Garrison Keillor reveals e-mails, says romantic banter was mutual

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Woman claiming sexual harassment is seeking a financial settlement in the “high six figures” from Keillor and his production company, according to his attorney

Jeffrey Meitrodt, The Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Garrison Keillor is not apologizing.

Unlike other famous men who have quickly expressed regret after being accused of sexual harassment, the former host of “A Prairie Home Companion” defended his conduct and remains adamant that he was wronged by Minnesota Public Radio when it ended their nearly 50-year relationship three months ago.

As part of his first interview since then, Keillor shared hundreds of e-mails involving him and a female employee of the show whose allegations of inappropriate behavior led to MPR’s action.

“I wish we would lie down on the sand and listen to the waves and the gulls and if we did, I would kiss you. As many times as I could,” he wrote to her in 2014.

In e-mails during the next few months, their banter turned sexual, including “language that your newspaper cannot print,” he said Friday. “I would be grateful my mother never had to look at it.”

But he said he was not trying to seduce the woman, and backed off when she complained about his conduct in 2015.

“She wrote to me and said, ‘I cherish your friendship but I think we need to draw boundaries.’ And boy, I couldn’t establish boundaries fast enough,” Keillor said Friday. “I leapt backward about 15 feet. … You know, I am from Minnesota, and you don’t have to tell me twice. When you say, ‘Take your romantic writing and send it to somebody else,’ I hear you.”

The female staffer’s attorney, Frances Baillon, did not dispute the accuracy of the e-mails but contested the latter point, saying her client had warned Keillor and “Prairie Home” managers in 2011 that his advances were unwelcome.

In a December 2011 e-mail, the woman told a co-worker: “I have sent an e-mail to GK just now. He will understand, upon reading it, that I want nothing to do with him apart from a working friendship. … I feel sad and nervous.”

Four additional reports were made by October 2015, Baillon said. On that last occasion, Baillon said, Keillor “seemed upset” when the woman rejected his offer to visit her at home, explaining that “she did not want a sexual relationship with him.”

“This is the exact reason there are laws that protect employees from being subjected to situations they don’t feel comfortable in but feel compelled to comply with,” Baillon said in a written statement.

MPR has said it concluded that Keillor engaged in improper behavior with the female staff member after investigating a complaint she filed in October that included “excerpts of e-mails and written messages, requests for sexual contact and explicit descriptions of sexual communications and touching.”

The woman is seeking a financial settlement in the “high six figures” from Keillor and his production company, according to his attorney, Eric Nilsson.

Baillon and MPR declined to comment on the woman’s demands. The Star Tribune has confirmed her identity but is not naming her because the newspaper does not typically identify alleged victims of sexual misconduct. She has declined repeated requests for an interview.

At times the e-mails are so intimate, people might “assume that these two were sleeping together,” Keillor said. “We were not, and never even came close.”

While some of the staffer’s responses might suggest a consensual relationship, the woman’s attorney said female subordinates often go along with a powerful male boss to keep their jobs.

“As numerous studies show, victims in these situations often do their best to smooth things over and remain on good terms with the individual in power, feeling they are to blame or fearful of retribution,” Baillon said.

Keillor released the e-mails as part of an effort to restore his reputation — he called it the “ultimate exonerating material” in a Facebook post Saturday.

Keillor, whose show, now renamed “Live From Here,” dominated the public radio airwaves for decades, said MPR didn’t give him the chance to properly defend himself, noting that the company took action almost two months before he was able to gather nearly 800 pages of e-mails documenting his conversations with the woman.

“I think it is a very dramatic overreaction,” he said. “It has nothing to do with fairness or justice. It has to do with fear of public reaction. And it turned out badly for them.”

MPR began its inquiry after former “Prairie Home” director Dan Rowles told officials in August that Keillor had behaved inappropriately with at least one female colleague, according to a source familiar with the situation. But Rowles refused to share details and the woman herself didn’t step forward until weeks later.

Keillor has been negotiating with MPR since January, seeking payment of unfilled contractual obligations related to his broadcasts, as well as financial damages caused by the negative publicity around MPR’s actions. He also wants to restore public access to past episodes of “Prairie Home” and his daily syndicated feature “A Writer’s Almanac.”

Nilsson said those negotiations stalled Tuesday after MPR presented terms that he described as “completely unreasonable.”

MPR declined to make an executive available for an interview. MPR spokeswoman Angie Andresen said the company repeatedly asked for access to Keillor’s e-mails but was rebuffed.

“We were not trying to determine whether the behavior was legal, moral or consensual,” MPR said in a statement. “Our investigation focused on allegations of behavior of a person in power and his conduct in the workplace. We found that unacceptable behavior did occur and that was the basis for our decision. Our commitment to privacy for the woman and for Garrison prevents us from detailing the specific behaviors that informed our decision.”

The Star Tribune found several other women who say Keillor sent them inappropriate messages including a longtime staffer, who wound up having a yearlong affair with Keillor in 2007-08 after exchanging e-mails with sexual overtones.

Keillor acknowledged that relationship during Friday’s interview: “She and I had a romance. … It was one of those interesting friendships that is not exploitative. It’s mutual, and it comes to an end. But you are still friends.”

He said he did not cheat on his wife with other female staffers. His wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson — his attorney’s sister — knew of the affair, he said. “There were certainly words between us — she’s a very outspoken, independent person. But she decided to stay with me.”

Despite their intimate electronic relationship, Keillor said the female staffer behind the MPR complaint usually worked out of her home and they rarely met in person.

He recalled just two lunches with her. At one, in 2015, he said he put his hand on her bare shoulder while trying to comfort her “and my hand slipped under the leading edge of her blouse. She winced … and I said I was sorry.”

That incident, he said, was one of three instances of physical contact in the woman’s complaint against him. According to a written summary of the complaint, Keillor “put his hand on her leg” during a 2015 car ride and “trailed his fingers up and down her left thigh” when she visited the show’s production office in 2011.

Keillor said he doesn’t remember either incident: “I don’t remember every knee I have touched, or every hand I have shaken.”

Over more than a decade, the writer and her boss exchanged hundreds of electronic messages. In 2005, she told Keillor that she loved working with him, calling him “the smartest man I’ve ever met.”

The notes became increasingly personal, with both sharing their innermost hopes and fears. They wrote about their medical problems and difficult family relationships. They gave each other advice. They provided comfort at times of stress. And they often ended their increasingly affectionate messages with the same signoff: “I love you.”

In a June 2014 e-mail, he fantasized about a romantic relationship with the woman. Sitting in a Los Angeles hotel room, feeling “sad and empty,” he wished they could take a walk on the beach and exchange kisses.

Her response: “If we were on the beach, I would want you to tell me a story about summer when you were young, and I would tell you one, and I would kiss you back.”

Similar exchanges continued for about a year. They dreamed of sharing a sleeper car on a train, with both adding romantic details. While traveling in a limo, he imagined her in the back seat with him, holding hands and talking. In 2015, the fantasies became more explicit. In one, he imagined them having sex on an airplane. Later, he imagined them naked in bed in his hotel room. She replied that “the image of us lying together is sweet. I wish I were there, too.”

Keillor said the most graphic exchange came via iPhone texts but his forensic team was unable to recapture those messages. “It was utterly embarrassing, adolescent, utterly bad taste, and it was utterly mutual,” he said.

He said he was carried away by a friendship that drifted into romance, aided by smartphones.

“Use any word you want to describe it you want to, I plead guilty,” he said. “Stupid? Yes, in retrospect. But it was mutual. And it is kind of a function of the ease of this dreamy technology.”

At the same time, he worried about the repercussions of the #MeToo era.

“If this becomes a prohibition for young people, this is going to change life in America,” he said. “The workplace is a social center for young people. It is where romances often begin.”

While the staffer often seemed to play along with Keillor’s fantasies, the e-mails also show she sought advice from a co-worker on how to deal with his increasingly amorous behavior.

The co-worker asked whether the woman wanted somebody to intervene.

“No intervention needed at this time,” the woman replied in a 2014 exchange, “but it’s really good to know you’re there. … I don’t want to have sex with him or blackmail him or entice him. None of that. I love when we can have good writerly conversations and I think I help him and he helps me. The feelings aren’t those for a father, but close. An older brother is closer.”

One of her final e-mail exchanges with Keillor came in July 2016, after his farewell broadcast of “Prairie Home.”

He tells the writer of his regrets. “And while I’m apologizing, I am very very sorry about the time I impulsively put my hand under your shirt. I have felt bad about it. I wish I could take it back. It was done out of honest impulse, but still. I am sorry.”

Her response: “I forgive you. I forgave you. You can let it go. I’m glad you wrote me. I thought I might never hear from you again. Thank you.”

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