Monday, December 28, 2015

"No Grave Has My Love"

The history of the pulp fiction magazine is primarily a history of the American pulp fiction magazine, a singular invention that took place and flourished in the United States in the late 19th century on into the Twentieth. But as with many things uniquely American, it was not and had antecedents in Europe going as far back as 17th century in the form of pamphlet fiction. During the heyday of the American pulp, countries such as Britain and Germany had their own pulp titles with their own pulp heroes, and many of these magazines published works by writers who would one day become household names. Britain had its The Story Teller, Hutchinson's Adventure-Story and Hutchinson's Mystery-Story. Germany its U-Boot Abenteuer and Der Detektiv, whose hero Harald Harst was killed off after his author and publisher refused to turn him into a Nazi.

But these examples, as with scores of others in different countries, were parochial affairs, titles that never crossed the borders of the countries from which they originated. The American pulps, on the other hand, like American culture in general, found huge audiences in other countries and the publishers of these magazines were only too happy to oblige by selling reprint rights to overseas concerns. Almost every big American pulp title had a version published in either Canada or the UK (or both) and these issues were not necessarily carbon copies of the US originals. As pulp magazines slowly died in the postwar era and many US titles began including reprints in their new issues (almost a sure sign of imminent death), so too did the overseas versions of these magazines look to other sources for their copy.

A case in point is the British version of that singular detective pulp, Black Mask. The first edition of the UK version appeared in June 1923, three years after the magazine’s birth in America, and it was nearly an exact copy of the American issue of June 15th (one additional story from a previous edition was included). The magazine was actually printed in the United States and shipped to England for sale there. This was the business plan for nearly two decades, and it seems that no issue ever included material that originated the UK (a few stories cannot be traced, so it remains a possibility). In 1939, due to England’s entry in the war, the magazine began being printed in London, and the copy began changing as well. The number of stories reprinted from the American edition dropped to only four or five and the number of pages was reduced as well. Toward the end of the war the magazine began including stories from other American pulps, mainly Dime Detective, and usually only one story per issue. Then, with the July 1950 issue, the UK version began relying more and more on reprints from other American detective magazines, mainly Dime Detective, but also Detective Tales and Detective Fiction.

John D MacDonald had scores of his pulp stories reprinted in British versions of the American magazines. His first appearance in the UK version of Black Mask was a reprint of his “Murder in One Syllable” which was originally published in the May 1949 edition of the American version. The second time his name showed up in the table of contents was in the August 1950 issue, where his novella “No Grave Has My Love” was the featured entry. And like the other stories in this particular UK edition, all of the titles originally appeared in the December 1948 issue of Dime Detective. The UK version even used the original cover art from the American magazine (a practice they continued).

“No Grave Has My Love” is a story bordering on the fantastic, with an aspect of the plot that could nearly be called science fiction, but it’s only used to justify a plot requirement late in the story. The setting is the Meadowbrook Retreat, a private institution for the treatment of the insane, located in the green, bucolic hills south of the city of Benton (most likely a stand-in for Utica, New York). It's a prestigious medical facility, employing some of the finest doctors in the world, and a staff far more skillful than those employed by public institutions. The most skilled of these physicians is Dr. Andre Spence, a brain surgeon who has developed techniques used to treat the insane that are practiced nowhere else. We meet Dr. Spence as the story opens, and it's clear from MacDonald's description of him that he is not the story's protagonist.

The bones of his face were prominent. High, sharp cheekbones, a beaked, high-bridged nose, a lean, hard jaw, thin lips. He seemed not to find it necessary to blink as often as most people, and when he did so, his eyelids moved with exceptional slowness. In three days he would be forty-six. Since he managed to give an enigmatic and ageless impression, he knew that behind his back attendants called him "the lizard."

Spense is shaving as these observations are made, while in the bedroom outside his wife is dying. She is a “mountainous” woman, a dim bulb that Spence married for money many years ago. She has suffered his numerous dalliances with nurses over the years and theirs is a deeply loveless marriage. When Spense diagnosed a heart condition due to her excessive weight, he contrived a means to kill her without drawing any suspicion. He has substituted cold tea in the ampules that were supposed to contain morphine, and a Meadowbrook nurse attending the woman is unknowingly administering the useless concoction.

The nurse, one Marianne Parnal, is also the latest object of Spence’s affections, although his feelings for her are not of the normal lust variety -- he wants to marry her and that is why he has finally decided on killing his wife. And why not? Marianne is the MacDonald paragon:

With the air of a new proprietor inspecting his property, Andre Spence looked on the face of his beloved. She was quite tall, just an inch shorter than Spence, and the tawny lush hair, red-gold and shimmering, seemed to be trying to escape from the severe coiffure. Her head was tilted to one side. He knew that behind the closed lids, her eyes were the changing blue of the sky, seeming to deepen in shade under emotional stress. Even under the uncompromising starch
of the nurse's uniform, he could see the ripe, warm lines of her body, and his need for her was an ache that hurt his chest and made it impossible for him to draw a deep breath. He, Andre Spence, would renew himself in the warmth and purity of her youth. She was love and laughter and a promise of unnamed delights.

Dr. Spence’s medical skills are only part of his repertory. He is skilled at manipulating people, at digging into their psyches and discovering the easiest way to get them to become his worshipful subjects. And once the deathwatch is over with and Mrs. Spence is gone, we see Marianne cleaning up, the narrative voice changes and we realize just how successfully Spence had done his job. MacDonald here sounds like he is channeling a character from one of the Love pulps.

It made her proud and happy to think that she could help, in any small way, a man like Andre Spence... She knew how he worked, how he drove himself. She tossed her head in anger as she thought of the snide remarks she had heard about the private life of Dr. Spence. It was certainly not Andre's fault that a nurse had hung herself from a tree limb a few months before Marianne had reported. They tried to make it sound as though it were Andre's fault Probably the silly girl had fallen in love with him and could not accept the fact that Andre had no time for her.

Could a man like Andre ever learn to love a girl like -- She tried to laugh. She was acting like a schoolgirl. Besides, she was being wicked. Only a hour before the hearse had come for Myra Spence's body.

And yet... And yet... She wondered if she was falling in love with Andre. I'm being a schoolgirl again, she thought. Goodness, he's twenty-three years older than I!... She drifted into a daydream wherein she told Andre that he really should get away for a rest. He then looked at her with those odd dark eyes and said softly that he would consider it only if she were to come with him, as his wife.

Which is, of course, exactly what happens next, much to the consternation of a local Benton psychiatrist named Ralph Bettinger, introduced as “Young Dr. Bettinger,” and here we meet the real JDM hero. Bettinger, once a promising young surgeon whose career was cut short by a piece of shrapnel during the war, has referred several of his patients to Meadowbrook and it was here that he met Marianne Parnal. The two of them have dated, and it is clear that Bettinger’s feeling for Marianne are much stronger than hers for him. Naturally Bettinger hates Spence and suspects him of killing his wife, but he can’t convince the head of the hospital of that.

There is a mix-up with some of the unused ampules, Marianne unwittingly tries to help Spence return them to the dispensary, and begins to become suspicious after witnessing Spence’s strange reaction to her offer. Eventually she becomes deeply suspicious of his guilt, but the all-knowing Spence realizes this and decides he has to put a stop to it. He could murder her, but that would leave him without the young body he so craves, and he then comes up with a solution that only he can bring about: a  lobectomy, a procedure he himself developed that will rid Marianne of the memory of the murder but keep her alive and willing....

Of course MacDonald had used this radical medical procedure before and would use it again. It first appeared in his early thriller “The Scarred Hand” (November 1946) and would be used again, in his February 1950 science fiction tale “Spectator Sport,” and most notably in the second Travis McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink. Indeed, the Dr. Varn of that novel bears a close resemblance to Andre Spence, and Baynard Mulligan’s description of the results of the operation give a better illustration as to the depth to which Spence is willing to go to preserve his “love.”

"It's a minor surgery. It used to be used frequently in cases of acute anxiety, but it has been discredited these past few years. I can only give you my layman's idea of it, of course. Varn used to do a lot of them. They go in at the temples, I believe, with a long thin scalpel and stir up the frontal lobes. It breaks the old behavior patterns in the brain. With a normal adult it has very specific effects. It will drop your intelligence quotient about forty points, permanently. It will make you incontinent at first. They'll shift you over to one of the regular rooms for special care-toilet training, dressing and feeding yourself, that sort of thing. You will have a short attention span, but you will be able to make a living doing some kind of routine task under supervision. It does cure all repressions and inhibitions, McGee. You will become a very friendly earthy fellow. Very strong but quite casual sex impulses. You will eat well and sleep well, and you will have no tendency to fret or worry about anything. If somebody annoys you, you may react a little too violently, but other than that you should have no trouble with society. It will be a pleasant life, believe me… “Most important of all, McGee, you will have just small disorganized memories of all this, and no urge to do anything about anything you do happen to remember clearly."
Talk about a Stepford wife!

Ultimately, “No Grave Has My Love” promises more than it delivers. Its outrĂ© plot isn’t helped by its unrealistic characters, whose actions seemed shoehorned into the plot in order to make it head in the direction of MacDonald’s ending. The treatment of Marianne Parnal is especially sloppy, making her almost childlike in her admiration for Spence, yet asking the reader to give a damn about her outcome. I will say that the ending of this story surprised me, an ultimately unhappy one made glib by Spence’s special procedure. To find out more you’ll have to read the story.

The British version of Black Mask continued until its November 1953 issue, lasting over two years past the death of the American title. Of course, by then the magazine was reprinting stories from other pulps, primarily Dime Detective and Detective Tales. Twelve of MacDonald’s stories were reprinted in the UK version, including “Five Star Fugitive” and “Trap for a Tigress.” Unfortunately it seems as if the UK reprint of “No Grave Has My Love” was the last appearance of the story.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Profile: John D McDonald

For those who didn't discover the works of John D MacDonald until after his death in 1986, it may be difficult for you to understand how quickly the author's name and works disappeared from the public imagination after that sad event. When MacDonald left for that fateful trip to Milwaukee in September all but two of his novels, anthologies and works of non-fiction were still in print. Each new work he published was eagerly greeted by both fans and critics alike, and were reviewed in nearly every periodical in the country that published such columns. He was a respected literary figure who was occasionally touted as the best selling living American author.

How quickly that changed.

As new product stopped appearing, the non-McGee novels gradually went out of print (except for The Executioners, titled Cape Fear), articles about the author stopped being written, and except for the world of mystery fans, MacDonald was the author of those Travis MxGee books, and that was if you remembered who he was. McGee himself began to fall out of favor, even among JDM fans, as his "womanizing" (a spurious claim) began to be seen as everything from oh-so-politically incorrect to downright misogynistic.

One need look no further than the transcribed article below to understand just how carelessly his memory was treated, at least as far as the accuracy of the particulars of his life and writings are concerned. This profile appeared in the March 1989 issue of Gulfshore Life and was written by the late writer David T Warner, an associate of MacDonald's and a fellow Liar's Club member. Warner's heart was, as you will read, certainly in the right place here, but the number of inaccuracies he commits is nearly off the scale. Blame for this must lie at the doorstep of not only Warner but at that of his editor at Gulfshore Life, who probably only vaguely knew who John D MacDonald was. They didn't even spell his surname correctly!

I've taken the liberty of footnoting the most obvious errors and adding a few comments of my own.

WHEN I FIRST STARTED reading John D. McDonald's (1) novels, I never in my wildest imaginings dreamed we would someday be friends.

McDonald was, perhaps, the best known of our Florida novelists. Unlike Hemingway, who wrote only one book, To Have and Have Not, that takes place in the state. Or Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote solely of Florida crackers. Or McKinlay Kantor, who wrote mostly historic novels. McDonald examined present-day Florida.

"A modern-day Sinclair Lewis," his friend, McKinlay Kantor, once labeled him. Like Lewis or Faulkner, McDonald created a world inhabited by such easily recognizable Florida types as the fly-by-night land speculator, the pretty-boy stud, the murderous sociopath, and the fading beauty nursing her regret with sunshine and the bottle. The dark underbelly of the Florida Gold Coast, in other words, whose tawdry facades are held up in the bright light of a Florida noon.

I first began reading McDonald's novels following the break up of my marriage 12 years ago. McDonald's brand of cynical humanism was just the anecdote for a bad case of post-marital guilt. His was an amoral world characterized by greed, lust, and environmental rape. A world of politicians on the take, businessmen on the make, and crooked cops. Its only saving grace was usually a world-weary romantic with a need to set things right.

McDonald's most famous romantic was that Don Quixote of beach bums, Travis McGee-the protagonist of 22 novels (2). McGee is everything a sensitive 20th-century male yearns to be: successful with women in a nonpredatory way, knowledgeable in many unrelated fields (mariner, detective, connoisseur of food and wine), and caring without being a wimp.

Unlike other series' investigators, McGee's character evolved over the years, as his inner life began to take precedence over the violent physical action of the early books. In the final McGee novel, The Long Silver Rain, (3) Travis even undergoes a mid-life crisis.

McGee was my role model at the time, and I expected his creator to be a carbon copy of his creation.

Only, I was mistaken.

Except for a similar philosophy of life, they were total opposites. McGee, despite his liberal philosophy, was something of a womanizer. McDonald had been married to the same woman for 50 years. McGee was tall, dark, and handsome. McDonald, though hardly unattractive, was not conventionally handsome. McGee led a flamboyant lifestyle, living on a houseboat and driving a uniquely modified Rolls Royce "pick-up truck." McDonald strove for anonymity and drove a Toyota station wagon. McGee had few if any ties. McDonald's life was filled with familial and other obligations.

Finally, McGee was athletic.

"Why John D. can't even swim, much less captain a boat;" said my friend, southern novelist Borden Deal. "If he resembles anybody in the McGee books, it's Meyer."

In the series, Meyer is an economic consultant who lives on the "Maynard E. Keynes;" (4) the boat in the slip next to McGee's (5) at the Bahia Del Mar (6) boat basin in 'Lauderdale. Meyer serves as a sounding board for McGee's ideas and dispenses a few theories of his own - a sort of intellectual Dr. Watson to McGee's more active Holmes.

Borden was right. If McDonald resembled anyone, it was Meyer. Stoop-shouldered, with horn-rimmed glasses and a pinkish-pale complexion, John D. was a ringer for the absent-minded professor. (7) His conversation, too, was professorial in its knowledgeability, and his fund of arcane lore - the best French restaurant in Bangkok, where to get the highest rate of exchange in Mexico City, the inside workings of a multinational corporation (John D. had a master in business from the Wharton School of Finance. (8)) - was seemingly inexhaustible.

The first time I met John D. was at the Liars' Lunch - a group of Sarasota writers and cartoonists who meet every Friday for lunch. During lunch, John D. kept cocking his head to better listen to the sound of a video game being played in an adjoining room. Its futuristic ping-ping seemed to fascinate him.

"That's the sound of the future, John," commented someone at the table.

And I could see John D. making a mental note of the comment.

"John D. is nothing if not an intellectual magpie;' said Borden later.

Sure enough, a year or so later, the comment about video games was put in the mouth of a character in a McGee novel. It was one of my first experiences with how a real writer works. Any chance comment was grist for the mill and to be filed away for future use.

During lunch, three rounds of liar's poker - a gambling game using the serial numbers on currency - were played for drinks, and it was John D.’s custom to award the loser of each game a prize. The nature of the prize depended on the recipient. For instance, a particularly needy writer was given a set of Big Band records along with a stereo. A long-winded writer was given a weighty tome on the Ecuadorean economy. A disheveled writer (myself) was given his choice of three brand-new billfolds to replace the falling-apart-at-the-seams one in his back pocket.

Except for the Liar's Lunch, events to raise money for environmental causes, and New College in Sarasota (McDonald's favorite charity), John D. seldom made the social rounds.

"It angers up my blood;" he said once, quoting black baseball star Satchel Page. Or, again: "Literary cocktail parties are my idea of hell:”

Like most writers, there was about John D the aura of a loner. Perhaps it was due to the long hours spent in solitude worrying over his craft. Or, perhaps, it had to do with his disdain for the trivial subject matter of most conversation. Or, maybe, it was because he found it easier to deal with imaginary rather than real-life characters.

"Real people have a habit of disappointing you," he told me once. "Whereas, imaginary characters never let you down. They're consistent:"

Once, when I mentioned I was working on a novel, John D. suggested I send the first hundred or so pages along with an outline to his agent. Eventually, the manuscript came back with some pertinent comments on how to improve it.

When John D. read the letter, he turned to me and said: "What do you think?"

"He's right;" I grudgingly admitted.

John D. smiled. "You're learning;" he said. "Only difference between a pro and an amateur is, an amateur disregards constructive criticism:”

And John D. was a pro.

"He works twice as long as you and me;” said Borden. "Four hours in the morning, four hours in the afternoon. Seven days a week - holidays included:”

Whenever John D. went on cruises around the world, he took his word processor and worked his regular schedule. (9) The Liars' Lunch was his only regular interruption, and even then he worked nights to make up for it.

This professionalism is reflected in the amount of work he turned out. Sixty-odd novels, two nonfiction books (10), numerous novelettes, and over 500 articles and short stories.

There were rumors John D. had already completed the final novel in the McGee series-the one in which Travis would meet his demise.

"It's called Black is the Color," insisted Borden. (11)

A favorite past time [sic] of McGee fans was to speculate if and when McGee would be killed. (McGee's fans are as rabid in their devotion as "Trekkies:”) But no final McGee novel was uncovered after John D. 's death, and Travis - unlike his creator - proved immortal.

A couple of days before John D. was due to report for surgery at a Milwaukee hospital, he attended the Liars' Club. His prizes were unusually lavish that day, and after lunch, he bid us goodbye for what he hoped would only be a few months.

A pro to the end, he had made arrangements with his doctor to recuperate at the Milwaukee Athletic Club and hoped to get a book out of his experiences there.

On December 28, 1986, John D. McDonald died of complications following by-pass surgery.

At his request, there was no funeral.

That week, at the Liars' Lunch, we lifted our glasses in a toast to our departed friend.

His great good heart would be sorely missed.

(1) The author spelled his name "MacDonald."

(2) MacDonald published only 21 Travis McGee novels. Perhaps Warner is buying into that urban myth about the "final" black McGee adventure. Keep reading for that.

(3) The actual title of that last McGee book is, of course, The Lonely Silver Rain.

(4) Meyer's boat was named The John Maynard Keynes, after the famous economist. Perhaps Warner was thinking of Maynard G Krebs...

(5) The John Maynard Keynes is moored at "a neighboring dock," "a seventy foot walk" from slip F-18, not next to the Busted Flush.

(6) Bahia Del Mar is a waterfront community located in St. Petersburg, Florida. McGee lives in the Bahia Mar marina in Ft. Lauderdale.

(7) MacDonald looked nothing like his literary creation. Meyer is variously described as "an ugly, charming fellow," bulky, with a massive face when smiling, small intense blue eyes bracketed by weather wrinkles, a potato nose, with a waist six or seven inches larger than McGee's and a deep, glossy, heavy black pelt on his chest ("hairy as an Adirondack bear").

(8) MacDonald had a master's degree in business administration from the Harvard School of Business. He attended Wharton for his freshman and part of his sophomore undergraduate education before dropping out. He eventually got his undergraduate degree from Syracuse University.

(9) Read Nothing Can Go Wrong. JDM did not go on numerous multi-monthlong cruises to all parts of the world with his wife so he could spend eight or nine hours a day holed up in his cabin.

(10) The correct number is four: The House Guests, No Deadly Drug, Nothing Can Go Wrong and A Friendship.

(11) I've never heard this mythical novel referred to with this particular title.

It's interesting to note that the mutual friend of Warner and MacDonald, author Borden Deal, was willing to talk on the subject. As readers of Hugh Merrill's biography of MacDonald no doubt recall, there was a major falling out between Deal and MacDonald over the alleged sexual advances made to JDM by Deal's wife Babs Deal, an author in her own right. The epistolary account of this "affair" makes up a major portion of Chapter 10 of The Red Hot Typewriter. Merrill's account leaves little doubt that the friendship between MacDonald and Deal had been irrevocably broken, but perhaps that was not the case. After all, the Deals divorced in 1975. Maybe Borden was an older and wiser man when quoted for this article.

(A special thank you goes to author Dan Pollock, who donated his copy of the profile to The Trap of Solid Gold.)

Monday, December 14, 2015

When John D Met the Movies and McGee

This article originally appeared in the November 12, 1989 issue of the Sarasota Times. It was written by MacDonald's No Deadly Drug collaborator Pete Schmidt.

--by Pete Schmidt

Editor's Note: A little over two decades ago, I collaborated with John D. MacDonald on his first non-fiction work, No Deadly Drug, the story of a celebrity murder case, the Coppolino Murder Trials, set in New Jersey and Florida courtrooms. We became good friends and his many kindnesses to me extended far beyond the period we worked together on "No Deadly Drug." He was past the half century mark in age but going like sixty in sales that November twenty years ago. One of the more creative and reliable writers on the contemporary scene, John D. was in Fort Lauderdale for the filming of "Darker Than Amber," the first of the Travis McGee movies which, if successful, would run through an artist's palette of colors and celluloid. Jack Reeves, an independent producer backgrounded in television, had purchased the titles to ten of the McGee paperback originals. Budgeted at $2 million-plus, the film was shot in the Miami, Key Biscayne and Lauderdale area. On this day, MacDonald was meeting McGee. And he asked me to tag along.

It was mid-afternoon Tuesday and a gray sky thoughtfully delayed its threatened rain and shadowed an armpit dampening sun.

At Bahia Mar, the scene of the day's shooting, crew and cast ant-crawled across concrete piers and keys, pulling cables, dollying cameras, positioning props; directors and assistant directors eyeballed scripts, checked camera angles and barked instructions. Female extras, needed for a party scene, bare mid-drifted aboard the yacht like two-layer cupcakes with platinum frosting; the bronzed male extras, sideburned and athletic paired off with the beach bunnies and warred for an on-camera spot close to Jane Russell.

John D. eased himself into a deck chair and watched the beehive surrounding him. Hemmed in by party girls and their escorts, he looked like a hostage in a Ken and Barbie doll factory.

"This somehow reminds me of the Coppolino trial," he said wistfully. "This world is so unreal. Quite frankly, I didn't base McGee in the Sarasota area for fear it would be a success and if movies followed then all this"---and he waved his arm toward the actors and cameras---"would be in my own backyard and I didn't want that."

Reeves introduced two women from Palm Beach who, as the day wore on, sandwiched the producer like expensive bookends.

"Here's the man responsible for this," Reeves told the ladies.

"I'm responsible for the books," John D. replied; "He's responsible for this!" It sounded like a disclaimer.

The director was shouting at the actors through a megaphone, ordering the extras lining the yacht's starboard to make Jane Russell fight her way along the rail and through the crowd of revelers to carry on a conversation with McGee (played by Rod Taylor, an Australian actor and ex-boxer) as he docked his boat, the "Busted Flush." (Actually a seaman in a bottom deck compartment docked the craft while McGee-Taylor, at the topside helm, pantomimed the maneuver.)

"All of you should be smiling," the director yelled. "You've been boozing it up for awhile. Make Jane struggle to get past you to yell at Rod."

One of the extras, eyeing the Russell figure and bosom that hung over motion pictures of the late 40's and 50's like thunderclouds spread over a landscape, leered.

The character played by Russell, as John pointed out, was the product of the Hollywood scripter of the original McGee books, many of which refer to the marathon parties on a yacht, "Bama Gal," but they are hosted by a man. In the wisdom of Hollywood, the host had become a hostess and lost to film fans was the delicious double-entendre name of the booze and broad-stocked boat.

Jane Russell had just blown her line for the second time and the director was ordering another take when Reeves asked John D.: "How would you like to be doing this all day?'

"How would you like to write the same page over each day," he responded. "Or spend three months on a manuscript and then make the ethical decision you can't kid the readers and dump it all into the waste can?"

"The thing I've always wanted to do is come away from a sneak preview and hear my colleagues say---not knowing I'm there---that it was one helluva picture. Then it's all worthwhile," Reeves said.

"Frankly I've always looked upon producers as being like a mule. He doesn't quite create the products, but he keeps on trying," cracked John D.

Travis McGee, the hero of the MacDonald series, was and still is one of those fictional characters actors are anxious to assay in hopes of striking the box-office motherlode that MacDonald received from the reading public. At the time Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, Robert Culp, Vic Morrow and Jack Lord, among others, had expressed interest in the role. John D. was satisfied with the casting of Taylor who, he said, "has that certain persuasion needed to have the ladies following him about ...a face that looked lived in ...the gentleness that appeals to women and the manliness that appeals to men."

"In the public mind, in the past, the people have mixed me up with McGee," said the author. "Then when they meet me there is this terrible look of dismay. Now Taylor can be McGee and I can be me. People are always asking me where I get the ideas for McGee's escapades with the ladies, too. I tell them I have very uninhibited friends who do the research and report back to me."

"Watching a film version of McGee is interesting," he continued, "and must be considered in the context of cinematic values. For instance, McGee is an old fashioned guy and I may develop this during one five or six page passage. In the movie, they establish it with McGee looking at a pop-top beer can, inverting it, and popping it open the old-fashioned way with a can opener."

"I try to change McGee imperceptibly," he continued, noting he worked on four books simultaneously. "I keep him in an indefinite age bracket but he is altered by the previous books. What effect the fleshing out of McGee on screen may have I don't know."

The Jane Russell-Rod Taylor scene was finally completed and a light drizzle had begun to fall when Reeves, Bikel, the Palm beach bookends and MacDonald gathered at the Bahia Mar restaurant.

Outside, in trailers rented from Ivan Tors Studios---"The Home of Flipper"---Taylor was readying for his bedroom scene with Suzie Kendall…

Bikel was forking through a mountain of cottage cheese resting on a bedrock of fruit salad when John D. excused himself for the drive back to Sarasota. Passing the rented trailers he smiled and pointed out the label on Bikel's trailer had two "L's." He smiled, stopping to give a fan his autograph and pose for a snapshot with another.

Driving home he was silent for the better part of an hour, then he began to chuckle.

"God, what a day," he said. "It's hard to believe that I sat for two hours watching them shoot a 60 second scene that took Jane Russell nine tries to correctly emote lines I never wrote in the first place!"

Monday, December 7, 2015

"Bye, Bye, Backfield!"

If there is a pecking order among the different kinds of pulp magazines that flourished and then died in the last century, sports pulps would have to be pretty close to the bottom. Not that they weren’t popular in their day, they were, but if we are to judge popularity by the sheer number of different titles published, sports pulps (specifically all-sports pulps) rank below every other major type of pulp magazine. This makes sense, after all, because the sports pulps had to compete with the real thing, not only as played by real sportsmen but in the daily reportage of games in newspapers everywhere. But between 1923 and 1949 over fifty different all-sports pulp magazines were born, titles as inclusive as All-American Sports, New Sports Magazine, Sports Short Stories, or as specific as Big Baseball Stories, Basketball Stories or even Rodeo Romances (two different kinds of pulps in one, I suppose). By 1957 all but two of them, Super Sports and Ten-Story Sports,  had died, and those two gave up the ghost early that year.

John D MacDonald wrote for the sports pulps, a fact that surprised me when I first learned of it, and it still surprises people unfamiliar with his early writing career. Next to his mystery stories and his science fiction stories, nothing matches the quantity of sports short stories he wrote. And depending on how expansive the definition of sports one accepts, that number comes very close to his science fiction output. He wrote 29 stories that appeared in sports pulps, plus at least a dozen or more that were published in other kinds of magazines, both pulp of slick. The first JDM sports story to be published was “Coward in the Game,” and it was included in the November 25, 1946 issue of Short Stories. His first sports pulp appearance came in March 1947 with “That Old Gray Train,” but not before he had a second sports story appear in the January 4, 1947 issue of Liberty (“Hole in None”). That title is actually a fantasy tale, which allows it to appear in lists of both MacDonald’s sports stories as well as his science fiction tales. In fact, there are sports in all kinds of JDM writing, from mysteries (“The Deadly Game of Darts”) to sf (“Half-Past Eternity”) to even his novels. There’s tennis in Contrary Pleasure, Murder in the Wind and Bright Orange for the Shroud, and of course Travis McGee once played football.

MacDonald himself was an avid fisherman, and he counted boxing and golf among the sports he played and participated in at one time in his life. He wrote expertly about those fields, and also wrote well about auto racing, baseball, tennis, football, hockey, bowling, and even bull-fighting. JDM bibliographer Walter Shine once wrote, "... his sports writings ranged through so many fields as to suggest a multiplicity of writers, rather than a single one. The technical knowledge in each seems to be that of a seasoned student of the sport -- rather than an occasional onlooker ... Whatever he, or we, may now feel about the quality of the fiction, any of us would be hard put to fault the sports expertise he showed."

But who remembers this? I wrote back in 2009: “MacDonald's sports stories remain the least anthologized of all his fiction, with the possible exception of the mainstream work he produced later in his career for slicks like Good Housekeeping, Redbook and the Saturday Evening Post. Unlike the mystery and science fiction fields, there doesn't seem to be a subculture of fanatics and collectors clamoring for the re-publication of stories with titles like ‘Buzz-Saw Belter’ or ‘Fight, Scrub, Fight!’”

Or “Bye, Bye, Backfield.”

The story appeared in the July 1949 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories under one of MacDonald’s house names, John Wade Farrell, and it’s probably a story JDM was later glad was not identified as his. It’s not bad, just mediocre, a college football story about a new head coach coming in an upsetting a lot of apple carts. For the football fan it is full of technical details about plays, formations and tactics, but for the reader of fiction there’s little ground here that hasn’t been covered by hundreds of other writers in thousands of other stories.

The backfield in question is the offensive backfield of Mideastern, a mid-Atlantic college that could be a stand-in for any number of universities, but here probably one in New York or Pennsylvania. The team is down in Florida during an Easter Vacation break, training for the next season. This backfield for Mideastern consists of fullback Charlie Western, two halfbacks, Bus Milligan and Sancho Sanchinelli, and quarterback  Hal McKeever, who is also the first-person narrator. They are a unit that has been together since before college, on a service team, and were recruited together to play for Mideastern. And they have been very successful. The previous season they "smashed the Ivy League, broke the hearts of our two Big Ten guests and piled up a lopsided score in the bowl game." Every coach this backfield has had has made attempts to try out other players for those three positions, but no one has ever taken one. That’s because McKeever manages to make every tryout look bad by flubbing their timing. “Why should he break it up,” Bus asked. "We're a winning combo. This is our last season coming up. We're the inner circle..."

Enter a new coach.

[He was] a mountainous person named Bunny Hale, a recent fullback from the [pro] Burros. About twenty-nine years old, one of those boys who go to so small a school that they never make a clipping until a smart pro team grabs them and turns them loose on the publicized kids from the bigger outfits. With the Burros he had made a three-year average of 5.1 yards every time they handed him the ball. Maintaining such an average against outfits like the Packers is akin to consistently throwing rocks through a concrete wall.

After Hale is introduced at the first team meeting, he speaks to the troops about his initial impressions.

"I've been watching movies of you people. For a college team, you do good. Timing okay, fundamentals fair... The line has holes this season, but I think we can plug them. You have a lot of power in the backfield. You run too many off the T and not enough single and double wing. You could have added another three touchdowns to the season total last year by forgetting that T within the five-yard line and punching Western over from a single-wing, unbalanced line either way."

The following day the practices begin, and all morning Hale tries out new possible members of the backfield, and every one is mistimed by one of the group. But Hale persists, and it isn’t until late in the day when he puts the four together to show what they can do. Only now, Hale has suited up himself and will play defensive fullback. He manages to embarrass them on every play, to the point that they begin arguing and blaming each other. When the insults get bad enough, McKeever has to be held down as he tries to throw a punch at his fullback…

Of course the professional Bunny Hale knows what he is doing and things eventually work out once the insular backfield is shown the selfish error of their ways. There’s really little going on in “Bye, Bye, Backfield” that isn’t predictable or ho-hum. MacDonald’s prose is sharp and professional, and his descriptive powers used to create scene and character in a few, beautifully chosen words is on display, but the plot he uses is definitely thread-worn, even for 1949.

“Bye, Bye, Backfield” was one of four John D MacDonald stories to be published in this particular issue of Fifteen Sports Stories, the most to appear in a single issue of a magazine, pulp or otherwise. And one of those four stories was “Blue Water Fury,” one of the author’s very, very best short stories, so good he included it in his 1966 anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories under the new title “The Big Blue”. It was the only pulp story included there. So I suppose he can be forgiven for coming up a bit short with “Bye, Bye, Backfield”.

The story has never been reprinted.

Monday, November 30, 2015

"The Magic Valentines"

In last week’s posting I discussed the broad variety of pulp magazines that John D MacDonald had stories published in, from mystery to science fiction, adventure to straight fiction, and even westerns and horror. But he never wrote a story for a love pulp, and for good reason, I think. It’s hard to imagine a more unsentimental writer than MacDonald, although even that opinion is belied by digging deeper into the author’s short works. He made many forays into the world of love, usually love gone wrong and its subsequent repair (see “The Cardboard Star,” “Forever Yours” or “What About Alice?”), other times it was love lost and the lifelong regret that loss produced (“The Bear Trap”) and occasionally he did write a straight-up love story like “The Magic Valentines.”

It appeared in the February 5, 1956 issue of This Week, the Sunday morning newspaper supplement that hosted many of MacDonald’s attempts at mainstream fiction. He began his long association with the magazine in 1950 with a run of family situation comedy tales and began penning more serious works as time went on. By the time “The Magic Valentines” appeared he had already written a mystery, a cautionary tale about anger and a family drama about teenage marriage, and he would go on to write about murder, assassins and even an extra-marital affair. “The Magic Valentines” is straightforward, tame and entirely adult in its sensibilities, and it fairly well avoids coming too close to being saccharine, although just. Its real strength, however, is in the cold, lonely world its protagonist inhabits, an atmosphere MacDonald establishes in his customary few words, and it is done so effortlessly that one is instantly drawn into the narrative.

Jerry Bowen works in the claims department of a large insurance company located in a tall skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. It’s the end of another dreary day and he has worked late to finish a report. Heading for the elevator he ruminates on his nebulous plans for the evening.

He looked toward the evening with distaste. Two years ago the town had seemed wonderfully exciting. Now he knew of at least three apartments where friends maintained seemingly permanent parties, where he would be welcome, but he did not want another of those evenings of predictable girls, predictable small talk, and the mild, highly predictable hangover. This was perhaps a night to hole up, eat a quick meal and read a book. But that seemed equally tasteless. He hoped it wouldn't be another of those restless evenings of walking too many miles through the bright, meaningless streets.

Before boarding the elevator he passes the typing pool and sees a lone female figure silhouetted against the city glow, quietly weeping. He approaches and discovers it’s Della Howard, the lovely girlfriend of Walter Crane, a “rather somber young man” who works in the Actuarial Section. Della and Walter have obviously had a falling out of some sort, and Jerry commiserates and bravely asks her to dinner. She agrees, but only if they go Dutch. They have a wonderful time -- at least Jerry thinks so -- and he asks if they can do it again sometime. Della looks him directly in the eye and says emphatically, “I’d like to, Jerry.”

There was a date, and more dates. Sometimes Jerry would see Walter Crane in the corridor. Crane would look at him with loathing. Jerry sensed the tenor of the office gossip. It did not bother him. Here at last, maybe, was The Girl. The end of long restlessness. The end of a search. Every hour with her was too short. He could not tire of watching the curve of her lips, the shape of her hands, of hearing the sound of her voice... The flavor of their first meeting continued. No kisses, no hand holding, no declarations of love undying . It somehow seemed better that way, more valid and more precious.

But Jerry can sense a distance between them, a strain on the part of Della as she continues to try and get over Walter Crane. Then, on one especially wonderful evening, he kisses her, but he feels her emotional withdrawal and concludes “It was not the magic he had expected.” Later over dinner he raises the subject of the first kiss with faux humor and is surprised by Della’s reaction.

She looked seriously at him. "What's bothering you? Is that a crazy kind of apology for kissing me? I'm astonished you didn't a long time ago. I expected you to. And I expect you to kiss me again. Quite often, darling.”

But as Jerry looks into her eyes he realizes it is all an act, Della playing the part of spurned lover with “little girl earnestness.” When he walks her home he kisses her again, for the final time…

MacDonald’s original title for “The Magic Valentines” was “The Fourteenth of February,” and the story appeared in the issue of This Week one week prior to Valentine’s Day, so it is likely that this work was commissioned by the magazine for the holiday. That would certainly explain a story so out of the ordinary for MacDonald, who was rarely this florid in his handling of romance, even in his early days. There are echoes of another JDM protagonist looking for love and marriage, Clint Sewell from You Live Once, a novel that was published only a month after “The Magic Valentines” appeared. And the story as well as the protagonist and the setting ring of another famous lovelorn male in a very similar situation. C.C. Baxter in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment, is a single, lonely male working in a huge, soulless insurance office in Manhattan, and he falls in love with girl who is seeing another member of the staff. The two stories take very different tacks, but the feeling of loneliness and unrequited longing are the same. I doubt if Wilder was copying anything in “The Magic Valentines,” though.

MacDonald’s assertion that he never wrote for the love pulps is a true one, at least if the surviving records are to be believed. As Lee Server wrote in his 1993 history Danger is My Business, love pulps were “the only rough-paper category aimed specifically at women,” and they were hugely popular in their day. Every publishing house had a line of love (or romance) titles. Babette Rosemond, an early JDM champion who was editor of both Doc Savage and The Shadow at the time MacDonald was trying to break into the fiction trade, began her pulp career as an editor of love pulps. (Her first novel, The Dewy Dewy Eyes, is a fictional account of her early career.) But when the love pulps died, they died, and their lack of legacy is almost as great as the popularity they once enjoyed. As Server put it:

Although they were enormously popular in their day, when the love pulps eventually disappeared, they left behind no trace of their existence. No great writers or continuing series characters were born in their pages, and it appears likely that no pulp romance story has ever been reprinted anywhere.

One of the most interesting things about the publication of “The Magic Valentines” is not in the story itself, as different as it is, but in the very brief author bio which accompanies it. It states that MacDonald was currently working on a forthcoming book, a “serious historical novel, set in Ceylon,” which was supposed to come out later that year. Of course, no such novel ever appeared and there is no direct reference to it in the Finding Guide to MacDonald’s papers. It joins a short but intriguing list of JDM novels that never were, or that were rejected and mothballed: The Golden Edge, The Blood Game (presumably a novel about the game of golf), the “big book about banking”  that MacDonald spent years on, A Matter of Trust (which may in fact be that banking book), and others (including two Deep Blue Good-By false starts).

“The Magic Valentines” has never been reprinted, but is accessible, like all of MacDonald’s This Week stories, through many newspaper archives throughout the country, assuming that the newspaper in question carried This Week. Many public library systems have access to their local newspapers and card holders can usually access these databases for free (and download images of pages). Or one could buy a membership to Pro Quest, which has many different newspaper archives available.