Shel Silverstein: Author, Artist, and Poet
Shedding light on some of history’s greatest minds – in her new column, Brianne Muñiz celebrates the lives of extraordinary people by taking a look at their impact and sharing often overlooked facts.
Some may know author Shel Silverstein for “The Giving Tree”; others may know him by his funny, eccentric, and often controversial poems and artwork. He has also authored many other literary works, such as “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light in the Attic.”
On Sept. 25, we celebrate what would have been Silverstein’s 86th birthday. Known affectionately as Uncle Shelby, he was the son of Nathan Silverstein who owned a bakery shop with wife, Helen. Married twice, Shel brought up two children, a son and daughter. He died of a heart attack in May of 1999. Many of us have grown up reading his works, but what other aspects of his life and artistic career are there to know about him?
1. Not only did Shel write poetry and draw, but he also wrote over 800 songs.
Not only did he write the Grammy Award-winning song “A Boy Named Sue,” performed by Johnny Cash, but he also wrote songs that were performed by Loretta Lynn, Meryl Streep, and even Willie Nelson. He famously penned “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” which was recorded by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, and “Unicorn Song” by the Irish Rovers. He also collaborated with playwright David Mamet on the 1988 screenplay “Things Change.”
2. Shel was a leading cartoonist in the 1950s.
Sometimes you just never know where your career is going to start. After serving in the Army, Shel got his start writing cartoons for Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy” magazine in the late 1950s and continued through the mid-70s. While helping Hefner’s publication, he also worked as a hot dog vendor for the Chicago Cubs and White Sox baseball organizations.
3. He never owned a car.
Can you imagine never having a car to get anywhere in this day and age? Shel grew up poor but once his career took off he didn’t buy one just because he could afford it. He also didn’t possess a driver’s license, which made it difficult to verify his age. This, in turn, became a way for him to tease friends and mislead women. Probably not a great reason to avoid getting a driver’s license.
4. He spoke Japanese.
Shel started speaking Japanese when he served in the Army. His service also allowed him to score a gig with “Stars and Stripes,” the American military magazine where he drew sketches of soldiers telling their stories until his discharge in 1950. When he came back, this experience led to his big break with Hefner.
5. He didn’t graduate from college.
Shel graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Chicago, Illinois and then attended the University of Illinois, but was expelled because of poor grades. He also joined the School of the Art Institute of Chicago but then dropped out. He then spent three years at Chicago’s Roosevelt University studying English. It’s not always a good idea to drop out of college, but it seemed to work for Silverstein as it allowed him to find his calling.
If you’d like to read more about Shel Silverstein, check out the write-ups by the Huffington Post, Poetry Foundation, and Chicago Tribune.
Brianne Muñiz is a staff writer for the Daily Runner.