were the Dover High School orchestra’s tuba section (as most Shepherd fans know, in some of his radio commentaries, he described his high school experiences playing the tuba). My surprised acquisition of this little treasure is a fortuitous occurrence that some others would have sufficiently appreciated.
Finally, a few words about a specially inscribed copy of Shepherd’s In God We Trust that I had in my covetous hands, but could not possess. After actress Lois Nettleton, Shepherd’s third wife, died in 2008, her executor showed me her copy of Shepherd’s “novel.” She had been an important part of his early radio career and, after his death in 1999 she corresponded with me about him. I may well be the world’s only kook with a special interest in the association of Shepherd and Nettleton, but the executor would not let me buy it for the pittance I could afford, as he expected to sell it for a bundle. To my knowledge, neither Shepherd nor Nettleton fans ever pay even two hundred dollars for material associated with them, and the relationship of the two must not be of much interest to any of them. I very much doubted that the book dealer subsequently offering it for sale would find a buyer willing to part with even a fraction of his two-thousand dollar asking price. I lust after that book, but from my little allowance I could have just about afforded a tenth of the two grand. Recently I found that a Shepherd enthusiast with much deeper pockets than mine, had come up with the many hundreds necessary (how many hundreds?) and now has that copy.
The potential value of the book (dollar value to a dealer, and intellectual value to me) lies in its inscription. Inscribed at about the time that they parted, Shepherd wrote on the half title page:
“To my own Lois, without whom this book would have been finished two years sooner—! Love—Jean Shepherd (Mr. Nettleton).”
By sheer coincidence, I recently encountered a reference to a book written many years earlier, with its acknowledgement attributed to Franklin P. Adams, one of Shepherd’s favorite writers: ”To my loving wife, but for whose constant interruptions, this book would have been finished six months earlier.” So, with a little work, I encountered from another of Shepherd’s favorites, P. G. Wodehouse, his dedication of his book The Heart of a Goof, published in 1926: “To my daughter Leonora Without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” A case of unattributed borrowing? But that is a minor matter to a Shep-kook.
One might wonder what circumstances led to Shepherd’s inscription to his wife—especially in this copy of his book that was a later printing of the first edition (Horrors!). But what were the never-to-be-understood circumstances behind such an apparent attack by Shepherd? I can understand how one might think such thoughts, but I don’t see how a relationship could survive the open expression of such a comment—in ink on paper—in his treasured “novel”! I don’t usually seek sordid details regarding my subject, but gathering bits of evidence, which I have been able to accumulate through single-minded quests for Art and Art alone, I wonder if, soon after Lois had thrown him out of their apartment and changed the locks, he hoped somehow to evoke sympathy leading to a reprieve through this inappropriately tangled wit. Did he thus send her this poisoned copy? (A reliable source told me that Shepherd dearly wanted to return to her.) This all gains some credence as these circumstances happened during the same period during which, from time to time on his radio show, he had mock-seriously, mock-humorously, sung, “After you’ve gone, and left me crying….” Overly intimate matters I’d gathered as I’m not-Shepherd’s-biographer. How in heaven’s name did I ever get caught up in detective work and a soap opera scenario?
I’ll probably never understand some of the enigmatic details of Shepherd’s life. Although interest in personal gossip is mostly a very natural human one, as for me, I’ve never cared about writing a tell-all biography or any other kind. I must remind myself that I am neither his bibliographer nor his biographer. In writing about him I try my imperfect but virtuous best to focus on the work, with essential biography only as it relates to that work. Thus, when I search even under metaphorical beds, salacious tidbits are sometimes inevitable encounters within my major responsibility: dealing with dusty boxes of stuff and foggy memories regarding his significant art, Art, ART!
“The wall is alive with the shapes of music….
The wall fills my heart with the shapes of music.
My heart wants to sing every shape it feels.”
[Lyrics altered from The Sound of Music.]
Despite having a tin ear and no sense of rhythm,
I’m intrigued by the shapes that create the sounds of musical instruments.
I am a “luthier,” a classical guitar-maker. That is, I took a course and made the instrument on the left.
Mom’s violin—while playing she moaned, so as a child I always thought she was in agony. I think that may have been part of my negative feelings about her teaching me to play. I was good and played in grammar school and high school orchestras. Later in high school, violin practice-time was abandoned in favor of tough homework. As an adult I realized that my mother moaned in an agony of ecstasy.
My wife, Allison, gave me the zither, which, for its shape and bulk, forms a kind of solidly emphatic crown atop our display of instruments on our living room wall.
Prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell’s autographed dance slippers evoke, for me, her dancing elegance.
The small guitar-shaped “charango” I bought from a luthier in Cuzco, Peru. This rhythm instrument is almost always part of Peruvian folk music groups. It comes in three forms: a guitar-shaped construction; a bottom that is smoothly sculpted wood in the shape of an armadillo’s back; and the more authentic kind I have, the bottom of which is made of an actual armadillo’s head and back–plates, hair, ears, and all.
My father’s banjo-uke reminds me of the only two songs he sang and accompanied himself on during my childhood: “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo, No Mo,” and “If I Had the Wings of an Angel.” My father was a steadfast and loving husband and father. I always liked it when he picked up his uke to play.
I like the sounds of flutes in many shapes and sizes. Side-blown and end-blown. Wood, metal, bamboo, ceramic, bone.
On a subject that I believe would be of interest to book-lovers in general in addition to Shepherd fans, I wrote the following article (with illustrations) and submitted it to a high-class magazine devoted to book-collecting. The editor’s response was that he liked it but wanted it to be rather more filled-out with what I felt was uninteresting, difficult-to-ferret-out, pedantic material I had no interest in putting in the required, self-induced and boring grunge work, to accomplish. I much prefer ideas to minutia. Here, with very minor adjustments, is what I believe will be of interest. There are a few details some may remember previously encountering in my work or that by others. But I feel that gathering all of this together, it forms a whole more valuable than the sum of its scattered parts.
STRANGE BUT TRUE ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD
OF A SHEPHERD BIBLIPHILE
I love books and I collect them and a few associated ephemera. Although I have thousands of books, my special gatherings run to a couple of what I call “poor man’s” collections—over the years I’ve bought what my limited budget permitted. I have almost all of Hemingway in first editions, but not all in pristine condition, and a couple of his earliest ones only in facsimile. The facsimiles themselves have risen in rarity and price, gaining admittance among the “collectables.” Although none are signed, when I had more than a bit of loose change, for use as a bookmark for reading his books, I purchased a wine card from a transatlantic liner, which he signed for the booze that he bought one afternoon. I have all of Norman Mailer first editions, many of them signed, most of them in pristine condition. Yet my special treasure is the first edition of his The Naked and the Dead with its rather worn and torn dust jacket, which he signed for me in person. I gather that this jacket is made of rather fragile stuff, so a poor man’s collection is not likely to have a pristine example. His signed letter to me regarding one of my unpublished manuscripts is framed on a wall over my desk. I have most of E. E. Cummings in firsts, but none signed. I make do with a signed postcard written by Cummings to New York’s 8th Street Bookshop. Like the Hemingway wine card, I also use it as a bookmark. So I possess, on a couple of crowded shelves, some ephemeral associations to some of the literature I love.
Cummings wrote poems in lower case,
but signed with initial caps.
In recent years my focus has altered to an area that is more unusual in its bibliographic focus. The subject is the American humorist, active in the second half of the twentieth century, Jean Shepherd. The area is much less well-known, though I find it fascinating, maybe in large part because I wrote the only book about him. In addition to many overflowing file boxes of background information, notes, and audio tapes and CDs of his radio broadcasts, I’ve accumulated the small group of first editions of all the books by this great American creative force, who was a humorist, author, film-maker, and creator of several television series. A major talk-radio innovator, broadcaster of thousands of shows over the decades, and creator of the holiday favorite movie, A Christmas Story, Shepherd talked about everything one can think of, for years improvising 45-minutes a night. Originally he had not wanted to write down his improvised stories because, I believe, as a raconteur he felt that the spoken word was the prime medium not only of humankind in general, but of himself in particular. Besides, he invented his spoken stories without a script and probably liked the idea of keeping them that way.
However, his wife at the time, actress Lois Nettleton, said that she and others urged him to write down some of his stories, and Shel Silverstein, his best friend, cartoonist, and children’s book author, with connections to Playboy, helped convince him to write them down and submit them to the magazine. From the mid-1960s through 1981, Playboy printed nearly two dozen of them, most of them fictions about his Indiana childhood, a couple of them fictions about his life in the Signal Corps during World War II. Many of these stories, and many of his articles on varied subjects published in varied magazines, were gathered into books such as In God We Trust—All Others Pay Cash. (He had a proclivity for making up odd titles for most of his stories and books.) The stories upon which the movie A Christmas Story is based came from these books.
Sometimes Shepherd discussed his love of books during his radio broadcasts. He was obsessed with reading—on one program he commented that if he couldn’t find other material to occupy him, he’d read the copy on Wheaties boxes, and, he said that if even more desperate, he would remove his shoe and read the words impressed in rubber on the bottom of his heel. He said that as an adolescent, he was first inspired to read after having borrowed from the library Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward, Angel, finding it not totally understandable, yet supremely inspiring. It led to his lifelong love of reading and writing, and, undoubtedly, influenced his decision to publish his spoken stories in print. Apparently for the prestige value, he referred to his first book of gathered, strung-together stories, as a “novel.”
END OF PART 1
[Shepherd says he was one of the earliest writers for the Village Voice and for a time had his name on their masthead. (See my EYF! page 129 for some detail about how he began his association with the VV.) His writing mostly consisted of his column titled “Night People.” He comments that he wrote for The Realist, a Village-type of publication. His name is connected with three issues of The Realist, two of which appear to be Leigh Brown’s partial transcriptions of his radio broadcasts.]
[He relates that he did the Village section of an NBC TV program about New York at night. During his narration for this video he says, “I can’t imagine myself seriously living anyplace else.” ]
The Village is essentially a night area. By night, I mean during the daytime the Village is just another kind of a city. I love the Village. It’s a good place to live and I suspect, a hellish place to visit–quite the opposite of what most people think of New York. But I dig living down there for a number of reasons. Most of them only a resident could understand.
It’s one of the most historical parts of the city. For example, right off Sheridan Square is where Thomas Paine, the great revolutionary, wrote “The Crisis.” [He mentions Mark Twain, Henry James, and other literary people.]
And people who made the Village a bohemian hangout in the 20s were people like Edna Vincent Millay. A lot of people think that they’d love to live in the Village. They get the Village bug–it’s the kind of thing to do. [Here Shepherd begins to offhandedly criticize what would represent a fair portion of his young listeners. Cut ’em a bit of slack, Shep.]
When I was in my 20s-40- I’d go to the Village sometimes one night a week, not as a bohemian, but to see some avant garde and foreign films and have coffee at Reggio’s.
End of Part 3 of 3
Recently I came upon a major New York Times article in their special “Science Times” section. Titled “Dickinson’s Inspirations Grow Anew,” it describes how her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, now the Emily Dickinson Museum, is unearthing and replanting the gardens that inspired some of her poetry:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard for a Dome
How delightful to be able to have and to hold some flower that inspired her—or have in a glass bell jar, a stuffed Bobolink.
Regarding non-literary items, to have and to hold:
Archimedes’ Eureka-moment bath towel
One of the bloodstained knives that stabbed Caesar
A relic of the True Cross
Newton’s apple (freeze-dried)
But better, some high marks from the world of literature and the visual artsys:
A Whitman first edition with, in it as a bookmark, a plucked-by-Walt leaf of grass
One of Picasso’s paint-clogged brushes
Faulkner’s empty booze bottle
A Norman Mailer boxing glove
One of David Foster Wallace’s balls (tennis)
From one of my literary heroes, the book Hemingway slammed into author Max Eastman’s face in their publisher’s office because Eastman had written an essay, “Bull in the Afternoon,” saying that Ernie’s literary hair-on-his-chest was phony.
Shepherd spoke about writing and literature from time to time. He expressed how much he enjoyed reading. He discussed some serious literature such as the novels of Thomas Wolfe, and mentioned that he felt that he and Nelson Algren surely “vibrated” to each other. Of course we know that he frequently disparaged Norman Mailer and his writing. He mentioned Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He once spent a program reading the work of various serious poets he liked, and he on occasion read haiku, which, with its extremely short and compact form relaying symbolic meanings, would attract him in its relationship to his own stories. I wonder if he did the “serious” poet program in response to people who may have commented that most of his poetry reading consisted of stuff on the level of R. W. Service.
Service is fun. Service is cornball. Service’s familiar, comic poems have narrative–they tell a story as, frequently, does Shep’s own material. I enjoy Shepherd’s overly dramatic renderings of some of Service’s best-known poems, and I have a copy of his LP of reading Service. (He once commented that a particular Service poem was deeply serious–maybe to counter negative comments he’d received about the majority of them?)
Related to the over-the-top literature Shepherd liked, of course, is his use of Longfellow’s “Excelsior.”He seemed to especially like funny/quirky stuff such as Archy & Mehitabel, with its poet cockroach who typed lower case on an office typewriter. Come to think of it, it was Shepherd who introduced me to Service, haiku, and Archy & Mehitabel.
There is also the genre of “recitations,” which were memorized, moralistic stories popular in rural areas in the 19th century, Shep said. He commented:
“… the work that I do [on radio]…is a form of recitation, a form of imaginative drawing upon our own life and out own emotions to paint a picture, in a sense, of something that most of us don’t feel day by day. and I have a great sense of empathy for the early recitation artists and monologists….every time there was a gathering of the community, a social affair, Charlie would be called upon to give his famous recitation, his recitation of “Life is But a Game of Cards…”
“Asleep at the Switch” was another poem read by Shepherd, and several times he read the long poem by Langdon Smith, “Evolution,” accompanied by appropriately violin-suffused, dramatic music.
There it is:
storytelling, metaphor, and moral, creating an aura
with humor & bombast–
Jean Shepherd’s favorite literature to perform on the radio–
My design sketch for the Hall’s inaugural banner that
hung from the Museum’s main entrance.
Among my most treasured memories of decades designing exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History was the years I spent designing and supervising the installation of the permanent Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
[The entire Hall is filled with ART, but the final touch for me is how I dealt with
the issue facing installation of the Museum’s biggest ARTIFACT.]
As Senior Exhibit Designer at the Museum, I was told by the Exhibit Department Chairman that a major re-installation of our Pacific Peoples Hall would be designed by an outside design firm and that I would be responsible for its supervision and realization in its new space. (It had been designed by a former designer and had been universally criticized—The New York Times review was titled, “I Could Cry, I Could Just Cry.”) I was highly dismayed that I, a full-fledged designer, would be responsible, in such a diminished position, for overseeing someone else’s design, having to do the clean-up job of every possible design flaw—and then be blamed for any unavoidable problems that resulted. We held meetings with our director, my boss, Margaret Mead, as well as curators in our Anthropology Department and the outside designer. I surprised the group by presenting my own re-design solution, and, given the chance to compete by the director, with my mock up of a portion of the hall created by me in a month or so proving its superiority, I was given the job as the hall’s designer. (I won’t go into details of the other proposal’s major design flaw that would have resulted in a disaster beyond anyone’s ability to correct.)
Margaret Mead had been a curator at the museum for fifty years, but she was best known in the field as a major force in anthropological studies of Pacific Peoples, bringing her insight to her very popular books and to her widespread public media appearances regarding social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a force to be admired and reckoned with. (I originally wrote “feared,” which also was true.)
When I ascended the narrow, winding stairs to her tower offices in the Museum for the first time to meet her one-on-one to discuss my thoughts for her hall, I was nervous. My hands were sweaty and cold, a factor I knew she felt when we shook hands. We spent a half hour discussing the hall and my design ideas. At the end she commented that she knew that we would work well together and produce a superior hall. When we shook hands goodbye my hands were warm and dry. She knew how to deal with the underling essential to her permanent hall’s legacy.
In the following months, before we knew of her terminal illness, I would go across the street from the Museum and meet with her in her apartment, spreading out my floor plan of the hall on her living room coffee table, and we would arrange plexiglas model exhibit cases on each section of the hall’s plan until we were satisfied with the anthropological aspects of the design. When she was too ill to manage, I worked with another anthropology curator until the hall’s completion.
THE NEW HALL
The previous hall installation was very cold in feeling (largely because of its dominant white paint on walls and columns, and the omnipresent ceiling lighting which shed a blandness that failed to distinguish artifacts from surroundings and created reflections and confusion.) I won’t discuss other major flaws, except to comment that, with various changes to layout and other matters, my lighting and reorganization of case placement eliminated reflections and confusion, and my use of appropriate color in the subject areas created warmth and coherence.
A major focal point of the old hall—and the hall that preceded it—had been a cast of an Easter Island head that stood at the far end, and that would do the same—but more dramatically—in my new design.
Easter Island with a couple of heads.
For the major physiological studies that a Museum anthropologist had done decades before regarding the inhabitants of the Island, its government offered as a gift, one of the original stone heads. The Museum found that its weight would have crashed it through the floor, so the anthropologist, on the island, made a multi-piece mold from which the head was cast in New York and put on display. That old cast was lowered from the existing window of the old installation, down one floor and through the corresponding window to the new hall’s space.
Museum metal-workers lowering the head out—
and then down–into the new space.
I had intended to close off the window with a painted wall in the sky-blue color appropriate for the head. But the Museum workers who, for a year, had been reconfiguring the exhibit cases of the hall to my design, had come to love that large window view, and argued that I should retain it. At first I disagreed, saying that the public, in the Pacific environment of the hall, wouldn’t want to see out to New York’s Upper West Side.
Then I realized that, as I’d designed the space with the head on a grass-colored, upward-curving green carpet, I could have the window installed with a translucent, rippled glass and sky-blue sheeting that would allow light and suggest the sky behind the head. The mottled effect would disguise the outside scene, yet maintain the look of the outside—cloudy days or clouds in a blue sky, and, in the evening, the street lights giving a feeling of stars in the night sky. I exult in my design solution jump-started by the two Museum metal-workers.
New hall with blue “sky” behind the head
and sky blue paint on walls.
Green “grass” carpeting on floor.
[In reality, the colors and effect are far more subtle than in the photos.]
Only one problem remained to complete my tale. The Museum’s Director told me to put a railing on the green “grass” carpet so that the public could not approach to scratch, and thus disfigure, the painted plaster head. I commented that this would place an artificial barrier to what was, in a museum setting, a rare opportunity to have an open and appropriate environment around an enormous artifact. I pleaded for time to find a solution. I asked the supervisor of our Museum Reproductions section if he could apply a tough clear coating to the head.
In the head’s final position, I privately tested that coating and then phoned the Director. He met me in the hall by the head. Without a word, I pulled from my inside jacket pocket, a hefty hammer and with all deliberate strength gave that giant artifact–
several vigorous whacks on the nose.
He looked at the nose, he looked at me.
“Gene,” he said, “you win.”