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Searching For Sylvia

Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) was one of the great storytellers of his time. He told stories about unusual people in unusual predicaments. There was A Boy Named Sue, about a kid who finds out late in life that his name is a blessing as well as a curse. In The Mermaid, a fisherman falls for the mythical creature only to find that there are limitations on loving a woman whose bottom half is a fish.

He also told the story of Sylvia's Mother, which is really about the lovelorn fellow who falls hard for Sylvia and finds out from her mother that she is going off to Mexico and getting married without him.

Silverstein's words and pictures appeared in Playboy, in several children's books (including Where The Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree), and in songs. "Sylvia's Mother" was recorded by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, who would later make the cover of Rolling Stone thanks to another Silverstein song, "The Cover Of 'Rolling Stone'." Released in 1971, Sylvia's Mother was a trans-Atlantic hit, making #5 in America and #2 in the UK.

Dr. Hook singer/guitarist Dennis Locorriere (the one without the eye patch) wrings out the sadness of the song:

Sylvia's mother says Sylvia's busy, too busy to come to the phone
Sylvia's mother says Sylvia's tryin' to start a new life of her own
Sylvia's mother says Sylvia's happy so why don't you leave her alone
And the operator says forty cents more for the next three minutes

Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show were known for their ribald stage shows and humorous Silverstein interpretations like "Roland The Roadie And Gertrude The Groupie," but this song is a true heartbreaker, not unlike like Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

Says Locorriere: "A surprising number of people thought it was a parody but I always saw it as a truly heartbreaking story and I did my best to portray the anxiety and sadness that I knew that poor guy in the phone booth would be feeling."

Silverstein admitted that there was a real Sylvia, and he did indeed call her mother to learn the shocking truth. He even thought of pulling a Mrs. Robinson and disrupting the wedding, but he came to his senses when thinking about Sylvia's last words to him: "Shel, don't spoil it." She would never become Mrs. Sylvia Silverstein.

Silverstein's nephew is the author Mitch Myers, who wrote a book about his uncle called Silverstein Around the World. When I spoke with Mitch, he knew it was a true story, but wasn't sure if Sylvia was her real name (Shel also used the name in one of his famous poems: Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out). Said Myers, "We're talking about a time before cell phones, and you could conceivably be at a payphone and only have so many quarters in your pocket, and so many minutes to get through, and if somebody's mom answered the phone, you're not getting through unless she loves you. I mean, it seemed quite believable. I can remember as a young man hearing that song on the radio and saying, 'That sounds like something Shel would write.' And then learning that it indeed was."

It wasn't until 2002 that the real Sylvia - and her mother - were revealed. It was the Dutch television producer Arjan Vlakveld who found them and directed a short film about their story that aired on a public TV show in the Netherlands called The Top2000 a gogo. Arjan told us how he did it: "The search for Sylvia was a big coincidence. I was having a glass of wine in the garden of my brother. He had guests and there was an American woman who after I explained what kind of things I produced, told me the story about Sylvia and her mother, who she knew. It was an old story because it was about her mother working at a high school with 'Sylvia's mother.' She was already old at the time of her story. She didn't know if it was true, but the woman had claimed once that she was the mother in the song. I only had a few names to go on and ended up in a telephone conversation with Sylvia Pandolfi, who at that time was a museum director in Mexico City ('down Galveston way' in the song meant in real life that she was getting married to a Mexican and moving there). So I asked her the question: Are you by any chance the Sylvia in the song 'Sylvia's Mother?' She was very surprised because nobody knew, it was a personal and family story, she never told anyone. I filmed the interview with her mother in Homewood, Illinois. The same house where she had the telephone call with Shel Silverstein, probably even the same telephone number. She was 95 years old at that time."

Thanks to Arjan, we hear the story from Sylvia's perspective. "He was doing a lot of drawing and I was working and going to school," she said. "So we would call each other up and he would come around, usually in the evening after I was through working or studying. The only thing we did was walk around, talk, laugh, and have a good time. But there was this kind of continual communication between us. You remember how you are when you were young? It's this delicious thing."

That communication was documented in letters Shel wrote to Sylvia while he was traveling in Europe and Asia. Said Sylvia, "He'd call me up, we'd fight, and he'd stop writing. Then we'd start over again. This went on until about '58. Every once in a while he said, 'You have to come. Just buy a ticket.' I said, 'I'm not going to come.' Why didn't I want to go to France or Italy or wherever he wanted me to go and join him? I was working. I had to pay off my student loan. I was trying to finish school. I didn't have money for the ticket either."

While Silverstein played the hopeless romantic, Sylvia remained pragmatic and focused on her career - until she fell in love with another guy and left the country with him. Silverstein faced the crushing reality that his was an unrequited love. "I'm packing and going off to get married," Sylvia said of that tumultuous day. "My parents are screaming at me because they don't want me to get married in Mexico - they're practically throwing me out of the house. All these things were going on, it was a horribly tense situation. If he called, I may have said something to him, but I wasn't thinking too much about it, and it might have even had the effect of, 'Shit, why did he have to call today?'"

In the song, Sylvia's mother is "Mrs. Avery," which scans much better than "Pandolfi" and protects the anonymity.

Please Mrs. Avery, I just gotta talk to her, I'll only keep her a while
Please Mrs. Avery, I just wanna tell her goodbye

Here's how Sylvia's mother remembers that day: "Sylvia was getting ready to go to Mexico to get married, he called that afternoon to talk to her. She told him that she was going to get married, and that they'd always be friends - in other words their affair was over. But then the day after she got married he called me again, and was very upset. I tried to tell him, 'Well, this is over now and she's gone.' In the song it indicates that I was rather brusque. I don't think I really was, but maybe it came through that way to him."

Sylvia's mother says Sylvia's hurryin' she's catchin' the nine o'clock train
Sylvia's mother says take your umbrella cause Sylvie, it's startin' to rain
And Sylvia's mother says thank you for callin' and sir won't you call back again
And the operator says forty cents more for the next three minutes

October 17, 2012

    About the Author:

    Carl WiserCarl was a disc jockey in Hartford, Connecticut when he founded Songfacts as a way to tell the stories behind the songs. You can also find him on Rock's Backpages.More from Carl Wiser
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Comments: 9

I never thought Dennis Locorriere's vocal was parody, in fact over 40 years later when I listen to it I STILL think he is going to break down and cry and not finish the song!Bill from Us
Pragmatic women are such a downer. You shoulda bought the ticket.Gary from Galveston Way
I always loved "Sylvia's Mother". But another one of my favorites of his/their music was "Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball"!! What fun lyrics!Beautyanddabeast from Flagstaff, Az
I use to get picked on so much about this song. I even had a boss that would follow me in the restaurant I worked at and sing it to me..It is very interesting to finally to be able to read about the real "Sylvia" behind this song. I can actually say now that I like this song now knowing the meaning behind it..Sylvia from Illinois
I'm a karaoke host and I sing this song frequently. When I discovered it in my library, I wanted to sing it so bad that I did it for my warm-up at my next show. The bartender's girlfriend came in a few hours later and ended up walking up to me and asking if I do requests. I told her that if I had any clue of the song I'd give it a shot. She said it's an unusual song, I responded that I specialize in unusual. Then she said it was an old Dr Hook song and I knew immediately it was gonna be Sylvia's Mother. Needless to say, it became a permenant part of my rotation that night.Beaux from Kanas City, Mo
Great info. great find...Kenny Decker
Silverstein also penned a 4th top 10 US hit, "The Unicorn" by the Irish Rovers.Jeff from Nesconset, Ny
You guys sure know how to find 'em. Another outstanding article and interview.Jim from North Billerica, Ma
Don't forget the "Giraffe and a Half"! LOVED Shel Silverstein. Loved Dr. Hook. Love this article. Well done.Shawna
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