Monday, March 30, 2020

"Night Ride" and Interview

Black Mask Magazine, the storied detective pulp of the last century, began publication in 1920, created by H.L. Menken and George Jean Nathan for publisher Pro Distributors. After a period of great and growing success in the 1920’s and early 30’s, circulation began to decline and the title was sold -- in 1940 -- to Popular Publications, joining other great crime titles there such as Dime Detective and Detective Tales. Black Mask’s final issue was published in July 1951. John D MacDonald, whose first attempts at fiction were published in 1946, had seven stories in its pages.

In 1985 Matthew J Bruccoli and Richard Layman revived the title, and began publishing The New Black Mask as a quarterly trade paperback. It was a mix of (mostly) new short stories by contemporary authors, along with some classic reprints, but it lasted only until 1987 (eight issues) when some kind of trouble over the use of the magazine’s name caused the editors to end the endeavor. Issue Eight contained a “new” John D MacDonald story.

MacDonald had, of course, passed away in December of the previous year, but this issue had obviously been put together many months prior to his fateful trip to Milwaukee. The story JDM provided, “Night Ride,” was, the author explained in an introductory paragraph, an old one written “twenty-four years ago” (1962) and had never been finished or submitted.

“I came upon it last year when I was grubbing around in the old files, looking for something else. I wondered why it had not been published. I cannot remember who thought it needed more work, my agent or I. I suspect that some other project got in the way and it fell through the cracks. So, I gave it a quick polish and sent it in, pleased to find it was not dated."

The story is a good one, concerning a down-on-his-luck man who accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian while he is driving home from a losing late night poker game. The only real problem, apparently unknown to all concerned, was that the story HAD been published before. Walter Shine, in his regular column in the JDM Bibliophile, revealed that it was, in fact, a reprint of MacDonald’s excellent “In a Small Motel,” which appeared in the July 1955 issue of Justice, a crime digest of the era. For years I took this as gospel and, because it was only a reprint, never bothered to hunt down a copy of The New Black Mask.

Now I have, and I can corroborate Walter’s assertion that the story was published before its appearance in The New Black Mask, but it is not “In a Small Motel,” it’s one titled “Scared Money,” which also appeared in Justice, in the October 1955 issue. He got the magazine right but not the story title, which compounds MacDonald’s own error as to both the prior-publication and the date he wrote the story. Also, note that JDM writes that he “polished” the story for its new publication, much as he did for the Good Old Stuff stories. Happily I can report that the changes are minimal.

This was not the only time MacDonald pulled out a story from his files that he thought hadn’t been published and submitted it for publication. In the very same issue of the JDM Bibliophile where Walter Shine called out “Night Ride,” editor Ed Hirshberg published a short story MacDonald had given him for the fanzine a week before he left for Milwaukee. Hirshberg quoted MacDonald as telling him, “Here’s one that was never accepted, but it isn’t too bad and you might as well use it in The Thing. [JDM’s appellation for the JDMB.] There are more in my files, and I will let you have these as time goes on, when the need for copy arises.” This one was titled “The Killer,” and it should have been obvious to everyone involved, since it had been published under that very title in the January 1955 issue of Manhunt. There must have been something askew with JDM’s 1955 sales to crime digests.

Along with the submission of “Night Ride,” MacDonald agreed to a short interview for The New Black Mask. By this time in his life most of the interviews JDM agreed to do were by mail only, answering a set of pre-written questions submitted by the interviewer, and he only answered the questions he felt like addressing. Without the give and take of an actual conversation MacDonald often comes across as impatient, condescending and, at times, outright angry. This interview has such moments, and I’ve transcribed it below.

John D. MacDonald: An Interview

John D. MacDonald was born in Pennsylvania and attended the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, and Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. He served six years in the army in World War II. He is married and has one son and five grandchildren residing in New Zealand. Since he began writing in 1946 and has published seventy-five books and over six hundred short stories, novelettes, and articles. His work has been translated into sixteen languages, and his books have sold over ninety million copies worldwide.

New Black Mask: You began your writing career producing stories for the pulps, a large writers' market that no longer exists. How important was your pulp-writing apprenticeship, and how has the demise of the pulps affected genre fiction—especially the mystery?

John D MacDonald: I began my career writing stories for the pulp magazines as well as the so-called slicks. In the first years-1946 to 1950—I had stories published in American Magazine, Argosy, Collier's, Cosmopolitan, Story Magazine, Liberty, This Week, and the Toronto Star Weekly, in addition to a wide range of pulp magazines. I do not think that the demise of the pulps has affected the quality of today's fiction writing as much as has the demise of those slick-paper magazines, which used so many pieces of fiction each year. In the case of The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Liberty alone, a market for seven hundred pieces of fiction a year at quite good rates disappeared seemingly overnight. Thus in the general field of the novel, in all categories, some very clumsy work is being published. There is no training area. The university courses lean so heavily on subjectivity that the prose becomes muddy and pretentious. I am sent many sets of bound galleys in hopes I will make some useful comment for public purposes. I rarely have to read beyond page ten.

NBM: You were trained as a businessman at Harvard and used your business skills to become one of the most successful novelists of your time. To what degree have the instincts and mindset of the businessman affected your fiction?

MacDonald: I can see only a very remote relationship between my formal education and my writing. I have the instincts of the businessman only when I am involved with the problems of everyday life. I am often shocked at the gullibility of some of the members of my peer group when their innocence in investing in tax shelters is revealed in the press. I do not have the mindset of a businessman. Their scope, like that of doctors and lawyers, is for the most part quite narrow.

NBM: There is a trend now, demonstrated by recent novels of Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard, for writers of mysteries to attempt what Parker calls the “Big Book” -- the novel that will transcend the bounds of genre fiction and attract attention as a mainstream work. Are you concerned that because of your success as a mystery novelist your works will be neglected over the long haul and categorized by critics as ephemeral?

MacDonald: I think that trying to puff a small story into a big book is a mistake. Books and short pieces of fiction should be permitted to find their own proper length. My most recent novel, Barrier Island, is not long. Knopf expressed dismay that it was not a thicker book. I did the story the way it felt right to me. Puffing it would have upset the rhythm of it. I must confess to being a little distressed by your patronizing tone in categorizing me as a mystery novelist. We Americans feel more comfortable with categories and filing systems, and butterflies pinned to the board in proper order of species, I guess. I am pleased to write novels of mystery and suspense, of course. But at the risk of boring you, here is a list of my published novels which do not fall into that category: Wine of the Dreamers (1951), The Damned (1952), Ballroom of the Skies (1952), Cancel All Our Vows (1953), All These Condemned (1954), Contrary Pleasure (1954), Cry Hard, Cry Fast (1955), A Man of Affairs (1957), The Deceivers (1958), The Executioners (1958), Clemmie (1958), Please Write for Details (1959), The Crossroads (1959), Slam the Big Door (1960), The End of the Night (1960), A Key to the Suite (1962), A Flash of Green (1962), The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything (1963), I Could Go on Singing (1963), The House Guests (1965), No Deadly Drug (1968), Condominium (1977), Nothing Can Go Wrong (1981), One More Sunday (1984), Barrier Island (June 1986), A Friendship (November 1986).

Insofar as "being neglected over the long haul and categorized by critics as ephemeral," I could not care less. It has been my personal observation that those members of my peer group who get terribly earnest about their literary immortality are the ones least likely to achieve any. And, of course, any writer who pays attention to critics is an ass. I write because I enjoy the hell out of it, and if I couldn't ever sell another word, I would keep right on amusing myself with it.

NBM: You are known as a writer with a social conscience, concerned about environmental issues, corporate greed, economic abuses, immorality on a large scale. Do you consider yourself a social evangelist?

MacDonald: What a dreadful phrase that is: "social evangelist!" I would not invite one of those into my kitchen for a beer. Any intelligent person who is indifferent to the environmental issues, indifferent to the corporate greed which pried unearned billions out of NASA and the defense program, indifferent to a lethargic, self important bureaucracy which spends two dollars on itself out of every five appropriated for social programs, that person is not living in the world. He is not experiencing life. He is as dead upstairs as he soon will be in toto.

NBM: Are you interested in politics as an active participant?

MacDonald: I have supported a few -- a very few -- politicians I respect. But only with donations. I am not a group person. I like to be alone, work alone, so that both blame and praise are undiluted.

NBM: Writers' organizations are in the news lately -- The American Writers Congress and the PEN conference, for example -- largely due to their interest in national and international political matters. As a former president of MWA, do you have any observations on the role of a writers' group and the matters writers' organizations ought to address?

MacDonald: Historically, all autocratic governments oppress writers. The dictator does not want to be told he is wearing no clothes. A lot of very good work has come out of such oppressions. I suppose it is reasonable for organizations of writers to complain as loudly as possible about their fellow writers in the gulags, prisons, and asylums. Sometimes it seems to do some good. But I far prefer the sort of activity the Authors' Guild undertakes when they publish model contracts with publishers and recommend the abolishing of traditional unfair clauses therein. The Screenwriters' Guild has used the strike weapon successfully to pry loose a share of the income from sale of tapes.

NBM: Early in your career, you wrote science fiction. Why did you stop?

MacDonald: I will probably write some more science fiction some day. I will come upon an idea which cannot be expressed as well in another form. Science fiction is particularly useful in making social comment without being dull.

NBM: A turning point in your career was your introduction of Travis McGee, who has now been the protagonist of some twenty novels. Does the time come when, despite your best intentions, you find that you have exhausted a character's possibilities and you become bored with him?

MacDonald: Are you serious? How could I know if a time will come when I will become bored with McGee? I am not bored now.

NBM: You will be seventy in July. Have you contemplated retirement?

MacDonald: I haven't given it a thought. I'd hate to have to pack it in. It's too much fun.


Monday, March 16, 2020

Short Story Update

The June 1946 issue of Doc Savage
The task of compiling a complete and definitive listing of John D MacDonald’s published short stories began back in 1965 when Len and June Moffat published the first issue of the JDM Bibliophile, a single sheet printed on both sides containing MacDonald’s books printed up to that point in time. In the pre-internet age where little if any indexing of pulp magazines existed, this was no small task, but as the JDMB began to circulate, fans, researchers and fellow bibliophiles started contributing information for what would become The JDM Master Checklist. MacDonald himself was contacted and became interested, as he was in the process of renewing the copyrights on these works, and he provided much valuable information from his vast files. Finally, in early 1969, the work was published: a 56-page mimeographed, stapled, stenciled work that contained everything known -- up to that point -- on the works of JDM.

Eleven years later Walter Shine, a retired attorney living in Palm Beach, along with his wife Jean, expanded on the Checklist with their invaluable reference work John D MacDonald: Bibliography Biography, at 209 pages the most comprehensive JDM bibliography ever published and my primary reference for writing this blog. But even that was a work in progress, as there were ten stories that had been purchased by publishers but could not be identified. Throughout the 1980’s we (I myself worked with Walter in hunting down these stories) managed to find a few, such as “Underwater Safari” (Published in the February 1961 issue of Bluebook for Men as "A Dark People Thing"), “Devil Head” (retitled “Three Strikes -- You’re Dead!” for the June 1949 issue of All-Story Detective), “A Good Judge of Men” (Cavalier, March 1953), and, supposedly “That Old Grey Train,” which was said to have appeared in the March 1947 issue of Super Sports, a Columbia title with a very spotty publication history. (More on that later.) In 2015, years after Walter Shine had passed away, I discovered another title, “The Gentle Killer,” which was published in the November 1948 issue of All Sports.

There were also a few entries on the official list that were deemed as questionable, most notably “A Handful of Death”.

It was published in the June 1946 issue of Street and Smith’s Doc Savage, the first of many JDM stories that would appear there. It was included in the Master Checklist, but MacDonald himself could not locate a copy of his original manuscript (which was unusual for him) and he had received no tear sheets from the publisher. More unusual than that, the story was published under one of his “house names,” Peter Reed, a practice usually reserved for the occasion when an author had two or more stories in the same issue of a magazine. There was no other JDM story in the June issue, and it simply made no sense that the author’s very first story published for Street and Smith would appear under a pseudonym. Still, Shine included it in his Bibliography.

I recently re-read the story and am confident enough to state that it does not appear to be a John D MacDonald story. The story takes place in a mid-western Feed and Grain mill and its protagonist -- a Bluebeard by the name of Emil Kranz and who goes by the title Count Emmanuel -- is unlike any other I’ve encountered in JDM’s fiction. Most of the author’s early work had settings in Ceylon or India, or a New York-like city, not in an obscure small town where MacDonald had never visited. Most damning is the style: quite obviously not MacDonald’s, which was characteristic even in his very early stories. I think it’s high time to remove this title from the official list, and I will be doing that with my own version of that list shortly.

That’s one less short story of a count that was, at times, said to be over 600 titles but which, in reality (if you exclude magazine versions of his published novels) comes in short of 400. But it may be replaced by another title, one I can’t at this time verify but which seems like a good candidate for one of those five remaining “missing” stories.

Adventure: April 1953
A while back a copy of the April 1953 issue of Adventure showed up on eBay, claiming to contain a John D MacDonald story titled “The Sinner of the Saints”. This title does not appear in either of the JDM bibliographies and I myself had never heard of it. The seller was asking $65 for the issue, far more that I was willing to spend on a story that may have been nothing more that a reprint of an older story under a new title. Still, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that it could have been a sports story (if “the Saints” of the title was a sports team) and one of those missing stories -- one MacDonald titled “Big League Busher” and was sold to Popular Publications (at that time the publisher of Adventure) in 1951. The issue is still for sale, now priced at $71.50, but I’m still unwilling to pay that kind of money, even to answer a question I’ve been asking for years. Perhaps one day…

Finally, back to “That Old Grey Train”. It was one of the original ten, but soon after the Bibliography was published Shine claimed that it has been located in the March 1947 issue of Super Sports. There is a file for it in the JDM Collection at the University of Florida, but it contains no tear sheets or publication information. Most curious of all is the fact that there doesn’t seem to have been a March 1947 issue of Super Sports.

The Adventure House Guide to the Pulps (2000) is considered to be the bible of pulp magazine publication history, and it lists no issue of Super Sports between September 1946 and June 1947. That was later to be proven incorrect when a February 1947 issue showed up, counted as Volume 6, Number 1. I recently purchased cheap copies of both the February and June issues and can confirm that the June issue is counted as Volume 6, Number 2, making a March issue impossible. I also own the September and December issues of that year, and they are Number 3 and Number 4 respectively. The only issue out of these four that contains a John D MacDonald story is the December issue, which has “Big John Fights Again”. So “That Old Grey Train” wasn’t published, right? Not so fast: the title page of “Big John Fights Again” contains the blurb: “Author of “That Old Grey Train”.

So we are left with a mystery. Either Columbia’s numbering of its Super Sports issues was in error (unlikely), the story was sold but never published (perhaps unknown to whoever wrote that blurb), or it appeared in Columbia’s other sports title of 1947, Sports Fiction. If that last possibility is correct it would have had to have been published in that title’s June or September issue. No listing of the contents of either issue is available online.

An ongoing mystery, and I'll leave it on the list for now.


Monday, March 2, 2020

Afloat, But Not at Sea

S.S. Mariposa
In 1981 John D MacDonald published a non-fiction book titled Nothing Can Go Wrong. It was an account of his and Dorothy’s 77-day journey from San Francisco to Leningrad and back, aboard the cruise ship S. S. Mariposa, a trip that had taken place in the spring and summer of 1977. At this point in time the MacDonalds were veteran cruise ship passengers, having logged thousands of miles on over half a dozen trips. According to Hugh Merrill in his JDM bio The Red Hot Typewriter the couple's maiden voyage took place in 1975, but this is incorrect -- any reader of Darker Than Amber (1966) or his This Week story “A Touch of Miss Mint” (1964) would have guessed correctly that the author had had experience aboard a cruise ship. In fact, the couple’s first voyage took place in May of 1958 on a relatively short trip around the Bahamas.

Nothing Can Go Wrong was published in hardcover and enjoyed only a single printing. The following year a paperback edition came out that had two editions, October 1982 and March 1983. Then, in October of 1983 he wrote a newspaper piece on cruising that appeared in the October 9 edition of the New York Times Magazine, titled “Afloat, But Not at Sea,” which is reprinted below. Special thanks to Trap of Solid Gold reader David Blankenhorn for transcribing this.

Afloat, But Not at Sea

JOHN D. MacDONALD is the author of the Travis McGee novels, of which the most recent is Cinnamon Skin (Harper); he has also published, with Capt. John Kilpack, a book about a long cruise, Nothing Can Go Wrong (Harper). 

By JOHN D. MacDONALD

One time, off the North Cape of Norway, we stood amidships at the port rail of the promenade deck of the old Mariposa and watched the sun slant at a weird flat angle toward the horizon. We stood in a wind so cold and so strong that the tassel on the Norwegian wool cap that Dorothy had bought stood unwaveringly out behind her as if frozen into position. The bottom of the sun touched the horizon, moved along it, and then began to slant up again, in an Arctic parody of dawn.

I laughed, because at that moment the world was so strange it was grotesque. Laughing let the cold wind in. It blew my cheeks fat and stung my teeth. You know the feeling of unreality: What on earth am I doing here? At this moment in time, at this spot on our ball of mud.

If you are jaded by traveling by land or air, the thought of a sea voyage may amuse you. I myself have traveled 156,000 nautical miles on ships, and, if time permits, I will run up as many more again. I am fond of this mode of travel because, primarily, it saves a lot of packing and unpacking and allows one to avoid the broad, plastic, glassy squalor and the institutionalized anxiety of international airports, along with the drugged ennui of jet lag.

But there are also frustrations, limitations and random idiocies connected with cruising that the habitue will wearily endure and the newcomer will observe with disbelief and dismay. In what follows, I shall describe some of these. And, if you are a newcomer to cruising - and particularly if you are thinking about a long cruise on several oceans - I shall try to answer some of the questions you forgot to ask your travel agent.

The first rule for newcomers: If you can afford longer than a three-day cruise, do not try to find out what cruising is all about by going on a three-day cruise. The people who go on them are almost all uniformly young (except for the kindly uncles who take their nieces on vacation), loud, energetic and determined to go without any sleep at all for the entire cruise. They drink and sing and go barefoot. These are not crimes. Trying to use the same dance floor with them, however, is like trying to slip, unnoticed, into the Los Angeles Rams backfield. They butt their cigarettes into the rugs, engage in occasional fisticuffs and take 500 photographs a day of each other in front of ship fittings and slot machines that have just paid off.

Passengers and crew need at least two weeks to settle into the routines of shipboard and get used to each other's eccentricities. On three-day cruises the dining-room waiters are harried, sullen, insolent and unlikely to bring you what you ordered; the waiters and captains and barmen and deck stewards are all obviously wishing they had been on leave when this job was scheduled.

A two-week cruise is really the minimum for learning whether or not you like cruising. You can go from San Francisco to Glacier Bay and back - or from Copenhagen to the North Cape and Spitzbergen and back - or one way to London and Copenhagen, or Fort Lauderdale to Athens, or Athens to London, or Los Angeles to San Juan, or, in a little more than two weeks, from Rio de Janeiro to Fort Lauderdale. Most lines now have a return air-fare allowance, which deadens, somewhat, the sting of paying for the cruise tickets.

What kind of a stateroom should you get? The cruise ships, with the exception of the Queen Elizabeth 2 (and that only on trans-Atlantic crossings), are one-class ships. Whether you are in a penthouse suite or an inside cabin on D deck, you have access to all the public areas, order from the same menu and are provided with the same entertainment. And pay the same amount for your drinks. The QE2 discriminates only to the extent that people in the most expensive staterooms and suites eat in a different dining room.

Otherwise, everyone is treated almost the same. It is simple logic that the stewards and stewardesses become less experienced the closer you get to the waterline. And the chap in charge of the dining room is going to know which cabin you have when he makes the table assignments - and some areas of every seagoing dining room are less desirable than others. But these are minor differences. Whatever kind of room you have, you can get room service day and night. You will not be coddled the same way people were on the great old ships - the Queen Mary, the Bremen, the Normandie - but you will get more personal attention than you could expect in a first-class hotel.

It is silly to generalize about nationalities, but after cruises that add up to about seven circumnavigations of the globe, we have found that, on balance, the people who wait on you in any capacity, from deck steward to barmaid, and do so with a certain amount of pleasure, and who are aware of you as individuals, are the Italians, Latins, Portuguese, French and Turks. On our most recent cruise our two table waiters were Italian, and once we were acquainted, the four of us were in some pleasant conspiracy to find the very best of food and drink in spite of the whims of the galley chefs and hotel managers.

But too often the potential passenger thinks of life on cruise ships as being an unspeakable elegance of Champagne, caviar and ballroom dancing. It isn't. Take Champagne. Unless you have the wine steward bringing the stuff to your table at $24 to $35 a pop, all you get is what you can take on at one of the captain's receptions, where too few harassed waiters try to serve too many thirsts. If you have the agility of a broken-field runner and the voice of a hog caller, you might get one of those little shallow glasses filled enough times to give you a remote little buzz.

The most dubious item on any cruise menu is the so-called fresh fish, which appears soon after leaving a port. Seldom do the purchasing people buy fish ashore, especially if the ship visits the port rarely. The fish that you get aboard ship is generally something from Scandinavia, deep frozen for so long that it can vie with glacial mastodon meat, and has the same taste as kitchen curtains.

The sheer quantity of food stowed aboard affects the quality of preparation. The Royal Viking Star, for example, is not a giant ship: 28,000 tons, 674 feet long. On its 1983 Pacific cruise, it left California with 480 tons of food; after 30 days cruising, the executive chef's computer printout showed that, among other things, the passengers had already consumed 3,870 dozen eggs, 19,700 pounds of meat, 18,600 bottles of beer, 1,330 bottles of Champagne and 680 pounds of peanuts. For those of mathematical bent, there were about 500 passengers aboard.

Some rules for surviving meals at sea: Avoid ethnic foods when the ethnic is other than the kitchen staff. Don't order anything you can't pronounce. Don't eat everything in sight just because you have paid for it. Clothes that have ceased to fit take the pleasure out of dining. Ask your waiter what looks good. When something is in too short supply to be put on the menu, it is often very good indeed. Like papaya.

A long cruise gives you a chance to observe the strange fads and fancies of the human condition. Think of this: You are part of a group of 600 people, most of whom have come aboard in pairs, as on Noah's Ark. They have come from all over the world. Now that long cruises are increasingly segmented, you can have 150 Australians getting on in Sydney, or 100 Germans in Hamburg. But the majority of the passengers on almost all cruises will be your fellow Americans. In the shoreside terminals where you wait to come aboard, you look at all these strangers with the same curiosity and suspicion with which they regard you. You look at the clothes, the deportment, the carry-ons, the demeanor. You listen to the accents. You wonder what most of them are doing on the same cruise you selected.

Cruise passengers are separated from the artifacts of their identity - house, car, circle of friends, club membership - and dumped into an unlikely environment that attempts to amuse them even as it glides from here to there. There is a useful word in Spanish that refers to the habit of a certain kind of bull in the ring: This is a bull that has begun to feel uncertain, and so he will locate his querencia, a space in the bull ring where he feels most secure. He will make his stand there, and when the matador manages to dislodge him from this station, he will make a single charge and then return to the querencia.

So it is with cruise ship passengers. The cruise is nothing like what they expected. They cannot readily identify the social, financial or educational status of their fellow passengers. And so they find corners where they feel safe. Whole groups find places they like better than other places, and they use hats, scarves, purses, books and programs to save the nearby chairs for their chums. In this manner they create a smaller society in which they can feel secure - a society small enough to be comprehended.

Pecking orders are established, bores identified, boors avoided. The booze people stake out the bar stools they like best, and the deck walkers circle endlessly around the promenade deck, past the deck-chair people, the ones who have brought a thick book to read and the ones who sleep, jaw agape, looking uncomfortably dead.

On a long cruise, or on a middle cruise in a series of short ones, expect several things to be broken, and in that way you will not suffer disappointment. On a recent cruise on a five- star vessel (in both the Fielding and Fodor ratings) three out of the five automatic washing machines in the laundry room gave up the ghost and the waffle machine quit early on, so that though they had waffles on the menu every morning, there were in fact no waffles at all. The air-conditioning system went quite mad for a time, creating areas of stifling heat and tooth- chilling cold. A pressure hose broke and all the toilets quit and could be flushed only by filling wastebaskets with water in the tub or shower and upending them into the bowls.

And so on.

What you have to remember is that a large ship is a very complicated mechanism. When it is trying to be a ship and at the same time be a hotel, a chain of saloons, a lecture hall, a health farm, a country club and a flock of nightclubs, only extraordinary pre-planning and superb management can keep the whole top-heavy thing running like a $1,000 watch. Pre- planning and good management are a couple of the things they don't have too much of. Docking presents its own problems. At last your ship comes into port. It is made fast to the long pier, lines taut, tin rat- guards in place, gangways lowered. The big engines are turned off, and it is dead against the pier, like some huge slain animal. It is now at the mercy of the ant-swarms of bureaucrats, the customs and immigration officials, the port agents, the vendors of this and that. The big ship is far from home and helpless - it is at the mercy of the venal, the greedy and the mischievous.

The leverage is, of course, clearance. ''Be very very nice to our civil servants, Captain, or it will take a long long time to clear this ship and your passengers are going to get very angry at you.''

On short cruises in limited areas, such as the Caribbean and the Greek Islands, these matters tend to get worked out because the particular ships are in port so often. There are many ports in the Caribbean area, from Nassau down to La Guaira, and if one port gets too greedy and obstructive, it is crossed off the list, and the merchants ashore whip their officials into line.

Recently we left a cruise ship in Kowloon, Hong Kong, tied up to the big pier there that adjoins a glossy shopping center of hundreds of shops offering treasures from all over the world. The officials had mixed emotions. They didn't want to clear the ship so quickly they'd lose their self-respect, but they were under pressure from the shopkeepers to let the buying begin. The solution was to delay clearance for a long unnecessary time but let the passengers wander off regardless, unstayed by gangway guards.

The compartmentalization of ships services is another point at issue. On all large passenger ships you will usually find a shore tour office and a shore tour director. You will find a cruise office, to advise you about future trips, make reservations and so on. You will find a purser and a hotel manager and various other people behind the big counter where you put your goodies in locked boxes, ask for cabin phone numbers, buy stamps and cash checks.
All of these people have a home office counterpart, and apparently the home office people do not keep each other informed any more than do the ones afloat.

Because of this strange lack of communication, a year and a half ago a well-known passenger vessel went on a cruise around Africa, arranged in such a way that the shore tour people could not book a shore tour to an African game farm. And so the cruise was a failure, the ship traveling far below capacity. Such stupidity has to be seen and experienced to be believed.

Actual physical layout is another area in which lack of communication within the cruise lines shows plainly. For example, the Royal Viking Star was ''extended'' a few years ago, an additional 93 feet added so that up to 720 passengers could be accommodated at one sitting. The advertisements speak of all the wonderful big windows in the main dining room - which for some obscure Norwegian reason they call the ''restaurant.'' In all of that dining room, the layout provided for only eight (8) window tables for two. And the ship boasts 19 very expensive suites, usually occupied by couples who can afford them and who expect, after presenting themselves with a green handshake to the maître d'hôtel, to get one of those tables as their God-given right. Whoever designed the layout could not have conspired more effectively to create manic-depression among the dining-room staff.

One thing cannot be blamed on the lines, the ships or the people. But it can be a disappointment. Unless you go far from any land mass - such as from Honolulu to Yokahama - you will be sailing on a gray-green sea under an oyster-colored haze. Paul J. Weitz, the commander of the first flight of the Challenger, reported that, ''Unfortunately, this world is rapidly becoming a gray planet.''

And, near the land masses - such as through the canals, the Mediterranean, along all coasts - there is no longer pure blue sky and dancing blue sea, the way it looks in the posters and the cruise pamphlets. In some places - Bombay harbor, Hong Kong, Venice, Amsterdam - you begin to get the feeling you are in a kind of eternal twilight, no matter what time of day it is. This twilight has an odd brassy sheen to it, a look of chemicals and a smell of fuel and solvents. Perhaps it is the twilight of a world, a winding down of our time and our place in the history of the galaxy.

But, so what, you can still get a sunburn on deck, perhaps an even more violent one than you would get had you the direct sunlight to warn you. I am not an expert on tan. My skin turns red, blisters and falls off. I am a hat person.

Finally, when you take your cruise, do not expect to be told very much by those folks up there who run the ship. On every ship they have a public address setup so designed that a message can be sent to every area of the ship, or to the public areas only, or to the crew areas only.

A good and rare captain will break in now and then and say, ''This is the captain speaking. We are coming up on some gray whales, a pod of them a mile or so off the port bow.'' Or: ''That ship passing to starboard is a new Russian container ship on her first voyage.'' Or: ''Off the starboard bow you can begin to make out the first sight of Cabo San Lucas. We'll stay close as we can to give you a good look.'' But no captain has ever told us enough. There were always things we saw that puzzled us which were never explained.

As I said, however, we will take more cruises in the years ahead. We will complain bitterly about the broken doohickeys, the rotten weather, the singer who can't carry a tune in a bucket, the drinks that seem to get tinier and more expensive every trip we take . . . But we will keep on boarding because it is the last good game in town.

Why? Not many months ago, Dorothy and I walked forward into a stiff, warm wind, up to the bow rail of the promenade deck of a cruise ship heading through the Torres Strait en route from Australia to Bali. The moon was almost full, the sea luminous. We could see all the navigation lights, near and far, and we could watch the small lighted buoys appear quite suddenly after having been far away for a long time, sweeping by us, bobbing astern. It was a magical two hours traversing tricky seas explored by brave men long ago. That warm night lasts forever in memory.

And so we shall see you aboard. You and I will regard each other with deep suspicion, circle like new kids in the schoolyard and maybe end up friends. Some of the very best we have, we found on the white ships.

Monday, February 17, 2020

John D MacDonald vs. Doc Savage

Babette Rosmond
Bronze Shadows was a fanzine published in the 1960's dedicated to the study of two of the biggest hero pulps ever published, Doc Savage and The Shadow. Created by the late Fred Cook, the 'zine ran from 1965 to 1968 for a total of 15 issues. Like most fanzines of the era, it was homemade, printed on a mimeograph machine and stapled together. It was only one of several such journals centered on Doc Savage and The Shadow.

But it was, apparently, the only one to ever end up in the hands of John D MacDonald, whose early pulp stories filled the pages of these two magazines from 1946 to 1948 when he was just starting out as a writer. This was thanks to the then-editor of both of these pulps, Babette Rosemond, who I have discussed many times in this blog. Here is a paragraph I wrote in 2018 on the subject:

"When writing about the early fiction of John D MacDonald, that period when he was just starting out and learning his craft, enough words cannot be said about the support and guiding influence of pulp editor Babette Rosmond. At that time she was an editor at Street and Smith, managing two of the publisher’s premier titles, Doc Savage and The Shadow magazines, crediting herself as B. Rosmond, probably because of her gender. Like every other editor MacDonald submitted stories to in the that six-month time frame between October 1945 and March 1946 when he couldn’t sell anything to save his life, she was among those who rejected many of his submissions, but her rejections were personal and encouraging. In one rejection letter she wrote, “I, too, am an admirer of atmosphere, but too much atmosphere and too unconvincing a plot make [your story] a weak yarn... However, I am extremely fond of the way you write -- so dry your tears and send me something else very soon." She was an early coach, mentor and -- eventually -- friend who not only helped him in getting a literary agent but counseled him to expand the scope of his stories’ locales.

"To put it in real perspective, of the 57 stories MacDonald had published in his first two years as a writer, 30 of them, or 53%, were purchased by Babette Rosmond."

The second issue of Bronze Shadows was published in December 1965 and one of its contributors made the suggestion to Cook to send a copy to MacDonald. The author responded with the following letter, recalling his time with the magazines, his relationship with Rosmond, and his early pulp career. Below is a transcription of that letter, prefaced and postscripted by Cook:

(John Keasler, whose article appears elsewhere in this issue, suggested that John D. MacDonald might be interested in receiving a copy of Bronze Shadows. Mr. MacDonald, the highly successful author of countless best-selling mystery novels, was sent a copy of #2, and reciprocated by sending along the following article, telling of his early pulp days and his brief association with Doc Savage.

I feel flattered and deeply appreciate the time and effort of such a busy and talented person as Mr. MacDonald, to pause and reminisce with a total stranger.)

JOHN D. MacDONALD vs. DOC SAVAGE
by JOHN D. MacDONALD

I'm glad John Keasler suggested that I receive a copy of Bronze Shadows. I had no idea that a Doc Savage cult was in existence,

You have my permission to use this small and peripheral memory of my association with Doc Savage, though it might give some of the more devoted members of the Savage Coterie an aching desire to take a trip to Sarasota to hit me in the mouth.

I began writing full time when I was sprung after six years in the Army in late 1945. My first attempt at fiction, written while overseas, was sold to Whit Burnett of the old Story Magazine, Consequently my initial efforts - some 800,000 words of unsaleable crud, all in short story form, all completed within a 4 month period, were full of dying blind musicians, incredibly sensitive and oblique dialogue, and everything from imitation Maugham to imitation Tolstoi. I was keeping at least 30 stories in the mails at all times, papered one small room with form rejection slips lost 25 pounds, worked up to 100 hours a week, and acquired a considerable reputation around Utica, New York as a prime case of readjustment problems. No one could understand why I did not put my perfectly good master's degree from Harvard Business to work.

Eight hundred thousand words accomplished in 4 months is in essence a crash training program. It is equivalent to 10 full length novels. No writer of reasonably serious intent can write a single page without learning something of value and improving his control. I sold my second story to Mike Tilden - God rest him - of Popular Publications for Dime Detective in February of 1946. The third one I sold was to one of the Standard Magazines pulps, and the fourth - which was the beginning of a lasting and valued association - was bought by Babette Rosmond of Street and Smith, then editing Doc Savage and The Shadow.

I would estimate that Babs bought forty to fifty short stories of varying lengths from me in 1946, 1947 and a portion of 1948. The first eight or ten were all based on a very personal knowledge of India, Burma, China and Malaysia. She wrote bright, charming letters, but in my mind's eye she was a meaty type in her middle years with a shamelessly evident mustache. From my letters she knew I was a Colonel and she later confessed she had me pictured as middleaged, erect, slight British accent, bulging blue eyes, guardsman's mustache and carrying the inevitable swagger stick.

After those eight or ten based upon the same locale, she wrote to me, saying, “Isn't it about time you took off your pith helmet?”

At about that time I went down to New York to meet the people I'd been dealing with - Mike Tilden, Harry Widmer, Alden Norton. And Babette, who turned out to be a slight, dark, spry gal in her twenties, a very wry and pyrotechnic conversationalist.

Also about that time I was beginning to realize that there were two basic approaches to pulp writing, hence but two kinds of writers. One was the dogged chap who reads and analyzes pulp stories, makes little charts and graphs, develops a clumsy and reasonably direct style and he [...] the stories like a carpenter making different sizes of tables for a furniture mart. The other breed was the group I belonged to, the ones who have no interest in formula or pattern or specific editorial requirements, who want to tell stories, and who, once they accept the minor limitations of the pulp market, take their tongues out of their cheeks and do the best job they can do, and worry later about who might want to buy it. The ratio of work to sales is not as efficient as in the case of the table-makers, because it is a variety of risk-taking, but you can generate considerably more pride in your work, and have more satisfaction in doing it. Working in this manner made the boundary line in those days between pulp and slick very vague. A novelette I thought had its best chance at Cosmopolitan ended up in Dime Detective, A novel I thought might hit Argosy, then a pulp, was diverted to Colliers by my agent, and purchased as a serial.

Insofar as reading pulp magazines, I discovered I could read only those stories by people who were working in the same manner I was. In 1947, Babs Rosmond asked me, very cautiously and tentatively, if I would like to try a Doc Savage. I have the vague memory that Lester Dent was ill at that time. I do remember that I certainly had need of the money. I told her that I would let her know. I got out some of the back copies of the magazine which I had saved because they had contained stories by me. (Some contained two or three by me, the additional ones under the house names Babs and I had devised: Scott O'Hara, Peter Reed, John Farrell.) For the first time I read two Doc Savages all the way through. I did some fretting and some pacing and finally phoned Babs at her office at Street and Smith and said that I could not fault them on the basis of action, or moving the people around, but I just could not bring myself to imitate a prose style so wooden, so clumsy, so labored, so inadvertently hilarious that it was like a parody of the style you might term Early Comic Book. I said that Doc seemed to me to be a truly great comic figure, and I was sorry to let her down, but....

She said she hadn't really believed that I would do it, and that in fact she would have been a little disappointed if I had given it a try, disappointed in me.

I hope the Bronze Cult will understand that I put the knock on the Hero on the basis that any cult has the historical responsibility of assembling the con as well as the pro. I had my chance. I've done some mighty wooden writing under my own name, but at least I never did it on purpose,

(Oboy! How about that? I was introduced to Mr. MacDonald in the pages of Doc Savage and The Shadow along with Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories. Personally, I have enjoyed his novels more than his short stories because he uses the broader framework to thoroughly develop ideas and characters. I particularly enjoyed The Girl, The Gold Watch And Everything better than most because of the deft development of a most fascinating idea, the complete stoppage of time.

I'm sure we all forgive Mr. MacDonald for this one foolish mistake in his then beginning career.... but then - who are we to argue with success?

Thank you, John, for sharing your start with us. At least for me, you've become a real person in place of just a name on a cover.)

As one might imagine, MacDonald’s comments on the literary quality of the Doc Savage stories elicited several responses, which were printed in issues #4 and 5. JDM again received copies and responded to the objections, which you can read here: Pulp Perspective Plus.


Bronze Shadows issue courtesy of the John D. MacDonald Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida

Monday, February 3, 2020

From the Top of the Hill # 32: May 27, 1948

This is the last installment of From the Top of the Hill, John D MacDonald’s 1947-48 Clinton (NY) Courier newspaper column. Unfortunately I am missing the full text of the final few paragraphs, but you’ll get an idea of what he is talking about from the initial sentences.

It had been a difficult 1948 in the MacDonald home. Earlier that winter Dorothy’s mother Rita, who had been diagnosed with cancer a year earlier, suffered a relapse and was forced to leave her home in Poland (NY) and move in with the family. The MacDonalds set up a hospital bed in their living room and Dorothy tended to her care, administering shots every four hours, day and night. A month after this column was published, on June 24, she passed away. (Not in April, as is claimed by Hugh Merrill in The Red Hot Typewriter, an error I regret not correcting for the Stark House reprint.)

With Dorothy in need of a change of scene, and with JDM’s writing income just keeping them afloat financially, and with no savings needed to begin construction on their Piesco lakefront property, the couple decided to move to Mexico. Enticed by Malcom Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, the couple reasoned that they could live more cheaply there and could also benefit by renting out their Clinton home. So, on October 30, the family began driving south, destination Cuernavaca and the American artist colony there.

Thus ends John D MacDonald’s first career as a newspaper columnists. His second (and last) wouldn’t occur until 1959 when he began writing for a Sarasota monthly titled The Lookout under the pseudonym T Carrington Burns.

Good Piano:

In New York last weekend we dropped in to see a good friend and a very fine gentleman, Gene Rodgers, who, at the moment has his remarkable piano-playing featured in what the New Yorker calls "a triphammer show" at Cafe Society Downtown -- appearing on the bill with the Edmund Hall band and Kay Starr.

Gene advised us that he is opening in New Hartford on the night of the seventh of June. If editorial policy doesn't delete the name of the spot -- you can find him at the New Hartford Grill.

We rashly promised him that we would wave a flag for him, so, on the night of the seventh, if we look around and fail to see you and you and you -- we will request an explanation when we meet again.

Gene is not one of those stylists who zoom to the top, cling there for a year or two, and then fade away. Gene's jazz piano has more depth than the piano of the stylists; he is a musician who has been around for a long time, and will be around for many more years. He will fade if, as, and when public taste for a little subtlety in jazz piano fades. But it is only fair to add that when he switches from Debussy to boogie, some of the numbers are as subtle as a clenched fist. We like variety in our piano. Gene has it.

* * *

Highway Neurotics:

This time we drove to New York. The Parkway from Poughkeepsie down was cleverly designed to bring out the worst aspects of human nature. With dense traffic in one direction restricted to two lanes, and with passing on right or left permitted, the drivers expend every ounce of trickery to keep anyone from passing them. The game is played by using the slower vehicles as blocking backs. Your are in the left lane, going fifty, and someone whom you instinctively hate is slowly passing you on the right. Ahead you see, in your land, a car going about forty. Never, never wait until the guy on your right passes you. Give your crate a burst of speed and cut into the right land ahead of him. Then you can cut your speed to forty-five, thus blocking both lanes and bottling the one who was passing you.

Standard procedure while performing this maneuver is to draw your lips back from your teeth into a fiendish grin which is part snarl. But you do not rest on your laurels. No, you look ahead to see if there is some other opportunity of bottling up the enemy.

Of course the purpose of all this is to so infuriate the man you have bottled up that he will either swing onto the wrong side of the drive or go too fast. Then you can look in your rear vision mirror and watch him trying to talk his way out of a ticket.

* * *

Adios, Amigos:

This is the thirty-second and last edition of From the Top of the Hill.

You have been a fine and understanding audience. Without that chorus, in a minor key, of cheers and jeers, writing this thing would have been very dull indeed.

By now you must have us pretty well pegged.

Yes, we think Clinton is just about the finest spot we have ever seen in which to live and bring up kids. There are a few little things we’d like to see changed, but even the most important of them is minor compared to what we have here.

We also think that Clinton exists as a tiny segment of a world which, even with the utmost charity, must be considered psychoneurotic. On a national scale we are being continually captured by political pygmies, nauseated by radio rhetoric, embittered by B movies, battered by advertising based on fear, mentally impoverished by production-line methods in "higher" education, and possibly condemned through television to what Philip Wylie has called a long future of "swooning in the gloom". Medical science, having gained the upper hand over infectious diseases, is faced with a demoralizing increase in functional disorders.

Our disease of gadgetitis is symptomatic of Veblen's conspicuous consumption. We are racing madly to keep up with the Jones without ever stopping to wonder where the Jones are going. We insist on two strips of chrome where before there was one. Yet the modern industrial plastics empire will never devise a plastic human -- the ideal type of organism if our world is to be a .... [missing three or four paragraphs]...

This is the first time we have been entirely serious in the column and we do it now only because it is the last column.

It's been fun for these thirty-two weeks. Thank you and fare thee well.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Architecture as Art

Edward J. “Tim” Seibert
On August 7, 1999 the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects awarded the firm Seibert Architects of Sarasota their 25-year “Test of Time” award for the design and construction of a particular building within the state. The building in question was John and Dorothy MacDonald’s last home on Siesta Key, built on a private and relatively remote (at the time) waterfront site at the end of Ocean Place near Big Pass.

In 1966 when the planning process began for this new home, the MacDonalds had been living in a home near the end of Point Crisp Road, two and a half miles down the key on a small spit of land jutting out into Little Sarasota Bay. Built for the MacDonald’s in 1951-52 the house was located at the end of what was supposedly a private road that ran the length of the peninsula. But the road wasn’t gated or guarded, and anyone who wanted to could drive down the road and park in front of the house and bang on the door -- which, apparently, happened frequently.

“The road and the right of way go right past the front of the house,” MacDonald wrote in 1966. “People we do not know have an increasing lack of respect for the privacy we need in order to work.”

The design and work on the new house took three years, with John and Dorothy moving in in July 1969, and it couldn’t have been more different from where they had been living for the past 17 years. With vast, open spaces and lots of light, the house looked like no other and provided the MacDonald’s with their much-sought privacy.

On the morning of the awards ceremony the Tampa Bay Times published a reminiscence by Edward J. “Tim” Seibert, the designer of the home and owner of the architectural firm. It’s an illuminating piece with (for me) one big surprise, which I’ll address at the end. The article was preceded by a short intro written by Times “Homes Editor” Judy Stark.



A glimpse into the design process

For some people, the image of Florida is shaped not by theme parks and palm trees but by the fiction of John D. MacDonald, longtime resident of Siesta Key. His rough-diamond hero, Travis McGee, is the ultimate beach bum, man-about-the-waterfront and solver of mysteries.

McGee served as his creator's mouthpiece, speaking out in behalf of the state's ruined beauty: the poisoned Everglades, overdevelopment, building on the beaches. MacDonald crafted "strong statements about what man's greed has done and is doing to despoil our state's natural resources - statements that are just as relevant today" as they were in the mid-'60s, writes critic Ed Hirshberg.

Tonight in Naples, the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects recognizes Seibert Architects of Sarasota with its 25-year “Test of Time" award for the home where MacDonald and his wife, Dorothy, lived for years.

The award honors works that, by the timelessness of their design, have influenced a particular building type. The MacDonald house, designed in 1966, draws on characteristics of Florida Cracker houses, and through the use of natural materials and compatible forms becomes one with its site, preserving existing mangroves and palm and oak trees.

In this essay, architect Edward J. “Tim” Seibert reflects on the design process and his relationship with John D. and Dorothy MacDonald during what he calls “a golden time" on the west coast of Florida.
- JUDY STARK

Architecture as Art

By Edward J. “Tim” Seibert

If one is going to feel romantic about a house, the John D. MacDonald residence on Siesta Key is a good choice. It stands on Big Pass, and one can look southwest to the Gulf of Mexico and northwest to the end of Lido Key, with pines filtering the view of resort hotels and condominiums. To the north and northeast, the sparkling city of Sarasota is a nighttime jewel of lights.

A little inlet called Fiddlers' Bayou curves in around the house, giving it water on three sides and making it potentially as vulnerable to tidal fluctuations and prevailing winds as the surrounding mangroves, oaks, palms and wild grasses. It is a structure specially built to withstand storm tides and high winds, as it has done for a third of a century now.

Approached from a boat on the gulf side, the great pyramidal, metal roof shining in the brilliant sunshine reflects the plan of the house, a powerful form that speaks eloquently of shelter to the sailor passing by. At night, the lighted underside makes the form more delicate, showing the poles and beams that hold up the 62-foot-square shape.

From the very beginning this house has been a magnet, attracting imaginative and historic interpretations: "a beautiful South Seas home," "reminiscent of the old fish houses on Florida's eastern coast," "shares many characteristics of the early Florida Cracker cottage," "a classic achievement in contemporary architecture" and on and on. It caught editorial attention in architectural and shelter publications in the United States, Europe and Japan.

For me, its designer, the form and function of the MacDonald house exists to offer its owners the joy of a close, secure relationship with its pristine coastal site. I was seeking clarity of form rather than style, with minimum intrusion into the site.

John D. MacDonald was one of America's most prolific and admired writers, completing 67 novels, five collections of stories and 500 magazine stories before he died, unexpectedly, in Sarasota in 1986. He was exceptionally quick to grasp new ideas. But until we began our work together to create the very private utopia John and his wife, Dorothy, had dreamed about for many years, they hadn't given the architecture of their new home much thought. Dorothy was a painter of abstract canvases and had studied with the acclaimed Syd Solomon, also a Siesta Key resident. My didactic nature welcomed their desire, as clients, to collaborate with me, their architect. In fact, Dorothy drew up the first floor plans.

We worked for several years on designs, beginning in 1966. The first house we designed was to be built on Manasota Key. My father, E.C. Seibert, who worked with me then as a structural engineer, got so far as building a fine boat basin at that Manatee site. John then decided he did not want to leave Siesta Key, where he had lived on Point Crisp for many years. So the project was moved to the present Big Pass site, and I designed quite a large house of heavy timber and stone, as John and Dorothy then wanted.

But as I worked along, my feeling grew that such a house would be much too massive and heavy-handed for its open, waterfront location. I was able to convince the MacDonalds that their residence should be more concise and elegant, designed from a clear geometric concept. It might also be less expensive, I advised, if it were smaller and designed in the contemporary manner. This is the concept of the house we finally built.

After my draftsman, Tom Walston, and I completed working drawings, another associate, architect Buddy Richmond, convinced me that he could make a final version that was more polished and spare, and with less expensive detailing. This final concept was drawn at office expense. John and Dorothy were such good clients, I felt they should have my very best effort. Besides, they understood and appreciated the design. Ours was the best relationship an architect can have with a client.

John and Dorothy moved into the house in 1969. For some time, as the house took shape, they had come to feel at one with the space. As the years went by, the house became more and more theirs, for both worked at home and spent the greater part of their time there. One corner of the house was Dorothy's studio, the other was filled with John's office machinery and files. Furnishings and art were not "designed" but were very much a part of the MacDonalds' lives, giving the space an authenticity that no designer can really accomplish. The only complaint I ever heard from John was that his house was so beautiful, it attracted gawkers.

My father did all the structural work for this building, which was unlike any other, at least any other built in these parts. One of the great problems to be solved was how to fasten together the uneven pine tree trunks that support the house, for they are rather like asparagus waving in the wind until you can capture them at the top. My father designed a series of specially fabricated steel connectors, which, being exposed and a design feature, were galvanized after fabrication. This was not inexpensive, and at times of such decisions, one comes to respect and enjoy an understanding and enthusiastic client.

The first selection for the poles was greenheart timber, imported from Central America, carefully specified for straightness. When the trees arrived, they did not meet specs. We sent them back. This was a hassle, and again we appreciated having a client like John D. My father and I then went up to Central Florida to choose growing pines. They were harvested, barked and treated for the house. All of this, added to our "courtesy" redraw of the final plans, was not conducive to profit. But then, the idea was “architecture as art.”

It was a golden time then. We were doing something good for the sake of doing it and giving it our very best. We were happy. Frank Thyne, our builder, joined us for lunch frequently at Sarasota's old Plaza Restaurant, the favorite watering hole of resident artists and writers, many internationally known. Frank gave me a two-martini education in literature and philosophy. In return, my father and I educated him about sailboats. Frank had attended the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne in France and had earned a doctorate in philosophy. He came to Florida in 1956 to teach himself to be a developer and house builder.

The Thyne construction crew were Mennonites, the very best craftsmen, who were proud they “could build anything an architect could draw.” Frank worried because they had an occasional habit of fasting. He made sure they ate regularly because “they tended to slow down when hungry."

The house is a strong one. As it was designed to do, it has weathered several hurricanes and a tidal wave. Each of the great Florida pine columns rests on a strong connector fitting of galvanized steel, set into a cubic yard of poured concrete, which in turn is supported by a piling that goes 12 feet down into Siesta Key's shell sand. My father also designed a breakwater in front of the seawall, made of stone riprap to absorb the force of the waves. The main structure of the house is 9 feet above the grade. John and Dorothy were the kind of people who could handle ideas like 49 trees going up through their living space. This stormproof house was built a good 10 years before the federal government made up all the building codes of today. The concept of a house that could withstand natural beachfront forces was a new idea then.

The 50-foot-square living space and the 12-foot surrounding porch have a constant roof slope that starts at 8 feet on the porch perimeter. The porch has a 4-foot overhang for tropical downpours. At the glass walls, 12 feet in from the porch edge, the roof is 12 feet high. It rises to some 22 feet at the center. It's a grand space, as only one bedroom and bath and the entry foyer have walls that touch the ceiling. The ceiling is structural deck, consisting of two layers of pine for strength and one layer of cedar. On top is a triple layer of insulation, over which is the galvanized roof.

Cut into the pyramid of the roof was a sun deck. I mention this to show what an understanding client John was. Perhaps people who write books understand the problems of composition with which others must struggle, for John was fair of skin and didn't sunbathe. However, he agreed that the deck was a place for a monumental stair to be built from the main floor hallway below. The hallway, a tall, triangular space, needed a sculptured form, the stairway, to fill it. Later we roofed over the sun deck, and John serendipitously had a rooftop writing room. Problems like this were solved in laughter and understanding friendship. John was a man of quick wit and high humor, and I miss him.


For me, this glass pavilion provides the ultimate visual extension, the architect's art of using the transparency of glass to extend the interior experience outward while bringing the surrounding landscape inside, making it a part of the interior landscape. From this strong, safe glass shelter, one becomes part of a soft, starlit, tropical night, the clash and flash of a thunderstorm, the wonderful serenity and soft dawn light of early morning.

Edward J. "Tim" Seibert's firm Seibert Architects is in Sarasota.

Edward J. “Tim” Seibert began his professional career in the Sarasota office of Paul Rudolph, premier conceptualist of the Sarasota School of Architecture. The Seibert firm is the longest continuously operating architectural practice in the area. The Sarasota School won recognition for the city in the 1950s and 1960s as the home of some of America's most innovative architects. In 1995, Tim Seibert received the Florida AIA Award of Honor for Design and last year was elected to the Jury of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.

To Seibert, the John D. MacDonald residence entirely represents the Sarasota School's philosophy. He does not believe in the validity of designing in "styles" but rather that building form should spring from the site, the owner's feelings and design program, and the traditions of the place where the structure will be built. A building, Seibert says, must express its own time and place, and so today, a contemporary form is the only logical way to build. “Without this basic logic, there is no architecture as art," he said.

Siebert writes “The first house we designed was to be built on Manasota Key. My father, E.C. Seibert, who worked with me then as a structural engineer, got so far as building a fine boat basin at that Manatee site. John then decided he did not want to leave Siesta Key…” In 1969 JDM’s friend Dan Rowan was building his own house on Manasota Key and was unhappy with some of the building restrictions preventing him from having “our own boats docked at the back of our property.” (Notice that “boats” is plural.) He wrote a letter a State Senator complaining about “curious restrictions” on dredge and fill. MacDonald heard about this and wrote Rowan a letter bringing him to task about this action. (Rowan wrote in response, “When you ream someone, I can see that old Army background shining through… you do a fine job of it.”)

Were the MacDonalds guilty of doing the exact same thing three years beforehand? In the same place?

For a nice color version of the house photo above check out Siebert's website here.