Shel Silverstein was not an easy man, but he was a passionate and spectacular man and artist.
Now, eight years after his death, Mr. Silverstein’s intense, very private life and creative genius is chronicled in the biography A Boy Named Shel by Lisa Rogak, recently released by St. Martin’s Press. The book is drawing intense and pasionate reactions, Ms. Rogak says.
“In the back of my mind I was expecting some reaction from 20 and 30 year olds but not as vociferous as its been,” Ms. Rogak said in an interview. “A lot of them grew up with Where The Sidewalk Ends, and this book kind of burst the bubble of their childhood hero. For their parents and for people who grew up in the fifties and sixties there is more identification and perhaps some simpatico with Mr. Silverstein’s lifestyle. They say, ‘Sure, he lived in the Playboy Mansion, those were the times for that.’
“Reviews have been mixed, but a lot of the scathing reviews have come from (Sidewalk generation) reviewers,” the author said.
And for readers with casual knowledge of one of America’s most beloved children’s authors, there will be surprises in this book. For example, you might know that Mr. Silverstein got his real start as an early Playboy magazine cartoonist, maybe even that in 1988 he co-wrote with David Mamet an award-winning movie script for Things Change, was nominated for a songwriting Oscar for the 1990 movie Postcards from the Edge and that he won several Grammys, including for A Boy Named Sue, that he scored the music for four other movies, wrote more than 800 songs, dozens of plays and poems and released more than a dozen albums?
Who also knew this fiercely loyal friend is credited with jumpstarting, redirecting or renuvenating the careers of numerous writers, singers and songwriters as disparate as Jean Shepherd, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare, Dr. Hook and The Irish Rovers?
The book is painstakingly researched, and the content, for this reader, was fascinating. What made Shel run?
Born in 1929 in Chicago of a supportive mother and a father disapproving of young Shel’s artistic bent, Mr. Silverstein spent his nearly 70 years endlessly creating, on the move, never staying in one place or in one relationship. He owned several houses, literally from coast to coast, including a cottage in the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs, but he was just as likely to show up at a friend’s door for a few hours or days, interspersed with longer stays at the Playboy mansions in Chicago and Los Angeles.
During the biggest party era in our republic, the sixties and seventies, he was not a partier, seldom drank and never drugged. He observed and wrote down or sketched what he observed, on paper, tablecloths and on his shirtsleeeves. He did not edit but wrote what came. He did not research. “I never do research,” he told a stuck writer friend. “When you do research, you’re just reading books by people who haven’t done research.”
The subversive children’s author did not suffer fools or boring people and would walk away from a conversation in mid-sentence, though at times his departure was unrelated to the conversation: he had to write down a thought, idea or sketch that had occurred to him.
By the end of this 210 page book, the thought occurs that his non-stop creative process was the medicine that allowed him social connectivity, oxygen for his reality. But who knows? Ms. Rogak knows Mr. Silverstein would have little patience for psyche exploration. “It was partly generational. He believed the work should speak for the man and had no patience for people who go on TV and throw up,” she said.
“In fact, his reticence to discusss or explain himself lived on after him. Several of his closest friends refused to be interviewed. One said Shel threatened to shun him in the hereafter if he did,” she added. What kind of man inspires that kinship after he has died?
Mr. Silverstein was clear about living life on the terms he chose. Readers can do likewise.
In San Francisco two months ago, a new little boy came into the world, into my world as a grandson. On a table behind the snaps and toggles and zips of high-tech baby paraphenalia, a visitor noted the stack of children’s books, waiting for little Miller to be ready for them.
That’s the Shel I choose.