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In the late 1950s Jack Paar’s late-night TV program was the first big Tonight Show to gain wide popular viewership. (Remember that this was the show, earlier staring Steve Allen, that Shepherd was reportedly brought to NYC to take over—but the evidence shows that this was not so). Alexander King, as a guest, became very popular on Paar’s show. This resulted in high sales of several of his books.
King told autobiographical stories with entertaining wit and charm. The first paragraph of an Amazon Customer Review of a King book by Jon Richfield—-describes him well–at least as he appeared on TV: “King was a mercurial spoiled brat with enormous talent, great compassion, great selfishness, idiosyncratic tolerance and intolerance, impressive culture, totally variegated experience, a marvelous capacity for talking about it, and enormous charm. He raises serious doubts about some of what he says, but says it all with such natural conviction….”*
The New York Times obit of 11/17/1966 described his Paar appearances as providing “…witty, pungent, irreverent and continual outflow of comments on life, art, woman, sex, psychiatry, celebrities, narcotics addiction, and just about any other topic that happened to annoy him at the moment.”
FIRST BIG KING BOOK
King’s charm, wit, and quirky energy captivated the audience. Shepherd’s style, being more of a slowly articulated description that relies on a build-up of humorous situation, did not grasp and hold a studio (or a home-viewing) audience sufficiently, I believe, which is why Shepherd-telling-a-story on television by simply talking, as he did on his radio shows, did not work. Fellow-performers on TV such as Ernie Kovacs and Victor Borge seemed to recognize this and undercut Shep—on live TV.
*King once claimed that he’d published his translations of Ovid’s love poems (43 BC-17 AD), even though he knew no Latin. He said that he gathered various translations of the poems and reworded them for the better. He said that he received acclaim for the best-ever translations of Ovid. Amusing story and very possibly true–but I’m not convinced. In fact, it may also be that, just as with Shep, little that King told was more than a smidgeon true to fact.
The Love Books of Ovid:
A Completely Unexpurgated
and Newly Translated Edition.
Internet search shows several booksellers
offering this 1930, privately published book.
All booksellers (and the book’s spine) show
King only as illustrator.
(21) FULL COLOR NEWSPAPER WARS
The New York Times, from time to time, has published some esthetically lovely photographs. Beautifully composed, wonderfully colored. One might say, “masterpieces.” They compare with some of the great painted masterpieces of violent centuries past. Many of these depict the ravages of wartime. They’ve made me stop and wonder at my own intellectual/emotional conflict. I’ve saved scores of these images and concocted a couple into an elegant, cedar, cigar-box-artifact meant to preserve and remind. (It needs to be noted that some of the lovely photos I’ve saved from the Times are simply beautiful and not disagreeable in content.)
Man and grandmother: homeless refugees.
Women: grieve over the yellow head, cheerful red and white-striped cover
with body beneath.
There are still elegant photos in the Times, and I look forward to those to come.
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.
Illustrating the difference between comedy and humor might most easily be done by using Shepherd’s most popular creation, the movie A Christmas Story, and from short stories related to the movie. When little Randy can’t get up after falling in the snow, the image is funny, as it is when he raises the lid of the toilet seat (“the pot”) and the visual cut to the kitchen where what’s being raised is the lid of a pot of red cabbage. The old man getting his Christmas present gift, a bowling ball, dropped a bit too heavily in his groin is comic, as, on the crate carrying his leg lamp, the stenciled sign is missing the initial “T,” reading “HIS END UP.”
A great comic description from the short story “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,” upon which the movie is largely based, includes:
Scattered out over the icy waste around us could be seen other tiny befurred jots of wind-driven humanity. All painfully toiling toward the Warren G. Harding School, miles away over the tundra, waddling under the weight of frost-covered clothing like frozen bowling balls with feet.
This is a funny image, but doesn’t achieve humor as here defined. But rising to that level, incorporating Dorothy Parker’s requirements, is the moment that Ralphie decodes the Orphan Annie message and decries, “A crummy commercial?”
Criticism and “a disciplined eye and a wild mind.” We recognize the criticism of the deception inflicted upon Ralphie; his realization that show biz, even that directed at kids, is a commercial scam; and his dawning realization that the world he is growing into is one filled with manufactured illusions—deliberate deception. The immediate audience reaction is a laughing out loud at the pointed joke; but, for me, the humor in it is that Ralphie encounters and recognizes that the world is full of two kinds: those who dupe and those who are duped. We retain the realization that life is full of subtle and not-so-subtle deceptions.
In the end, from a deceptively innocent, nostalgic past, the grownup warning that even some minor desires are dangerous, will need to be faced. (“Be careful what you wish for.”) Yet even now, Ralphie’s golden-age-of-nearly-innocent-fantasy—of killing the bad guys with his gun—will have a near miss, a non-lethal twist: ready to fire his first shot with his present, Ralphie has attached the paper target to an obviously discarded but salvaged large metal advertising sign. A sign that will ricochet the BB back at him, nearly shooting his eye out. But before that near-fateful shot is sent winging toward the bull’s eye, the sign itself—which may be plotting revenge for its eventual, ignominious demise—bent out of shape and turned on end, can be seen for an instant by the sharp-eyed movie maven (Quick! look at it! Read it sideways!), its beautifully scripted, two-word, return-to-sender proclamation ironically says it all with its simple-minded, nostalgic, not-so-innocent manifest: “Golden Age.”
By the end of the film, we adults recognize the overly-cautious, yet truthful saying that, with a weapon, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” And, making the entire film’s quest for a gun into the overriding humor, we recognize the truth that the cliche of shooting your eye out, overprotective as it is, might–in the real world–also be an important, universal truism–the BB might ricochet–be careful with that dangerous weaponry!
For all his wit and humor, Jean Shepherd has also be described as childish and even silly. For example, a Shep-fan wrote:
Here is a grown man sitting in a little studio at night telling fictitious bedtime stories, playing really obscure music while he beats on his head or plays along with such classical instruments as the jews harp and nose flute. Mature? I think being immature was what appealed to kids. With Shep we saw it was cool to be an old kid and we didn’t have to worry about becoming old, boring, cookie-cutter people like those we were in contact with every day. Shep was like that wacky favorite uncle you would only see at family gatherings who would be the life of the party… .I enjoyed being a kid and to me Shep was still one too.
Yes, Shep was sometimes a kid at heart. Sure, Shep was silly at times—when he did some of those things for which he could be called “immature.” But it seems to me that most of the time on the air, Shepherd was a mature adult telling us things about himself, life, and our culture and our humanity. And to be “immature” at times is to have the self-confidence to be able to play, to be “silly,” to see the surreal and to summon it up with the wonder and innocence of childhood. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to recapture the visual attributes of childhood, and the well-known photo of Einstein with his tongue out shows the recognized genius with the self-confidence and understanding of the broad range of human nature to be at times “silly.” Especially in public, silly is funny and silly is valuable in expressing our wonder (and dawning skepticism) toward the world as experienced by a child. To be so silly is to perceive the richness and complexities of our human condition and to even so, stick one’s pointed essence at it. Maybe such silliness is the highest form of humor. Oh, powers that be, forever preserve in me the life-enhancing ability to be at times silly–eb
H U M O R, C O M E D Y, A N D S I L L Y
Humor and comedy are often thought of as synonymous, but this is an unhappy confusion misapplied by most Toms, Dicks, Harrys, and even Websters. My dictionary plays too loosy-goosy with the terms, and, in an act of ignorance or cowardice, describes Dorothy Parker and James Thurber merely as “writers,” but does describe Mark Twain and S. J. Perelman correctly as humorists. Dotty Parker, well known for her fine and crude distinctions, is quoted as saying, “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” In her introduction to The Most of S. J. Perelman, she comments, “Humor to me, Heaven help me, takes in many things. There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind.” Laugh at calisthenics: laugh, be bemused, and think, because wit and humor work on your mind.
(Shep’s performance, my dialog. Note that, as silly as the image seems,
the performance is a virtuoso expression of knuckles-on-head.)
The distinction he made was the difference between those who told jokes, producing funny lines with great frequency, and those such as himself, who build up an amusing situation, a take on the human condition and what he called human foibles. As these observations sometimes blindside us, we become a bit discombobbled, and, in retrospect, I hope, a bit wiser. Comical matter goes in one head and out the other (Thanks for this visual/mental image, Roger Price, a good friend of Shep’s).
[As I proofread this essay before posting it, I saw that I’d typo-ed: “Roger Price, a good friend of Sheep’s.” It should be: “Roger Price, a good friend of sheep.”]
For this book, Price’s price= $.100
(My mother and I laughed out loud lots while reading this book.)
Humor remains and sets us thinking about what we, as a human species, are all about. Humor amuses and leaves a persistent tickle in the mind. (In his book’s commentary about George Ade, Shepherd wrote that, regarding one of Ade’s ironic stories, “It is wise to note that the man who told the story obviously loved both of them.”)
Shepherd said that one difference is “the longevity of humor versus the short-time value of comedy.” Comedy is, one way or another, sort of wise cracks that produce a laugh because of some surface turn; humor tends to suggest some inherent aspect of the human condition. Way back in the October 1960 issue of that subversive/funny/ significant, and therefore underground, periodical, The Realist, he commented that in comedy, the laugh was the end product, while with humor, “the laugh is the byproduct of what you’re doing.” He seemed especially prone to make these distinctions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, probably because many of his peers were making it big nation-wide on television and with recordings by using their hip and astute cleverness in comedy routines that far outpaced, in popularity, his more contemplative style, which required time to build toward a more solid and long-lasting humorous effect.
“Speaking of serious comedy–
take my joke–please!”
Seriously Funny by Gerald Nachman covered much of the clever, modern comic field with chapters on: Mort Sahl; Sid Caesar; Tom Leher; Steve Allen; Stan Freberg; Ernie Kovacs; Lenny Bruce; Godfrey Cambridge; The Smothers Brothers; Mel Brooks; Dick Gregory; David Frye, Vaughn Meader, Will Jordan; Woody Allen; Bill Cosby; Phyllis Diller; Jonathan Winters; Jean Shepherd, Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding [Note that where there are commas separating names, those people share a chapter], Shelly Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine May; Bob Newhart; Joan Rivers. Each chapter has an amusingly relevant title: the Shep/Elliot/Goulding one, relating to the medium of radio: “Out of Thin Air.”
Although not filled with rapid-fire jokes as were most of the comedians, a Shepherd creation often results not only in bemused nods of recognition, but in outright smiles and full-fledged belly laughs. Besides which, as I noted in years past, those others and their cohorts decades ago lost their momentary–though highly deserved– stranglehold on our interest, while good ol’ Shep, with what must now be a self-satisfied smirk from the beyond, perseveres in widespread books, tapes, CDs, videos, a blog, and websites, as well as, more to the point, in the disposition and world view of those who take to their hearts and minds his “voice in the night.”
PART WON OF TOO. *
* “won” =”We persevered in the first of these fights,”
“too”=”We hope to win Part 2 also.”
[ Shep claimed he hated puns, but he produced a couple of corkers himself.]
“WE STAND SILENT AND IN AWE AT THE SHEER SHIMMERING, UNEXPECTED BEAUTY OF THE ‘MAJOR AWARD.’”
–Shep’s narration in A Christmas Story.
The honored, first Artsy Fartsy subject (See, this first one actually relates directly to Shep), comes from Shepherd’s first book of stories, IGWTAOPC, the story, “The Old Man’s Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.” The “old man” in Shep’s published tale entered a contest by a soda pop company: “The company trademark, seen everywhere, was a silk-stockinged lady’s leg, realistically flesh-colored, wearing a black spike-heeled slipper. The name of this pop was a play on words, involving the lady’s knee.”
Many fans of Shepherd, and especially those who love his movie A Christmas Story, have their own full-size leg lamp replica that they put in the living room window every Christmas season.
I bought the smaller, $50 version. To my surprise, my wife–not a Shepherd fan but she loves the movie–suggested that we install it in the living room window all year round.
She plugged the leg into a timer so that as daylight fades the lamp turns on,
giving our front window every night of the year the glow of electric sex.
“Artsy-fartsy individuals tend to be unemployed and enjoy finger-painting.”
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
“It was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”
The chart below should be seriously contemplated for comparison with Shepherd’s fine,
but less far-flung creative work, from 1960 onward.
One might title this period
High On a Mountaintop.
Jean Shepherd’s first years in New York, starting with the beginning of
his “overnight” broadcasting,
were an assorted fervor of glorious activities.
Below are some major examples.
♦Far-flung extemporaneous monologs, “invectives”♦
♦Within New York City’s highest levels of artistic activity connected with The Voice, Greenwich Village, the avant garde, etc. Shepherd associated with such as: Amram, Silverstein, Feiffer, Antheil, Gardner, Mingus.♦
♦Look, Charlie theater piece ♦
♦Cassavetes and the promotion of Shadows♦
♦Village Voice and The Realist♦
♦I, Libertine and The America of George Ade♦
♦Promoter and participant in the forefront of modernist jazz♦
♦As Lois Nettleton put it, “He had headlines!”♦
Jean Shepherd must have felt himself to be an
innovative master of the highest
modern urban/urbane arts
–and rightly so.
The above list is extraordinary and unprecedented. A major problem is that we have as yet no available examples of his early 1956, overnight, four-and-a-half-hour shows to give us a reasonable idea of what they were like–we can only assume, for now, that they were probably similar to and even more loose than his subsequent four-hour Sunday night broadcasts. My impression is that he played some extended–if not complete–cuts of the major jazz masters of this period. (Talking from 1 AM to 5:30 five or six nights a week most probably was a bit different from Sundays only, 9 PM to 1 AM.)
I repeat here, from an earlier post: In an interview with Doug McIntyre, January 2000, (Just a few months after Shep’s death) Lois Nettleton commented that Jean’s improvisation on radio was a higher art than acting:
“…acting is not shallow, it is an art with depth and all of that,
but it seems almost–almost, less profound,
less important than what he was doing.
I mean I think what he was doing was so–
it was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”
Stay tuned for Part 4 of
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
Time Mag: AK: “The critics try to intellectualize my material. There’s no satire involved. Satire is a concept that can only be understood by adults. My stuff is straight, for all ages.” ….What makes Andy Kaufman great is his unassumed childishness, and cruelty, acknowledged or not, is as much a question of childhood as innocence.
In what ways are Shep and Andy dead?
In what ways are Shep and Andy alive?
Shepherd always insisted that, though many people were afraid to venture, that, because one only lived once it was foolish not to get the maximum out of one’s life. While his greatest pleasures were connected with the life in New York, why did he move to Florida–had he given up on that important part of his life? Had he given up on his eternal struggle to gain more fame and acknowledgment for his achievements? Why did he and Leigh (according to those who knew them best) become recluses in those last years? Why and how did he die of “natural causes” the year after Leigh died? Indeed, did loss of their mutual support system strike the final blow to his need to live?
Yes, of course I believe that he really died. But, in terms of his artistic legacy, he still lives–audios, books, videos, films, Internet tributes, the power of his influence on his thousands of enthusiastic listeners, and influence on many current creators in various entertainment fields.
My most recently encountered popular media creators who claim Shep as an important influence are author R. L. Stine (young adult “Goosebumps” books) and bestselling author Kate Collins (“The Flower Shop Mysteries,” etc.) whose childhood home was two blocks from Shep’s and who considers him her mentor: “Jean Shepherd’s amazing books had a major influence on my writing style. I write a mystery series but with comedic overtones. You’d recognize his humor in them…. I was twelve when I read Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters, and was immediately hooked. What a gifted writer, a huge talent. I always give him credit for stimulating my interest in writing.”
Andy thought that if he hoaxed his own death and people didn’t believe it, he’d “live” forever–be immortal. See below:
Considering all the ways in which Andy sabotaged reality, it’s only logical (?) that some dupes think he faked his death. Regarding his death, the more I read and understand what Andy was like and how he talked about and played with the idea of death in public and in private, the more I wonder if I am not one of those dupes. Am I racing down the road to bamboozlement?
Real Death Certificate.*
I’ve checked out lots of websites about Andy’s death. Through googling, find thousands of hits for variations of this:
IS ANDY KAUFMAN ALIVE?
DID ANDY KAUFMAN FAKE HIS OWN DEATH?
TAXI STAR KAUFMAN IS ALIVE!
The March 31, 2015 New Yorker has an article that begins:
Last month, when the fortieth-anniversary special for “S.N.L.” aired, speculation grew on Twitter that Andy Kaufman would make his big comeback during the live program, possibly by crashing it—an unlikely proposition given that Kaufman died, in 1984….
Kaufman’s posthumous reputation has grown in tandem with the rise of a cult that venerates him as a culture god, the harbinger of our comedy verité sensibility. One of the central tenets of this cult is that Andy Kaufman is really and truly alive….
An early trauma for Andy, it’s said: “Kaufman’s parents probably erred in telling a particularly sensitive young Andy that his recently deceased and beloved grandfather, Papu, had merely gone away on a long trip.”
It’s been said by various people who knew him that Andy was fascinated by the idea of dying–but then actually being alive. An elderly lady does a dance onstage during Andy’s Carnegie Hall appearance and “dies” at the end in front of the shocked audience, then is revealed to be alive.
A professional Hoaxer, Alan Abel (who wangled his fake obit into the New York Times), says that Andy questioned him about how he’d faked his own death.
I recently got a CD:
Andy playing with a mini-audio recorder,
messing with unsuspecting minds.
Culled from 82 hours of interesting stuff in this standard length CD, the final cut here has to do with a woman who is very angry that Andy won’t give her his surreptitiously recorded tape of her; there follows a dialog between Andy and his friend/collaborator, Bob Zmuda:
Andy: Wouldn’t it be great if she killed me, and then you have the tapes?…It would be better if I’m more famous.
Zmuda: [musing about how it would play in public] He took his own act into his own life. He played with people’s heads, not only on stage, but off, and it cost him in the end.
Andy: Wow. Wow. That would be great. Except I don’t think I’d want to get killed though. You know what I mean? I wouldn’t want that part. But we could fake it! When I’m more famous we could fake it….Then wouldn’t people hate me when it turns out I’m really alive?
Zmuda: No, no, because every few months you could die, right? ….And then you know what? And then—and then, for a while, everybody says, “Ah, he’s puttin’ us on.” Then, all of a sudden, you die. And I go on TV and say, “I swear this time it’s true. It’s no joke”....For one year nobody hears anything. We have a gravestone, the whole thing…. And then you come back again.
Andy: A huh.
Zmuda: You know how you come back?
Zmuda: There’s the stupid “foreign man” like on the Dick Van Dyke Show, or something.
Zmuda: Yeh, do it with the same [“Foreign Man”] act. People say, ah, that’s him, that’s him….Then, when you really die, nobody will believe it. Years will go by and they’ll go, “Nah.”….They won’t believe your own death, you’ll be immortal, you’ll go on forever.
Andy: That’s great!
[Unless this entire audio of the proposed death-hoax is itself a double-duty fake: a hoaxed-taped-proposal perpetrated about a death-hoax.]
America and “The American Dream”
Jean Shepherd and Andy Kaufman, despite some affinities, were, I believe, different in their sense of America and The American Dream.
I’v just read a strange book published by an American university, written by a “Fellow” at a Zurich University: Andy Kaufman: Wrestling With the American Dream. The idea of the author is that Andy, in a frequent way through his performances, commented on “The American Dream.” I don’t see that at all–for me, his actions reflected his take on what all of us think, feel, respond to life round us–especially to many seemingly minor things we don’t think sufficiently about. He manages to confuse us and make us do bewildered double-takes, making us re-think how we approach our basic surroundings. Recognizing ways in which each of us has thoughtlessly failed to understand ourselves and our surroundings. I don’t think that Andy thought about or commented on America as a particular cultural phenomenon at all. Although he sometimes used subjects such as “Mighty Mouse” and Elvis, I don’t see his use of them as having a particular take on American culture–He seems to me to be essentially a-cultural. Where does “The American Dream” come into this at all?
Jean Shepherd in his commentaries, his American-based stories, his expression of our customs such as in his depictions of some of our American holidays (Fourth of July, Christmas, graduation, etc.), two Jean Shepherd’s America TV series, and his often referring to American ideas and foibles, examines the American persona. He loves America and often lovingly refers to our country in his stories.
Unless otherwise noted, the quotes from Shepherd are from his radio shows;
the quotes from Kaufman are from http://www.andykaufman.com and other sources.
“The euphemism ‘writer’s writer’ has been applied so many times
that Salter visibly recoils at hearing it.
(‘That means nobody knows who you are,’ he told me….)
He admits that he writes with specific people in mind, but “enhanced a bit; not necessarily made more admirable, just made clearer or more appropriate to their role. You say, ‘Come backstage here just for a minute. I’d like to fasten this part of your coat—it looks a little funny when you turn profile—and then you’ll be ready to go.’ That’s about what it’s like.”
–Above, both from the Village Voice interview by Scott Foundas, 3/27/2013
James Salter, a ‘Writer’s Writer’ Short on
Sales but Long on Acclaim, Dies at 90
I daily note the subjects of the New York Times obituaries to see if someone I know of has died and to see if the main subject of the article interests me. I learn a lot that way. On June 20, 2015 the heading of the major obit struck me because I have a strong interest in literature, though the name Salter is only vaguely familiar to me and he never wrote anything read by me (my own construction–I’ve waited years to have the opportunity to use it). Besides, the “short on sales but long on acclaim” aspect in the heading struck me as possibly similar to Shepherd.
The obituary, by Helen T. Verongos, grabbed me–from beginning to its last words–for its thoughtful and sensitive elegy of sadness at the desire-to-achieve and its appreciation of what had been achieved. Indeed, I recognized similarities to Jean Shepherd’s life, aspirations, disappointments, and achievements. Quotes from the obit I record in bold type indented, and my comments are in standard type, full-width
James Salter, whose intimately detailed novels and short stories kept a small but devoted audience in its thrall died on Friday….
James Wolcott described him…as America’s most “underrated underrated author.”
“Small but devoted audience in its thrall” and “underrated underrated” seem especially appropriate regarding Jean Shepherd. The following comment rings a bell regarding Leigh Brown, acting as Shep’s agent, having to seek publication elsewhere when Doubleday, publisher of his first two books, turned down his The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and I, erstwhile promoter of Shep for publication, struggle with a certain amount of agony, to get my two more book manuscripts of Shep transcripts published. Salter’s publisher turned down a novel manuscript and only through a fellow-author’s influence did his A Sport and a Pastime achieve publication, subsequently highly regarded:
The print run was small, and the publishers, Mr. Salter said, “were holding it like it was a pair of dirty socks.”
Bringing to mind Shepherd deserting his family in the blandings of New Jersey for the creative ambiance of Greenwich Village, is Salter’s way of dealing with suburban family life:
Living in the Hudson River Valley, he did his writing in New York in a room in Greenwich Village, where he befriended artists but felt himself to be their inferior. “I was from the suburbs,” he wrote. “I had a wife, children, the entire manifest. Even in the city I found it hard to believe I was working on anything of interest.”
That, indeed, seems to be what Shepherd feared and avoided–with his apparent heartless abandonment of his family.
The obit mentions several important literary prizes that Salter won, reminding one of the many that Shepherd also won–yet which didn’t satisfy their longing for even more and better.
Describing Salter’s 1997 memoir, Burning the Days, the obit continues:
Though autobiographical in style and substance, it is almost indistinguishable from his stories, in keeping with Mr. Salter’s often-stated refusal to believe in the “arbitrary separation” of fact and fiction.
Not quite as Shepherd might have put it or admitted, but it probably indicates a shared affiliation they both had for the uses that their facts-into-fictions enjoyed. Early on (in a reminder to Shep fans of their hero’s desires), the obituary comments that:
But he never achieved the broad popularity he craved.
The obituary ends on a warmly considered comment on a creator’s legacy (Salter’s, and, Shep-enthusiasts should think, also of Shepherd’s):
…the book [his final novel] did appear on The Times best-seller list for a week, but never achieved the success he had hoped for.
At the end of his life, his legacy mattered. As Mr. Salter once wrote, “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything.”
Yes, Shep fans remember his comment on our penultimate fate: “Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory?” Yes, Shep, but even worse, what about beyond that by a couple billion years–when the Earth spirals down its orbit by plunging into the sun. But please, don’t let that stop anyone from fighting the good creative fight here and now!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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),
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.”
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”
I remember one time talking to Norman Mailer who I used to see somewhat–a few years back, and Mailer said, “Don’t count on any close friends of yours or people around you to ever read anything you write.” He said, “Knowing an author personally makes people think you can’t write.”
That quote above is one more instance of Shepherd commenting on his having known Norman Mailer (They both wrote for the early Village Voice, and Shepherd said they’d sometimes meet down at the Voice offices in the Village. Mailer was also one of the Voice‘s founders. When I’d interviewed Mailer by mail for my first Shep book, he at first said he didn’t think he’d met Shep, then corrected himself saying he only vaguely remembered him. I’ve always been curious as to what their relationship was and what caused Shep to dislike Mailer and Mailer to only “vaguely” remember Shepherd.) I’ve previously written about all the many times Shepherd disparaged Norman Mailer on the air. Here are more–and maybe the last of them I choose to post!-
All the intellectuals went on a cruise to listen to Norman Mailer complain about how he was sick. …I still have an invitation to Norman Mailer’s fiftieth birthday, which only ranks with Mike Todd’s birthday as the great ripoff of our time. (August 3, 1975)
Regarding the foregoing, note that indeed Mailer did charge admission to attend his birthday party that he himself had orchestrated. At the time, more than one person disparaged this. And in the following, remember that during the 1960s, Shepherd more than once had criticized what he considered the overly naive attitudes of many youths during this turbulent era. He mentioned peace demonstrators such as Joan Baez, who questioned how one can have a sense of humor with all the problems in the world:
Ah, come on! The world has always been in crisis. It has never once stopped being in crisis. Speaking of humorous people—poor old Norman Mailer. Have you ever had the feeling that Norman Mailer [laughs as he says name] pours stuff out of a lead mold? And it’s a lead mold that he’s somehow having trouble with—there’s a kind of gangrenous growth around the edges of it. Totally un-humorous. James Baldwin has no humor whatsoever. His play—no humor at all….And yet, strangely enough, both sides are extremely funny to me. Now why is that? Why do I find Norman Mailer side-splittingly funny? I can’t help it. Every time I see Mailer glaring out—Mailer the architect, Mailer the dreamer, Mailer the great man, Mailer the god—wherever I look [laughs] I find him excruciatingly funny. (April 1965)
Regarding shedding a tear about the disappearance of the Great North Woods north of Minneapolis:
Norman Mailer would not shed a tear—but he will shed a tear over the passing of boxing. He’ll get all upset—that the Queen Mary is gone—or some other cockamamie bit like that. (September 1, 1967)
Have a little fistfight with Norman Mailer—and his eighteen friends, the middleweight contenders. Have you ever noticed that all fist-fighters, all boxers today, want to be writers, and all writers want to be boxers. It’s always thus. Every man should stick to his last. You’d get a fat nose, Normy. (August 3, 1968)
Ian McEwan is quoted as having said
“Boxing and writing were wonderfully
confused in his mind.”
Shepherd seemed to explore every variation he could think of to stick it to him, including Mailer’s penchant for aggression and bravery as part of his literary life—Shep probably felt that disparaging his writing would be the best way to upset poor Normy:
He’s read a couple of novels by Mailer. Can you imagine what would happen if your idea of what America is like was by reading novels by James Baldwin and Norman Mailer and going to see Doris Day movies? Wouldn’t that be a fantasyland of—really like Walt Disney! (June 1966)
I do feel very sorry for people who are completely hung up with examining and reexamining their own navel. This is one of the reasons why I—I’m totally bored by so many writers who have that problem going. Like I can’t get past the third page of Philip Roth. Norman Mailer bores me. Just bores the life out of me. And I know I’m going to get thousands of letters from people who say “sour grapes—you’re a writer.” No. I’m just telling you the truth. I find this view of life where, “it’s all essentially a plot that’s all bad news, and if there were only more like me—us, the sensitive people.” I just find that not only boring, but I also find it vaguely repellent. (March 27, 1971)
The following is the beginning of Shepherd’s humorous article titled “all hail the sovereign duchy of nieuw amsterdamme!” Understand that although Mailer’s running for mayor in 1969 was true, this article is written tongue in cheek.
In his recent and abortive campaign for the mayoralty of the city of New York, the honorable Norman Mailer proved once again that his thinking, though often well intentioned, is nonetheless pitifully deficient in scope. While not without merit, his plan to turn New York City into a separate State of the Union—due to its myriad distinguished attributes—was redeemed mainly by the fact that, in keeping with Mr. Mailer’s usual modesty and astute self-appraisal, he implied that he would be available for the governorship when statehood came to flower. This appetite for public office, of course, is based on the enlightened contemporary concept of total talent: A gifted novelist would obviously be a brilliant statesman; a great fullback could unquestionably play a superb Hamlet; a renowned pediatrician could easily master the complexities of global policy; an incomparable but self-effacing New York humorist, broadcaster, bon vivant and boulevardier is eminently qualified to become—But I‘m getting ahead of myself. (Playboy, September, 1970)
Regarding Mailer and columnist Jimmy Breslin’s run for office (in 1969) and wanting to make New York City into the fifty-first state, one must realize that they were very serious, yet kept a sense of humor. (I have a couple of their campaign buttons: “Vote the Rascals In,” and “No More Bullshit/M.-B.”)
During this period, Shepherd, completing his thought at the end of his Playboy article quoted above that he himself was “eminently qualified to become—,” suggested in a radio broadcast during the mayoral campaign that in throwing his own hat in the ring and upping the stakes, he, Shepherd, was running to have the city declared a separate country with himself as king.
A while back I posted here the Jean Shepherd page in the graphic treatment of John Wilcock’s biography by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall. The following Norman Mailer page from that graphic treatment makes references to Jean Shepherd in the first panel:
Mike Nichols got a double-page obit and appreciation from the New York Times on Friday, November 21, 2014. (Obituary, starting front page, by Bruce Weber, appreciation by Ben Brantley.) I very much liked Nichols’ film “The Graduate.” I remember him on TV in the late 1950s with Elaine May doing their improvised skits. I liked them a lot. Nichols and May came out of the Chicago 1950s climate of improv along with others who were “Seriously Funny” at that time. Shep came out of that ambiance at the same time–and he claimed to have acted at the Goodman Theatre, although his former wife, Lois Nettleton (also of Chicago and of the Goodman Theatre), indicated in an interview about Shep in 2000 that she had no knowledge of Shep’s connection with that Theatre. I think that, considering their common background and Chicago connections, She would have know if he’d been with the Goodman Theatre. Yet, there is the improv and Chicago connection of Shep and Nichols.
Brantley’s appreciation comments that Nichols was, “like most of that breed of stylish New Yorkers transplanted from elsewhere, a self-invention.” Also sounds a a bit like Shepherd.
Improvisation is the special connecting link between Shepherd and Nichols.
The obit comments that, regarding Nichols’ style, it developed “through improvisation, written with sly verbal dexterity and performed with cannily calibrated comic timing, a sharp eye….” The obit also comments that “Mr. Nichols said in interviews that though he did not know it at the time, his work with Ms May was his directorial training.
“He said that improvisation was good training because it acclimates the performer to the idea of taking care of the audience. In that regard, Nichols is quoted, “But what I really thought it was useful for was directing,” he said, ” because it also teaches you what a scene is made of–you know what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ and improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. there must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.”
All of the above seems to me that it might also relate to Shep’s sensibilities.
I’d think that improvisation also helps a story-teller like Shep.
The description of the Nichols and May performances also notes that:
“Developed through improvisation, written with sly verbal dexterity and performed with cannily calibrated comic timing….” This makes the point that their material, coming out of improvisation, was worked over to hone it into the final, precise presentation we’re familiar with from TV, theater, and recordings. Here, I would say, is where their precision differs from Shep’s delivery. I have a feeling that Shepherd’s radio material also began with improvisation–within his own mind–and that he worked on it in his mind, sometimes more, sometimes less, before he presented it script-less, improvising from some sort of mental base, on the air.
According to the obit, when Nichols was honored at Lincoln Center for “lifetime achievement,” Elaine May commented, “So he’s witty, he’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s on time, he’s prepared, and he writes.”
Another quote from Elaine May: “But is he perfect? He knows you can’t really be liked or loved if you’re perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing.” Of course we Shep enthusiasts know that Jean Shepherd has some more serious flaws than that, but he’s still brilliant!
Despite the far-different paths their careers took, I do find that some
aspects of Shepherd and Nichols connect.