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.)


  1. It's quite unbelievable that something with so many errors would be published. What a shame.

    Do you know if that is true about JDM not being able to swim? There are photos of him at the wheel of Munequita so that bit about not being able to "captain" a boat doesn't seem to be accurate either. Sigh...

    1. I've assumed it to be true that he couldn't swim, but I don't think I've ever read MacDonald himself state that.

  2. Thanks for showing us this highly interesting article that proves once again that we have to make sure of our facts. For Warner to do this piece as a profile and a friend and then get MacDonald's name wrong is inexcusable.

    1. Agreed, Walker, but an editor has got to be good for SOMETHING!

  3. Interesting article. At the bookstore where I work, we've gotten in 2 sizable JDM buys the last month or so. It's all on the shelf, even a copy of Two (!) and no one's bit. All the anniversary attention on Ross Macdonald doesn't move the Lew Archer stuff either. Chandler and Hammett don't sell so well anymore either...I can't be pissed at how well someone like Lee Child does in comparison. Child goes out of his way to trumpet JDM's influence on his own work. Even seen interviews where Child rolls out JDM trivia...As always, thanks for the post.