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I try to avoid psychoanalyzing Jean Shepherd–or anyone else. (My Excelsior, You Fathead! indicates some bits about Shep’s attitudes, but mostly these are described by those who knew him, rather than through my own interpretations.) But–after perusing a new book about Shakespeare’s evolving attitude toward women as seen in his plays–I thought it of interest to attempt to objectively describe some aspects of Shepherd’s life and works as it relates to what might be interpreted as his changing attitude toward women.
Shepherd, in his talk and writing, infrequently deals with the female of the species, so the following is not suggested to be any kind of encompassing description–much less a conclusive analysis–it’s just some observations that might have some connection to Shepherd’s way of being and his creative works.
His kid stories mainly relate to young boys at play, and a few of his teenage stories do relate to dating. His army stories infrequently relate to encounters with women. One, in my Shep’s Army concerns a sexual encounter (implied). Another story, about when he was stationed in Ft. Monmouth, NJ (a very short stay, I imagine) relates to he and a buddy encountering a sad woman–I don’t remember the details and don’t like the story much. Not much else.
Some of the material and thoughts here are based on comments found in Excelsior, You Fathead! Chapter 13, “Tiny Embattled Minority.”
MOM AND SOME EARLY “LOVES”
Fictional mom in A Christmas Story
Some really young females in Shep’s early life–
Dawn Strickland, Esther Jane Albery, Dorothy Anderson
[Dawn Strickland cropped from photo courtesy Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.]
Mom is traditional, nurturing, hard-working over the kitchen sink and cooking the conventional meat loaf. Conventional both in fiction and as one might gather about her when Shepherd speaks of his “real” mother. Soon after he graduated from high school, his father left the family forever by driving off with a young female co-worker in a convertible.
Shepherd told various stories of his experiences (mostly in fictional form) with grammar-school and high-school girls, sometimes on dates, some of whom he had a crush on. He reportedly wrote love letters to Dorothy Anderson while he was in the army in his early 20s.
Years later (1959), in Shep’s theater piece “Look, Charlie,” it’s said that, in a very old-fashioned image of female-as-underling/slave girl, he scripted actress Lois Nettleton, his girlfriend at the time, to feed him grapes as though he were a Roman emperor and she a servant:
Lois, as subservient hand-maiden,
presumably as seen in the theater piece,
depicted in Shel Silverstein’s
for “Look, Charlie.”
In those early days, Jean Shepherd seemed to have a very traditional image of girls and women. His early marriages seem to show him with a similar attitude.
Only recently has it been confirmed that Shepherd had been married very early on. Nothing much is known of this brief and well-hidden marriage except for this:
Credit: Steve Glazer
Jean Shepherd’s second marriage was to Joan Warner, mother of his two children. (Joan does not want to be interviewed regarding her former husband–I’ve tried several times.) Evidence from some general comments and actions by Shep suggest that she had traditional ideas of what marriage should be. Here they are, the happy couple:
Shepherd had some general comments to say about adult women/wives. One comment related to a husband whose wife arm-twisted him into doing some work on their house– because of his digging around the house foundation, the end of the house sank. In another similar instance, the digging under the house demanded of the wife resulted in unearthing a den of rattlesnakes. He seemed to be suggesting that doing what a wife nagged one to do could result in horrible disasters.
Regarding the entire idea of a permanent commitment such as marriage, Shepherd seemed negative. In what one might be forgiven in interpreting as a comment on clinging women, Shepherd on a broadcast commented that some people were the hulls of ships while other people were the barnacles that clung to their undersides.
In an earlier post I suggested that Shepherd wanted to be free and able to do just exactly what he wanted without being tied down to a little house with a lawn and a picket fence, and that this may well have caused him to leave the family he was married to and seek freedom and further fame in the Big Apple.
Lois Nettleton, in an early interview after Shep’s death responded to a comment by saying that he had strongly disliked family get-togethers: “Oh, hated them!”
WOMEN’S LIB AND EQUALITY
Shepherd sometimes had strong opinions about women’s lib. On July 31, 1960 on his program he said:
“I’ll tell you–most chicks today want to be treated as though they are tender flowers–and they prefer to act like King Kong. You see there’s that neat split–you want me to pick up your handkerchief while you are kicking me in the duff–with a pair of hobnailed boots. Now which do you want? Now I can do either, and can take either.”
Maybe he’d just had a bad day, but there are other Shepherd quotes in a similar vein.
Shepherd’s third wife, Lois Nettleton, was a very intelligent, very independent woman. She wrote that she felt that they were both independently successful in the entertainment field and were a good match for each other. She may have agreed to playing the subservient woman in a scripted part in “Look, Charlie,” but it doesn’t seem her general style. She believed in and assumed that she had total equality with Jean.
Mr. and Mrs. (Lois) Jean Shepherd, early 1960s.
Lois Nettleton a few years later as a Hollywood star.
Lois commented, “To me, our marriage was an ideal pairing of two famous career people who didn’t need to lean on each other, who enjoyed getting to know more about each other each day. Who made no demands, were flexible, and loved getting back together again after long absences. Glamorous, exciting! Very naïve of me—but actually very good for him in many ways—even after divorce, which he tried to avoid, he wanted to keep the relationship.”
When Leigh Brown and Jean first became friends, he was married to Lois. Leigh became obsessed with Jean’s mind–and with his genius on the radio. She would do anything to have him. And eventually she managed to separate Jean from Lois. According to WOR General Manager Herb Saltzman, she began at WOR as a gofer and “She bought into the myth [that he was a genius].” She had seemingly given up all her early ambitions in order to be with Jean. But, little by little, she became Jean’s editor, agent, producer, co-creator (to some extent). By the time his career in radio was about to end, she could hold her own with his dominating personality. At the time that Jean left his radio career, they had been living together for some time, and in 1977, they married.
By the time Leigh Brown died in 1998, she had seemingly become a major force in Jean’s professional as well as in his personal life. Laurie Squire, their coworker and close friend for decades, puts it (quoted in my EYF!): “They were Jean Shepherd. She sublimated, but she had a very--I can’t emphasize enough–she had a very strong personality. And I think he admired that….Quite a temper. She could hold her own! The power behind the throne. He was the creative genius. She knew how to operate in the real world.”
From those who knew them well, it seems as though Jean could not live without her. He died the year after she died.
I’d say that by the end, she and he were equals.
She had made them so.
“In A Year or Two He was Right in
the Same Boat With All of Us, You Know.”
I came across a notebook which I kept when I was in Nigeria. It was not quite a diary, it was a notebook of things that I felt, which is quite different from a diary. A diary says, “This morning I took a trip to the museum. Wrote letter. Talked to L.” That kind of thing. This is a notebook where I really put down impressions of things that I wanted to remember, and then I immediately forgot about the notebook—which says something about life there too. I took this notebook out today and I looked at this thing for a minute. It didn’t occur to me what I was referring to because, when you’re in a place and you see all these things, you write in a kind of shorthand, because you forget that one day you will not remember. You just sort of write it down.
Shepherd spoke on the radio several times about the notebooks he kept on his travels. It would be such an extraordinary find to encounter some of them!
Well, here I’m trying to tell you what heat does to people, in relation to some time ago when we were talking about how a place will change even your morality. Whether you know it or not, or whether you want it to or not, it will. With the heat, with the kind of sand there is, with the kind of leaves there are, with the sort of caterpillars that crawl over your shoe. All of these things will combine to change you into another kind of person. And I was in a place—Bagady is a place that is closer to the equator than Legos, and is south of Legos on the Bay of Guinea—or the Gulf of Guinea.
First I will have to tell you what kind of place the Gulf of Guinea is. It is one of the most interesting looking seas I have ever seen. The sea comes rolling in and is almost frighteningly innocent looking. Because the combination of the white sand ion the beachhead and the kind of sun that shines down two or three degrees north of the equator, combines to make the sea look almost like milk. It is not blue, it is not the color of the sea off Coney Island, which is a kind of slate gray, sometimes gets a little green, sometimes a faint blue, but mostly gray. No. This sea looks almost white—it’s an illusion of course. A blue sea is literally reflecting the blue sky and that’s why you see it blue.
But the sun and the sky in Africa, particularly right after noon, does not stop—there’s no place where you say, “There’s the sun.” It’s like the whole sky is the sun. Oh boy, I’ll tell you! It just comes down. It hits you on the top of the head with great big hammers.
Well, the sea reflects the sun and at the same time, the bottom of the sea there happens to be very white sand, so you wind up with the sea looking as though it were sort of skim milk. It rolls up in great, long comers, just shrooooooo—long, rolling comers. Shrooooooo! It rolls up and it looks very innocent with this little white foam and it recedes, and that sun is beating down and that heat has got hold of everything you own and those palm trees are hanging down and behind you there are huts that are sort of conical, made out of rattan and bamboo and palm leaves. Shrooooooo—water’s coming in. That’s Bagady!
I’m walking along this beach and I met there an Englishman who had been in Nigeria and that area for many years, working for some kind of paint company. We’re walking along the beach and talking about the sharks. I don’t know why, whenever I read about sharks, they always talk about the sharks along the Great Barrier Reef, they always talk about the sharks in certain parts of the Pacific, but they continually ignore the Gulf of Guinea where the sharks are truly legendary. Apparently these sharks have been known to come up and just leap right out of the water, bit off fourteen-hundred pounds of bananas, and leave. That kind of thing. Giants.
And all the natives in this area are fishermen. They fish out of long, the most graceful dugout canoes I’ve ever seen in my life. Probably thirty feet long and sometimes four feet wide, carved out of a gigantic tree. They soak these in salt water for a long time and then they dry them and then cover them with some kind of pitch, so they’re black and then they paint over the entire length of them in big white and red swirls. They paint big red eyes on the front of them and they name them, like “A Very Truly Love,” in big, white English letters on the side. Or something like, “Never Trust a Woman—boat.” A great name for a boat. Or, “Trust Only A Few.”
About ten guys at once will push these things out, run like mad, the big comers go shrooooo!—push them all back on shore. Then they get the thing pointed out again. They run as soon as the wave goes out, they run like mad—shrooooo!— pushes them back again, and finally they get the thing going and a wave will take them fifteen feet up in the air shrooooo!— shrooooo!—they’re paddling like mad with their little wooden paddles, they’re insanely paddling straight out to sea and they’ll get going. About three of these go out and finally make it. They’ll be a couple hundred yards out from the beach where the water has stopped being big comers, and is comparatively calm, and they put up a little, dirty, rotten, crummy sail like cheesecloth that’s been used to clean a lot of old Oldsmobiles, and they’ll put these things up and they’ll start floating away and they’re going down, way down the coast someplace to fish.
They will be out three days—never come back and boy, is that a sea! They tell stories about sharks. When the guys are launching their boats, sometimes two or three will get belted at one time. Oh boy, these babies just lay off shore there and they’re about twenty-eight feet long—they’re long , white, and cool. They just lay there and they strike like lightning.
This kind of place, of course, does different things to people. It is not quite the same as, let’s say, Queens. Not at all. Very little parallels between Queens and Nigeria. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is they occupy the same planet. That’s about all. Other than that—wow! And a few of the same physical laws obtain. Like gravity. They have gravity there. Everybody there, unless you’ve been around the sharks too long, you have two feet, or nearly. But all the while that sea— shrooooo! and it just looks great. You lie on your back and you think, Oh boy!”
The only hooker of it is that they seem to loose on the average, one to five people a day! Life is very different in many parts of the world. And people laugh about it. “Oh yeah, we loose many people, ha, ha, ha, ha, many people in the sea, ha, ha, ha. Stay away water. Water no good, sir. Water no good, ha, ha. I tell you, my aunt one day, she—oop, gone, gone, like that.” They don’t lose them to sharks—they have an undertow that has been known to draw in entire African villages, right into the water! It’s like the ocean itself comes out and grabs you! Whooo! Down you go. And they’ve been carried as far away as Portugal in fifteen seconds under water all the way. Holy smokes! You get so you’re afraid to go down there and just stick your foot in the water. You think either a giant fist is going to come out and grab you—it’s the ocean itself—the Atlantic Ocean grabs you by the foot—with teeth that run all the way back to its stern—starts eating you like a corn on the cob.
It’s a different thing. The sun is coming down. And now you want to get to the point of my somewhat sinister and very, very enigmatic writing in my notebook.
This Englishman and I were walking along on the beach—he’d been there for about ten years and I said, “What does this heat do to you—after a while?” I meant, how do you—I feel like all the time I was there I felt half-sick. Like something wasn’t working right all the time. Of course, if you’re there a year or so, I suppose, even if you’re there a couple of months—that you get over. But other things begin to set in.
He says, “Actually, old chap, things happen. Oh, a chap, Henderson, he was working for Shell Oil in Ghana, and the heat—very little energy. Heat actually. This chap was in Ghana and his wife was getting a bit irritated—had no energy at all, actually. And so one day she announced that she had taken a lover, you know. A man from Luxemburg who had just arrived. And I—I asked, ‘Henderson, old man—‘ actually thirty years ago—not very good show, actually. And Henderson says to me, ‘Oh, oh, Fred is—oh, no, no, I’m actually very relieved, actually. It takes a lot of pressure off me, you know. I’m very relieved—I—yes, it’s all right. Takes some of the pressure off me.’”
Well, we walked along a while there and I began to realize that the world of Graham Greene is not exactly the world of Babylon. If you wrote a play about that, no one would believe you. They’d say, “Nobody acts like that!” Oh no? When you’re in Ghana and the temperature is one-hundred-and-four, and you’ve been there nine years, I suspect you do not quite act the same as you do on McDougal Street.
So I looked at this little note in my book. My note reads, “Men in tropics have no energy whatsoever. Relate incident of Ghana friend of Luxemburger, whose man approved of wife’s lover.”
The Englishman carried the story a little further when I said, “What about the guy who was the lover?”
He said, “Oh, actually, you know, in a year of two he was right in the same boat with all of us, you know. This damned heat, you know. Let’s go over to the club and have a drink. I feel like a drink of gin. What do you say to a little gin?”
I got an email from Jeanne Keyes Youngson, who had encountered my first Shepherd book. She described herself as a romantic interest of Jean’s before he took up with Lois Nettleton. Jeanne had known him during his earliest WOR days and was around during the I, Libertine broadcasts. I spent several hours at her penthouse apartment on Washington Square interviewing her. She is a sweet, smart, blond-haired lady in her early eighties. She has more in that apartment than can comfortably fit in it, including two Christmas trees, one of which has exclusively hundred-year-old ornaments. She has a doctorate and her apartment is a clutter full of her wide-ranging interests, including a narrow hallway lined with shelves chock-full of hundreds of books about Dracula and his ilk. Surely the following broadcast fragment about vampires from near the end of Jean’s WOR days is but a mere coincidence:
I turn on this television set. It goes bwaaaawaaad, awaaaaaay—you know how the sets go, and the picture flops over about twenty-eight times and suddenly it stops. I’m lookin’ at it. Oh my god NO! Out of my ancient past—Count Dracula! I’m looking at Dracula! (March 25, 1977)
Jeanne, the Vampire Lady, married film director Robert Youngson, and they sometimes dined with Jean Shepherd and Lois Nettleton. She does not know if Lois was aware of her earlier association with Jean. She commented that Jean kept many different parts of his life in closed “compartments.” (We have encountered that comment previously from Helen Gee, Lois Nettleton, and others.)
Jeanne relates that Jean would sometimes come to the Youngson apartment to watch old movies with them. He gave Robert Youngson “hundreds of seven-and-a-half inch audio tapes” of his programs, which I assume would be of Shepherd’s broadcasts in early 1956, those “overnight” programs, the long-sought holy grail for Shepherd enthusiasts. These would reveal what his early, formative style was all about. When Youngson died in 1974, Jeanne donated his film archives to Kent State University. Upon learning of this possible cache of Shepherd’s “overnight” broadcasts from early 1956, I began my dogged search for them.
What was that about vampires?! Jeanne is the leader of the Vampire Empire and the Bram Stoker Society. You can look it up.
Jeanne Keyes Youngson, “The Vampire Lady,”
in her Washington Square apartment.
She says the Shepherd tapes might have been mistakenly shipped to Kent State or to a Middle-European Dracula Museum that has vanished into thin air. Her airy balcony has a panoramic view of Manhattan, from which I did not see any roosting mammals. Yet, as they might say in the rarefied world of vampire gourmets, the plot races and the blood thickens—or something like that.
My graphic novel about my search for the Shepherd tapes with Joyce Brabner, Harvey Pekar’s wife, got posted quite a while back. See early posts and this sample showing the unfortunate end to our search:
This current post is the last of this series of “Manifestos.” The following story was scheduled for near the end of the Keep Your Knees Loose book manuscript. Does eveyrbody like green icing?
* * * *
A STORY IN KYKL I’VE BEEN SAVING TILL THE END OF ITS MANUSCRIPT
(The sweet green icing flowing down)
A couple of years before Shep died, a number of us Shepherd cuckoos contacted his childhood friends Flick, Dawn Strickland, and Wanda Hickey, and we all made regular pilgrimages to his home, maintaining contact with him despite our shyness and his justified grumpiness. It helped if we could get songwriters Jimmy Webb and Gene Raskin, and Chicago White Sox first baseman “Banana Nose” Zeke Bonura, to tag along. I’ll never forget those times we spent with Shep in his later years on Sanibel Island, when the temperature on those cool winter evenings had plummeted to 130 degrees above zero (centigrade), and the crappies were jumpin’ out of the swirling steam. Just as when listening to his nightly radio broadcasts, we thought those times would go on forever.
Ol’ Shep sometimes entertained guests by serving us highballs of meatloaf and red cabbage, if he could find the recipe. (I’m telling the truth! I’m not exaggerating!)
He would tell stories that inevitably began, “I was this kid on the north side of Juneau, see….” Then he’d go on to relate how, “With both hands tied behind my back [Laughs.] I’d wrestle alligators.” He referred to these anecdotes as his “Crock Tails.” If one of his old radio engineers was present at the gathering, he’d fix the guy with narrowing eyes, grab a 6SJ7GT mike and, daring him to cut him off, add, “Or I call these my Tales of Crocks of…” and let the unuttered word hang in the air like the stench of an abandoned latrine.
Inevitably he’d take us to his ham radio room [“shack”], where he’d have us listen while he tapped out some Morse code, and then, on what he called his “Victrola,” he’d carefully put on LPs, one by one, and scat along to “Boodle-Am Shake” and “The Bear Missed the Train.” He could often be persuaded to get out his jew’s harp and, with his inimitable way with a tune, but straining it a bit, he would render “Escargot” to the consistency of consommé.
It is said that he retained within a crystal case, on the rump-sprung remnant of a red chenille bathrobe, a fragment of broken table lamp in the shape of a woman’s well-turned leg. This is one of those Shep-myths it’s my duty to expunge from the record—the remaining shard is more likely part of a slender calf, or a hunk of inner thigh.
He would occasionally clear his throat—”HARUMPH!”—and could be heard to mutter, “What a gallimaufry! Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Finally, he would haul out an old wooden crate with a label, tattered and torn, that read, MADE WITH PRIDE IN HOHMAN, INDIANA. Within, he had a preserved, well-worn knee-handle, nestled on a bed of purest excelsior (you fathead!).
During those days and nights it seemed as though it was always raining. Maybe that’s why ball-bumbling Banana-Nose Bonura would drop another easy pop fly and Jimmy, nowhere near MacArthur Park, in his stripp-ed pair of pants, would go bounding out into the downpour screaming that he’d “never have that recipe again.” Yes, the recipe died with Shepherd. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end, we’d have our Shep forever and a day. But Jimmy (“MacArthur Park”), nostalgic songwriter Gene Raskin (“Those Were the Days”), and steadfast writer Gene Bergmann (“Excelsior, You Fathead!”) were wrong–he’s alive. Fortunately, Shep had baked us thousands of recorded broadcast cookies to savor, whether on our brightest, sunshiny days, or during a deluge.
* * * *
Thank you, cousin Raymond B. Anderson, for content and editorial advice on this entire project, leading to what I believe is a better book. Thank you to my friend Margaret Cooper, for her eagle eye and sharp mind not only for editorial corrections, in what might have appeared to be only gentle nudges and minor suggestions, but which were important comments resulting in a much stronger result.
Of course Jim Clavin’s www.flicklives.com continues to be the best source of Shepherd information. Members of the email shepgroup sometimes post new Shep-related news and respond to my queries, for which I’m grateful. Contacts from people who were aware of EYF! and my own detective work led to much new material, and I must also thank my able research assistant, Serendipity—hugs and kisses, doll.
Several people have provided powerful jolts of important revelations for our knowledge of Jean Shepherd. I thank Lois Nettleton, actress and third wife of Shepherd, for her enthusiasm for my first Shepherd book and her offer to invite me to visit her when she returned to the New York apartment she’d shared with Shepherd. She carefully read the book and wrote extensive notes—notes that provided much fascinating information about her and Jean’s personal and professional life, all of which contributed greatly to Keep Your Knees Loose! Thank you to director and producer John Bowab, Lois’s long-time close friend and her executor, who gave me two hours of his time in her New York apartment, and who rescued her notes from probably inaccessible university archives and generously gave them to me. Thank you, Doug McIntyre, for providing me with a copy of Lois’s year 2000 interview with him. Thank you Barbara Tiedermann Simerlein for the background information regarding Leigh Brown’s early years and for providing many letters from Leigh to her, written during Leigh’s early contacts with Jean. Thank you Tom Lipscomb for providing much important commentary regarding his friendship with Jean and Leigh. Thank you, Shepherd fan Mark Snider for providing contact with his brother, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and thank you, Dee Snider, for the great discussion and interview. Thank you also, Dee, for your cool blurb for my Shep’s Army book.
Thank you, Nadine Metta Bordogna and Charles Bordogna for alerting me to the Jerry Seinfeld comment about Shepherd on Seinfeld, Season 6 DVD set —I use the quote at every opportunity—and thank you, Jerry Seinfeld, for saying it.
Thank you Jeanne Keyes Youngson (“The Vampire Lady”) for telling me about your friendship with Shep and his early New York radio days. Thank you, Joyce Brabner for attempts to locate Jeanne’s misplaced and long-gone box of tapes from Shep’s overnight broadcasts. Many will recognize that Joyce was co-creator of some of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” graphic novels and that her essay on I, Libertine remains available on the Internet. I discuss in my graphic novel reproduced in my early blog posts, her help on that project.
Thank you, film director Raul daSilva for providing me with a copy of the heretofore undiscovered 1973 half-hour film, No Whistles, Bells or Bedlam, narrated by Shepherd (one gets to see him a bit, too!). Thank you Robert Blaszkiewicz, for permitting me to quote from your column about the JSMIGWTAOPC Tollway (described in an earlier post). Marc Spector, an associate producer at WOR in 1975 contacted me with his observations regarding Shep’s later period at WOR Radio. Thanks to Bill Myers for helping to expand on the meager information regarding Shepherd’s Cincinnati radio days. Thank you, Murray Tinkleman for alerting me to Shepherd’s commentaries in the 1987 PBS program “Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait.” Thank you George Irwin for providing a video portion of the TV panel show “I’ve Got a Secret” showing Shep musically thumping his head.
When’s the last time you saw Shep with a jacket,
white shirt and tie–and a crew cut?