By Jill Smolowe
May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

Shel Silverstein was that rare contradiction—a recluse totally engaged in life. He so shunned publicity that he insisted his publisher not give out any biographical information about him. Yet he also said, “I want to go everywhere, look at and listen to everything”—and he did. During a career that spanned five decades, Silverstein, 68, left his quirky signature on Nashville, Hollywood and Broadway—and, most indelibly, on the world of children’s literature.

On May 10 the much loved poet-illustrator was found dead of a heart attack at his winter home in Key “West, Fla. As friends struggled to fathom his death—Silverstein neither smoked nor drank and stayed fit by practicing yoga and walking everywhere—they remembered his humor, generosity and utter lack of pretension. “He had a real big heart,” says pal Chuck Krumel, 51. “He’s going to be missed.”

It was Playboy founder and editor Hugh Hefner who gave the Chicago-born and-raised Silverstein his first big break, starting in 1956, by featuring his cartoons, stories and poems in that very adult magazine. Before that, Silverstein’s work was known mainly to readers of the Pacific edition of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, where he worked during a hitch in ¦ Japan and Korea in the early 1950s. “He I was a giant as a talent, I a giant as a human being,” says Hefner. “He really was a Renaissance man.”

The peripatetic Silverstein, who had homes in California, Florida, Massachusetts and New York, tickled funny bones of all ages. A prolific, Grammy-: winning composer and lyricist, he was the comic whiz behind several hit lyrics, among them “A Boy Named Sue” (recorded by Johnny Cash) and “Cover of the Rolling Stone” (recorded by Dr. Hook). He earned a Best Song Oscar nomination for “I’m Checkin’ Out,” from the 1990 film Postcards from the Edge. He also wrote 10 plays and cowrote the 1988 screenplay Things Change with David Mamet.

But the divorced Silverstein, who leaves behind a son, Matthew, 15, will probably be best remembered for his dozen children’s books—among them The Giving Tree and the bestselling Where the Sidewalk Ends—which have been translated into 20 languages and have sold some 14 million hardback copies worldwide. “It is astounding how he crossed over age and gender lines,” says Silverstein’s editor Robert Warren.

Cartoonist Jules Feiffer, a Silverstein friend, understands his gift. “He imagined things the way kids do when they’re little, and it goes away when they’re older—only in his case it didn’t go away,” he says. “I admired his line very, very much,” he adds, “and stole from it as much as I could.”

In his 1981 children’s classic, A Light in the Attic, which spent 182 weeks on the bestseller list, Silverstein set forth a philosophy that also makes a most fitting epitaph:

Draw a crazy picture,

Write a nutty poem,

Sing a mumble-gumble song,

Whistle through your comb.

Do a loony-goony dance

‘Cross the kitchen floor,

Put something silly in the world

That ain’t been there before.

Jill Smolowe

Julia Campbell in New York City, John Hannah in Los Angeles and Joseph Harmes and Aixa M. Pascual in Miami