In New Marlborough, Garrison Keillor talks accusations, #MeToo movement

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NEW MARLBOROUGH — No matter what really happened, the price was high.

He lost a publishing contract, a newspaper column and his spot on Minnesota Public Radio. "It's injustice on behalf of a good cause," said Garrison Keillor, the humorist and author, in a sold-out event with author Simon Winchester Saturday at the Village Meetinghouse.

"The way you change behavior is to whack prominent men with a two-by-four. You don't change behavior by beating up on construction workers, bus drivers, or men who whistle at women."

Keillor, 77, opened up after Winchester delicately steered the talk toward this particular version of a #MeToo scandal, which Keillor says isn't the "classic MeToo."

He tried to explain the sexual misconduct allegations that got him booted: The woman had been a friend for two decades. There were some problems. Someone else was trying to extort MPR for $1 million with it. "MPR panicked."

It was this landing in a heap of trouble over allegations that drew an audience of nearly 300 to Saturday's show. They came to hear what he had to say about it.

"I didn't think it was right to close the door on him," said audience member Jane Burke, after the Music & More series event hosted by the New Marlborough Village Association.

Whatever Keillor did or didn't do, he said that "the payment for this is very steep."

Winchester, a Sandisfield resident who invited Keillor to the interview, said last week that the event had come under attack over the sexual misconduct allegation that led to his dismissal from MPR in 2017. Some wanted it canceled.

But instead, they warmly received him, and learned some things.

Keillor was a middle child in a large family growing up "in the sticks." This helped him practice invisibility. "And when I went into radio I achieved it," he said.

His real name, however, is Gary, and he wanted it changed. So he looked in the dictionary.

"I just liked the idea of a place where troops were quartered," he said, noting that "arsenal" might not have been as elegant. His new name also kept the FBI off his back for draft dodging, he said.

These are just a few bits that drew laughter.

Keillor, of "Prairie Home Companion" fame, might have lost that job. But he hasn't lost that soulful storytelling voice, nor his humor, nor a depth of feeling. Nor the deadpan expression we never see.

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He wore red socks — so did Winchester — and a red tie and scarf.

The audience loved him. Outside the Village Meetinghouse afterward, they said his entanglement in a #MeToo scandal was just a "kerfuffle" in a world with more important things to complain about.

Winchester was also clearly moved to be in the presence of that voice that caused him to fill his study with even more books after learning of this or that poet from Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" recitations — "Because you read the poem," Winchester said.

The audience nodded along with him; they knew the feeling. They have a better grip on poetry because of Keillor.

Keillor told stories about his childhood growing up listening to radio shows and roaming the countryside, his early publication in The New Yorker, how much he loves John Cheever, and how this radio career of his started in the first place ("I got the idea from the Grand Ole Opry.")

He prepares his stories and monologues by writing about five pages "single-spaced" then leaving it.

"There's no need to ever take paper in front of an audience," he said, noting that, in contrast, pastors in the Episcopal Church stand at the pulpit and read their homilies.

Forgiveness was thick in the meetinghouse. Keillor was there talking, a live person not behind a "legal firewall," as Winchester had put it last week.

They got to hear what Keillor's wife thinks. He said she told him that in the old days, "sexual harassment was part of everyday life," and this is how it got handled: "You have to know how to say 'No,' you have to know how to say, 'Get your hand off me.'"

Now, here we are in a world that "has gone completely mad," because even some Argentinians want to restructure the tango to make it less man-driven, as Winchester noted.

Despite it all, Keillor's career is on the rebound, though he took issue with the idea that he even has a "career."

He said his career is done — that he's still swimming in the current of his devotion and calling. He's working on a memoir and a musical.

"I'm simply having a good time," he said. "When you have what you love, you lose ambition."

And think how many poems he has in his head. Keillor couldn't help himself — he recited Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" all the way from the top.

"You do not have to be good ... "

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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