Garrison Keillor: America’s Storyteller Finds His Muse
By John Rosengren
Seated in his dressing room backstage at the Fitzgerald Theater during a Friday afternoon rehearsal of A Prairie Home Companion, with strains of The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band in the background, Garrison Keillor fingers a script and reflects upon his success. “I always aspired to St. Paul,” he confides.
This from the man honored last September with a National Humanities Medal from president Clinton, who dubbed Keillor “our modern day Mark Twain.” From the man who’s won a Grammy Award and been inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. The man who’s authored 11 books, including six New York Times bestsellers.
Most American writers aspire to New York, the nation’s literary capital. Keillor already made it there–hosting his radio show in the Big Apple for four years and moonlighting as a New Yorker staff writer. He could make it anywhere–as the song goes–but his heart belongs to St. Paul.
So why would an internationally acclaimed writer and radio show host aspire to a prairie town originally knows as Pig’s Eye?
Nibbling on the stem of his glasses, Keillor muses that his love affair with Minnesota’s capital city began as a small boy, when he first glimpsed St. Paul’s mysterious allure. He was 4 years old, the war had just ended, his father had come home from the service and housing was short.
His family moved into Uncle Les’s and Aunt Jean’s house on Hubbard Avenue. The rich smell of coal smoke tinged the backyard air. Peering over the yard’s fence, he could see the old Montgomery Ward building on University Avenue, looking like a Spanish castle to the younger Keillor. “That is my first impression of St. Paul, and the things that you pick up as a child, you hang on to,” Keillor says in the same sonorous voice in which he mesmerizes audiences weekly with his news from Lake Wobegone. “To me it was a mysterious and exotic city.”
Since his early enchantment with St. Paul, Keillor’s feelings for the place have matured and deepened, though he has retained his initial sense of romanticism. Through tempestuous times and later reconciliation, his relationship with the city has resembled a love affair between two fated to be together. Today, he’s come to terms with the place where he believes he’s meant to be.
Keillor’s romantic notions of St. Paul grew with his affection for the city’s most famous writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the late ‘60s when he moved into the row houses on Summit Avenue where Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise. Walking around Fitzgerald’s old haunts, he felt a connection to the talented yet troubled writer. “For an English major from the University (of Minnesota), Fitzgerald was a very magical presence, and he still is,” Keillor reminisces. “Seeing all of those elegant houses in the evening with the lights on, and chandeliers and candles, and people mingling, who seemed to him so much more charming than he could be–he wrote better about that yearning than any other American writer.”
As a tall, gangly, shy kid in the waning ‘50s at rural Anoka High School who liked to sing and read rather than tackle and flirt, Keillor knew that feeling of longing for acceptance that comes with not quite fitting in. He has carried that yearning as his companion into adulthood. Despite his success, he still strives for perfection. He contributes essays regularly to Time magazine and writes 95 percent of A Prairie Home Companion, even though he credits Sandy Beach, Sara Bellum, Warren Peace and others with help.
“He’s a workaholic,” says Tom Keith, sound effects specialist for A Prairie Home Companion who has known Keillor since the early ‘70s when they worked together on Minnesota Public radio’s Morning Show. “I ask him what he does on vacation, and he says he writes. That’s what he does to relax. I usually nap.”
That drive, along with Keillor’s creative genius, has underwritten his success. His first novel, Lake Wobegone Days, became an instant hit in 1985, debuting at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list the week after its release. Shortly thereafter, he made the cover of Time magazine. A Prairie Home Companion, broadcast live from Downtown St. Paul every Saturday evening by Minnesota Public Radio, reaches more than 2.7 million listeners weekly on more than 480 public radio stations nationwide.
Yet, in the mid-‘80s, St. Paul turned on him, as though jealous of the accolades he was receiving or to punish him for raising his reputation above the city’s characteristically Midwestern low profile. First, the media chastised him for leaving his companion and producer Margaret Moos for Ulla Skaerved, a former exchange student from Denmark he’d reconnected with at a high school reunion. Then, the St. Paul Pioneer Press printed the address, price and property taxes of the four-bedroom home the newlyweds purchased in St. Paul. Keillor complained for more than a year about the invasion of his privacy and harpooned in particular Nick Coleman, the reporter who’d broken the Skaerved story, in his Lake Wobegone monologues.
Finally, playing the role of the jilted lover, he divorced himself from St. Paul in 1987. In a Dear John letter published in the Pioneer Press, he wrote: “It seems pretty clear to me…that the Pioneer Press is going to take an aggressive interest in my personal life as long as I stay here. That isn’t the sort journalism they taught us in Murphy Hall (home to the University of Minnesota’s journalism school), but the paper has chosen to work that avenue, so I choose to leave.”
He fled to Denmark but struggled with the language and expatriate status. His marriage to Skaerved faltered. Within a year, he moved to New York and in 1989 reinvented his radio show as The American Radio Company. Still, Keillor pined for St. Paul. He’d made it in the big city, but longed for life in the nation’s 57th largest city, a place where you can still find a parking spot. “St. Paul is a place that’s not so caught up in fashion or so interested in who’s leading,” he says in his dressing room, an unpretentious space smaller than most walk-in closets.
The dressing room’s as simple as St. Paul, which itself seems simple as Lake Wobegone, Keillor’s fictitious hometown. “St. Paul’s kind of a big small town,” he says. “There aren’t so many glass and steel towers. People tend to live more on the ground level.”
Keillor discovered the needed to be back home to keep writing about his neighbors. “A writer feels it when he gets too far away from his material,” he told the Pioneer Press in 1992, explaining his decision to move his radio show back to St. Paul. “There have been scores of great writers who could only write about where they were from when they got away from it. But I don’t have that talent. So, to write about Lake Wobegone, I need to be around Minnesota.”
He seemed to be coming to terms with this yearning already in his collection of writings entitled We Are Still Married, published in 1989: “St. Paul was a place where I believed that if I knocked on the nearest door, a woman would open it. And if I said, ‘I feel bad. Can I talk to you?’ she’d say, ‘Sure, come on in.’”
Three years later, Keillor knocked on St. Paul’s door, and she let him back in. He brought his show back to St. Paul in 1993 and a year later he recast it as A Prairie Home Companion. But he still wanted to maintain some space with the city that had once spurned him, so he built a log cabin across the St. Croix river in the Wisconsin woods.
In an effort to reconcile their differences, the publisher and editor of the Pioneer Press took Keillor to lunch and told him if he were going to get mad at them, they wanted it to be for something new. “I thought that was a very funny way of putting it, and of course I have no intention of getting mad at them,” Keillor recollects.
The city had perhaps been too hard on him overlooking his civic contributions. In the ‘80s, he’d championed the $3.7 million renovation of the downtown World Theater (which he later had renamed the Fitzgerald Theater), past and current home of A Prairie Home Companion, and in 1996, he spearheaded the extravagant centennial celebration of Fitzgerald’s birthday.
These days, Keillor and the city seem to have kissed and made up. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his ratio show, Keillor wrote a thank-you letter to St. Paul, published last July in the Pioneer Press: “St. Paul is a great city and what makes it so is its power to raise your spirits when you feel discouraged and overworked and misunderstood.” He’d knocked, and the city had answered.
For Keillor, 57, the bloom is back on the rose. “To walk around St. Paul on a day in October when the trees are changing and the weather takes an unexpected lift and turns warm–it’s like being in love, a similar sensation,” he says on a sunny October afternoon. “It gives you a feeling that people for years took drugs trying to achieve.”
Having put the troubled times to rest, Keillor finally moved back to St. Paul’s city limits last year with his new wife, musician Jenny Lind Nilsson, and their now two-year-old daughter, buying a French chateau-style house on Portland Avenue in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood. This time, he says he’s come home to stay. “I know that I have an affection for the city, and I feel at home in it,” he says. “I don’t think Ill ever live anyplace else.”
© John Rosengren