A NOTE FROM BRIAN: I usually prefer to celebrate a subject’s date of birth rather than observe the day he died. But it’s worth noting that twenty-five years ago today — May 16, 1990 — Jim Henson passed away at 1:21 a.m. in New York.
Readers of Jim Henson: The Biography often tell me that they find the chapter on Jim’s death to be both sad and fascinating, especially as the circumstances of Jim’s death have, for the last two-and-a-half decades, been misinterpreted, misreported, or just plain misunderstood. I appreciate hearing that readers find this portion of the book as gratifying as they do heartbreaking. You can thank the Henson family for their openness in discussing Jim’s death, and for providing me with the honor — and responsibility — of reading Jim’s medical records from that day in May 1990.
As we remember Jim on the occasion of his passing, then, I thought I’d do something a bit different. I’m posting below — perhaps for only a limited time — an excerpt from the chapter “Just One Person,” from Jim Henson: The Biography, on the days leading up to and including Jim’s death. We’ll begin on Saturday, May 12, 1990, with Jim and his daughter Cheryl flying to North Carolina to visit his father Paul and stepmother Bobby.
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On the morning of Saturday, May 12, after two days of seemingly nonstop meetings at One Seventeen, Jim and Cheryl boarded a USAir flight at LaGuardia Airport, and touched down in Norfolk, Virginia, a little after 10:00 a.m. Jim wasn’t feeling well again; while he didn’t have a fever, his throat was still sore, his nose was running, and he had picked up a slight cough. “It seemed like a cold or flu,” said Cheryl. But he felt well enough to carry his own bags and drove their rental car the seventy miles south from Norfolk to rural Ahoskie, North Carolina, where they checked into a motel near Paul and Bobby’s home.
Jim and Cheryl spent the rest of Saturday with Paul and Bobby, playing croquet on the lawn, sipping tea with lots of ice, and chatting casually in the kitchen. “This was a place where Jim was always at home, embraced with love and easy companionship,” said Cheryl. After dinner, Jim—along with an assortment of cousins and extended family—retired to the Hensons’ screened-in “secret porch,” watching the sun go down as they swapped stories and swayed silently in gliders or creaked in rocking chairs. “We just laughed and had a wonderful time,” said Bobby. Jim was “a little sniffily,” she recalled, but would never say he was sick. Rather, he said he “just didn’t feel good”—which was more than anyone had ever heard him complain about his health.
Sunday morning, however, Jim said he felt worse, and went back to bed in his motel room, sleeping in until nearly lunchtime. Around noon, his cousin Stan Jenkins came to pick up Jim and Cheryl to drive them back out to Paul and Bobby’s for lunch. Jim mentioned during the short car ride that he still wasn’t feeling well and had taken Advil—and Stan, a physician, advised Jim to see a doctor the moment he was back in New York (it would later be incorrectly and unfairly reported that Stan had examined Jim and missed the warning signs of pneumonia, an accusation that haunted Stan for years). Jim tried to eat, but had little appetite. His cough had worsened, sometimes rasping so violently that he coughed blood—something he disclosed to no one at the time, preferring not to worry his family. By late afternoon, Jim shakily mentioned that he might try to catch an earlier flight back to New York. There were other factors to consider, too; beginning at ten the next morning he was scheduled to spend all day in a recording session for a Disney show, and wanted to make sure he, and his voice, were rested enough. Bobby, who thought Jim “looked kind of bad,” told him to go. “Nobody knew that Jim was that ill,” Bobby said. “I knew he’d been tired. I chalked it up to that.” Continue reading