Shel games

The great children's poet and adult entertainer Shel Silverstein did it all -- singing jazz songs, hanging with Lenny Bruce, writing plays, drawing cartoons, and living at the Playboy Mansion.

Published April 20, 2005 9:08PM (EDT)

When I was growing up in the suburban New Jersey of the '60s, going to diners with my father was my favorite thing in the world. Once we settled into the red Naugahyde banquette, I'd order a cheeseburger (regardless of the time of day) and he'd sit across from me, one hand around a cup of Sanka, the other holding a Kent cigarette.

For other kids, the highlight of the meal came with the chance to stand slack-jawed in front of the brightly lit glass carousel that displayed a variety of colossal desserts. But for me it was the moment when my father would slide a quarter across the greasy Formica and say I could pick any song I'd like from the chrome jukebox at the end of the booth. I'd grab the coin, spin it into the slot and stand up on the banquette in my Buster Browns, reaching for the wheel that flipped each page of selections with a metallic click.

After years of camping out in establishments along Routes 4 and 17, we had the ritual down pat. We went through the motions at every diner, even though we both knew there was only one song I wanted to hear: "The Unicorn" by the Irish Rovers. At five plays for a quarter, I'd punch in the same letter-number combination -- E-2 or D-4, just like bingo -- five times in a row. My job done, I'd settle back down into my seat and wait for the song to begin, my pulse racing until I'd heard my favorite line from the song: "humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees."

A few of the patrons would inevitably start grumbling around the third or fourth time the song played, but I didn't care. I'd sit with a big grin on my face, my heels kicking the booth to keep time while my half-eaten burger grew cold. All the while, my father sat drinking and puffing, gray tendrils of smoke gathering in patchy clouds above his head.

When I learned that Shel Silverstein had written "The Unicorn," I felt vindicated. Since I was born in 1962, I had always considered myself to be gypped out of the best that American culture had to offer its youth. I was too young for Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers but too old for "Sesame Street" when it debuted in 1969. I and other kids who could already read were presented with the choice of the anemic Electric Company -- Sesame's target audience got Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster while we got a shrill Rita Moreno shrieking Hey you guys! -- or Zoom, the highlight being when Bernadette did her helicopter-arm trick.

Shel Silverstein's children's books seemed to fall into the same missed-the-boat-again category for me. His first book for kids, "Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back," about a lion who takes revenge on hunters, was published in 1963. "The Giving Tree," which tells the story of a tree who gives everything to a boy to help him through his life until she is no more than a stump, appeared the following year. I was too young, and it was too far off the post-JFK assassination radar for most parents to care or even notice. When "Where the Sidewalk Ends," his famous classic of children's poems and doodles, came out in 1974, I was too old.

But in 1969, when "A Boy Named Sue" dominated Top 40 radio, and when Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show first appeared in the early '70s, I was the right age. Silverstein wrote both the infamous Johnny Cash song as well as the majority of Dr. Hook's songs. At the time, they were so obviously different from anything else on the radio that they were impossible to ignore.

It seems the ease of traveling between different worlds was the overriding theme of Silverstein's life. Just look at his repertoire: 19 books, 800 songs for adults, 400 published poems for kids, 18 plays, nine original albums, four movie scores and a monthly gig in Playboy that lasted right up until his death. Throughout his life, Silverstein mixed with celebrities from across a broad spectrum of the arts and politics. In fact, he had a kind of Forrest Gump-like gift for being present during some of the most important events of the last half of the 20th century. His career and personal life cut across ethnic and other cultural divisions, and he moved freely between the music, literary, theater and cinematic worlds. In the 1950s, he hung out in the folk music scene in Chicago with Bob Dylan, and he was a close friend of comedian Lenny Bruce's. In fact, he was present at the Chicago folk club called the Gate of Horn when Bruce was arrested in 1962 on obscenity charges.

Still, Silverstein's status as a cultural icon wasn't secured until Reagan-era Democrats discovered his books. They welcomed him with open arms; after all, this was clearly the work of a man whose mind worked differently from most of ours, work that appealed in equal amounts to kids and grownups. However, the question begs to be asked: If those neocon parents -- the first generation to latch onto the idea of aiming a stereo speaker (or arranging Walkman headphones) to blast "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" at the belly of a pregnant woman -- knew the truth about the private life of Shel Silverstein, would they have still bought his books by the millions? After all, old Shel was living on the top floor of Hugh Hefner's fabled mansion, churning out cartoons for Playboy, while penning ditties like "Quaaludes Again" from his 1979 "The Great Conch Train Robbery":

She fumbles and stumbles
And falls down the stairs,
Makes love to the leg of the dining room chair.
She's ready for animals, women or men.
She's doing Quaaludes again.

Now, with the spring 2005 publication of "Runny Babbit," Silverstein's new book of Spoonerisms with a first printing of 500,000 hardcover copies -- none of his children's books has ever been published for the trade in paperback -- it's inevitable that in this age of let-it-all-hang-out biographies and reality TV more than a few readers will start to wonder about the guy behind the books.

Little is known about Silverstein's personal life, for he was an intensely private person. With few exceptions, he stopped doing media interviews after 1975. But perhaps the most surprising fact about the man, who died in 1999 at the age of 68, is that he never wanted to write for children at all.

His friend Tomi Ungerer, a fellow author of children's books, encouraged Silverstein and in fact pestered him for several years before he finally allowed himself to be dragged kicking and screaming to the Harper and Row office of legendary children's editor Ursula Nordstrom. It was probably Nordstrom's admitted preference for publishing "good books for bad children" that finally won him over. Nordstrom would remain his editor until she retired in 1979, though she was understandably often frustrated at Silverstein's inability to concentrate his creative talents in just one area, given his sometimes lengthy gaps between books.

Maybe Silverstein resisted for so long because when it came to dealing with children, he was even crankier than W.C. Fields. Some people mistakenly believe that "Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender Young Minds" was his first book for kids. It was actually a parody of children's alphabet books aimed squarely at adults. However, to some parents the distinction didn't much matter; they viewed the book as doing nothing more than corrupting young minds, and vociferously complained to the publisher about entries that instructed youngsters to eat lollipops before supper, encouraged them to see if a vacuum cleaner could pick up a cat and revealed that the word "quarantine" really means, "Come in kids, free ice cream."

In time, however, he came to view the field as a perfectly acceptable outlet for his talents. He often used one song or poem as the theme for countless variations aimed toward different audiences: a twangy, "my dog died and woman up and left me" PG-rated song for his country fans, a more risquié R-rated version for Playboy readers, and a more sanitized -- but no less entertaining -- G-rated reworking for kids. In the case of the original version of the song "Everybody Got Some but Me," in the December 1966 issue of Playboy, "Some" referred to a sexually transmitted disease, while in the version that appeared in the "Dirty Feet" songbook for kids that came out two years later, "Some" meant the measles.

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Sheldon Silverstein was born on Sept. 25, 1930, the first child of Helen Balkany and Nathan Silverstein, barely a year after the Great Depression had begun. Helen was 34 and Nathan was 39 when they started their family. The older ages of his parents profoundly influenced Shel's childhood; he had to walk on eggshells around the house and tamp down the typical manic energy of a curious young boy. Despite his father's constant exhortations to concentrate on his studies, Shel was not an enthusiastic student, and instead saved his passion for his beloved White Sox. Like other boys, his childhood dream was one day to play for the team; in his teens, he decided that instead of paying to see the team play baseball, he could instead get paid to attend each game by becoming a hot dog vendor.

In 1953, Silverstein was drafted into the Army. While he would later express his gratitude to Uncle Sam for giving him his start in his chosen profession, it's clear that, military orders aside, he enjoyed the travel and exposure to new people and cultures. After his military service ended two years later, Silverstein returned to his native Chicago, where he used his Stars and Stripes clips to pursue freelance work. His cartoons began to appear regularly in Look and Sports Illustrated, where they caught the eye of another Chicago native who happened to be starting a new publishing venture. Hugh Hefner had been planning his new "magazine for men" for a couple of years. Hefner liked what he saw of Shel's work, and felt the cartoons conveyed just the right combination of off-color flair and edginess he was looking for. Silverstein's first cartoon appeared in the March 1956 issue of Playboy.

While other contributors to the magazine were undoubtedly content to stick to one genre -- especially with the fringe benefits of Playboy Mansion parties and access to the Bunnies and Playmates conferred upon contributors -- Silverstein preferred to branch out, though he did live at the mansion for a number of years. His work in a magazine that was nationally visible and instantly controversial provided him with the platform to pursue his broader artistic interests, and not just the quirky cartoons he usually tossed off in 30 minutes or less. While other magazines and publications clamored for his work, Silverstein took advantage of his newfound popularity to pursue the worlds of jazz, folk music, books and theater. Within a few years after his first cartoon appeared in Playboy, Silverstein had produced an album of jazz songs -- all of which he wrote and sang himself -- had published several books for adults, had launched a second series of cartoons for Playboy, and had become a regular on the folk-music scene in New York, Chicago and California.

If you spend enough time with his songs, books, plays and cartoons, you see very quickly see that they all have one thing in common: In Silverstein's work, there is no such thing as a happy ending. In an interview with the New York Times in 1975, he explained that happy endings alienate the child who reads them. "The child asks, Why don't I have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back.

"Fantasy should be presented as fantasy, not a life possibility," he continued, saying that he has always resisted the lies that adults commonly tell children, from Santa Claus to the tooth fairy. He tells a funny, poignant story about the time his then 6-year-old daughter was visiting him in Key West, Fla., and she lost a tooth. As she had been dutifully taught, she put it under her pillow at night. Shel being Shel, he refused to go along because it smacked too much of conformity. When she woke up and saw there was no money under her pillow, she started screaming for what she felt was rightfully hers. He stonewalled for a while, and they both dug in their heels. He broke first. "What am I doing to the kid?" he thought. "All she wants is a lousy quarter." He then grabbed a fistful of pennies from his spare-change jar and threw them at her feet, after which the two of them made an uneasy peace. "Faced with a screaming 6-year-old," he said, "for my own comfort I continue the legend of the tooth fairy."

At the time, he may have been unaware that the anecdote reflected poorly on a popular author of well-loved children's books, or maybe the publisher pointed this out to him after the fact. In any case, it was shortly after this story appeared that Silverstein began to turn down most interviews with the press.

Silverstein was clearly uncomfortable with indulging in the beliefs and customs that mainstream America holds dear, and this naturally extended to his personal life. He rarely stayed with the same woman for more than a month or two, and she was very quickly hustled out the door the first time she began to make demands of him. In Silverstein's view, being tied down to a person, place or thing would interfere with his one great love, the love that would never let him down: his creativity. And that is what he clung to his entire life, from growing up in the Depression to spending the last years of his life in the paradise that was Key West. The work always came first.

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I still get a little jealous of today's 20-somethings and how, given the relative profligacy of Silverstein's children's books  "The Missing Piece," "A Light in the Attic" and "The Missing Piece Meets the Big O" were all published between 1976 and 1981 -- those who grew up during the Reagan administration regard Shel as something of a favorite uncle and the savior of many a rough childhood. An informal survey at a bar near Dartmouth, N.H., reveals that both undergrads and graduate students tell stories of spending many late nights listening to a tape of "Where the Sidewalk Ends" -- published in 1974 -- to drown fighting parents. Polling their 40- and 50-something professors about Shel Silverstein most often yielded a blank look.

I used to fall into the latter category as well. But, thank goodness, not anymore.

Today, I listen to "The Great Conch Train Robbery," and it's like listening to an R-rated version of "A Light in the Attic," featuring the stories of adults instead of kids. Yet, the same motivation appears in both: the whacked humor viewed through a gimlet eye, the refusal to look down on the reader or listener, and the knowledge that both kids and adults want to feel like they have some control over their lives and that, every so often, they can get away with something.

And I can still listen to "The Unicorn" five times in a row without getting even close to being sick of it.

By Lisa Rogak

Lisa Rogak is the author of "Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart," a New York Times bestseller.

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