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GRAB BAG SURPRISE
I’m this kid and I’m in the dime store. This is a dime-store culture we live in. Hardly any nation in the world has dime stores like America. How long has it been since you’ve been in Woolworths?
It is, in a sense, a microcosm. It’s really a condensation of everything there is. They’ve got the art department, they’ve got the plastic lampshade department with the plastic roses on them that light up in the dark. Oh yes! And they’ve got these enormous tigers with gold chains hanging on ‘em. Beautiful! Just magnificent! With gilt claws. And with diamonds in their teeth. Never saw anything so beautiful. They have these plaques that you hang up that look like African natives. Made out of plaster. Special sale on linoleum and a special on ping pong paddles. They’ve got a pet department with these plastic parakeets at a dollar-ninety-eight and the saddest thing of all I saw the other day was a pair of finches on sale, two for a buck. Life is cheap in these United States, let me tell you.
I’m fooling around down there in the dime store. I’ve always had a very definite weakness for dime store salesgirls. I don’t know what there is about that adenoidal-type girl who’s standing back of the candy counter selling the spearmint leaves and the artificial peanuts that taste like banana oil. There’s always a guy talking on the PA system saying, “Will all of you shoppers who have not received your free ballpoint pen please step over here to Aisle Seven. Aisle Seven.” And in the middle of it all they have goldfish for sale in little plastic bags.
So there I am, this kid, and I’m fooling around in the dime store where they always have maroon woodwork with gold trim wherever you go. I’m in the maroon and gold dime store with these big fans hanging down, and there’s the insufferable coffee and this gigantic barrel on which it says “Hires Root Beer. Draw Yourself a Real Stein” right next to the hot dog platter, and it’s a place where they sell jigsaw puzzles and the plastic roses and all the other objects d’art, which are so beloved by the hoi polloi of which I am a sworn, card-carrying member. I’m a true hoi polloi-er.
I’m flubbing around in the jewelry department, which in a dime store is in a sense, a true education in mores, attitudes, fear—the whole business. I’m flubbing around, planning to make a purchase for my father’s birthday, which is the kind of obeisance we pay to the great gods who have produced us. Obeisance, or perhaps, a sharp reprimand. I wonder about that interesting problem. We’re pulling both ways all the time. There’s the death wish on one side and the desire to grow into King Kong on the other. They’re pulling us all the time between them. King Kong is clinging to the Empire State Building and I’m living in the dime store world where you buy things.
Star of Stage, Screen, and Television
I had a couple of contacts with Lois Nettleton, as she had been important in the life and early New York work of radio humorist and commentator, Jean Shepherd. People I interviewed about Shepherd for my book, Excelsior, You Fathead! had talked about her. Here, two VIPs at the early Village Voice, and the cartoonist/playwright:
Jerry Talmer says, “Lois was a gorgeous woman—and Jean was so detached.” Ed Fancher comments, “Lois Nettleton—an absolutely gorgeous, wonderful, beautiful person.” Jules Feiffer complains that “…when I was with them, Jean only wanted to talk about himself and his own ideas, while Lois would ask about me.”
I became fascinated by her and collected many photos of her.
See a few of them below. (Horizontal=1-5, vertical=A-D)
Miss Chicago, semi-finalist in the Miss America Pageant, 1948 (1A). She studied acting before coming to New York. Critically acclaimed, she won various awards including two Emmys and an Obie—In 1969, in a Village Voice front page story, she sits between Jean Shepherd and Anne Bancroft (2A). She’s the wandering tourist in the documentary, Village Sunday (2B). She played Frank Sinatra’s love interest in Dirty Dingus Magee, and for over a year, Lois and Sinatra were “constant companions” (2C). Understudy and occasional performer as Maggie the Cat in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She starred in the1961 Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun” (3D). In The Golden Girls Season 2, 1986 she played Dorothy’s lesbian friend Jean (4A). She played George’s girlfriend’s mother in “The Gymnast” episode of Seinfeld, Season 6 (4C). Her frequent comment when signing her name was “Happiness” (5).
Lois expected to invite me to her apartment on East 57th Street when she next came to New York. I had composed so many questions to ask her and I’d been excited, expecting to actually meet her and talk with her. I was becoming obsessed with the idea—after all, when she’d received the copy of my book about Jean Shepherd that I’d signed and sent her, she, a Hollywood movie star, had called me from the Coast to thank me! She’d sent me a long, hand-written letter thanking me for writing my book about him. But before we could meet she became ill, and died in January, 2008.
Her good friend and executor, Hollywood director and producer John Bowab, invited me and I met him in the apartment Lois had used for over forty years. It had various mementos of her years living there with Shepherd, including several oils he had done in various modern styles. As we sat in her small kitchen, John gave me the dozens of notes she had written to discuss with me my book about Shepherd, and directly behind me on the wall she had hung one of his signed, original drawings of New York buildings.
Here I was in her apartment, just the way she’d left it and just the way I’d expected to meet with her face-to-face, looking in her eyes, touching her hand as we met, and shaking it and feeling her warmth. Being in the aura of her persona. Now that can never happen. Yet, I do possess some very personal fragments of her. In her sweetness and effusiveness she’d written to me:
As we sat in her kitchen, John asked if I’d like a cup of coffee and I said yes. He gave me a cup and spoon, and got down from a cupboard a jar of instant coffee and handed it to me. “Here,” he said, “you’re drinking Lois’ coffee.”
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.
When Shep Was a Tadpole
For the years in radio before he arrived in New York, the important thing to know about his career would be if we had more audios of this early work to compare with later broadcasts, but basically we do not. So, although people knew him and heard him then and still talk about those good early days, almost all we have other than his last two half-hours in Philadelphia and a few other tiny bits, is their remembrances that he had already developed much of his style and content. His first album, “Jean Shepherd Into the Unknown With Jazz Music” seems to indicate that, but the most interesting thing would have been if the jazz musician who was still alive until recently had only responded to requests to give his remembrances. He never did. He died. After “Into the Unknown,” he had gone on to write the music to the Broadway smash, “Man of La Mancha.” Imagine what he could have told us about early Shepherd in relation to how he worked and in what ways he thought as a jazz artist with words.
When Shep Was a New New Yorker
Photo by Roy Schatt circa 1956
What we know of interest of Shepherd’s early New York years became much more of an open book than it had been through information regarding his relationship with actress Lois Nettleton and with his producer, Leigh Brown.
(That Shepherd himself had kept his friendship and relationship with
Lois and Leigh hidden from his audiences didn’t help.)
I’ve reported in this blog much of what Lois had commented. She had spoken in an interview with Doug McIntyre in 1960, and she had spoken to me by phone and written a letter to me as well as dozens of notes about my EYF! that I’ve also reported here. This information reveals that she had been more than just “the actress Shep had married.” She was a strong influence on him and had helped him in his efforts in his aborted acting career. She also recorded his shows for him and had discussed them with him on what seemed to be a nightly basis. Considering her genius IQ, she must have been a considerable help and might have given us many more insights than I reported in blog posts about her interactions with him. She might have told us more about the I, Libertine affair, relationship with John Cassavetes and his making of Shadows, the making of the Charles Mingus “The Clown” improvised Shepherd narration (all of which she witnessed). She could have had more to say about her and Jean’s interactions with Shel Silverstein, and maybe more memories about his avocation in the field of painting and pen-and-ink drawings. Her additional thoughts were never revealed, because, though she and I had expected to meet in New York on her next trip, before that could happen, she became ill and died in January, 2008.
Because of the many letters that Leigh Brown wrote to her best friend and that I obtained and reported on, we now know that Leigh was far more than the almost nameless cipher she had appeared to most of us. She was a smart woman who helped Jean’s career in important ways previously discussed here. In fact, she is the one brought his manuscript of The Ferrari in the Bedroom to Dodd Mead publishers after Doubleday had turned the book down. We now know that in many ways, she had been crucial to his life and work.
Hokusai’s “Both Banks of the Sumida River”
I’m a great enthusiast of Japanese wood-block-printed pictures, and my favorite artist is Hokusai, whose series of “36 Views of Mount Fuji” contains what is probably the finest and best known image of the genre, showing an enormous wave overarching a small boat and its occupants. On the far horizon is Fuji.
Individual images are the best known and most-collected Japanese woodblock-printed works—because they can be framed and hung on walls. Especially fine first printings of well-known works sell for tens of thousands of dollars. The traditional Japanese woodblock artists, especially in the 18th and 19th century, also made numerous groupings of smaller images designed and published as books. By their very nature books can only be appreciated by turning the pages one by one. Some of these woodblock books achieve the level of the finest “artists books.”
I’m the fortunate/lucky owner of Hokusai’s masterwork in book form, an original printing (1805/1806) of his “Both Banks of the Sumida River.” No telling how many copies were printed or still exist, but I believe that it is extremely rare. Jack Hillier, an authority on Japanese art, in a major publication, uses pages of Hokusai’s “Both Banks…” in color on both front and back of the dust jacket, and describes it as “…justifiably considered as one of the outstanding Japanese colour-printed books.”
Internet Repro of Cover
Internet Reproduction of a Double-spread.
The book, with 23 double pages, is a continuous panorama of the environs of the river that flows through Tokyo. If one opens two contiguous pages, one sees that the work consists of one unending scene.
Scan From my Original Book
(Left Side of a Double Spread)
In the upper left corner of the scan from my copy, one sees a kite with string–if one turns the page over, as one does a Japanese book– one sees that attached string and the continuation of the scene. The double-spread scenes change from season to season, some depict rainy weather, and another shows snow-covered buildings. The entire 3-volume book is one continuous view of the river, its weather, its landscape, and surrounding human activities!
When I encountered a major auction house’s sale catalog that included “Both Banks…” for the first time I recognized my opportunity, not to just see reproductions, but to see and hold in my hands, for a few minutes, an original copy. (At auction galleries, during the exhibition before an auction, one has the unbelievable opportunity to see and snuggle up to masterpieces!) The item was described as “one volume of the two-volume set,” I’d be able to determine which volume was for sale (Only one volume of the two or three?), and why the set was mis-described as consisting of only two volumes, when my Japanese-published book I’d bring with me, apparently reproduces three volumes complete–in color.
My Japanese Book Reproducing Hokusai Works
Showing the Covers of the Three Separately
Bound Volumes and the First-Page-Spread of “Both Banks…”
At the auction house, with the original and my book illustrating all three volumes alongside, I compared them page by page and discovered that the single volume for sale contained all three volumes bound together as one—it was complete! What a find! I bid, I won. For decades I have daily looked at my original Hokusai book displayed in our living room in its full, open, 10¾” X 13” width. I sometimes take it down, fondle it (I own an original masterwork by one of my favorite artists!), and view all the pages, replacing it on its stand with a different double-page opening to view.
How was I able to possess this?
Most rich collectors want art they can display on a wall, and don’t appreciate the value of a book–an art object one can hold in one’s lap.
I recognized the mis-description and proved to myself that it was complete. Most of those who read the catalog (rich collectors and their dealers) would only want a complete work, not “one volume of the two volume set.” After my purchase, a Japanese print authority I questioned told me that sometimes a wood-block-print publisher, after assembling sheets into separate volumes for sale, would indeed, bind additional sets of sheets into a single volume.
As one can see in my scan, the book is water-damaged on the lower corner of nearly every page, and may or may not be a consciously paler-printed, or somewhat faded-copy. Rich collectors only want pristine stuff to show off. (I believe the pristine appreciates in monetary value faster, too.) Yes, I’d prefer the pristine but could never afford the price, even if one did come on the market.
I pursued my quest.
I encountered fortuitous circumstances.
I especially treasure my wounded masterpiece.
One Shepherd drawing I’m aware of is unlike the rest in media, appearance, and effect. (It’s not even done with a Rapidograph.) Done on an eight-by-nine inch sheet of gray paper, it depicts overlapping outlines of cartoon heart-faces apparently drawn with a red-violet felt-tip marker, the simple facial features drawn with a pen. The hearts form a sequence from left to right, starting upright, but a couple leaning a bit, the final one prostrate, as though in a swoon, the entire effect beyond our full understanding. Yet the words under them, written with a regular pen, say clearly, “I can’t fight it. I love you. J.” Obviously not cold and objective, but heartfelt. It is a valentine to his wife, Lois Nettleton, and thus private, not meant for public scrutiny. (Shepherd kept his emotions hidden from the public to such an extent that, in his twenty-one years of New York broadcasting, the only emotions of his so far heard, have been when he was performing in the throws of some maniacally comic, musical interlude, when artfully portraying some fictional event or when disparaging someone in the control room. there was obvious emotion behind his commentaries regarding the Kennedy assassination.
As for his personal life, the public at large was not even aware that he and Lois Nettleton knew each other, much less that they were married for over six years.) Though lacking detail and much context, this valentine is humorous and poignant, but with a full meaning that probably died with the sender and recipient, and which remains for the rest of us a puzzle that can only be seen as another part of the artist’s life that will always be in its essence unknown—enigmatic. Another one of the few instances of a personal connection to Shepherd’s life.
Jean’s Valentine to Lois.
For Shep, so unusual and so unexpectedly expressing a feeling,
this is one of my favorite pieces of Shepherd memorabilia.
Surprisingly, considering Shepherd’s need for acclaim and a more exalted status as a significant creator in his time, he seemed to care little for what happened to his drawings. True, there were those few used to accompany his Village Voice writing, and those that appeared in two books, but that was about it. He seemed to only sign a few, including some that are in private hands, and the one framed on Lois Nettleton’s kitchen wall, seen after her death, is also signed. But of the several dozen that she had stored in a closet in the apartment she had shared with him thirty years before, and that were eventually auctioned, only one bears his name.
END PART 5 of 5
DEE SNIDER & TWISTED SISTER
The following Artsy, inspired by a very good documentary recently watched, is a shorter, revised version of a description previously posted.
A fellow I know casually, Mark Snider, asked me what I do now that I’m retired. I responded that I’ve been obsessed by, and have written about, Jean Shepherd. Mark said that he was a big fan and that his brother, Dee Snider, was also. He said “Dee Snider” as though I should have recognized the name, but I didn’t. “Twisted Sister,” said Mark. “Who’s that?” said I. Mark told me that “Twisted Sister” was a rock band and Dee was the lead singer/song-writer. I said I’d love to talk to him about Jean Shepherd. Mark gave me contact info and I invited Dee to visit me in my Shep Shrine at our house.
Dee Snider in performance.
Twisted Sister is a glam, hair, heavy metal band most visible in the 1980s, though they still occasionally perform. Their performance style and the content of their lyrics are akin to that of artfully controlled intensity, but remain not nearly as fierce as that of some other groups, because they are organized and carefully crafted by the sensibilities of their lead singer/songwriter, Dee Snider. They’re best-known song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” is more unsettling in its video than in the lyrics themselves.
Dee Snider’s most impressive singing style is a frequently screaming-as-loud-as-he-can while remaining artfully in tune. As a seemingly manic primitive, he sports outrageously wild and frizzy yellow hair, red lipstick, blue paint on his cheeks, and tattered sartorial outrage calculated to delight rebellious teenagers and whip most parents into a frenzy of disgust. Dee’s parents had introduced him to Jean Shepherd’s program while he was still a teenager.
He’d listened with his transistor radio hidden under his pillow. Snider is a very big Shepherd cuckoo and he shares some enthusiasms with Shep, including the thrill of motorcycling.
When a black Hummer pulled up outside our house, a tall, thin man dressed all in black like a motorcyclist got out and I greeted him at the door. It was Dee Snider in mufti.
Dee, with his yellow hair pulled back under a black baseball cap, the peak turned to the back hiding a good part of the protruding ponytail, now in his fifties and still performing with the band, seems neither extravagant nor berserk. He’s a regular guy offstage—at least for the three hours we spent together—so even his performance persona has its off-duty mufti.
Dee Snider and me in my Shep Shrine.
Snider said that, “Jean totally affected my storytelling ability. I think it was by osmosis. We learn from people we listen to.” He’s gotten many accolades for his storytelling on his radio program and, he commented, “I’m known to have a pretty vast vocabulary, using words and phraseology that others don’t use, and I didn’t know exactly where that came from until I realized, upon this reexamination I’m doing now, that Jean has a massive vocabulary.” About word-usage, Snider referred to lyrics in his song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” including, “Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated.” As he put it, “Not words your average heavy metal rock song would include. I wasn’t very good in English, but I’m taken with Shepherd’s mastery of vocabulary. His mastery of the English weapon.” Dee stopped himself: “I was going to say ‘using the English language as a weapon.’ Jean used the language as a weapon, and it’s a powerful, powerful tool—offensive and defensive tool, you know–and when it’s working for you, boy, there’s nothing like it!”
I asked Dee how Jean’s attitudes and world view may have influenced him. Dee: “Well, you know, I’m definitely all about sarcasm [He laughed]. It’s at the core of my sense of humor and my sensibilities and certainly Jean was cynical and sarcastic—to a fault. Here’s Jean as a mentor and as a teacher to us, the misguided youth, and he’s got our ear. And every night here’s someone, a grown man, with very strong political, personal, psychological views filling our heads with his ideology. And the biggest thing to come away with, I guess, besides the storytelling, is his sort of cynical views and his condescending attitude—he looked down on most people, and I dare say that that is a part of my personality I struggle to keep in check. [We both laughed.] Because it’s not nice! And we want to be nice. [More laughter.] And it’s wrong to think everybody’s ants and you’re Gulliver.
“But I think also, behind the cynicism, hid a love. I can’t believe it wasn’t there. At the same time he seemed to yearn for some of the simplicity that he experienced in his youth and he seemed to be able to step away from it and appreciate the value that these things had. When I’m in the moment I find it very difficult to really appreciate experience that’s happening. Especially the ridiculousness sometimes, of what’s going on around me. But when I step away, when I get on the mic—what I want to call my biography is Just Give Me the Mic—‘cause I love the microphone, whether I’m singing or talking I seem to be able—now that I’ve stepped back from it—to analyze it and see it for what it was, for better, for worse, the beauty in it, the ugliness in it, the ridiculousness. I don’t know if I got that from Jean, but I think I did.”
I’d saved some of the more difficult subjects for near the end of our talk. I asked what he thought Shepherd would have felt about Twisted Sister and his stage persona and what kind of dialog they might have had. Dee said that Shep “would have had disdain.” Of course, we knew that already. He did comment, however, that, “The music Shep was passionate about, jazz, was in its own way, for the Beat Generation, what rock and roll is. A music that challenged the norm. It wasn’t accepted by the mainstream. It was the new jazz, it was against the grain. He didn’t like change.”
Regarding fans, Dee commented: “As a performer—and a successful one—I often have people who come up to me and they’re very excited, but they really don’t know me or my band—they really just grasp the surface of what I’m about, but I appreciate their enthusiasm, their excitement, and I don’t expect them to know better.” He commented that Twisted Sister plays many kinds of heavy metal rock, yet they had very big success with a couple of very catchy—what he called “anthemic tunes”—such as “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” As he put it, “That’s what we’re known for, and thank God there was something. That’s what really connected with the masses. Your true, hardcore fans, like you for Jean or me for Jean, may know there’s a greater depth, but the average person, you have to say, ‘Twisted Sister—you know the song ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It,’ and they go, ‘Oh, that work? I know ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’ And with Shepherd you have to say A Christmas Story—that’s Jean’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’” Yes, totally the way I introduce Shepherd to the unknowing.
And, with his unexpectedly articulated intelligence during the 1985 U.S. Senate hearings regarding labeling albums of possibly offensive lyrics—especially focusing on rock music–he befuddled the questioners. Thoughtful and articulate in his arguments against censorship, Dee effectively presented himself and his relatively witty and benign Twisted Sister, against the censorious beliefs of Tipper Gore. (The record industry labeled the albums anyway, leading, as one would have expected, to increased sales of those albums.)
Regarding other aspects of his personal life, I learned that Dee is the spokesperson for the March of Dimes “Bikers for Babies” program, and he chairs a Long Island ride for the cause. Bikers for Babies! I never would have guessed.
Ah, Shep, your influence in the culture is vast and often emerges in unexpected places, even into heavy metal. I enjoy some Twisted Sister performances on CD and DVDs. Though I suspect that as a neophyte, all I have so far is what Dee would call “a surface grasp,” it’s (gulp!) a beginning. Without you, Jean Shepherd, we might not have had quite the same driving intensity, intelligence, comic sensibility, and delightful mayhem of a Twisted Sister and the same surprising, thoughtful, many-sided personage of a Dee Snider.
More Than “A Surface Grasp”?
Before we leave Dee and Twisted Sister, let’s think about their loud, slow, insistent melodic line and lyric called “The Price.” Had Shepherd ever heard it, he might not have been able to get beyond the sound and presentation, as good and appropriate to the song as they are, but the words themselves would surely have resonated with him regarding his ambitions and the arc of his career as he contemplated them toward the end of his life. It would be difficult to find a song more forcefully and perfectly attuned to the deeper level of the art and enigmatic life of Jean Shepherd. It is a masterpiece. How inevitable that it’s conceived and performed by one of his most ardent and thoughtful fans. Here’s the beginning:
How long I have wanted this dream to come true.
And as it approaches, I can’t believe I’m through.
I’ve tried, oh, how I’ve tried
for a life, yes a life I thought I knew.
Oh, it’s the price we gotta pay, and all the games we gotta play
makes me wonder if it’s worth it to carry on.
‘Cause it’s a game we gotta lose, though it’s a life we gotta choose
And the price is our own life until it’s done.
“We Are Twisted F***ing Sister!”
Just the other night my wife and I encountered a two-hour documentary about Twisted Sister’s early years. We really like “We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and “The Price,” but we didn’t expect to appreciate the documentary because it only dealt with the group’s formative years. We sat mesmerized. An extraordinary display of the incredible difficulties TS overcame through that first decade! One of the best documentaries we’d ever seen. An internet description of the film:
In the mid-1970s, Dee Snider and his Twisted Sister bandmates claimed glitter rock for their own, cross-dressing their way to headlining every club within 100 miles of New York City, from New Jersey bowling alleys to Long Island beach bars. With gigs six nights a week, they were the most successful live bar band of suburban New York, selling out 5,000-seat shows fueled by their no-holds-barred stage presence and aggressive metal set lists. But by the early 80s, they found themselves balancing on a double-edged sword, hugely popular with local audiences but without a national following or a record deal to speak of. When Twisted Sister finally got their big break in 1983, they’d go on to become one of the biggest glam rock bands of the decade, their over-the-top live shows drawing sell-out crowds and their music videos defining an early MTV network.
How had we, New Yorkers—Long Islanders—not known more about them until Dee arrived at my Shep Shrine in black and pony-tailed, his cultured mind and his warm personality all in mufti? What other significant parts of our culture have we been blind to?
I try to avoid psychoanalyzing Jean Shepherd–or anyone else. (My Excelsior, You Fathead! indicates some bits about Shep’s attitudes, but mostly these are described by those who knew him, rather than through my own interpretations.) But–after perusing a new book about Shakespeare’s evolving attitude toward women as seen in his plays–I thought it of interest to attempt to objectively describe some aspects of Shepherd’s life and works as it relates to what might be interpreted as his changing attitude toward women.
Shepherd, in his talk and writing, infrequently deals with the female of the species, so the following is not suggested to be any kind of encompassing description–much less a conclusive analysis–it’s just some observations that might have some connection to Shepherd’s way of being and his creative works.
His kid stories mainly relate to young boys at play, and a few of his teenage stories do relate to dating. His army stories infrequently relate to encounters with women. One, in my Shep’s Army concerns a sexual encounter (implied). Another story, about when he was stationed in Ft. Monmouth, NJ (a very short stay, I imagine) relates to he and a buddy encountering a sad woman–I don’t remember the details and don’t like the story much. Not much else.
Some of the material and thoughts here are based on comments found in Excelsior, You Fathead! Chapter 13, “Tiny Embattled Minority.”
MOM AND SOME EARLY “LOVES”
Fictional mom in A Christmas Story
Some really young females in Shep’s early life–
Dawn Strickland, Esther Jane Albery, Dorothy Anderson
[Dawn Strickland cropped from photo courtesy Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.]
Mom is traditional, nurturing, hard-working over the kitchen sink and cooking the conventional meat loaf. Conventional both in fiction and as one might gather about her when Shepherd speaks of his “real” mother. Soon after he graduated from high school, his father left the family forever by driving off with a young female co-worker in a convertible.
Shepherd told various stories of his experiences (mostly in fictional form) with grammar-school and high-school girls, sometimes on dates, some of whom he had a crush on. He reportedly wrote love letters to Dorothy Anderson while he was in the army in his early 20s.
Years later (1959), in Shep’s theater piece “Look, Charlie,” it’s said that, in a very old-fashioned image of female-as-underling/slave girl, he scripted actress Lois Nettleton, his girlfriend at the time, to feed him grapes as though he were a Roman emperor and she a servant:
Lois, as subservient hand-maiden,
presumably as seen in the theater piece,
depicted in Shel Silverstein’s
for “Look, Charlie.”
In those early days, Jean Shepherd seemed to have a very traditional image of girls and women. His early marriages seem to show him with a similar attitude.
Only recently has it been confirmed that Shepherd had been married very early on. Nothing much is known of this brief and well-hidden marriage except for this:
Credit: Steve Glazer
Jean Shepherd’s second marriage was to Joan Warner, mother of his two children. (Joan does not want to be interviewed regarding her former husband–I’ve tried several times.) Evidence from some general comments and actions by Shep suggest that she had traditional ideas of what marriage should be. Here they are, the happy couple:
Shepherd had some general comments to say about adult women/wives. One comment related to a husband whose wife arm-twisted him into doing some work on their house– because of his digging around the house foundation, the end of the house sank. In another similar instance, the digging under the house demanded of the wife resulted in unearthing a den of rattlesnakes. He seemed to be suggesting that doing what a wife nagged one to do could result in horrible disasters.
Regarding the entire idea of a permanent commitment such as marriage, Shepherd seemed negative. In what one might be forgiven in interpreting as a comment on clinging women, Shepherd on a broadcast commented that some people were the hulls of ships while other people were the barnacles that clung to their undersides.
In an earlier post I suggested that Shepherd wanted to be free and able to do just exactly what he wanted without being tied down to a little house with a lawn and a picket fence, and that this may well have caused him to leave the family he was married to and seek freedom and further fame in the Big Apple.
Lois Nettleton, in an early interview after Shep’s death responded to a comment by saying that he had strongly disliked family get-togethers: “Oh, hated them!”
WOMEN’S LIB AND EQUALITY
Shepherd sometimes had strong opinions about women’s lib. On July 31, 1960 on his program he said:
“I’ll tell you–most chicks today want to be treated as though they are tender flowers–and they prefer to act like King Kong. You see there’s that neat split–you want me to pick up your handkerchief while you are kicking me in the duff–with a pair of hobnailed boots. Now which do you want? Now I can do either, and can take either.”
Maybe he’d just had a bad day, but there are other Shepherd quotes in a similar vein.
Shepherd’s third wife, Lois Nettleton, was a very intelligent, very independent woman. She wrote that she felt that they were both independently successful in the entertainment field and were a good match for each other. She may have agreed to playing the subservient woman in a scripted part in “Look, Charlie,” but it doesn’t seem her general style. She believed in and assumed that she had total equality with Jean.
Mr. and Mrs. (Lois) Jean Shepherd, early 1960s.
Lois Nettleton a few years later as a Hollywood star.
Lois commented, “To me, our marriage was an ideal pairing of two famous career people who didn’t need to lean on each other, who enjoyed getting to know more about each other each day. Who made no demands, were flexible, and loved getting back together again after long absences. Glamorous, exciting! Very naïve of me—but actually very good for him in many ways—even after divorce, which he tried to avoid, he wanted to keep the relationship.”
When Leigh Brown and Jean first became friends, he was married to Lois. Leigh became obsessed with Jean’s mind–and with his genius on the radio. She would do anything to have him. And eventually she managed to separate Jean from Lois. According to WOR General Manager Herb Saltzman, she began at WOR as a gofer and “She bought into the myth [that he was a genius].” She had seemingly given up all her early ambitions in order to be with Jean. But, little by little, she became Jean’s editor, agent, producer, co-creator (to some extent). By the time his career in radio was about to end, she could hold her own with his dominating personality. At the time that Jean left his radio career, they had been living together for some time, and in 1977, they married.
By the time Leigh Brown died in 1998, she had seemingly become a major force in Jean’s professional as well as in his personal life. Laurie Squire, their coworker and close friend for decades, puts it (quoted in my EYF!): “They were Jean Shepherd. She sublimated, but she had a very--I can’t emphasize enough–she had a very strong personality. And I think he admired that….Quite a temper. She could hold her own! The power behind the throne. He was the creative genius. She knew how to operate in the real world.”
From those who knew them well, it seems as though Jean could not live without her. He died the year after she died.
I’d say that by the end, she and he were equals.
She had made them so.
Here is my ever-growing list of well-known people in the entertainment world who are/were listeners to Jean Shepherd. Following includes those who can be rather positively believed were listeners, either because they themselves claim they were or through other rather definite evidence. I note just one or two prominent fields for each listing. This list is not definitive–it’s just of those I can think of. I’d appreciate hearing about others–with source of the info.
Penn Jillette (Comic, magician–Penn & Teller)
Andy Kaufman (Performance artist)
Ernie Kovacs (Video innovator)
Bruce Maher (Comic, “the Rabbi” in Seinfeld)
Henry Morgan (Comic broadcaster)
Roger Price (Comic, author, editor of Grump magazine)
Jerry Seinfeld (Sitcom and standup comic)
Harry Shearer (Broadcaster, “Simpson” voices)
Bob Brown (Editor: Car and Driver)
Milton Caniff (Comic strip artist–pre 1955 “Terry and the Pirates”)
Billy Collins (Poet—U. S. Poet Laureate)
Kate Collins (Writer– humor/crime books—(“Flower Shop Mysteries”)
Ed Fancher (Publisher: Village Voice)
Herb Gardner (Cartoonist, playwright—“A Thousand Clowns”)
Jules Feiffer (Playwright, cartoonist)
Bill Griffith (Cartoonist–“Zippy the Pinhead”)
Hugh Hefner (Publisher: Playboy)
William Hjortsberg (Author–Gray Matters, Toro! Toro! Toro!)
George S. Kaufman (Playwright)
Jack Kerouac (Author–On the Road)
Paul Krassner (Writer, publisher)
S. J. Perelman (Comic writer)
Shel Silverstein (Cartoonist, writer)
R. L. Stine (Goosebumps book series)
Dan Wakefield (Author: New York in the 50s)
Tom Wolfe (Author: Bonfire of the Vanitites, etc.)
George Antheil (“Ballet Mécanique”)
John Cage (Shep describes him as early listener he talked with various time by phone)
Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)
Mitch Leigh (“Into the Unknown With Jazz Music,” “Man of La Mancha”)
Charles Mingus “The Clown”)
Dee Snider (Twisted Sister front man and songwriter)
Fred Barzyk (Video director–major Shepherd TV)
John Cassavetes (Actor, Director–Shadows)
Ron Della Chiesa (WGBH Broadcaster)
Bob Clark (Film director—Porky’s, A Christmas Story)
Bruce Conner (Avant garde film maker, sculptor)
Art D’Lugoff (Concert producer)
Barry Farber (Broadcaster)
Helen Gee (Founder of “The Limelight”)
Larry Josephson (Broadcaster)
Larry King (Broadcaster)
Arch Oboler (Playwright)
Lois Nettleton (Actress, wife)
Keith Olbermann (Media–politics & sports commentator)
• • •
There are also many who had connections to Shep and/or were described by Shep or others as having been his friends, but we can’t know which of these people were indeed friends or which of them may or may not have been listeners. For example, Bob & Ray were fellow broadcasters and friends of Shep; Shep claimed to be friends with Jack Kerouac; Lois Nettleton said that from time to time Shep went on sketching expeditions not only with Shep Silverstein, but with watercolorist Dong Kingman and Playboy illustrator LeRoy Neiman.
I also tend to think that a good portion of those connected to the Village, creative, and intellectual scene in New York City in the late 1950s and into the 1960s were likely to have been Shepherd listeners. These would include people like Laurie Anderson, Bob Dylan, and Woody Allen.
Please let me know of others, giving me whatever evidence you may have of connection to Shep.
What do Shep and Ol’ Blue Eyes have in common?
Jean Shepherd and Lois Nettleton
Frank Sinatra and Lois Nettleton
Yes, but what else? My wife comments that some of my favorite creative people (Hemingway, Picasso, Mailer, Dylan, Shepherd, and Sinatra) have this in common: they could be not very nice people (to put it mildly). Probably the majority of people familiar with those names are not familiar with the ways in which each in his own way could be so self-centeredly cruel.
[Regarding creativity, how many know that Picasso wrote and that both Shepherd and Mailer drew?]
Recently, my interest spiked by an HBO two-part special on Sinatra, I encountered a short but succinct book by Pete Hamill, Why Sinatra Matters (1998). The intro concludes thusly:
….Now Sinatra is gone, taking with him all his anger,cruelty, generosity, and personal style. The music remains. In times to come, that music will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture. The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives. Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts with joy. Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relive the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E. M. Forster: “Only connect.” In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will Frank Sinatra.
Read the following, with Shep’s–or Hemingway’s or Picasso’s, or Mailer’s–name substituted for Sinatra’s, understanding that I recognize that there are differences in the correspondences:
Now [Shepherd] is gone, taking with him all his anger,cruelty, generosity, and personal style. The [words] remain[
s]. In times to come, that [voice] will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture. The world of my grandchildren will not listen to [Shepherd] in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives…. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relive the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E. M. Forster: “Only connect.” In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will [Jean Shepherd].
A scrawled masterpiece by Marta Monteiro
Seeing the cover of the New York Times Book Review of January 17, 2016, I nearly passed it by as a nothing space-filler. But I began to look at it a bit more carefully. I became fascinated by its graphic sophistication masquerading as a childish scrawl.
Picasso is quoted as saying that it had taken him decades to learn to draw like a child. This childlike drawing contains a plethora of visually and intellectually fascinating details. My interest in fine art, my training as an industrial designer, and my career as an exhibit designer all train me to see and understand. I feel visually and mentally invigorated just thinking about this piece.
The image shows many people, from the back, wending their way past a title and its list to their right, and the section title: BOOK REVIEW. The colors are, roughly, red, white, grayish blue, and black. The color areas are nicely balanced in zigzag arrangement throughout, starting with the most realistic depiction of the red sole of a man’s shoe at the bottom, expressing his and the entire crowd’s movement. Major red items continue a bit higher up on the far left with a woman’s head scarf; move up to half of a man’s red jacket; centered to the right, a woman’s red coat; further right is a red scarf and coat; one continues the zigzag movement to the center. A red-jacketed man whose red-soled shoe repeats the motif from the bottom of the crowd, but, on the other foot, as though the two feet are part of the one entity—the crowd–re-emphasizing the crowd’s forward motion. Above, a girl’s red coat; to the right a round red hat; left a red coat; the zigzag continuing, diminishing in size with a number of small red spots: all, with smaller red strokes moving the eye up into the far distance. One can as easily follow the rough zigzags of blue, black, yellows, and a couple of greenish tans.
Most of the solid color areas follow the shapes of the clothing, but yellow and blue sometimes serve both as parts of objects and as extensions beyond their objects, becoming parts of the abstract zigzag patterns that help move us up into the distance at the top of the page. A good part of the blacks also serve as outlines, helping define objects, such as the many black-textured scribbles that amusingly define a great variety of hair styles, and, on the lower left in the white of a man’s coat, a long jagged line (seeming by itself to be an arbitrary stroke just for composition’s sake), defines a sleeve and its wrinkled connection to the coat’s shoulder. Check out for yourselves other color and shape areas to see how they assist the overall graphic composition.
Halfway up on the left, a blue-textured smudge seems to be a couple of far-off trees. The man with the checkered jacket holds on his head a red-outlined flat box, graphically, roughly echoed by the black-outlined cooler to his left, and much higher up and further away, a blue-outlined arc-shaped container on a head, and above that, another outlined box on a head. The tiny shapes in the furthest distance are somewhat recognizable as people, then further up, abstracted into pure color blobs beyond our recognition, but we know what they are. They become even more anonymous than the closer members of the human throng.
Near the bottom right, a blue shape with a pattern of vertical black lines denote a coat with sleeve, and the wearer’s large white bag on his/her back serves as background for a very sketchy man’s head and shoulders with scribbled blue sweater, scribbled black hair, and yellow outline of head and ears. He is almost the nearest to the viewer and, being transparent, lets us see beyond him, giving us a psychological sense of being maybe at the back of, but definitely a part of, the moving crowd. (Graphically illustrating this “psychological sense” because, when we are in a crowd moving, we sometimes don’t see some parts of those around us and then sometimes those pieces of the crowd are revealed in the shifting movement—yet, seen or not, we know that they are all there.) It is as though humanity, en masse, including ourselves, travels up the page and far beyond our ken.
I’d never heard of artist Marta Monteiro, so I googled images of her work and found many that I liked. Yet my favorite is the finely designed sketch of migrating humanity gracing the cover of the Book Review.
[Among elements I’d failed to note earlier is that the vertical box, low, left, is diagonally oriented to help the zigzag move up toward the right, where several people, facing diagonally leftward, dramatically form a visual element with the red-outlined box on the head, in all, strongly aiming the direction back toward the center in the zigzag design.]
I emailed my original comments–above the centered diamond shape–to Ms Monteiro (where she is located in Portugal) and she graciously responded:
Dear Eugene Bergmann,
thanks so much for your interest on my work and your kind words.
I usually say that I communicate more successfully using images than words. When I try to use words they fail on me all the time but images don’t. So I wish I had the time to do a quick drawing about how happy I felt when I read your e-mail.
Everything you wrote is on that image. The childlike approach to drawing, the zigzag of colors and shapes and the (sometimes) abstract design of figures/people. All descriptions are really accurate and I couldn’t have said it better….
In EYF! I prominently designate the period from early 1956 to some time in 1960 as Shep’s
What follows is more delving into this thought. (Please be aware that I believe that Shepherd’s 45-minute shows from the early 1960s to his last show on April 1, 1977 contain many masterpieces, and are a major part of Shepherd’s claim to greatness. See my many EYF! chapters–consisting of the majority of the book–in this regard.) Yet, the change from overnight shows (and the related and intermediate period of long Sunday night shows from 1956-1960) to the 45-minute shows most basically and most well-known of the 1960-1977 period, present interesting questions regarding the road not taken.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
When he was fired during the summer of 1956
and would be rehired to begin in September, 1956,
what options did Jean Shepherd (and WOR) have?
This in part must be seen without having the “overnight” programs available for study. (When will somebody, please, contribute some recordings of his overnight shows?) We can assume that to some extent, they were similar–but maybe more laid back than the Sunday night programs. Sunday nights, with the earlier hours–having only a small sample to go by–must be seen as an only partly known, transition between all-night and the 45-minute shows that dominate Shep’s best-known, final seventeen years of radio.
Recently I read a great and fascinating book about Robert Frost’s well known poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Yes, the book is titled The Road Not Taken; it is by David Orr; it is 172 pages; it consists entirely of why the poem has been misinterpreted by nearly all who have read it and who describe it erroneously. It’s a wonderful, easily understood book, described on the flyleaf: “Yet in spite of this extraordinary devotion, almost everyone gets ‘The Road Not Taken’ hopelessly wrong.” Why is this related to Jean Shepherd? Because it was in the summer of 1956 that Jean Shepherd faced a path in the woods and had to make a choice that would determine the future of his career, his art, and his life.
Is the poem, “a paean to triumphant self-assertion, in which an individual boldly chooses to live outside conformity? Or a biting commentary between self-deception, in which a person chooses between identical roads and yet later romanticizes the decision as life-altering?” The later is the surprising answer regarding the poem.
For Shepherd, what was his thinking regarding why he chose to change from the late-night route to the earlier, and eventually, the shorter time period? In what ways did he imagine it as life-altering and better? Was he right? What did he gain? What did he lose? Did he then or later understand all the important consequences of his choice? Did he believe, in later years, that he had made the better choice? Did he tell himself, as does the poem’s speaker, that his choice had made all the difference?
He certainly could not have told himself that he took the path less traveled by, because the path he chose led to easier and more popular hours, more exposure and bigger audiences, more sponsorship, wider work in more media. In certain ways, he became more popular. Is this what he wanted? Did he realize all the ramifications of this popularity?
There are quite a number of books on decision-making. In an op-ed essay in the August 25, 2015 New York Times, David Brooks’ column is titled “The Big Decisions.” He ends the column with: “It’s probably safer to ask ‘What do I admire?’ than ‘What do I want.'”
What more is there to it than that?
? ¿ OVERNIGHT PROGRAM VS. ? ¿
Was he tired of the hours and preferred the easier lifestyle of more “normal” hours?
Did he think he’d get more listeners broadcasting during earlier hours?
Did he realize what kind of changes in the type of listeners he would get with earlier hours?
Did he realize that the more hip audience he’d had might not follow him into evening hours?
Did he realize how the earlier and shorter hours would force him to change the nature of his style and content?
Did he understand that earlier (and ultimately shorter) hours would change the nature of his laid-back improvisation?
Did he recognize (as Lois Nettleton said she and he both did) that the shorter, tighter format was in some way not quite as “unique” and pure “genius” as Lois felt?
Did he realize that he would not be able to pursue on the air the kind of jazz he preferred?
How much did the potential for more sponsors (more $) affect his decision?
Did his jealousy toward the celebrity/success of some of his contemporaries (Mort Sahl, etc.) contribute much to his decision?
WE DON’T KNOW
PROBABLY NEVER WILL
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
THE SAD, UNFULFILLED REMNANTS OF A STORY
(With a few minor repeats, but worth it.)
Let’s bring some threads together. Maybe they weave themselves into one of the shreds of truth about Jean Parker Shepherd. So he was unhappy despite all he had accomplished?
Barry Farber: “A towering success, but I think inwardly he knew, compared to himself, and his potential—he felt like a failure!”
Herb Saltzman: “You know, there were many guys who would have achieved his success and would have really been happy with it. He was never happy. I don’t think he spent many happy times.”
Fred Barzyk: “Happy!…The only time he was happy was when people would come up to him and say how great he was.”
What had he had? Lois Nettleton: “…he had headlines!…I remember in the Post he was—he was just a big celebrity!” This was the time of the I, Libertine affair, the firings from WOR, and the highest level jazz connections. The “great burgeoning” period of the late 1950s in New York, his overnight extemporaneous work, association with the highest avant-garde, the Beats, the intellectual elite who were his most impressive “listeners.” The more evidence we accumulate, the more I think about it, the more certain I am that this was the period when, with what he was involved in and creating on the highest level, he peaked.
WHAT DID HE WANT?
Lois Nettleton makes the same point as have others who knew Shepherd: “I think if he had gotten the public fame and acclaim that Mort Sahl got, [cover of Time Magazine and related celebrity], I think that would have been very good for him, although with him, who knows, he might have not been satisfied with that.” Coming out of the heady postwar artistic ferment, he could have remained there with Mailer, Kerouac, Mingus, Pollock, each a unique giant, and Shepherd with his art of sound, unprecedented in his own field of improvisation and Mark Twain-like humor and commentary. (I can’t leave Lois with the implication that she was mainly impressed by his headlines, so I’ve got to repeat what she most importantly said: “I really want him to be recognized for what he was—a brilliant genius. The wonderful, wonderful unique—the wonderful thing that he was.”) Widely recognized for what he was—a unique giant in his own field. This, I believe, is what he wanted.
What happened? He could have had it, he should have had it, because he’d already had it and knew he had it—right there in his hands until his dreams were undone by some unfortunate shift in timing or emphasis, and, he must have eventually been aware, of miscalculated alternatives. Did the kid-stories and the kid-fans such as myself and many who are reading this, do him in? I repeat words of “The Jackdaw Story.” Shepherd himself: “And by the way, for those of you who think kid stories made me what I am today [laughs], you’re crazy. Not at all. They’ve held me back from what I should have been.”
For his particular long-form of humor and intellectual engagement as practiced in the late 1950s and even the more accessible style of the 1960s and 1970s, his artistic style was incompatible with that larger constituency he coveted. That mass audience was now watching television, a medium not suited for his extended monologs—his style too laid-back and subtle and thus beyond the mental capacities of a countrywide, adult mass audience. Maybe he realized this, or maybe he didn’t realize what the shift to earlier broadcast time periods would do, even with his four hours on Sunday nights for a while. Maybe the larger audience of high school and college kids was the best he’d be able to garner. Maybe he thought he could have it both ways—artistic heights and celebrity such as had Jack Benny, Norman Mailer, and innumerable others, not damaged by accumulating more young listeners on that lessening national influence called “radio.”
Maybe he did it with full understanding of what the effects would be? Maybe the cultural dynamics of how people were spending their time under the onslaught of TV made the rapid decay of radio-as-it-had-been an inevitable disaster for him in his ideal medium. Maybe he miscalculated the effect on his style caused by the more abbreviated forty-five-minute format. Maybe he was capitulating to the inevitable decline of radio? I quoted Shepherd in regard to radio’s decline, and what strikes me now is that he’d articulated this harbinger of his own doom so early, his late-night programming already ended, at the turning point between his longer and much shorter programs:
It’s sad that a whole art form grew to fruition and suddenly disappeared….because radio can do things that television and the movies and the stage can never do. It plays with the imagination and the mind [in a way] that I think no other medium can ever approach. (July 9, 1960)
Maybe when it was too late he wished he had made different choices? During this transition period around 1960, he may have been responding to radio’s decline and the choices he’d made by focusing on an acting career but somehow this did not work out. He needed to improvise, not memorize a script. Between a rock and a hard place? He made his choices, or was forced into choices by circumstances beyond his control. Opposed to my speculation and Shepherd’s own assessment, many listeners argue that his mid-1960s period and his kid stories were his crowning glory. They can prove it to their own satisfaction? Yes, and I don’t have a definitive response, but I don’t believe “a matter of taste” is an accurate answer. I’m up against what I can only fend off by relying on that lovely, that delectable, that conveniently apt word “enigma.”
Enigmas upon enigmas. The enigma of self-defeat and self-creation. Regard some of his debilitating human foibles and flaws—compulsive talk and overbearing ego, inability to distinguish his truths from his fictions both in his work and in his life, abrasive self-centeredness, sometimes abusive personal interactions. What did he make of it all and what do we make of it all? (And while we’re at it, why did this great lover of all that was the glory of New York City, MOVE TO FLORIDA?!?!) Was Jean Shepherd just an enigma? Maybe he was also an alchemist.
Maybe we are the beneficiaries of his intuitive genius through a mysterious psychic alchemy, the transforming of the sometimes base metals of obsessive talk and character flaws such as self-obsession into the gold of art. Consider this, I say with conviction and yet enigmatically: without the base metals we would not have had the gold.
STILL MORE TO COME