True West

Sam Shepard's Life, Work, and Times

About the Book

A revelatory biography of the world-famous playwright and actor Sam Shepard, whose work was matched by his equally dramatic life, including collaborations with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as well as tumultuous relationships with Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, and Jessica Lange

“Robert Greenfield’s vivid, clear-eyed biography captures both the man and the myth—and, perhaps most important, the writer, who sang a new kind of song in American theater.”—Michael Schulman, author of Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep

True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times is the story of an American icon, a lasting portrait of Sam Shepard as he really was, revealed by those who knew him best. This sweeping biography charts Shepard’s long and complicated journey from a small town in Southern California to become an internationally known playwright and movie star. The only son of an alcoholic father, Shepard crafted a public persona as an authentic American archetype: the loner, the cowboy, the drifter, the stranger in a strange land. Despite his great critical and financial success, he seemed, like so many of his characters, to remain perpetually dispossessed.

Much like Robert Greenfield’s biographies of Jerry Garcia and Timothy Leary, this book delves deeply into Shepard’s life as well as the ways in which his work illuminates it. True West takes readers through the world of downtown theater in Lower Manhattan in the early sixties; the jazz scene at New York’s Village Gate; fringe theater in London in the seventies; Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder tour; the making of classic films like Zabriskie Point, Days of Heaven, and The Right Stuff; and Broadway productions of Buried Child, True West, and Fool for Love.

For this definitive biography, Greenfield interviewed dozens of people who knew Shepard well, many of whom had never before spoken on the record about him. While exploring his relationships with Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Jessica Lange across the long arc of his brilliant career, Greenfield makes the case for Shepard as not just a great American writer but a unique figure who first brought the sensibility of rock ’n’ roll to theater.
Read more

Praise for True West

“In his eventful life, Sam Shepard managed to write indelible plays while inventing his own brand of iconic American manhood: the rock ’n’ roll cowboy playwright. Robert Greenfield’s vivid, clear-eyed biography captures both the man and the myth—and, perhaps most important, the writer, who sang a new kind of song in American theater, as raw and searching as the western skies.”—Michael Schulman, author of Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep and Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears

“Telling the tale of a multi-talented man ‘always blinded by his own light’ is a daunting task, but astute biographer Robert Greenfield handles it beautifully in True West. Written with insight, empathy, and authority, this biography of the protean Sam Shepard presents the man whole, with all his dazzling complexities revealed in full.”—Kenneth Turan, former Los Angeles Times film critic and co-author of Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told

“Fascinating . . . a masterful look at the wild life of an enigmatic artist that shows how captivating the truth can be.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[Robert] Greenfield . . . delivers a riveting account of the life of playwright and actor Sam Shepard. . . . Few readers will leave being unimpressed with Shepard, or this biography.”Publishers Weekly

Read more

True West


Life During Wartime

My dad did have a good war, I guess. If you can call any war good. —Sandy Rogers

The noise in the cockpit was so deafening that the pilot could barely hear himself think. Although First Lieutenant Samuel Shepard Rogers, who would come to haunt his son Sam Shepard’s life as well as much of his work, had been born and raised on a farm in rural Illinois and had never worked in a steel mill or a foundry, he discovered that being inside the cockpit of a B-24 Liberator was much like finding himself inside one of them when every blast furnace was thundering away at top volume. Unlike in those places, oppressive heat was not one of his problems.

Because the bomber Rogers was now flying on a mission over Italy at a cruising speed of 215 miles an hour and an altitude of two hundred feet to avoid enemy radar was not insulated, pressurized, or heated, it was always cold inside the cockpit, and today was no exception. Despite this, Rogers was wearing the outfit of choice for those flying missions designed to bring World War II to an end by destroying Nazi strongholds and matériel. The defining aspect of his look, which would soon be seen in movies like Thirty Seconds over Tokyo and Twelve O’Clock High, was a standard-issue, dark-brown U.S. Army Air Force B3 sheepskin bomber jacket with a white fleece collar, a leather helmet with goggles perched on top, and a pair of oversize aviator headphones with which he could communicate with his crew despite the constant din.

As the commander, Rogers was responsible for their safety at all times, even when they were on the ground. Today, that obligation had begun long before sunrise, when his men were awakened by a flashlight in the pitch-black darkness of their ice-cold barracks. After breakfast in the mess hall, Rogers and his crew attended the main briefing of the day, where they were informed of the location and importance of today’s primary target, the route they would fly to reach it, the weather they would encounter on the way, and most important, the enemy defenses they would face. The briefing ended with a “time hack” so they could all synchronize their watches.

As each one of the forty B-24 Liberators of the 456th Bombardment Group in today’s mission approached the end of the runway, the pilot stopped his aircraft and turned it at a forty-five-degree angle to avoid blasting the plane in line behind it. Locking the brakes, Rogers and his fellow pilots then revved their four 1,200-horsepower engines to full throttle. As the noise on the ground reached unbearable levels, the fully loaded planes, each weighing 55,000 pounds, took off at one-minute intervals.

On their way to the target, the massive bombers assembled themselves into two distinct units of twenty aircraft deployed into a pair of separate V-shaped lines. Traditionally, the least experienced crew flew the plane at the very back of the formation. This position was so vulnerable to attack by German Luftwaffe fighter planes that it was known as the coffin corner or the Purple Heart corner.

Before reaching the target zone, no B-24 pilot knew how many German fighter planes he might encounter that day. On some missions, it could be as few as nine; on others, more than a hundred. With a top speed of 652 miles an hour, the German Luftwaffe’s single-seat, single-engine Focke-Wulf 190 could fly rings around the slower and far more ponderous bombers. Armed with four MG 131 machine guns, each capable of firing 475 rounds, and four MG 151 cannons loaded with explosive shells that could take down a B-24 with just three or four direct hits, German fighter planes sometimes shot down as many as six B-24s on a single mission.

As Rogers and his fellow pilots accelerated to three hundred miles an hour to begin their bombing runs, the greatest obstacle they faced was flak, as the deadly fire from large anti-aircraft artillery emplacements on the ground was called. At the time, the German 88 mm gun was widely considered the single most effective anti-aircraft weapon in the world, and flak from it could often be encountered in areas aside from the actual target.

At times, as one B-24 airman recalled, the flak “was thick enough to walk on.” The concussive force alone from a shell that had exploded near a plane could pierce its Plexiglas nose, thereby causing a howling wind to suddenly course though the entire fuselage. If shells began bursting any closer, the B-24 would start to yaw and sway in the air. As the crew continued performing their assigned duties, they could only hope their pilot was skilled enough to keep them flying.

As if all this were not enough to deal with on a regular basis, there were also the kind of grievous accidents that always occurred in the fog of war. While returning from a mission in late May 1944 during which they had been unable to drop their bombs on the target, two of Rogers’s fellow pilots in the 456th Bombardment Group collided their planes in midair over their home base. As live bombs began falling on the airfield, all but one of the twenty crewmen aboard both aircraft were killed.

To a far greater degree than for many of those with whom he had served during World War II, Sam Rogers’s experiences in combat would influence the rest of his adult life in ways he himself seemed never to have fully understood. Having been in complete command during a mission, Rogers would react negatively to those who later held positions of authority over him, a trait his son would also then exhibit.

After the peak experience of completing yet another mission and returning safely to base with both his crew and aircraft intact, Sam Rogers was never able to find real personal fulfillment in ordinary civilian life in post–World War II America. In time, the way he dealt with this profound sense of utter discontent became his greatest problem, wreaking havoc on not only him but all those closest to him as well.

As was true of his only son, Rogers’s striking physical appearance and often stoic demeanor gave no real sense of the turbulent nature of his inner life. Accurately, Sandy Rogers, the elder of his two daughters, describes her father as “charismatic and really handsome and physically powerful. He just exuded this macho thing.” All these qualities can be plainly seen in a black-and-white photograph of Sam Rogers taken shortly before he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1941. In it, he wears a dark suit with a matching vest over a white shirt and a tie. On his head is a perfectly creased wide-brim fedora. Holding a lit cigarette in his left hand, he strides confidently across a river bridge in downtown Chicago while working as a reporter for The Chicago Daily Tribune. In that outfit, with a face that would not have been out of place on a movie poster, he looks like a hard-charging newspaperman right out of The Front Page.

Nor was it an accident that, after he enlisted, Sam Rogers was chosen to be trained as a B-24 Liberator pilot. The elite cadre of men who were selected to serve their country in this manner includes Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, the Democratic nominee for president in 1972; the actor Jimmy Stewart; Stewart Udall, the congressman from Arizona who later served as secretary of the interior under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson; and director Robert Altman, who won an honorary Academy Award for a body of work that revolutionized how films were made in Hollywood.

First Lieutenant Sam Rogers flew his first combat mission on February 10, 1944. Over the course of the next six months, he successfully completed missions over Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Balkans, southern France, and Germany. By the end of 1944, he had been transferred to an airfield in Illinois, and his time of service at the controls of a B-24 bomber in war was behind him.

After he left the U.S. Army Air Force in 1948, Sam Rogers was asked to keep on flying with the Civil Air Transport group (later known as Air America), which was then defending Nationalist China in its armed struggle against Chinese Communist forces. “He said no,” recalls Sandy Rogers, “and the reason he did so was because he felt his time was up. In that he had been real lucky during the war, but luck also stopped.”

The rule of thumb during World War II concerning those who served on B-24 Liberator bombers was that any crew member who flew more than thirty missions had no better than a 30 percent chance of coming back alive. First Lieutenant Samuel Shepard Rogers flew forty-six. And while his service during World War II may have been the apex of his life, the consequences of it shaped who he then became and how he raised his son.

About the Author

Robert Greenfield
Robert Greenfield is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and the author of Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. He lives in California. More by Robert Greenfield
Decorative Carat