Monday, May 2, 2016

The Look of Travis McGee

Once John D MacDonald made the decision to create the series character Travis McGee he wrote three versions of the first novel before coming up with a person he could “live with.” He sent the book off to his editor at Fawcett Gold Medal, Knox Burger, with the request to hold off publishing it until he could come up with some additional adventures, and once he had three done the go-ahead was given to begin publishing. Then began the editorial preparations for publication, including cover art.

In what seems like an unusual move, Burger chose to have the early covers illustrated by two different artists: one for the main cover and one for an inset of a portrait of McGee himself. Why this was done is anybody’s guess at this point, although I’m sure there is evidence among the MacDonald papers at the University of Florida. Perhaps a clue can be found in the particular artists Burger chose to do these covers, Ron Lesser and, for the likeness of McGee, John McDermott.

Both had done work for Gold Medal up to that point in late 1963, but McDermott was responsible for doing the covers of another crime series, Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. Beginning with the sixth entry in the series, The Ambushers, published in 1963, McDermott took over the cover duties and began adding an inset depiction of Helm. When Fawcett began reprinting earlier titles they had McDermott create new illustrations along with his version of Helm. This was right around the time that MacDonald was submitting his manuscripts of the McGee novels, and I guess Burger thought it a good idea to have McDermott do the same for McGee. Why he chose Lesser to do the covers proper -- always a beautiful girl in some unusual pose -- and not McDermott is not known. Perhaps he didn’t want the two series to become confused in the minds of his customers.

MacDonald was closely involved in the process, and perhaps it was he who had some input into the two-artist decision, although it seems improbable that even an author with MacDonald’s reputation could have had this kind of decision-making power. Nevertheless, he did do his best to make sure the illustration of McGee was in keeping with the picture in his own mind. As evidence, here is a portion of a letter from MacDonald to Burger outlining how the author wanted his new character to be seen. It was written in September 1963, and in places it almost seems as if MacDonald had seen McDermott’s Matt Helm portrait and was giving instructions on how to avoid having it looking similar.

A head that has to belong to a big man. This is done, I suspect, by scale of the ears and eyes… I did not mean to imply light hair. And when I refer to wire hair, I do not mean kinky. I mean the kind of hair that does not respond well to a brush cut. It is short, brown, lays in whorls and mats adhering to heavy skull structure. Eyes very pale gray. This means that he can be given an extraordinarily deep tan… Heavy shelf of brow. Nose straight, slightly disarranged at bridge but not flattened. Wide broad level mouth, but with a long curve of jaw line rather than squared off. No goddam cleft or dimple. This man is no kid. A half block away the face will look more youthful than up close. Plenty of hair in the brows, and it can be sun-touched a half shade lighter than the skin. But the hair should be a no-color, with tendency toward widow’s peak… The expression will be important. Somber, brooding, but slightly quizzical. Instead of trying for it in a flat light, I would like to see strong dramatic side-lighting from below on one side, and fill-in faintly from high on the other, so that immediate impression is of those pale eyes looking out of shadowy strength, sort of lighted from within.

I’ve always thought that McDermott did a terrific job, and this is the McGee I always see in my own mind’s eye when reading the books.

1 comment:

  1. A lot of people have their own image of McGee and it probably depends to a large extent on the picture on the cover of the first MacDonald you read. I know my image of McGee is the same as his picture on the front cover of the Gold Medal edition of "The Dreadful Lemon Sky" - the one with the boat blowing up in the background and the woman in the long dress sitting in a chair superimposed on McGee's neck. Here it is on the web:

    My McGee is a youngish, blow-dried McGee who certainly doesn't correspond to MacDonald's description.

    As an interesting aside, I remember attending the next to last Sarasota MacDonald conference in 1996, I believe, and someone had the bright idea to bring in a Travis McGee impersonator who put on an hour long performance along the lines of "Mark Twain Tonight" for the attendees. He knew his stuff and talked at length about the Busted Flush, Meyer, and some of his adventures, all the time pretending that he was "McGee" in the flesh. Apparently he did it as a hobby and went around to grade schools and high schools and performed for kids quite frequently to encourage them to read and discover a Florida hero.

    But the reaction from the crowd to see a pretender who was not "their McGee" was plainly visible in the audience. People were upset. Remember this was an audience of Travis McGee fanatics and every one of them already had their own image of McGee and this guy was not it. It was sacrilege. People got up and walked out of the performance and 90% of those who stayed were visibly perturbed. I guess it just goes to show "Don't mess with people's mental images of a fictional character."

    Best Regards,

    Hugh Pickens