The Swimmer Lady

Last week I wrote about my recording session for an adaptation that may or may not ever happen of The Swimmer With a Rope In His Teeth. Now I want to belatedly take note of the passing last April of the woman from whose imagination the book’s title character sprang.

I’m embarrassed to acknowledge that I didn’t post anything about Jeanne Shaffer’s death at the time I learned about it. I’m terrible at composing quickie obits when friends depart, and in the case of Doc Shaffer, her achievements merit better-rounded tributes that I can provide by folks who knew her better than I ever did.

Jeanne and I may have produced a book together, but our actual face-to-face visits were limited to maybe half-a-dozen. The visits we did have were sprinkled across a span of decades, the first of them occurring while I was an undergraduate drama-speech major at Birmingham-Southern College forty years ago.

1967, specifically. Jeanne, a composer and educator whose professional home base was at Huntington College in nearby Montgomery, envisioned an opera based on an allegory she had dreamed up about a swimmer who undertakes the rescue of an entire population of miserable people. Itching to start coming up with music for it, Jeanne was scouting for a librettist she could team up with.

Someone who knew that I was an aspiring playwright told her I might be interested in having a go at it. Ignoring the fact that I was a 23-year-old greenhorn, she chased me down and pitched the project.

I loved Jeanne’s story and spent a few months trying to nail down a proper approach. But although she was unfailingly encouraging throughout that period, I soon realized that I was in over my head. Just because I had written a few student plays and had listened to every musical comedy cast album in the Birmingham Public Library record collection didn’t automatically confer mastery of the opera libretto form. Chastened by my clear inadequacy, I begged off, and Jeanne graciously freed me from my commitment.

That could have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. Fifteen years later I popped back into Jeanne Shaffer’s life full of excitement about an entirely different way to tell her story. Our heroic swimmer, I told her, could be the protagonist not of an opera but of a comic book story. A story told with silhouettes.

(Why silhouettes? Maybe I’ll get into that another time; this blog entry is about Jeanne Shaffer.)

Now some practitioners of the "fine arts" (and Jeanne’s many musical compositions certainly placed her within those circles) might have looked down their noses at the comics form had they been approached with such an impertinent suggestion. But Jeanne had an adventurous streak and was unburdened by artistic snobbery. She was instantly intrigued by the radical recasting of her idea that I was proposing. Soon she was a certified enthusiast, and her enthusiasm persisted through the more than twenty additional years it took me to complete my adaptation, which mutated early on from a comic book story into a stand-alone book.

If Jeanne had been a more controlling storyteller she might have kept me on a tighter leash as I added my own touches to her fable and revved up its level of satire. But she rolled with the punches, paying me the compliment of trusting me to pretty much have my way with her tale.

Our only creative disagreement during Swimmer‘s germination was resolved almost as soon as it appeared. Between the time of her story’s first telling in 1967 and my re-entry into her life in the mid-’80s, Jeanne’s natural generosity of spirit had led her to attach a slightly more hopeful conclusion to her story. I urged her to reconsider. I wanted to confront readers uncompromisingly with her tale’s darker implications and make them deal with it. Our title character may have been propelled by merciful impulses, I acknowledged, but the book itself needed to be merciless.

Mercilessness doesn’t come easily to gracious southern women, but Jeanne saw my point and let me restore her fable’s original ending.

You’d think that our decades-long marathon of creative cooperation and mutual appreciation would have left me more familiar with all aspects of Jeanne Shaffer’s life and personality than it did. Fact is: the ins and outs of Swimmer dominated most of our conversations, whether in person or on the phone. Anything else I’ve learned about her very interesting life history has been absorbed in chance fragments and on the fly.

I did learn that she was a former child actress in the movies. How cool is that? (As "Jeanne Ellis" she played Jeanette MacDonald’s childhood self in Girl of the Golden West.) She toured for five years with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra beginning when she was eleven — an unusual entry to find in the résumé of a cultured Montgomery Episcopalian, I would say — and I learned just now from her entry in the online listing Classical Composers that she sang with Grace Moore on the Lux Radio Theater. (Hey, my brother and I used to lie awake at night listening to the Lux Radio Theater in Springville during the ’50s. I gather we were twenty years too late to catch one of Jeanne’s performances, unfortunately.)

Jeanne enjoyed a 35-year career as an educator and for thirteen years headed the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Huntington. And long after her Lux days she became a radio personality again via the Southeastern Public Radio Network, hosting a weekly program on women’s music called Eine Kleine Frauenmusik.

Years ago I asked Jeanne if recordings of her music existed and she directed me to a CD of organ performances by Frances Norbert called Music She Wrote: Organ compositions by Women , which includes selections composed by Jeanne along with the work of others (most of it downloadable from the link above). I’m listening to her contributions to that CD as I write this.

The liner notes of the Norbert CD reveal that Jeanne wrote three musicals in collaboration with her distinguished husband Col. Robert S. Barmettelor. I wish I had known about that when the two of them invited me to dinner in 2002 after driving from Montgomery to hear me read selections from Stuck Rubber Baby and Wendel All Together at a Unitarian Church in Birmingham. I would have prodded them for gossip. I love hearing backstage theatre stories!

I gather that late in her career Jeanne must have played an important cheerleading role for female composers through her web site — a site that Google apparently thinks is still alive but that I’ve had no luck accessing this week, which makes me think it did not survive its founder. (If you have better luck than I did, let me know.)

It doesn’t surprise me that teaching, mentoring, and helping other creative people was a strain that ran through the long, productive life that Jeanne led, since even though I personally experienced only a small sampling of her many facets, being giving was the tack she reflexively took with me. Who was I, anyway? An openly gay cartoonist who had gained his chops in underground comix whom she had previously experienced only as a green college-age playwriting wannabe who couldn’t get his act together, materializing out of nowhere after a decade-and-a-half of non-contact to announce that Hey, you oughta be in comics!

"OK," she said. "Put me in comics."

She continued her pattern of givingness by allowing me a huge degree of creative latitude as I expanded and reshaped her story into something very different in its details from the one she first imagined, but one that still had the same concerns about human folly that she had originally invested it with. At least I hope it did. Jeanne never hinted that it didn’t.

The Swimmer lady is gone now, and I’ll never get a chance to ask her what Jeanette MacDonald was really like. But we came away from our three decades of glancing interactions with a book to show for it that has both of our names on the cover.

How cool is that?!

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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