“Play Your Hunch” was a game show hosted by Merv Griffin, and later by Robert Q. Lewis; John was the head writer from 1960 to 1963. There are clips on YouTube, if you’re curious. And here, as a bonus, is a photo of Keel and Lewis on the last day of the show, August 22, 1963. Lewis was also nice enough to let John film him delivering a special message to the Metropolitan Motion Picture Club
John’s apartment was always a mess. It became a running joke among his friends. Some refused to set foot in it after one visit; and claimed it made them clean their own apartments for days afterward. On one occasion, Ingo Swann and I escorted John back from the hospital after an eye operation. As soon as he saw the place, Ingo threw back his head and burst into laughter. George Kuchar interviewed John in his apartment (for his video The Exiled Files of Eddie Gray); when I showed a clip at the Fortean Times UnConvention, Jim Moseley complained that it gave him nightmares.
The photo above is from 1998. As time went on, it got worse; and it wasn’t so funny anymore. John was getting weaker, and was having more trouble walking. His friends were concerned that it was a firetrap and a health hazard.
John was in and out of the hospital — or undergoing rehab at a nursing home — in his last few years. On one occasion, he decided to check into a hotel after his release, and I helped him try to clean up his apartment. John wasn’t a hoarder, exactly: he was perfectly willing to throw things out; he was just too weak, and too overwhelmed, to do it alone. I spent most of a week working with him, just trying to clear out enough clutter so that he wouldn’t be in danger of falling. We filled five storage boxes with old and unmatched shoes from the bedroom floor alone. I lost my voice from inhaling dust and mold; and a few weeks later, the place was worse than ever.
When John was in the hospital, I would often check in on his apartment, bring him his mail, and retrieve clothes and other necessities from the clutter. Here, for your contemplation, is a map he drew on one of those occasions. Need I add that it wasn’t too helpful?
The Gorman here would be John Gorman, one of John’s old army buddies, who collaborated on at least one magazine piece (“The Cobra Had Me Cornered,” Cavalier, May 1955).
After the publication of Jadoo, John (Keel, that is) struggled with writer’s block. As he recalled in a piece for Writer’s Digest (August 1959), “Finally, I decided a change of environment might help. I got rid of my pet snakes and moved to another, larger, brighter apartment and picked a gregarious army buddy for a roommate. We had parties every night and life was a million laughs and I was just too busy to think about writing anymore.”
Eventually, of course, he got back to work. Meanwhile, the world needed to know there were a couple of available bachelors on the loose.
[John was profiled in The Stars and Stripes on Jan.11, 1953. There are some interesting details on his early career:]
Pfc John A. Keel was born in Hornell, New York, in 1930, but claims Perry, New York, as his hometown. He was country-cured on a farm five miles outside of Perry and gained the latter part of his education by riding a bicycle to the local high school. At 14 he launched a weekly newspaper in the school and, shortly afterwards, started writing a regular column for the local paper, the Perry Herald. The column was titled Scraping the Keel and featured comments on everything from atomic energy to an orphan cat which had the misfortune of getting lost in the village sewer system. At 15 he sold his first story to the late Hobo News, and other sales to other magazines and papers followed. At 17 he hitch-hiked 400 miles to New York City. He arrived with 75c in his pocket and no friends. Setting up shop in famed Greenwich Village, he soon became editor of a poetry magazine and chairman of the Greenwich Village Poetry Forum. In 1949, the New York World-Telegram called him “Teen-Ager of the Week,” resulting in a number of radio and TV appearances. His poems and essays have appeared in over 80 magazines. His stories have appeared in a wide variety of publications from Grit — the Family Newspaper — to the New Yorker. At the time of his induction into the Army in 1951 he was writing continuity for comic books such as Capt Marvel, Superman, and GI Joe Comics. He was assigned to the American Forces Network in October 1951 and has written and produced such programs as “The Past on Parade,” “Command Conference of the Air,” “Take a Trip,” “Take Ten,” and comanaged AFN’s Halloween broadcast Oct. 31, 1952, from Frankenstein Castle. He is due for discharge in May 1953 and expects to return to N.Y.
(Theo Paijmans has sent along another Keel clipping, which I post here for your perusal. It appeared in the Athens, Ohio Messenger, March 20, 1967. Thanks, Theo!)
We have a sober business card this time, dating from the ’50s, when John was living in Barcelona and writing Jadoo. I trust that it impressed the Barcelonians.
John seldom tempered his criticism. In this letter to the Writer’s Digest (July 1960), he heaped scorn on a fellow writer’s command of slang. Like, ouch!
The Acapulco Conference (1er Congreso Internacional Sobre el Fenomeno Ovni, to give it its proper name) was apparently a full-throttle fiasco. It was poorly organized and underfunded; poor ticket sales, botched airline and hotel reservations, inadequate food and water, and searing heat didn’t help matters. Neither did the fact that many of the participating ufologists detested one another; some even refused to be in the same room together.
Amid all of this, John’s position was indeed that of pariah. In an article in the Dec. ’77 Chic (“Close Encounters in Acapulco”), Don Strachan brackets Keel with Jacques Vallee as “too eccentric to place on a left-right continuum”: “Then, prominent UFO writer John Keel drops a bomb by defecting from the fold. ‘The UFO establishment is a powerful propaganda machine,’ he declares. ‘The average UFO publication isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. They used to think in the Middle Ages that these were witches with lanterns on their broomsticks,’ continues Keel, who argues that UFO sightings are caused by local disturbances in the earth’s magnetic field.”
And in the Sept. ’77 Fate (“Disaster in UFO-Land”), Jerome Clark reports that Keel further fueled the theorists’ quarrels: “As if to aggravate the situation further, John Keel, the earliest and most vocal proponent of the paraphysical hypothesis, delivered a blood-and-thunder address which argued that UFOs as such don’t exist, that they are just temporary manifestations of a kind of intelligent energy which he holds responsible for virtually all of mankind’s ills.”
In an attempt to salvage the situation, another conference was held in Mexico City. As Clark reports, “I didn’t go on to Mexico City but later I talked with John Keel who did and from whom I heard further horror stories of disorganization, bouncing checks and dwindling audiences. The last night of the Congress, April 27, attracted a grand total of 20 paying customers.”
It was not the pleasant junket John and others had hoped; and probably not the best context for challenging ideas…