Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession
"

 

 

 

Jean Shepherd -- 1921-1999

A Personal Memoir

Ernest Partridge

1999

 

To those who heard his radio program on New York City's WOR during the sixties, there was nothing like it before, during or since.

Five nights a week, from 11:15 to midnight, Jean Shepherd sat alone in the studio and talked to us. No guests, no phone calls, no pre-recorded "features," just Shepherd and occasionally some of his pre-selected background pieces – the "cheap guitar music," or the "gothic music" – over which he told stories of his childhood in Indiana, or his army days at the close of World War II.

As often as the reminiscences, we heard his commentary on ideas, fads, celebrities, politics, the arts and literature, human motivation and posturing, sports, religion – nothing and nobody was immune. He zestfully deflated self-important institutions and celebrities – the New York Times and its Drama Critic, Brooks Atkinson, New York Mayors Robert Wagner and John Lindsay, folks singers Theo Bikel and Joan Baez, writers Norman Mailer and J. D. Salinger. His literary hero was Eugene O'Neill, and he proclaimed that his greatest aspiration was to play the definitive "Hickey" in "The Ice Man Cometh." But that would have been superfluous. Jean Shepherd was "Hickey" – the deflator of impossible dreams who, having tossed us into a cold bath of reality, had the gift to make us laugh at ourselves.

His was an astonishing performance, made all the more so by the appearance of effortlessness. He described himself as a "monologist," and told me once that he regarded those forty-five minutes of air time in much the same way that Picasso looked at an empty canvas: an invitation and a challenge, and entirely his personal responsibility. The closest approximation, in our experience, is Garrison Keilor's "News From Lake Wobegon," on NPR's Prairie Home Companion. But even that comparison does justice to neither Keilor nor Shepherd. Each is unique. And while Keilor's performance lasts about twenty minutes a week before a live audience, Shepherd held forth twice as long every weeknight, alone in his studio. Even so, each performance was new and fresh every night.

His gift for improvisation and spontaneity was extraordinary. On one occasion, just before he was to give a live performance at the Limelight Café in Greenwich Village, he was privately introduced to Lou Gehrig's widow. Whatever he had planned for that evening was set aside. There followed on stage a marvelous story about the time his father took him to Commisky Park to watch the Yankees play the White Sox. Throughout the game, we were told, Shepherd Sr. taunted Gehrig mercilessly from the right field bleachers. In the final inning, Gehrig dropped a towering game-winning home run almost into the lap of Shepherd's father. The Chicago fans were livid – "Now look at what you've done!"

A terrific story. True? Probably not. But so what? Neither is the news from Lake Wobegon or Mark Twain's stories from the Gold Rush. Throughout the telling, Mrs. Lou Gehrig was beaming.

At midnight, immediately following Shepherd's weeknight broadcasts, "Long John Nebel" came on the air at WOR, with a five-hour talk marathon, featuring three to five guests. (In the mid-sixties, Nebel moved over to WNBC). I was a frequent member of Nebel's panel, and told him of my admiration for Shepherd's program. To my great delight, soon thereafter Nebel scheduled us both on one of his programs. That was my first meeting with Jean Shepherd – a night that I will never forget. There followed a hilarious roasting of New York City politicians and celebrities, media poobahs, and pundits.

I recall most vividly Shepherd's tribute to John Kennedy three days after the assassination. He spoke most eloquently about JFK's charisma – he called it "presence," a Show-Biz term – about Kennedy's compassion and devotion to his extended family, and about the conditions of the body-politic that could lead to such a catastrophe. His closing words are etched in my memory: "yes, this has been a terrible weekend," he said. "And I fear that there may be many more to come."

We met several times thereafter and conversed about many things, though "converse" may not be the appropriate word. Like many gifted performers, Jean often found it difficult to step out of the performance mode, so those "conversations" tended to be one-sided. With most individuals, one might be quite peeved at such behavior. With Shepherd, I just felt privileged to be an audience of one.

He was a fountain of words – always engaging, perceptive and brilliant. On a couple of occasions, I called him at the WOR studio just after he signed off at midnight, for just a few words of greeting and congratulation. Ordinary mortals would be ready for a break, after forty-five minutes of uninterrupted monologue. Not Jean Shepherd. A half hour into our conversation, which I had intended to be brief, he was still going strong.

I was not to meet Shepherd again personally after my departure from New York City in 1967, nor was I able to hear any more of those WOR broadcasts. However, I remained acutely interested in his work, in particular his all-too-brief PBS series "Jean Shepherd's America." His best-known work, the movie "A Christmas Story," appeared in 1983. Written and narrated by Shepherd, it is a worthy legacy.

A repetition of a Shepherd-like radio performance today is as unimaginable as the publication of an H. L. Mencken column in today's press. The public lacks the attention span, the interest in ideas, and the toleration for dissent that was extant in the sixties. To be sure, these qualities exist among some of our fellow citizens, but not in sufficient quantity to support a commercial program or to over-ride the objections of the conservative management that controls our media. Instead, "talk shows," absent "the fairness doctrine," have been turned over to the conservative blather of the Limbaughs. What's left for progressive dissent and commentary? The Internet, of course! Is it not just possible that the internet is to TV today, what TV was to radio fifty years ago. If so, there may still be hope.

"The unexamined life," said Socrates, "is not worth living." Likewise, the unexamined culture lacks the capacity for renewal, as the Athenians were to discover to their sorrow soon after they gave the hemlock to Socrates.

And so, from one Gadfly to another: "Here's to you, Jean Shepherd – a Brass Figleegee with Bronze Oak-Leaf Palm."*

You both comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

We will miss you.



* Regarding "the Brass Figleegee:" For those who listened to Jean Shepherd, no explanation is needed. For those who did not, no explanation is possible.

 


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .