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JEAN SHEPHERD–Gatherings of a Bibliophile Part 1 of 3

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  His signed letter to me regarding one of my unpublished manuscripts is framed on a wall over my desk.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, C.Wright signed0001

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

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JEAN SHEPHERD and the Female of the Species

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”

mom in A Christmas Story

Fictional mom in A Christmas Story

022_093_Dawn_Strickland_cropped

020_Esther_Albery

 

_Dorothy_Anderson

 

 

 

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 in look charlie0003

Lois, as subservient hand-maiden,

presumably as seen in the theater piece,

depicted in Shel Silverstein’s

hand-drawn program

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.

HAUSFRAUS

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:

Shepherd_[Mattoon,_1st_mc]______

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:

505_Shep_Family_1953

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.

jean and lois c.1962

Mr. and Mrs. (Lois) Jean  Shepherd, early 1960s.

5.lois

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.”

leigh,shep 1977 Leigh Brown taking dictation from Jean.

1983-mm-dd_005_at_the_movies_shep_leighLeigh Brown touching up the star.

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.

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JEAN SHEPHERD: Celebrity Fans, Friends

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.

UNDOUBTEDLY LISTENERS

COMEDY

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)

WRITING/PUBLISHING

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.)

MUSIC

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)

THEATER, MEDIA

Fred Barzyk (Video director–major Shepherd TV)

John Cassavetes (Actor, Director–Shadows)

Ron Della Chiesa (WGBH Broadcaster)

Bob Clark (Film director—Porky’sA 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)

•   •   •

POSSIBLE/PROBABLE LISTENERS

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.

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JEAN SHEPHERD-favored arts and artists Part 1 of 2

Shepherd sometimes talked about, or in other ways indicated, what arts and artists he loved

and even hated. What did he “vibrate to?”

MUSIC AND SOUND

He’s known for hating city-folk music and rock and roll. One wonders how much of it he’d heard, especially the later, most sophisticated styles of rock. It’s certainly understandable that he would hate the fad of relentless even rhythm of piano chord-plunking background that nearly covered the sound world of radio for an interminable time–back in the seventies was it? But how could he not vibrate positively to such masterpieces as “Satisfaction,” “Respect,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Great Balls of Fire” (surely, in its sound, the most erotic rock song ever!), “Life’s Been Good,” and “Who Put the Bomp”(one of the most playful, funniest songs I’ve ever heard!) Rock and roll expanded into so many sophisticated varieties over the decades, but I never heard Shepherd comment on rock after his early put-downs and his inaccurate prediction of  its imminent demise. (His good friend in his last years says that they talked about rock and roll–but what did they say about it?)

We know he loved classical music, opera, and modernist jazz–and jazz was an essential part of his professional life as announcer, commentator, emcee, etc. And, of course, his style of talk flowed with the rhythms and style of jazz.

1953-shep opera

 

 

 

1957-06-15_022_Concert_VV_pic

He turned many listeners (myself included) on to Django Reinhardt, whose two-finger style (necessitated by an old injury) had a lovely, lilting effect. I do believe that a major force in the great sound his group produced was his jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.

Django-Reinhardt-Stephane-Grappelli He much-enjoyed, for its cuckoo-ness, Paul Blackman’s “one-man-band.” He frequently played various Dixieland jazz pieces by various groups. (In a book I just read parts of, The Village: A History of Greenwich Village, it comments: “It was no coincidence that a renewal of interest in old-school Dixieland jazz occurred around the same time….Dixieland was big in the Village clubs throughout the 1950s.”) His favorite old jazz piece must surely have been “Boodle-Am Shake” by the Dixieland Jug Blowers. (See my EYF! page 409, the beginning of the final chapter, titled “These Guys Can Play at My Funeral Any Day” for the lyrics to “Boodle-Am Shake.” The book also includes my puny attempt to describe the sound, but one must see http://www.flicklives.com to hear a bit of it.)

He was also fascinated by the myriad sounds that make up the world–and that we hardly notice–such as those of airplanes and train engines.

ART

He hardly had anything to say about visual art that he might have cared for. Picasso, maybe? He palled around with Don Kingman, Shel Silverstein, Leroy Neiman.

WRITING

Shepherd loved reading, and sometimes discussed and read fine poetry (including haiku–undoubtedly for its precise concision, and the amusing–if not quite fine– Archy and Mehitabel for its sharp and quirky irony and wit),archy and mehetabel cover

novels including Moby Dick and Look Homeward, Angel. He once commented that “Nelson Algren is probably as close a–a blood brother as far as philosophical outlook on–on the world…as anybody I know in literature. When I say blood brother, I mean to me. If there is anyone I vibrate to it’s probably Algren.”

HUMOR

Among humorists/comics, he definitely liked Mark Twain, George Ade (sharp and ironic criticism of ordinary people), Paul Rhymer’s “Vic and Sade” (gentle but pointed commentary on small-town mentality), P. G. Wodehouse, S. J. Perelman. He gave an enthusiastic appreciation of Jack Benny on the air.

“Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal”

Stay tuned

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JEAN SHEPHERD a spelling Bee

shep spelling bee photo

How do you write the name of the humorist, master of many media?

SHEP

JEAN PARKER SHEPHERD

JEAN P. SHEPHERD

JEAN SHEPHERD

JEAN SHEPHARD

JEAN SHEPARD

GENE SHEPHERD

On occasion Jean Shepherd would express annoyance on his show that some people, who saw his name in print would think he was female. Sometimes he would get mail addressed to Ms, Miss, or Mrs. It’s said (and, based on numerous bits of circumstantial evidence I’ve discussed before, I believe it), that Shel Silverstein wrote the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” kidding his best friend Jean.

People of all kinds have misspelled his name, including people writing for newspapers and magazines and on the internet.  A recent internet search displayed on the “dashboard” of my blog site reveals this double-doozie:  “gene shepards army stories,” Sometimes, in the same correspondence, they will give both a correct and incorrect spelling. Most recently a major television station misspelled it. His high school yearbook misspelled it. People trying to sell Shep stuff on ebay misspell it–even when they have the correct spelling literally in-hand:

A Christmas Story Book by Jean Shepard
Playboy July 1968 Jean Shepard Shel Silverstein Paul Newman interview fvf

One can frequently find a Playboy issues with a Shep story in it for sale on the listings of the country/western singer because of the mis-spelling. Her fans must find this somewhat of a shock. I’m such a poor speller myself that I used to feel sorry for these mis-spellers and contact them with a correction. I don’t do that any more. They can’t help it. I can’t help it. Maybe it’s in our jeans Genes genes.

Oh, yes, and on a few rare occasions, when seeking Shep on the country/western singer’s page on ebay, I’ve encountered some good Shepherd stuff–for example, the loud speaker brochure I bought:

isophase

isophase part 3

isophase part 4

isophase part 2

Brochure.

Written–and, I’d guess, illustrated

with line drawings by Shep. 

__________________________________________________

JEAN SHEPHERD & SHEL SILVERSTEIN Part 2

foibles album

hairy jazz good color

What a contrast in the images of the two of them!  (On Shep’s Foibles and Shel’s Hairy Jazz, appearing within a few months of each other) In a full-color photo, against a white background Shepherd wears a sports jacket over a long-sleeved white shirt, closed at the neck by a tight little bow tie.  His posed smile is weak and wimpy. Presumably this is they way the powers that be wanted him marketed. (With considerable wit, Shel’s front and back covers’ drawn little people undercut the cover.) Then see Shel’s photo, the unbuttoned neck of his shirt and his tangled black hair and beard, in an intense, edge-to-edge orange monochrome, in extreme close-up, seemingly shot in action, his mouth wide open in what must be a manic howl. We don’t know the inside story, but maybe Shep’s contract insisted on the conventional cover and maybe Shel’s was open-ended and allowed for the “hairy” result. whichever–the final results seem to confirm something regarding the difference of the two (covers, and careers). Note: the word “hairy” was sometimes used on the air by Shep to describe some wild-and-wooly, grundgy act/occurrence/object.

One unconventional trait they shared, although each manifested it in his own way, was a penchant for extemporaneous action.  Both enjoyed improvisation.  Shepherd’s great artistic glory was his ability to talk on his radio program with only the skimpiest of notes.  His art-on-the-wing was jazzy improvisation, although he seemed to have organized his life much more thoughtfully.  Shel lived much more unconventionally.  His drawings are said to have been created and left basically unaltered in their original form as pen first touched paper.  With the financial success of his books for kids, he could force his freaky forays into cringe-worthy ideas and obscenity upon his commercial associates, and he could frequently and abruptly change how to spend his creative energies and where and with whom to spend his days and nights.  He did what he wanted when he wanted, although reportedly he was very focused and workmanlike when immersed in a creative project.

Shouldering a large leather mailbag as his only suitcase (so it’s said) in his travels through his three score and nine years, Shel carried little baggage up and down every happy-go-lucky hill and vale of leers and jokes.  He enjoyed a rare, unencumbered luxury—he could revel in a spontaneous, perpetual childhood—to a large extent he improvised his life.

Few people ever get the chance to improvise much of anything.  Shel improvised both personal life and how it affected his career.  As art, his cartoons, drawings, and songs are a delight—absurd and hilarious.  But his bizarre and clever kiddy poems, for all their over-the-top quirkiness and all their popularity are for me unengaging and artistically insubstantial—they lack the absurd edge of the work of a Lewis Carroll.  For me, Shel should have stuck to his drawings, cartoons, and songs and to the extraordinary artifact that was his life. Evident to a careful observer, a darker outlook was often written between the lines he wrote and woven among the lines he drew. Parents showing his kid-poetry books should note this attribute.

The New York Times Book Review section, in its”Bookends” page deals with Shel’s The Giving Tree on its 50th anniversary of publication. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/the-giving-tree-tender-story-of-unconditional-love-or-disturbing-tale-of-selfishness.html?ref=books&_r=0  One columnist, Anna Holmes says she never liked the book and says that a very vocal minority of Internet site reviewers seem “to find the story an affront not just to literature but to humanity itself. “Holmes, the first columnist, describes the book: “Boy meets adoring, obliging apple tree and eventually, through a combination of utter impotence and blatant manipulation, makes ff with her branches, her trunk and, of course, the literal fruits of her labor.” She continues, “The boy uses the tree as a plaything, lives off her her like a parasite,…Readers cite it as a cautionary tale regarding both the social welfare state and the obscenity that is late-stage capitalism.” The other columnist, Rivka Galchen, feels that it is a “great book.” As she says, “The actual story doesn’t extol the tree, or endorse the boy. The tree and the boy both do the very particular they do, and say the very particular things they say, and, talking tree notwithstanding, their relationship seems emotionally realistic. She notes that the word “happy” is used many times and says, “The Giving Tree is in part a disturbing tale of unconditional love, in part a tender tale of the monsters that we are.” She ends, “Silverstein would have made it funny, if that was what it was meant to be.”

shel

1966-10-07_022_IGWT_photo_doubleday

Shep should have stuck to his radio work, his decades of radio art at the highest level—a unique form of genius.  His very short commentaries for a couple of radio stations were fairly scripted by corporate decree and not much longer than sound bites.  But his main foray into improvisation after he left radio in 1977 was the sometimes more and sometimes less improvised Jean Shepherd’s America television episodes.  Beyond that he wrote little and spoke little except for personal appearances such as an annual one at Princeton.  His films, including A Christmas Story, were scripted refinements of his written stories.  One wonders what happened to the earlier jazzy temperament and involvement and its creative expressions.  No more “narration improvised by Jean Shepherd” as the late 1950s record of “The Clown” with jazzman Charles Mingus puts it.  Improvisation?  In his later years he seemed to lack both the creative opportunities and, worse, the impulse.  Except for occasionally accepted phone calls and whatever ham radio contacts he made, the narrative of his life became an increasingly scripted descent into solitude— nearly incommunicado—nearly solitary self-confinement.

Where does that leave us?  Shel created some fine art and triumphed in life.  Shep fell short in his life but triumphed in the unequaled levels of his radio art that ended April Fool’s Day, 1977.  Because current knowledge of Shep and Shel’s interactions seems confined to the early years, one wonders to what degree they remained close for the last thirty years of their lives.

How did they view each other’s increasingly divergent paths in life and art?  What else are we missing of their friendship? 

Enigmas?

Something?

Or nothing.

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JEAN SHEPHERD & SHEL SILVERSTEIN Part 1

Shel Silverstein said in 1963 that Jean was his closest friend.  We know of many instances in which they added to each other’s creative efforts, especially those we encounter from the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Regarding Shel Silverstein’s first album, Hairy Jazz, we have information.  Shel’s bizarre voice and wacky rendition in it perfectly complement the unrelievedly raunchy lyrics of every song.  The “hairy” Dixieland music is by The Red Onion Jazz Band.  In 1959, besides playing a part in Shepherd’s theater piece Look, Charlie, Shel drew the comic playbill for it, and just as Shel frequently wrote fanciful liner notes for friends, he wrote the absurd liner notes for Jean’s first comedy album.  Now Jean’s silly liner notes for Shel’s album have come to light, probably written soon after Shel’s for Jean.  Here is part of Jean for Hairy:

Once in a generation an artist of first magnitude appears full blown and instantly communicates with his public.  Silverstein’s delicate phrasing and breathtaking technical brilliance coupled with his superb acting talents led the usually conservative Italian critics to a veritable competition among themselves in a search for adjectives.  Overnight he took his place among the all time greats of the operatic world.

Besides writing each other’s liner notes, a book introduction, a book dedication, Shel (without any doubt in my mind) surreptitiously immortalized Jean in his lyrics of “A Boy Named Sue.”  An internet source suggests, with possible justification, that although the “core story of the song” was Shep, the particular song title might have been related to the name of one of the prosecutors at the 1927 Scopes Trial, a Mr. Sue K. Hicks.  Yes, but the Sue in the song is best buddy Jean.

In Lisa Rogak’s A Boy Named Shel, Lois Nettleton is quoted as saying that she and Shel spent some days wandering through Manhattan together while Jean was at the station preparing for his broadcasts.  Rogak emphasizes the wide variety of Shel’s interests, talents, and creative enterprises.

I suggest that Shep and Shel’s similar attitudes toward life and art, and the diverse, though sometimes divergent, activities they enjoyed, are likely reasons for their close friendship.  They must have enjoyed each other’s responses to the world around them.  Their mutual love of books, their writing, drawing (sharing the impulse to draw on napkins or whatever came to hand), music, travel, friends, their delightfully skewed—though different—humor and outlooks on life. Their shared distaste for some of what they considered the idealistic and uninformed attitudes of some folk singers and assorted protesters.  Their need for change, to explore, to move on and not just be, as Shep once put it, barnacles.  Their nonconformity.  And despite all these interests and many friends, their common need to be loners.  Their both having little patience for kids.  Their I, Libertine-like attitude toward women.  (Until Leigh Brown—strong enough, persistent enough, clever enough to rein in Jean for their decades together.) Shep and Shel were a perfect pair of buddies.  Yet they were far from identical.

One’s impression is that in the late 1950s they were both wild and crazy guys and that Shel had always been the wilder and crazier.  While Shepherd at least outwardly toned down with the years, Shel remained consistently the more free and unconventional—exasperatingly difficult and quirky, yet lovable.  What might be symptomatic, at least in their public images, is the difference between the cover of Shel’s first album, Hairy Jazz, and that of Shepherd’s first comedy album, Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles, both from 1959.

foibles album

hairy jazz good color

WHAT A CONTRAST!

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO

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