On this day 73 years ago, storyteller/author/musician/professional hometowner Garrison Keillor was born in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, or so he’d have us believe. (Anoka, Minnesota is his actual birthplace.)
For more than 40 years, Keillor has served as public radio’s correspondent to yesteryear (a post which, very sadly, he recently announced he’s giving up). Despite the thousands of Keillor's own stories that you've probably heard, there might yet be a few things you don’t know about the man behind those yarns.
1. HIS NAME IS NOT GARRISON KEILLOR.
His legal name—officially and continuously since birth—is actually Gary Edward Keillor. But to his millions of fans, he will always go by the name that he proudly picked for himself at age 13: Garrison.
2. HE ONCE LIVED IN A HALFWAY HOUSE.
As Keillor told The Atlantic in 1997, his post-grad job hunt kicked off with a month-long “funny trip” to New York City, during which he wrote "tryout" pieces for The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated—all while lodging in “a boarding house on West 19th Street that turned out to be a halfway house for people getting out of the loony bin.” He recalled:
“The residents sat in the dayroom, stunned by Thorazine, and jabbered; I sat and recorded some of their thoughts, imagining that I'd write a story about this. One man claimed to have known Dorothy Parker. I listened to him talk about Dotty for hours, trying to decide if he was telling the truth or not, and finally decided I didn't care.”
3. PLAYGIRL NAMED HIM ONE OF THE SEXIEST MEN ALIVE IN 1986.
As The Telegraph reported, the "foremost shy person and good-looking man of mythical Lake Wobegon" made the list alongside Bruce Willis, Michael J. Fox, Donald Trump, Billy Crystal, Don Ameche, and Bob Dole. While Playgirl officials stated that the year's list was based on "a sexuality beyond looks," Keillor's friends and colleagues were still "baffled."
"I'm ... surprised," Minnesota Public Radio Bill Kling president told The Telegraph. "Good thing it's a radio show and not on television so we can keep his attractiveness a Twin Cities secret." Howard Mohr, a fellow writer and performer on “A Prairie Home Companion,” shared his theory of how the sultry spokesman for Powder Milk Biscuits made the list: "I haven't noticed he has an amazing effect on women, but I haven't paid any attention to that. His voice is probably what's attractive to women. But there's no explaining public taste."
4. HE HAS A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH WRITING.
During an onstage interview with The Paris Review in 1994, the accomplished author was asked if the process of writing is a pleasurable one for him—a query that the famously smooth-talking radio host had some trouble answering:
“Sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be; you still have to do your work. [Making deadlines] can be pleasurable, but only if the material you write is good. If it’s not, you’re filled with self-loathing. If the material is good and funny, you still loathe yourself, of course, for writing comedy and lighthearted fluff instead of writing serious and loathsome fiction, but ... What was your question?”
5. HE MOVED TO DENMARK TO ESCAPE THE BURDENS OF FAME.
Published in June of 1985, Lake Wobegon Days sold more than one million copies in one year, turning the well-liked radio host into a bona fide celebrity—a lifestyle that didn’t sit well with Keillor. “Keillor said he felt forced to give up his home when the local press took too much interest in his private life," wrote The Hour. "'It bewildered me. I had no idea what they were aiming at,' said Keillor."
Much to his fans’ disappointment, Keillor indeed left the show—and the country—between 1987 and 1989, living with then-wife Ulla Skaerved in her native Denmark. Speaking via satellite at a press conference for his “A Prairie Home Companion: Lake Wobegon Comes to Disney” event, Keillor explained the benefits of immersing oneself in anonymity:
"Well, if you've ever been to a country where they don't speak English as a rule, and if you have made your living all these years writing and talking in English, it's a great vacation to go and listen to a foreign language for a while. It just relieves you of any responsibility to be intelligent. You can just be handsome for a change ... Everybody ought to have Denmark as a possibility out there in the future somewhere—wherever you think you might need it."
In the end, though, America's small-town comforts are essential for Keillor. As he points out in We Are Still Married: Stories and Letters, “Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”