Thursday, July 28, 2011

Travis McGee Book & Dining Club

Trap of Solid Gold readers who happen to live in Florida  -- specifically in the St. Petersburg area -- will be interested to learn that a Travis McGee Book and Dining Club is in the process of forming. Established by Debra Davies, who in her organizer role is calling herself "Miss Agnes," the group plans to get together periodically at a local restaurant or bar similar to the kind McGee himself would have frequented and discuss the canon in the order of publication. First up -- of course -- is The Deep Blue Good-By.

Debra has set up a Meetup page which you can reach by clicking the link below, and would-be members are asked to come prepared by reading Blue in advance. No specific location for the first meeting has been chosen yet, but let's hope place is well stocked with Boodles gin!

Wish I could be there... here's the link:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dear Karen...

Family Weekly was a Sunday newspaper supplement that began publication in 1953. Like its competitors Parade and This Week (where many JDM stories were first published) it commanded a huge readership by the very nature of its distribution model. At its high point it was carried in over 350 separate newspapers in the United States and claimed a circulation of nearly 13 million issues per week. Editorially it was little different from the other supplements, although as its title implies it attempted to swing to a more family oriented direction. In 1985 it was purchased by the mind-numbing USA Today and began appearing in all of the Gannett newspapers throughout the country -- typically small town newspapers that had been acquired by the publisher. They changed the title to USA Weekend and it still appears each week in hundreds of papers throughout the US.

In 1973 the editors of Family Weekly received a letter from one Karen Landoll, a housewife and secretary from Galion, Ohio. They deemed it special enough to run as a featured item, calling the letter "poignant." Judge for yourself below.

Appearing in the April 29 issue, the letter drew a heavy response from the magazine's readers, "some containing advice, some criticism, some offering help." Among the responses were two from celebrities, one from Vikki Carr, whom Landoll specifically mentioned in her letter, and another from author John D MacDonald. JDM was not mentioned in the letter but his friend Dan Rowan was, which may have been the impetus behind his response.

What he wrote is typical MacDonald: scathing, instructional, name-dropping Calvinism that leaves no doubt as to his frame of mind. At times MacDonald's rants could prove tiresome and even vindictive, but one gets the sense here that Landoll deserved every bit of the author's disdain.

First Landoll's letter, then the responses, which appeared almost three months later in the magazine's July 22 issue.

Dear Family Weekly,

I suppose I'm writing to the wrong place but I feel that a person in your position could at least advise me on my problem anyway. If I don't hear from you, I'll understand because I wrote to Dan Rowan and Dick Martin and I never heard from them. I also tried getting through to Mike Douglas in Philadelphia two years ago and because I wasn't someone big, I couldn't get through. I can't blame them though because they made it big and they don't have time to help a little person. I would write Vikki Carr but I don't know her address, but I believe she would help me because she has a heart.

Ever since I was five years old, I've wanted to be a professional singer. I sang in the church choir from age five to age 17. I also sang in school choirs and school plays. I love singing and I'm very good at it. This is not just my opinion but everyone's opinion who has heard me sing.

How does a person get a chance when they don't have the money? I just need someone big to hear me so I can prove what I'm saying. It's hard for me to be married, work a secretarial job, and not be doing what I really want. It's like my husband and I have a big secret that would surprise the world but we don't know how to let them know. My husband wants me to be a singer because he knows that it means the world to me. I'm tired of singing in my house. I want to sing to the world. I have been praying for this dream to come true for so many years but no one hears, because no one cares.

I'm 23 and my husband is 25. I work for a car dealer and my husband is an insurance man. You can tell by that that we don't have much money. We've been married four years and we don't have any kids.

I just need someone to listen and someone to care. I want to be a singer so bad that I dream of it, pray for it and cry over it. I'm tired of going through life and always wanting to do this but never achieving it. Please advise me what someone can do when they know they can do it but they need someone to listen! Who do I go to? Who would listen to me? I'm no one! I do want to be someone!


Karen J. Landoll

Sarasota, Fla.

Dear Karen,

Your letter has been a subtle irritant in the back of my mind for this past week, but not for the reasons you might suspect.

Please try to understand when I say that your letter seems to me to be arrogant rather than, as Family Weekly labeled it, poignant.

It is not your fault that you have this warped image of the real world, that you have the belief that somehow the world owes you the chance to start at the top. The Cinderella myth has always been overworked by the flacks of all branches of the entertainment world, because it is far easier to make a Cinderella story interesting than a story of years of hard labor in the boonies. But young people like you, who have an unmeasured, untested talent, believe that if just given a chance, you can prove your right to become an instant Star.

It is not done this way. Rowan and Martin, Mike Douglas and Vikki Carr are not going to open magic doorways for you. I can tell you why. I am privileged to count Dan Rowan as a personal friend. He is a sensitive, decent, sympathetic man. Before he and Dick were "discovered," there were 18 years of gigs, club dates, saloons, squalid motels and small money.

I have a neighbor here in Florida named Joy Williams, whose first novel has just been published by Doubleday with much fanfare. It is called State of Grace. Behind this "discovery" of her talent is an eight-year period of writing, writing, writing, until, within the past couple of years, she acquired sufficient competence to sell shorter pieces to good magazines.

Do you, in your innocence, think that Dinah Shore, Peggy Lee, Eyde Gorme, Vikki Carr, Ella, Streisand, Billie Holliday, earned their right to "sing to the world" by writing plaintive little letters to top entertainers? When each one was "discovered," it was because each one had made herself visible by years of hard, tough work.

Let me tell you what other young women are doing, women who perhaps have a stronger motivation than you. They are singing. They are haunting the local radio and television stations, the lounges, fairs, benefits, clubs, churches, funeral parlors, grabbing at each and every chance to sing for the people, whether it be for a ten dollar bill, a box lunch or two lines in the paper. Each time they sing, they learn things that cannot be learned in 12 years of singing around the house. They learn more about the professional requirements of timing and phrasing, of fitting the voice to various kinds of mikes and speaker systems and dimensions of the halls, of enduring drunks and fools, and jackhammers in the street outside.

These young women do not seek the opinion of friends to learn if they are "good at singing." They learn that the best way, by being asked back, by being given fifteen dollars instead of ten, by being applauded by total strangers.

That's how it really happens, Karen. From no one to someone is never an overnight thing, and writing letters won't do it. I am astonished that you could live for 23 years and love singing, and not know this already. There are many valid biographies and autobiographies of singing stars available. Have you not been interested enough in how it is done to even read these stories? Right now, you have wasted four or five years in an empty yearning to be famous, in "praying for this dream to come true." Can you imagine the wry and amused bitterness in the minds of the girls who have been singing for the people in small places for these five years, trying to make their dream come true, too, when they read of your petulance at having your letters ignored?

I get poignant letters that begin, almost invariably, "I have always wanted to write." Me too, pal. My first two short story sales brought in a grand total of $70. They cost me one million words of manuscript, untold hundreds of hours, and over $100 in postage, mailing my stories out. I answer those poignant letters by saying in return, "If you always wanted to write, and wanted to badly enough, you would be writing, regardless of whether or not you are selling."

Karen, have you always wanted to sing with such aching need that you were willing to start at the bottom? Or do you just have this romantic image of yourself as a frustrated potential celebrity?

Get out and work for peanuts, or work for free. Or give up the notion.

Sincerely yours,
John D. MacDonald

Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dear Karen,

After reading your letter which was recently published in Family Weekly, I was honored by your kind thoughts, and would like to reply.

As you have already begun to learn, being a singer, or just breaking into the entertainment business itself, is pretty difficult. I don't have any information about what you would like to do in your career, and don't know how much help I can be, but I would appreciate your sending me more information, perhaps including some demo records or tapes.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Warmest regards,
Vikki Carr

I can find no evidence that Karen Landoll ever recorded anything, at least under her own name.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"What About Alice?"

The Sign was a national magazine that first began publication in 1921 and which published its final issue in 1982. Billing itself as the "National Catholic Magazine," it was produced in Union City, New Jersey by an order of priests and brothers known as The Passionist Fathers. Much like similar endeavors with a narrowly focused audience -- magazines like The American Legion Magazine and The Elks Magazine -- The Sign was modeled on the general circulation magazines of the day and featured everything from news articles; book, radio and movie reviews; sports articles; columns, and -- yes -- fiction. Before television took over our lives, nearly every magazine featured at least some fiction. And with articles bearing titles like "Why I Became a Catholic," "From Confucianism to Christ" and "The Evil That God Permits," The Sign would be the last place one would expect to find a short story by John D MacDonald. Yet in the early winter of 1947, in the magazine's December Christmas issue, MacDonald's "What About Alice?" appeared. It was the only time the author would grace the table of contents of this religious periodical, just as he would do with his one-time appearance in The American Legion Magazine.

Of course MacDonald was not a Catholic -- his heritage was as Waspy as a WASP's could be -- and his religious views could be charitably defined as agnostic. How one of his stories ended up in a magazine like The Sign is a tale probably lost to the ages, yet it is likely the result of his literary agent finding a paying market for a JDM story and not caring about who signed the check or what bank it was drawn on. As MacDonald once put it bluntly when recalling this period of his career, "What I was trying to do ... was earn a living at 1¢ and 2¢ a word.... If I did fifteen [stories] a week (not unusual) and sold two of them, after trying them all on every conceivable market, any small increment in skill or believability could make it possible to do ten a week and sell three."

The Sign bought fiction primarily from no-name authors, writers like Roger Dooley, James B. Dunn, Rhonda LeCoq and Alice Laverick, people unfamiliar to even the most dedicated student of the American periodical. There was the occasional reprint, such as Evelyn Waugh's 1934 Christmas story "Bella Fleace Gave a Party," which appeared alongside "What About Alice?" in the December 1947 issue. Sometimes an author from the lower rung of popular fiction appeared, such as Doris Hume, whose work was published in slick magazines from 1945 to the end of the fifties, and whose novel The Sin of Susan Slade was turned into a Troy Donahue movie. The most surprising discovery was the frequent employment of pulp powerhouse Hugh B. Cave, who -- from 1946 to 1958  -- had twenty-seven stories published in The Sign, a fact that seems unknown to his bibliographers. And then there's John D. MacDonald...

"What About Alice?" contains nothing about God, religion or Catholicism. What it is is a typical JDM exploration of a broken romantic relationship: how it happened, why it happened and how it gets resolved (usually with a redemptive ending). It is similar to his 1953 McCall's effort "Forever Yours" and his 1951 Christmas story for The American Legion Magazine, "The Cardboard Star," which closely resembles "What About Alice?" in structure, theme and tone. It's sentimental -- if I may be allowed to use such a term -- but not overly so, as MacDonald grounds the sentiment with richly descriptive language and a protagonist's regret that borders on existential despair. If "Her Black Wings" showed MacDonald at his weakest when attempting to write the language of love, "What About Alice?" proves that in the proper setting the author could pull it off -- not perfectly, but he was getting there, and in the right frame of mind the reader will find both a moving and convincing story.

Bill Sanders is an ad agency "Mad Man," assigned to an account with a looming deadline. He has decided to work from home one day in the mists of a driving winter rainstorm and is interrupted by a knock at the door. It's Stan Quinn, a somewhat younger co-worker, who has come to ask for some advice, although he is having trouble spitting out the question. Over a couple of beers he finally comes to the point, and it surprises Bill:

"How about the scoop on Alice Kelsey, Bill?"

The question brings a suppressed anger in Bill, one that quickly turns to "a kind of sadness -- of regret." Alice is Stan's girlfriend, but before that she and Bill were deeply in love. Stan wants to marry Alice, but he wants to know from Bill if it is the right thing to do. He doesn't make a lot of money at the agency and won't for years, and he is worried that Alice's love might sour after several years of meager income. Stan confesses that it is an odd thing to ask of a former beau, especially when Bill and Alice don't even speak to each other any more. Bill pauses to think of an answer, and as he stares out into the "gray rain," he recalls the first time he met Alice in a small cafe, how they instantly clicked, how "every bit of her had snapped into place in his heart."

"She was both plain and beautiful -- something about the line of her brow, cheek, jaw, throat -- gray eyes bright with laughter. Before they left the booth they were in love. He recalled the way she walked out of [the cafe] ahead of him, his first realization that she walked with the instinctive grace and appealing awkwardness of a colt.

"Bill wondered how many miles they must have walked, her stride free and swinging, her hand warm and firm against his palm -- walking the streets of the city by day and night. The line of her throat, the tilt of her head, filling him with a dazzling sweetness. Beside him on the bench by the river, with the moist breath of the river mist, and the freighter shadows shouldering their way out to sea...

"She had been mocking in the midst of emotions, and suddenly emotional in the midst of laughter -- and all the days with her were short, so short. Under the gay surface she had a streak of peasant -- with warm lips and husky voice. Earth and fire, beauty and movement, he was thinking -- a bit of all that breathes is in her, and part of her is in everything that is beautiful."

When Bill finally answers, the response surprises Stan. "She's a sensitive woman, Stan... Easy to hurt. Don't fall into the habit of hurting her just because it's so easy."

And because it was easy, it had happened. Bill recalls to himself how he began to hurt Alice, how he learned the methods that would evoke the desired response, seeing the uncertainty in her gray eyes as he practiced his "emotional sadism." At first it was done to evoke a response, "to taste the joy of reconciliation," but it grew to the point where Bill was unable to stop, and it gradually killed the relationship.

"He had seen her sparkle fading, the cloud behind her eyes becoming more evident. But he had not been able to stop, even when he knew he must, and he couldn't stand it to watch her cry. It was easy to walk out, in time to let her save herself. Easy, that is until the realization came that all the rest of the days would be empty. And now -- now she was mending and here was Stan to help her. Yes, Stan would probably be right for her -- and he knew that no woman would ever be right for himself, now that Alice was gone."

Bill finishes by telling Stan that Alice is one in a million, and warns him against ever hurting her. Stan thanks him and returns to work, leaving an emotionally exhausted Bill ruminating on his past stupidity. Stan's questions had "torn away the protective scar tissue, and the wound was new again." Unable to sleep, Bill goes outside for a walk...

Many of MacDonald's mainstream stories -- especially the early ones he wrote for This Week magazine -- tend to be light, forgettable pieces that contain no more serious emotion than embarrassment and wry amusement. But the author's tales of love gone wrong -- of relationships that have broken because of the active commission (rarely the omission) of one of the (usually male) members of the couple -- while outwardly predictable and conventionally structured, typically contain aspects of darker themes that are not usually seen in this kind of writing. It's an almost noirish impulse on the part of the man to destroy, unable to stop, "even when he [knows] he must." MacDonald's ability to convey this malady in a common setting, to tell it in so few words, to create a deep, believable and recognizable character in a couple of sentences, is a gift that lifts these kinds of tales to a different level. And if their endings are typically "glib" (MacDonald's own characterization), the road to that glib ending is usually through the dark woods of an emotionally complex, far-from-perfect protagonist.

"What About Alice?" appeared once and has never been anthologized.