July 12, 2017

Tags: Bob Keeshan, Captain Kangaroo, Children's Television Workshop, Sesame Street

My agent called to set up a meeting with a television celebrity who was trying to write a memoir. She wouldn’t tell me his name and I didn’t ask. It was a gig. I needed the work. And I didn’t care who it was; a celebrity is a person and I am interested in all persons. I’d lived in London at a time when famous and infamous people walked around in shorts and t-shirts in the warm weather without body guards just like the rest of us, or turned up at dinner parties carrying flowers or bottles of wine, and took public transport, just like the rest of us. Politicians were always available for interview in their constituency and the word “spin” wasn’t yet in the dictionary, in the political sense of spin. There is a lot I could say about living in London that isn’t true anymore, including the ease with which I moved around as a journalist before violence and fear, and I am sad about that because London is one of the most magnificent, cosmopolitan cities I have ever lived in, and a truly movable feast for a writer.

I value my reputation as a journalist who listens without touting my own ego, and when I returned to New York, I started writing “as told to” stories for women’s magazines, mostly ordinary day-to-day women, and one or two high profile women. So when my agent was approached by the male celebrity’s manager, she thought of me, even though she with-held the details at first, because she didn’t think I’d particularly want to do it if I knew all the details. But I’ll do anything that pays good money and doesn’t compromise my ethical standards. I wouldn’t work with 45, for example, not for a gazillion dollars, but I suppose, dear reader, if you have been reading my blog posts, you already know that. And you also know that 45’s ghost, the guy that wrote “The Art of the Deal,” is now telling all.

I had lived out of the country for a decade so was oblivious to the most recent American celebrities and their travails. I’d written an article about the development of Elmo for a parenting magazine and that was fun because I got to bring my daughter to the set and hang out with all the characters we all love. And those Muppets are celebrities for sure. But this new gig was something else, and something new for me, too. A man by the name of Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo, was losing his audience, aging nervously, and his manager had the idea that he could write a memoir/parenting book to keep the character he’d created alive and earning money. “Captain Kangaroo” had moved from CBS to PBS and Keeshan had kept the rights to the character so no worry there. But even on PBS the show seemed old-fashioned, out of sync with all the fast-paced, high production values of children’s programming; the ratings were in a death throe.

So it was time for a briefing: two writers before me, my agent said, both men, had tried and failed to work with Bob Keeshan. The reason remained mysterious, no one could define it, but like any successful relationship there had to be chemistry, right? Now it was my turn. One of the problems, it seemed, was that Mr. Keeshan thought of himself as a writer and wanted complete control of the process. How would this fly with me?

We’ll see, I said.

The first meeting with my agent and Bob Keeshan’s agent and Bob and me in his manager’s office went well. I wasn’t on tenterhooks at all, nor was Bob. Well, it goes to show that expectations about people hitting it off are never right. And then there was the man-woman rather than the man-man combination. Bob Keeshan was gallant, he was a gentleman, he helped me off with my coat for goodness sake. Everyone...sighed. Most important, we liked each other immediately, said so openly, and were both ready to sign a contract. My name would not appear on the cover, but I’d be in the first line of the acknowledgments. I was now a ghost.

So we made plans. We would meet in his office on 57th Street at least once a week. I would record our conversations and read everything Bob Keeshan had ever written, including his radio and television scripts, and his testimonies in front of Congressional committees advocating for children. I would interview every one who had ever worked with him. He was bitter that Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street) had head hunted most of his old friends who were also his employees, so it was hard to report back to Bob about them, that they were doing so well, that Sesame Street was doing so well. But the more private Bob Keeshan was lost to me, and to his fans, and to television history. No emails or letters or diaries, no interviews permitted with his wife and kids. One day I was so frustrated I had a temper tantrum:

“This book will be remaindered in two weeks in Barnes & Noble.”

He laughed and made a comment about what I was wearing: a white top and pants with a thick black belt. He said it looked like a Karate outfit.

But all the laughter and warm feeling made no difference, he wouldn’t budge, and remained secretive about his family. Or, perhaps, protective. He remained protective.

An editor at Doubleday was assigned, much rewriting was done, a collaboration of three people now, and one year later, we had a book, “Growing up Happy.” I knew that the best parts of Bob Keeshan’s story had hit the cutting room floor as his own parenting struggles were not revealed. Whatever I did find out, I found out by reporting, and not with his permission, always, more by accident, talking to one person, then another. And this is what Bob Keeshan meant when he said he wanted complete control of the process. Nothing must be revealed that he did not want revealed. I was his ghost and, by definition, had to respect his wishes and remain silent. I don’t know if I would have done the same for 45. Probably not.