Monday, November 3, 2014

JDM on His Early Years Writing for the Pulps, Part II

The pulp days were strange and funny. We were living in Utica, New York. [Editor] Harry Widmer called me up one morning and asked me to stop in the next morning and see him about some changes he wanted in a story. This was 1947. I saw him at ten o’clock and I complained that the train had left the rails and traveled on the ties all night. He boggled at me and said, “Where the hell is Utica?”

“A sleeper jump away,” I said.

“I thought it was next to Scarsdale,” he said.

It began to occur to me that some of the people in New York have very little knowledge of the world out there.

One of the favorite stories around the Popular Publications shop was about the time Steve Fisher hand-delivered a story. He was strapped and he wanted a check right now. He was in Mike Tilden’s office when Mike started to read it. Their offices were on East 42nd Street and Mike’s office faced the street, about six or seven floors up, as I remember. They had those big double-hung windows with the wide sill. It was summer, no air-conditioning. At about the second page, Steve straddled the sill and said, “Buy it, Mike, or I’ll jump!” Mike read on, page by page. When he was a little better than halfway through, without looking up, he said, “Jump.” A little later that morning they put Steve in a little room there with a typewriter and by nightfall they had a story Mike could purchase. In later years Steve went out to the Coast and did well writing scripts. I once heard  that he had bought a Cadillac convertible and had it custom painted to match the exact shade of his girlfriend’s hair. That offended my Scots instincts. It seemed to me far easier and far less expensive in that community out there to take her a color chart of Cadillacs and have  her hair dyed to match whatever pleased her.

One time, early on, Mike took me in mid-afternoon to Costello’s. Tim Costello himself was tending bar. We stood at the bar and I had twelve straight-up dry martinis between three and six o’clock. Mike was so impressed he wrote out a confirmation, saying that I did not suffer slurred speech or the blind staggers, and had Costello sigh it. He sent me a photostat of the of the signed statement… The writer as jackass.

There is one ironic story about Mike Tilden. Dick Wormser was a client of [agents] Littauer and Wilkinson when I was, after Joe Shaw died. We had corresponded. I liked Wormser’s stationary. It had a column down the left hand side of the sheet of services he performed. Autobiographies, Clean Limericks, Dirty Limericks, Footnotes, Advice, Useful mottoes, Instant Indian Legends. I met him in Max Wilkinson’s office, and we went off together for a drink. We started talking about editors, and found we both felt indebted to Mike Tilden for a lot of very useful advice. It finally came out in the conversation that twenty-one years earlier he had loaned Mike two hundred and fifty dollars to pay the hospital bill when Mike’s only son was born. And a couple of months before with the expense of having the son buried after he killed himself.

I remember the names because the people were important to me and their decisions were important. Babett Rosmond at Street & Smith, Harry Widmer, Ken White, Mike Tilden and Alden Norton at Popular, Bob Lowndes at Columbia. Donald Kennicott at Bluebook. I tried to keep thirty stories in the mail at all times. Shotgun approach. We lived upstairs in a two family house at 1109 State Street in Utica. We had an evil-tempered mailman who’d bring back a fistful of rejected manuscripts every now and then, hammer on the side wall with his fist and yell, “MacDonald! MacDonald!” until I would come running down to take that particular load of disappointment from him. Manuscripts came back in terrible shape. No editor should be permitted to know he or she did not get first look, Heel prints I could wrase. Wrinkles and creases I could iron out, on an ironing board. But burn holes and coffee stains required retyping.

In the nineteen forties and fifties the magazines, both pulp and slick paper gobbled up hundreds of short stories and novelettes each month. Each magazine received many times the number of stories it could possible use. Competition was intense. That was the training ground for the novel, and it is sadly lacking today.

The effects are apparent in the majority of the bound galleys sent to me for comment. The painfully trite situations, the tin ear, the stilted dialogue, the florid patches of prose… all the dreadful writing boo-boos that used to be weeded out in the tough and competitive world of the magazines now appear in full-grown hardcover books under the best imprints. They tend to give writing a bad name.

From John D MacDonald’s speech at Bouchercon XIV, October 23, 1983.

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  1. Hi Steve---I used to own the cover painting for this issue. It was painted by Norman Saunders and I obtained it at the Cherry Hill, NJ Pulpcon around 1981. Price $200 and no one else at the convention seemed to care about it. It's worth a lot more now!

    1. That's incredible, Walker!

      You "used to own" it? What did you do with it?

    2. A few years ago I traded it for another painting. I now wish I'd kept it because Saunders paintings are going for high prices.