At Home With Garrison Keillor, Public Broadcasting Plutocrat

Friday’s New York Times profile of NPR star Garrison Keillor (well, American Public Media, to be exact, but heard on many NPR stations) underlines how public broadcasting can be a very lucrative business. On the cusp of Keillor’s "Prairie Home Companion" movie coming out in a week, Times writer Joyce Wadler traveled to St. Paul to do the feature "At Home with Garrison Keillor," which truly underlines the Keillor wealth.

Keillor, to put it in a Midwesterner’s terms, is a lutefisk-and-lefse limousine liberal. His latest political book, Homegrown Democrat, proclaims his love for the Donkey Party and was summed up by one critic as "a masterful diatribe against the Republican party and narcissistic, greed-driven, mean-spirited ‘conservatism.’" (Brent Bozell pegged Keillor’s odd mix of socialist theorizing and capitalist merchandising here.) Minnesota Public Radio, the parent company of American Public Media, hasn’t been a pioneer in disclosing financial particulars, but Wadler brings it into some focus:

The radio show deals with life in Lake Wobegon, a fictitious Minnesota town of hardworking people and old-fashioned values. But anyone who thinks Mr. Keillor lives in a simple little house on the prairie is in for a shock.

His home is a great Georgian pile atop the swankiest neighborhood in town, with 13-foot ceilings, seven bedrooms and a circular staircase of such beauty and scale that had Rhett Butler been a Midwestern boy he would have found it quite suitable for hauling Scarlett up the stairs. (If it seems doubtful that a Midwestern boy would ever do such a thing, you should know that Mr. Keillor's love life once inspired a good deal of the local Sturm und Drang, and that he has been married three times.)

The house is so grand that Mr. Keillor and his wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson, a violinist in the Minnesota Opera orchestra, feared their friends might consider them pretentious for buying it. Ultimately, the beauty and spaciousness of the house, which was built in 1914 by the French architect Emmanuel Masqueray, persuaded them.

They worried briefly that someone in their liberal circle might consider them hypocrites, what with Mr. Keillor doing a cornpone radio show about small-town Midwestern values, while he lives a private life not too much different than a Manhattan investment banker. Wadler was kind enough to describe him humbly picking her up in his old green Volvo (liberal stereotype, hello!) and wearing red socks with red sneakers, and having 25-year-old suits. The story's headline was "Where All the Rooms Are Above Average," a play on his show's claims that all the children in mythical Lake Wobegon are above average.

Wadler described Keillor’s real-estate journey: his various marriages and extramarital affairs caused him to move to Copenhagen and then to New York, and then back to the Midwest, beginning in a Wisconsin log cabin, which the latest Mrs. Keillor hated. Then the money matters popped up:

The St. Paul house was purchased in 1998, for $710,000. They will continue to maintain a Manhattan apartment; they are purchasing a two-bedroom on Central Park West that they sold in 1993.

Wait a second. They are buying back an apartment they sold 13 years ago? How much is that going to cost? "We'll gloss right over that," Ms. Nilsson says.

"We've always stayed invested in New York real estate, so the money we sold it for, we put into the next apartment; we're riding the tide with all the rest of you," Mr. Keillor says.

The specifics: Mr. Keillor bought it for $800,000 in 1987, sold it for $1.5 million in 1993, and is buying it back for $3.5 million.

Is there much heartache there?

"No," Mr. Keillor says. "I always sort of regretted selling. It's a chance to recoup one's regret."

Spoken like a man who has enough millions in the swanky bank to be truly cavalier and poetic about seven-figure real-estate deals. Not exactly the image the public-radio types will be selling on the next pledge drive for $25 donations, although they will no doubt use Keillor merchandise as a pledge bonus. Even back in the 1980s, even inside the tiny public-radio station in Bemidji, you could not escape the pile of cutesy Prairie Home merchandise. It sent a message to young aspiring right-wing taxpayers even then.

PS: To a Minnesotan (or a four-year Minnesotan, in my case), the strangest line in the piece is this: "He was born in Anoka, a rural town about a half-hour drive from St. Paul, one of six children." It may have been "rural" when young Gary ("Garrison" is the pretentious radio name) grew up in the 1940s, but we knew it as just another upper-middle class north-side Twin Cities suburb (2000 census population: 18,076.)

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis