For 42 years, Garrison Keillor hid in plain sight

The New York Times today hits on a truism: Even as he’s been an icon of Minnesota since the the glaciers helped create Bluff Country, nobody really knows him.

In its article “The Garrison Keillor You Never Knew,” the newspaper says its goodbyes to him and “A Prairie Home Companion” and attempts to square the persona of the actor on stage on Saturday nights with reality.

“Garrison in person is quite different,” said his longtime friend, the writer Mark Singer. “Garrison does not express emotion in interpersonal conversations the way the rest of us do.”

Nobody has ever been able to get beyond the show-biz Keillor and the notion that Keillor changes when stepping onto a stage isn’t new either. But the Times at least gave it a go before failing, too.

Performers often cultivate alternate personas, but with Mr. Keillor the difference is startling. That night, onstage in Minneapolis, he was garrulous and affable, and afterward ventured out onto the sidewalk to meet his hundreds-strong admirers, many of whom feel they know him intimately.

As fans flocked around him, Mr. Keillor graciously deflected questions, directing queries back to the scrum. This helps him gather story ideas but also serves as a bridge from his onstage personality to his default setting, the introverted, removed man who seems miles away, even when you’re sitting two feet from him on his porch, eating the jelly beans he has set out.

“His gaze is often floating and takes you in from a strange distance,” said the writer and editor Roger Angell, who in 1970 edited Mr. Keillor’s first piece for The New Yorker. “He is certainly the strangest person I know.”

And that was as close as the Times’ Cara Buckley would get to breaking the impenetrable fortress before return to the standard assessments surrounding the end of public radio’s longest-running and defining program.

“Like Howard Stern, Garrison Keillor created a packaging that nonlisteners took as real,” Ira Glass said. “And the actual show is so much more complex, and human and complicated than nonlisteners think it is.”

Keillor, too, is more complex, human and complicated than listeners ever realized.

That he was mostly able to keep that Keillor a secret for 42 years may be his most impressive accomplishment.

Archive: The night Garrison Keillor consoled a grieving state (NewsCut)