He was a gentle dreamer whose genial bearded visage was recognized around the world, but most people got to know him only through the iconic characters born of his fertile imagination: Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, Miss Piggy, Big Bird. The Muppets made Jim Henson a household name, but they were just part of his remarkable story.
This extraordinary biography—written with the generous cooperation of the Henson family—covers the full arc of Henson’s all-too-brief life: from his childhood in Leland, Mississippi, through the years of burgeoning fame in America, to the decade of international celebrity that preceded his untimely death at age fifty-three. Drawing on hundreds of hours of new interviews with Henson's family, friends, and closest collaborators, as well as unprecedented access to private family and company archives, Brian Jay Jones explores the creation of the Muppets, Henson’s contributions to Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live, and his nearly ten-year campaign to bring The Muppet Show to television. Jones provides the imaginative context for Henson’s non-Muppet projects, including the richly imagined worlds of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth—as well as fascinating misfires like Henson’s dream of opening an inflatable psychedelic nightclub.
An uncommonly intimate portrait, Jim Henson captures all the facets of this American original: the master craftsman who revolutionized the presentation of puppets on television, the savvy businessman whose dealmaking prowess won him a reputation as “the new Walt Disney,” and the creative team leader whose collaborative ethos earned him the undying loyalty of everyone who worked for him. Here also is insight into Henson’s intensely private personal life: his Christian Science upbringing, his love of fast cars and expensive art, and his weakness for women. Though an optimist by nature, Henson was haunted by the notion that he would not have time to do all the things he wanted to do in life—a fear that his heartbreaking final hours would prove all too well founded.
An up-close look at the charmed life of a legend, Jim Henson gives the full measure to a man whose joyful genius transcended age, language, geography, and culture—and continues to beguile audiences worldwide.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY BOOKPAGE
“Jim Henson vibrantly delves into the magnificent man and his Muppet methods: It’s an absolute must-read!”—Neil Patrick Harris
“An exhaustive work that is never exhausting, a credit both to Jones’s brisk style and to Henson’s exceptional life.”—The New York Times
“[A] sweeping portrait that is a mix of humor, mirth and poignancy.”—Washington Independent Review of Books
“A meticulously researched tome chock-full of gems about the Muppets and the most thorough portrait of their creator ever crafted.”—Associated Press
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About the Author
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Deer Creek winds casually, almost lazily, through the muggy lowlands in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Its point of origin—near the little town of Scott, in Bolivar County—lies roughly ninety miles north of its terminal point at the Yazoo River three counties away. But Deer Creek takes its time getting there, looping and whorling back and forth in a two-hundred-mile-long amble, looking like a child’s cursive scrawled across the map.
The town of Leland, Mississippi, straddles Deer Creek just as it twists into one of its first tight hairpin turns, about ten miles east of Greenville. Established before the Civil War, the sleepy settlement, sprawled out across several former plantations, had taken advantage of fertile soil and regular steamboat traffic on Deer Creek to become one of the wealthiest in the Delta region. In the 1880s came the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, along with an influx of grocers and landlords and innkeepers—but even with the growing merchant class and increasing gentrification, it was still land that mattered most in Leland, and in the Mississippi Delta. In 1904, then, the state legislature called for the creation of an agricultural experiment station in the Delta region, preferably “at a point where experiments with the soil of the hills as well as the Delta can be made.” That point turned out to be two hundred acres of land hugging Deer Creek, in the village of Stoneville, putting the state’s new Delta Branch Experiment Station just north of—and practically butted up against—Leland. By 1918, the facility in Stoneville was housing researchers and their families from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, carrying out research on crops, soil, and animal production for the federal government; by 1930, its findings on animal feed and insect control were particularly welcome to planters and sharecroppers doing their best to scratch out a living from the swampy Delta soil during the Great Depression.
Paul Ransom Henson—Jim Henson’s father—was neither a planter nor a sharecropper. Nor had he come to the Delta region to work a family farm during the Depression or satisfy a random pang of wanderlust. Paul Henson was a practical man, and he had come to Leland in 1931 with his new wife, Betty, for a practical reason: he had accepted a government post at the Delta Branch Experiment Station in Stoneville.
Paul Henson came from a line of similarly sturdy and clear-minded men who sought neither to offend nor agitate, a trait that Paul’s famous son would inherit as well—and, in fact, Jim Henson would always be very proud of his father’s rugged, even-tempered Midwestern lineage. On one side of his father’s family were the Dolton and Barnes lines—good-natured, nonconfrontational, and accommodating almost to a fault—while on the other were the Hensons—practical, rugged, and imperturbable.
One of Jim’s favorite family stories involved his great-great-grandfather, a strongly pro-Northern farmer named Richmond Dolton who, during the Civil War, had been living in a small Missouri town in which most of the residents were Southern sympathizers. Rather than offend the Confederate sensibilities of his neighbors, the amiable Dolton simply swapped his farm—in a typically equitable and businesslike exchange—for a similar one in a town in Kansas where the residents shared his own Union tendencies. The move would come to be particularly appreciated by Dolton’s teenage daughter, Aramentia, though for reasons more prurient than political—for it was here in Kansas that Aramentia Dolton met Ransom Aaron Barnes, a New Jersey native who had settled in the area. In 1869, she and Barnes were married; less than a year later, they would have a daughter, Effie Carrie Barnes—Paul Henson’s mother.
On the Henson side, Jim could trace his pedigree back to colonial-era farmers in North Carolina whose descendants had slowly pushed west with the expanding American frontier, setting up farms and raising families in Kentucky and Kansas. One of those descendants was Jim’s paternal grandfather, a sturdy Kansas farmer named Albert Gordon Henson, who, in 1889, had married Richmond Dolton’s levelheaded granddaughter, Effie Carrie Barnes. After an ambitious though unsuccessful effort to stake a claim during the Cherokee Strip land run—where he had rumbled into the dusty Oklahoma countryside in a mule-drawn buckboard—Albert and Effie would eventually settle in Lincoln County, just east of Oklahoma City. It was here that Paul Ransom Henson—the name Ransom was borrowed from Effie’s father, Ransom Aaron Barnes—would be born in 1904, the youngest of Albert and Effie’s nine children.
Each morning, Paul Henson would be awakened at first light to do his chores and walk the half mile to school, a one-room building crammed with fifty children and presided over by two teachers. While Albert Henson never had much formal schooling, he was determined to make education a priority for the children in the Henson household. With that sort of parental encouragement, Paul graduated from high school in 1924 at age nineteen, and immediately headed for Iowa State College—now Iowa State University, a school recognized then, as now, for the quality of its agricultural programs. Over the next four years, Paul was a member of the agriculture-oriented Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, participated on the Farm Crops Judging Team (the team would place third nationally in 1927), and even discovered a knack for performance as a member of the Dramatic Club. In July 1928, he received his BS in Farm Crops and Soils, completing a thesis on the hybridization of soybeans.
Following graduation, Paul began work on his master’s degree at the University of Maryland, enrolling in courses covering plant physics, biochemistry, genetics, statistics, agronomy, and soil technology. One afternoon, while eating his lunch, he caught sight of an attractive young woman walking toward the campus restaurant—when pressed, he would later admit his eyes had been drawn mainly to her legs—and was determined to win an introduction. The legs, as it turned out, belonged to Elizabeth Brown—Betty, as everyone called her—the twenty-one-year-old secretary to Harry Patterson, dean of the College of Agriculture.
Elizabeth Marcella Brown was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Maryland, but had lived in Memphis and New Orleans long enough to pick up both the lilting accent and genteel demeanor of a Southern belle. The accent and the manners were fitting, for Betty had a refined, distinctly Southern, and generally artistic pedigree. In fact, it was through Betty’s side of the family that Jim Henson could trace his artistic ability, in a straight and colorful line running through his mother and grandmother back to his maternal great-grandfather, a talented Civil War–era mapmaker named Oscar.
Oscar Hinrichs—a swaggering Prussian who had immigrated to the United States in 1837 at the age of two—began working as a cartographer for the United States Coast Survey at age twenty-one, reporting directly to Alexander Dallas Bache, head of the survey and a great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin. When the Civil War began in 1860, Oscar enthusiastically enlisted with the Confederacy—even smuggling himself into the South with the help of Confederate sympathizers in Maryland—and loaned his valuable mapmaking skills to the Southern cause even as he survived battles at Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness. After the war, Oscar married Marylander Mary Stanley—whose father had helped him sneak into the Confederacy—and moved to New York City. Over the next ten years, Mary bore Oscar six children, including one daughter, Sarah—Betty Brown’s mother, and Jim Henson’s grandmother. It was Sarah who inherited Oscar Hinrichs’s innate artistic streak, and she would learn not only how to paint and draw, but also how to sew, carve, and use hand tools—talents that Jim Henson would wield just as skillfully two generations later as he sketched, carved, and sewed his earliest Muppets.
The Hinrichs family eventually settled in Washington, where Oscar unhappily bounced between jobs, convinced employers were discriminating against him because of his service to the Confederacy. Compounding his misery, Mary became ill with uterine cancer and died in 1891 at the age of fifty-two. Less than a year later, a grief-stricken Oscar Hinrichs took his own life, leaving an orphaned fourteen-year-old Sarah to tend to two younger brothers. Dutifully, Sarah dropped out of the art school into which she had just been accepted and moved with her brothers into a Washington boardinghouse. For the rest of their lives, neither Sarah nor her siblings openly discussed Oscar Hinrichs’s sad demise—a penchant for maintaining a respectful silence about unhappy circumstances that her grandson Jim Henson would also share.
In 1902, twenty-four-year-old Sarah Hinrichs was introduced to Maury Brown, a lanky, thirty-four-year-old clerk and stenographer for Southern Railway. Born in Kentucky on the day after Christmas in 1868, Maury Heady Brown—Jim Henson’s grandfather—was a self-made man with a rugged Southern determination. Raised by a single mother who was totally deaf, Brown had run away from home at age ten and learned to use the telegraph, supporting himself by reporting horse-racing scores for a Lexington racetrack. A voracious reader and quick learner, he next taught himself typewriting and shorthand, eventually becoming so proficient at both that he was hired as the full-time private secretary to the president of Southern Railway. When he met Sarah Hinrichs in the winter of 1902, Brown fell in love immediately—and on their second date, as they ice skated on the frozen Potomac River, Maury Brown presented Sarah Hinrichs with an armful of red roses and asked for her hand. While the newspapers in 1903 may have noted the marriage of Maury and Sarah Brown, to each other—and to the rest of the family—they would always be “Pop” and “Dear.”
For the next few years, Pop and Dear bounced around with the Southern Railway, landing briefly in Missouri, Washington, Memphis, and New Orleans, and all while raising three daughters, Mary Agnes, Elizabeth, and Barbara—better known as Attie, Betty, and Bobby. Perhaps because they moved around so often, the Browns were an exceptionally close and good-natured family. “I just thought we had the happiest home that ever was,” Bobby said later. “And I remember what a shock it was when I would go to other people’s houses to sleep over and found out that all families weren’t as fun and nice to each other as ours!”
At some point in his youth, Maury Brown embraced Christian Science, a relatively new faith that had been formally established in 1879. Consequently, the daughters were all brought up as Christian Scientists, though moderate in their practice, likely through the influence of Dear. While the daughters might forgo most medical care in favor of prayer or homeopathic treatments—as a girl, Betty was dunked in alternating hot and cold water baths to combat a case of whooping cough—more serious injuries were almost always attended to by physicians. When Attie was badly hurt in a car accident one winter, the family immediately called for a doctor—and far from being concerned about compromising her faith, Attie remembered being more embarrassed that the doctor had to cut away her long underwear to set her broken leg.
Eventually, the Browns returned to the D.C. area for good, living first in a “perfectly awful” place near the railroad tracks in Hyattsville, Maryland—the house would shake violently as trains roared past—before settling into the much quieter Marion Street in 1923. Attie and Betty were expected to help pay the mortgage each month, and shortly after high school both found work as secretaries—Attie at an express company, and Betty at the nearby University of Maryland, where she, and her legs, soon caught the eye of Paul Henson.
Paul would woo Betty for the better part of two years, studying genetics and plant biology at the university during the week and attending regular tennis parties hosted by the Browns on weekends—and Paul quickly came to adore not just Betty, but the entire Brown family. It was easy to see why; Dear and Pop were devoted to each other, while the girls, both then and later, had distinct, almost Dickensian, personalities. Attie was the serious and straitlaced one and became a devoted Episcopalian. Betty was considered practical and no-nonsense, though she could show flashes of a slightly silly sense of humor, while Bobby was the happy-go-lucky one who worked to ensure that everything was “upbeat all the time.” All three, too, were excellent tennis players, having been taught to play at a young age by their dashing Uncle Fritz Hinrichs, who also taught the girls to dance. Attie later admitted she “could’ve cared less” about tennis, but the parties kept the Browns in the center of a wide social circle, and their names on the society pages of The Washington Post.
Table of Contents
Prologue Blue Sky 1973 xi
Chapter 1 The Delta 1936-1949 3
Chapter 2 A Means to an End 1949-1955 23
Chapter 3 Sam and Friends 1955-1957 45
Chapter 4 Muppets, Inc. 1957-1962 67
Chapter 5 A Crazy Little Band 1962-1969 95
Chapter 6 Sesame Street 1969-1970 137
Chapter 7 Big Ideas 1970-1973 173
Chapter 8 The Mucking Puppets 1973-1975 203
Chapter 9 Muppetmania 1975-1977 231
Chapter 10 Life's Like A Movie 1977-1979 271
Chapter 11 The World in His Head 1979-1982 303
Chapter 12 Twists and Turns 1982-1986 350
Chapter 13 Storyteller 1986-1987 392
Chapter 14 A Kind of Craziness1987-1989 412
Chapter 15 So Much on a Handshake 1989-1990 432
Chapter 16 Just One Person 1990 462
Epilogue Legacy 485
Selected Bibliography 555
Brian Jay Jones on
Jim Henson: The BiographyBiographers have the unique responsibility—and privilege—of living with their subjects for the years they're doing their research and writing. Frankly, I couldn't have asked for better company over the last five years. Jim Henson has been part of my life—and probably part of yours—for nearly as long as I can remember. I was two when Sesame Street premiered in 1969, and nine when The Muppet Show debuted in 1976. That practically makes me Muppets Generation 1.0. Why would I choose to write about Jim Henson, then? Heck, why wouldn't I?
For the most part, the bulk of the research for this biography was conducted the old-fashioned way: sitting in an archive—in this case, The Jim Henson Company archives in Long Island City, New York—and turning over documents one at a time. I read through Jim's private diaries, examined handwritten notes—sometimes just scraps of paper with ideas for a character name or a slapdash drawing of a new Muppet—pored through business papers and receipts, and poked through innumerable TV scripts and film proposals, many of which never made it any further than Jim's carefully typed notes. For the first time, you'll read about many of these projects, and learn how hard Jim worked to bring programs like The Muppet Show to television.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing all five Henson children and his widow, Jane—who passed away earlier this year—as well as countless colleagues, friends, and collaborators. We spoke in living rooms in London, workshops in New York, and film studios in Burbank. We talked over breakfast in hotels and brunches in diners. And when we couldn't meet in person, we talked on telephones and Skype, or wrote each other e-mails. Almost to a person, everyone was open, honest, and thoughtful about Jim and his work—and, as you can probably imagine, many were also very, very funny.
Finally, of course, there was the pure enjoyment of going back through Jim's work, watching Muppets and Fraggles and Skeksis and Storytellers with a keener appreciation of how Jim wove his life into his art, and his art through his life. Any time you can watch episodes of The Muppet Show, or old footage of Jim blowing up his Muppets on The Ed Sullivan Show and call it work, you know you've officially got one of the best jobs anywhere.
It took five years to get here—and now, at last, it's your turn to live with Jim Henson. I think you'll find he's pretty much exactly as you want him to be: genuinely kind, dazzlingly inspirational, immensely talented and—as Frank Oz said—"delightfully imperfect." Not bad for a kid from the swamps of Mississippi.
"It's a good life," Jim once wrote. "Enjoy it." And I hope you'll enjoy Jim Henson.