8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't 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,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

12 Surprising Facts About Evelyn Waugh

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Evelyn Waugh was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. From his early satires, like Decline and Fall, to his more serious works, like Brideshead Revisited, Waugh is beloved by both literary critics and readers. But many readers don’t know much about Evelyn Waugh, the man, who was born in London in 1903. Here are 12 facts about his colorful life and work.

1. Evelyn Waugh's first name caused confusion.

Waugh was often mistaken in print for a woman, thanks to his first name. In 2016, a TIME poll even named him the 97th "most read female author in college classes," a mistake that inevitably went viral.

This wasn’t even the strangest incident. When Waugh arrived in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea) in the 1930s, on assignment from the Daily Mail, he found that the Italian military's occupation of the city of Asmara had resulted in a population of seven white women and 60,000 men. Waugh's Italian host was ecstatic to hear about the arrival of the female-sounding Evelyn Waugh, and raced to the airport with a bouquet of flowers—and was sorely disappointed. Ironically, Waugh's given first name was Arthur (Evelyn was one of his middle names).

2. Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was also named Evelyn.

Waugh married Evelyn Gardner, an aristocratic socialite, in June 1928 despite the objections of her family; they thought Waugh lacked ambition and direction. Their friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. The marriage broke down a year later, however, when Gardner had an affair with their mutual friend, John Heygate, and eventually left Waugh for him. In 1936, Waugh had his first marriage annulled and married Gardner’s cousin, Laura Herbert, in 1937. They had seven children.

3. Evelyn Waugh was incredibly old-fashioned.

According to NBC producer Edwin Newman, who filmed a TV interview with Waugh in 1956, the novelist wished he had been born 200 or 300 years earlier. He loathed the modern world and its technology; he refused to fly in a plane or learn to how to drive a car. He resisted using the telephone in favor of writing letters, which he did with an old-fashioned pen dipped in ink. His quirky eccentricity informed his conservative political leanings and his opposition to reforms in the Catholic Church, of which he was a devout convert.

4. Evelyn Waugh's brother wrote a bestselling novel at age 17.

Alec Waugh, Evelyn's older brother, wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Loom of Youth based on his time at the elite Sherborne School, a boarding school in Dorset. The novel was incredibly controversial for its time—it depicted homosexual relationships between students as well as hypocrisies and prejudices in the school system—and it was also an immediate success when it was published in 1917. Alec was then fighting as part of the British army in World War I.

The Loom of Youth hit close enough to the truth that Sherborne's headmaster wrote to Alec and accused him of libel. He also told Alec that he was being expelled from the Old Shirburnian Society, a private organization for former Sherborne students; he remains the only student to have ever been booted from it.

5. Evelyn Waugh based his novel Scoop on his career as a journalist.

In 1935, Waugh and approximately 100 other journalists arrived in Abyssinia to cover the invasion of Benito Mussolini’s fascist military. Waugh didn't think much of being a journalist. According to The Guardian, he described journalists as "lousy competitive hysterical [and] lying." Waugh didn't even know how to use a typewriter and regularly predicted breaking news that never materialized. His distaste for journalism and the people who practice it inspired his satirical, semi-autobiographical novel Scoop.

6. Evelyn Waugh failed to deliver his one real scoop.

Portrait of Evelyn Waugh by Carl Van Vechten

While in Abyssinia, Waugh befriended some Italians, who gave him a heads-up when their leader was preparing to leave Addis—a move that meant the fascist invasion was imminent. It was the moment they had all been waiting for, and Waugh didn't want the tip to find its way into another journalist's hands. Waugh sent a telegram alerting his Daily Mail editors to this development, but wrote it in Latin. The attempt at subterfuge backfired: The editors thought it was nonsense and threw it away.

7. The Daily Beast is named as an homage to Evelyn Waugh.

The paper at the center of Scoop is the brazen tabloid The Daily Beast. In 2008, editor Tina Brown chose that name for her news website to honor Waugh's novel. But critics picked up on the fact that, just like its fictional counterpart, Brown’s project was owned and financed by a media baron. In her case, it was film and television executive Barry Diller; in Scoop it's the unscrupulous Lord Copper, which invited unwanted comparisons when The Daily Beast website launched.

8. Winston Churchill procured a military commission for Evelyn Waugh.

At the start of World War II, Waugh solicited his friend Randolph Churchill, the son of future prime minister Winston Churchill, to help him obtain a military commission. Waugh finally got a position in the Royal Marines because of the elder Churchill’s admiration for his dogged determination. While one of his subordinates said that he was "everything you'd expect an officer to be,” nothing in his plummy upbringing prepared him to lead rank-and-file soldiers.

9. Evelyn Waugh stole his children’s bananas.

After World War II ended, a shipment of bananas arrived in England for the first time in years. Laura Herbert Waugh managed to procure three bananas for her three oldest children. As son Auberon recounted in his 1991 autobiography, Evelyn snatched the fruit for himself, peeled each one, doused them in cream and sugar, and ate them as his children watched. "He was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment," Auberon wrote.

10. Evelyn Waugh killed a Hollywood film of Brideshead Revisited.

MGM proposed a film version of Waugh's epic novel Brideshead Revisited in 1946, and offered a significant sum for the rights. When Waugh met the screenwriter in 1947, he realized that Hollywood saw Brideshead only as a love story with a happy ending—not a family and class saga interwoven with Catholic themes, as Waugh had written it. He sent the studio a condescending letter that effectively guaranteed the project would fall through.

11. Evelyn Waugh got his friend to change his will to avoid lawsuits.

While he was in Hollywood for the Brideshead discussions, Waugh visited the famed cemetery Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where numerous movie stars are interred. Forest Lawn aimed to erase signs of mourning by replacing headstones with brass plaques, giving corpses extensive cosmetic treatment and elaborate embalming, and naming sections of the cemetery Babyland, Graceland, and Eventide.

The visit inspired his 1948 novel The Loved One, which satirizes the funeral business and the movie industry. His publishers were concerned that he could get sued, since "Whispering Glades" in The Loved One could easily be recognized as Forest Lawn. So he got his aristocratic friend, Lord Stanley of Alderley, to vouch for the legitimacy of his prose by adding a codicil to his will stating that he wanted to be buried at Forest Lawn because it resembled the beautiful place described in The Loved One. The endorsement of a lord evidently carried weight: After 10 years without a lawsuit, Stanley removed the codicil.

12. Sunset Boulevard owes a debt to The Loved One.

When he couldn't secure film rights to The Loved One, director Billy Wilder used elements of the story in his masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. Wilder's main character, Joe Gillis, is a washed-up screenwriter like Waugh’s Dennis Barlow. Both men live with a faded Hollywood talent in a dilapidated mansion with an empty swimming pool: Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond was a silent film star and Waugh’s Sir Francis Hinsley is a former scriptwriter. And Waugh’s protagonist works in a pet cemetery, while Wilder's Norma mistakenly thinks that Joe has come to bury her pet monkey.

Artificial Intelligence Identifies Shakespeare's Co-Writer on 'Henry VIII'

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

William Shakespeare has long been celebrated as the greatest playwright of all time (and he's certainly the most quoted). Historians have speculated whether his name might be a pseudonym for a lesser-known writer or whether he had assistance in composing his plays, among other theories. In 2016, Oxford University Press credited Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe as co-writer of three plays in Henry VI.

Now, new evidence has come to light that casts doubt on Shakespeare’s sole authorship, this time for Henry VIII. According to an analysis [PDF] published prior to peer review on arXiv.org, the Bard wrote roughly half of Henry VIII. His contemporary, playwright John Fletcher, wrote the rest.

The conclusion was based on the findings of an algorithm taught to examine word choice and writing style, created by researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.

The program first "learned" each writer’s approach to their craft by reading four plays by Fletcher and by Shakespeare, written at about the same time. The algorithm identified traits unique to each. Fletcher, for example, tended to use ye instead of you, or ‘em in place of them.

The algorithm was then applied to Henry VIII. It earmarked the first two scenes as being written by Shakespeare. Fletcher wrote the next four. The writers' styles then mixed until later in the play, when Shakespeare’s voice appeared to take hold.

Collaboration among playwrights was common in the era, and scholars have long believed Fletcher was somehow involved—possibly assisting an aging Shakespeare.

Nineteenth-century literary analyst James Spedding theorized in 1850 that Fletcher had co-written the play; Fletcher had succeeded Shakespeare as the house playwright of the King’s Men Acting Company following the Bard's death in 1616. Spedding even surmised who wrote which scene. This most recent analysis loosely lines up with his findings.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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