Part 37: Jan and Riley

Today is Sunday, August 9, 2020. I've spent the past week interviewing my mother about what happened when she first took off with my father. I'm going to tell my mother's story by referring to her as Jan, and I'll call my dad Riley. They weren't my parents yet, just two people, their separate lives colliding. By the time Jan met Riley, he had several aliases, complete with social security numbers and even library cards. He introduced himself to her as Riley Shepard.


Below, my friend Mary fanning out Riley's social security cards and library cards. (I took this photo pre-virus, so you can't tell, but no mask...just a mask made of fake identities.)

The photo below is how Jan looked when she was a teenager. Through her early twenties, she looked like a kid, and sometimes people thought she was the older sister of her own baby, my half-sister, Lisa.

From early on, Jan knew she wanted to be an artist. At the Catholic schools she attended, the nuns knew she was destined for this path. When she graduated high school, she attended the Minneapolis Institute of Art. After that, Jan lived the life of an artist in New York, and began creating a body of work. She dated a struggling writer in New York, and became pregnant by him at age 19. She married the boyfriend, and my sister, Lisa, was born in 1960 in New York. In a text, Jan reminded me of what her husband's pen name was. In the last blog, I could only remember "Lion." His full pen name was "Frank Lion." I'll use that name for him from now on.


How did Jan end up in Reading? It was Frank's plan to be closer to his mother. Jan's new mother-in-law, who was quite mean and abusive to my half-sister, was hostile about the marriage. Perhaps she felt her son was trapped or tricked. Frank ended up dumping Jan and his kid in a rambling letter, explaining that having a baby was too hard, and he missed seeing his friends. Jan was in a tough place when she met Riley, she had no job or money, and she was a single mother.


Riley had a big apartment. It was the front duplex on the second story and had six rooms. As far as Jan could tell, she and Riley had both made bad choices in spouses. Riley told Jan that he'd left his wife, Jo, and Jan certainly didn't want to try to win back Frank Lion.


Riley seemed like the perfect match for her. He supported her talent, and they had long talks about their lives. Riley told her about the trouble with the mob and the radio station back in New York, how his friend had his throat cut from ear to ear, but somehow survived, how he'd worked for the Andrew Sisters and Harry Belafonte, and all about his song writing career and the albums he'd cut. Everything was new and exciting. As the two became closer, Riley confided about the stints in the boys prison in Rocky Mount, and how he was raped there. He said to her, "being in that place taught me never to get caught again."


Riley talked up his show business career, and his prospects for "The Encyclopedia of Folk Music." Jan illustrated his "Encyclopedia", which already had a buyer, and the drawings and the manuscript were shipped off. Things were looking good. They both considered themselves the "black sheep" of their families. When Riley told Jan that if she left Reading with him, she could never contact anyone ever again, it didn't seem like such a bad deal. After all, her situation before Riley was desperate. What could go wrong?


One day, while they were still in the big apartment in Reading, Riley asked Jan if she'd like to go back to New York when they took off together. "Yes," she said, imagining the possibilities.


Riley showed up with two steamer trunks. He said, "put all your stuff in these trunks, and we'll ship it off to New York and get it when we arrive." She did that. She put all her clothes, art supplies, all her paintings and other works of art, sketches, brushes--you name it--into these two big trunks. Riley put them in the trunk of a car and drove off.


Later, Riley announced that they would not, in fact, be moving to New York.


In the interviews with my mother about this time, she told me after Riley told her they would not be going to New York, where the trunks were supposedly shipped, she asked, "What about my stuff?" According to him, there was no way to get the trunks back. Jan never saw her stuff again. Everything she owned was in those trunks. She only had the clothes on her back, some baby things, and her kid, Lisa. who was around two years-old.


After Jan, Riley, and little Lisa left Reading, they moved constantly.


"He was constantly bragging that he could always start over with a new name and become a big success again because he'd done it many times before," Jan said.


I've always wondered, what were those early days like? When did my mother see the signs that perhaps her new boyfriend wasn't what he seemed to be? She told me a story that once when they were in a group of people, Riley said, "Remember when we met Kris Kristofferson?" Everyone turned to look at Jan. Only, she hadn't met Kris Kristofferson. Baffled and put on the spot, she said something like, "I'm not sure. I don't remember."


This is what Jan told me last week in a series of texts and talks:


"We were living in his place in Reading. Riley asked me if I would like to go back to live in NYC. I said I would. He said to put all my artwork in a trunk and my clothes in another in order to ship them by rail ahead of us. After shipping them, he decided not to go to New York after all. We ended up in Pittsburgh, sans artwork and sans clothing. I was very, very down. I had lost my photo collection when my mother-in-law took them, then all my artwork was lost. I had literally lost my whole life except for my child. With Riley, I spent the next months living in utter poverty in various slums in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Not even a radio. I acquired a ballpoint pen and started drawing on cheap paper. It wasn't until we got to Chicago that things were a little easier. We lived in an apartment in the North Clark area and Lisa and I spent a lot of time walking to the zoo. That was in Lincoln Park, I think."


Riley and Jan stayed in Chicago for a year and a half, where he worked for a restaurant owned by a Jewish guy, it was sort of like a Denny's, but not a chain. After that, Minneapolis, where he had the radio stations under the name Riley Cooper.


"I can become a success again." was Riley's mantra.



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©2020 by Stacya Silverman.

All photos on this site were taken by Thomas Schworer or David Hiller unless otherwise noted.