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My previous blog about “The Village” focused on what the book, The Village, had to say about Shep’s Greenwich Village. I just re-encountered the audio of Shepherd’s program (reportedly broadcast sometime in 1972) about his connections with the Village. He talks about his various associations with it, but, as related to him as it mostly is, he treats it in a rather objective list as explanation for his affection toward it. Although I wished for a more heartfelt paean, what he has to say is worth repeating in order to get a fair surface picture of Shep-and-the Village. Because portions of the program he devotes to some basic background info, I edit out and rearrange some of this to make it more concentrated regarding issues that fatheads would find of special interest. As always, I don’t change anything and I don’t leave out important stuff. For Shep, follow the bold text.
Washington Square Arch,
near which Shep held a “mill-in,”
one Saturday afternoon, listeners having made,
at his suggestion (and attempted
to fly there) 3″-5″ box kites .
According to one of the letters I’ve just received—the letter here says, “Shepherd, the trouble with you is it’s obvious that you live in Greenwich Village. Of course that totally warps your view and makes you somehow suspect.” Well, this is one of the most prevalent ides of the outside world RE the Village.
You know I rarely talk about that part of the world. Even though I live in the Village. You probably know that, don’t ya, Herb, that my home is the Village, and I’ve lived in the Village for a long time. And various parts of the Village. I used to live in what is now called the East Village over on 7th Street. And now I live in what is called the West Village. And I also lived in the Village when they just called it the village-Village.
But the curious thing about the Village, I think–which to me is very interesting–it’s one of the few places in America, really, where you can live–you live in an area–it’s almost a state of mind.
End of Part 1 of 3
Thinking about Shepherd’s important moments and decisions in his life.
How did he get to where he became.
Some repetition and a continuation to not really a conclusion
in enigmatic, unsatisfactory endings–that can only continue.
WHAT DOES ALL THAT MEAN!?
Why–was he happy with his choices–what might he otherwise have done?
This is a difficult area and one which I usually avoid, because it is to a large extent speculative, and based–inevitably–on incomplete/inaccurate information. But maybe by doing little more than listing some milestones, one might get some clues about the Jean Shepherd enigma.
Photo courtesy of
Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.
I believe it of value to note and define, what to my mind are important points of Shep’s life and career. Some relate strongly to his creative world. Surely there will be some disagreements in this list. (It should be noted that, although years of publication are given, some of these activities/creations obviously were in progress at least in the previous year as he worked on the project.)
• • •
Moves to New York City, the center of the artistic/intellectual life he desired. It leads to almost all of his important creative achievements. At some early point in his life in NYC, he becomes involved with many of its artistic activities, including connections to: Greenwich Village and the Village Voice; relationship with Lois Nettleton; his reported introduction by Shel Silverstein to Leigh Brown.
• • •
This is the period I describe as “The Great Burgeoning.” It includes what I can think of as crucial and innovative parts of his professional life: Overnight, improvised radio from January to August 1956; Village Voice connections; connections to the modern jazz world including emceeing important jazz concerts, narrating Charles Mingus’ “The Clown,” and writing periodical columns on jazz; creating his I, Libertine book hoax; promoting John Cassavetes’ Shadows; editing and writing intro to his George Ade book. (From the front page of the Voice, the first image shows left to right: Shep, Lois Nettleton, Anne Bancroft.)
• • •
Convinced (according to Hefner by Shel; Lois said convinced by herself and other friends) to transcribe and edit his improvised stories and get them published (Playboy and in books).
• • •
Creation of first season of the television series
Jean Shepherd’s America.
• • •
Co-creation and narration of movie A Christmas Story.
• • •
Moving to Florida. Shep had numerous times expressed that New York City was his true home because of its vitality, artistic ambiance–why did he move? Finances? Lessening of his intellectual interests? Other?
• • •
Creation of second/final season of the television series
Jean Shepherd’s America.
• • •
Leigh Brown, helpmate, supporter, and love of his life, dies.
• • • • • • • • •
10/16/1999–into the future
Shep dies. Tributes and remembrances flow from many sources.
• • • • • • • • •
(As always, I’d appreciate any and all comments,
including additions, subtractions, corrections,
and further thoughts.)
Excelsior & seltzer bottle
More to come
Shepherd, on his radio program, promoted Greenwich Village, The Village Voice, and other aspects of the then-prominent culture identified with it, such as jazz and the Beats. He narrated a TV video about it and narrated the commercial film “Village Sunday.” (His love, Lois Nettleton, plays the part of a young woman strolling along, observing the scene.) He obviously appreciated the Village culture, and in the 1970s, live there for years.
I recently encountered a 600-page book, The Village–A History of Greenwich Village, 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues (John Strausbaugh, 2013).I’ve read the sections on the 1950s and 1960s, encountering a few good pages with an overall description of Shepherd, especially regarding the I, Libertine affair. My Excelsior, You Fathead! is mentioned in passing and is listed in the bibliography. The chapter with the Shep material, titled “Village Voices,” focuses on, among other items, Shep, Mailer, and the Voice. Epigraphs for that chapter:
You have no idea what a terrible lure this place is to people who live outside of this place. –Jean Shepherd
Greenwich Village is one of the bitter provinces–it abounds in snobs and critics. –Norman Mailer
[I do believe that the Shep quote refers not specifically to the Village but to all of New York City.]
The Shepherd-section, hitting most of the high points in a few pages, containing little if anything not generally known about him, ends with:
Despite his adoring listeners, Shepherd increasingly chafed at limitations of regional radio. After leaving WOR in 1977 he concentrated on film and television with some success, the bittersweet (mostly bitter) 1983 holiday film A Christmas Story, which he wrote and narrated, is considered a seasonal classic. But he never quite achieved the status he thought he deserved as a modern day Mark Twain or Will Rogers and withdrew to Sanibel Island off the Florida gulf coast where, a self-professed sorehead, he lived in relative seclusion until dying of natural causes in 1999. No doubt he’d find some rueful satisfaction in knowing that today copies of I, Libertine are collectors’ items going for as much as $350 for the hardcover and over $200 for the paperback.
[If one has the persistence to wait, one can get a paperback these days for about $50]
I enjoyed and found well-done, the author’s extensive material on the Beats, Shepherd, the folk scene, Mailer, the Voice, the emergence of Bob Dylan, and other surrounding material. There are no major errors regarding Shepherd, and the author seems to have used good and knowledgeable sources. Few if any other descriptions of Shepherd that I’ve encountered seem so on-the-mark. One might assume that the rest of the book is also good.
Village Voice front page,
with Shepherd, Nettleton, and Ann Bancroft.
I remember one time talking to Norman Mailer who I used to see somewhat–a few years back, and Mailer said, “Don’t count on any close friends of yours or people around you to ever read anything you write.” He said, “Knowing an author personally makes people think you can’t write.”
That quote above is one more instance of Shepherd commenting on his having known Norman Mailer (They both wrote for the early Village Voice, and Shepherd said they’d sometimes meet down at the Voice offices in the Village. Mailer was also one of the Voice‘s founders. When I’d interviewed Mailer by mail for my first Shep book, he at first said he didn’t think he’d met Shep, then corrected himself saying he only vaguely remembered him. I’ve always been curious as to what their relationship was and what caused Shep to dislike Mailer and Mailer to only “vaguely” remember Shepherd.) I’ve previously written about all the many times Shepherd disparaged Norman Mailer on the air. Here are more–and maybe the last of them I choose to post!-
All the intellectuals went on a cruise to listen to Norman Mailer complain about how he was sick. …I still have an invitation to Norman Mailer’s fiftieth birthday, which only ranks with Mike Todd’s birthday as the great ripoff of our time. (August 3, 1975)
Regarding the foregoing, note that indeed Mailer did charge admission to attend his birthday party that he himself had orchestrated. At the time, more than one person disparaged this. And in the following, remember that during the 1960s, Shepherd more than once had criticized what he considered the overly naive attitudes of many youths during this turbulent era. He mentioned peace demonstrators such as Joan Baez, who questioned how one can have a sense of humor with all the problems in the world:
Ah, come on! The world has always been in crisis. It has never once stopped being in crisis. Speaking of humorous people—poor old Norman Mailer. Have you ever had the feeling that Norman Mailer [laughs as he says name] pours stuff out of a lead mold? And it’s a lead mold that he’s somehow having trouble with—there’s a kind of gangrenous growth around the edges of it. Totally un-humorous. James Baldwin has no humor whatsoever. His play—no humor at all….And yet, strangely enough, both sides are extremely funny to me. Now why is that? Why do I find Norman Mailer side-splittingly funny? I can’t help it. Every time I see Mailer glaring out—Mailer the architect, Mailer the dreamer, Mailer the great man, Mailer the god—wherever I look [laughs] I find him excruciatingly funny. (April 1965)
Regarding shedding a tear about the disappearance of the Great North Woods north of Minneapolis:
Norman Mailer would not shed a tear—but he will shed a tear over the passing of boxing. He’ll get all upset—that the Queen Mary is gone—or some other cockamamie bit like that. (September 1, 1967)
Have a little fistfight with Norman Mailer—and his eighteen friends, the middleweight contenders. Have you ever noticed that all fist-fighters, all boxers today, want to be writers, and all writers want to be boxers. It’s always thus. Every man should stick to his last. You’d get a fat nose, Normy. (August 3, 1968)
Ian McEwan is quoted as having said
“Boxing and writing were wonderfully
confused in his mind.”
Shepherd seemed to explore every variation he could think of to stick it to him, including Mailer’s penchant for aggression and bravery as part of his literary life—Shep probably felt that disparaging his writing would be the best way to upset poor Normy:
He’s read a couple of novels by Mailer. Can you imagine what would happen if your idea of what America is like was by reading novels by James Baldwin and Norman Mailer and going to see Doris Day movies? Wouldn’t that be a fantasyland of—really like Walt Disney! (June 1966)
I do feel very sorry for people who are completely hung up with examining and reexamining their own navel. This is one of the reasons why I—I’m totally bored by so many writers who have that problem going. Like I can’t get past the third page of Philip Roth. Norman Mailer bores me. Just bores the life out of me. And I know I’m going to get thousands of letters from people who say “sour grapes—you’re a writer.” No. I’m just telling you the truth. I find this view of life where, “it’s all essentially a plot that’s all bad news, and if there were only more like me—us, the sensitive people.” I just find that not only boring, but I also find it vaguely repellent. (March 27, 1971)
The following is the beginning of Shepherd’s humorous article titled “all hail the sovereign duchy of nieuw amsterdamme!” Understand that although Mailer’s running for mayor in 1969 was true, this article is written tongue in cheek.
In his recent and abortive campaign for the mayoralty of the city of New York, the honorable Norman Mailer proved once again that his thinking, though often well intentioned, is nonetheless pitifully deficient in scope. While not without merit, his plan to turn New York City into a separate State of the Union—due to its myriad distinguished attributes—was redeemed mainly by the fact that, in keeping with Mr. Mailer’s usual modesty and astute self-appraisal, he implied that he would be available for the governorship when statehood came to flower. This appetite for public office, of course, is based on the enlightened contemporary concept of total talent: A gifted novelist would obviously be a brilliant statesman; a great fullback could unquestionably play a superb Hamlet; a renowned pediatrician could easily master the complexities of global policy; an incomparable but self-effacing New York humorist, broadcaster, bon vivant and boulevardier is eminently qualified to become—But I‘m getting ahead of myself. (Playboy, September, 1970)
Regarding Mailer and columnist Jimmy Breslin’s run for office (in 1969) and wanting to make New York City into the fifty-first state, one must realize that they were very serious, yet kept a sense of humor. (I have a couple of their campaign buttons: “Vote the Rascals In,” and “No More Bullshit/M.-B.”)
During this period, Shepherd, completing his thought at the end of his Playboy article quoted above that he himself was “eminently qualified to become—,” suggested in a radio broadcast during the mayoral campaign that in throwing his own hat in the ring and upping the stakes, he, Shepherd, was running to have the city declared a separate country with himself as king.
A while back I posted here the Jean Shepherd page in the graphic treatment of John Wilcock’s biography by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall. The following Norman Mailer page from that graphic treatment makes references to Jean Shepherd in the first panel:
They were operating twenty-four hours a day combat patrol. That old catapult was going up there every ninety minutes as another flight would take off. The flight that was out would land and you’d hear the arresting gear. You’d hear that bullhorn: “There is a banjo in the groove. Banjo in the groove,” and you’d hear that SHROOOOOM! you’d hear that bounce and a plane had landed. Thirty seconds later they’d start launching. The launch is a special sound. You hear this thing cocking itself. It’s a great, steam-operated slingshot! An enormous piston that literally hurls the planes right off into the void, right down the carrier deck.
As a pilot, I must say, you have never really experienced the ultimate flying thrills until you have been in an aircraft that is landing on the deck of a tossing carrier in a spanking wind—oh, wowee! And I have done this on several hairy occasions. Holy Smokes!
Here it is, two o’clock in the morning. We’ve been up for maybe eighty hours. Sweaty, hot, and I’m lying there in nothing but skivvies and T-shirt. Just drenched, the bunk is so wet that it was like sleeping on a sponge. You can feel that water all over, just clammy and at the same time you are so hot.
I’m lying there in the darkness and everything is fine and you hear this SHHHHHH GEROMOMOMOMMMM! That’s the sound of a plane being launched. A long pause between the cocking of the mechanism and then GEROMOMOMOMMMM!
Catapult and plane on an aircraft carrier.
GEROMOMOMOMMMM! Off she goes and another guy has been hurled out into the night.
We’re now in the immediate vicinity of Lebanon and there’s a lot of enemy action going on. There’s a lot of stuff happening. Lying there, everything is kind of funny to me. You reach a point when you’re so tired that you can’t sleep. You’re physically tired, your mind keeps running on and on like some kind of giant flywheel that won’t stop, and I had been trying to sleep now for about half an hour.
This is down in the junior-grade officers’ quarters where every bunk had a tiny light above it and I turned on the light. I reached down into my seabag, looking for something to do, something to read, and I pulled out a book and started to read, and I started to laugh—I couldn’t stop. It was a hysterical, tired laugh, and I looked across the darkness and there on the bunk across this little stateroom, lying in the dark and sweating like hell was Bob Gaffney, the man who committed the Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster epic movie disaster that was made a few years later.
Bob is half asleep, and he says, “What are you laughing at?”
I say, “I don’t know, Bob, just everything.”
He says, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
And then SHOOOOONK! AAAAWUUU! Off it goes again. We both start to laugh—at the sound of the planes being shot off. Then we begin to ad lib a giant movie script in the darkness. We’re laughing like hell—can’t remember a word of it next morning. We’re ad-libbing a movie script at two in the morning in the heat and sweat, and all of a sudden this clanging bell goes through the ship DOING DOING DOING. It’s General Quarters. We jump up out of our bunks and run through the dark corridors, which are lit with these dim red lights, to our battle stations down below in the intelligence department, where they have the great radar screen. We’re down below and we can’t stop laughing, and the Lieutenant Commander is looking at us. “What? What? What’s up now? Take it easy, guys.”
Uncontrollable laughing. We’re in the big navy helmets and all. And that night is just one long, involved, curious nightmare, with the heat and the script and all the sounds of the planes being launched high above us on the flight deck and we’re hurling through the night off the coast of Lebanon and Syria, we’re at General Quarters and the radar screen keeps whirling round and round. A fantastic, total nightmare.
After they called off GQ, Bob and I are sitting in the ward room soaked in sweat and drinking navy coffee, trying to remember the script we just invented. I saw pieces of it in the Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster movie years later, I really did. That strange, nightmare quality to it. These are things that even Stanley Kubrick would never under understand. No way!
[Note above, Shepherd’s sound effects made by his voice alone. He loved sounds of all kinds and he loved to produce replicas of those he heard–and he was very good at doing so. My printed word attempts can’t possibly produce and elicit the pleasure of hearing him do what he did with his voice. On a few of his programs he played the actual sounds of various machinery (such as vintage airplane engines). He once commented that such sounds should be preserved as much as should the actual objects from our past.]
Village Voice, “Night People,” Jean Shepherd, October, 1957.
“In Beirut When It Was on the Hit Parade”
Jean Shepherd begins by stating that he arrived in Beirut with five or six other passengers in a 15-year-old Navy transport plane by way of Naples and Crete. Apparently the Carrier Essex dropped him off in Naples after he’d completed his work on the documentary film on board. He comments that Beirut was at this moment at the top of the news media’s hit parade, but would not be there for long when the public got tired of its temporary celebrity. At the moment, with a headline including the important word “crisis,” Beirut was it.
Seeing a man with an ice-cream cone in the airline terminal, Shep is pointed in the proper direction, and soon has his own frozen custard cone just like those a New Jersey Dairy Queen ladles out daily. He is happy, ending his column by exulting, “By God, I was in Lebanon. I caught a bus and went to town.”
“Trouble in Beirut? Not Before Dinner.”
The Village Voice comments that Jean Shepherd has just returned from working on a movie in Beirut, indicating that he was there during the crisis. Shepherd tells how he has just gotten his room in an elegant hotel in Beirut, describing the place as having the aura of a class B spy movie, with people coming and going who would do well in Hollywood if found by a good talent agency. He describes Beirut as being the Riviera of the Middle East, with rich shipping magnates surrounded by brown-skinned girls in pink bikinis.
Rushing toward the elevator in his swim trunks, he asks the bellboy what he thought of the current troubles. “Oh,“ the bellboy responds, “that doesn’t start until 8 p. m. every night at dinnertime.” Shepherd enters the terrace, feeling like “a bit player in a Sydney Greenstreet movie.”
Bye, bye, Beirut.
HERE IT IS!
THE JEAN SHEPHERD SHOW!
Jean Shepherd ended his WOR radio career in 1977 and he died in 1999. Yet his creations continue to be perpetuated through new and older enthusiasts who enjoy his works. Here are some of the major factors helping keep Shep’s vision alive.
Shepherd‘s own books continue to sell. In addition,
Eugene B. Bergmann‘s books, Excelsior, You Fathead! ( 2005), an overview and appreciation
of Shep’s career, and his Shep’s Army (2013), annotated transcriptions of
Shepherd army stories, continue to sell.
Caseen Gaines‘ book, A Christmas Story-–Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic
appeared in 2013 with considerable material on Shepherd.
Several books on radio and on humor appearing in the last decade or so contain
descriptions and appreciations of Shepherd’s radio work.
A number of schoolbooks for teaching literature each feature a story by Shepherd,
with study comments and hints.
Professor Quentin Schultze of Calvin College has taught courses in the art
of Jean Shepherd and had him as a guest in class.
DISTRIBUTION (audio, video, radio)
Max Schmid of WBAI broadcasts Shepherd audios and interviews as often as he can
in addition to selling CDs and DVDs of Shepherd’s works.
Jeff Beauchamp”s Jean Shepherd Project (no longer extant)
distributed CDs of hundreds of Shepherd broadcast audios.
Sellers on http://www.ebay.com continue to offer Shepherd books, audios, videos, etc.
DOCUMENTARY (in the works)
Nick Mantis is creating a major documentary on Shep’s world,
interviewing many important sources.
Jean Shepherd acolites gather from time to time to chat, eat, and
exchange enthusiastic comments about him. The most recent “Shepfest” was
at Katz’s Delicatessen on June 24, 20014.
Documentary video-maker at Katz’s.
From time to time–here, there, everywhere inaccuracies–grubbage–
about our mythic hero continue to pop up, scatter like a dandelion’s plumed seeds,
giving birth to equally erroneous progeny.
Of great importance is Jim Clavin‘s http://www.flicklives.com, which is the major source
of information on everything related to Jean Shepherd.
Two other websites (which do not remain current or active) have good material:
Jim Sadur’s “Jean Shepherd Fan Page” http://www.keyflux.com/shep
and Bob Kaye’s “The Shepherd Page” http://www.bobkaye.com/Shep.html
Various internet sites, including the brass figklagee at
http://jeanshepherdpodcast.blogspot.com, continue to feature Shepherd audios.
Fans communicate regularly through the email site: email@example.com
and on Facebook through the group: “I’m a fan of Jean Shepherd.”
An internet site features a “comic book” bio by Ethan Persoff & Scott Marshall
of early V. Voice contributor John Wilcock, , including:
My blog, http://www.shepquest.wordpress.com
every third day posts articles and thoughts on everything related to Shepherd:
A variety of writings, interviews, and commentaries continue to appear,
created in print and internet publications (Gene Bergmann,
Donald Fagen, Keith Olbermann, etc.).
Irwin Zwilling, who controls Shepherd’s creative rights,
continues to be engaged on his behalf.
Turner Television continues to yearly broadcast A Christmas Story
to millions of viewers, especially for 24 hours straight on Christmas Eve.
A few years ago, Gene Bergmann‘s one man play “Excelsior!” enjoyed
a very limited run off-off-off-Broadway.
In recent years, around the holiday season, a live theater version of
A Christmas Story, travels widely in towns and burbs.
Starting in 2013, A Christmas Story, The Musical appeared on Broadway.
Both theatrical versions of the film portray Shepherd as narrator/commentator
in on-stage performance.
TRIBUTES FAR AND WIDE
From time to time Shep receives some well-earned tribute
such as induction into the Radio Hall of Fame (posthumously),
The Paley Center for Media–Jerry Seinfeld tribute (posthumously),
and even while he was alive → 🙂 ← such as being given an honorary doctorate,
as seen below (pay no attention to his pants and sneakers).
HURRAH FOR SHEP!
The similarities and differences between what Shepherd spoke on the radio and what he submitted for print publication is a subject that arises from time to time. I’ve written about it and others have alluded to it in one way or another. I’ve written that Shepherd commented on a Long John Nebel show about someone saying that all he had to do was transcribe his radio stories: “Have you ever seen a tape transcribed? Well come on now.” He says it took him about ten or twelve years to get the feel of someone talking into his writing, and that as for just transcribing, “That is the last thing you can do.”
The New York Times reviewer comments that In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash “is billed as a novel, but listeners to Jean Shepherd’s late nighttime radio show will not be fooled. They will recognize this as a switch of the oral memoir the author has been ad-libbing beautifully for around 10 years.”
The Village Voice reviewer of In God We Trust wrote “Relax, gang, this isn’t a novel after all. Or at least not a Novel novel, … It’s just old Shep telling a series of loosely related stories, each close to 45 minutes long, about childhood back in northern Indiana.” With that “45 minutes long” he may be suggesting that the stories are taken directly from the radio versions—not so!
(Book published in October,
review missed holiday shopping orgy.)
In the foreword to my Shep’s Army, Keith Olbermann, from what he remembers of an encounter over thirty years before, quotes Shepherd: “It’s just that I love the radio shows. But the books! I slave over the books! They have to be exactly right. Exactly!…” There is a possible implication here that the radio stories and the printed stories are different creations entirely, yet we know that almost all of the printed stories are transcribed, edited, and expanded versions of the same stories Shepherd told on the radio. (In Shep’s Army I’ve transcribed and edited, but not expanded, Shepherd radio stories.) By comparing what he said and what he published in print it’s easily seen that there are both great similarities and some differences in the basic story and in some details between Shep’s radio stories and the printed versions.
I’m not going to analyze a story in detail, but just give indications of some differences there can be between Shepherd’s spoken and written stories. Maybe the best-known previously published one is commonly called “Troop Train Ernie” and, among the times Shep told it, is in a Limelight broadcast of July 10, 1965. Then that or another spoken version of it was subsequently published in Shepherd’s 1981 A Fistful of Fig Newtons as ”The Marathon Run of Lonesome Ernie, the Arkansas Traveler.” I’ve chosen a part near the beginning of each and a part of each that forms the basic conclusion of each version, plus a studio version’s ending.
Brass Signal Corps Insignia
LIMELIGHT NEAR THE BEGINNING: Company K has been put on the alert. And we’re in this Midwestern camp. Fantastic camp. There must have been ten-hundred-thousand-million people in it. Barracks as far as the eyes could see. And they had a siding, came right into the middle of it with trains.
And every night we’re scared out of our skull. We could hear those trains leaving. You could hear companies marching past, you could hear the equipment rattling—they’re goin’! And now it is our turn. Company K is called to attention.
FIG NEWTONS NEAR THE BEGINNING: Without warning, Company K, our little band of nearsighted, solder-burned Radar “experts,” had been rousted out of the sack at three o’clock in the morning, two full hours before revile, given a quick short-arm, issued new carbines and combat field equipment, and had been told to fall out into the company street when Sergeant Kowalski blew his goddamn whistle. Stunned, we milled about under the yellow light bulbs of our icy barracks. Some laughed hysterically; others wept silently. A few hunched over their footlockers, using stubby pencils to make last-minute finishing touches to their wills.
LIMELIGHT NEAR THE ENDING: And suddenly it hit me. I can see right at this very minute, now, July 1965, there is a gaunt figure wearing a pair of archaic army shoes, World War II, battered, torn, his dog tags are worn to a mere nubbin, he’s got three cans of beer and he is hiding out in the woods, he’s afraid of the MPs. Have you ever heard about those Japanese who are out there on those islands? They don’t know the war is over. Do you know anything about Arkansas? I suspect that out there, in the darkness right now, my friend Ernie doesn’t know it’s over.
Ernie, wherever you are, are you aware, Ernie, that you were posthumously made a T/5? Ernie, you got back pay comin’.
A STUDIO RENDITION ENDING (February 14, 1963) And as far as I know, Ernie is still out there in Arkansas wearing those old brown shorts carrying his dog tags, hiding in the woods. He’s scared to come out. You don’t goof-off a troop train. You don’t get away with it like that. I don’t know what he did–you can’t go down to the police station and say, “I’m Ernie.” You’re walking around in your shorts, your dog tags, your GI shoes. I don’t know where Ernie is now. But it was all for the country. Ernie did it for all of us. I want you to know that. The stars and stripes forever. Hey, Ernie! Hey Ernie, I’m sorry, Ernie. You did your best, Ernie. I’ll tell you, Ernie, it’s our fault. We shoulda hollered. We felt it goin,’ Ernie. We just didn’t have the guts to do it. We didn’t have any guts! I’m sorry, Ernie. [Instead of Gasser as fellow KP grunt, this version costars Zinsmeister.]
FIG NEWTONS NEAR THE ENDING: There are times when I awake at 3 A.M. from a fitful sleep hearing the clink-clink-clink of poor Ernie’s dog tags. Ernie, lost forever in Arkansas, wearing only his GI underwear, forever AWOL, a fugitive from a sealed troop train. Is he out there yet, a haggard wraith living on berries and dead frogs? A fearful outcast? Does he know the war is over? That all wars are past?
The clink-clink-clink of Ernie’s dog tags says nothing.
Dog Tags drawn by Jean Shepherd
near the beginning of
“Marathon Run of Lonesome Ernie,
the Arkansas Traveler”
I can think of a way to clarify the issue, at least for some particular story that has appeared in both formats—first told on the air, then published in Playboy, then published in a Shepherd book. But here’s the difficulty. For one thing, Shepherd may have told the story several times, such as the “Troop Train Ernie” story which he told in both the studio and at Limelight live broadcasts. Each live version, being extemporized, would be a bit different (and who knows how many times he might have told it on programs of which no recordings have yet surfaced). And then the printed version would again be different.
Years ago, as a Norman Mailer enthusiast, I not only read his novel An American Dream, but thought it would be interesting to read the first published version as he wrote it for Esquire magazine, chapter by chapter under a monthly time restraint, as Dickens did for some of his books. How Mailer might have changed the text for book publication would be of literary interest to me in terms of style and content. I bought the dozen used issues on ebay.com and from other sources. But I finally decided that although this would be a great project for someone working toward a Masters in American Literature, the word-by-word studying and comparing the two versions would be more tedious work than I cared to expend. As one can imagine, despite my eagerness to know what the differences are and why the two versions are different in the Mailer work and in the Shepherd work, I can’t imagine myself doing the grinding, painstaking job necessary to find out. I figure at least a year or more, doing and thinking about nothing else.
The only things I know for sure are that Shepherd made the published versions longer and, in at least a couple of them, he added obscene dialog for soldiers’ comments.
More about the obscenities to come.
Manhattan Memories (2009) by John Wilcock
John Wilcock wrote the “Village Square” column for the early Village Voice, knew Shepherd, and wrote about him. I interviewed him for my book. He writes about Shepherd in his Chapter 3: “Our favorite Radio DJ, the all-night talker Jean Shepherd, was the complete opposite of our nagging novelist [Norman Mailer, a co-founder of the Voice]: an amiable, offbeat intellectual with the ability to get his way through charm and humor….An entire generation grew up listening to him, utterly captivated by his personality and, who knows? Having their views shaped for years to come.”
Top portion of a chapter in a comic book
biography of John Wilcock
by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall.
Backing into Forward (2010) by Jules Feiffer Feiffer knew Shepherd from the early days of the Village Voice, where Feiffer drew the immensely popular, weekly cartoon, early-on titled “Sick Sick Sick.” He became a playwright, film script writer, and book author. In Backing into Forward he says he used to listen all through the night to Shepherd in 1956 while he worked on his cartoons. In his interview for my book as well as in his own book, he goes out of his way to disparage Shepherd, especially in his misunderstanding of Shepherd’s antipathy toward Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns.” (See my Excelsior, You Fathead! pages 176-177 where I describe the connection and probable cause of Shepherd’s anger. My belief is based on what are significant aspects of the play/film that relate to Shepherd. My publisher recently wrote that Herb Gardner told him that the impetus for his lead character in “A Thousand Clowns” was indeed Shepherd.)
The chapter on Shepherd is titled “A Voice in the Night.” He knew Shepherd for years and I interviewed him for my book. I traveled to Boston to be interviewed about my book on his WGBH radio program. In his book he comments, “I like to think I ‘got’ Shepherd, through all the walls he might throw up, despite his tending to relentlessly be ‘on’; that I understood the chronic need, this business, to be appreciated and heard.” He ends this chapter with a very enthusiastic comment on my Excelsior, You Fathead!
More to come