Most of us are familiar with Shel Silverstein as a children’s author, as the man who penned such childhood classics as Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree. From his bald, bearded photo on the back of said volumes you might guess that Silverstein was an eccentric kindergarten teacher or some kind of Beat poet who grew his own vegetables.
However, globe-trotting, womanizing millionaire would be closer to the mark.
A Boy Named Shel, by Lisa Rogak, hit stores on Tuesday. The book isn’t particularly well-written, but it isn’t poorly written either. It is best described as a well-researched, matter-of-fact account of an extremely interesting life, and the subject matter is what makes it a fun read.
The first few chapters outline Silverstein’s childhood. He was the only son of a hard-working immigrant father who wanted the future famous author to put down his “pointless doodles” and work in the family business.
The first indication that Silverstein was not destined to lead an ordinary life came during his military career. His first editor from Stars and Stripes said this about Silverstein: “He was an Army corporal and perhaps the worst soldier in the history of armed might, down through the ages.”
However, he managed to convince his superiors to allow him to roam around Japan looking for fodder for his cartoons, which were a wildly popular addition to the English language Tokyo Weekender and the military paper Stars and Stripes.
His cartoons from that era were eventually organized into a volume and published as Grab Your Socks! One cartoon depicts an Army lieutenant at home for the weekend, looking at his wife while she holds out their baby in a diaper. The caption read: “I want that safety pin to SHINE!”
After coming home from the army, Silverstein struggled for a period, looking for work as a cartoonist. He had moved back in with his parents, and his father put significant pressure on him to give up art and “get a real job.” Silverstein was inching ever closer to despair when he sold some of his work to a little publication called Playboy. At the time, Hugh Hefner was doing the layout on his kitchen table in a silk smoking jacket, a fact that did not instill Silverstein with much confidence.
Hefner brought him on as a full-time writer and sent him cavorting about the globe to write a series of travelogues. Over time the popularity of Playboy skyrocketed – and so did Silverstein’s fame.
Having gotten in with Playboy on the ground floor, Silverstein had first dibs on the Chicago mansion’s Red Room whenever he was in town. A plaque above the doorbell read: “If you don’t swing, don’t ring.” This pretty much sums up most of Silverstein’s adult life.
He was bearded, bald, unkempt and scary, but he was also never without a Playboy bunny on his arm.
“Women just flocked to Shel,” Hefner said. “He knew his way around a skirt.”
The biography has a few pages of photos of Silverstein and Dustin Hoffman during the shooting of a movie. Each of the captions reads: “Shel, Dustin and two unidentified women.”
Throughout his life, Silverstein was a wanderer. He was known to get up in the middle of a dinner or a party, grab his knapsack and head to the airport, disappearing for months at a time. He had a life-long habit of maintaining more than one residence at a time, among which were a houseboat in California, a cabin in Martha’s Vineyard and a house in Key West.
He was also a prolific worker. He produced 10 books and collections of poetry for children. It was his private assertion that the books were for adults and disguised as children’s books. “If you want to write for kids you’ve got to start with Charlotte’s Web and Stewart Little,” Silverstein said. “Hell, a kid’s already scared of being small and insignificant. So what does E.B. White give them? A mouse who’s afraid of being flushed down the toilet and a spider who’s getting ready to die.” He also wrote numerous plays and hundreds of songs, some of which he sang and recorded himself.
Ever heard of a little country ditty called “A Boy Named Sue?”
Johnny Cash didn’t write it, it was Silverstein. His influence on American music, art and theater was significant, and his life was an affirmation of the Renaissance Man ideal. Silverstein died quietly of a heart attack in 1999, but his work and his memory will live on for a long time to come.
I would wait for used copies of the biography to start popping up on Amazon, but A Boy Named Shel is definitely a worthwhile read.