Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd

March 18, 2012 by  

EXCEEugene B. Bergmann has written the first in-depth biography of one of radio’s great personalities and storytellers. Jean Parker Shepherd was raised in Hammond, Indiana, a steel mill town near Chicago. He told wonderful tales of his childhood in Hammond, his time in the Army, and about life in general. Shepherd’s 45 minute daily radio show on New York’s WOR, was almost completely unscripted. He bobbed, weaved, jumped from topic to topic, but by the time the opening chords of the closing theme song started, he had pulled it all back together and completed the story, usually on the very last note of his theme, and did this night after night. Jazz fans know this as riffing.

Heavily influenced by Jack Kerouac, Shepherd adopted that disjointed style but with a sense of humanity to make it appealing to a broader audience. As Shepherd’s career progressed, he began writing short stories that were mostly published in the Village Voice and Playboy magazine. In the 1970s, he briefly wrote a column in Car and Driver magazine, and then began doing productions of some of his short stories on Public TV. By the 80s, he did additional productions on PBS, and finally tied up with movie producer Bob Clark, where he wrote and narrated the classic “A Christmas Story” movie. Those are many of Shepherd’s accomplishments. In private life, he was a totally different person, often difficult to get along with, who abandoned his first wife and children, much as his father did to his family when Shepherd was 12. The book was extensively researched in an effort to discover the complete Jean Shepherd, and for the most part, Bergmann was successful in doing so. The book, at first glance, seems disorganized, until you realize it, too, is a collection of riffs, often disjointed, but a fair representation of the many lives of Jean Shepherd.