JIM HENSON: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones. Ballantine, 608 pp., $35.
Jim Henson was such a beloved and tragic figure (he died at 53 of a strep infection) that I hesitated to open Brian Jay Jones' book for fear that it would be yet another "pathography," the account of a person who may be saintly on the surface but whose story is mainly one of dysfunction, disaster and outrageous conduct.
Not to worry: If the life of the man who created the Muppets had been any cornier or more wholesome, he would have been sued by Norman Rockwell's lawyers for plagiarism. Henson spent his childhood as "a Mississippi Tom Sawyer," in his own words, shooting at water moccasins with his BB gun and devoting his Saturdays to the movies.
Comic strips were an important part of his early show-biz training, as well, especially Walt Kelly's "Pogo." Pogo was the ordinary character in a swamp full of eccentrics, much like the most famous Muppet of them all, Kermit the Frog. "Kermit is the Pogo," Henson acknowledged.
Jones has a nerd's love of minutiae that goes with his passion for oddity. Not content to speculate that "Muppet" might be a variation on "moppet," Jones points out that that 17th century word probably comes from "moppe," a Middle English word for rag doll. Then again, this whole book is about the triumph of detail, the obsessive refining of an idea until it succeeds.
That idea was Muppets Inc., the company that showcased Henson's army of lovable, often bizarre, sometimes slightly dangerous characters, made famous by "Sesame Street": Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. Henson invented characters so convincing that children took it for granted they were real, and even the adults who joked and sang with them on "Sesame Street" and, later, "The Muppet Show" treated them like living, breathing creatures.
If half of Jim Henson was devoted to the details of his craft, the other half spun off big ideas faster than they could be implemented.
At the time of Henson's death, he was in negotiations to sell his company to Disney, a process so stressful that some of his intimates say it may have compromised his immune system.
When family and employees gathered to mourn him, they saw a hand-drawn card sent by the Imagineers at Disney that showed a disconsolate Kermit sitting on a log, head in hands, as Mickey Mouse sits next to him, his arm over Kermit's shoulders.
When I read that passage to my wife, she sniffled and dabbed at her eyes. Oh, come on, I thought. Kermit, Mickey: They're not real.
But aren't they?