September 9, 2009

John A. Keel: A Brief Biography

Filed under: — admin @ 9:50 pm

[This biography is neither exhaustive nor definitive; I hope it’s useful. It’s based on one I wrote for the Fortean Times back in 2002.  (Doug Skinner)]

Alva John Kiehle was born on March 25, 1930, in Hornell, NY. His father was a singer and bandleader; his mother a “lively, pretty girl with a strong sense of humor.” The marriage was a brief one; John was raised by his grandparents in the nearby town of Perry.

As a child he read insatiably (he remembered himself as a “reading machine”), especially anything about magic, humor, science, travel, and aviation. By the time he was 14, he was determined to be a writer: he wrote a column, “Scraping the Keel,” for the Perry Herald; published his own science fiction fanzine, The Lunarite; and was routinely sending out submissions to magazines.

In 1947, he hitch-hiked to Manhattan — or, more specifically, to Greenwich Village.  He became associate editor of the quarterly magazine Poets of America (1947-1949), and editor of the weekly newspaper Limelight (1949-1951).  At this time, he was also writing for comic books, contributing poetry to various magazines, and turning out scripts for the early TV station WABD.  He also wrote scripts for radio shows, including Grand Central Station and First Nighter.

When he was 18, he had a strange (but classic) illumination experience in his furnished room off Times Square. He remembered the room “filled with an indescribable light, a pinkish glow”; and his mind “flooded with a torrent of information.”

In 1951, he was drafted.  He spent his military years in Frankfurt, working mostly for the American Forces Network.  Some of his programming ideas — a remote broadcast from the Great Pyramid, another from Frankenstein’s Castle — earned him a great deal of publicity.

In 1954, he was restless, and determined to see more of the world.  He spent the next year wandering throughout the Middle East, supporting himself by sending back stories and articles to his agent, who then placed them in men’s adventure magazines.  In Singapore, he was deported as an “adventurer,” and moved to Barcelona, where he turned his experiences into a book, Jadoo.

When Jadoo was published in 1957, he moved back to NYC, and promoted it by performing with cobras in the window of the Midtown Aquarium at Times Square, and with many TV and radio appearances. He suffered a bit of writer’s block after this, and turned to editing the magazine Echo.  Funk & Wagnall’s also hired him as a science and geography editor (1959-1960).

In the ’60s, he worked a great deal in television: he was the head writer for the game show Play Your Hunch; and turned out many scripts for such shows as Mack and Myer for Hire, the Chuck McCann Show, the Clay Cole Show, and the animated series Snooperscope.  He also wrote a couple of novels, under his preferred pseudonym, Harry Gibbs.

In 1966, Playboy commissioned him to write an article on UFOs. The resultant piece was rejected (the assignment was turned over to J. Allen Hynek, and published in the December 1967 issue). But he had become hooked on the subject; and traveled around the country, interviewing witnesses, and writing dozens of articles.  The phenomenon, he learned, took its toll on its investigators: he entered a shadowy world where black cars vanished on country roads, meaningless messages turned up in hotel rooms, and his phone and mail suffered strange interceptions.  In 1966, he made repeated visits to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, then the site of a particularly active monster and UFO flap; the result was one of his most popular books, The Mothman Prophecies. Along the way, he also put out a lively newsletter, Anomaly; wrote a regular column for Saga; and published several classic books on forteana.

He was a technical advisor to the Library of Congress (1968-69), and special consultant to the office of Scientific Research and Bureau of Radiology (1968-71), before becoming a consultant to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, for whom he produced a prototype for a magazine, You.  He also fulfilled a boyhood dream by earning his pilot’s license.

In the 1980s, he attempted a number of plays and novels, none of which made it to the page or stage.  He devoted his time to various mail order projects, and revived the dormant New York Fortean Society.  And he contributed a regular column to Fate magazine, “Beyond the Known.”

In his later years, he was slowed down considerably by diabetes and its complications.  He had some lean times, particularly when cataracts, and the resultant eye surgery, made writing difficult.  His luck turned when The Mothman Prophecies was made into a movie in 2002; he was particularly delighted at being portrayed by Richard Gere, whom he referred to as a “John Keel look-alike.”  The publicity sparked several new editions of the book, including numerous foreign editions.  He bought a car, which he dubbed the Mothmobile, and often disappeared on solo road trips.

With age, his health declined, and he spent several years in and out of hospitals and nursing homes; his friends pitched in to keep him going.  He died July 3, 2009, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

Despite reports to the contrary, he did not die alone and abandoned.  Larry “Ratso” Sloman and I were his medical proxies; and very active in helping him in his final years.  Many friends visited him in his various hospitals and homes.  I was at his bedside the day he died, to give the final directives, and to tell him goodbye.  Despite other reports, his papers were saved by his friends and family.


  1. Glad to hear he was with Friends when he passed, I was a fan of his writings.

    Comment by joe — November 10, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

  2. Mr Keel, in my opinion was THE Paranormal investigator and writer, I have been hooked on his books since the days of my youth, and I still thrill when ever I re-read my very worn, dog-eared yet treasured mid 70’s copy of ‘Strange Creatures from Time and Space’, and am reading (yet again) ‘The Mothman Prophecies’, and still finding new points to consider.
    I think his theories of the root cause/source of Paranormal events, are the most complete and fitting explanation (s) that any investigator or writer in this field have proposed; yet, he seemed to me, to temper his views with a humour and humility that the ‘answer’to the phenomena would, due to it’s adaptive and reflective ability, probably always remain just beyond our reach. Thank You, John, for shining a light into the darker corners of what we believe, is ‘reality’

    Comment by Mark C — November 18, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  3. Have just finished ‘The Mothman Prophecies’ my first taste of Keel (as it were!)

    Comment by Jo — February 21, 2013 @ 8:22 am

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