Jean Shepherd Biography

(American Storyteller, Writer, Radio and TV Personality)

Birthday: July 26, 1921 (Leo)

Born In: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Jean Shepherd was an American writer, actor, humorist and a storyteller, best known for narrating and co-writing the film A Christmas Story. Raised in Indiana into a middle-class family, Jean had an average American upbringing. Following his high school graduation, he enrolled in the United States Army during World War II. In 1945, he began his radio career from Indiana at the WJOB radio station. During initial parts of his career, he was constantly fired from radio presenting jobs, owing to his style of talking more and playing less music. Despite facing a risk of failed career, Jean maintained his style and frequently switched between jobs. In the mid-1950s, he joined New York City’s WOR radio station and began his ascension to fame. His style of engaging the audience through humorous storytelling was considered a milestone in radio broadcasting. He told the stories from his childhood and talked about random things such as human nature and life in America and gained a huge fan following. He also worked in television and films, with his most celebrated film work being A Christmas Story, which was based on his childhood stories, narrated by him and written in his books.

Quick Facts

Nick Name: Shep

Also Known As: Jean Parker Shepherd Jr.

Died At Age: 78


Spouse/Ex-: Joan Laverne Warner (m. 1950–1957), Leigh Brown (m. 1977–1998), Lois Nettleton (m. 1960–1967)

father: Jean Shepherd

mother: Anna Shepherd

children: Adrien Shepherd, Randall Shepherd

Born Country: United States

Actors Writers

Died on: October 16, 1999

place of death: Fort Myers, Florida, United States

City: Chicago, Illinois

U.S. State: Illinois

More Facts

education: Indiana University

Childhood & Early Life

Jean Shepherd was born Jean Parker Shepherd Jr., on July 26, 1921, in Chicago, Illinois, to Jean Shepherd Sr. and Anna Shepherd. He grew up with a younger brother named Randy, in East Chicago, Indiana. His father worked in a dairy while his mother was a housewife.

The family eventually moved to Hammond, where Jean graduated from Hammond High School. Following his graduation in 1939, Jean enrolled into Indiana University but he never completed college.

Jean was a big baseball fan and was an ardent supporter of the baseball team Chicago White Sox. During the Second World War, he was in his teen years and he got drafted into the U.S. Army in the Signal Corps. He was discharged from the army following the end of the war and began an extensive career in radio.

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Jean began his radio career in early 1945, working at WJOB radio station, broadcasting from Hammond, Indiana, his hometown. After working there for about a year, Jean moved to Ohio and worked in WTOD. It was also a time of great transition in the American mass media space. Television was taking over the radio as the main source of entertainment and information.

Jean moved to Cincinnati in 1947 to work at the WSAI Radio. There, as opposed to other radio stations, during his spot, Jean talked more and played less music. This was a time when the radio presenters had to work as a DJ and to play music perpetually. But Jean’s way of handling the programme did not sit well with the producers of the show and he was fired within a year of joining the show.

He was then given a spot at the WCKY radio station, for an all-night show. There also, Jean maintained his style of talking more and playing less music. He was warned and when he did not respond to the warnings, he was fired. He later worked at WKRC, where he witnessed the same fate.

However, his style had found a loyal fan-base for him over the years. When his demand increased through the fan letters, WSAI called him back and this time around, he was allowed to speak as much as he wanted about any topic he was interested in. He found a good fan-base among listeners and this time, he lasted on the show for 2 years. He sometimes talked for 2 hours straight.

Hence, he developed his own style of presenting, which eventually made him popular for telling stories and reading poetry on-air. In the mid-1950s, he was hired by the WOR Radio in New York City. He became a popular radio celebrity in New York within a few weeks.

One of his most famous stints working for the WOR radio was a hoax book he mentioned on his show, titled I, Libertine, written by a fake author. Shepherd suggested his listeners visit the bookstores near them and demand the book, which was a New York Bestseller. The booksellers fell into the trap and asked the distributors to supply the copies of the non-existent book. Jean later wrote the book with two other authors.

In 1956, his show faced the risk of cancellation owing to a lack of sponsors. Around the same time, Jean did a commercial for Sweetheart Soap and the soap company decided to sponsor the show. This was accepted by the WOR radio when the news of the show’s planned cancellation reached the public and the radio station got filled with complaints. As the news became public, the show got multiple producers.

In the early 1950s, Jean also wrote many short stories which were semi-autobiographical about his growing up years. He told the stories during his radio programmes, and they were later published in Playboy magazine. In addition, he further wrote many columns for magazines and publications such as Village Voice, Mad Magazine and Car and Driver.

Many of his stories also found their way into his short story collections, titled All Others Pay Cash and The Ferrari in the Bedroom among others.

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In addition to his writing and radio work, he also worked on television and films, starting from the 1950s. After making his acting debut with the 1954 film titled New Faces, he appeared in TV series’ such as NET Playhouse and Jean Shepherd’s America, where he also served as a writer.

Starting from 1971, Jean has worked on many television series’ and films, mostly as a writer. One among his most famous films was A Christmas Story, which is perhaps Jean’s most celebrated work and a cult classic film.

The film is based on Jean’s book In God We Trust, which has several short stories written by Jean about his childhood. However, most of those stories are fabricated. The film, directed by Bob Clark had Jean playing the narrator as the adult Ralphie, the main character.

The film initially witnessed moderate success upon getting released but many critics reviewed the film favourably. Over time the film’s reputation has grown, and it is now regarded as one of the best Christmas movies ever made. Jean further wrote films such as My Summer Story and Babe Ruth.

Jean’s final broadcast for WOR radio station was aired in 1977 and after that, Jean mostly featured in small segments on many radio stations. One of his last radio shows was titled Shepherd’s Pie, which was broadcasted on WBAI in the mid-1990s. In the show, Jean narrated his stories, uncut and uninterruptedly.

Apart from narrating short stories, Jean also made social commentaries about the human condition, the life in New York City etc. However, his most loved programmes were where he provided a humorous and realistic take on life in America in general.

One other feat he was known for was his ability to go on-air without a script. There were shows where he talked non-stop for hours without a script, just based on very small notes that he prepared.

Personal Life & Death

Jean Shepherd remained a very secretive man about his personal life, despite the fact that he talked about his childhood for hours on radio.

He married four times. He first married Barbara Olive Mattoon in 1947 and divorced after a year. He then married Joan Laverne Warner in 1950 and the couple got divorced in 1960. He had two children with Joan. In the same year, he married Lois Nettleton, an actress and the marriage lasted seven years.

In 1977, he married Leigh Brown and remained married to her until her demise in 1998.

While he lived in New York during most of his professional radio years, he settled in Florida in 1980s, where he spent rest of his years.

He passed away on October 16, 1999, from natural causes. He was 78 years old at the time of his demise.

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