At The New Yorker: My Own Memoir
More memoirs have been written on the theme Me and the New Yorker than about the Spanish-American War or homesteading in Nebraska or train trips down South America way, which is a tribute to its legendary editors Harold Ross and William Shawn and also to the rich self-consciousness of some of their writers. Mr. Shawn was followed by Bob Gottlieb who could easily have become legendary but didn’t stick around long enough, who was followed by Tina Brown who was legendary in her own mind and didn’t need to be remembered, and then David Remnick, a good guy who will surely inspire a memoir or two someday though the magazine now is so straight compared to the mysterious bundle of eccentricities I loved so much in my youth in Anoka, Minnesota — the absence of a masthead or Table of Contents, the unsigned Talk of the Town pieces with their brisk whimsical tone, the Letter from Paris signed simply “Genet,” the horse-racing column by “Audax Minor,” squibs about Ivy League football, the Long-Winded Lady, “The Wayward Press,” the great two-initial authors (E.B., J.D., A.J., S.J., J.F.), and “Annals of Medicine,” and enormous long pieces about exotic places winding their way through columns of ads for Baccarat and Jaguar and Chanel. It was another world from mine. I only knew Mr. Shawn from his neatly penciled comments signed WS in the margins of galley proofs and a couple of awkward lunches at the Algonquin, not enough material for a book-length memoir so I made up some stuff about him and stuck it in the novel Love Me. And while I was at it, I murdered a publisher, which I’d always wanted to do.

William Shawn took a shine to me right off the bat when I arrived at the magazine back in the fall of 1969. “Glad you’re not creepy and obsessive like some of these introspective sons of bitches around here,” he said. “I’ve had a bellyful of neurotics. White and Thurber drove me nuts and all those Harvard snots. You look like a midwesterner. Me, too. Chicago. Call me Bill.”

We liked to shoot pocket billiards at a little smoke-filled joint called Patsy’s and we discovered we shared a fondness for old Chicago bands like the Jazz Equestrians and the Skippers of Rhythm and we both knew the rules for a poker variant called footsie. He was an excellent bowler and arm wrestler and could toss playing cards into a top hat with accuracy at up to thirty-five feet, farther if he was drunk. He could size a man up by studying the soles of his shoes and the back of his shirt collar. He could tell if you’d recently been to church or taken an unmarried woman to the movies. He knew every species of bird and he could open any lock with a paper clip and could disassemble a typewriter and put it back together in two minutes flat. One night over a pitcher of martinis he told me his life story: it just flowed out. All about his mama and how she prayed every night that his schoolwork would be free of typographical errors. His childhood in Chi-town. His Irish dad, Sean Hanratty, a button man for the Bugs Moran gang, killed in the Arbor Day Massacre. Young William changed his name and hitchhiked to Vegas to deal blackjack for Bugsy Siegel and then a man named Crossandotti sent him to New York as Harold Ross’s stickman, back when the magazine was a hotbed of steady tipplers and wisecracking women with hinges on their heels. “The Mafia owned it, you know,” he told me.

“They owned The New Yorker?”

“What we talking about? Silk undies? Yes. The New Yorker. Still do.”

“The Mafia owns the magazine?”

He was lining up a very tricky bank shot, a Lucky Strike in the corner of his mouth, smoke curling up under his fedora — “What does it matter? Owners are owners. Thank God it’s not the Newhouses, I say. At least the Crossandottis know they don’t know anything. All the Newhouses want is to stick their noses up the butts of the rich and famous.” And then he banked the eight-ball into the side pocket off the fourteen and picked up the money off the bar and stuffed it in his breast pocket. “Want to go again? For double?” he muttered.

“You’re so different from the William Shawn I always imagined,” I said. “James Thurber portrayed you as a flustered guy who spoke in a whisper and obsessed over commas and ate dry cornflakes for lunch and dreaded elevators and other motor vehicles.”

He chuckled. “Thurber was blind, you know. The phone rang and he’d pick up the steam iron. He needed a lot of supervision. Him and White both. White struggled to operate an ordinary stapler. A coffeemaker was beyond him. His ambition was to raise chickens. And The Years with Ross was about as true to life as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

“Sometimes I feign fluster—it’s a useful stratagem with women,” he said.

“I liked hanging out with Dorothy Parker because she could talk louder than anybody else. Glamorous woman, if you like the smell of gin. She had a voice that could crack ice. Most guys were scared shitless and of course her pal Benchley was completely in the bag, so Dotty needed a man to stand up to her. We were having lunch at the Algonquin and Kaufman was there and Marc Connelly and Harpo Marx and Joe Kennedy and Dietrich and that whole crowd, and I said to Dietrich in kraut, ‘I got a sausage for your bun, mein Schatz,’ and that got Dotty all jealous and she was running her toe up and down my calf. So I took off her shoe and pissed in it without anybody noticing and handed it to her and said, ‘Hey, you’re in luck,’ and she jumped up and yelled, ‘He pissed in my shoe!’ and they all said, ‘Aw, shuddup, you’re drunk.’ All except Dietrich. She saw the whole thing. She saw that the great thing about being a quiet little bald guy is that you can piss in a lady’s shoe at lunch and nobody will ever believe you did it. She leaned over and said, ‘I have a sentence I’d like you to invert for me.’ And we went upstairs to her suite and steamed up the windows for a while. The woman had fabulous legs and her other features were pretty good too. Hemingway was passed out on the couch. I slipped a ladyfinger in his shirt pocket. She was crazy about me, and so were some others in that Hollywood crowd, but why look back? Now I’ve got Shochine and I’ve never been happier.”

This was before he broke up with Shochine and took up with Louise Twelve Trees.

He gave me the nickname Prairie Dog and he’d ring me up around 5:30 on a Friday afternoon and holler into the phone, “Come on, Skip, let’s go get our pant-legs wet,” and off we’d go to the 79th Street Boat Basin with a sack of grub and a bottle of bourbon and boarded the Shawnee and cast off the lines and motored down the Hudson. “Ain’t this the life!” he said. “To hell with Harvard and fuck the fact-checkers, let’s have a party!” He got out of his suit and into shorts and a black muscle shirt as midtown Manhattan slid past on the port side, the cross streets like corn rows, and when 43rd passed, we yelled, “Boogers!” and hooked little fingers. Around Canal Street I hoisted the mainsail and we caught fresh wind at the Battery and flew around Governors Island and out under the Verrazano Bridge to sea and he sang out, “The sun’s over the yardarm, Prairie Dog!” and I broke out the bourbon and poured two china cups full and he drew a chestful of salt air and started talking.

“I’m a hunted man. Crazy magazine’s got me jumping like a poisoned rat in a coffee can. Some fool stuck his head in my office today and asked what’s the difference between a solecism and a solipsism. Go spend a week with a dictionary I told him. A writer is supposed to know the English language, dang it.”

I asked him about the perils of success and how fame and fortune seem to dig a deeper hole for a guy. I was thinking of J.D. Salinger and J.F. Powers, two heavy hitters who hadn’t been heard from for a long long time.

“They’re swinging too hard. Trying to aim the ball.” He hawked and spat. “Listen, kid. Every writer I know is on a winding mountain road in the fog, headlights on high beam, worried about plunging over the cliff. That’s what it means to be in the business. Some of these bozos get confused about their capabilities, like a sumo wrestler trying to run the 440 low hurdles. Or they wind up as preachers pandering to high-minded dipshits. The Betterment of Man is the worst motive for writing.Better to write out of sheer cussedness and fling a cherry bomb into the ladies’ latrine and make them all jump out of their camisoles than climb into the pulpit and pontificate about the sun and moon and the Milky Way and the meaning of it all.

“John O’Hara had it about right. The purest motivation for a writer is to earn a pile of money. Which of course makes you the target of envy and you wind up with gobs of spit on your shoes and you don’t win the Pulitzer and critics spitball you for the rest of your life. But what the hell. You can cry on your way to the bank.”

Mr. Shawn walked to the rail and looked at the houses of Brooklyn as it slipped past in the twilight. “That’s Bay Ridge,” he said, pointing to a low rise. “I was in love with a lady who lived there. Bright red nail polish and curlicue hair and some of the nicest epidermis you ever saw. Met her at a party at Norman Mailer’s. What an arrogant blowhole he was before I slapped him around a little. He was coming on to the Brooklyn girl at that party and I had to take him outside and give him a nosebleed. Now the guy can almost write sometimes. My gosh, she was an angel. I’d be sailing along and she’d come swimming out from Coney Island with her clothes tied on top of her head. Not that the woman needed clothes. My gosh.

“Andy White used to come sailing with me sometimes and then I caught him below decks writing a Talk of the Town piece about the sea and the skyline and what not and I threw him over the side. The guy was what you might call over-sensitive. Wrote that crazy Elements of Style that screwed up millions of college kids. Cleanliness, accuracy, brevity — my aunt Sally. Somebody told him he was a great prose stylist and it went to his head and he devoted his life to painting Easter eggs. Him and Strunk have screwed up more writers than gin and Scotch combined. You take that Elements of Style too seriously and you’ll get so you spend three days trying to write a simple thank-you note.

If I were teaching college composition, my first assignment would be: write something that would horrify E. B. White. Write a scene in which a man backs his pickup to the edge of Yosemite and dumps a load of empties into a stand of Ansel Adams birch trees. Make it gutsy and wild and to hell with brevity. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words — what a prissy idea of literature! Tell it to Tolstoy! Damn it, am I drunk or what? Pour me another.” I refilled his cup.

“I have spent my entire adult life trying to make writers look good. Salinger! Capote! Hersey! Rachel Carson! The world hailed them as visionaries! All I can say is: YOU SHOULD’VE SEEN THE FIRST DRAFT, FOLKS! Man is conceived in ignorance and born into squalor and grief and it goes downhill from there. I was Mama and Daddy to those guys, I lent them lunch money and balanced their checkbooks and fended off old lovers and saved their bacon more than once, meanwhile I took their manuscripts, which had all the elegance of wet cardboard, and pressed them into shape and they were hailed as giants, and I was scorned as a balding obsessive-compulsive dwarf with an agoraphobia problem. Writers come in here, hat in hand, hairy-legged realists and agony queens and cloud gazers, and their egos are frail and feverish and they expect to be treated like undiscovered geniuses and if you tell them the straight truth and say ‘I ain’t printing this shit!’ they never forgive you. They lie in ambush, dreaming up demeaning anecdotes about you, hoping to review your autobiography in the Times so they can piss on your shoes.”

“You’re the greatest editor of the twentieth century,” I said with a degree of sincerity. “You’re my main man, Mr. Shawn. If nobody else does it, I will write your autobiography myself.”

“I never wanted to edit,” he said. “All I ever wanted was to go out on a boat with a bottle of bourbon and fish.”

We got through the Verrazano Narrows and tossed out a line and he pulled in a fine sea bass (“Chilean,” he said, removing the hook from its lip) and he told me how he’d fished with Hemingway in the Keys and had to show him how to jig for grouper and meanwhile I cleaned the fish and grilled it on a hibachi in the cockpit as Mr. Shawn played Gershwin and Kern and Porter on his concertina and then I hollered, “Eats is ready, Mr. Shawn baby!” and he and I sat on the deck and ate the fish with raw onions doused in gin between slices of pumpernickel and got good and tight.

Mr. Shawn took me golfing at the Westchester Country Club. He had a beautiful swing. To correct for some bursitis in his left shoulder, he adjusted his stance about 18 degrees clockwise and turned his right foot in and pinned a lead sinker to the bill of his cap, which hung down like a plumb bob, helping him to keep his shoulders level.

“Some people only know me from people’s memoirs of life at The New Yorker, and in the office I try to impersonate a spooky little recluse who obsesses over commas and semicolons,” he said, “but my big loves are fishing and women and golf and what I obsess over is my swing.”

It took him a minute to set himself up for the shot. He picked up some grass and tossed it to test the wind, got his feet dug in, adjusted the plumb bob, and waggled the club a few times. “I whipped Updike’s ass but good. Many times. He’s a yakker, you know. Likes to stand behind you on the tee and just as you get your feet planted, he’ll say something like ‘That sand trap sure reminds me of the crotch of a woman I knew once’ and try to throw you mentally off your game, but here’s what you do to shut a guy up—” And Mr. Shawn hit a beautiful drive that flew straight and long and dropped and rolled and rolled, a dream shot, and he marched down the fairway and hit a five-iron to the green, and then a long putt that curved and caught the corner of the cup and fell in for a birdie, meanwhile I had topped my tee shot and sent it dribbling twenty yards and then laced it into the neighboring fairway and wound up with an 8.

He turned to me as he shoved the putter in his bag. “Writers like to think that writing is like Arctic exploration or flying the Atlantic solo but actually it’s more like golf. You’ve got to go out and do it every day and live by the results. You can brood over it but in the end you’ve got to take the club out of the bag and take your swing. You hit the ball to where it wants to go, a series of eighteen small steel cups recessed in turf, on a course that others have traversed before you. You are not the first. You accomplish this by making big mistakes and turning them into advantages and overcoming your damn self-consciousness.”

He teed up and tied the lead weight to his cap and turned 18 degrees and set the back foot and waggled the club and hit a 200-yard beauty straight down the fairway.

“I can tell that you’re of the self-consciousness school,” he said.

“Oh?” I replied.

“Guys who spend a lifetime lining up a four-foot putt, reading the bent of the grass, the wind, the planets, checking out the geologic formations below, and then they tap the ball and it rolls eighteen feet into a mud puddle.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, I said.

“Talking about your writing, Mr. Wyler. You’ve got the problem so many English majors have. You’re all fluttery inside. You suffer from a girlish sensibility. Your writing is all mannered and fussy and .”

“Girlish?” I was shocked.

I didn’t write much for a long time after that. Words wouldn’t come. I sat in my office and thought about writing but nothing happened. Every morning, walking along West 43rd Street, I saw men sitting in doorways on scraps of cardboard, begging, jiggling change in paper cups, and one old-timer with a sign against his chest, FORMER NEW YORKER WRITER DOWN ON LUCK. WILLING TO REMINISCE FOR FOOD. I gave him a five-dollar bill. “Once I was just like you,” he said, “and then I was on the street. Take it from one who knows, a person can fall a great distance in a short time. It happens all the time. Former stars of stage and screen hustling their next cup of java. Nothing fades faster than reputation, boy. Tempus goes fugiting along and your chins drop, your rave reviews turn dry and yellow and your name becomes a trivia question. So be kind to your inferiors because someday you’ll have to ask them for a dollar for coffee.”

Three weeks after Mr. Shawn said my writing was girlish, he told me to go to Alaska and write about it. “Get out there in the Alaska wilderness and climb those mountains and cross those vast frozen wastes and camp with the migrating caribou and meet the aboriginal peoples and go north until you can go no farther and pitch your tent and look at death and spit in its eye. Don’t you come back here and write some fitful 1,500-word showpiece of puissant sensibility and irony and ambiguity, some half-assed feuilleton about Canada. Sit your butt down in the tent with a paper and pencil and a bottle of rock ‘n’rye and write your damn heart out and come back here with 100,000 words and none of them modifiers and I’ll print the whole damn thing, and if the boys at the Century Club don’t like it, let them shake their wattles all they like. You understand me, boy?”

So I flew to Seattle and sat in the airport and a girl sat down next to me. Her name was Alana, her high cheekbones were flush with vitality and her lips were broad and full. I didn’t want her to be attracted to me but she was. She sat next to me on the plane to Juneau. “I can’t talk to you,” I said. “I’m writing for The New Yorker, I have to focus on my experiences so I can write.”

“I’d love to be an experience someone writes about in The New Yorker,” she remarked. I said that I was already in a relationship, one that begins with the letter M, and had no interest in fooling around. “Life doesn’t always turn out according to plan,” she said.

It was a rough ride. Juneau was socked in by clouds and the plane hurtled down through 10,000 feet of murk into a narrow mountain pass, jagged ridges visible at three o’clock and nine—the wheels lowered, the ground still not visible, and then the plane began to shake violently—I caught a glimpse of a pale flight attendant weeping and holding a rosary to her lips—the cockpit door flew open and the copilot stuck his head into the lavatory and cast up his lunch—a serving cart tore loose from its moorings and careened down the aisle, scattering ice and hot coffee—the plane rolled over to one side, then the other—there was wailing and gnashing—and Alana took my hand and told me she loved me, and she felt we must affirm life in the face of death—and she unbuttoned her blouse as the plane groaned and rolled and we groped and kissed passionately as it pitched and bucked and her blouse was off and my face was crimson with lipstick when finally the plane bounced twice on the tarmac and rolled to the terminal and I zipped up my fly and staggered into the terminal full of profound feelings and she and I took a courtesy van to a place called Dave’s Wilderness Lodge and tumbled into bed for more turbulence and slept for twelve hours and did it all over again.

“It was a good experience for you, wasn’t it,” she said. “I certainly felt it had literary qualities.”

“Well, I don’t know. It strikes me as unreal.”

“I want to be as meaningful for you as any other wilderness experience,” she said. “And it’s okay if you use my real name and everything.”

Two weeks, day after day, night after night, Alana and I shacked up at the Wilderness Lodge. I walked up and down the trail a little but I have never been good at the identification of birds or trees, and after two weeks, the Alaska piece seemed to be mostly about me and Alana. It began:

“What the heck are you doing in Alaska?” the old-timer said to us at the urinal in the Malamute Saloon one Sunday night not long ago after we had come down from two weeks on the Chilkoot Trail and found the bar made famous by the late Robert W. Service in his poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” once a staple of amateur recitations, at least in this midwesterner’s boyhood, and ordered a pint of beer.

There was quite a bit about the Lodge and saunas and sleeping naked and and “taking Mr. Scroggins to town in the pink convertible.”

Mr. Shawn called me the next morning. “What does ‘getting the pole in the tent flap’ mean?” he asked. “And how about ‘parallel parking’?”

“I can tell that you don’t like it,” I said.

He said, “Don’t give it a thought. It was a warm-up piece. Alaska got your juices going. You’ll come back to New York and find something you really care about and everything will be jim-dandy.”

That was Mr. Shawn for you. The guy was a font of hope. He had unlimited faith in writers and their ability to work things out eventually, or if not unlimited, then darned near unlimited, certainly more than 65 percent.

I tiptoed out of the Pinecone Room while Alana was asleep and flew back to New York and took a taxi to The New Yorker to find the staff in ferment, people huddled in the hallway on the 17th floor whispering, office doors closed, secretaries weeping, urgent memos circulating and a petition to the publisher, Mr. Tony Crossandotti, pleading with him not to fire Mr. Shawn. And a note from Mr. Updike: “Keillor — Call me. John.” It thrilled me. A note from my hero, signed, by his first name.

I found Mr. Shawn in his office, his head out the window, elbows on the sill, watching a fire blazing out of control a few blocks away. Two hook and ladders were in the street, apparatus raised, pouring water on the blaze. Billows of smoke drifted westward.

Vanity Fair,” he said. “One of those dang celebrity rags. Somebody must’ve left a curling iron on and set fire to the glossies. Used to date a woman who worked there. A nice person but naïve. You worried about her having to cross busy streets. And of course the magazine is a piece of shit. Celebrity profiles, edited by the subject’s publicist.”

“Why were you fired, Mr. Shawn?”

“I wasn’t,” he said.

He reached down behind the galley proofs, the Webster’s 2nd Unabridged, and a photo of Dietrich, and took out a bottle of Jim Beam and a couple Dixie cups and poured us drinks.

“I fell in love,” he said. “I’m going to LA. to marry her. Ever hear of a songwriter named Joni Mitchell?” And he sang to me—

Pickle jars and foreign cars
The sun is setting here on Mars.
The saffron in the consommé
God, I love a rainy day
It’s raining on the jungle gyms
The tile roofs and spreading limbs
What can I say?
Just one more lonely lady in LA.

“How can you leave us in the hands of Tony Crossandotti?” I said. “The man is a beast. He doesn’t understand writers.”

“Neither do I,” said Mr. Shawn. “You, for example. You don’t learn from experience, Wyler. You’re a guy who’s capable of singing his song and doing his dance but you go crashing around trying to be all things to all people—and then suddenly you can’t write anymore. Big surprise.

“Anyway, I’m done with it. Meeting Joni changed everything. Life is too short to spend it trying to protect the inept from the insensitive. She and I are going to make a beautiful life in Topanga Canyon and enjoy the dappled foliage and the flickering shadows and water running over rocks, and you knuckleheads can edit yourselves.” He drained his cup of whiskey and grinned and shook my hand. “Go home, Wyler. New York is too rough for you. Go back to Minnesota. And learn how to fish.”

Updike’s office was packed with staff members when I got there and I had to squeeze in between Trillin and Salinger, who were perched on the windowsill.

“Here’s the situation,” said a lady with long braids who I think was Penelope Gilliatt or else it was Veronica Geng. “Crossandotti told Shawn that there were too many short stories in the magazine in which people take trains. Or they come back from Ireland and sit and recall a conversation they had with somebody in County Sligo. Somebody on a train. ‘Train travel is dead in this country,’ he tells Shawn. ‘And what’s the big deal about Ireland? You need more stories in which people fish and hunt and get laid.’ So Crossandotti is replacing Shawn with a guy from Field and Stream.”

“How can he do this?” said Trillin. “Even for a publisher, this is insane.”

The lady laughed. “Publishers care about writing the way bears care about butterflies.”

“What in God’s name can we do?” said Powers. “We’re screwed. Might as well move to Ireland.”

Pauline Kael looked slowly around the room. “Imagine this as a movie,” she said. “You’ve got yourself a peaceful little town and this gangster moves in and pushes people around to see how far he can go. And then somebody comes in and sizes up the situation and walks across 44th Street and faces the bully down. And somebody in this room is that person.” She looked at me. So did Updike.

“Well, shoot,” I said. “It sure seems to me that we can’t sit by and let this fella wreck a great American magazine like The New Yorker.”

Updike said, “We’ve taken a vote, Mr. Keillor, and decided you’re the shooter. The rest of us have books coming out, lecture tours, awards to receive — you seem to be going through a dry spell. Maybe homicide can help. There’s a pistol in your desk. Head over to the Algonquin and when he’s not looking, perforate him two or three times. Being a tall person, you can get a good angle. Aim for vital organs. If you’re caught, the rest of us will testify that you were under horrible stress and that you simply snapped. You’ll spend a year or two in a mental hospital and be released and you’ll have material for a best-seller.”

How could I say no?

When I got to my office to pick up the gun, there was a note on my door:

Keillor: Understand you drew the assignment to shoot yrs truly. Well, I’m waiting, Mr Numb Nuts. So write out your Last Will and Testament and leave it on your chair where the mourners can find it and don’t worry about putting on clean underwear. It ain’t going to be clean for long. Tony

Updike stuck his head in my door to see how I was and I said I was fine. I was filling my mind with murderous thoughts and preparing to do the deed.

“Don’t screw this up. It’s extremely important. Everybody at The New Yorker is counting on you. American literature is counting on you. J.D. McClatchy at the Academy of Arts and Letters called to wish you well. Philip Roth wants you to whack this bastard and so does Edward Hoagland. And Michiko Kakutani from the Times.

“Miss Kakutani called? About me?”

“Yes.”

“Consider the trigger pulled,” I said.

“We don’t want to open up The New Yorker someday and find a photograph of two guys in a boat on Lake Mille Lacs holding up a stringer of walleyes, do we?”

“No, sir.”

“The magazine that was home to Edmund Wilson and Richard Rovere, telling people what kind of bait to use for rock bass?”

I promised to do what I said I’d do. I said, “After I kill him, could I possibly call you John? If the answer is no, I would certainly understand, but I’d love to be able to do that.”

“Yes,” he said. “Certainly.”

And so I stood up, cheeks burning, and crossed 44th Street and walked into the Algonquin, where the lobby was empty except for Tony Crossandotti sitting in a wingback chair near the door to the Oak Room surrounded by six empty beer bottles and a pile of pistachio shells on the floor. He had just sprayed himself with cologne and slicked back his hair. He stood up. “Mr. Keillor,” he said. It was right then, facing him ten feet away, I realized I’d forgotten my pistol in my desk drawer.

“I was afraid you had gotten engrossed in a long book,” he said. He looked me over. “You have broccoli on your lapel,” he said. He brushed it away with a pinkie. “How long you been going around with broccoli on your lapel? I would think someone would point this out.”

“You just did,” I said, “and I’m grateful. I wouldn’t expect an asshole like you to take an interest in my personal grooming.”

“I don’t think I heard you clearly.” His breath was very rank. It reeked of beer and pistachios and something else — actually, it smelled of blood.

“Assholes like you, Mr. Crossandotti. People who take a good magazine and beat the shit out of it.”

“Let me give you a word of advice,” he said. “You maybe shouldn’t have come here, seeing as you’re so upset. You maybe should’ve headed over to France on a Guggenheim for a couple years. You could easily get yourself shot in the ear hole for saying things like that. Not by me. I’m a pussycat. But maybe some person loyal to me might hear about what you just said and come after you and blow a hole in your skull.” There was an odd vibrato in his voice, a sort of throbbing in the pineal gland.

“What I’m going to do for you,” he said, tapping me on the chest, “is teach you about gun safety.”

I said, “Mr. Crossandotti, what you’re going to do is leave The New Yorker alone. It’s a great American institution. So tell your Field & Stream guy to go sit on his thumb and find somebody smart to edit the magazine.”

“Hey. Thanks for the opinion. But I’m concerned about you. Let me demonstrate the workings of a pistol and give you a tip or two about firearm safety. Let us step into the Oak Room so as not to alarm the tourists.”

The lobby was deserted except for a man and a woman, English majors by the looks of them, stealing a few coasters for souvenirs.

“Fuck off!” Tony yelled. “Or I’ll rip the lungs out of your chests. Hers first.” They flapped away like startled pigeons.

I said, “Right after you teach me about gun safety, I’ll call up the Times and inform them that you are taking a well-deserved sabbatical in Weehawken and that you’ve agreed to let the staff of The New Yorker elect a new editor.”

“Hey. I appreciate your interest, Keillor. All what you know about publishing would about fit in a cockroach’s left nostril, but never mind. Come this way and let me show you how to wrest a .45 revolver away from a crazed attacker.”

He grabbed my sleeve and started to pull me toward the Oak Room. He was pretty riled and that was my plan, insofar as I had one — to infuriate him until he was frothing at the mouth and pissing his pants and then—do something sudden and violent and unexpected like shoving my forefinger in his eye socket. Or tripping him. Or maybe a sharp blow to the nose with the heel of the hand, driving the nasal bone into the frontal lobe and causing extreme disorientation and then death. I had a number of possibilities in mind.

He towed me into the Oak Room and pulled out his pistol and aimed it at the ceiling and said, “The first lesson in how to deal with a guy who is stronger than you and smarter than you and who is just about to blow a big hole in your ear is not to let yourself be drawn into the type of situation where it’s you and him alone in a room with no other people, okay? That’s the thing you want to avoid.”

“Got it,” I said.

“Number two: don’t attempt to distract him with a sudden move or coughing fit or that old trick of looking over his shoulder and saying, ‘Hi, Jim!’—that works in cartoons, it doesn’t work in real life. Number three: don’t have illusions about your own strength. Some guys, from having watched Alan Ladd movies, get the idea that they could hurl themselves at somebody and knock him to the floor. In your case, this just fucking ain’t gonna happen. It would be like a parakeet hurling itself at a late-model Chevrolet. Strictly unproductive in the larger scheme of things.”

He was about to get to No. 4 when a man walks in with a big Leica around his neck and says, “Is this the room where Dorothy Parker and Benchley and Woollcott and George Kaufman and Marc Connelly and Harpo Marx and Edna Ferber and their friends used to gather for the famous Algonquin Round Table? Which table was that, exactly? I’ve read so much about them and their witty bon mots and how much Harold Ross admired them but it was he, the roughneck from Colorado, who started The New Yorker and those great wits are largely forgotten today.” And Tony yells, “Who gives a fuck! Get your ass out of here or I’ll blow it off you one cheek at a time.”

The guy says, “I’m sorry, but are you talking to me?”

“Get your ass out of here, I said.”

“We came all the way from Minnesota to see the Round Table. Is that a problem? Is now not a good time?”

Tony yells, “Get the hell out!”

“I’m sorry” the guy says. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just came in to take a picture. We’re New Yorker readers, going back years and years. My gosh, I grew up with the magazine. A big fan of A.J. Liebling and Wolcott Gibbs and Frank Sullivan. And I loved Benchley. And all of them.” And then he recognized me. “Aren’t you an author yourself?” he said.

“Yes, I’m Garrison Keillor,” I said. “I’m from Minnesota as well.”

“Right,” he said. “You used to do that radio show. What was it called? We used to listen to it sometimes.” He turned to ask his wife, but she was gone.

Tony held up the gun so the guy could see it. “This ain’t some book club or discussion group you walked into, this is a gangland-style execution. This is something you definitely don’t want to be a witness to because if you are, I would need to blow you away too. You hear me?”

“I loved when you used to tell stories about that little town, Lake Wabasso or whatever it was,” the guy said. “I grew up on a farm near Morris. You ever get out that way?”

“Not as often as I’d like. I wish I were there right now”

Tony is miffed. He stamps his foot.

“Hey,” he says. “You ever hear of the fucking Mafia?”

The guy said he had seen The Godfather, the first one, but thought the book was better.

“Brando was good and Duvall, but the rest of it was a piece of crap,” says Tony. “Only guy who can write about that stuff is Elmore Leonard.”

“Is he an actor?”

“Elmore Leonard?” Tony looks at me. “I cannot believe this yahoo never heard of Elmore Leonard.”

“Does he write for The New Yorker?” the guy said.

“You never heard of Elmore Leonard? You’re bullshitting me.”

Tony was saying something in Italian that sounded like a curse for when somebody spits in your mother’s tomato sauce. Either that, or a recipe for ground glass. And he was poking the gun in the guy’s ribs.

“Hey,” the guy said. “I can take a hint. Don’t get all hot and bothered. I can come back another time. We’re here for the whole week. I apologize for the trouble. Have a nice day, okay?”

And that was when I killed Tony, when the man said, “Have a nice day, okay?” Tony sort of lost control of himself at that point. He threw his head back and snarled and his arm twitched, and I grabbed the wrist of his gun hand and he yanked with all his strength and in the process pulled the gun down and shot himself in the forehead. The room goes boom and Tony falls down like a load of fresh sod and the guy says, “What happened to him?”

I said, “He tripped on a wrinkle in the carpet. It happens all the time.”

“Is he all right?”

“He’s better than he’s been in a long time. He’s resting now let’s tiptoe out and leave him to his thoughts.”

And Tony opens one red eye and says, “You’ll never write for my magazine again, Mr. Keillor.”

I tried to think of a witty retort—Oh? Really? Who died and made you editor?—and his head rolled to one side and he was out of here, he’d left the building. A powerful publishing tycoon murdered by a second-rate writer. Accidental, in a way, but in another way, quite deliberate. I certainly had homicide in mind when I entered the Algonquin, but the manner in which it happened was unintended so probably it’d be second- or third-degree manslaughter. My defense lawyer would argue that Tony, in resisting my attempt to disarm him, had caused his own demise, and the jury would deliberate for ten minutes and I’d go scot-free and soon thereafter would be waylaid by a van full of shooters and my bullet-riddled body lie on 90th Street, with punctured containers of chicken salad and tabouli strewn from hell to breakfast.

“Should we call an ambulance?” the guy says.

“The hotel will take care of it.”

I leaned down and opened Tony’s jacket and got a roll of bills out of his breast pocket. No sense leaving it for the cops. “Just making sure he’s got cab money,” I say to the guy. I’d never seen ten-thousand-dollar bills before. I didn’t know Reagan’s picture was on them. “I sure never expected something like this,” the guy says to his wife, and then remembered she wasn’t there, so he went to look for her.

The money came to $128,656. I stuck it in my pocket and thought to myself, This whole thing would make a good story, except I’d change it and make the murder more deliberate. I’d have the writer struggle with the tycoon and trip him and the tycoon’s noggin would bonk the leg of the sideboard and the tycoon eyes glaze and the writer snatch up the pistol and kill him. Or hold him until the cops arrive. Or maybe kill him, but with a fork. And I wouldn’t have me be a writer. Maybe a choreographer or composer. A more lethal line of work.

I walked out through the lobby. A bellman had locked the front door and pulled the drapes, and waiters had put up partitions to shield the brunch crowd in the Rose Room. A man in a black suit got off the elevator pushing a wheelbarrow He went in and got Tony and covered him with a tablecloth and wheeled him out to the curb and laid him in the backseat of a taxi and gave the cabbie some bills and away he went. The janitor tore up the carpet Tony died on and laid a black rug there and set a table on the rug. The place was back in business in ten minutes. That’s New York for you. When we die, we leave a hole behind that it takes them less than half an hour to fill. I turned left on 44th Street past the man with the sign FORMER NEW YORKER WRITER DOWN ON LUCK and I dropped $40 in his lap. I felt good. While I as a Christian am opposed to homicide, nonetheless the death of Tony Crossandotti was for the good of journalism. The New Yorker would live on, thanks to me. But I would have to leave New York. Publishing tycoons would be gunning for me after I offed one of their own and I’d be safer in St. Paul because New Yorkers are not sure exactly where it is. They keep getting it mixed up with Omaha.

So R.I.P. Tony Crossandotti. Good-bye to Manhattan and 25 West 43rd. Goodbye, Rainbow Room and Tower Records and H&H Bagels and Scribner’s beautiful bookstore on Fifth Avenue with the wrought-iron railing around the balcony. Goodbye to all that. I return to Minnesota, home of humorous, charitable, modest, soft-spoken people. A state on the same longitude as Italy, with the same slant of light that moved Raphael and Michelangelo illuminating our trees in the afternoon. A state of passionate hockey teams and world-class choirs where, God willing, I shall gain some clarity and lead a happy productive life.

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She loves me enough so I live in New York

I’m a Minnesotan and I live in New York because my wife is in love with me and she loves New York. It is exactly that simple. She loves opera and fine art and interesting foods and observing human eccentricity and you don’t find much of that out in the Corn Belt.

I don’t belong here. People hear me talk and can tell I’m an outsider because I pronounce it “tock” whereas they say “towalk” and also because I say, “After you, please, go right ahead, I’m in no hurry” and New Yorkers say, “Watcher back!” and at a dinner party New Yorkers all talk over each other, conversations are multilayered, and I, who was brought up to wait my turn, sit silently for three hours and the other guests go home wondering, “Who was the weird guy? Obviously a non-English speaker.”

New Yorkers exercise freedom of speech; I don’t. The other night, at a French restaurant, I ordered cassoulet and paid $24 for a bowl of beans with chunks of pork, rather inferior to the casserole Mabel served to the kids in the grade school cafeteria for which I paid 35 cents at the time. My dinner companions asked, “How is it?” and I said, “Excellent,” because I was brought up not to complain. Maybe in another ten years I’ll call the waiter over and say, “Take this back to the kitchen and take it off my bill.” I will be 89, an age at which one should be able to speak one’s mind.

But I’m okay being out of place. My dad once said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to live in New York,” and as a postal clerk, he was probably right about that, but love makes the difference.

I admire New Yorkers. I went to the Bronx to see the Minnesota Twins get crushed by the Yanks and on the D train up to the ballpark, packed in tight with people avoiding contact despite being less than six inches apart, the train sways and a Black woman’s elbow bumps my chest and I observe the tattoos on her neck and feel a sense of solidarity: not a word is spoken. A Minnesotan would hesitate to mention her race for fear of being considered racist but I did and it is what it is and if you don’t like it, sue me.

It’s astonishing that the city works as well as it does. We hail a cab and go to the Met and for less than we’d pay for a flight to Des Moines, we see a great performance of “Rigoletto,” which, for me, is more memorable than a night in Des Moines could be, and Rigoletto is a great baritone role, and as a baritone I appreciate that, and the assassin is played by a basso who sings the longest lowest note in opera and the audience goes wild, very rare that subterranean singing evokes such enthusiasm. It’s a great evening and we exit, thrilled, into the chilly night and wave down a cab and are transported jiggety-jig back home. COVID is raging around us, but we wore our masks through the show, and we’re feeling fine.

There’s a crisis in New York every day, sometimes three or four. Some water mains go back to Victorian times and a pipe bursts or lightning strikes and the power goes out or giant rats come up out of a toilet, but New Yorkers learn to endure. You lose power and you light candles, a water main bursts and your faucet goes dry so you get along on gin for a day or two. A good dog should be able to occupy an attacking rat until you can grab a hair dryer and scare the rodent away, unless the power is out in which case you whack it with a leaf from the dining room table, but if there’s no water, even more rats may come up out of the toilet, and you’ll have to reach for the acetylene torch you keep under the bed and take on the whole herd. New Yorkers live with the anticipation of crisis, and when a day goes by without one, it feels luxurious.

And that’s how I feel at this very moment. No rats, water comes out of the tap, lights are on, my love lies in bed beside me. She reaches over and takes my hand. This is a very good day.

 

My mother told me and now I'll tell you

January is a peaceful month, too cold to go anywhere so I sit in my spacious chair with a quilt around me, still in my pajamas at two in the afternoon, eating guacamole with tortilla chips and contributing nothing whatsoever to civilization or to the GNP, except for the occasional limerick.

January is good for the soul,
Down in my warm rabbit hole.
In a pillowy bed
From toes to head
I keep myself under control.

Christmas is gone and the illusion that childhood innocence can be recovered (it can’t) and we’re free of obligatory joyfulness and able to savor sadness again and relish our loneliness in this uncaring world, and the meals are penitential meals because my pants got too tight and my shirt wouldn’t button at the neck, so it’s time for celery and Ry-Krisp and herbal tea, which give a sweet sense of righteousness, which is good for vanity, feeling that the jowl is shrinking and lard that hangs over the belt is gradually coming under control and this — dare I mention it? — leads to inclinations of an erotic nature, something that disgusts you children, the thought that an old coot and his lady would commingle skin to skin and whisper and sigh and moan and even shriek for joy, but this is why we’re grateful when the Christmas guests go home and we needn’t stifle our pleasures.

February’s in view,
Two valentines, me and you,
Lie down for a nap
And whisper and wrap
Ourselves in each other
And kiss and O brother,
It’s thrilling and utterly new.

Winter is the most beautiful time of year, if it’s beauty you want, trees and bushes on the morning after a blizzard, the entire world brilliant with snow, and if the sun shines, it is a transformative experience, if that’s what you wish, but of course if you want parking lots and taco joints and concrete condos and boredom, then Florida is for you.

The world is lightening up but these long dark evenings are a lovely time of day, especially for those of us who had industriousness baked into us in childhood, but when the sun sets at five p.m., the old drudge sets the manuscript aside and lights a candle and the lady pours a glass of wine and it’s time for conversation, which is at the heart of a good marriage and a kid brought up evangelical, believing that God is paying close attention to every word that comes out of your mouth, writing it down, giving you D-minuses, carries a terrible disability, but I am trying, I am trying.

I stay indoors in January out of fear I’ll forget what my mother told me as a small child — Do not, under any circumstance, even if someone dares you, do not, do not, do not put your tongue on an iron pump handle or railing.

If you do, your tongue will freeze to the metal and you will be trapped and you may spend the night there, tongue frozen to iron, and they will find your body in the morning, and your grieving family will ask, “Why? Why us?” to which there is no answer.

And now I regret mentioning this. For having warned you of the danger, I’ve planted the idea of handle-tonguing in your mind and you may reject my advice and say (1) it’s my tongue and I’ll do what I want with it, or (2) it’s no worse than having a cold, or (3) if it’s God’s will that I lick a pump handle, then I will, or (4) I read on Twitter that some doctors say that handle-licking may be beneficial, and tomorrow when you go out and see a pump handle or iron railing you’ll be unable to stop yourself from walking up to it and — so forget what I said. Erase it from your mind. Stop reading. Find something else to do. Snort some methamphetamine, toss back a pint of bourbon, smoke reefer — there are treatment programs for those bad habits, but there is no AA program for Arctic Adherence. No. The answer is to stay indoors. But if you must leave the house, be sure to wear a mask over your nose and mouth, but not a paper or cloth mask, you need an iron mask, one with a lock. Your breath will warm it and keep you safe. Leave the key at home.

A beautiful afternoon is good for the heart 

Dire warnings of crowded ERs in New York, a fresh plague of COVID is raging in the streets, but a person can’t live in a closet and on Saturday we went to the opera against our better judgment and it was an excellent thing to do. The Met is back in business and a lady walked out on stage to remind us to keep our masks on and people applauded — we feared she’d announce the show was canceled, but no, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro went on with a heroic cast, Italian, Czech, English, American, some singers who maybe hadn’t been on a stage for a year or more, and all told it was pretty fabulous. Mozart wrote it two years before our Constitution was ratified and people are still laughing at the jokes. The Constitution is a work in progress but Figaro is a masterpiece.

Performing arts companies all over are striving to be politically proper these days, and practice inclusivity and diversity, and here’s a comedy with servants in it and romantic shenanigans and all is resolved in the end with a sweet chorus along the lines of “Let’s forgive each other and all be happy,” especially sweet since in 1786 when Mozart wrote it diseases were raging for which there were no vaccines and people languished in debtors’ prisons and small children worked in factories and people felt lucky to live to be 40. Mozart died at 35 from an infection treated today by antibiotics. And the piece is gorgeous and funny as can be. I sat next to my wife who once played violin on an opera tour of forty consecutive Figaros and she laughed through it all.

The Count is arranging a tryst with Susanna and the Countess sings the gorgeous lament of the betrayed wife, “Dove sono i bei momenti” (Where have those beautiful moments gone of sweetness and pleasure and why, despite his lying tongue, do the happy memories not fade?), a moment of sheer transcendent heartbreaking beauty and then you’re back to the slapstick, the baritone’s lust for the soprano, people hiding behind curtains, the seductive note, the wife plotting revenge.

With COVID going on, the Met is working like crazy to stay in business. A singer tests positive and a sub has to be ready in the wings and new rehearsals scheduled to work him or her into the complexity of the staging, and this happens over and over, and the sub cannot be Peggy Sue from Waterloo, the sub must be a pro and a principal who is up to par, and so singers have been brought in to cover the crucial roles, and a soprano might cover the Countess in Figaro and Musetta in La Bohème, two major roles and she must be prepared — in the event the lead tests positive for COVID — to go onstage tonight in one opera or tomorrow night in the other, two demanding roles in her head and a sheaf of stage directions, and maybe she’s living out of a suitcase in lockdown, and staying away from unmasked strangers, meanwhile the Met is playing to half-empty houses due to fears of the virus, and this is not a small matter. The Metropolitan Opera is the standard-bearer of the art form in America. If it goes under, something fabulous and thrilling is lost in our country. There is a battle going on; it’s a story you could write an opera about.

If you consider opera elitist, then I guess passionate feeling is elitist and we should all be content to be cool and lead a life of Whatever. Pop music is cool, but opera is out to break your heart. I saw William Bolcom’s A View From The Bridge a couple years ago and I’m still a mess. Renée Fleming did the same to me in Der Rosenkavalier.

I am no student of opera, only a tourist, and I’m from the Midwest, the home of emotional withdrawal, where I grew up among serious Bible scholars for whom the result of scholarship was schism and bitterness, and now I go to a church where I am often overwhelmed by the hymns, the prayers for healing, the exchange of peace, a church full of Piskers but sometimes the sanctuary is so joyful and we stand for the benediction and, as Mozart wrote, let us forgive each other and go and be happy, and let us also, for God’s sake, get vaccinated. Do it for the sake of the soprano’s children so she can come out and break your heart.

A man walking through a big city snowstorm

A beautiful snow fell in Manhattan on Epiphany, the feast of light, and the city was cheerful that morning and my cabdriver said out of the blue, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re here and that’s what matters,” which is extraordinary coming from a cabdriver, an epiphany. I worry about cabdrivers in the Uber age. I hear him talking top-speed in a Slavic tongue and wonder how much he’s invested in this cab and can he earn it back by picking up people hailing him on street corners. I doubt it.

I am an American, born and bred, and as such am romantic about the little entrepreneur, the corner grocer, the stationery store around the corner, the independent druggist, but Amazon is ever at your fingertips and if you type a word beginning with the letters A-M its central computer the size of Detroit trembles with amatory anticipation or if someone in the room says, “I wonder where we could find —” it is picked up by the company’s satellites circling the globe that send out transactional vibrations and before long the website is on your screen and it reads your unconscious and without your checking a single box, $1345.34 worth of merchandise is due to arrive on your doorstep tomorrow by 8 a.m.

That’s what made me love it years ago, the sheer ease of shopping there, no need for a password — Amazon knows me!! — it knows my weakness for Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls and ginger tea and medical romance novels and it makes shopping so easy that I cannot not do it — but now I look around the neighborhood and see For Rent signs on storefronts and I read about the death toll caused by lack of exercise due to online shopping and hear about the working conditions in the slave labor camps and realize that in a few years, Jeff Bezos will hold enough U.S. federal bonds to have a voice in naming the next Secretary of the Treasury and why should the Federalist Society own the Supreme Court? Why shouldn’t Amazon have a seat?

Amazon is its own nation within the U.S. and is making ours a retail economy and soon American manufacturing will be limited to frozen pizza, plastics, and personal memoirs, and one day Premier Xi Jinping will FaceTime Joe from Beijing and say, “Ahem. You want to tell us how to run Hong Kong, fine, but we embargo clothing.” And the prospect of Americans huddled in blankets is not a happy one. Our lust for Chinese-made clothing, cellphones, computers, and cars will settle the matter. We cannot live without them and they can very well live without Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls and personal memoirs by pitiful persons in Pittsburgh, Paterson, and Petaluma. End of story.

I walked around looking at the snow and noticed people flocking to the hardware store to buy plastic sliders and tiny toboggans. Amazon sells this stuff but not instantly and a snowstorm is urgently exciting because snow doesn’t last long in New York, it turns to slush in a day or two, and little kids on their way home from school are trembling to get out in the park and slide. Little kids growing up in tiny apartments where a parent or two are working from home, consultants working by Zoom, novelists, psychiatrists doing phone therapy, unemployed theater critics, theologians on sabbatical, copywriters, content providers, whatever, and no whooping or shrieking is allowed, the poor children’s spirits are stifled by TV and Twitter, but then it snows and they dash into the great outdoors, a slider in hand, and in their excitement they forget their cellphones at home, and now they are reliving my Minnesota childhood on the slopes of Central Park, whooping, crashing around, throwing snowballs, deliriously free as children need to discover how to be.

We’re in the midst of a revolt by superstition against science, which is dragging the pandemic on for a while, and the cynical fiction of the stolen election is another downer, but those lunacies seem more feverish in the tepid states. A good hard winter is a restorative. You entertain paranoid delusions but then you realize that if you slip and fall and bang your head and lie helpless in the cold, someone will come to rescue you and won’t ask your political leaning. A good snowfall for Epiphany is a big boost. Speak the truth and the truth shall set you free. In the other direction is a place you do not want to go.

 

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

January 27, 2022

Thursday

12:00 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center (Lobby), Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA Luncheon

Garrison Keillor will join guests for a casual Luncheon in the Lobby of the Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, where he will talk about how it all began and where he thinks he is going. 12:00 PM

January 28, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopefuls (Robin and Linda Williams) comes to the Carrollton Cultural Arts Center for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

February 4, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

High Point Theatre, High Point, NC

High Point, NC

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet come to the High Point Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

February 5, 2022

Saturday

7:00 PM

The Wayne Theatre, Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro, VA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet come to The Wayne Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:00PM

buy tickets

February 6, 2022

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

The Avalon Theatre

Easton, MD

Garrison Keillor comes to The Avalon Theatre in Easton, MD for an Evening of poetry, Sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $60

March 4, 2022

Friday

8:00 p.m.

The Kent Stage, Kent, OH

Kent, OH

March 4 in Kent, OH Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

March 6, 2022

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

Virginia Theatre, Champaign, IL

Champaign, IL

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

Radio

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Writing

She loves me enough so I live in New York

I’m a Minnesotan and I live in New York because my wife is in love with me and she loves New York. It is exactly that simple. She loves opera and fine art and interesting foods and observing human eccentricity and you don’t find much of that out in the Corn Belt.

I don’t belong here. People hear me talk and can tell I’m an outsider because I pronounce it “tock” whereas they say “towalk” and also because I say, “After you, please, go right ahead, I’m in no hurry” and New Yorkers say, “Watcher back!” and at a dinner party New Yorkers all talk over each other, conversations are multilayered, and I, who was brought up to wait my turn, sit silently for three hours and the other guests go home wondering, “Who was the weird guy? Obviously a non-English speaker.”

Read More

My mother told me and now I’ll tell you

January is a peaceful month, too cold to go anywhere so I sit in my spacious chair with a quilt around me, still in my pajamas at two in the afternoon, eating guacamole with tortilla chips and contributing nothing whatsoever to civilization or to the GNP, except for the occasional limerick.

January is good for the soul,/Down in my warm rabbit hole./In a pillowy bed/From toes to head/I keep myself under control.

Read More

A beautiful afternoon is good for the heart

Dire warnings of crowded ERs in New York, a fresh plague of COVID is raging in the streets, but a person can’t live in a closet and on Saturday we went to the opera against our better judgment and it was an excellent thing to do. The Met is back in business and a lady walked out on stage to remind us to keep our masks on and people applauded — we feared she’d announce the show was canceled, but no, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro went on with a heroic cast, Italian, Czech, English, American, some singers who maybe hadn’t been on a stage for a year or more, and all told it was pretty fabulous. Mozart wrote it two years before our Constitution was ratified and people are still laughing at the jokes. The Constitution is a work in progress but Figaro is a masterpiece.

Performing arts companies all over are striving to be politically proper these days, and practice inclusivity and diversity, and here’s a comedy with servants in it and romantic shenanigans and all is resolved in the end with a sweet chorus along the lines of “Let’s forgive each other and all be happy,” especially sweet since in 1786 when Mozart wrote it diseases were raging for which there were no vaccines and people languished in debtors’ prisons and small children worked in factories and people felt lucky to live to be 40. Mozart died at 35 from an infection treated today by antibiotics. And the piece is gorgeous and funny as can be. I sat next to my wife who once played violin on an opera tour of forty consecutive Figaros and she laughed through it all.

Read More

A man walking through a big city snowstorm

A beautiful snow fell in Manhattan on Epiphany, the feast of light, and the city was cheerful that morning and my cabdriver said out of the blue, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re here and that’s what matters,” which is extraordinary coming from a cabdriver, an epiphany. I worry about cabdrivers in the Uber age. I hear him talking top-speed in a Slavic tongue and wonder how much he’s invested in this cab and can he earn it back by picking up people hailing him on street corners. I doubt it.

I am an American, born and bred, and as such am romantic about the little entrepreneur, the corner grocer, the stationery store around the corner, the independent druggist, but Amazon is ever at your fingertips and if you type a word beginning with the letters A-M its central computer the size of Detroit trembles with amatory anticipation or if someone in the room says, “I wonder where we could find —” it is picked up by the company’s satellites circling the globe that send out transactional vibrations and before long the website is on your screen and it reads your unconscious and without your checking a single box, $1345.34 worth of merchandise is due to arrive on your doorstep tomorrow by 8 a.m.

Read More

Why Washington needs more snowstorms

It’s always satisfying to see our nation’s capital hit by a good hard snowstorm and imagine powerful men trying to shovel their way out of a snowbank. It’s a parable right out of Scripture, Let the powerful have a sense of humor for each in turn shall be made helpless.

It was front-page in the papers and the subhead said that a U.S. senator had been stranded overnight on the interstate. The blockage of an interstate is the true measure of a serious storm and the headline writer tossed in the senator as further evidence, but it only made me wish there had been numerous senators — say, those from Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the five states least accomplished at snow motorism, and if the Senate had come to session the next morning, our nation would get moving again, one blockage breaking a logjam. But it was only a Democrat from Virginia, giving Mitch McConnell a one-vote edge, and there is no vacancy on the Supreme Court, so he didn’t need it.

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Meditation while waiting for coffee to brew

I was in Clearwater Beach, Florida, the morning of the 31st, listening to coffee drip, looking out the picture window at a parking lot, and saw a squirrel sitting on top of a telephone pole at eye level fifteen feet away, looking at me. On the beach, men with metal detectors searched for lost diamond rings and gold ingots. The squirrel had no good reason to be on top of a pole and I had no reason to be in Florida and the men on the beach kept moving along and not finding anything, we were all just spending time, and eventually the squirrel went racing along a cable to a nearby roof and I flew back home and I assume the men found something else to do, maybe watch football and drink Harvey Wallbangers.

Time flies by, the planet is spinning faster, it’s 11 a.m. and then suddenly it’s 3:30, so I try to eliminate wasted time such as the hours I spend rustling around for postage stamps and meanwhile getting engrossed in a stack of rejection letters from editors, time that if I saved it I could spend it on nobler things, such as writing less about myself and more about social responsibility. But first I have to clean out my email box, which is laden every morning with notes like “The reason I’m running for county attorney in Rome, Georgia is …” and I, who don’t live anywhere near Georgia nor do I wish to, must unsubscribe from that mailing list, which requires four separate steps and in the time it takes to do it, I see that four more fundraising emails have appeared, all written by programmers and sent to hundreds of thousands on mailing lists bought by campaigns and it’s like being attacked by a cloud of deerflies.

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Forget auld acquaintance, forge onward

New Year’s Day is an occasion nobody knows what to do with and so is the Eve that precedes it. I used to go to parties where we gathered around someone with a guitar and sang about broken romance and drank until the liquor was gone and the next day I awoke in a fog to watch football with other inert men but I gave all that up long ago. Gradually, a person edits out stuff that makes no sense and I scratched football, Florida vacations, artichokes, science fiction, pocket billiards, and broadcast journalism, and thus life became more and more interesting. It’s been forty years since I watched a football game. Twenty since I put the bottle away. These changes make one hopeful for the future. And here we are, looking around at 2022.

Call me naïve but I’ve been around for three score and ten plus nine years and I believe in progress. I was impressed when science found a way to put shampoo and conditioner into one bottle and when the cranberry and raisin married to form the craisin. I still rejoice at the ease of long-distance phone calls — we don’t even use the term “long distance” anymore — I’m astonished when my daughter FaceTimes me from London as I sit in a café in New York, and in our capitalist society, why does this not cost $35.75 a minute? A miracle.

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Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80 preview

Garrison’s newest book on the unexpected pleasures of aging. A perfect gift book for Keillor fans and those approaching their older years!

Read the preface here

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You make me happy when skies are gray

I’m happy to wear a COVID mask, having gone through life with a grim mug due to my childhood spent listening to sermons about the End Times, and the mask lets people imagine I’m smiling, and so everyone is friendlier. I’ve tried to smile into a mirror and it looks like the leer on a landlord’s face as he throws the penniless tenant out into the snow. My mother hoped I’d be a teacher but I would’ve terrified the children so I went into radio. A good move.

I went to the dentist’s office last week and was astonished by the photos of smiling faces on the wall — how do people manage to do this? A grin that shows upper teeth, even gums! So the mask makes me normal. I may get a flesh-colored one with a smiling mouth on it and wear it after COVID is history.

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I am dreaming of a light Christmas

I love Christmas because my mother did and she fought for it against her fundamentalist husband who felt it was worldly and unscriptural, but Grace loved the stockings and tree, the wrappings, the songs, the dinner, and all the more for the fact that her mother died when my mother was seven. Twelve children racked with grief, a grim household in south Minneapolis, which made the festivity all the more precious.

It was interesting to hear this annual argument between two people who loved each other dearly. I knew that, doctrinally, Dad was correct but Mother’s position was one of love, and love prevailed, and we had Christmas year after year.

I’ve had some dismal Christmases. The Christmas of the goose, when I took the goose out of the oven and hot grease spilled on my wrist and I dropped it and the glass baking dish broke and the goose skidded across the kitchen floor collecting cat hair and glass fragments. One year we did a Dickensian Christmas, had a tree with candles, did a group reading of A Christmas Carol and discovered that Scrooge has all the good lines, and nobody wants to be a Cratchit, they are such wimps. The reading was interrupted by screams — the tree was on fire. Candles make sense if you have a freshly cut tree and ours had been harvested in September in Quebec. But the fire rescued us from Dickens so all was well.

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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