I always thought Sam Shepard would have made a terrific Marlboro man—sans mustache—had his life not taken the career path it took. But thank goodness for us all, Shepard became so much more. He was not only a marvelous actor with at least 50 movies to his credit, including The Right Stuff—for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the U.S. Air Force officer Chuck Yeager—but was also a gifted playwright who penned nearly 50 works, one of which, Buried Child, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. How he was able to parse himself into two distinct selves—one very public and another private—is a story unto itself. His Southern-like charm and natural good looks belied his deep, inner mental life. You could tell just by looking at him that something deeper was happening—his mental gears were always churning.
On one visit to Trattoria Dell’Arte, Shepard walked in alone with what appeared to be a book and a racing form in hand. It was an unusually slow evening toward the latter part of our service period and may have even been a summer night. He was most likely in town working on one of his plays at an off-Broadway theater, just like he had done so for many years from the 60s onward. That evening, I was working the door at the maitre d’ stand with a young toweringly tall hostess named Jessica Happ. She was stunningly gorgeous and had been doing some modeling for Ford’s Runway division and, later, Click Model Mgmt when not working for us part-time. Jessica hailed from Jacksonville, NC, a small town known as the home of Cape Lejeune—the East Coast’s largest military base. In fact, her father was a former Marine. So, Jessica had a graciousness and gentleness about her that belied her fetching beauty.
When Shepard approached us, Jessica’s eyes lit up. She grabbed a menu, and I told her to seat him in one of the mezzanine’s alcoves, which were semi-private areas of the restaurant, especially if one wanted to dine free of distractions. I figured he’d appreciate it as he had brought reading material. When Jessica returned, she commented, “My, he’s so handsome. I love his films.” She was a little giddy, which surprised me, as she was always composed in a model-like way.
After a while, I decided to check on our illustrious diner and ascended the two sets of terracotta-tiled steps leading to the mezzanine. When I got up, I turned to my left, and there he was, reading his racing form intently with a pen in the other hand, which he was using to mark his broadsheet. I approached and greeted him by saying, “How are you enjoying your meal?” And he replied, “Everything is delicious,” he said. It made sense to me as Shepard spent a great deal of time on his farm near Midway, Kentucky, when not busy working on films and plays.
While chatting about horse racing, I shifted gears and asked how Jessica Lange was doing. She was his long-time girlfriend and a superb actress in her own right, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship. Hesitatingly, Sam replied, “She’s fine,” which I sensed meant that the heat in their relationship had ebbed a little. So I said somewhat mischievously, “Would you mind saying hello to our hostess? She’s a big admirer of your work, and it would mean a lot to her.“ And Sam replied, “Sure, why not?“ “Great, thank you so much. I’ll send her up. By the way, her name is also Jessica.”
So, I left and sent Jessica up. After some time had elapsed, I decided to see how both were making out as it felt like it was a long time that Jessica was away. And there she was, standing in an almost crouched-like way because her head could practically touch the mezzanine ceiling, as they weren’t very high. Sam was seated, craning his head way up just to speak to our statuesque hostess/model and smiling all the while.
I’m not sure what the substance of their conversation was until this day, but Sam left with a broad smile on his face. Not only did he have a terrific meal, but one of our beautiful hostesses also doted him on. And for all I know, the inspiration he may have drawn from Jessica may have helped him win some of those races he was betting on that year.
Today, Jessica lives happily as a single mother in Colorado Springs, CO, with her son Gabriel, who is finishing his last year in college at Colorado University. He hopes to forge a career in music someday. Shepard, however, lost his long, private battle against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2017. He was 73.
Former restauranteur, musician, concert promoter, producer, publisher, manager, and impresario, Charles Carlini has synthesized these roles to become a dynamic force in the music industry–noted for his ability to bring diverse talent together to create innovative concerts and recordings that reach and move music-lovers everywhere.