Monday, October 10, 2016

The Taxpayers' Research Bureau

In 1945 when John D MacDonald decided to take a chance on earning a living as a writer of fiction, he did so using the thinnest of rationales: a four-month severance package from the Army, a single sale of a short story to a fiction magazine, and a lifelong desire to be an author. Returning to his home in Utica, New York in September, he began writing in early October, famously churning out 800,000 words of unsellable stories. His newfound occupation raised the eyebrows of friends and family, who no doubt thought him emotionally damaged from his two and a half years of war overseas (“a readjustment case” was the term MacDonald used), and his inability to sell a second story may have even caused doubts to cross his own mind. But his wife Dorothy believed in him and, five months later in February 1946 he finally received an acceptance letter for that second work and his course in life was set.

Yet at that point in his writing career he had a grand total of $65.00 to show for all of his hard work, and his terminal pay from the Army was coming to an end. The family lived cheaply in a rent-controlled apartment ($23.50 a month) but had run up a $300 credit balance at the local grocers, and it wasn’t as if that second sale had opened up the floodgates to the publishing world. Sales happened, but they were still slow and uncertain, so MacDonald panicked. Here are his own words from The House Guests, the “cat book” that is the closest thing we have to an actual autobiography.

Along in April and May of 1946, though I had begun to sell some stories here and there, they were to pulp magazines, and the money was small. I began to think we might not make it.

I found a job as Executive Director of the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau in Utica. I made that jump  a little too nervously and hastily. I spent every spare moment writing. Through the summer the stories began to sell at a greater rate and to better markets. We paid off our debts and began to build up a little surplus. By autumn I was still stuck with that job, and with an unwritten obligation to keep it for a year. There we were with the funds and mobility to evade the misery of a Utica winter. I resigned on the basis of need to take Dorothy to a warmer climate. It was not entirely a pretext. She could have endured the winter, but she does not take cold well, and it was certain that she would spend a good portion of the winter in poor health. We arranged to go to Taos.

I’ve always wondered: what exactly was the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau and what did JDM do for them? MacDonald was obviously hired based on his Harvard MBA and experience in military procurement, and his rank on leaving the Army (lieutenant colonel) probably didn’t hurt. A bit of research into this period of MacDonald’s life paints a somewhat more interesting picture than that of the author sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day, scheming of ways he could quit.

One could be forgiven for thinking -- based on its title -- that the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau was a part of the municipal government of Utica, but that was not the case. Founded in October 1934, the Bureau was a joint creation of the the Chamber of Commerce and the Oneida County Taxpayers’ League, and its mission was to “conduct studies of local and county governmental operations, with the view of bringing about a reduction in costs without loss of service.” And although the Bureau was funded by these two founding entities, it operated with total autonomy, consisting of a president, vice president, secretary and treasure and, initially, a hired expert on governmental matters as a director. As was reported at the time, the intention was to “fill a long-felt want in the impartial and independent study of local governments and [to supply] taxpayers and others with correct data regarding local public affairs.” Its offices were housed in the Chamber of Commerce building, located on Elizabeth Street, just east of Genesee.

Both Utica newspapers of the period carried the story of MacDonald’s hiring, revealing that it occurred earlier that he remembered in The House Guests. The March 22 edition of the Utica Daily Press carried the following article, complete with bio and a photo of a very young-looking JDM:

Appointment of John D MacDonald, 1109 State [Street], as executive secretary of the Taxpayers Research Bureau, was announced yesterday by Richard E Hatfield, chairman of the board of directors. He succeeds Floyd W Fenner, who resigned several months ago to devote his time to his business interests.

MacDonald, son of E A MacDonald, 9 Beverly [Place], vice president of Savage Arms Corporation, was discharged from the Army in January with the rank of lieutenant colonel after more than five years of service.

He was called up as a reserve officer in 1940.

After two and a half years of industrial procurement work of the Rochester Ordnance District he was sent to the China-Burma-India theater, where he remained until late last year.

From August 1944 to July 1945 Colonel MacDonald served in the CBI theater with operatives from Colonel Donovan's Office of Strategic Services that gathered information behind enemy lines for the combined chiefs of staff.

Born in Sharon, PA, MacDonald attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years, then entered Syracuse University where he received a bachelor of science degree from the College of Business Administration in 1937. He then entered the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration where he received a master's' degree in business administration in 1938.

Prior to entering the Army, he was employed in Syracuse and Northern New York by the Commercial Investment Trust Company, Inc. His wife is the former Dorothy Prentiss of Poland. They have one son.

As Executive Secretary of the Research Bureau it will be MacDonald's job to obtain factual data about city and county government operations, analyze and present it to the bureau directors for public distribution. A monthly bulletin is being planned to distribute this information among members and other interested persons.

Offices of the bureau, formerly located on the second floor of the Chamber of Commerce Building, are now on the first floor in the section formerly occupied by the Industrial Association of Utica.

Note how MacDonald fudged his résumé to account for the missing months of 1945, claiming that his discharge took place in January 1946 rather than September 1945. Also left unsaid was the fact that his employment with the Commercial Investment Trust Company ended with him getting fired. Not something anyone ever puts on a resume, to be sure.

So, what did he do all day? He obviously worked at his job, however much he surely hated having to do it, and it must have become more and more onerous as the short stories started selling and the checks rolled in. A few weeks after MacDonald passed away in 1986 a letter to the editor was published in the January 4, 1987 edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch, written by one Mason C Taylor, a lifelong resident of the city. Taylor was a reporter for the Daily Press at the time MacDonald served on the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau, and his recollections are both interesting and amusing.

John D MacDonald, the award-winning mystery writer who died last Sunday in Milwaukee, began his professional writing career in the old Chamber of Commerce building that was on Elizabeth Street just east of Grace Church.

He had returned after World War II to Utica where his father was works manager at the Savage Arms Company (where Charlestown is now located) and had taken a temporary job as director of the Municipal Research Bureau, a Chamber of Commerce subsidiary.

I was then City Hall reporter for the Daily Press and the Chamber of Commerce was part of my beat and I called there every afternoon. I remember stopping in John's office one afternoon to find him hard at work on a yellow legal pad at a desk cluttered with pulp magazines. He told me he had decided to try his hand at fiction writing and was developing a formula.

He had served in the Burma theater with the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA. Due to security he was unable to tell his wife about his work, but when the war ended, he said, he wrote her a long letter telling about some of his experiences.

From his letter his wife concocted a story, he told me, which, as I recall, she sold to Short Story Magazine.

John's research bureau duties were not arduous and he had plenty of time to develop his formula. He did that by determining the mean percentage of action, dialogue, description, characters in the best of those pulp magazine stories.

Using that formula, he sold his very first story to Street & Smith's detective magazine, as I recall. He sold several more during the several months he was at the research bureau. He later refined his formula to become one of the nation's foremost mystery writers, chiefly for his Travis McGee series.He was very personable, good company and I always intended to renew our friendship when he summered at Piseco Lake, It turned out to be one of those things you always plan to do but never get around to, until it is too late.

This recollection was written 40 years after it happened, so Taylor can be forgiven for his many inaccuracies -- at least for the ones we can document. And who is to say that the picture of an ex-Army officer trying to puzzle out the form of the successful pulp story wasn’t the one MacDonald himself was trying to put up for Taylor and everyone else outside of his immediate family? For just as he had fudged the timing of his discharge, so too was it likely that he wasn’t very proud of having papered the walls of his home office with rejection slips after four months of grueling work and wouldn’t have wanted others to know about it. Still, the image of JDM working on a story formula behind a stack of pulp magazines while being paid to do something else is a bit of a departure from the standard image one has of the author.

MacDonald’s recollection of his ultimate departure from his position at the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau is also at odds with historical records. He stated that “By autumn I was still stuck with that job, and with an unwritten obligation to keep it for a year.” This implies that he stuck with the job until late September or early October before resigning, but that was not the case. His resignation made the local papers, and it was reported in the June 2nd issue of the Observer Dispatch:

John D MacDonald, 1109 State, executive secretary of the Taxpayers' Research Bureau since the first of the year, announced his resignation yesterday because of illness in his family.

MacDonald said the resignation would be effective this fall when it was believed a man trained in statistical research could be obtained to replace him.

During his term as secretary, MacDonald said he has obtained factual data about city and county government operations which he is in the process of analysing for presentation to the bureau's executive board, headed by Richard E Hatfield. Before he relinquishes his position he plans to make a series of reports on various phases of both city and county government.

MacDonald came to his present position early this year after more than five years service with the Army. He was discharged in January with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He had spent two and a half years in industrial procurement work for the Rochester Ordnance District and then served in the China-Burma-India theater, where he remained until last year.

A native of Sharon, Pa., he attended the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, and Harvard School of Business Administration.

Before entering the Army, Colonel MacDonald was employed in Syracuse and Northern New York by the Commercial Investment Trust Company, Inc. His wife is the former Dorothy Prentiss of Poland. They have one son.

Note how this account repeats the assertion that MacDonald was discharged in January, when this very same newspaper had reported the event in an October issue from the previous year. And, if this report is to be believed, MacDonald asserted that there was an “illness” in the family: a bit more definitive than a “pretext”.  And the dating of this report draws a specific timeline for MacDonald’s last-ever salaried job: he lasted two whole months before deciding to resign, although he agreed to stay on until the fall.

Babette Rosmond
A review of MacDonald’s publishing history for 1946 is revealing, showing just how precarious his financial condition must have been. Had it not been for Babette Rosmond, the editor of Doc Savage and The Shadow, and who was the first person in the publishing world to show real interest in developing MacDonald’s obvious talents, he may have had to put in his full year with the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau.

  • January: one story published, no payment.
  • February: one story published, no payment.
  • March: no stories published.
  • April: no stories published.
  • May: one story published (Detective Tales)
  • June: two stories published (Doc Savage, Short Stories)
  • July: three stories published (Dime Mystery, Short Stories, Story: "Interlude in India, his first sale, for which he had already been paid.)
  • August: one story published (Doc Savage)
  • September: one story published (The Shadow)
  • October: three stories published (Dime Detective, Mammoth Mystery, Doc Savage)
  • November: five stories published (Doc Savage (3), The Shadow, Short Stories)
  • December: five stories published (The Shadow (3), Doc Savage, Esquire)

MacDonald’s short stint with the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau accomplished its mission, providing funds to get the struggling writer out of debt and on his way to earning a living doing what he wanted to do. It also provided him experience in the workings of municipal government, which eventually became fodder for his fiction. A corrupt city government provided the background for his 1947 short story “Oh, Give Me a Hearse!” written about a year after his resignation. In 1951 the management of the city of Deron (probably a stand-in for Utica or Syracuse) is put under the care of a city manager in his novel Judge Me Not, and the protagonist, Teed Morrow, actually has employment by a taxpayers’ research bureau on his résumé. Even as late as 1982 MacDonald still displayed an interest and precient knowledge of the nuts and bolts of municipal government, especially those of the counties and cities in the rust belt, when he has Meyer pontificate on the subject in Cinnamon Skin.

He and Travis have travelled to Utica seeking the sister of Cody Pittler and they spend their first evening there enjoying dinner at a restaurant called Grimaldi’s, which, incidentally, was a real place, a longtime Utica landmark located a few blocks from the chamber of commerce building where MacDonald worked. (It closed in 2012.). Travis takes note of a large group of local government types at the bar.

I looked around at the patrons of the restaurant and the bar. Politicos, many of them
young. Lawyers and elected officials and appointees. Some with their wives or girls. It looked to
me as if a lot of the city and county business might be transacted right here. They had a lot of
energy, these Italianate young men, a feverish gregariousness. I wondered aloud why they
seemed so frantic about having a good time.

Meyer studied the question and finally said, "It's energy without a productive outlet, I
think. Most of these Mohawk Valley cities are dying, have been for years: Albany, Troy,
Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse, Rome. And so they made an industry out of government. State
office buildings in the decaying downtowns. A proliferation of committees, surveys, advisory
boards, commissions, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, road departments, health care groups… thousands upon thousands of people making a reasonably good living working for city, county, state, and federal governments in these dwindling cities, passing the same tax dollars back and forth. I think that man, by instinct, is productive. He wants to make something, a stone ax, a bigger cave, better arrows, whatever. But these bright and energetic men know in their hearts they are not making anything. They use every connection, every contact, every device, to stay within reach of public monies. Working within an abstraction is just not a totally honorable way of life. Hence the air of jumpy joy, the backslaps ringing too loudly, compliments too extravagant, toasts too ornate, marriages too brief, lawsuits too long-drawn, obligatory forms too complex and too long. Their city has gone stale, and as the light wanes, they dance."

Wonderful writing and amazing understanding, given birth in a long-ago time in the author’s life.

3 comments:

  1. That was wonderful Steve. It's amazing that you can dig up that historical information that sheds light on his later writing. Thanks for your work.

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  2. Great post, Steve. The line that intrigued me was this one from Mason Taylor, writing about his recollection of MacDonald's earlier days: "He told me he had decided to try his hand at fiction writing and was developing a formula."

    Did JDM ever talk or write about any "formula" that he developed and used? Perhaps you've written about it previously, and if so I apologize. To think that JDM would tell someone about "the mean percentage of action, dialogue..." in developing stories is surprising, and I surmise he was either pulling Taylor's leg or allowing his youthful enthusiasm over his new career path to spill out in a way that wouldn't have happened as a more seasoned and successful writer. What do you think?

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    1. I've never read of MacDonald using any kind of "formula" in his writing, so I tend to doubt this story. Still, consider that the would-be author had just spent half a year or more writing 14 hours a day, seven days a week with almost nothing to show for it, so perhaps at this early point in his career he felt he needed to crack some kind of code to put a sellable story together.

      My other theory is that Taylor walked in on MacDonald when he should have been working at his Tax Bureau job and JDM was blowing smoke to cover his embarrassment.

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