Jean Shepherd was an American humorist of inexhaustible talent, a man who worked in any medium--from radio to film--that could accommodate his considerable storytelling gifts. Initially migrating to radio and carving out a name for himself on the airwaves of New York's WOR, Shepherd came to loathe the largely perishable format thought to be run by inept engineers and advertising dollars and branched out into television, books, and film, to name but a few of his creative pursuits.
To the uninitiated, Jean Shepherd's legacy will be forever wed to the classic holiday movie, A Christmas Story, a screenplay he chiefly cobbled together from tales of his Indiana childhood honed on the radio and in short stories published in Playboy, later collected in his "novel," In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. These, however, are but a trickle from the outpouring of original work still being unearthed a decade after his passing; Shep fans continue to discover old monologues from his radio days or magazine articles on jazz, cars, movies, ham radio, and other cultural effluvia, as well as live show tapings from his nightclub performances, or ink drawings scribed on napkins. The man's talent, chronicled diligently on flicklives.com, was as booming and overarching as the familiar voice that came over the airwaves, narrated A Christmas Story, or lent itself to innumerable adverts.
The Perishable Press caught up with Eugene Bergmann, Jean Shepherd's biographer (though the book isn't a by-the-numbers affair) and author of the only comprehensive book on both Shepherd's life and work, Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, to pose questions about Shepherd that veer from the normal pap about his radio days or A Christmas Story. Bergmann's passion and insight into Shepherd's art are evident below as well as information on another Shepherd-related book he's currently at work on.
Perishable: You met Jean Shepherd in 1957 at one of his old haunts, the Horn and Hardart Automat. This was a period where he was more of a cult radio figure and perpetrator of the great literary hoax, I, Libertine, than the television and film personality that later took great pains to distant himself from his WOR radio days. Are there any immediate memories that come to mind from that first encounter?
Bergmann: My only face-to-face encounter with Jean Shepherd was when he suggested that listeners meet at a Marlboro bookstore in April of 1957. After awhile some of us gathered on the balcony of the nearby Horn and Hardart restaurant. I had my paperback copy of I, Libertine with me and I asked him to sign it. As he was signing, I snapped a flash picture in his face. He probably silently cursed me out for that. But the photo is now a permanent part of my book about him as well as it being on the flicklives.com site. And I still have the book. The pages are too brown and brittle to open and read, but I now have a good hardcover copy of the book also. Only in recent years was it known by most Shepherd fans that hardcover copies were also produced (in a very small print run). And only within the last couple of years did I discover a British paperback and a British hardcover edition. I have both of them, too. As a fan, it was a great experience for me, but I don’t remember anything else about it. I’d kept the photo along with a number of Shepherd clippings in a folder, saved through various moves over the decades.
Perishable: The breadth of Shepherd's work is staggering, including his output in the 1950s. Were you solely a fan of his radio work from that period or were you aware of his myriad magazine articles and humor pieces as well as his work with jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus?
Bergmann: The only thing I knew of Shepherd’s work in the 1950s and 1960s was his radio work, his first television show, his first short story published in Playboy (which I still have, torn from the magazine), and a couple of his first television programs in the "Jean Shepherd’s America" series. I didn’t much care for any of them because they were not the Jean Shepherd I knew and loved on the radio. I remember when he said that his narration of “The Clown” with Charles Mingus was to be aired on some radio program and I recorded it reel-to-reel, as I had recorded his radio broadcasts in the 1950s and early 60s. Only in recent years, as I began to study his work, did I come to admire the broader range of his work.
Perishable: I know you mention in your book that you'd stopped paying attention to Jean Shepherd for a number of years before re-familiarizing with his work. What sparked your interest some years on in Shepherd and what ultimately led to the writing of the only comprehensive biography available, Excelsior, You Fathead!?
Bergmann: I’d nearly forgotten about Jean Shepherd from the mid-1960s until I read his obituary in the New York Times in October, 1999, and, as I mention in my book, I realized that I’d lost an old friend who’d been so important in shaping the person I became. I began to listen to Max Schmid’s rebroadcasts of Shepherd on WBAI FM in New York, and I joined a Shep discussion group (firstname.lastname@example.org). I began to comment about Shepherd’s radio content to that group and got some very positive feedback. Then I heard that West Coast radio broadcaster Doug McIntyre was beginning to write a biography of Shep and, contacting him, I began giving him my thoughts and copies of my clippings. I started writing notes about Shepherd and filing them in many labeled file folders when, somehow, Doug could no longer be contacted. I got frustrated, so many ideas and nowhere to put them! I realized that I could write the book I’d thought should be written. When my book was published in March, 2005, Doug contacted me, congratulating me on the book which he’d tried to write but had given up on. I think he found that a strict biography was not something that could be done successfully. Note that, as I write on page 14 of my book, it is NOT a biography. As I say in part, “…it works toward several related ends. It documents and describes what he produced in many media, and it is an appreciation and analysis of what he accomplished. And, importantly, it attempts to impart to the reader some measure of the great pleasure Shepherd’s art gave to his audiences.” My publisher insisted on calling it a biography and most interviewers, reviewers, and readers call it that. A biography would have had to dig into much more personal matters that I didn’t think were the most important thing to get down on paper for the historical record. At most, the book is organized in part on a biographical framework, because he told so many kid stories, then some army stories, followed by early radio days, etc. Much of this material is fiction, not biography, but it gives some sense of a life in progress, mainly lived as an artistically constructed fabrication by Shepherd.
Perishable: During the research of the book, was it difficult to focus mainly on the art and output of Jean Shepherd opposed to the scattered and enigmatic, if not somewhat unsettling, aspects of his personal life?
Bergmann: My research mainly consisted of studying his artistically created works. When my publisher asked me to interview people who knew and worked with him, I discovered much of the biographical bits in the book. Thus, I had to determine where this “real” material fit and gracefully insert it, leading to various modifications because of the way this material from interviews altered what I’d written about his work. I did find that the biographical material, as it revealed some unpleasantness, was rather unsettling, but I’m glad I encountered it. I do believe that the interviews and other modifications make it a stronger book by relating his life to his very personal-seeming radio style.
Perishable: There's mention in your book of his son, Randall Shepherd, working in the same building as his father, who had long since abandoned the family. Having spoken with both his son and his daughter, Adrian, did you get the sense there is any affinity or appreciation for his work from his children, or has the fact he had little to do with them or their mother superseded his genius in their minds?
Bergmann: Randall Shepherd is a sensitive, articulate guy who had wanted to write about his father, but apparently he’d found it too emotionally difficult except in a couple of short pieces he did. I feel lucky that he had thought about the material and was thus able to respond so well to my questions, most of which were through email correspondence. Adrian had found it even more difficult to accept her father’s poor behavior, but, as I describe in my book, she did come to some sort of acceptance of him and at the time of the book’s publication, she was listening to and enjoying recordings of Shep’s broadcasts.
Perishable: Shepherd's work spanned many disciplines: from radio, to books, to television work, to writing screenplays. You interviewed friends and coworkers from every stage of his career; can you offer any insight into why Jean was so flippant about disassociating himself from his previous work?
Bergmann: Jean was very resentful that radio as a medium he’d loved and which had such possibilities for him and others, had failed to continue providing the opportunities for him to fulfill himself artistically. Then WOR chose to change formats and cancel his radio career and those of several other major, longtime broadcasters a bit before he was ready to make the final decision himself. That his fans continued to focus on his past radio work instead of sufficiently appreciating the new artistic projects that were occupying his heart and soul was to him good cause to become hostile when his radio work was mentioned. It rubbed salt in his wounds and denied his then-current achievements.
Perishable: As a follow-up, I can recall numerous instances where Shepherd claims he was brought to New York and WOR by an agent keen on getting him work on Broadway opposed to on radio, disregarding the fact he'd worked heavily on the radio in markets like Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Even in one his last interviews with Alan Combes in the '90s he claimed radio was but a steppingstone to greater pursuits. Was it merely that he felt pigeonholed by his cult status as a radio personality/inventor of talk radio or had he outgrown the medium as a means of storytelling?
Bergmann: The chronology of his arriving in New York and how he began on WOR as it related to his other media possibilities (such as the “Tonight Show” sequence of events) seem clearly to indicate that radio, not TV or the stage, was what drew him to the Big Apple. There is even a major story he told on radio that indicates the undeniable pull that New York radio had had on him when he worked in the hinterlands. I quote some of it my book: He had the opportunity to manage radio stations in Alaska and three of his fellow broadcasters say, “If you go anywhere, man, the only place to go—New York! I mean, the Big Apple—that’s the big time!” and Shepherd says to them, “You’re right!
Shepherd never got over his resentment over how radio mistreated him in the final years and he never was reconciled to having people remind him of that past. He liked what he did later and he wanted accolades for that more than for his past. He always said that he looked forward, not backward in his life.
Perishable: I grew up reading Shepherd's first books, In God We Trust: All Other Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters. To me they represent the pinnacle of his storytelling abilities, largely honed on his radio program. Where do you feel Shepherd ranked his books in lieu of his expansive creative output?
Bergmann: Because Shepherd more than once on the radio commented on how important the written word had been in his youth, and how important all through his life, I believe he was always proud of his published work. I’m sure it was why he insisted on referring to his book of linked short stories, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, as a “novel.”
Perishable: I know Jean wanted to be discussed in the same manner as one talks about Mark Twain and only in later years came to acknowledge that he would be forever wed to the movie A Christmas Story. Though he had a few movies produced for PBS, do you feel he was pleased by the final product of the movie?
Bergmann: Shepherd was certainly very happy about his movies. As he wrote in a book commemorating
the twentieth anniversary of Videography, a magazine for the professional video production industry, “But when I’m asked what I’ve enjoyed most, I must say big-screen movies beat them all.” He loved to hear the audience laugh at the humor in his movies. I don’t know specifically what he felt about A Christmas Story, but I know that, although I didn’t like it much at first, after watching it many times, I now consider it a masterpiece.
Perishable: Jean Shepherd's wit and comedic sensibilities seem to have been more influential--I'm thinking of far flung personalities from Jerry Seinfeld to Keith Olbermann--than appreciated today. How do you think he would have assessed his legacy as it stands?
Bergmann: Despite all those in the media who were obviously influenced by his work, it doesn’t measure up to what he felt was his rightful place as a major American creative force.
Perishable: I know that you're currently at work on another book about Jean Shepherd. Curious to know why you feel compelled to write a second volume about him and what the book may entail?
Bergmann: I knew that as people encountered my book Excelsior, You Fathead! many would emerge with previously unknown material. Not only that, but I’ve quested onward and upward on my own. My main project has been the gathering of this new material and my further ideas for my follow-up book on Shepherd. I’ve incorporated it and other unpublished material about him into a format that conforms to the organization of the first book, and I’ve written it in a way that illustrates my quests as a Shep enthusiast (aka Shep-cuckoo) to locate Shepherd’s earliest nightly New York broadcasts, and which details my picaresque encounters with much unexpectedly important and fascinating information. The manuscript is nearly ready to submit to publishers.
Among the subjects included:
- Extensive written and telephone comments to me about Shepherd and his work from his third wife, actress Lois Nettleton.
- Letters from Leigh Brown, Shepherd’s producer and fourth wife, regarding her early relationships with Shel Silverstein and with Shepherd, and her intensive fascination with Shepherd’s mind and body. The letters, written in 1960-’61 to her best friend, describe her emotional turmoil and then successful maneuvering to steal him away from his wife, Lois Nettleton (Miss Chicago of 1948).
- An interview with an early romantic interest of Shepherd’s, whom I refer to as “The Vampire Lady,” that led to a search for Shep’s earliest New York broadcasts. Through talking with graphic novelist Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and working with his wife/collaborator, Joyce Brabner, we searched for Shep’s early broadcasts, ending with the probability that the missing tapes are lost in the underground vaults of some middle-European Dracula Museum.
- Shepherd’s real attitude toward his highly regarded kid stories and his 45-minute radio broadcasts.
- The meaning of his Sesame Street animated cartoon, “Cowboy X,” (narration, adult male and female and kid voices all by Shepherd) and its significance to his entire career.
- Excerpts from a three-hour recorded discussion with ardent Shep fan, lead singer/songwriter of “Twisted Sister,” Dee Snider.
- The complete script of my full-length, one-man play about Shepherd, which had a couple of performances in a tiny theatre on Long Island, and for which I’m eager to find other venues.
Perishable: Has interviewing so many people who both knew and worked with Jean given you any profound insight into what drove this intensely gifted man to work so tirelessly for the better part of his life in any medium that would accommodate his abilities?
Bergmann: I simply believe that Jean Shepherd was a great creative force in many media, and like other driven artists in whatever field, he did what he did out of intense feelings of power, pleasure, and ego. He wanted it all, including widespread recognition for his art.
Perishable: He spent the last years of his life--after the passing of his fourth wife, Leigh Brown--in relative seclusion on Sanibel Island, Florida. What role do you feel Leigh played in facilitating his work?
Bergmann: Leigh Brown seemed to be the force that supported, protected, and held him together. She was his enabler. In my book I quote Laurie Squire, Jean and Leigh’s friend and their radio producer for his last year on WOR (1977): “She could hold her own! The power behind the throne. He was the creative genius. She knew how to operate in the real world.” He died just a bit over a year after she did. It seemed as though he couldn’t live without her. By the way, not many people are aware that Shepherd was married four times, not just three. There was a short and mysterious marriage (known of by his son, Randall, and by Lois Nettleton). Second, he was married to Joan Warner, mother of his children Randall and Adrian, third to actress Lois Nettleton, and finally to Leigh Brown.
Perishable: How far along are you on your current book and do you have a publisher committed to releasing it?
Bergmann: I’m waiting for some final private editing of my manuscript before submitting it to my publisher or to whatever publisher might like to look at it. I’m also hoping that a proposed, major documentary on Shepherd, with a major role for me, would greatly enhance the prospects of this book in finding a publisher and a market far greater than simply that of Shepherd’s many enthusiastic fans.
Perishable: If there's one story, radio program, drawing, monologue, or secondhand recollection about Shepherd that crystalizes his genius to you, what would it be?
Bergmann: Three of his monologues stand out in my mind, and I discuss them in Excelsior, You Fathead! The first is the 1957 excerpt from his four hour Sunday night programs in which he is in his early, laid-back mode, building up to his jazzy interaction with a Duke Ellington song, “Blues I Love to Sing.” I still find the few pieces of his early, longer-form work to be examples of his most innovative style, all of which we have far too little to listen to. The second is from his 45-minute programs, a finely honed broadcast about “being a sorehead,” and how there will always be some people who can outperform you, no matter how good you are. The third is his extraordinary elegy broadcast when he got back on the air after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This melds together his introspective style, his insights into our common humanity, the nature of America at the time, and his acute ability to recognize the seemingly insignificant detail that says more than anyone else would have imagined. He had that whole horrible weekend in November, 1963 to feel and think about it, and though it still must have been improvised, it was so well-composed that I wouldn’t change a word of it!
Perishable: I've visited Jean's boyhood home in Hammond, Indiana--a locale he almost exclusively used to weave his stories--on several occasions and have talked with local residents about Shepherd. I can't help but think Shepherd would get a real kick out of their largely indifferent/unaware view of his cultural status. Would you agree with that assessment?
Bergmann: I think, Ryan, he would have been both amused and sardonic in his attitude.
Perishable: Shepherd loved the work of men like Robert Service and George Ade opposed to contemporaries like J.D. Salinger and Woody Allen. Can you think of instances where he was capable of acknowledging the work of his peers?
Bergmann: I can’t think of instances of his praising his contemporaries. He did have good words to say about some of his friends such as Shel Silverstein and a couple of comics, but most of those he admired came a bit before him, such as Jack Benny.
Perishable: What is it about Jean Shepherd after all these years that keeps you so engrossed in his legacy?
Bergmann: His mind is a fascinating thing to hear at work, his improvisations tickling the listener’s ears and sensibilities. He continues to entertain me and make me laugh. And that’s just his radio shows. New and fascinating material continues to emerge! New aspects of his creative talents. Recently I’ve written a couple of articles about different areas of his interests. An essay about his drawing of a Bugatti limousine and devoting a broadcast to a Bugatti sports car, the rare and transcendent 57SC Atlantic, described by some who, considering it the finest, wondrously-strange of vehicles, refer to it as “evil” and “wicked.” The American Bugatti Club expects to publish my piece in their magazine in September. Another article I’ve based on his almost unknown ink drawings, many of which have recently emerged from Lois Nettleton’s closet after her death last year. An article about his ambiguous relationship to nostalgia is scheduled for some future date by a nostalgia magazine. Another article almost ready to seek publication is about Shepherd’s many forays into the joys and significance of baseball. For me, Shepherd’s world is ever-expanding and ever-fascinating.
I also write all the program notes for a continuing series of CD sets of nearly unheard syndicated recordings Shepherd made in 1964-1965, done exactly as he did his WOR broadcasts, but the audios of which were lost in a warehouse for decades. They’re being produced in 4-and 8-CD boxed sets. There are over 250 of the shows and so far only 40 have appeared, released by www.radiospirits.com, with another 8 almost ready to go. I get to be nearly the first to hear them. It’s almost like turning on the radio nightly when Shepherd was there, live and funny as hell!
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