Some people think he was the finest American humorist since Mark Twain. Of course Jean Shepherd has some mighty stiff competition—Will Rogers, Damon Runyon, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Kurt Vonnegut, Molly Ivins, and the man most directly beholden to him, Garison Keillor—but he is in the race with bookies taking short odds.
For a man who mined his own life for the inspiration of some of his most famous work, Shepard’s early life and later personal one are somewhat shrouded in mystery. And he tried hard to keep it that way. Likewise for a man who celebrated a somewhat quirky family life, he was miserable in creating one for himself.
Shepherd was born on July 26, 1921, but his family soon moved to Hammond, Indiana, which would become the Hohman of his radio broadcasts, short stories and films. His father Jean Sr. was a cashier of the local Borden Milk dairy, a low level white collar job that elevated his status and income slightly above the mill workers and factory hands of the steal town. He also kept working through the Depression assuring the family, which included a younger brother, of a moderate middle class life.
As a boy young Jean was mesmerized by the programs on the cathedral-style console radio that was the family’s prized possession and the center of their lives as they sat around the front room every night after dinner. Jean re-lived the stories in his play and as he grew older even became interested in the technical side of broadcasting. While still in Hammond High School young Gene studied for and got his Amateur Radio Operators License at age 15. He was a life-long Ham Radio operator and as an adult was a leading promoter of the hobby.
Shepherd’s passion for radio followed him into World War II service in the Army Signal Corps.
Either during or shortly after the war Shepherd had a brief, disastrous marriage. No official records of the marriage have been found and the woman’s name is unknown, but family members including his estranged son Randall and third wife, actress Lois Nettleton confirmed that there was one.
Shepherd began his radio career at WSAI in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1948. He began “spinning the dials” as an engineer but soon found his way on the air, at first as an emergency fill-in. Honing his skills he worked his way into regular time slots. From 1950-53 he had a late night show on KYW in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He brought his show back to Cincinnati where it was broadcast on WLW a leading station which could be heard by broadcast executives in New York. They were intrigued by his unique style—improvised stories of his childhood mixed with a touch of political satire, zany gags which often involved his loyal listeners, and reading poetry, especially Robert Service Yukon ballads. The show as a huge local hit. While in Cincinnati he also hosted a local Television show called Rear Bumper.
In 1950 Shepherd married for a second time to Joan Laverne Warner. Son Randall was born in ’51 and daughter Adrien shortly after the couple was divorced in 1957. For years he refused to acknowledge paternity of Adrien and was estranged from his son.
In 1956 NBC TV executives lured Shepherd to New York City where he was led to believe that he was the leading candidate to replace Steve Allen on the Tonight Show. He made appearances with Allen and during the interim period after his departure tried out on the air with Ernie Kovacs as his co-host. Let that sink in and imagine the future of late night TV in their hands.
As Shepherd later told the story, he was virtually guaranteed the job, but because of contractual obligations were obliged to offer it first to Jack Paar who surprised them by accepting. This may or may not be entirely accurate. The episode, however, soured Shepherd on television, a medium which he would often savage in his satire from then on.
But Shepherd caught on with an overnight show on New York’s WOR when the TV gig fell through. The show was an immediate audience favorite. In addition to his usual repertoire of improvised stories—his engineers confirmed that he worked without a script or with the barest of notes—there were those elaborate gags.
The most famous came after he discovered that the prestigious New York Times Best Seller List was based not just on actual sales, but also on requests for a book at select city bookstores. Shepherd concocted an entirely fictional novel, I, Libertine by a supposedly famous 18th century author Frederick R. Ewing. He had listeners flood the bookstores with requests for a new edition of the supposed classic. He and fans salted the local literary press with items about the book to make it look even more legitimate. And sure enough, it showed up on the List. The stuffy Times was mightily embarrassed.
Paperback publisher Betty Ballantine decided to make the most out of it and commissioned Shepherd and science fiction heavyweight Theodore Sturgeon to write the book. Frank Kelly Freas the leading American sci-fi illustrator did the memorable cover. Although the 35 cent paperback never mate the Times list on its own, it has become a cult classic in its own right.
Shepherd was increasingly in conflict with his bosses. The very success of the show loaded it down with advertisers and the frequent interruptions interfered with his rambling stories. He asked engineers to clump all of the ads together at the end of the show, a major no-no, or worse just ran over the time allotted for them so that they never made it on the air at all. Add sales naturally dwindled and WOR threatened to cancel the show after less than a year on the air.
Before he went off the air Shepherd improvised a comic, conversational ad for Sweetheart Soap, which was not a sponsor. Irate listeners flooded the station with protest on word of their favorite show’s eminent demise and Sweetheart soap was so impressed by the fake ad, that they signed on as principle sponsor. The result was that instead of pre-recorded spots, or spots that had to be read slavishly from the script, Shepherd was able to move them seamlessly into the program, which influenced generations of broadcasters.
As Shepherd’s popularity in New York grew, so did other opportunities. A huge jazz buff, he frequently hosted concerts in the area and recorded spoken word contributions to albums by Charles Mingus and others. He began to take his show on the road, broadcasting live on Saturday nights from the Limelight Cafe in Greenwich Village. He also did live shows on college campuses, and eventually at such prestige venues as Carnegie Hall and Town Hall.
His broadcasts also had memorable moments connected to history. In 1963 he broadcast an account of his participation of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. A few months later he did a legendary show the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Now in addition to then beloved nostalgia pieces, the show contained more pointed satire, particularly at American materialism and corporate exploitation.
In the late ‘50’s Shepherd collaborated with close chums from the Greenwich Village scene, Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and Nettleton on a popular cabaret review, Look, Charlie. He wed Nettleton in 1960. The couple stayed together until their divorce in 1967. When he moved out, she retained a large archive of his work, including unpublished manuscripts and drawings.
The demand for print versions of Shepherd’s stories became irresistible. When Hugh Hefner offered him a regular forum in Playboy he began to re-craft his radio tales into short stories. His special talent, like Twain’s, was in keeping the conversational style of his own voice. Reading them was like listening to the best story teller you ever heard spinning yarns on the barstool next to you.
The stories were anthologized in hugely popular collections—In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters, The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and A Fistful of Fig Newtons.
By the late 70’s he was growing bored with the nightly grind. He thought of himself now as mostly a writer. He also had admissions to bring his stories to the screen. To the distress of his fans, Shepard’s last WOR broadcast was in 1977. He limited his radio appearances to brief guest spots on other shows until he came to public radio station WBAI FM in the ‘90’s for Shepherd’s Pie a weekly Sunday night program where he could read his stories uninterrupted.
As he was leaving WOR, he took with him his last producer, Leigh Brown who he married in 1977. She became a frequent collaborator on his new ventures in television and movies.
He was the writer and narrator of the show Jean Shepherd’s America on Boston Public Television station WGBH and later took his Shepherd’s Pie to the New Jersey public radio network. Eventually he was writing and producing Public TV dramatic programs based on his stories including The Phantom of the Open Hearth, The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski, and The Great American Road-Racing Festival, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss.
Of course he is most famous for A Christmas Story, the little 1983 film, almost ignored when it first came out, that has become the most beloved holiday movie of all time and an annual tradition in millions of American films. Narrated by Shepherd, the film is one of the rare ones that seem fresh and funny no matter how often it is seen.
Ten years later Shepherd revisited the family for a second film, It Runs in the Family released on DVD as My Summer Story. The new film featured Charles Grodin as The Old Man, Mary Steenbergen as the mother, and Kieran Culkin as Ralphie. Despite praise for Shepherd’s narration, the film was a critical and box office failure. It was a major disappointment to Shepherd who was never again able to get a film project to the big screen.
By the late ‘90’s Shepherd, beset with diabetes and heart problems, had retired in seclusion to Sanibel Island, Florida. His weight ballooned and his mobility was limited. His loyal wife Leigh tenderly cared for him until her death in 1997. Shepherd followed on October 16, 1999. He was still un-reconciled with his children.
Next month a new collection of Shepherd’s stories, previously unseen tales of his time in the Army, will be published for the first time. The manuscripts were retrieved from Nettleton’s collection and edited by Shepherd’s biographer, Eugene B. Bergmann. I am sure that many of his devoted fans are itching to get their hands on Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles