Part 102: Very Truly Yours
On May 8th, 1962, when my father was with actress JoAnne Sullivan, (I’d thought JoAnne was my father’s fourth wife, but it turns out, he never divorced his third wife. Of course, JoAnne didn’t know anything about that. Some papers were forged...she thought she was married), he typed up this letter to his landlord. Riley was working with Harry Belafonte at the time.
I’ll re-type the letter here:
How about a mutual agreement to give up the apartment, 1-A, in which I now reside and on which hold a lease? I understand that you would like to break-up the apartment anyway, since you are making major revisions in the lobby, etc.
You must be as tired of sending out “dispossess” notices as I am of receiving them. Quite frankly, I can no longer afford the apartment. I would like to be out of there by June 1st, 1962. You have security, and naturally you’ll keep that––but I see no logic in giving up the apartment unless you sign a release on the lease.
You may take the matter up with my wife, who is there and available to discuss it with you.”
Then he signs off: “Very truly yours, Floyd Shepard.” He adds his pen name, the one he used for the album “Outlaws of the Old West” Dickson Hall. I thought the “Very truly yours” was hilarious, a bit much after what he says in the letter.
Last year, I connected with an old friend of our family from back in Hollywood, he and my father hung out in the late 60s and early 70s. He’d just heard the “Hidden Brain” episode about Riley, found my number, and called me up. When we spoke, he expressed surprise that I’d called Riley a con man. “I used to skip out on paying rent. It’s not that big of a deal,” he said. He thought I’d been too hard on my old dead dad.
In this letter, you get a glimpse of how Riley kept a roof over our heads, how he swindled landlords. That alone wouldn’t be so shocking to me, that’s old news. I’m glad my father’s talents meant we never had to live out on the streets. JoAnne’s daughter, Leslie, gave me this letter. (She also sent along a letter that Riley sent to her mother when he was basically leaving town with my mother, but I haven’t posted that one.)
This letter solidified everything about how my father lived his life in just three short paragraphs. Perhaps it doesn’t seem all that bad, as our old friend said when he called, until you look a little closer. Floyd Shepard isn’t one of my father’s pen names. In fact, it’s the legal name of Riley’s younger brother, a brother who helped my father out, who let Riley stay at his house in New York, and probably loaned him money. I know about this history because I met Floyd back in 1992, when I was in New York. My friend drove me to Long Island so I could meet and connect with my uncle, who I’d never met before. Floyd never told me exactly what came between them, but he confirmed the estrangement. Floyd died in 1996, only four years after we met. I wish I’d asked him more questions; I wish I’d known back then the questions to ask. However, this letter tells me all I need to know. Riley stole his own brother’s identity to get an apartment in Manhattan, a place he knew he couldn’t afford. A place he had no intention of paying rent for. I’m guessing the bill collectors hounded poor Floyd. Riley screwed over his own brother, seemingly having no loyalty to anyone.
I just came back from a trip to Cape Cod, where my husband had a “cousin reunion” organized by my brother in-law. We all went to the beach, took bike rides together, ate Wellfleet Oysters, devoured lobster dinners, while the cousins and siblings talked about all the shared history they had, shared jokes and stories about growing up.
We spent one of the days with friends Ben and Marilyn, they happened to be on vacation there as well, close to where we were staying on the Cape. They invited us to see the properties that have been in Ben’s family for over 100 years. We took a tour of a house that Ben’s grandfather built, a big place on a lush property where all the siblings and cousins could have a place to hang out together. There were a lot of memories created in those spaces.
Witnessing these family connections and sense of place in one week reminded me of a stark contrast between my childhood and most other people I know. We had no contact with my Shepard uncles, (Riley had three brothers) or anyone else in Riley’s family, and that was by design. I was isolated as a child, moving all the time, with few connections to anyone outside our small family unit. I don’t even know if Riley’s older brother, William, had kids. Floyd had children, I was in touch with a cousin, Floyd’s son, but we never met. We’re connected on LinkedIn, but that’s about it.
I think my father’s old friend, the one who was upset that I’d used the word con man, didn’t realize how many years it took me to even admit that to myself. My father had a group of men who believed in him so completely, they couldn’t see him in a realistic light. Reading the book “The Big Con” by David W. Maurer was eye opening, it’s a book you can find used online, recommended reading. There’s comedy in how casual my father was about ripping people off, if this was a film, perhaps it would be a Wes Anderson movie.