Brian Jay Jones, credit: Stephanie Hitchcock
Author Brian Jay Jones’ new tome about the late Muppet mastermind Jim Henson — “Jim Henson: The Biography” (Ballantine) — is getting buzz lately for its exhaustive examination of and revealing take on the many wonderful (and several not-so-wonderful) creations that Henson’s genius wrought. Even Comedy Central’s long-running late-night hit “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” had Jones on as guest.
Here’s what’s equally impressive: that a Henson biography exists at all.
More than twenty years ago, former Sun-Times TV and radio columnist Ron Powers took a mighty stab at Henson’s life story, only to have the project scuttled and his reportedly beefy manuscript shelved. Of course, circumstances were different back then.
When the 1973 Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist and author was hand picked by the Henson family to serve as Jim’s authorized biographer, Powers’ subject (who died unexpectedly in May of 1990 at age 53) was only recently deceased and emotions, presumably, remained raw. Also, instead of striking a deal with the book’s publisher (Random House), Powers was contracted by the Hensons.
Then things got ugly.
According to a 1994 New York Times account that was echoed in the Chicago Tribune, Powers’ manuscript was excoriated by Henson’s family, who wrote letters to him expressing their deep displeasure with “the psychological portrait” he had painted. Ultimately, and much to Powers’ chagrin, Random House (which retained editorial control) pulled the plug. Afterward, as you might imagine, accusations flew and legal wrangling ensued.
“It just wasn’t a particularly good fit between the writer and the subject matter, and the book did have a lot of inaccuracies,” says Lisa Henson, CEO of The Jim Henson Company.
“Any biography’s going to have a point of view, and in that book it seemed that the point of view was not really true to who Jim Henson was.”
When I called Powers’ home in Vermont and spoke briefly with his wife (Powers was out), she just laughed — “Ha! Ha!” — when I wondered if her husband might talk about Jones’ Henson bio. “I don’t think so,” she said. And she was right.
In a voicemail message shortly thereafter, Powers was polite but concise: “I can’t say anything to you other than I am obliged not to talk about this.”
At some point during his book’s five-year journey from concept stage to publication, Jones — whose work had Henson family cooperation but is not officially authorized — read the Times story about the Powers-Henson brouhaha — but nothing else.
“I sort of intentionally stayed out of that,” the Maryland-based former policy analyst and U.S. Senate advisor says, because “I didn’t want that in my headspace.”
Jim Henson with the cast of HBO’s “Fraggle Rock.” Credit: Courtesy of the Jim Henson Company. Photo: John E. Barrett.
Not only does Jones claim never to have read “anything [Powers has] written on Jim” (a copy of the scrapped manuscript, he was told, is stored in the Henson archives), he had “no interest in seeing it, reading it. I didn’t want to know about it.”
He did benefit, however, from access to transcripts from several interviews Powers conducted. That access, though, didn’t come easy. Before he was allowed to make use of private and well-kept archival materials that relatively few independent researchers have been allowed to see, he first had to convince the gatekeepers — Henson’s now-late wife Jane and his five kids — to let him in.
Having felt “burned” by Powers’ portrait, Jones says, they were initially reluctant to trust another would-be chronicler for fear that Henson might be made to “look stupid” in the context of some “horrible morality tale.”
And so, after nearly a year-and-a-half of answering questions and explaining his vision, Jones — who knew he needed full cooperation from Henson HQ to tell Jim’s story right — decided to pen an early sample chapter about the celebrated puppeteer’s pre-Muppets years in television and present it to the family for consideration.
Says Jones, “That was when we really got down to discussing it in earnest.”
Before long, they “opened up their hearts and they opened up their Rolodexes.”
Though the Hensons neither had nor asked for text approval, Jones says, they did request a first draft in order to provide Jones with, as he puts it, “comments and fact checking, which I could then work into subsequent drafts.”
He was happy to do so and able to fix “a major chronological error” as a result. He also showed them, voluntarily, a second pass.
Beyond chronology corrections, Jones says, there was “a lot of back-and-forthing” concerning portions that covered Henson’s sometimes-rocky relationship with Jane, to whom he wasn’t always faithful. Reading that material was “painful” for Henson intimates who had never before seen the less-than-flattering details culled in one place and corroborated by multiple sources. Consequently, Jones says, he was questioned about “where things had come from and how I came to certain conclusions.”
Fortunately, thorough notations and detailed end notes helped clarify his deductive process and set minds more at ease.
“Always, the best thing is [for] everybody [to] tell their own story,” Lisa says, “and in this case there was a smart historian who could weave those stories together.”
Regarding the more sensitive sections, she hopes readers will follow Jim’s lead and be nonjudgmental.
While post-publication reviews have been mixed, Lisa calls Jones’ research “unbelievably thorough” and Jones himself a “meticulous” researcher who has a “pretty good understanding of his subject.”
“I think there are things even I could learn from it,” she says of the book. “I was really impressed.”