Monday, June 17, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 23: March 25, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1948 newspaper column, “From the Top of the Hill.” I posted the majority of this entry back in 2010 with the following introduction:

“John D MacDonald's first effort in the world of science fiction is generally dated to February 1948 with the publication of his short story ‘Cosmetics’ in Astounding Science Fiction. And although this 4,000-word tale had been preceded by two other stories that contained aspects of unreality -- they were more fantasy than s-f -- ‘Cosmetics’ was his first such entry in a science fiction pulp magazine. It marked the beginning of a relatively brief torrent of such works that produced ten stories in 1948, sixteen in 1949 and fourteen in 1950 before dwindling off to a mere handful. He then penned two early s-f novels before giving up on the genre almost entirely.

“MacDonald was living in Clinton, New York when he wrote ‘Cosmetics,’ and during that same period he authored a weekly newspaper column in the local newspaper. The following ... comes from the March 25, 1948 edition of The Courier, a month after ‘Cosmetics’ appeared and two months before his second s-f story -- ‘The Mechanical Answer’ -- was published. Reading between the lines, one can detect JDM's interest in a new market for his work, now that he had actually been published in an s-f magazine, and now that the field was -- as he termed it -- turning away from the ‘world of wooden men and steel space ships’ and toward more ‘believable’ stories with ‘oddly prophetic situations.’”

Fantasy, Unlimited:

Frequently these days we come face to face with the staggering platitude that this is indeed an odd world and an odd time to be in it.

While little men in laboratories are concerning themselves with the chore of exploding our planet with all the thoroughness of a dynamite stick jammed through a decayed apple, certain segments of our population are avidly collecting science fiction which makes such a catastrophe as impressive as the blast from a cap pistol on the Fourth of July.

The intense interest in science fiction has grown as quickly and as impressively as a certain odd-looking cloud over Hiroshima. (Accent on the second syllable, please.)

For many years science fiction was published without attracting much attention. Wells, A. Huxley and Verne fathered the breed. In the pulp magazines, the science fiction story became nothing but a Western with space ships instead of horses, heat pistols instead of 44's and far galaxies instead of the red-rocked mesa.

This world of wooden men and steel space ships rightly deserved the obscurity it achieved.

But now and again a story would be published in which the writer managed to make his characters human. The more gifted writers, gifted both scientifically and artistically began to put believable people into oddly prophetic situations.

In fact, one imaginative character during the peak secrecy of the Manhattan Project published a story wherein somebody fiddled around with uranium and made a bomb. If he had gotten two cents a word for every word he said to the FBI after that story was published, he would be a wealthy man.

A city went up in smoke, with a flash as bright as the sun. Science fiction suddenly became yesterday's news flash. A few hundred thousand fans were acquired.

The Saturday Review of Literature for February 28th, this year, carries a long editorial by Harrison Smith on this current phenomena in the publishing world.

The new fans of science fiction have dug through the files of old copies of various pulp magazines, and have found therein stories for their collections.

The Saturday Evening Post has published five science fiction stories within the past year by Robert Heinlein and Gerald Kersh.

Good publishing houses have come out with anthologies of merit. We strongly recommend, for the curious, one called Adventures in Time and Space published last year by Random House, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas.

In addition five new publishing houses have recently been born, with the object of handling only science fiction and fantasy: Arkham House, Fantasy Press, Prime Press, Hadley Publishing Company and Fantasy Publishing Company.

And they all sell every copy of every book!

Circulation of pulp magazines in the science fiction field has grown. Sam Merwin, Jr. edits two pulps for Standard Magazines, Inc. and John W. Campbell, Jr., edits one for Street and Smith. (For the citizen who picks his magazines off the news stand arid cares what thinkle peep, the titles are the kiss of death: Astounding, Thrilling Wonder, Startling.) There are others in the field, but these three are the toppers.

But In addition to this crescendo of Interest, there is one very special manifestation which could only exist in the science fiction field.

The readers, the fans themselves, have banded together in groups and they publish their own magazines—called fanzines. They are usually mimeographed and they contain criticism, offers to buy and sell science fiction and some fiction. There are nearly forty of these 'fanzines' being published. There are additional ones in England. Letters to the editors of the pulp magazines come from all over the world.

No other aspect of American letters Is expanding as rapidly as science fiction.

So, we say, this is a strange, strange world. We are in the atomic age. If we get sharp enough with the atom, we may arrange to make this planet uninhabitable. Maybe that fear is deep in the hearts of all of us.

Maybe science fiction is like the comforting words of a wise parent:

"Don't worry, little man. When you bust up this planet, I'll buy you a new one. A nice new green one. Two hundred light years away."

* * *

What Do You Call Robins?

Every March all the newspapers in the land dig down in their closets and bring out a word that is only used in March. It would be absolutely pointless to use it during any other month of the year.

Thand word is HARBINGER.

Robins are HARBINGERS of Spring. So are spring training trips for baseball players. So are income tax forms.

This year, all aspects have been HARBINGING as usual.

Nothing ever HARBINGS winter or fall or summer.

After March is over and everything has HARBUNGED, the word goes back in the closet, tied with cotton string, until once more March comes around and it can be dusted off again.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, June 10, 2019

“MacDonald Leaves Literary Landmark: Slip F-18”

John D MacDonald’s death in December of 1986 spawned a huge outpouring of newspaper obituaries, tributes and recollections by scores of reporters and features writers. Many of these pieces were perfunctory, at least from the point of view of rabid JDM fans such as myself, but a few were revelatory, bringing to light stories and remembrances about the author that I had never read before. One such article was published in the February 15, 1987 edition of the Palm Beach Post, the hometown paper of MacDonald’s bibliographer par excellence, Walter Shine. Written by staff writer Bobbie Meyers, Shine himself is interviewed for the piece and his recollection of how he came to finally meet MacDonald was completely new to me, despite the fact that I had worked with Walter for several years, helping him in his quest to hunt down a dozen “missing” JDM short stories.

Here is a transcription of Meyers’ article, which was titled “MacDonald Leaves Literary Landmark: Slip F-18”. It was one of two articles written about JDM by Meyers for this Sunday edition of the paper.

The fictional character Travis McGee lived on a fictional houseboat in a fictional boat slip in a real marina. Travis, hero of 21 adventure books written by John D. MacDonald, lives aboard The Busted Flush, (which he won in a poker game) docked at slip F18 in Fort Lauderdale's Bahia Mar Marina.

MacDonald knew that if he based his hero in Sarasota where the author actually lived, people would come to look for him, said Walter Shine of North Palm Beach. Instead. MacDonald sent them on a wild dock chase to Fort Lauderdale.

"He was very protective of his privacy," said Shine, editor of the John D. MacDonald: Bibliography/Biography, and possibly the ultimate MacDonald fan.

One person who went hunting among the moorings at Bahia Mar looking for the mythical F-18 was Dan Rowan, of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In fame. In a letter to MacDonald, Rowan relates: "We prowled the entire marina and came up with a McDonald, a MacDonough, and one drunk who steered me to a bust-out crap game ... but no J.D. Mac.”

MacDonald and Rowan began corresponding in 1967. A collection of letters between the two men, edited by the author and released in January under the title A Friendship, is MacDonald's last published book.

There never was a slip F-18. But this month Bahia Mar Resort and Yachting Center will renumber one of its slips and mark it with a brass plaque, in honor of its designation it as a "literary landmark."

The city of Fort Lauderdale, the Literary Landmark Association and the Florida Center for the Book are sponsors of the dedication, which will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the marina, 801 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale.

Literary landmarks are designated by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress to promote the concept of American literary heritage. Although an author's home is traditionally given this designation, this isn't the first time a fictional character's home has been honored – 221-B Baker St., London, for instance, was designated in honor of Sherlock Holmes.

But this is certainly the first time a boat slip has been named, according to Jean Trebbi, executive director of [the] Florida Center for the Book. Other Florida landmarks include the Hemingway house in Key West and Cross Creek in north Florida in honor of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Jean and Walter Shine will be among those in attendance when the plaque is unveiled at Slip F-18.

Collecting, annotating and cataloging the literary life of John D. MacDonald began 20 years ago for the Shines. It is almost a full-time avocation for the couple who are now in the process of putting much of their vast collection of material by and about the author on computer disk.

"He was a wizard with words who wrote a blizzard of words," said Shine.

Their interest in the works of MacDonald has put them in touch with people all over the country, he said. They have an immediate common interest with other MacDonald fans they meet.

"Hundreds of times people have told us how much MacDonald's books have meant to them - have actually changed their lives," said Shine.

The Shines' full-time hobby involves the 40-year career of a prolific author. MacDonald's 77 novels have sold 90 million copies, published in 30 languages. He also wrote more than 500 short stories along with assorted essays and nonfiction.

The Shines searched out foreign editions of the novels whenever they traveled and researched and compiled listings of old stories. Some of these were collected in two volumes, which they co-edited under the titles The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff.

While amassing a definitive collection of MacDonald's work themselves, the Shines used the materials and contributed new items to the John D. MacDonald collection at the University of Florida. In 1980 they published the MacDonald bibliography, an exhaustive compilation of his writings, in cooperation with the university. In 1985 they compiled John D. MacDonald: A True Bibliophile, a collection of brief reviews by MacDonald and comments and criticism on the state of current fiction and the craft of writing.

"It keeps us from becoming fallow in retirement," Shine said of their research. It also gave them the opportunity to meet and become friends with the author, who dedicated the last Travis McGee adventure, The Lonely Silver Rain, to them.

Even though they weren't misled by the fictional location of MacDonald's hero, they came up empty on several first attempts to meet the author. They first tried to snag his interest by sending him a cocktail invitation in verse. No nibble. They continued to send the author bits of humor or information they thought might amuse or interest him, but MacDonald never responded. They finally met the reclusive author at an evening-with-the-author event in Gainesville.

"When we were introduced, he recognized our names and thanked us for each time we had sent him something, incident by incident," Shine said. "I couldn't believe he remembered every one. His memory was astounding."

Once he learned how dedicated they were to collecting his work, "he couldn't have been more generous with his help,” said Shine, who characterized the author as retiring and hesitant to start up new friendships, but modest, witty and helpful when his friendship was won.

When slip F-18 was given Literary Landmark distinction more than a year ago, MacDonald was told about the designation and invited to attend the ceremony, said Jean Trebbi. He was amused, she said, but typically, reluctant to attend in person.

"I told him it might be a fun event," said Trebbi. "But he said, Oh, I'm terrible at fun events.'”

MacDonald, who died Dec. 28, was convinced that the written word was the foundation of civilization, according to Shine.

The last piece of writing published by the author who created a "blizzard of words” during his lifetime may be an essay on that subject, which will be published as part of a Center for the Book project titled The Reader as Survivor.

Monday, June 3, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 22: March 18, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1948 newspaper column, from the Clinton Courier, when the family was still living in upstate New York. I’ve previously published this piece, back in 2015, where I wondered how JDM got that topaz back into the United States.

We picked up some students headed down the hill toward the village the other day, and they were talking about various types of summer work and the relative merits thereof.

We were reminded of Ceylon. The army graciously dropped us into that garden spot for a time. It is a fine island. We were particularly intrigued with the type of summer work that many of the students perform.

During the spring monsoon, the heavy rains swell the streams and semi-precious stones are torn out of the mountains and carried down the steep slopes. During the summer months in the vicinity of Ratnapura, in the heart of the gem area, the streams are alive with students picking over the pebbles in search of semi-precious gems. They find topaz, blue and yellow sapphires, cat's eyes and other varieties.

We tried it. The standard technique is to find a place where a stream curves and has thus heaped up a mound of small stones. You make yourself as comfortable as possible and then start picking up likely looking rocks and holding them up toward the sun. You spin the stone in your fingers and, when you get a glint of colored light through it at any point, you stuff it in a bag.

When the day's work is done, you take the stones down to the proper alley in Ratnapura where the grinders work, You have to watch those boys.If you find something good, they are inclined to tell you it is worthless in hopes that you will throw it away where they can pick it up.

We squatted in the blazing sun for about two hours, getting very bored with the whole process of trying to look through pebbles. We must have looked through a thousand of them. Then suddenly one jagged hunk of stone gave forth a little gleam of yellow light when we held it up. We felt like a forty-niner.

Down in that alley in Ratnapura, the boys who do the grinding sit on the ground by a crude looking lathe with a grinding wheel on one end. The motive power is a bow string with rawhide. The rawhide is looped once around the lathe spindle. The bow is shoved back and forth and the grinding wheel is crudely geared so that it spins, of course, in just one direction. The end of the bow is held in the bare toes of the operator leaving both hands free to hold the stone against the wheel.

An ancient citizen took our precious rock, which we were sure was a priceless yellow sapphire, and ground it without ever seeming to look at it. It made us nervous.

Instead of a sapphire, it turned out to be topaz, about fifteen carats. And a darn poor color.

The man charged eight rupees for the grinding operation (About $2.60.) We have our topaz here and it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever -- because we found it.

Had not the army suddenly awakened to the fact that we were in a garden spot and sent along a cruel travel order, we would still be ankle deep in one of those streams near Ratnapura trying to see through pebbles and acquiring a terrific sunburn.

It is our nomination for the perfect kind of summer work.

* * *

Speaking of Ceylon...

Now that we are on the subject, it is a good time to do a sales job.

Go to Ceylon!

India, to the north, is a big, dusty miserable country that gives the impression of being a circus ground the day after the circus left.

But Ceylon is a garden spot. Lord Louis Mountbatten is nobody's fool. When he was the big wheel of the South-East Asia Command, he put his headquarters right smack in Kandy in the Ceylonese Hills.

In India you are expected to at least pick up a smattering of Urdu. In Ceylon it is recognized that Sinhalese is far too difficult to learn and nobody questions some of the British that have lived there twenty years without picking up a word of Sinhalese.

It isn't as hot as India and there are miles of perfect beaches where the white surf comes rolling in and you can, with a little practice, ride a surfboard for a quarter of a mile toward the beach.

For between thirty and fifty dollars a month you can rent a huge "bungalow" on Bambalapitiya Road in Colombo. Another nine dollars will provide a cook, a houseboy and a combination chauffeur-gardener.

For recreation you can play tennis and bridge at the Garden Club, dance at a very svelte nightclub called the Silver Faun, swim at the Hotel Mont Lavinia, shop in the bazaars.

So you see, it's very simple. All you have to do is save up a hundred thousand dollars and invest it at four percent. The income will enable you to live like a little king in Ceylon for the rest of your days, where you will enjoy all the languor of a tropical island plus all the comforts of city living.

Monday, May 27, 2019

John D MacDonald Put it on the Line Every Time

John Keasler was a longtime newspaper columnist for the Miami News, a now-defunct periodical that folded in 1988. Keasler was a Florida native and, in addition to writing a regular column for the paper, produced over two dozen works of short fiction that appeared in the magazines of the era. This particular column was written the day after the death of John D MacDonald and was published in the paper’s  December 30 issue. As remembrances of JDM go, this one is particularly insightful and close to the source. It was headlined "John D MacDonald put it on the line every time". 

Keasler passed away in 1995 at the age of 74.

He was the definitive free-lancer, John D. MacDonald was, and writing meant freedom to him.

That was what writing was to the strange tough breed of professionals called free-lance magazine writers, now all but vanished. Writing for a living was freedom.

"John D. MacDonald is dead," my office said the other night when they called me because they knew I had known him a long time.

And, only then, did I think about how well I had known MacDonald before I ever even met him.

I had even told him that once as we were having a drink at Midnight Pass on Siesta Key maybe 35 years ago.

"God, I used to hate you, John," I said. "Every hopeful writer hated you. There you would be, month after month, all over the covers of what seemed like half the magazines on the newsstand ... Street and Smith Detective, Black Mask, Popular Sports, Argosy, Bluebook - man, you purely pumped it out."

"The funny thing is, it never gets any easier," he said, laughing. "The penny-a-word pulp stuff was just as hard to write as the big-pay stories."

John D. MacDonald was the king of the pulps, and went on to become the king of the high-pay magazine suspense stories, and then when the paperback books came in he was a one-man industry there long before Travis McGee brought still more fame and money, and with all that — with 77 books and God only knows how many short stories to his credit - he never wrote any way except the best he could.

"You have to put it all on the line every time," he told me a number of times over the years. "If you ever set out to write less than the best you can produce, you'll sink without a ripple."

I think, personally, that MacDonald's readers always knew, and knew a damn sight better and sooner than the establishment critics did, that this man was producing a lot of fine literature in the guise of fine entertainment.

MacDonald had a string of formal-education credentials, including having been graduated from various high-toned finance and business schools and then receiving his master's degree from the Harvard School of Business.

"That has made my life hell," Knox Burger told me once, when Burger was MacDonald's editor at Fawcett Publishing's Gold Medal Books, which really established John D. solidly as a novelist long before Travis McGee came along.

"His business education has made your life hell?"

"Yeah," said Knox. "I mean, half the truly good businessmen in America waste their time trying to be writers, and are lousy at it. I got the only #%# in the U.S. who is a truly fine writer and wastes his time trying to be a businessman."

Getting my first letter from John D. MacDonald was a grand and glorious thing for me. I was hammering away at short stories, some published, lots rejected. His name, as I say, was known to every writer, at least every writer crass enough to consider money a partial motivation for writing. (And Samuel Johnson said nobody but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money.)

I never had the nerve to leave a newspaper paycheck with my swiftly-growing family, but I wrote a lot on the side. Eventually things picked up and, occasionally, I would sell a story to Collier's or Saturday Evening Post and, with progressive frequency, Cosmopolitan (which was different then).

MacDonald had the back-of-the-book mystery in damn near every issue of Cosmo. He was a very famous writer, particularly to writers. So one dull day when I pulled a letter out from my bills I could hardly believe it.

He had some kind things to say about my stories that he had read in Cosmo, and he actually knew I was from Florida, and John D. MacDonald asked me to let him know if and when I was in Sarasota. That was a very big day for me.

And when I went to Siesta Key a little later to do a magazine piece on Mackinlay Kantor, John lined it up for me. This was back in the days when there was one bar on Siesta Key, and when Kantor won the Pulitzer for Andersonville which he had written in a bug-filled van down the beach to avoid the gawking tourists he hated, and when (to my thinking) the greatest thing in Sarasota was the Friday writer's "lunch" at a local Spanish restaurant.

The lunch varied in length. Some swore one had once lasted three days.

I do remember one six-hour lunch when MacDonald won all the money at dollar-bill poker, I finally went out to sleep in his car and later learned he had dropped two other writers off at their respective homes due to inability to drive ... then he went home and, that night, finished the final 6,500 words of a novelette with a deadline the following day.

He got plots everywhere. (I was with him once in a bank. A devastating blonde was in line, the object of bug-eyed lecherous stares. He said, "You could rob the joint with her in here, and none of these guys would even know it." A year later I read his short story with that precise plot.) [The story JDM wrote was titled "Who's the Blonde?" and it was published in the August 9, 1952 issue of Collier's.]

He had an innocent look and a diabolical sense of humor. He took me with him to the private screening of Cape Fear, from his novel The Executioners, and had a stranger collect $6 from me at the door for our "tickets."

Last year he somehow talked me into speaking at the Sarasota Library Dinner. I fear public speaking, fear it badly, but he swore on the phone it was “just a few book lovers" who sat around and talked.

When I got to Sarasota he informed me, to my unspeakable horror, that I had to (and somehow did) speak from a podium at a formal luncheon to what seemed like, and I guess was, hundreds of people.

He thought that served me right for allowing myself to be conned.

Now what I remember is John D. showing me the great word-processing system he wrote on. He was enthusiastic as a 20-year-old. His silky white hair was messed up, his eyes bright with life, his laugh echoed throughout his big house.

He had a look of freedom about him. He looked the exact way the definitive free-lancer should look.

Monday, May 20, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 21: March 11, 1948

Here's the next installment of John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column, published in the Clinton (NY) Courier during the period when the family was living there. The original from which I transcribed this column was damaged and repaired with tape which developed some serious yellowing over the years, obscuring about three lines of text in two different columns. There's not much to miss here, as JDM offers very little original writing in this installment.

It's Delightful to Be Married:

Through channels too devious to describe, except that one of the links in the chain was one "Scoop" Benton of the Herkimer paper, we have received a society page from the Mayville [...] which tells of a wedding to [...] we print a few verbatim, unchanged paragraphs as they originally appeared in the Mayville newspaper:

"Arrangements for the wedding of Miss Duke are charming in every detail and notable for a number of reasons. Recapturing her idyllic connotation of a wedding in her ancestral home characterized by beauty without fanfare, Saturday's suave and sweet-smiling bride will see a dream fulfilled. Unabashedly sentimental, precious association within her charmed circle where care has only gazed at her wistfully, and enriched by tradition to delight in and to love will forever endear a host of enchanting memories to burn brightly of this important day."


"The recessed windows, prudently protected by inside shutters, will permit a golden ray of daylight brightness to seep through the old glass, tinted and iridescent with the sun and rain of years, to bestow the implied benediction, 'Happy is the bride the sun shines on.'

"The bride as she enters the room lightly elasping the arm of her father who will give her in marriage will be as lovely as happiness, youth and artistry can make one. Living up to her reputation for soignee, her flair for individuality and fastidious smartness will be expressed in a shirtwaist dress of pure silk introducing a novel and vibrant color combination of gold, cherry red and gray -- each shade accented with white polka dot. Cut with discernment, the gold-colored blouse has a high wing collar, push-up sleeves and in the back is buttoned twelve times. Underscored with taffeta to provide sound effects the agate gray twirl skirt -- hemmed a short eight inches from the floor -- swings and sways in fashion's new way. The fascinating aspect of the gown is the deep, boned cummerbund of cherry red tied at the back in a large bow finishing with long ends..."

Can't you just see her?

"Slanted aft and framing her lovely blonde hair will be a gray shadow-play straw bonnet with an upward tilt in front. Yards of matching veiling in large octagonal mesh swathe the head and shoulders."

Nice nautical touch, that.

"After the bride and bridegroom have cut the first slice of cake, the agreeable responsibility will be taken over by Miss Laura Browning who for the occasion will pick from her closet a gown of black crepe and wear with it a large beige felt hat with graceful spreading brim adorned with large black silk roses."

"For her journey the bride will change to a dark brown crepe dress with swish and swank. Deceptively simple in design, a pleated peplum gives its subtle perfection a dressy touch.

"Prophetic of a fashion to come, her costume will reach a sophisticated peak when she 'wings away' in a flattening minoche worn sideways on her head and hugging the right side of her face. The flamboyant bird-wings visualize the palette in brown ranging from deep, rich African brown to a tangerine orange... Topping this striking outfit will be a throw coat of mink flaring softly at the back like a cape.”

It is perfectly obvious to us why the correspondent of the Mayville paper reported this function in advance. Undoubtedly the function itself put the reporter into a swoon from which she may not as yet have recovered.

We go on record right now as saying that something is missing from local marriages up here in the austere North. We must regain that precious quality of breathlessness, buttoned in the back twelve times.

* * *

From the Mailbox:

Dear "Top of the Hill":

Ever since you got into local print, I have wished you well. Some weeks you quite amuse me. Some weeks you don't. All the same, I would rather you had an opinion I didn't agree with than no opinion at all.

The little whimsey of fashion was good, if simple fun. But the careless launching of a campaign for a public address system in the hockey building fills me with horror. If they gave them away, I'd be opposed. What do you mean the games "would be a great deal more enjoyable to all spectators"? People that really like hockey go to watch the game, they don't have to be told about it. Any spectator paying so little attention that he didn't know who made the goal, probably doesn't care anyway. As for penalties, if our side made the errors, the least said, the better. And the opponents should be shown the same consideration.

If you really want to raise money both the College and the village have worthy causes they are plugging. Why not adopt one of them? Or if you want to launch a new project, how [...]

Sincerely yours, Reader.

This letter was typed and, of course, anonymous.

However, we will go out on a limb and make a few guesses about the identity of the person who wrote it.

Something about the tone makes us think it is from a woman. There is a freshness of viewpoint and yet a maturity that leads us to guess she is probably in her late thirties. She can snarl a little, so we will assume she has claws. She takes an interest in local affairs so we can assume that she is probably a "joiner" as far as local organizations are concerned. The tree reference leads us to assume that she is not connected with the college.

She too freely uses the phrase "your home town". No one born here would use this phrase in reference to a furriner like us. So we can assume that she, like us, is in a certain sense also a newcomer to Clinton. Certainly not as much as ten years residence. Maybe closer to five.

And one last guess. She doesn't know hockey. When there's a tangle at the far cage, even the most died-in-the-wool fans are confused.

Has anybody seen a well-educated woman in her late thirties with claws, membership in local organizations, five years residence or so in Clinton, not connected with the college and relatively ignorant about hockey?

If a man wrote the letter, we're going to look pretty darn silly.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Writer's Image

Back in November I posted a transcription of an article on John D MacDonald from a 1978 issue of Maclean’s titled “The Dauntingly Prolific Beige Typewriter Keys”. It contained a photo of MacDonald, lying on the floor, propped up on one elbow, in back of a spread of dozens of copies of his paperback novels. I had never seen the image before, or at least had no memory of doing so. Well, I’ve since discovered its creator date. The photo was taken by Jill Krementz, the noted photojournalist who eventually focused on taking pictures of writers. She was also married to one, Kurt Vonnegut, who was a friend of JDM. In 1980 she published a book of her author photos, titled The Writer’s Image. It contained portraits of many, many noted writers, including Joseph Heller, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut (of course) and E.B. White, who is pictured on the cover of the book. MacDonald’s image is accompanied by the following caption:

Sarasota, Florida, 1973

That would make MacDonald around 52 years old when he posed, the year he wrote The Turquoise Lament. Here is a nice, high-resolution scan of the photo.

Monday, May 6, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 20: March 4, 1948

Another installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1948 newspaper column, published in the Clinton Courier in upstate New York.

This is a fascinating entry, an insight into MacDonald’s political views early in his career, in the beginning years of the great Red Scare that eventually exploded into a national obsession in February 1950 with Joseph McCarthy’s “205 Communists” speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. (One can see from the column that these accusations did not begin with McCarthy.)

In one respect MacDonald’s views should not come as a surprise to readers of his early novels, which included two commie-rat potboilers, Murder for the Bride and Area of Suspicion. On the other hand, read this and recall MacDonald’s later-day opinions, especially his characterization of fellow author Richard Prather as a writer who “had some extremely strong right-wing political tendencies. He saw socialism and communism crouched behind every bush…”

MacDonald’s point here is to differentiate a Communist from a pro-Soviet, an interesting argument given today’s political climate.

Mr. Lewis and the News:

A taste for the newscasing of Mr. Fulton Lewis, Jr., is something that must be acquired, like a taste for smoked oysters. It is typical of him that his radio editorializing is often delivered in a tone of voice like that of an oracle on a hilltop yelling to the poor average citizens fumbling around down in the shrubbery.

It is not newscasting, which implies an unslanted survey of the day's news.

Sometimes we are agin him, but more often than not, we find ourself cheering him on. When he gets on the track of something he lets the news of the day go hang, while he devotes himself to an exhaustive analysis that may extend over two or three of his fifteen minute broadcasts at seven o'clock each weekday night over Mutual.

Mr. Lewis has recently devoted several programs to an analysis of the published reports of the committee which recently looked into the State Department in order to make recommendations on their budget requirements.

Mr. Lewis is very upset to find that many men in responsible positions in the State Department are sympathetic to Communism.

So are we upset.

The educator now in Milan, Italy, in charge of indoctrinating the Italians with all of the pro-democracy arguments available, has been a member of seven Communist front organizations. An investigation of this educator says that he desires "the advantages of the right as well as the popularity of the left."

In other words, a parlor liberal.

Another character with pro-Communist leanings is in charge of the policy desk in New York, editing the Voice of America short-wave radio programs beamed abroad.

There are dozens of others. The State Department is the ideal place for them to be, from a Moscow point of view. There is probably no other organization within our government more sensitive to the gentle, guiding touch of the parlor liberals.

What this "cold war" needs is a definition of terms. Communism is a very loose word, as it is used today.

Today's pro-Soviet is not a Communist. Any person who today is having himself an affair with Russia is pro-dictatorship, pro labor camp, pro-liquidation, pro-death, torture and violence.

We feel that the word Communist should be dropped as far as referring to these characters in our midst is concerned. It is too feeble a word. It implies a leaning toward a particular form of political ideology, exclusive of country.

There is not the slightest iota of difference between the men who are pro-Soviet today and the men of yesterday who came ashore from a German submarine and buried explosives in the sand. Those men from the submarines were not concerned about political ideologies. They were all hepped up to blow up something with a resounding bang.

So are these pro-Soviets in the State Department. Their explosives are words, hints, innuendos. They encourage a dilution of public opinion, splits and waverings in policy, a feeble approach toward world problems. Our weakness is Russia's strength.

The silent explosions which go on in the State Department are certainly not less destructive than those blow-ups planned by the men who buried explosives in the sand during a dark night.

The whole thing is incredibly important and too many of us are incredibly unconcerned. It is a truism that in the history of the United States, we have consistently paid for our casual attitude in blood.

Come on, Lewis.

* * *


The editors of the pulp magazines are remarkably concerned about the accuracy of background material. So, the other day, engaged in a thud and blunder thriller which has part of the action taking place near the East India Docks in London, we got hold of a London street guide. We were fascinated with the names of some of the streets and thought you might be, also. Here are a few:

Droop Street -- Epple Road -- Glaucus Street -- Honeypot Lane -- Ion Road -- Back Alley -- Black Boy Lane -- Blunt Road.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Would You Like Something to Read?

One of the oddest entries in the canon of John D MacDonald’s writing has to be his single piece written for the “Adult Humor” magazine National Lampoon. Published in the November 1985 issue titled “The Mad as Hell Issue,” the issue featured scores of brief rants by noted writers and celebrities on things that particularly irritated them. MacDonald’s piece was titled "Exploitation of Grief" and I transcribed it back in 2010 for the blog. It reads like an aside in a Travis McGee novel.

Four years earlier JDM was the subject of Nat Lamp’s particular brand of humor in its July 1981 issue they called “Endless, Mindless Summer Sex”. (I suppose nearly all of their issues could have been labeled thusly.) A piece written by Sean Kelly and Ted Mann titled “Would You Like Something to Read?” was a satire of a regular book column and featured “reviews” of new novels John D MacDonald, along with a handful of made-up writers like Angelica Sitwell, E. Claude Boll and Hugo Lestoil.

Here is a transcription of the Crime section, featuring the review of JDM’s new Travis McGee book. Like most of National Lampoon’s humor, it is adult and politically incorrect.


Monthly, John D. MacDonald issues a new paperback private-eye thriller from his costly Florida bunker chronicling the adventures of that "slightly tarnished knight in tanned and lanky armor” Travis McGee. But fans of the series have detected a certain drop-off in quality recently. The Awful Yellow Chinaman was just a reworking of last year's The East Is Terribly Red; and The Horrible Key Lime Pie was not so much a murder mystery as a Miami restaurant review. The Terrific Pink Gin and its successor, The Scary Purple Elephant, suggested that John D. was losing his battle with the bottle, and one feared that an appropriate title for the next McGee caper might be A Black Eye for Detective Fiction.

But we are pleased to be able to praise without reservation Mr. MacDonald's new book, another in the Travis saga but in every way a superior departure from the norm. Set in the demimonde of the homosexual writing community in Key West, it sheds new light on the relationship between Travis and his swarthy longtime boat buddy, Meyer. Most exciting scene? The bitchy brunch chez Tennessee Williams, after which Meyer salves Travis's many psychic bruises and seduces him gently with a twelve-page monologue explaining supply-side economics. We can heartily recommend this new and different Travis adventure, The Winking Brown Eye.

Angelica Sitwell, heiress apparent to Agatha Christie's title as queen of English detective fiction, has another elegant whodunit in the bookshops this summer. It features the intelligent and charming amateur detective, herself a successful writer of detective fiction, Angela Standgood, to whom we were first introduced in Ms. Sitwell's previous Murder Most British. This one is titled, in England, Murder at the Women Writers of Detective Fiction Club, but it has been released in America as Scribble Scribble Die Die! The plot? In a series of gruesomely fitting murders, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James, Amanda Cross, Catherine Aird, and Mary Stewart are all bumped off, leaving the indefatigable and delightful Ms. Standgood as the only member, and thus president, of the club. The identity of the killer is a real surprise!

Aficionados of offbeat European detective fiction -- and aren't we all? -- will be sure to enjoy A Specter Is Haunting, the latest case for Eurocommunist vegetarian Interpol inspector Marco Venzetti to solve. Marco, a "big, hairy, lovable, mystical bear of a proletarian intellectual of a man,” this time investigates a series of Swiss industrial accidents, and proves, with the aid of his underground pal, Carlos the Jackal, that reactionary capitalists are the real culprits! Marco's many American devotees, will eat this one up like mung beans!

Monday, April 22, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 19: February 26, 1948

The next entry in John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column from 1947-48 when the family was living in Clinton, New York. Back in 2016 I presented this in its entirety as one of the entries for this blog. Here it is again. 

As mentioned in that previous post, this "contains a cat story that was omitted from The House Guests (the mole) and one that was included, albeit in a more detailed version (the Mattingly’s Gothic cat door)."


We have a subscription to a magazine called Writer's Digest, and we are fond of it not only because it has information about changes in editors and magazines and such, but because it has one of the most fascinating "Personals" column we have ever seen anywhere. This week we'll give you a random sample.

"GUAM POSTMARK -- Your letters mailed from Guam. 25¢ each -- five for one dollar."

Right there, friends, you have the perfect method of handling those eager creditors. Acknowledge receipt of your bills from Guam.

"A PLAN OF ACTION lies behind every success. Write me about one thing you desire. A specific plan by return mail. $2 Box...."

Think of the incredible wisdom of someone who can whip up a plan of action for you and get it off by return mail!

"A YOUNG MAN struggling sincerely to achieve writing success. I need time. Your dollar may turn the tide. Box...."

After the first three dollars arrive, this paying for the ad, our unknown friend is in the only business I've ever heard of with a 100% net. And whatever he gets is apparently subject to gift taxes, not income tax.

"25 CENTS WILL BRING a poem written just for you. Any subject, any length."

One of these days we're going to send in two bits and ask for a poem on the subject of writing a newspaper column.

"HELP WOMAN. Unpublished novel yours for $1.50, cash. Box...."

Sadder words than these were never written. As a short, short, short story, it is superb.

"LUANA: Please write. Joe."

If we ever meet Luana, we'll certainly tell her a thing or two. Poor old Joe has been putting the same line in for month after month after month. We suspect that Luana is a rich, cool and heartless debutante who. during her war career with the WAVES, was stationed at some little town where she toyed heartlessly with the affections of poor, but honest Joe. Luana has gone back to the dizzy whirl of the big city, leaving Joe with enormous tears in his eyes and no way to find her except by paying his forty cents a month for those four little words that are like a moan in the night.

Luana, why don't you at least write to him?

* * *

Local Animal Life:

One of our cats, Geoffrey, the adventurous one, has insisted a dozen times this winter on being dropped out one specific window. It is not politic to ignore the demands of our cats. They have high, nasal voices and limitless persistence.

Each time he was dropped out of this one window he proceeded to dig a hole in the snow in which he would wedge his head, and we had about decided that he was psychoneurotic. We thought maybe the endless winter we getting him and he was trying to finish himself off in a suitable manner.

Then the snow melted, and we find that deep under where Geoffrey was digging, a mole had rooted up a patch about two yards square, going around and around and around where we had optimistically hoped to have grass, come summer. Friend mole operated like a miniature trench digger.

Anyway, Geoffrey has vindicated himself by depositing the body of the mole on the side porch, and has been walking around looking smug ever since.

But even with all the snow, we suspect that Geoffrey has been getting his mouse ration regularly. Our neighbor, earlier in the winter, asked us to bring him over to the barn. We did so and introduced him to a new, small Gothic arch cut through the barn door. Since the introduction, his tracks have led directly to the arch.

* * *

College Hill Driving:

Driving a car up and down College Hill is the most exciting winter sport available in this vicinity. Ski enthusiasts, well versed in high-tempo turns and forty degree slopes have been known to turn pale before making even the first turn on College Hill.

As a topic of conversation, the condition of the Hill is unexcelled. Old residents spend many happy hours comparing techniques and methods for the proper approach.

There is no thrill comparable to rounding the first turn on your way up, only to find someone bearing down on you sideways. Strong men, having zoomed all the way up, only to come to a dead stop with wheels spinning a scant fifteen feet from the crest, have been known to sit behind the wheel with the tears dripping off their chins while the cars slowly sagged backward toward the abyss.

Coming down the hill is most exhilarating. The moment of suspense arrives when you let the car take over and let it decide whether it will carom off a snowdrift, or off another vehicle on the way up.

A few times a winter there comes what is known as a "tangle". This is a technical term and refers to that moment when two or three cars, with fenders locked, slide slowly and majestically down to the foot of the hill, where they provide a sort of backstop for any number of other cars which crunch into the group.

The happy people laugh and shout, and their cheers are punctuated by the crinkling of fenders and the tinkle of breaking headlights.

Unless you have participated in one of their "tangles" and unless your car bears the honorable wounds and scars of the icy battle, you cannot claim to have really enjoyed the sport.

A much gayer time would be had by all. of course, were it not for the spoilsports who are all the time sprinkling the grand slide with salt, ashes and sundry abrasive materials.

* * *
See you next week.

Monday, April 15, 2019


John D MacDonald was so associated with the state of Florida that the casual reader of his fiction could be forgiven for believing that he and his family had always lived there. MacDonald was born in Pennsylvania and spent his first ten years there before his father moved the family to upstate New York, where he (John) would spend the next 23 years (minus three years overseas during the war). It wasn’t until 1949, when JDM was 33 years old, that he, Dorothy and Johnny moved to Florida permanently. And by then the three of them had deep roots in the Empire State.

The MacDonalds never really left New York. In 1944 John had sent wife Dorothy some poker winnings from Ceylon and she used the funds to purchase a lot on the southwestern shore of Piseco Lake, located in Hamilton County in the Adirondack Mountains. Dorothy knew the lake well: her father Roy had purchased a cabin there when she was young, which they called Wahnahoo, and she spent most of her summers there as a youth. When John returned from the war in 1945 and decided on a career in fiction, finances were tight and there was no money to develop the lot. It remained empty until 1950, when the MacDonalds designed a cabin (they called it a “camp”) and began construction. As the family was now living in Florida, the work was supervised by JDM’s brother-in-law Sam Prentiss, who lived in Albany. Beginning the following year they would follow an annual pattern of spending the summer at the camp and the rest of the year in Sarasota, a practice they continued -- with the exception of a seven year period from 1963 to 1970 -- every year of their lives.

Despite its remote location, the Piseco camp wasn’t all that removed from civilization. There was a small store and post office located a mile and a half away, and the town of Speculator was a 16 mile drive up Route 8. The MacDonalds made frequent trips to Speculator while living at the camp, for “serious grocery shopping” and to enjoy eating out at a restaurant and inn called Zeiser’s. The establishment was a great favorite of the family: they had their own table and were good friends with the owners, John And Genevieve Zeiser. Back in 2016 I posted a transcription of a newspaper article published in the local Hamilton County News following the death of John, where this strong relationship was clearly evidenced.

In 1980 Barbara Crossette, a travel writer for the New York Times, published a guide to America’s Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns (in fact that was the title of the book). It was a collection of over 300 individual pieces on various off-the-beaten-track establishments throughout the country, written by various travelers that included “doctors, authors, lawyers, musicians, people who travel on business, a couple of Jungian analysts in their seventies, two United States senators, two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, the director of a film institute, distinguished professors, local historians -- and many people who did not identify themselves…” John D MacDonald was one of those authors, and his entry described Zeiser’s. Here is a transcription of his piece.

"I really believe you should include Zeiser's in Speculator, New York. It is owned and operated by John and Genevieve Zeiser (and Ludwig, the cat). The operation is housed in what used to be the Annex of the Sturges House, which was built in 1858 by David Sturges, back when the crossroads near the hotel was called Newton's Corners. The Zeisers have been in business here for twenty-three years. There is an attractive bar, lunch areas-including a long screened porch in season-and a handsome formal dining room, with lighting, napery, silverware and table settings beyond reproach. Every part of the operation is spotlessly clean. There is no American plan. You are expected to find your breakfast elsewhere in the village. There is no room service for drinks or food. The food is excellent, tending toward the German. The wine cellar is heavy on good Moselles. Mr. Z, a tidy and formal man, reigns at the bar. His no-nonsense attitude has given the bar the flavor of a good, small private club. Service is swift and courteous, and one would go a long, long way to find a better dry martini. Or more civilized conversation at a bar. Mr. Z is a host!

"Speculator, incidentally, is in Hamilton County, which is in the middle of the Adirondack Park Preserve and is the most sparsely settled county in New York State. It is reputed to have more black bears than people. The crossroads a couple of hundred feet from Zeiser's is the intersection of Route 8, which begins way down at Deposit, N.Y., on the Pennsylvania border and ends at Hague, N.Y., on the northwest shore of Lake George, and Route 30 which begins, or ends, down at Harvard and Shinhopple, N.Y., near the Pennsylvania border, and ends, or begins, at Trout River on the Quebec border.

“Lest this sound too obscure, let me say that Zeiser's is 42 miles from Gloversville, 61 from Utica, 75 from Schenectady, 90 from Albany, 94 from Troy and 109 from Syracuse. The most handsome way of driving up to Speculator is to exit the Thruway at exit 29, Canajoharie, and drive north on Route 10 to Route 8, and turn right on 8 to Speculator, twelve miles farther. The last seventeen miles of Route 10, before it intersects Route 8, is known locally as the Arietta Road. When it was repaved a few years ago, the Park Authority did not consent to the usual ‘straightening.' So there are sixty-five curves in those hilly miles, beautifully graded, a feast in autumn, but special at any time of year. Speculator is lakes and camping in summer, hunting in the fall, skiing in the winter.

“Room reservations are a must, and dinner reservations almost as necessary. This past year, the Zeisers had a Bavarian festival with tent, music, fantastic German food, superb beer on draft and the best zither player I have ever heard anywhere, an engaging chap named Toni Noichl.”
---John D. MacDonald

Open all year.
6 rooms, all with private bath.
Rates $9.50 single, $18.50 double.
Credit cards: American Express. Bar.
German spoken.

I’m not sure if Zeiser’s is still open for business. There are online reviews from as recently as 2018 and apparently Genevieve was still alive and running the place (John passed away), but some of the reviews seem to indicate a business on its last legs. They used to have a JDM display in the front lobby. I wonder if it is still there...