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SAILING THE WINDWARD ISLANDS
Living aboard a boat gives you an entirely different perspective on the Islands. Your whole world is water and if you love to swim and skin dive and scuba dive and just feel the wind on your face, sailing is the only thing, really, to do down here.
Probably the best sailing in the world is down here. Sailors from all over the world come here to sail in the Caribbean, because it’s to sailing what—say—Garmish, Innsbruck, is to skiing. Once you’ve sailed in the Caribbean—you’ve sailed! The land is so interesting and the winds are great—steady trade winds blow all over these islands.
I am standing right now, standing in the sand in the darkness on the island of Dominica, deep in the heart of the Caribbean Islands down in the West Indies. And they’re having a pig roast and I’ve just come ashore from a beautiful sailing yacht, the Sealestial.
In all my travels, having been many times to the Caribbean, I must say that this trip is very different from any I’ve ever taken, primarily because it’s on board a sailing ship. This gives a flavor and a beat and a tenor to your life all day long down here that makes the entire trip a total experience apart from an episodic experience.
These vessels are captained usually by intrepid Englishmen—almost all the charter captains are Englishmen who have gone tropic. And they’re all licensed, master seamen and they sail these sailing vessels in and out of these islands like they’ve been here all their lives. A different breed. All through these islands you see people who are expatriates of all nationalities—British, Swedes, Russians, even an occasional American, and they’re all drifting in and out of these islands instead of melding into the background and into the scenery. It’s that kind of a backwash of civilizations here. There’s a kind of universal, unspoken, unheralded union around the world of people who are drawn inevitably to the tropics. The absolute lure that the tropics have for some people is unmistakable. And when you see it in action, you know that there’s never any come-back. It reminds me a lot of Conrad’s stuff or some of the stuff that Somerset Maugham did. You see many guys who in other years would be called “remittance men.”
We’re at a pig roast and any minute now the party is going to break out. The music has been hot, the night is tropical and cool, the wind is blowing through the palm trees above me. Truly an idyllic experience. The band is now resting on its haunches, the rum punch is flowing freely, and it won’t be long before the first course of the first pig announces that it’s ready. In the meantime, hang loose and watch out for that Caribbean rum punch that sneaks up on you like a godad about to spring out of the dark.
So ends Jean Shepherd’s narrative of life during a yachting trip aboard the seagoing Sealestial–the final known radio description of his travel adventures. Although he visits several islands on this trip, it is the voyage on the boat that, for him, is the major adventure– literally, the traveling is the destination.
Stay tuned for a return to Maine and then
some final summing up comments
by Shep and others regarding
the importance of travel.
SAILING THE WINDWARD ISLANDS
The last known adventure Shepherd makes to far-off places is his 1975 trip to a group of small Caribbean islands from Martinique down to Trinidad, including among others, Barbados, Tobago and Grenada, all known as the Windward Islands. Only a bit more than a year before the end of his nightly broadcasting, he speaks of the trip on several radio shows, focusing in good part on the actual voyage there aboard one of three sailing ships, each more than sixty feet long, with beams about sixteen feet. Unusual for him, the main adventure is not the destination, but the pleasure of getting there—on a relatively small ship, powered by the wind and auxiliary engines. In a way, this journey is the destination. He may have thought that this might be his final travel tale. (In early 1977, when he left radio in New York, he and Leigh Brown married and moved to Florida, where they lived for the rest of their lives.)
He speaks of mankind’s need to go from place to place and he mentions some of the great explorers who traveled to far-off lands. With implied rationale for his own inclinations, he speaks of what he considers the inherent nature of man to be nomadic—and maybe even, take off for a tropical isle forever.
His reference to American history’s tradition of people leaving relative safety to perform the scary feat of crossing the seas to brave an unknown land, weds him to an important tradition of the land and people he loves. The subject neatly caps off his two-decades of quests to encounter the unknown—his constant urge for expanded intellectual as well as emotional fulfillment through new adventures.
Last week I spent a fantastic time. The whole object of my trip was to retrace a portion of one of Columbus’ voyages. For those of you who are just tuning in on us and don’t know what this is all about, I’ve been privileged—I’ve been invited by a group of yachtsmen who decided this year to retrace the route that was taken throughout the Caribbean Islands by Christopher Columbus when he discovered the Americas. Retracing his journey throughout the Caribbean—we’ve been to several islands that he landed on. I’ve read letters and notes and so on about the various islands. For those of you who have never spent any time on a sailing vessel, you just don’t know what you’re missing.
Oh, what a great sound! [Shep plays a bit of audio of rushing ocean water he recorded] That’s the sound of the turbulent seas hurling past the hull of the Sealestial in a force-5 wind, the sun standing high overhead, the time, one-fifteen P. M., or, if you prefer, thirteen-fifteen. The flying fish appearing before the bow, en route to the island of Guadalupe.
I think people basically, all of us—I don’t care who you are—man is a nomadic creature. Not all animals are. In fact, not many are. They’re very rare. Most creatures remain pretty well anchored to their specific range and they don’t move out of it. You don’t see polar bears hitchhiking along Route 95 down through the Everglades. Who is it who does that? You guessed it, right? It is not the dromedary. One rarely sees an elephant trying to make his way up to the arctic wastes—just because they’re there. No. Who is it who does that? Man.
Mankind, humankind—they are that. Now you can say to yourself that you are not, and you wouldn’t be kidding yourself, but everybody has an itch down inside of himself to move over the globe. Only man is attempting to land probes on Venus, to step on the surface of the moon. There’s never been a recorded squirrel who looked up at the sky and said, “One day, squirrel-dom will land on Mars.” It’s man.
Through much of human history, going all the way back to the very earliest days that we know of, prehistory days, much of man’s history is the history of his travels. The Great Age of Exploration. Remember when you read that in school? In fact they named that The Age of Exploration, when people like Francis Drake and Hendrick Hudson, John Cook—now there’s a great man. These were people who did what all of mankind secretly always wanted to do. See what’s on the other side of the next hill.
And there’s no people—no people in the history of man, outside of possibly the Bedouins—that have been more driven by this curious urge—than Americans. Maybe, perhaps, it’s because of our antecedents. You know we’re coming into the big year of the bicentennial, and not much has been said about what makes Americans different from the rest of the world. For one thing, in the very beginnings of America the continent was settled by people who took a fantastic chance. Imagine what it would be like to leave everything, even if it’s bad. To leave everything—your entire heritage, you physical homes, whatever security you had through having people, friends, relatives—and just head out into the roaring unknown.
I don’t mean just pull up stakes and move to Australia, which you may just think to do today. That’s not the same as pulling up stakes and heading out across an incredibly dangerous sea in an inadequate vessel and fantastic hardships into the unknown. Literally the unknown. And that’s what our country was started with—with people like that. Even people who came later were pulling up stakes, giving up everything, and coming to another country—in which they didn’t know where they would land or what they would do.
They didn’t know whether it would work out. A lot of them stayed where they were. What was the difference? No moral judgment, they just were different kinds of people. This is one of the reasons why the car is more important to Americans than it is to other people in the Western World. Because we still remain basically a nomadic people. We want to keep on the move. People think in terms of when they retire—do they leave their hometown and go somewhere else? It’s Americans who do that. So, we’re different, and why do we do this? For one thing, a lot of people that, when their job is over—now they can do what they’ve always secretly wanted to do. Move endlessly over the landscape. How many times have you heard people say, “Well, what I want to do when I retire is get myself one of those Winnebagos and I just want to travel all the time.”
Sources of some material:
I discovered on the Internet that author and political observer William F. Buckley, Jr, was an avid sailor, taking a number of yachting voyages with friends and writing about the experiences. For the last of his three books on his boating trips, Racing Through Paradise (Random House, 1987), his boat of choice was “Sealestial” the same yacht that Shepherd had sailed on in late 1975. Taken from that book, images of Sealestial are by Christopher Little, the map by David Lindroth, and the descriptive paragraphs that follows are by Buckley:
I have found Sealestial the (almost–she is not air-conditioned) perfect cruising boat. And here is what you get when you charter a boat like Sealestial:
First, the tangibles. There is a crew of four. A skipper, a first mate, a stewardess, and cook. There are three cabins. In descending order of luxury, the owner’s cabin, which includes a dressing table, a huge stuffed chair for reading and working, a private bath including shower; a smaller but commodious cabin with hanging lockers and two bunks, sharing a shower and separate toilet with the third cabin, slightly smaller but entirely comfortable….
The main saloon, as boat people call what at home would be called the living room, is square and would hold, comfortably seated, sixteen people….
Stay tuned for Part 2
Happy 100th, Ol’ Blue Eyes
Maybe there’s a lot of “true” Shep experience here?
A combo of travel, army, and transportation.
Shepherd often exhibited his fine sense of observation in extended riffs. This one has been titled “Three-day Pass Almost in the Slam.” Although most of his Army stories take place at a military facility, here is one about getting on a train on a temporary leave from duty. Maybe special environment justifies such a riff.
He talks about being a kid and seeing all the trains that pass through Hammond, Indiana, the sounds of the train approaching—the roar and the whoosh and the bells, using his great vocal ability with sound effects to create a mood.
One might wonder if he remembered all he talks about here from his days as a kid and Army days. Maybe he incorporated his memories of childhood into his Army story.
One got but a “tiny glimpse of that fantastic world outside—where people lived in streamlined trains, and they have green windows that light up. I always remember those green windows with the lights behind them.” He talks about being in the Army near Washington, D. C., getting a three-day pass and buying a train ticket to go home to Hammond. “So here I was. I was actually going into a train. And here she was sitting on the track.” He describes it—“those silver sides, you know, those fluted sides, those flat flush windows….” And he is ready to board, having found his car:
Oh, there it is, there’s a little black card in the window— 427A. And I walk in with a thousand other people— it’s air-conditioned! I mean air-conditioned! Boy, they didn’t air-condition nothin’ in the Army. And it’s air-conditioned. I could see all those green windows and those plush seats.
Individual seats, like bucket seats, and they’re green and they tilt back and I see these distinguished-looking people with long thin cigars sitting there and a couple of lieutenant colonels. Oh boy, really official guys.
So I get my ticket and I look at “seat number 19C.” I’m walkin’ around lookin’. Ah! There it is, 19C. And I sit down. I edge myself into the seat. I’m all excited and here I am, Pfc Shepherd. I’ve got my bag—stick it under the seat. People are coming in. Beautiful girl goes past me and I could smell the smell of the—you can just smell opulence, you know. Just smell it. This is not a troop train. Not at all. Very official train.
And I sat down for about five minutes—and the doors start to slam shut. And you get that tight, sealed-in feeling that you get when a train is about to go. And then—you know that strange feeling all of a sudden? It’s as though the ground on either side of you begins to slide. You don’t even have a sense of the train itself moving. It’s like the ground itself is suddenly going. There’s a brief moment of dizziness. Oh wow! Oh gee, we’re really going, oh! We’re really going.
And she began to slowly gather speed, and all of a sudden we’re out of the shed. And you see these lights going past gutapump gutapump gutapump! Faster and faster and now we are out into the night and that baby is rolling along! Broowww! She’s out there in the Virginia countryside goin’ seventy miles an hour. Faster and faster and faster and I’m settling down. Oh! Oh gee is this great.
And I bought myself a magazine, see. And I’ve got it. Got my magazine, I’ve got my ticket, I’m checking everything over. Get my wallet out. I’m all excited. And I’ve got my three-day pass. I look at that. Everything is here. I take my book out. Gee that’s a great feeling, you know, that wonderful feeling of—it’s all out of your hands now. You can’t do anything and you’re in their hands. (September 28, 1966)
So there it is, not by any means a story, but a nice little riff
with no more in it than the pleasure of listening to Shep
at play with words, sounds, and memory.
Sorry for the delay in posting–we’ve now moved and are surrounded by scores of packed boxes we’re having trouble locating stuff in. The local library has come to our temporary rescue with internet access. eb
MARCH ON WASHINGTON
August 28, 1963 was the day of the historic March on Washington, in which over two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people gathered in and around the D. C. Mall, focused on the Lincoln Memorial, to demonstrate for civil rights and economic betterment. Among those who performed on stage were Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Mahalia Jackson. Many other well-known people were also present. The best-known part of the day is that often referred to as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, which concluded with “…we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”
Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream….”
The event was extensively covered by the press and television. Jean Shepherd, consistent with his usual disposition, immersed himself in the activity not as a reporter, but as a participant—who could really experience it. The result of his manner of participating is captured in his broadcast the evening after. It is not like other descriptions of the event. Although Shepherd always tells his improvised tales enthusiastically, immersing himself as well as listeners and readers, one might note a certain out-of-breath quality as he describes facts and little incidents while very much caught up in his reliving of the moment. In mid-thought he frequently remembers some tangential idea which must be inserted right then, and he tends to repeat himself a bit—an emotional reaction, I believe. Some editorial adjustment brings these together as he would have meant them to be. He sometimes gets especially excited when describing true events such as this March in which he participated. NPR, during its fortieth anniversary celebration of the March, played a ten-minute segment of his broadcast. This is Jean Shepherd’s unique historical document about what over two-hundred thousand participants experienced, and as such, it contains much objective truth. As for Shepherd, he was overwhelmed.
I was one of the marchers in the big demonstration yesterday, and this experience was probably one of the two or three—words such as “interesting” don’t really mean much in this case. And to use the word “significant” doesn’t mean much either, because “significant” of what? Let’s just say it was one of the two or three most difficult to assay/weigh/put-into-perspective days that I have ever experienced in my life. One of the two or three days. The closest day that I can think of in my experience was VE Day, or maybe even VJ Day. To the tenor, the tone, the quality of what went on and the way the people were.
I went down on this thing very specifically as just a marcher. Just one of the people in a delegation, because I have learned through long experience—and hard experience—that the only real way that you ever get to have even a vague understanding about events is, if you can, possibly, be part of or in the group, or be in with people to whom the event is occurring.
I wonder just how much a newsman ever learns about anything—standing up on the platform. I’m curious. I listened to a lot of jazz yesterday from the newsmen and almost all of them were up on the platform, they were in the news section, which was very, very, very much roped off from the great herd of people who walked along the streets. The great multitude who gathered under the trees, who pushed up through past the Coke stands and finally stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I didn’t see many newsmen in that crowd. In fact, I don’t recall seeing one newsman in that crowd.
Another thing that I found very interesting was going down on the bus—we left 47th Street and I rode on a bus with maybe two-hundred-thousand other people, all riding on busses toward Washington. We had a very old, terrible bus. I’ll tell you, have you ever ridden on a bus—a New York cross-town bus—all the way to Washington? I’m serious—a lot of people did. They just took the cross-town sign out and everybody sat on those plastic seats and went all the way to Washington and back.
Stay tuned for Part (2)
(Photo captured from http://www.flicklives.com)
Shepherd drove many different kinds of cars, a scooter, and at least one motorcycle. He and others have described their experiences aboard his Cushman. He apparently liked to drive fast. Reports suggest that the experience was thrilling–and somewhat scary for his passengers. I transcribe some of his broadcast about riding it in my Excelsior, You Fathead! Here’s what he had to say:
I’m riding along on my motorcycle. I’m just going along, and there’s a car behind me and to my right–you see–you know where everything is–and we’re on a one-way street. Namely Second Avenue. And we’re gooing down Second Avenue. Just light to light, and without any warning my ears pick up this pshish-hihihi–the sound of tires doing it–and sure enough, out of the corner of my eye I see this coming like a bat out of hell across my bow! These chicks are just cutting me off for the sheer kicks of it! they go WHOOO! And I go SCHHOOO! I’m pretty good on that little motorcycle now, so they couldn’t really do it–they couldn’t throw me up on the sidewalk. And these chicks are: “Marlon Brando, buddy?”
And they: “All right!”
I was ready to go! Sadly enough they chickened out. It would have been the first true fistfight!
Helen Gee, founder and first owner of The Limelight cafe (which was, at that time, a photo gallery) In a personal interview with me in her Manhattan apartment she described her experience:
He invited me to ride on his motorcycle. What a mistake. I thought he was going to kill himself–or me. [He drove] very fast…he’d swerve and I was hanging on. He did have an accident at one point, and he also didn’t see too well. He was wearing contacts.
Lois Nettleton, Jean’s girlfriend and then wife (1956-1967 in total). She read the inscribed copy of EYF! I’d sent her and wrote many notes about the book to discuss with me, but her final illness prevented such a meeting. Her executor gave me the several dozen small, hand-written sheets. On one she described her memory of riding with Jean on his motorcycle:
We went all over on his motorcycle–even in the rain or dressed formally.
Tanya Grossinger, author and PR person for Playboy. friend of Jean’s in the 1960s:
My relationship with the master storyteller and radio personality began on two levels. His late night radio show on WOR drew an audience similar to avid Playboy readers and with my prodding, he made it a point to mention the magazine, including his own short stories, quite often. He was described by many of his peers as an oddball, detached, and downright bizarre. I, on the other hand, delighted in his idiosyncrasies. Our relationship was platonic from the start and unusual to the end. I never knew when I would hear from him but when I did, I knew the outcome would be unforgettable.
One night very late at the Playboy Club where I periodically entertained him, I received a call. Jean had just finished his radio show; did I want a lift home? Anyone on the corner of E. 59th St. that night couldn’t possibly have missed me. Straddling his waist, not sure where to put my legs and hanging on for dear life, there I was hugging Jean and screaming my head off as we careened down Fifth Avenue, the first time I was ever on a motorcycle. It was late summer and Washington Square Park was bustling. As we approached the famous Arch on lower Fifth Avenue, I let out a cry. “Ouch!” Someone in a nearby apartment house had flung an egg, a raw one, at my head (protective helmets were not mandatory at the time.) Jean turned to check that I wasn’t injured and accelerated to full speed. Two blocks later he pulled up to a local diner. “I’ll be right back.” It took close to ten minutes before he returned, a container in his outstretched hand. “Some bacon to go with your egg, Madame!”
In December, 1958 and early 1959, Shepherd produced (with Lois Nettleton, Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and a few others), his off-Broadway theater-piece, “Look, Charlie.” It only had about a half-dozen performances. Shel drew the folded playbill, on the front of which, as it’s reported, that’s Shep riding up the letter K of the title, so Shep and his motorcycle are immortalized there. (I bought a copy of the program on ebay from Lois’ estate. The first offered for sale went for many hundreds; this one I got for about $60. This cropped image reproduces with a toned background instead of white–the tone is the light brown stain obviously caused by a newspaper clipping on top of it as it had been stored for decades):
Shepherd, Cushman, chirpers, and barkers.
(I know I’ve posted this photo before, but I’m obsessed with it.)
Jean Shepherd was a connoisseur of many arts, including the design and driving of cars, motorcycles and the like. His interest in them extended to his role as emcee of the Greenwich Village sports and antique car rallies from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s,
(Miss Beatnick, 1959, with Shep’s 1931 Chevrolet Independence,
to the scores of columns he wrote for Car and Driver magazine in the 1970s and, not least, to his penchant for racing perilously through the streets of New York City and environs on his motorcycle or scooter, in his Morgan or Porsche, or in some other exotic species of automobile, such as an Isetta and a funky little Goggomobil whenever he could. He was, indeed, a motor-cuckoo—a car-cuckoo.
He often spoke about them in his broadcasts, many times about his childhood being driven in them by his father, “an Oldsmobile man,” in his teenage years driving them and riding in them. After all he was from the Midwest and had been to the Indianapolis 500.
He talked about his father’s troubles with keeping the family car going–his father was a connoisseur of used cars. Many will recall the trouble with the family car as it appears in A Christmas Story. When he got out of the army and before he’d gotten a job, he told how he had driven his MG-TD sports car up north, been spooked by the strange darkness of the sky in the morning, and had rushed back home. Other than the indomineble Morgan
(Morgan in black and white photo–the classic Morgan color was
a dark forest green known as “British racing green.”
MG-TD in color. Color cars that Shep had are unknown.
I had a bright red MG-TD, just as the one pictured.)
the MG he drove was the last of the old-style sports cars, the TC and TD models said to have been brought back to the States by GIs in the first years after WW II, beginning the sports car popularity in this country.)
He once mentioned that in his early days, he’d been in charge of a VW dealership (If true, this probably would have been in the late 1940s or early 1950s). One of his stories was published in the 1967 Volkswagen promotional booklet that contained a selection of articles and cartoons about VWs, Think Small. Shep’s article is the longest piece in the publication and it is a story about buying his first car–but it has nothing to do with VWs:
He talked about what it was like to be a passenger when his father was driving the family somewhere. He said his own first car was a black, 1933 Ford Roadster. Sometimes he talked about cars he owned as a teenager, in such stories as going on a date and the problems of getting to the girl’s house when trying to pass through a herd of turkeys and other problems trying to get the car to function.
He talked about going to the Indianapolis 500 with his father, and he even wrote a piece for Popular Mechanics about the Indy 500. I discuss it in one of my unpublished manuscripts about Shep:
“The Two Faces of Indy,” a May 1976 article on the Indianapolis 500 car race. When he writes about something he dislikes, for me the result is only occasionally amusing, a cranky burlesque. But here, as he relates the racing tradition to American customs, one of his favorite themes, his style and his sharp eye for the unexpected, yet telling detail, shine. Note how he wraps it all up with a disparaging comment on the common folk, in a long, one-sentence concluding paragraph chock-full of crying, barking, popping of cans, and the sun-struck image of eating a wiener:
“Weeks before the day of the race, the faithful begin to gather from all parts of the land, lining the streets of Indianapolis with their cars bumper to bumper, their sleeping bags, their campfires, their jackets covered with patches, their beer cans, their crying babies and barking dogs, all waiting for that boom of the cannon which announces that the infield is open, to go charging fender to fender like a herd of demented buffalo to get that same spot they have occupied for years, to put up the tent and pop the first can, and to instinctively celebrate something indefinable in the restless American spirit, the urge to move, to compete, and to eat hot dogs in the sun.”
In May of 1974 he published three articles about the Indy 500 in the New York Times. In one, he wrote:
“To understand the 500, you have to have at least a faint whiff in your nostrils of those far-off times in the dreamy Indiana cornfields when the roar of a motor was as incredibly magical to the earthbound natives as space travel is to us today.”
He owned several cars that he advertised on his radio shows, including the English Rover and the French Peugeot. One of his Jean Shepherd’s America episodes is all about cars, includes him waiting for his new car to come off the line in Detroit, and him while taking a lap around Indy with racing great Duke Nalon. The title of the episode is “I Love Cars, So There, Ralph Nader.” (Nader was well-known for criticizing the quality of many American products, including cars.)
Shep at the wheel.
One of my favorite stories about Shepherd and cars is him claiming that in his over-night radio days, to get to the station’s transmitter for his show, he would race down the New Jersey Turnpike in his Porsche, and one night he crashed it into the WOR Radio’s 50,000 Watt cooling pool.
said he had one, 1956. I assume he had a convertible.
I don’t know what color. Visually, later models were slimmed down
and lose the look of power those of this era had. No photo does justice to
the powerful look of this car–I describe it as looking
rounded and muscular and like a clenched fist.
Shepherd also, at times, drove a scooter and a motorcycle in addition to piloting his own small plane.
Shep at the wheel
Among other things, Jean Shepherd lived a life of improvisation (which includes some daring), creativity, adventure, and a sense of widespread taste in the arts. I believe the summit of much of all this in his life was in the 1950s to the mid-1970s. And cars were a kind of symbolic embodiment of it all.
PART OF COMMENT BY JOEL
Beyond cars, imagine he saw the growth of radio into a ubiquitous medium. The transformation of air travel from a military to a civilian more of transportation. The talkies. Television. The ability to travel long distances, affordably, happened in his youth, and travel he did.
His excitement over technology, whether cars, boats, motorcycles or airplanes was infectious. And as a sports car dreaming kid, he fed my fantasies.
Commenting on the search for a name for a new Indiana Tollway in the region of
Hammond, Indiana, Robert Blaszkiewicz, in his column for the
Northwest Indian Times (April 30, 2006),
suggested a Shep connection. The road is leased to
“the Cintra-Macquarie consortium.”
With his permission, I quote from his column:
“A highway name should be something that evokes the local history and character of the region. It also needs to roll effortlessly off the tongue of a traffic reporter.
“I’d like to take columnist’s license to toss one out there myself: ‘The Jean Shepherd Memorial In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash Tollway.…’ The book title is the ideal sentiment for a road where we’ll be forking over an ever-increasing amount of money to some faceless foreign entity.
“Yes, the name is a bit long. No problem, in traffic reports it will simply be called ‘the Shep.’
[Blaszkiewicz comments that Shepherd often disparaged his hometown]
“So call it payback to attach his name to a strip of concrete that many of us will end up cursing:
” ‘Why are you late?’
” ‘I got stuck on the (bleepin’) Shep again.’
“But I think even Shepherd would appreciate his name as an object of derision. After all, it was Shep, himself, who immortalized his Old Man’s tapestry of obscenities still hanging over Lake Michigan.”
Several Shep fans have also suggested titles for the road, including these of mine:
J. Parker Parkway
Og and Charlie Turnpike
Loose Knees Speedway.
He talked about his college days in Cincinnati, at a time when, referring to two comic strips, he was “just beginning to see that there was more to the world than ‘Flash Gordon,’ there was more to drawing than, say, ‘Prince Valiant,’ and I was beginning to suspect things.” As he was, in the best sense, about to learn a lesson—in an extracurricular class one Saturday morning—it was appropriately a teacher who took him and a couple of other students to a garage in order to expose them to an extraordinary work of art.
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. Did you ever hear of the name? Ettore Bugatti. The maestro. A man who created automobiles the way Michelangelo created altar cloths. He created them as works of art.
And there, resting on the floor under that flickering neon light was a dark, rich, plum-colored 57SC, one of the great moments in the career of Ettore Bugatti. An automobile that had been created for a French duke late in the 1930s—around 1937. A car built specifically for mountain driving. An alive, magnificent, evil, sensual-looking machine that lay low. It didn’t’ really squat on the floor, it just sort of lounged, stretching out low and flat—sensual. And looking at that car you felt flight in every inch of it. Not only flight but movement and statement. And a curious kind of truth. It was so honest.
What had captivated Shepherd about this low-slung Bugatti 57SC sports car back in his college days? Through newly encountered information, I’ve come to understand that Shepherd had, over the decades, obviously conflated two similar but distinct Bugatti 57SC models. The one he spoke of during the broadcast with such enthusiasm, the one famed as a great masterwork of widespread renown, is not the plum-colored convertible he had originally seen, but the more rare and bizarre, hard-backed 57SC Atlantic. Only three originals of it exist, including a blue one that sold for over twenty million dollars in 2010, and a black one owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren. From a race car historian: “The Bugatti Atlantic is one of those very rare, very great, very charismatic masterpieces of automotive art. Every line of it is thought-provoking.” From the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which had featured the Lauren one in an exhibit of elegant cars, “It speaks a little of evil, I think it’s so wickedly designed. This black beauty, though, it’s extraordinary.” Evil? Wicked? You have to see photos and videos of this beast!
Evil and wicked are responses to a design that creates jarring mental and emotional contradictions, going against ordinary expectations regarding this otherwise aerodynamic car. What had Bugatti done to accomplish this feat of seeming inconsistency, of wicked design? Reportedly some manufacturing problem had inspired Ettore Bugatti’s son, designer Jean Bugatti, with an artist-alchemist’s wicked caprice, leading to the birth of what appears to be some antediluvian oddity. One source suggests that the sheet metal surface of the body was to be a special alloy that would burn in the usual welding process. This circumstance, or a design decision growing out of an earlier such situation, led to a brutish-yet-elegant oddity in the erotically rounded, voluptuous, crouching beast—down the centerline of this otherwise fluid and carnal body—like a stark reptilian spine, lies a rigid, riveted flange pure and unadorned in its severity. Evil? Wicked? How can such a thing exist? How can such a being be described? Confounding ordinary assumptions with bold wit, Jean Bugatti created a technically ingenious aberration seemingly out of some lost-world fantasy—a sleek dolphin with spine crossbred from a small dinosaur, a wondrous creature about to vault from some primitive sea. He brought forth a piece of sublime art.
Enthralled by the 57SC and other masterpieces of automotive design, Shepherd extolled the art of Bugatti until the end of the program. His usual style in radio art was a jazzman’s manipulation of words into improvised compositions, but only rarely had he crafted a program with such thoughtful and seemingly preconceived precision as he devoted to the elegance of line and form in Ettore Bugatti’s sensuous art. Despite having a variety of unusual cars over the years, Shepherd never held title to a Bugatti, but he did retain that lesson in art taught by the sublime Bugatti 57SC, and some years later he held a Bugatti Royale limo long enough in his mind’s eye to own it by sketching it. And now I, Shepherd-cuckoo and new-born admirer of Bugatti, possess that sketch. Thus, in my eternal quest through Shepherdland, I’ve learned a bit more about Jean Shepherd’s eye, and he’s given me an introduction to Bugatti and to the esthetics of the automobile—to the car as art.
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[My comment that appeared in the following Bugatti Club publication follows]
Although Jean Shepherd had an extensive memory, he occasionally conflated some details, as he seemed to do in his broadcast description of his view of the 57SC. The Gangloff [Bugatti 57SC] was the right color and in the right place at the right time for him to have seen it; however, the passing of a quarter of a century between his view and his remembrance, and the front-end similarity and body type designation of T57SC for both the Gangloff and the Atlantic, seemed to cause him a problem. The even more eccentric Atlantic and far more words and images subsequently devoted to it argue persuasively for it being the 57SC that Shepherd came to describe as “An alive, magnificent, evil, sensual-looking machine that lay low.”
My foregoing article—parts 1 and 2 here— appeared in the American Bugatti Club’s quarterly publication, Pur Sang Spring, 2010. At the club’s invitation, I attended their annual New York City luncheon at midtown Manhattan’s Sardi’s Restaurant. Parked out front were three Bugattis, one of which was one of the five reproductions of the 57SC Atlantic, so I got to see and photograph an exact replica. Jay Leno owns one of the other replicas. The photos in this article are of one of the originals, owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren. (Many photos of two of the original ones can be found among Google’s images by searching for “57SC Atlantic.” However, a similar Bugatti is also shown there, as well as photos of scale models of the “evil, wicked” beast.)
Regarding my collection of Sherperdiana, the paper towel sketch of the Bugatti limo had been just half of the sheet, the other half consisting of a totally separate, rather elegant still life of table items. The combined length of the paper towel roll sheet was 57” by 12” high, a rather difficult size to frame in one piece. Through a tough rationalization on my part, based on the two subjects being totally disconnected in subject as well as style and separation on the sheet, I cut the them apart (having done so hurts me still) and framed them each, mounting them on the wall of my Shep Shrine side by side, almost visually connected.
AN EXTRACURRICULAR LESSON IN ART
Jean Shepherd was a connoisseur of many arts, including the design and driving of cars, motorcycles and the like. His interest in them extended to his role as emcee of the Greenwich Village sports and antique car rallies from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, to the scores of columns he wrote for Car and Driver magazine in the 1970s and, not least, to his penchant for racing perilously through the streets of New York City and environs on his motorcycle or scooter, in his Morgan or Porsche, or in some other exotic species of automobile, such as a funky little Goggomobil, whenever he could. He was, indeed, a motor-cuckoo—a car-cuckoo.
And I quest tirelessly for every immortal relic of his artistry, whether for the holy grail of his lost broadcasts or for just some lines on a scrap of paper. Through that obsession, which includes a daily scanning of ebay, I encountered and bought one of his creations, done sometime in the early 1960s, a large pen-and-ink drawing of an antique car. Shepherd’s drawing is in a loose style, done quickly, maybe because the impressive vehicle was about to move, or because he didn’t want to attempt a too-smooth rendition that would fail utterly in comparison with the elegant object in front of him. In short, my treasure is a lowly paper towel with a rough sketch of a fine car on it.
I wanted to know all about that car. My quest led me through innumerable glossy tomes filled with glorious photos of old cars until I encountered a possible match—had Shepherd portrayed a stately Bugatti? With a query and a photo of the drawing from me, the folks at the American Bugatti Club checked their meticulously detailed files and narrowed it down, not just to the species–Bugatti Royale–but to the exact specimen of that grand limousine itself, the Park Ward. Ah, to encounter such admirably precise authorities as these—what comfort for a cuckoo on a quest! My pursuit has a glorious culmination. As Shepherd talked about virtually anything and everything that interested him over the years, it’s no surprise to me that, in hot pursuit through my own meticulously detailed files, I encountered a 1976 tape of him discussing his love of antique cars and his special admiration for those designed and built by Bugatti.
I discovered that, although Shepherd usually dealt with many subjects during a show, this entire broadcast was devoted to the virtues of Ettore Bugatti and his cars, concentrating not on the Royale limo in my ink drawing, but on a low-slung, sporty model. He began this particular show by commenting that the world had created a new artistic form in the first quarter of the twentieth century: “It existed briefly for ten or twelve years in its really flowering form and then began to decline as all art forms do—they ultimately decline.” After this general introduction, he began his story about a Bugatti.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2