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.


Rest in Peace, Butch Thompson

 

The most elegant gentleman to come out of Minnesota, Mr. Butch Thompson, died yesterday in St. Paul. He picked up the New Orleans spirit listening to Jelly Roll Morton 78s and carried it through the 20th into the 21st century. He was a pianist and a clarinetist, the piano for the bounce, the clarinet for the blues, and if he could've he would've played both at the same time. We worked together for years, a quiet man, and I never knew him except through his music. God bless the memory, God preserve the music.

–GK

Born and raised in Marine-on-St. Croix, a small Minnesota river town, Butch Thompson was playing Christmas carols on his mother’s upright piano by age three, and began formal lessons at six. He picked up the clarinet in high school and led his first jazz group, “Shirt Thompson and His Sleeves,” as a senior.

After high school, he joined the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band of Minneapolis, and at 18 made his first visit to New Orleans, where he became one of the few non-New Orleanians to perform at Preservation Hall during the 1960s and ’70s.

In 1974, he joined the staff as the house pianist of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. By 1980, the show was nationally syndicated, and the Butch Thompson Trio was the house band, a position the group held for the next six years.

From the early days on APHC, Butch remembers, “It was pretty casual back then. Margaret or somebody would call me and ask if I was busy on Saturday. More than once I remember saying I couldn’t get there by showtime, and being told to show up as soon as I could. Sometimes I’d go onstage without remembering what key something was in. If Garrison was going to sing, I usually couldn’t go wrong with E major.”

By the late ’90s, Thompson was known as a leading authority on early jazz. He served as a development consultant on the 1992 Broadway hit Jelly’s Last Jam, which starred Gregory Hines. He also joined the touring company of the off-Broadway hit Jelly Roll! The Music and the Man, playing several runs with that show in New York and other cities through 1997.

The Village Voice described Butch’s music as “beguiling piano Americana from an interpreter who knows that Bix was more than an impressionist and Fats was more than a buffoon.”

 


 

 

Available Now: BOOM TOWN by Garrison Keillor!

In Garrison Keillor’s newest novel, Boom Town, we return to Lake Wobegon, famous from decades of monologues on the classic radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

**Available in Hardcover, Audiobook, and eReader formats**

Lake Wobegon is having a boom year thanks to millennial entrepreneurship—AuntMildred’s.com Gourmet Meatloaf, for example, or Universal Fire, makers of artisanal firewood seasoned with sea salt. Meanwhile, the author flies in to give eulogies at the funerals of five classmates, including a couple whom he disliked, and he finds a wave of narcissism crashing on the rocks of Lutheran stoicism. He is restored by the humor and grace of his old girlfriend Arlene and a visit from his wife, Giselle, who arrives from New York for a big love scene in an old lake cabin.

 

Praise for Boom Town:

“Wonderfully over-the-top. Blisteringly funny, acute, and true. Keillor’s speaking to us with encouragement and empathy about the American life. But at the same time, he’s got our number that way he’s always had it. This book is a tonic.” —Richard Ford

 

“You can’t go home again unless you’re Garrison Keillor and home is Lake Wobegon. Then, of course, it is imperative that you do so—and we are fortunate indeed to tag along and share in the final chapter of the most fascinating and compelling characters ever conjured from the most vivid imagination of America’s greatest storyteller!

In Boom Town, we are invited to catch up as Garrison gets caught up with all of those beautifully flawed human beings that populate and promulgate their mythical town where all the women are finally accounted for, all the men are self-realized or died trying, and all the children are still way above average.” —Martin Sheen

 

Read the first chapter for free >>>

Purchase Boom Town Hardcover >>>

Download the audiobook as mp3s  >>>

Listen to the audiobook via Audible >>>

Read it on Kindle >>>

 

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Sick in a hotel, thinking back

I spent the weekend in Fort Lauderdale in a low-rent hotel with many families with small children and numerous college kids who seemed confused, even alarmed, when I got on an elevator and said, “Good morning” to them, as I was brought up to do but that was back in the 20th century. Every time I crossed through the lobby I heard Christmas songs like “it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you,” which strikes a Minnesotan as peculiar and then on Sunday I tested positive for COVID so I had other things to think about. I have the good fortune to be related to a doctor. His father, my uncle, was a doctor, and ordinarily you’d expect a doctor’s son to pursue a radical new course, perhaps as a thrash-metal guitarist, but his upbringing was not traumatic enough to drive him in that direction and instead he devoted himself to caring for the unwell, of which, Sunday, I was one. I called, he answered, he phoned in an order for Paxlovid to a Fort Lauderdale pharmacy, and spared me a long miserable wait in an ER while doctors attend to serious injury. I was scheduled to do a show Sunday night and I wanted to do it though I felt wretchedly ill. I was sure that hearing the audience laugh would make me feel better, but the venue has a No-Co policy in place, and I wouldn’t want others to catch my virus, so suddenly I was unemployed and far from home. I was planning to tell the audience about winter in my childhood, when I rode a sleigh through blinding snow to get to school and the driver avoided the swamp where gangsters hung out hoping to kidnap children and hold them for ransom but nobody paid ransom because families back then were so large, ten or fifteen kids, because there was nothing else to do for six months so they bred for amusement. I was born an Olson but one day the sleigh was attacked by masked men and the driver whipped the horses and they bolted and they wouldn’t stop and I was dropped off at the Keillors instead, many miles away, and they already had eleven kids and I slipped into the family unnoticed because I was a very polite child and no trouble to anybody, and I was glad to become one of them. The Olsons were a shifty lot who talked nonsense and the Keillors were honest as the day is long. This would’ve been a good story for the college kids to hear but of course they have no interest in listening to an old man talk about the 20th. To them, 1964 is next door to 1864 and the Civil War whereas to me it’s the year the Beatles arrived and after the bitterness of the assassination of President Kennedy the previous November and the rise of the old hack LBJ, the utter cheerfulness of the Liverpool skiffle band was so delightful, it caused euphoria among teenage girls, songs that said I want to hold your hand ’cause when you touch me I feel happy inside, it’s such a feeling that my love can’t hide, which I still feel about my sweet woman. In my shows, if I sing “There are places I remember,” the audience joins in and sings all of “In My Life,” word perfect, and the same with “Who knows how long I’ve loved you” and “Well, she was just seventeen if you know what I mean,” the whole songs, with great pleasure, and though I don’t fancy myself a singer, I do it because it makes the crowd so happy. Amid the violence and political dysfunction and eco-crises of the 21st, the whole wretched legacy we leave to the grandkids, we recall a moment of light-heartedness before Vietnam descended on us. I’ve had dark times in my life, mostly of my own making but I don’t recall them with any clarity, unlike the moment in 1997 I stood in the delivery room of the hospital and held a naked infant daughter in my hands and all the times I sang duets with my friend Heather, a tall woman, and we stood eye to eye, and she made me briefly sound almost like a singer, and the day in August I spent with my wife Jenny, just the two of us on the front porch of a little house on the bank of the Connecticut river, observing my 80th birthday. We drank our coffee, watching a family of foxes playing tag in the yard, talking a little, we held hands and so forth, but it was a beautiful day. I wish you kids the same.

Winter is here, thank goodness, P.T.L.

Minnesota got a good dousing of snow this week but not the light dry sparkly snow that inspires jollity but the heavy snow that tangles up air travel and leads to delays and cancellations and you see ordinary sensible well-dressed people sleeping on floors at the airport, their heads on knapsacks, our friends and neighbors turned into homeless refugees. I was on a flight out of MSP to LaGuardia, which got delayed a couple hours due to 50 mph winds in New York City but people didn’t complain: the thought of dramatic turbulence, the plane bouncing and shaking, grown men grim-faced, agnostics praying devoutly, children excited by the roller coaster ride, as we descend low over a body of water, is something we’re glad to avoid. Pilots don’t use the word “turbulence” — I imagine company lawyers sent them a memo — they refer to “a few bumps” but we passengers know better, so we were in good humor as we unboarded the plane we’d boarded twenty minutes before and camped out in the gate area to await further developments.

I’m an old man and so the airport of today is fascinating to me. Believe it or not, I remember when we’d walk into the terminal and go straight to the gate to welcome Uncle Bud and Aunt Betty when they flew in on a propeller aircraft for Christmas. There were no metal detectors, no uniformed security searching your bags and yelling at you to remove your shoes; back then, TSA stood for Talk Softly Always, and now I come through a scanning machine and a government agent says, “I need to pat down your inner thighs.”

Ordinarily if a man said that to me, I’d report him to authorities, but he happened to be the authority and I didn’t want to take the Greyhound to New York so I succumbed to being patted down. He did it briskly, without any intimations of affection, and I picked up my stuff and put my belt on and headed for the gate to board and unboard and wait for clearance.

It was a very congenial wait. A fiftyish woman in a heavy parka spoke to me and asked me what she should do in New York. Minnesota women don’t speak to strange men and so this was a surprise and what was sort of amazing was that she took me for a New Yorker. I told her to avoid Times Square, to walk around Central Park and if she likes tap-dancing to see “Some Like It Hot” and hang the expense. She said she’d never been to the city before.

“Why now?” I said. She said she was going there to see her brother whom she hadn’t seen for eight years and try to reconcile with him.

It was a sweet encounter, one person telling a story to another, and somehow the snowfall and the travel delay played a role in it. There is nothing like the unexpected to bring out the best in people. I’m not the friendliest person you ever met but I smiled at people, said hi to people who said hi to me, and though I heard some grammatical errors, a plural pronoun where singular was appropriate, “lay” used when “lie” was meant, I didn’t correct them. If someone’s hair had caught fire, I would’ve used my cup of latte to extinguish it and not asked for compensation.

I sat by Gate C1 and considered maybe starting up a sing-along, maybe “Leaving on a Jet Plane” but then thought no, some women might resent singing “So kiss me and smile for me” with men they don’t even know, so I didn’t, and then we reboarded in a festive mood, ready for whatever New York throws at us. I feel sorry for Florida, which is devoid of snowstorms that promote fellowship.

Our snowbirds sit in a wasteland of parking lots and shopping malls and conversation dies for lack of anything to talk about. I feel terrible whenever I read about a Minnesotan eaten by an alligator that slipped out of the water hazard at the country club and attacked the guy in the sand trap and devoured him, yellow pants and all. A golf club is no defense against these beasts. There are 1.3 million gators in Florida and they’re attracted to aged Northerners because we use older brands of cologne that make us smell fruity. I’m heading for Fort Lauderdale tomorrow. Kiss me before I go.

There's money in dystopia but so what?

One advantage for us Christians of living in New York is that we’re a small minority just like in early A.D. living among Romans and Turks so we can’t lord it over people. We walk quietly. If schools avoid using the word “Christmas,” we understand. Children walk past, cursing like truckers. We ignore it. In places where Christians form a powerful majority, they can bully and persecute with great enthusiasm, even though our Savior instructed us in kindness and charity.

I speak as an old man. Righteous intensity fades with age. We spend too much time wringing our hands over evil. I no longer read stories about What’s-His-Name. There’s nothing more to be learned about narcissism. Fascism is not that fascinating.

I met a guy in the subway not long ago whose headphones I could hear twenty feet away. We were waiting for a downtown train at West 86th Street. He was about fifty, balding on top but with an ambitious ponytail. He wore a Metallica T-shirt, the one with a skeleton performing a brain operation with a fork and knife, eating the patient’s brains. I’d recently had a heart operation to replace a mitral valve with one from a pig and I thought he might like to hear about it but it was hard to make contact. We boarded the train and he turned the music off and I asked him, politely, what he enjoyed about Metallica. He didn’t hear me; I had to speak loudly and clearly. He said, “It’s very beautiful, no matter what people think.” I got off at 42nd to go to the library. He continued on, perhaps to an auto-crushing plant or a crematorium. Someday he’ll achieve deafness, and then perhaps he’ll become a reader and maybe he’ll google Metallica and find this column.

 

Hello, sir.

A person has a right to enjoy music about hopelessness, but when I look at some lyrics, suddenly the serial killings start to make sense.

Nothing matters, no one else
I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free.

The kid who shot up the school in Texas, the night manager at the Walmart store who shot up his coworkers in the break room — it was about suicide and wanting the suicide to get attention. It’s sort of cheesy for millionaire musicians to crank out anthems to hopelessness — this isn’t the blues, it’s angry morbidity. But there it is.

I trust that you, sir, find some serenity in your silence. Perhaps you’ve taken up birdwatching. It’s a long way from thrash metal to thrushes and meadowlarks but the human imagination is capable of great leaps. I hope you’ve found someone to put his/her/their arms around you.

 

I went to the library that day and sat in the reading room, and I was the oldest in the room by far. Intense young scholars who I imagine may do the work needed to save this planet so that future generations can enjoy fantasies of violence if they wish. If the sea rises faster as the planet heats up, survival will take precedence over amusement. People will lose the liberty to be weird.

Two nights before, I had been in Palm Springs to give a speech and was reminiscing about the past and on an impulse I sang the words, “There are places I remember” and the audience sang the whole song with me. A thousand people knew the words to Lennon-McCartney’s “In My Life,” including the repeated last line with the high notes, “In my life, I love you more.” And then we sang “Silent Night,” all three verses. It brought me to tears, people united with strangers in beautiful works of art.

I wonder if, years from now, a crowd will sing Metallica songs for the pleasure of it.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, in Macedonia, to fix their minds on what is true and beautiful and I suppose they tried to do that, and eventually their city was destroyed by the Ottoman Empire and now, centuries later, the ottoman is just a footstool. The world changes and takes us with it. But the true and beautiful remains, more compelling than ever. Dystopia and mental distress are very much in fashion now and there seem to be no memoirs about a happy childhood, only trauma and displacement and broken hearts, and so be it. But comedy, which is a charitable deed, lasts longer. Knock knock. Who’s there? Metallica. Metallica who? Metallica doesn’t have a last name, it’s not a human, it’s abandoned.

An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

Back in my leather fringed vest days, I assumed I would die young and become immortal like Buddy Holly or James Dean, but I was too poor to afford a fast sports car or a chartered airplane, and soon I was too old to die young. I survived absurd self-consciousness, cold winters, hard labor for no money, a fondness for whiskey — and now on Sunday mornings when I’m in town, I go to church, a traditional one that offers extensive moments of silence. “Be still and know that I am God,” it says in Scripture, and we do. God often speaks in the stillness. We confess to ourselves that we are not in charge of our lives and we believe that a Greater Power is in charge who loves us and we shake hands with the people around us and walk home.

Back in the day, I went to public schools and so did everyone else and we sat in a classroom with all sorts of kids, there were no special tracks for the gifted and brilliant, they had to sit next to us dummies. We all sang out of the same songbook, we loved the one about the E-ri-e is a-rising and the gin is getting low and Dinah in the kitchen and the spacious skies and the grasshopper picking his teeth with a carpet tack. People my age know these songs by heart. I spoke at a college convocation once for Parents’ Weekend and realized when I got there that the speech I’d written was crappy, a Dare-To-Be-Different message they’d heard often enough, so I said, “Let’s just sing some songs that we all know,” and I led them in those old songs and I saw kids holding up cellphones, googling “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” because they’d been assigned to the Gifted Track back in fourth grade, which encouraged creativity and Daring To Be Different. The parents in the audience sang about Dinah and the land where my fathers died and “His truth is marching on” and roses love sunshine, violets love dew, and apparently enjoyed a sense of commonality that was denied to the gifted.

It’s a beautiful aspect of old age that you become more like other people than you wanted to be back when you were uniquely gifted. There is something about physical decrepitude and loss of acuity and a long memory and a sense of history that draws you together with kindred spirits. I often think of Leeds, Barry, Frankie, Corinne, my friends who died young, and wish they could’ve enjoyed old age. It’s worth the trouble.

I was the oldest person at our Thanksgiving table and I didn’t say much because the kids were so lively and funny and why bring them down with a lecture about the wonders of old age, including the fact that every morning is an occasion of gratitude. I’ll let them discover that for themselves, Lord willing.

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

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00 p.m.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

St. Louis, MO

A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show comes to the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, MO with Heather Masse, Rich Dworsky, Pat Donohue, Dean Magraw, Sue Scott, Fred Newman and Tim Russell. (Theater Event and Livestream available)

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00P (CT)/ 8:00P (ET)

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

LIVESTREAM – St. Louis (12/15)

Livestream available for our “A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show” Dec 15 show in St. Louis

January 7, 2023

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, Torrance, CA

Torrance, CA

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Torrance, CA. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unites us.

February 3, 2023

Friday

7:00 p.m.

The Holland Theatre, Bellefontaine, OH

Bellefontaine, OH

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Bellefontaine, OH for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 8, 2023

Wednesday

8:00 p.m.

Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO

Kansas City, MO

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Kansas City, MO for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 9, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Gillioz Theatre, Springfield, MO

Springfield, MO

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Springfield, MO for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 10, 2023

Friday

8:00 p.m.

Orpheum Theatre, Wichita, KS

Wichita, KS

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Wichita, KS for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 11, 2023

Saturday

7:00 p.m.

Bowlus Fine Arts Center, Iola, KS

Iola, KS

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Iola, KS for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 23, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Clayton Center for the Arts, Maryville, TN

Maryville, TN

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Maryville, TN for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 24, 2023

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Grand Theatre, Frankfort, KY

Frankfort, KY

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Frankfort, KY for 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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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Today is the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin, in the year 1896. With his brother George he wrote more than a dozen Broadway shows, including the memorable songs “I Got Rhythm”, “The Man I Love”, and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, December 5, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, December 5, 2022

“In the bleak midwinter/Frosty wind made moan,/Earth stood hard as iron,/Water like a stone;/Snow had fallen, snow on snow,/Snow on snow,/In the bleak midwinter/Long ago. — poet Christina Rossetti, born on this day in London in the year 1830.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 12, 2015

A Prairie Home Companion: December 12, 2015

A December Town Hall classic from 2015 with Keb’ Mo’, The DiGiallonardo Sisters and Heather Masse. 

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, December 4, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, December 4, 2022

Today is the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, born in Prague (1875). He made a career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, December 3,  2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, December 3,  2022

Neon lighting was first demonstrated on this date in 1910. It was invented by a Frenchman named Georges Claude, and he debuted it at a Paris auto show — which also happened to be the world’s first auto show.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, December 2, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, December 2, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 1, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

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Writing

Sick in a hotel room, thinking back

I spent the weekend in Fort Lauderdale in a low-rent hotel with many families with small children and numerous college kids who seemed confused, even alarmed, when I got on an elevator and said, “Good morning” to them, as I was brought up to do but that was back in the 20th century. Every time I crossed through the lobby I heard Christmas songs like “it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you,” which strikes a Minnesotan as peculiar and then on Sunday I tested positive for COVID so I had other things to think about.

I have the good fortune to be related to a doctor. His father, my uncle, was a doctor, and ordinarily you’d expect a doctor’s son to pursue a radical new course, perhaps as a thrash-metal guitarist, but his upbringing was not traumatic enough to drive him in that direction and instead he devoted himself to caring for the unwell, of which, Sunday, I was one. I called, he answered, he phoned in an order for Paxlovid to a Fort Lauderdale pharmacy, and spared me a long miserable wait in an ER while doctors attend to serious injury.

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Winter is here, thank goodness, P.T.L.

Minnesota got a good dousing of snow this week but not the light dry sparkly snow that inspires jollity but the heavy snow that tangles up air travel and leads to delays and cancellations and you see ordinary sensible well-dressed people sleeping on floors at the airport, their heads on knapsacks, our friends and neighbors turned into homeless refugees. I was on a flight out of MSP to LaGuardia, which got delayed a couple hours due to 50 mph winds in New York City but people didn’t complain: the thought of dramatic turbulence, the plane bouncing and shaking, grown men grim-faced, agnostics praying devoutly, children excited by the roller coaster ride, as we descend low over a body of water, is something we’re glad to avoid. Pilots don’t use the word “turbulence” — I imagine company lawyers sent them a memo — they refer to “a few bumps” but we passengers know better, so we were in good humor as we unboarded the plane we’d boarded twenty minutes before and camped out in the gate area to await further developments.

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There’s money in dystopia but so what?

One advantage for us Christians of living in New York is that we’re a small minority just like in early A.D. living among Romans and Turks so we can’t lord it over people. We walk quietly. If schools avoid using the word “Christmas,” we understand. Children walk past, cursing like truckers. We ignore it. In places where Christians form a powerful majority, they can bully and persecute with great enthusiasm, even though our Savior instructed us in kindness and charity.

I speak as an old man. Righteous intensity fades with age. We spend too much time wringing our hands over evil. I no longer read stories about What’s-His-Name. There’s nothing more to be learned about narcissism. Fascism is not that fascinating.

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An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

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Walking a crowded street in Gratitude

It surprises me, a man of pen and paper, that Twitter requires regular maintenance and without the attention of veteran software engineers could easily crash leaving millions of twitterers to write notes on paper, and would they be able to write with a pen or would they need to cut words out of a book and paste them on paper to make sentences, the way kidnappers do in the movies? You’d expect the Head Twit, the world’s richest man, to be smarter than to drive his new acquisition into a bridge abutment, but who knows?

The crises of the extremely rich are entertaining to the rest of us, such as the billionaire addicted to inhaling nitrous oxide, which inspired him to think he was crystallizing. And Mr. Amazon who wants to go to the moon. And the ex-president guy who has been there for years. This gives us in the back of the bus some reassurance that vast wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In so many critical ways, it’s good to be normal.

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Thank you, thank you, thank you

I come to Thanksgiving in a cheerful mood, counting the blessings, starting with the new pig valve Dr. Dearani’s team sewed into my heart three months ago, which enables me to type this sentence and saves some poor soul from eulogizing me and getting it all wrong. My legacy is that I sang gospel songs and told immature jokes on public radio and thereby took up arms against pretense. “There was a young man of Madras” and “How Great Thou Art,” I love them both dearly. It horrified thousands of managers and vice presidents but I got away with it.

As a Minnesotan, I’m aware that my state is the No. 1 producer of turkeys, an ugly ill-tempered bird with a sharp beak and a single-digit IQ and no redeeming qualities except the meat. Minnesota used to produce computers and semiconductors but then Apple and Microsoft took the business away, and now our state produces 45 million turkeys a year, which means that in early October, there is a possibility that the birds could rise up and take over. We have only six million people, many of them elderly and easily confused, and if a strong westerly wind hit the penal ranches and the fowl panicked and a feathery wave swept east toward the cities and the National Guard assembled a wall of snowplows along I-35 and the stampede flowed over the mountains of carcasses and ten or fifteen million birds hit Minneapolis, late-night comics would feast on us and my state, which gave you Prince and Robert Bly, would be a joke.

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What Mozart did for me last week. Thanks, Amadeus

I went to a play on Broadway this week, a matinee, and was impressed by the usher in our aisle downstairs who was elaborately kind to everyone, managing a stream of elderly customers confused by row numbers, pointing them to seats while maintaining pleasant small talk, reminding them to turn off their phones, directing them to washrooms (downstairs) or to the counter that offers hearing devices, handing out programs — his competence was stunning and dramatic — and he did it against the clock and never was caustic though he had a right to be, dealing with the dither.

As for the play, I guess it was trying to be a tragedy but there was a good deal of O MY GOD WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN overacting and professional actors trying out their Euro accents, working to make their part GRIPPING and the silences MEANINGFUL and after half an hour I checked out and thought about other things.

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Once again, Violetta does the right thing

We went to the Met to see La Traviata on Election Night and so did many other people and the Violetta was delicate and pure and commanded the stage right up to when she died and Verdi’s choruses were glorious and moving and he gives Violetta some heartbreaking unaccompanied passages, a lone soprano singing in the extensive acreage of the Met, it takes your breath away. Of course some people won’t recognize great art even if it tap-dances in the nude while handing out Eskimo bars but I tell you the truth, Act 3 was so stunning it took your mind completely off Herschel and Dr. Oz and Kari Lake and the doctor running for governor of Minnesota who doesn’t believe in immunization.

For months I’d been getting pleas for money from candidates besieged by evil and now I wanted to see the courtesan Violetta living in sin with Alfredo whose father begs her to leave him so Alfredo’s sister will not suffer shame and can marry, and the courtesan agrees, a sinner performing an act of charity, sung by soprano Nadine Sierra who is also a Lucia, Zerlina, Susanna, Gilda, and for all I know may be a D.A. in Atlanta.

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An idea, probably wrong, but it’s an idea

I’m thinking I should get to work on a museum of the era before the internet and cellphones and streaming music so that people under 40 know what it was like to talk on a phone with a cord on the kitchen wall and gossip without your mother understanding what it was about. People wrote on stationery with a pen back then, not a stationary bike but paper, wrote letters in a cursive hand to their grandmas and Grandma told you what fine handwriting you had. Now Grandma is happy if you stick with your birth gender and don’t get tangled up with fentanyl.

I’m not nostalgic for those days, I simply feel that you young people need to know some history. When I was 20, 60 years ago, I walked into the Capitol in Washington one evening and there was one cop sitting at a table inside the door, reading a book. There was no metal detector. Nowadays, they put up metal detectors at the doors to elementary schools. I’m not kidding.

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My thoughts after being cut down by a tree

I am feeling good about myself today, if you can believe that. I come from simple peasant stock in the middle of Minnesota (not the end of the world but you can see it from there) and I’ve lived my life with a severe sense of inferiority. My parents never praised me lest it lead to arrogance, and teachers didn’t praise us: if you got a good grade, you were simply working up to your ability, and our preachers didn’t tell us that God loves us, though Scripture says He does, but emphasized our abject iniquity. And so, though I’ve written a couple dozen books and done hundreds of radio shows, I never came away from one with a feeling of elation and if someone said, “That was terrific” (or “awesome” or even “rather good”) I shook my head and said, “I don’t think so,” which, as my wife said, was rude — when someone praises you, you should say “Thank you,” but I honestly felt that everything I did fell short. Until today.

It was a gorgeous October day in New York. I took a cab to an appointment at the podiatrist’s and got out of the cab and a moment later, as he pulled away up West 72nd Street, I realized that I didn’t have my billfold. I had had it in the back seat of the cab and I didn’t have it anymore. He was about thirty yards ahead of me and I did something I haven’t done in years — I broke into a run. I’m eighty years old, I had heart surgery two months ago, but the thought of having to replace credit cards and driver’s license and insurance cards was too awful to contemplate. At this age, one doesn’t have time to waste on the unnecessary. And I dreaded going home and saying, “I left my billfold in a cab,” which might lead to my beloved putting me under guardianship and hiring a walker to accompany me. All of this flashed in my mind, the tedium of replacement, the suspicion of dementia, and so I ran.

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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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