About the Book by Robert Greenfield Titled “True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Brooke Allen headlined “‘True West’ Review: A Life of Sam Shepard, Man and Myth”:

Though he died less than six years ago, at the age of 73, there have already been three biographies of the playwright-actor Sam Shepard. Now we have a fourth: “True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times,” by the veteran rock ’n’ roll reporter Robert Greenfield.

Without laying much blame on Shepard’s previous biographers, Mr. Greenfield implies that they swallowed their subject’s self-mythologizing a little too readily: “When it came to making public statements about his life in many of the interviews he did over the course of his long and illustrious career, Sam Shepard could often be the very definition of an unreliable narrator. . . . [He] spent a good deal of time developing a persona so brilliantly crafted that few were ever able to see the man behind it.”

As a corrective, Mr. Greenfield relies heavily on the longtime correspondence Shepard carried on with his best friend, the actor Johnny Dark, in which, the author says, Shepard was able to be honest about his deepest feelings.

Shepard makes an apt subject for myth. His raw and precocious talent apparently came out of nowhere. When he arrived in New York in 1963, at 19, he had hardly ever been outside of California; within a couple of years he was turning out plays by the dozen, and getting them produced. And then there were his looks. “You had to experience him,” one friend remembers. “He really was like the best-looking man you had ever seen in your life. . . . It was like Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper rolled into one walking into the room.”

Shepard went to some pains to develop a Woody Allen-esque technique of backing into the spotlight. He craved fame (“He had a great need to be adored, and applauded,” Mr. Dark says) while fully understanding its corrosive dangers. These conflicting attitudes were characteristic of a personality so complex that even friends couldn’t predict whether they were going to get the genial Jekyll or the often alcohol-fueled Hyde. And he never seemed quite sure of what he wanted from life. “On one hand he’s got that macho cowboy exterior,” said one associate. “On the other he’s got that suburban bourgeois mentality.”

Without lacking respect for Shepard’s talent or personal struggles, Mr. Greenfield deconstructs a few of the Shepard myths. For instance, the one about his youth on a remote avocado ranch: In reality, both his parents taught at elite high schools, living in Pasadena, Calif., during Sam’s early childhood and later in a family home that, though its yard did contain avocado trees, was only “about a half mile from downtown Duarte . . . still essentially suburban.” His father, Samuel Shepard Rogers, was not yet the violent alcoholic who would be such a central element in his son’s oeuvre.

As a high-schooler, young Sam—or Steve, as he was known at the time—participated in the Future Farmers of America and envisioned a future as “a veterinarian with a flashy station wagon & a flashy blonde wife, raising German Shepherds in some fancy suburb.” While he would later say he didn’t attend college, he in fact spent two years at Mount San Antonio College, where he joined the golf team and the drama club.

In New York, Shepard’s high-school pal Charles Mingus III introduced him to the scene and helped him get a job busing tables at the Village Gate. Mr. Mingus, whom Mr. Greenfield interviewed for the biography, rather acidly contradicts a number of Shepard’s accounts and opines that Steve Rogers changed his name to Sam Shepard during the trial of the infamous murderer Dr. Sam Sheppard because it was “excellent publicity. The guy I knew would exploit that.”

Plays seemed to flow out of the young Shepard; they were staged in many of the avant-garde venues of the period, places like La MaMa, Caffe Cino, Theatre Genesis, the Open Theatre. It was quickly apparent that he was doing something new, in a forceful violation of the realistic mode of the period. He gave the impression, as Edward Albee remarked in a Village Voice review, that he was “inventing drama as a form” with each new play.

Mr. Greenfield is at his best describing the artistic ferment of the 1960s and what John Lahr calls “the fractious early seventies,” when Shepard finally took a play uptown. It was, Mr. Lahr says, “a shocking thing for the darling of downtown theatre to cross the Maginot Line of Fourteenth Street.” With his instinct for putting himself at the eye of a cultural hurricane, Shepard spent several months shacked up with Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel, despite the fact that he had been married to O-Lan Jones for a year and had a new baby. (“Me and his wife still even liked each other,” Ms. Smith would later say. “I mean, it wasn’t like committing adultery in the suburbs or something.”)

Shepard won the first of his 10 Obies at 23. A year later, the director Michelangelo Antonioni brought him to Rome to work on the screenplay for “Zabriskie Point” (1970). This and subsequent screenwriting gigs did not go well. In the movie business, Shepard would have more success as an actor than a writer, although none of his screen performances—with the exception of his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” (1983)—was outstanding. But such gigs paid the bills.

Shepard’s development from downtown darling to Great American Playwright began with “Curse of the Starving Class” (1977), with its “archetypal figures,” Mr. Greenfield writes, “who have lost their way in an American dream that has long since gone seriously wrong,” and its powerful whiffs of O’Neill and Beckett. “Buried Child,” a year later, would be the first Off-Off-Broadway play to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. “True West” (1980), “Fool for Love” (1983) and “A Lie of the Mind” (1985) continued the theme of the dysfunctional American family playing out its dark destiny. “I find destiny and fate far more plausible than all this psychological stuff,” Shepard once stated—another shift from midcentury dramatic sensibilities.

Shepard’s perennial harping on pet subjects like the nature of American masculinity could get tedious. In fact, this particular subject might be the first aspect of his plays to have become dated; he had a lucky break, I think, in dying a few months before #MeToo appeared. “It was Sam’s way to dictate to women and they tended to go along with it,” a longtime friend told Mr. Greenfield. Had he lived on, he might well have become a poster boy for toxic masculinity.

But this would not have been fair, for the women in his life seem to have understood the man in full. O-Lan Jones and Shepard’s longtime partner, Jessica Lange, declined to be interviewed by Mr. Greenfield, surely a sign of loyalty. Sam Shepard does not emerge from these pages as an especially likable man; his tortured plays came from a tortured sensibility. Mr. Greenfield honors his subject’s memory by refraining from easy judgments.

Brooke Allen writes frequently for the Journal and other publications and teaches at the Bennington Prison Education Initiative. She is currently ghost-writing a show-business memoir.

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