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)

  • chlost

    A friend of mine went to school with Garrison’s brother. This friend was not much of a Garrison fan, but knew of him only as her friend’s brother “Gary”. She told a story about seeing Garrison in the MSP Airport. This was shortly after his brother’s death. She says that he was quite hesitant to respond to her as she approached him, but once she started to talk about his brother, and her memories of their school days together, he was a completely different person. He clearly loved to talk to someone who knew his brother, and who was not talking to him based upon his celebrity. They were able to share memories of a guy whom both of them cared about very much. That’s where his heart lies.

  • Paul

    I ran into him at the Salt Cellar recently. I think it surprised him that a kid would know who he was in passing – he didn’t say much, still.

  • Thomas Mercier

    I once spent a summer of weekends teaching young lads and their parents to boat on the St Croix. One of my assistant staff who had worked there previously informed me that someone “sort of famous” lived across the river. I waved when they went out on their pontoon periodically but the river’s width kept me from identifying them. At the end of the summer I finally learned that it was Keillor but never got a chance to talk to him. Although I once talked to him years before that when he spoke at MEA.

  • PaulJ

    Can one say which, of such strong personas, is more valid (if you even can say that about personas)?

  • Khatti

    This is hardly unique to Keiller. The late Phil Hartmann was ready to go home and vegetate the moment he finished shooting on Saturday Night Live. It may have contributed to his marriage going homicidal.

  • John

    Years back, we went out to a coffee shop on Grand Ave one Saturday or Sunday morning for breakfast (I think we were meeting an old friend who was in town for the figure skating championships, or something like that – I know we didn’t live in the cities yet, so it must have been a special occasion of some sort).

    Garrison came into the shop, presumably ordered something, and sat down. Having never been in a room with a famous person before, I watched the wave of recognition move through the restaurant, but no one approached him (I overheard the baristas trying to figure out who he was . . . they knew he was somebody, but didn’t know who).

    At the time, I was in the middle of working my way through his Woebegon canon, and was kind of in awe of the guy. I debated about going up and saying hi, but didn’t. After reading this, I’m glad I didn’t. He clearly prefers to keep to himself when he can.