Garrison Keillor, one of the nation's most lauded humorists, was fired Wednesday by Minnesota Public Radio over allegations of "inappropriate behavior" that occurred while he was in charge of "A Prairie Home Companion," his long-running variety show heard nationwide by millions every week.
Keillor, 75, who retired from the show last year and did not respond to a request for comment, denied any wrongdoing but described what he believed to be the allegation against him in an email to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
"I put my hand on a woman's bare back," he wrote. "I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called."
Minnesota Public Radio did not immediately confirm whether this allegation was the reason for his firing and declined to give additional details on the accusation in question, including whether it was sexual in nature. The news broke hours after another enduring broadcaster, "Today" show host Matt Lauer, was fired by NBC for "inappropriate sexual behavior."
"Minnesota Public Radio is terminating its contracts with Garrison Keillor and his private media companies after recently learning of allegations of his inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him," said Angie Andresen, communications director for the station.
Keillor spent his career creating and tending to a fictional place called Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve." His radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," launched in 1974, stitched together old-timey jingles for fictional brands of biscuits and acoustic performances by guest musicians. But the heart of the show was Keillor's storytelling — a slow, artfully rambling monologue about a stoic heartland community.
By the 1980s, Keillor had won a Peabody, and the show was one of public radio's biggest cash cows — as popular as public-radio juggernauts "Car Talk" and "Marketplace," and capable of matching the audience of the Saturday TV baseball Game of the Week.
Keillor was shy, wry and unreadable in many ways, but his grave persona created an American enterprise as familiar and cozy as a hearth.
His program, despite its sense of place, was a road show, with a tractor-trailer full of sets and props and a traveling crew of stagehands, producers and performers who spent long hours together in college auditoriums, civic centers and hotel rooms.
Keillor has been married three times. One of his long-term girlfriends worked with him on the show. But three longtime members of the show's staff, who asked not to be named because they don't know the details of the new accusation, said that Keillor's shrinking demeanor and social awkwardness were a far more powerful part of his personality than any forwardness around women.
"The guy screams 'fatherly,' " one longtime female staffer said. "He was awkward and fascinating and lovely."
On the road, Keillor kept mainly to himself, holed up in his hotel room to write his weekly monologue. Writers would join him to work over material, but those encounters were often stilted and quiet, the co-workers said.
In 1994, Keillor addressed the National Press Club and defended Bill Clinton against a battery of accusations, calling him a "soulful man" who "got himself elected without scaring people." Keillor warned that society should try "not to make the world so fine and good that you and I can't enjoy living in it."
He added in his hangdog baritone: "A world in which there is no sexual harassment at all, is a world in which there will not be any flirtation. A world without thieves at all will not have entrepreneurs." Twenty-three years later — amid a reckoning of workplace behavior that has felled politicians, TV anchors and Hollywood heavies — a viewer is left to wonder: Was Keillor being straight, or satirical?
In 1998 Keillor wrote "Wobegon Boy," a novel about a radio host who is wrongly accused of sexual harassment and fired by his station.
On Tuesday, the day before his firing, The Washington Post published his opinion piece ridiculing the idea that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) should resign over allegations of sexual harassment.
Calls for Franken's head are "pure absurdity," Keillor wrote, "and the atrocity it leads to is a code of public deadliness."
Keillor, an avowed Democrat, last year became a weekly columnist for The Washington Post News Service and Syndicate — meaning he was a contract writer, not an employee with a desk in the newsroom. Many of his columns took mournful aim at President Trump, who "would have enjoyed the 17th century," when "the idea of privileged sexual aggression was common in high places."
Richard Aldacushion, general manager and editorial director of The Washington Post News Service and Syndicate, said there was no revision of its relationship with Keillor as of late Wednesday. The organization "takes the allegations against columnist Garrison Keillor seriously and is seeking more information about them," the syndicate told its clients Wednesday.
In his email to the Star-Tribune, Keillor shared other thoughts. "If I had a dollar for every woman who asked to take a selfie with me and who slipped an arm around me and let it drift down below the beltline, I'd have at least a hundred dollars," he wrote. "So this is poetic irony of a high order. But I'm just fine. I had a good long run and am grateful for it and for everything else."
Minnesota Public Radio said it has retained an outside law firm to conduct an "independent investigation" into the allegations. The station will stop distributing and broadcasting "The Writer's Almanac," a show Keillor still produced after retiring from "A Prairie Home Companion." The latter show, which will be renamed, has been hosted by Chris Thile since Keillor's retirement.
In 1998, when "Prairie Home" was on 433 stations and in the ears of 2.5 million listeners, a Washington Post reporter spent a week with the show to write a profile of Keillor. One day, after rehearsal, the host gathered his cast in his hotel room for water and appetizers.
"Care for a social moment?" he asked.
The group stood around awkwardly for a few minutes, and at one point they all tried to speak in the voices of a variety of animals — whale, walrus, horse, bird — which provided a chance to exhale and chuckle. But after a short time, Keillor brought the social moment to an end.
"I might write something new," he said, which was the invitation for his guests to file out of the room.