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JEAN SHEPHERD and Alexander King & (21) ARTSY-Full Color Newspaper Wars

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.

A. King paar4

PAAR                          KING

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.”



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.

A.King Ovid book

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.




artsyfratsy 10010


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.)

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Village: burns.

Man and grandmother: homeless refugees.

Women: grieve over the yellow head, cheerful red and white-striped cover

with body beneath.

burning landscape


women grieving

A few others in my collection.
black poles boat0003

photo recent0003

national guard0013

photo black pot

There are still elegant photos in the Times, and I look forward to those to come.

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JEAN SHEPHERD Truth? Opinion? Fiction Part 2



Sometimes, in order to get a sense of some new book that I’m interested in, in addition to checking professional reviewers, I’ll check out’s Customer Reviews and, rarely, the members’ comments on That is an unfortunate habit on my part and I’ve gotta stop doin’ it. Just like on Wikipedia, anyone (no matter how intelligent and literate–or not) can write what they want and others–such as myself–can maybe believe there’s some truth in the review.

Even such revered sources for reviews as The New York Times are not entirely trustworthy–Somebody at the Times made the egregious error of letting Shepherd review Mort Sahl’s memoir. 

I’ve read articles commenting on the fact that the Internet’s attribute that allows anyone/everyone to write what they think/believe gives people the feeling that they know what they are talking about and feeling, and, significantly, want to let the world know it, too. It’s an uncontrolled ego-booster. (Gee, sort of what a blog does and is.)

I sometimes make the even bigger mistake (egotist that I am) of reading some of the more recent Customer Reviews of my own books. From what I understand, many authors do.  Most of the reviews of my books are very positive, but when I encounter a negative one and find myself explaining to myself that “the reviewer has gotten it all wrong and if only they’d realized that…,” there is where I understand once again that ya can’t win ’em all. (“That’s what makes horse racing.” What does that mean?)

I recently submitted my JEAN SHEPHERD KID STORIES book manuscript to a small book publisher. I just hoped he didn’t check out a few of the less than four-star Customer Reviews of my published Shep books and maybe even believe them and think that they represented what the general public might think. If only he’d read all 47 of the Customer Reviews he could get a better overall picture! I commented in my query letter to him that he might appreciate the extensive and highly enthusiastic EYF! Associated Press review that went nation-wide, written by  John Skoyles, a professor at a Boston college (an unknown-to-me gentleman-and-a-scholar!) As one might imagine, I recommend it to one and all:

And that’s the truth!–Or is it an opinion?


JEAN SHEPHERD Truth? Opinion? Fiction? Part 1


Truth and the lack of it are inevitable when studying and deliberating much regarding Shep. Of course there is uncertainty in all of life, but much uncertainty in the world of Shepherd seems to come from two causes.

One is that he did a lot of faking on purpose–his stories are told with such an air of verisimilitude that we can never know the whole truth and nothing but the truth about much of them. He also faked such things as his age, and he held back so much of his real life, such as the fact that he’d been married four times. He faked much more and, surprisingly, sometimes his memory failed him, such as saying that he’d come to New York in 1958 (especially when the I, Libertine, firing-hiring-Sweetheart-soap capers, and jazz concerts such as “Jazz Under the Stars” and Loew’s Sheridan happened in 1957 in NYC).

Another cause of fiction is that so much of what is stated about him is based on erroneous material that is repeated constantly on the assumption that what one believes (because one encountered  something said or written), is true.

When I first checked out Wikipedia years ago, I was shocked at the amount of error in it regarding Shep. I fixed much of it but one can never know how much has crept back in the moment one’s back is turned. (I don’t know who or why someone posted a second comment about my EYF!)

Recently, while researching a Shepherd subject, I thought I’d check Wikipedia again to see how the world of Shep facts and fictions is going. Without implying that I know it all and am never wrong–I hadda fix some stuff again


what is truth




The book of assembled A Christmas Story stories is promoted as “The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film,” though, deceptively, the book contains the previously published film-related stories from the books In God We Trust (1966) and Wanda Hickey (1971).  The A Christmas Story play, of several years’ seasonal duration makes the rounds. The musical based on the movie is good.

Every year one encounters news stories about kids getting tongues stuck to frozen poles, and they refer to the movie.  “I decided to try it because I thought all of the TV shows were lies, but turns out I was wrong,” said one kid.  Kids, want to prove it’s true without ripping skin off your tongue?  Touch your slightly moistened finger to an ice cube.  Sticks, doesn’t it?

Yes, ACS againI capitulated to its popularity long ago, giving prominent references to it in my own writing about Shep.  I’m an idealist and a realist.  We need whatever promotion we can get.  Especially as there seems to be some jinx working against Shep, with inadequate, inappropriate, and inaccurate Shepherd knowledge insinuated into the American cultural makeup.  ACS indeed! (As wonderful as it is.)

Talk about cultural makeup–as with many movies, it has a couple of subtle jokes.  A minor one, probably meant more for the movie makers’ own enjoyment than for its viewers, because it’s only seen in full for less than a second, is what’s either a sweet bit of longing for a bygone age or another example of skewed nostalgia: Ralphie has attached his BB gun target to a large, vertically propped-up advertising sign which proclaims in big, bold letters, “Golden Age.” Golden Age soda sign (see ACS prop for target) Those idyllic words are partly obscured by that symbol of symbolic hostility—the target.  The “golden age” advertising sign, apparently metal, is indeed the obvious cause of the BB ricocheting back, nearly shooting Ralphie’s eye out.

This great family movie, watched every year by millions as it’s played twenty-four hours straight on cable television, also has a couple of sneaky off-color references.  Probably not one in a million is aware of them even after many viewings.

A minor gag involves the poorly positioned stencils on the wooden crate containing the leg lamp.  The missing part of the F in FRAGILE on the top is not relevant, but above it, instead of THIS END UP, the missing T leaves a probable reference to the old man’s posterior: it reads HIS END UP.his end up

A visual piece of fun happens when Randy finally gets into the bathroom after Ralphie deciphers his decoder message.  Randy lowers his outer pants and then, as he lifts the lid on the pooping “pot,” the camera cuts to a close-up in the kitchen of a lid being lifted on red cabbage in a cooking pot.  When the fuse blows while the old man is working on the Christmas tree lights, narrator Shepherd comments that his old man “can change a fuse faster than a jackrabbit on a date.”  One only has to remember that rabbits are famous for reproducing rapidly in the time-honored way, and especially that they would be doing such on “a date.”  That’s the most startling, and it’s my favorite.

The movie looms so large in Shep’s legend.  One cannot get away from all things A Christmas Story. The house used for the movie exterior shots, located in Cleveland, Ohio, bought on ebay, has been turned into a museum of the movie.  They spent thousands returning it to the look of the movie inside and out, making it a tourist attraction.  They contracted four of the former child actors for the opening, and a Chinese restaurant has a tie-in regarding the Christmas duck dinner featured in the movie.  A leg lamp dominates the window of the house, and they’re selling all the collateral merchandise.  May The Christmas Story House live long and prosper.

Among the fairly new A Christmas Story products is a snow globe, a board game, a Monopoly game, a jigsaw puzzle, and the siding removed from the original A Christmas Story house sold in a collectible shadow box.  Obviously a major subject for millions of A Christmas Story enthusiasts, the leg lamp looms large. But despite the growing popularity of blow-up décor for every conceivable holiday season in my Long Island neighborhood, please don’t anyone buy me the recently available five and-a-half feet tall by two feet in diameter inflatable leg lamp lawn ornament. (I think it’s no longer available.)ACS leg for lawn

I’d love a photo of one taken on a lawn!

And as for some of the new variations, don’t buy me the Leg Lamp Soap-On-A-Rope, the Leg Lamp Head-Knocker, or even the Leg Lamp Wall Clock, with its pendulum like a leg, perpetually swinging back and forth, as, on the hour, the clock announces that immortal exclamation, “Fra-gee-lay!” And don’t get me from the catalog this new one for 2015:leglamp glass 2015

I’d rather drink my sweet vermouth on the rocks

out of a plain glass tumbler.

For the 2006 holiday season, the wireless phone company, Cingular, broadcast a TV commercial replicating parts of the movie with Ralphie requesting a particular model cell phone, wearing the pink bunny suit, and Santa shoving him down the slide with his big black boot.  Instead of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” the admonition is “You’ll run the bill up!”  A full-color editorial cartoon by Mike Thompson in the Detroit Free Press soon after the November 2006 elections in which Democrats gained control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, replicates the scene in which Santa is asked for the BB gun, but Ralphie is replaced by a Democratic donkey, saying “I want an official full-blown Congressional investigation into the Bush administration’s conduct leading up to the war [in Iraq] with simultaneous passage of a wildly ambitious domestic agenda!”  Santa, about to send the Democrat donkey down the slide by shoving him in the face with his boot, says, “You’ll shoot your foot off, kid.”  An extensive New York Times article on the commercial and related A Christmas Story matters in their Business Section quoted a Turner Broadcasting executive as saying that for the twenty-four hour showing of the movie during Christmas, 2005, 45.4 million people watched at least part of it.  More recently, the count has gone well over fifty million.

I just noticed that the entire movie now appears on YouTube. But, after it being

a freebee, now one has to pay to see it!

A Christmas Story loomed large in the spring of 2007 with the news that on April 4th, the film’s director, Bob Clark, and his son were killed when an illegal alien without a driver’s license, allegedly drunk, driving on the wrong side of the road, hit their car.  Readers of the obituary were informed that the director had a cameo role in the film—when the old man goes outside to admire his “major award” leg lamp in the window, Clark is the man who questions him about it.  On the day of the accident, Shepherd fan Keith Olbermann, star of  television news and sports commentary programs, did a short piece on Clark and A Christmas Story.

In 2008, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the movie’s opening, the A Christmas Story House

in Cleveland held special events, and the movie was officially celebrated in Hammond.
hammond brochure

Gene B.’s contribution to the above brochure

(I may have posted this before):

“Jean Shepherd talked and wrote a lot about Hammond. He might sometimes disparage the place, but in his heart and mind the tribulations and joys of his childhood were inseparable from his hometown. Though he might attempt to disguise some connections, he kept letting them sneak in. Two examples: The town he wrote about called ‘Hohman’ he named after a street of that name in Hammond. In the movie A Christmas Story Shepherd’s fictional character Ralphie wants a BB gun as he also did in the earlier published version originally titled ‘Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,’ and we know that Jean Shepherd grew up on Hammond’s Cleveland Street. In some undeniable, enigmatic way, Jean Shepherd was the Cleveland Street Kid. He never got Hammond out of his creative works or out of his blood.”

As no one offered to cover all my expenses to Hammond or Clevland, I was forced to observe the occasion in my own very private—and enigmatic–fashion.

One year I was interviewed for a newspaper article about ACS, commenting in a way I’ve long felt but may not have quite articulated before:  “Because it’s so funny, I think people don’t realize that the funniness is in the bizarre negative outcome of so many incidents in the movie.  Shepherd’s philosophy tended to be that most things in life were going to end in disaster.  In this movie he was able to present that in an acceptable form, a form that makes people laugh and makes them not realize the darker undercurrent.”

A dramatic example of this is when the old man is reading the newspaper,

the neighbor’s dogs, heading for the Christmas turkey,

start tramping through–unseen by him

because of the newspaper blocking his view–

and Shepherd as narrator wryly comments:

“Ah, life is like that.

Sometimes at the height of our revelries,

when our joy is at its zenith,

when all is most right with the world,

the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

Merry Christmas!

[Joel comments on many of the positive/caring acts that occur in the film. Although comments appear on the blog where they are indicated, many may not look at them, so I’ve sometimes revised the basic post to include them, as I do here:

I think the observation that so many of the incidents in the movie end in disaster, yet are done so we laugh is the banana peel phenomenon. But the other thing that rescues the movie from the darkness is the love that is shown in the family. The scene of the ride to get the Christmas tree, singing in the car is one such. The father’s love when he points Ralphie to the treasured BB gun after all the presents are unwrapped (“well,” he says, “I had one when I was a kid.”). The mother’s tender care when she thinks an icicle wounded Ralphie. Her soothing him after his explosion beating up Scut Farcas, and not telling the old man about the episode… The scene in the Chinese restaurant where they laugh and enjoy the experience as a family (Shepherd remarks that the meal became know long after for the duck). The closing scene showing the warmly lit quiet house and the tree with the kids in bed, Ralphie caressing the BB gun and the snow falling outside is a real Christmas card.

I find it interesting that the movie portrays such warmth in the family home and among the parents and kids, when Shep’s reality must have been anything but that, given his father’s abandonment of the family.]


JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Peru–a Phony Tale? Part 10a

“A Peculiar Kind of Galloping Disbelief”

Shepherd being questioned about the truth of his travels:

One of the problems is–I think–I don’t quite understand yet, it has not been explained to me. A growing–even in my own mind I can’t quite put the things together–there’s a growing, peculiar kind of galloping disbelief that people have in our country–in everything they hear. Can you explain that to me–seriously. Like, anything that a politician says, “is ridiculous political talk, and obviously is not true.” You’ve heard that many times. And the simplest statements today, are challenged.


For example, I have received a large number of letters from people (I won’t say a large number, but enough to make it significant) from people who doubt that I even went to Peru! Now, why would somebody come on with a whole big shlamou about going to Peru. And going to the headhunter country of Peru and so on, and it’s all just a thing in your imagination? Now I’m going to read a letter here. It says:

“Dear Mr. Shepherd, I was terribly sorry…”

(Now the only reason I’m doing this is to make a point about this peculiar kind of growing disbelief that is galloping throughout our soc–You know, I have guys come up to me after I do a Limelight show  and they’ll come up and say, “Aw, come on now, Shep. now come on, just level with us–you never really lived in Indiana.” [laughs] Why would I invent living in Indiana!? I can’t comprehend this! And so, I don’t know quite what to say about that. Guys will come up and they will say, “Aw come on, Shep. You never really were a White Sox fan, were ya?” Well, I’ll admit, that’s hard to believe–that anyone would be a White Sox fan, but nevertheless they’ll ask you that as if you somehow invented that you were a White Sox fan. So I often will ask somebody, “So where do you think I was–where did I come from? If I didn’t come from Indiana? Why do you think I would have invented that?” They sort of look–funny look–they say, “Aw, come on, why don’t you just come out, why don’t you level?” I say, “Okay–Trenton. I’m from Trenton.” They say, “All right, fellow, why don’t ya just say it all the way!” That’s the end of that.

I don’t know. I’m just curious about that problem. And I can understand why politicians must be frustrated when they’ll come on–and I’m not saying all politicians tell the truth–I’m not saying that. Nor does anybody–tell all the truth about himself.)

Aw, Shep, now ya got it! “Nor does anybody–tell all the truth about himself.” You do recognize, don’t you, the extent that you don’t tell all the truth about yourself?

It may well be true that there’s a galloping disbelief in this country (in the radio interview of you in 9/1965) but–don’t you understand that there have always been at least a few listeners who felt that your stories–kid stories, army stories–were mostly pure fiction? (Your 1966 disclaimer in the first kid book, IGWT: “The characters, places, and events  described herein are entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, accidental, or the result faulty imagination.”) And if they were fictions, maybe your travel tales–to Peru or elsewhere, and maybe lots of other stuff you say–were fiction, also? I believe I can usually distinguish in your talk, what is mostly true/what is mostly fiction. I know the travel narratives are true, but don’t ya see that YOU caused the problem ya got with truth/fiction?

You want to hear that letter? Obviously an intelligent-type person:

“I was terribly sorry that you did not make that trip to the Amazon Basin in Peru. I told my husband how nice, Jean Shepherd’s going to Peru and he has asked all his faithful to say goodbye to him at the Pan American [terminal]. ‘Oh,’ said my husband, ‘it’s very nice that he can make such a  trip.’ However, Saturday you were heard at the Limelight and not in Lima, Peru. This is not humor. We went along with Australia.” See, obviously she believes I went to Australia. “But will we go along with what you have to say about all those birds, snakes, and flora in the upper valleys? Oh, no….”

Now why is this? there are a dozen listeners who continually write me letters, who feel, deep down inside that what I do is go to different libraries and read up on a country and come on and do a whole series of shows about them. I don’t know why that is. I know that nothing I can say on here and tonight will convince them this is not so. They will say, “Oh, come on, of course you’ll come back and say that you did it. Come on. We know, we know better….”

I think that this is a growing, fascinating trend in our country. The person  will say, “Why did I hear you at the Limelight?” ….I put tapes on the show that I [had] recorded. It was an old show, and I said that I was [playing] recording[s] all the time I was in Peru. Nevertheless there is a sizable body of people who feel that this was all invented….Maybe because there’s creeping show-biz-ism in our world.

Yes, yes,Shep, but it’s sort of like “hoist by your own petard.” They ain’t gonna believe you. Remember what you said in the Alan Colmes last interview when you were talking about your fictional stories:

“…that’s the best way to tell a good story, in the first person–that it sounds like it actually happened to me. It didn’t.

“It’s a story I invented but I put it in the first person so it would sound like–you know–a narrative, the guy telling the story.”

You want it both ways on the air–telling fiction like it really happened to you, though you know that some won’t be fooled  (in your books’ epigraphs, you insist that the kid stories are your created fictions). But when your travel narratives on the air really did happen to you, you somehow want listeners to believe they actually are true. No surprise when some won’t keep your true-sounding fictions and your true-truths properly separated. With your elegant ability to conjoin fiction and truth ya got nothin’ to blame but yourself.

Don’t think that I’m criticizing what you do on the air–I’m just surprised that you find the problem to be part of society’s state of mind, without recognizing that a good part of the issue is the one that the style of your art’s varied formats have in themselves created.

Yes, in recent years, we’ve gotten proof that you were there with the headhunters in Peru:

Shep chief hat Amazon0004

shep peru tape deck

I know you didn’t photoshop these from images taken in your backyard in Trenton.


JEAN SHEPHERD–Obdurate Acts, Extenuating Circumstances (1)


A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts

and Extenuating Circumstances

(First of  a Tragic Series)

This is The Shepherd’s Life, a very partial bio, selected, condensed, concentrated, focused—one idea and interpretation of a classic tragedy as understood by a particular person based on what he knows and understands and guesses. (Many people, including the media, describe any and every unfortunate occurrence–such as a fatal accident–as a “tragedy.” This may well be very sad, but not a classic tragedy.) For me, a classic tragedy emerges from a combination of a person’s conflict with his/her cultural environment along with some personal attribute and/or flaw within that person’s being. (Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, etc.)

Please remember that quotes from the Shep are not necessarily objectively true, but are probably true in spirit. The opinions are based on current knowledge.

In italics there are basic facts, objective evidence, and subjective interpretations.

In boldface there are direct quotes from The Shepherd, based on edited, transcribed words from his radio broadcasts.

The results are as objective as I can make them–and simultaneously subjective/creative. If this is contradictory and an enigma–make the best of it. And let’s have feedback, gang.

I believe this is an insecure world. I mean, you know, that’s the way life is. Lightning bolts, thunderstorms, hail, Mack trucks, fistfights in the dark. –Jean Shepherd. August 29, 1964.

Jean Parker Shepherd, born July 26, 1921 on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois to Anna and Jean Shepherd–


Jean Shepherd with football,

Dawn Strickland–

and other kids.

On the South Side of Chicago.

[Photo: Steve Glazer, Bill Ek]

where he spends the first years of his life, until he and his parents and his younger brother, Randy (whining under the daybed), move across the state and city lines, eventually to Cleveland Street in Hammond, Indiana. He remembers his first days in kindergarten:

I had seen pictures of classrooms—with desks.  The desk itself was very very attractive to me.  The idea of having a desk—little kids love desks.  They love to sit at their own little thing.  Pile stuff on it.  And have their desk….And I always pictured school too, to have something to do with reading.  I was an early reader.  And I was a fanatical reader. I could read well by the time I was about four so my whole idea of school was that I would go to school and we would read and I’d have this desk, see.

school desks

….This lady took us right into that room. That was actually the beginning of life itself.  The official world, those buildings, and those buildings will pursue us all the way to the end of our life.  Those official places. This is the very first one.

It was our first day of kindergarten. I will always remember.  And, in fact, vividly remember—the intense shock and great wave of disappointment.  There were no desks!  There wasn’t a desk in the entire room! And there were sandboxes.  Sandboxes!  There were little girls sitting around cutting stuff out!  There were thousands of kids all sitting around playing in sandboxes!  I didn’t know what to do sitting in the sandbox. 


I didn’t know what to do sitting in the sandbox. I didn’t want to come to school to play in the sand.

Already little Jeanie can see that he is in a world filled with disappointments. The teacher wants the kids to introduce themselves by telling the others their names:

And this is the first of a long series of traumas that begin.  She says, “What is your name?”


“Yes, but you see, Gene is short for Eugene.  And you can all call him Gene if he wants to be called Gene.  But that’s a very pretty name. Is your father’s name Eugene?”

I never heard the name Eugene in my life!  My name is not Eugene. Jean. J E A N, Jean. I’m falling behind in school—over my own name!  I’m lousing up over my own name!


Jean Shepherd has many experiences typical of grammar school kids, and some that are special. He is particularly fond of reading,  including, when he was about fourteen,  P. G. Wodehouse:

I started laughing in the study hall and I couldn’t stop laughing. I was laughing like I was out of my mind. The author, of course, was P. G. Wodehouse and I read everything this guy wrote.  From that time on, to me, writing—as a writer—writing and performing has always been directed toward being funny.

And, at about fourteen or fifteen he took his class’s supplemental reading list to the library and took out a book.

And everything changed.  Trumpets blew.  From that day onward I have not been the same as I was the minute I opened up that first page.  I never read anything in my life that was like this.  It was some vast organ playing somewhere and the words rolled on and on and on and on.  It wasn’t that they made sense or not sense.  They were beautiful.  Great crashing waves of words rolling over the rocks. And I remembered the name of the book.  Always, forever.  Look Homeward, Angel.LookHomeward Angel 1st edAnd from that minute on I realized that there was nothing ever in this world as more—as even remotely as powerful–as words. Words are what it’s about. 

Reading. And words. Words are what it’s all about. Jean Shepherd found his love of words at about the same time that the great invention of electronic sound and words—radio– was becoming widespread in the United States. As he was growing up radio became the great communicator of music and words—ideas. Broadcast radio, ham radio, the medium for talking and creating sounds of all kinds. Classical music, jazz, stories, sports, news, ideas, all coming to you from Chicago and around the country. And Jean Shepherd was there at the time and place for him to embrace it and eventually realize it as a love and as a career for his talent.

Interest in ham radio begins for Shepherd in grammar school and extends throughout Shepherd’s life. Shepherd several times speaks on the air about his love of ham radio.    He says that in high school, it led to his being chosen to announce a sports program—his first experience with broadcast radio.

I became, at the age of ten, totally, maniacally, and for life I might point out, completely skulled out by amateur radio. Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy, it gets ahold of your soul and gnaws at it and never lets go. I would sit in class in eighth grade and I would send code to myself by the hour, as I’m reading something—say, a geography book—I wouldn’t read it, I would send it to myself.  I’d actually hear it in my head.  The dots and dashes of the words.  As a CW man, it got to the point when all of my world was bound by the sound of this language.

ham radio talk

Shep in 1975 talking

about amateur radio

Sound as Art

In high school Shepherd plays bass violin, tuba, and sousaphone–instruments requiring both physical strength and intestinal fortitude. He describes the crucial role music plays in his life. From the beginning he is obsessed: “I was a dedicated tuba man.”

How does a guy get to be a tuba player?  There’s a certain look of sadness in the eye of all tuba players.  A tuba player is a man who has lived through a peculiar kind of hell.


He comments on a broadcast that his playing tuba in the school orchestra is the first time he ever created beauty.  Using music as metaphor, he illustrates his joy in making art. 

As a kid in high school I was absolutely the ace of the bass section of our band.  The first chair bass man.  And that is a great feeling.  For years I had worked my way up.  I started in eighth grade playing E-flat tuba.  The tuba itself is a kind of challenge.  It’s a heavy instrument.  You get so that you love the tuba.  You get so that you actually have a physical love for your instrument—for your tuba.  Yeah, you sit there and you pat it, you talk to it.  Many’s the time I’d come into the band room and seen Reg Rose, who was in the bass section.  I saw him one time weeping, sitting there talking to his B-flat sousaphone, weeping and crying, and the sousaphone was crying back. [He entered a tuba-playing contest and lost out to a phenomenal player.] Ever since that time I have known that for every good thing you do there are fifty-thousand better things that somebody else can do with his eyes shut.

In contrast to making art, as a youngster he spends time working in the steel mill as a mail boy (delivering words), and he describes his first disorienting and anxiety-filled day there. He finds Mr. Galambus, his protector, there and he feels better. And that was only the beginning.  That day I learned something very important.  I haven’t discovered yet what it is. Even after high school it’s sometimes hard to understand the nature of what one is learning. Shepherd says very little about higher education. But he learns two very important lessons outside of his college classroom. They are an essential part of his education. The lessons remain with him—because there is an aftertaste. They are epiphanies.

• •

Two Epiphanies:

Escargot and Bugatti

Part 1–Escargot. He’s invited to dinner where the house and the customs and the food are much more expansive and finer than were his custom.

And the next thing I know, in front of me is this plate of something which had always been rumored in our house that people somewhere, someplace, ate.  And we never really believed it!  And whenever it was mentioned they ate these things—“Oh, ugh!” Nancy takes one of the snails and says, “Oh, these are so wonderful.” She takes one out of its shell and I see how she does it.  She takes this little fork and she fishes one of these things out, and it looks strange, you know—like a little black snake or something. She pulls it out and puts it in her mouth—“Oh!”

I can’t chicken out. I’m feeling sick inside.  With the little fork I fish the little thing out.  I put it in my mouth.  I go, “uuushup!” I taste it.  Oh my God!  Oh my God!  Oh my God!  [Pause.] It is fantastic! It is fantastic! It is fantastic!  It is so good I can’t believe it!

And then the lesson hit me. I looked around. I saw all these other people—they’ve been doing this all of their lives!  They weren’t surprised at snails. And it began to sneak up on me—what other terrible stuff did I learn at home? What other things do I think are awful? Just because it was back in the kitchen that way, you know?  I ate the snails.


Late that night, lying in the dormitory room, I felt those snails—you could taste them. There’s an aftertaste.  And I began to suspect that night that there was a fantastic, unbelievable world out there. And I was just be-gin-ning to taste it!  Just beginning! God knows where it would lead!

Part 2–Bugatti. A Cincinnati college professor invites Shepherd and a couple of other students to go see something special on a Saturday morning. (An authority on the subject confirms to me that such a sight as Jean was about to see really was in Cincinnati at the time. Although Shepherd sees a variation on the actual car he later remembers as the one that appeared as one of the great masterworks, the epiphany remains valid.)

I’ll never forget the day that I had the great awakening regarding an art form.  Even today, in this country, there are very few people who recognize this as an art form.

Up to the point when I’d discovered this form, I’d been a walking-around-ignorant. I was just beginning to see that there was more to the world than “Flash Gordon” and more to drawing than “Prince Valiant.”  I was beginning to suspect things.  We go through this period when we begin to see things that we never really realized.  That the world is a giant iceberg and in these first years of our life we only see a little bit of it sticking up on the top.  We begin to see how fantastically varied and infinitely complex it is.

It turned out to be a garage.  A plain, ordinary, crummy-looking garage. He took his key and opened the lock on these big garage doors and he swung them open and the four of us walked into the gloom of this garage on a gray Saturday morning in Cincinnati.

And I couldn’t believe what I saw.  It was that unreal.  He had reached up and flicked on a neon light and that light made it look even more spectacular.  This thing began to gleam with that light.  And there it was.

We were looking at one of the great automobiles.  I mean one of the great automobiles.  By “great”—this car had appeared in probably two or three hundred catalogs of great masterworks—that specific car.  Even today that car is almost priceless.  It was one of the finest works of one of the great artists of the twentieth century–considered possibly his prime work.  Ettore Bugatti. A man who created automobiles the way Michelangelo created altar cloths.  He created them as works of art. imgres

I didn’t realize that there was one man to whom a car was not a car, and he spoke in a universal language.  It was an art—pure and simple.

“The world is a giant iceberg and in these first years of our life we only see a little bit of it sticking up on the top.” To paraphrase Shepherd here, he found that there was one man to whom words were not just words…..  It was an art—pure and simple. 

Two Epiphanies: “And I began to suspect

that night that there was a fantastic,

unbelievable world out there.”


Stay tuned for Part 2 of





Again, that baffling book, Andy Kaufman Wrestling With the American Dream by Florian Keller (U. of Minnesota Press). The first 67 pages were mostly beyond my understanding. I understood maybe 20% of it–yet, the idea kept me going and I believe that, through my arguing with the book’s text and ideas, I’ve come to understand more about Andy Kaufman and maybe more, fundamentally, about Jean Shepherd. And, through the  catalyst of what this book seems to be saying,  I seem to better understand in what ways Shep and Andy were similar and in what ways different.

For me the beginning of the book  is mostly unintelligible, and the next part, on “The American Dream,” seems to be somewhat akin to the enigma that is Jean Shepherd. (By the way, I disagree with the author’s belief that Kaufman, in any conscious or unconscious way, is commenting on “The American Dream.”  I’m not aware of Kaufman on any level dealing with American cultural or social issues. He deals with humans’ specific preconceptions and attitudes.) I’d like to explain how the first and then the following parts of the book appear to me, not only because it’s interesting unto itself, but for a better understanding of how someone–such as myself–should go about discovering and articulating aspects of Jean Shepherd’s life and career–why did he do what he did?


We’re familiar with the feeling that Shep on the air is giving us the true gen–about life and about himself, that what he is on the air is his real self. An interesting comment quoted in the book about Andy is that he blurred the “distinction between his performance persona and himself.” Don’t we all believe that Shep-on-the-air and Shep, the 24/7 person, are the same? Shep in later years insisted that on the radio, he had been a “performer.”

American Heritage Dictionary: Perform, definition #3. To portray a role or demonstrate a skill before an audience.

One might think that to perform could mean to enact the reality of oneself, or, more likely, it suggests that one is enacting some sort of artifice (a “role”). I’m sure that I, as do most all Shep enthusiasts, firmly believe that on the air, he was being his true self (though not all of himself). I think that what Shep meant by describing himself as a performer and entertainer on the air, is that he presented his true self in a way that used the techniques of theatricality (such as sound volume, emphasis, pausing, exaggerating, some self-editing, etc.) in order to best entertain while self-presenting his real self. Might one say that the radio Shepherd is performing himself? Yet–despite Shepherd apparently telling his life and persona as it was, he simultaneously–without our knowing it at the time–contained many unknowns and contradictions–enigmas.

They both basically, truthfully performed as themselves. But though Shep  only performed as his one true self, Andy performed the roles of his many true selves–except that he didn’t perform a role as the exceedingly intelligent, clever part of himself that he was. He seemed to always bring his performing persona back to the essential childlike Andy that he seemed to mostly be.

Shep photo .drawing

J   E   A   N      S   H   E   P   H   E   R   D

(The image above is not the real Jean Shepherd.

It is a tracing

of an Internet reproduction

of a paper photo print

from a negative

taken through a camera lens

of a performer

being himself.)

A Richard Corless article’s title quoted from the 1981 Time magazine essay

about then-current/unusual comics is

“Comedy’s Post-Funny School.”

(More thoughts on Andy Kaufman Wrestling With the American Dream)

AWKWARD first 50 pages

of A.K.W.W.A.D.

What would an absurdly scholarly, overly pedantic article or book in an obscure university journal be like?

Use frequent quotes from obscure sources and frequently use quote marks for simple, descriptive words and phrases, while leaving the unexplained jargon quote-mark-free, as though we all know what it means.

Don’t write any sentence with straightforward words that can be clearly understood when one can slightly misuse more complex and scientific-sounding words that a highly, yet imperfectly educated “Foreign Man” would concoct.  Also use slightly altered real words that might–but really aren’t real. Such writing and usage would confuse and bamboozle the earnest and intelligent Kaufman enthusiast.

I find it more likely that Andy Kaufman is alive and wrote this book than that it’s the work of a coherent intellect with a cogent theory. I picture Andy doubled over on the floor laughing at us for imagining that this faux-analysis of him is for real rather than its being another chapter in his mind-bending, created world. My question: Was this book a self-description written by a postmortem Kaufman (ghostwritten?) in the style of an imperfectly over-educated “Foreign Man?” (I should say that there are some parts of this book that do make sense and that add to our understanding of Andy.)


Is this man a genius? YES.

Is Shep a genius? YES.

Are they both expressing truths? YES.

AK confounds preconceptions and expectations,

disturbing us and making us rethink things.

JPS expands our knowledge and sensibilities,

widening our world.

After reading this exasperating–yet interesting–book, what are my thoughts about Andy Kaufman’s agenda (“American Dream” etc.)?  I think he was simultaneously an innocent (playing like a child) and a very clever genius who sometimes acted the innocent-role, and who sometimes needed a stern editor. He discovered and expressed various seldom-surfaced aspects of how we think and feel and how we approach the world around us.

Has the book affected how I think about Jean Shepherd? Not in any fundamental way: Radio=genius; writing=good fiction-writer but nowhere up to his radio work; “American Dream”=not specifically, but he worked hard and successfully at describing and expressing himself regarding humanity and its character as revealed in Americans.


(Promotional card for never-realized

lecture tour “On Creating Reality,

by Andy Kaufman,” 1984.) 

“Andy was ‘able to mine the fine line between stability

and chaos,…

audiences struggled

to comprehend the unpredictable,…’”

Michael Smith Dept. of Art & Art History, U. Texas.

Was it worth reading and posting all that stuff about AK

(Especially as it expands knowledge about Shep)?

Geez, I hope so!



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?

Dead Shep?

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.”

Dead Andy?

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?

jpAndy death cert.

Real Death Certificate.*

*Or Faked.

I’ve checked out lots of websites about Andy’s death. Through googling, find thousands of hits for variations of this:




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 & His Grandmother outside

Andy & Grandma inside

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?

Andy: How?

Zmuda: There’s the stupid “foreign man” like on the Dick Van Dyke Show, or something.

Andy: Yeh.

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.]

death of A.K. DVD

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 and other sources.



There’s no way to describe what I do. It’s just me. —Andy Kaufman

When I perform, it’s very personal. I’m sharing things I like,

inviting the audience into my room.

—Andy Kaufman

“Andy’s gift was not his talent or his skills-it was his genius,

the genius of what he dared.” –Judd Hirsch

“He made it virtually impossible to distinguish between

his performing and his life” — Steve Bodow

The above, with some slightly differently translated words,

might well be attributed to Jean Shepherd.

 Andy portrait

I first posted on Shep and Andy on April 12, 2014. (You can find it by clicking on KAUFMAN, ANDY in the list near the left edge of this blog.) There may be a bit of repetition between that earlier one and these current three–I think that reading them all together might be the best way to gather what I hope to express about Andy Kaufman–and the artistic comparison with Shep. I’ve recently become (additionally) obsessed with Andy and I want to write about him to confirm, as far as possible, my own understanding of what Andy is and in what ways I vibrate to his essence. (Actually, I hope to understand better what his essence is.) I do believe there is something of value to fix in my mind in a communicable form regarding connections and differences between Shep and Andy. I hope I can find and articulate them. I discuss here only the radio-Shep because I believe that it is there that the two are most closely aligned.


Jean Shepherd often captured our interest by telling us truths that he encountered and that we probably never realized were true, and he told them in unexpected ways—we are unexpectedly confronted by them and this little shock of recognition is often where the humor and our smile come in.


A major aspect of one’s attachment to Shepherd is the sense that he is “telling it like it is,” truthfully in a way that few others can or do. There is also very much the feeling that Shepherd is speaking directly to the listener as a friend, and not doing a performance (even though in later years, commenting on his radio work, he said that he was indeed, a performer and a fictional-story-teller). Shep’s stories (and even his comments?) had us bamboozled into thinking that they were all true.


Andy in public (dare I accurately say “in performance”?) often presents himself, giving a real sense that he is being the way he really is—truthfully, in a way that no one else does—that he is what one sees and that he is not giving a “performance.” The more I see and understand Andy, the more I’ve become aware of this aspect of his public persona.

Andy Kaufman often disturbed us by poking us in the ribs in a way that we might find at first unpleasant, but which, upon reflection, we realize has fooled us by exposing our own mistaken or limited sense of reality. What an extraordinary experience it must have been for those who, not knowing Kaufman’s “act,” first saw him do his imitations as the “Foreign Man.” At the beginning the audience laughs at him–all the more powerful then, when he transforms himself into Elvis.

kaufman  immitate on Carson

“Now, but not to be the least,

I would like to imitate

the Elvis Presley.”

andy as elvis j.carson 1977

kaufman as elvis dank you

“Dank you veddy much!”

With his innocent-sounding foreign accent, he says he will do imitations. He does a very unfunny one of Ed McMann, and we laugh not at it, but at Andy (“Foreign Man”) for being so awful at it. We feel superior to him. He does one of Archy Bunker, equally bad and we again, with our feelings of superiority, laugh at Foreign Man’s innocence/ignorance. He says he will imitate Elvis and we again expect the worst possible imitation–an oafish result. We are shocked when we find that his Elvis is extraordinary. He has become Elvis. Andy has played with our minds and expectations. He ends by accepting our applause, but not as performer Andy Kaufman—he confounds us again—he switches our expectations by changing his perceived persona, again being Foreign Man with his “Dank you veddy much!” He is not Kaufman, the performer, who thanks us for applauding–it is Foreign Man who has done the great Elvis imitation thanking us! Andy imitating Foreign Man imitating Elvis.


Time Mag: He is continually questioning then undermining the idea of what is funny. “Andy takes a lot of risks,” Zmuda [AK’s associate] says. “What performer in his right mind would go onstage and deliberately bomb?”

Shepherd often commented that his presentation was as a humorist, who builds up a story or commentary slowly, expressing some aspect of the human condition, and that the humor grows out of the situation, maybe producing laughter, rather than telling a joke as do comics. “Well, comedy is a process whereby you’re aiming at making a person laugh, and the end product is the laugh. With humor however, the laugh happens to be the byproduct of what you’re doing.”

Shep said: “There are guys who tell jokes, and those who don’t. I am not a teller. I can see the humor in the world. I deal in humor but I can’t tell jokes. I have never told a joke successfully, ever.”

Kaufman insisted that he was not a comedian—he did not tell jokes. Andy said:I never told a joke in my life.

Aspects of this similarity between Shep and Andy may well be why, in Was this Man a Genius? a book of interviews of Andy by Julie Hecht, he said: “I don’t think any sense of humor is funny. Rarely.  Jean Shepherd is funny.”

In another one of Andy’s successful strategies to confound his audiences, he created the obnoxious lounge singer, Tony Clifton. Once a good percentage of his enthusiasts were aware that Tony was actually Andy,  while his audience, watching “Tony Clifton” on stage and thinking they knew the truth–that it was really Andy–he double-crossed them by appearing as himself while someone else was doing the Tony imitation.


Andy.Tony_                   Andy              Andy or someone else as Tony Clifton

 andy wrestling

Doing his best to make audiences dislike him, he began wrestling women. He crowned himself Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion.

Why was Andy a Shep enthusiast? How was Andy inspired by Shep? Because Shep projected a sense of his real self. Jean Shepherd endears himself to us by being honest, perceptive, telling it like it is, a mentor—real. Andy Kaufman forces unexpected reality upon us by messing with our minds—by making us feel uncomfortable. They both tickle our minds, but in different ways.

One of the ironies in Andy’s professional life is that the Taxi people wanted his “Foreign Man” persona in the sitcom. Accepting the gig, Andy was forced to accept his character being hijacked into a rigid script, saying lines that he had not himself created. That is probably one of the reasons that Andy was so annoying to the others involved in producing that show. It’s said that the feature players complained strongly about Andy’s behavior at the time–but after he died, they seemed to be reconciled to his behavior because they recognized the quirky genius behind what he had put them through. It’s said that Andy, to get out of the straight-jacket of Latka, got Taxi producers to have Latka sometimes afflicted with “multiple personality disorder” so that Andy could enact other characters on the show.

Andy as LatkaGravis

Andy as Latka Gravis in Taxi

Unless otherwise noted, the quotes from Shepherd are from his radio shows;

the quotes from Kaufman are from and other sources.

Stay Tuned for Dead Andy & Dead Shep

(   aka    “Live    Andy    &    Live    Shep.”   )




“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

Salter obit0010

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!