When I heard there was a massive biography of Jim Henson coming out, I was excited and worried. I wanted to know more about the man who created so many things that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, but I knew I was going to cry when they talked about his funeral. I was also worried that he might turn out to be a jerk, even though I had no reason to worry about this. But still, what if the guy who brought Kermit to life ended up being kind of a dick? I don’t want that knowledge in my head.
Happily and not surprisingly, Jim Henson was lovely.
Brian Jay Jones spent several years with those close to Jim and the result is a wonderful book. Reading it was pure pleasure because of Jones’ writing style. It’s conversational, emotional, smart and incredibly informative and was extremely satisfying. The combination of Jim Henson and Jones is magic and I’m so glad that Jim’s life was handed to Jones to be documented and told so carefully.
Reading Jim’s life and watching him grow from a creative child into a creative powerhouse is exhausting and impressive. The man never stopped making things. While he was in the middle of a massive project, he’d start thinking about how to do things better and how to improve the technology and techniques that they were currently using. He was often a few steps ahead of what hadn’t even been made yet. He knew that things could be done and had to wait for the technology to catch up. He was fascinated by television and how it could be used, and later when hand held cameras began appearing, he knew it would change everything. He didn’t live to see it, but he predicted YouTube some twenty years before it became popular.
Jim’s goal was to improve the world by learning and teaching. He was constantly seeing what could be and was rarely satisfied with what currently was. Pages and pages of notes were waiting to be realized. He would have to shelve projects that proved too massive for his current budget and schedule. He would exhaust and inspire his crew into performances and creations that no one had dreamed could be possible. Simply by being, he created. His employees were committed to his projects, even if they didn’t fully understand them, because they were Jim’s ideas. They’d go on crazy journeys with him through the workshop to put together new creatures. Even if they weren’t designing for a specific project, they’d work on the art and development because at some point, Jim would want it. By then, they’d need to make it better, always trying to catch up to him.
Out of the workshop, Jim was quite the man. Men wanted to be his friend and women wanted to be in his bed. When his attention was turned to you, it made everything amazing. Of course when you felt ignored or snubbed, it made for a difficult work environment. Also, Jim was married with five kids. Family was the most important thing to him and the love he had for his children was nearly tangible on the page. He was fascinated by how they learned and interacted with their environment and would test things out on them for approval. If it didn’t work for his kids, he wouldn’t use it. He respected their ideas and desires, and even from a very young age incorporated them into his work.
But for Jim, it wasn’t work. He loved what he did and couldn’t comprehend why people wanted to stop. When you’re working on something that’s inspiring and has the potential to teach, why would you stop? When he would go on vacation, he’d still be creating and planning, eager to get back into the workshop or studio or office to share new ideas and find out how to make them come true.
Some of them were way out there. He dreamed of opening a night club where images were projected onto women’s bodies. While he didn’t do drugs, except for maybe some occasional marijuana, he was always pulled in to visual effects. He wanted this massive performance space where music and film would combine for a seamless experience. It was crazy and people would have probably eaten every drug they could find and pack the room, but once again, the technology wasn’t there.
When it came to the business side of the Muppets, the Creature Workshop, movies and TV, Jim struggled. He hated having to make decisions. It was agony for him to sit through meetings or talk to lawyers when he could be working on something meaningful. He often let things slide to other people and work was delegated over and over until it again wound up with Jim having to make a decision. Even then, he’d often slide it to another person to take care of. This caused a lot of hurt feelings, confusion and management struggles when he split his time between the crew in New York and his Creature Shop in England. No one knew what the other was working on, but for Jim, this didn’t matter. If he needed new puppets or animatronics, he’d fly to England to talk to those in the Creature Shop. When it was time to discuss what they’d film for Sesame Street, he’d head back to New York and work with that crew. Coming back in to the New York office, he’d run through more ideas for shows and have people get to work. It never occurred to him that someone really needed to be in charge, and that this person was him. He’d call in with instructions and whoever answered the phone would be the person with the information. There were times when no one knew what the most important goals were because he had talked to several different people that week. Still, everyone was so dedicated to him that they’d work through it and do their best to figure it out.
Jim finally became so frustrated with overhead costs and constantly trying to find funding for his work that he decided it was time to sell. He’d been in love with Disney since he was a child and the thought of his Muppets becoming part of this magical world was comforting and practical. They’d get the characters, and more importantly they’d get Jim, and he’d get the freedom to create and not have to run the business side.
Turns out this was a deal that took fifteen years to seal and he wasn’t alive to see it done. Once again, the business side of his work infuriated him. The Disney lawyers went through every line word by word. Jim’s lawyers did what they could, but had to bring information back to Jim for approval. Disney repeatedly tried to get their hands on the Sesame Street characters even though Jim made it clear from the beginning that they were off limits. Several times everything almost fell apart completely, but Michael Eisner single handedly kept everyone at the table. His sheer will and desire on getting Jim into the Disney family was powerful and Jim trusted him.
When it was announced the Jim was selling the Muppets to Disney, I was really disappointed. I thought he was selling out and going for money. Reading the background before I even got to the deal, I realized that it was never about money. He wanted to continue to create and improve and by giving over the business side to a company that he loved, he’d be able to. I’m pleased to know that I was wrong. Jim would join Disney, he’d finish creating the Muppet Section of MGM Studios, he’d make movies and TV shows for them and he’d join the company exclusively for the next fifteen years.
And then he got sick.
Jim never got sick. He was too busy loving life and working and it almost never happened. On the rare occasions he’d get a cold or a flu, it wouldn’t last long. He’d retreat to one of his homes and have comfort food until he felt better. He rarely took any medicine, and when he did, it was nothing stronger than an aspirin. He simply didn’t have time to get sick, and his body seemed to know it. He ignored what was happening and brushed off people’s concerns. He didn’t want to have attention over something like this, so he went to his New York apartment to wait it out.
His wife Jane joined him. Although they had been separated for many years, Jane and Jim always had a special relationship. They had children together that they both loved. Jane was part creator of the Muppets when Jim was just getting started with his five minute shows in between the news and whatever show came next. She filmed commercials with him. She was the company before there was a company. However, they were two completely different people and all the love and respect couldn’t keep them together. Jim hated confrontation and in his personal life hated making decisions the way he did in his business life. Jane wore her emotions in the open and would fight with him, begging him to share what he was thinking. The angrier and sadder she got, the quieter and more closed off he became. With two conflicting communication styles, it could not work. However, Jim worked very hard to keep his girlfriends private. Jane knew what was happening, but Jim would never make a relationship public. He respected her too much. He didn’t want to get divorced, but he realized he couldn’t be her husband. However, she was who he would go to when it came to major decisions. Even though she had been phased out of the company, she knew how he thought and truly knew who he was, and he trusted her completely. When she showed up to take care of him, he let her stay.
Public opinion wonders why he didn’t just go to the hospital. People have said that if he had just gone in that morning the doctors would have caught the pneumonia, but it never occurred to him that he was really sick. He finally told Jane that it was time to go, but even then he insisted on walking to the car and when they were dropped off in the wrong place, he walked the blocks to the emergency room. It was too late. He had severe pneumonia and kidney failure. His body was infected with a powerful strain of strep. His lungs were shutting down. Maybe the doctors could have caught it, but even with drugs, it might not have worked. He was too sick. He died from organ failure resulting from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.
Jim’s death was brutal. Word traveled fast and his employees gathered in shock. It was unbelievable. Jim never got sick. Jim couldn’t be dead. It was incomprehensible that a man that powerful could die, and could die so young. He was fifty-three and he had too much to do. The intensity of the shock that his friends, family and coworkers felt is heartbreaking. I was already in tears and they hadn’t gotten to his memorial service yet.
But even in his death, he was still inspiring his family. He had written letters to his children to be delivered soon after he died. He told them he wasn’t scared of death and was looking forward to the next adventure. He told them what kind of service he’d like to have and not to waste money on a casket. He promised that if he could, he’d guide them from where ever it was he’d be. His love continued to pour over his children even though he was gone.
I so enjoyed this book. I think for many of us, Jim Henson is part of who we are. We have different memories of his work and it has become pieces of our history. Watching the Muppets can make me incredibly emotional because I remember being four or five years old and watching with my dad. I remember sitting with my mom and laughing at Bert. I don’t know how many times she read me The Monster at the End of This Book, but every time she did, I’d laugh at Grover and how silly he was. Later I fell in love with the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. The sections about these movies were painful because Jim fully loved the work and was heartbroken that the movies didn’t do well and critics did not like them. Labyrinth especially was one of his all time favorite projects and it must have broken him a little bit that it didn’t succeed. It is a huge cosmic ripoff that he didn’t live to see it become a favorite. He would have been delighted to see the cosplay.
I could write so much more about this book. It was exciting to see how characters came to be. I liked watching his performers come together. Knowing the background story of shows and the movies made me appreciate the work even more. Depending on what aspect of Jim’s life is interesting to you, this book will have it.
I cannot stress enough the talent and respect that Brian Jay Jones brought to this work. The amount of time he spent with Jim’s friends, family and business associates is nearly unimaginable. This book felt like a gift because of how carefully he wrote it and the love he put into it. I hope Jim’s loved ones are proud of the work Jones did.