Monday, March 12, 2018

Author's Wife Gets All the Credit

Dorothy Prentiss MacDonald was the unsung heroine of the John D MacDonald story.

No matter how much he praised her in interviews, how many times he repeated his origin story -- Dorothy independently typing and submitting his letter/story to a magazine, -- or how much he used her as his femme idéale in his fiction, it was never enough to properly put into words her importance to him as a writer. Coming from an artistic family, it was Dorothy who recognized and encouraged John’s need to write, to express himself, to leave behind the world of finance and military procurement that he hated so much. And, perhaps most importantly, she was willing to bet it all -- her prosperity, her middle-class comforts, her family stability -- on the chance that her husband might actually have talent. And she supported him in that decision for their entire married life.

As a John D MacDonald fan for most of my adult life, I’ve always thought that Dorothy would have been a wonderful subject for a biography, seeing the life of a writer from her perspective. (She certainly had a more interesting life than John before she met him, which you can read about here.) And of the hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles written about JDM over the years, the ones that prominently feature Dorothy can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

One of them was printed in the October 8, 1957 edition of the Tampa Morning Tribune. It is transcribed in its entirety below. It reinforces something I wrote on this blog over seven years ago: “... the single most important person in the life and work of the author was his wife. Without Dorothy MacDonald there would have been no John D MacDonald…”

Author's Wife Gets All the Credit

by Joann Scheb

Sarasota, Oct 7 [1957] - An author once dedicated his book "to my wife -- without whose absence it might never have been written."

Not so with John D MacDonald, who is widely proclaimed as one of the most prolific mystery and suspense story-tellers of our time. A MacDonald dedication for any one of his 33 books might well go "to my wife -- without whose fortitude and faith I might never have become a writer."

It was during World War II, when John was bored with Army life in India and frustrated because the British were unscrupulously censoring his letters to his wife that he wrote his first short story, simply for his own amusement and hers. Dorothy liked it, re-typed it in manuscript form and sent it to a top slick magazine, hoping for the best but really expecting a printed rejection slip.

Instead, she received a very nice personal letter, saying that they liked the story but recently had published a similar one, and did her husband have anything else? She didn't know. John had been moved, and it was six months before she heard from him again.

Meantime, she sent the story out again -- this time to a lesser magazine, and this time she received a check. It was for $25, but it was a check. It was enough to give them the courage to cancel all business appointments which had been made for John D MacDonald, graduate of Harvard Business School. It was enough to make them gamble Lt Col MacDonald's four months accumulated leave while he tried his luck with the typewriter.

He wrote madly for four months, turning out millions of words that were destined to be rejected. Dorothy, an art school graduate, turned her talents to painting the furniture. At the end of his four months, he was just beginning to sell to a pulp magazine. Since pulps don't always pay a lot, he got a small job. Dorothy taught painting and he still spent part of his time at the typewriter.

Before long, he was selling enough to support his wife and son, so he gave up the job in Utica, NY, and they moved to Texas.

Since then, John D MacDonald has turned out 28 paper-backs, two hard-cover science-fictions, two hard-cover novels (with a third in the process of publication now) so many short stories and novelettes for magazines that he has stopped counting, and several television shows. Three of the books have been sold to the movies, and two others are under consideration.

Needless to say, Dorothy MacDonald no longer paints the kitchen furniture. With their son, John P (Johnny) away at Rollins College, she has returned to her art. She has had pictures shown throughout the country and had a one-man show here last Winter, proving that she is not a Sunday painter, but serious about her work. She likes abstract and semi-abstract derived from nature.

Now that her husband has been a professional writer for more than 10 years, Mrs. MacDonald, like the wife "without whose absence," feels that her main contribution to John's work is in knowing when not to talk. He works, roughly from 10 until 5 o'clock each day, except Sunday. His study is a small upstairs room which they laughingly call his Ivory Tower, in their pleasantly unpretentious Point o' Rocks home. "When he comes down for lunch and I see he's still up there mentally," she says, "I know it's not the time for small talk."

He never discussed his plot problems with her, and she never asks. Occasionally, she reads proof, but never the manuscript. He does his own typing because he writes as well as he can the first time, and the script usually comes out of the typewriter ready for his agent.

She packs the bags when he decides he's in a rut and needs a change of environment, and she goes with him to Mexico or Texas or back to New York for a few weeks or months, but they always come back. They came to Sarasota about six years ago, and they consider it their permanent home.

Dorothy MacDonald did her bit for her successful husband's career when she sent that first manuscript away. Now she is doing her bit by staying out of his career. Yet John D MacDonald might well have been a name on an office door instead of on the cover of books if it hadn't been for her.

7 comments:

  1. Steve,
    Do you know if the college mentioned where John P. went to school is Rollins College of Winter Park, Fl?

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    1. JDM's biographer wrote that it was in Orlando, so I guess that's close enough to be the one.

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  2. Yes,that's the one. it's literally on the city limits boundary. My family lived in Winter Park near the college 1955 to 1960. Amazing details I find from reading your blog. Great way to start the week!

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  3. Another nice find, Steve. It's interesting--while I continue to hope (less and less hopefully, as it were) for BLOODHSOT RAINBOW to appear, I am increasingly convinced that the truest MacDonald biography is to be found here, on and throughout your site. Thanks as always for all the meticulous research and labor.

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  4. I second that motion. This is the best place to find all material and information about JDM. The Facebook group, "The Busted Flush" is also a lot of fun with a lot of participants.

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  5. Steve: I hadn't read the three 2010 blog posts about Dorothy before, and they're fascinating. Thanks for including the link. It must have been very interesting research for you, and it's fun to imagine such a story line being fashioned by MacDonald himself. You wonder if he ever asked his wife about the details or if she shared them at some point; perhaps she didn't know herself the extent of the crime, and perhaps was never really interested in it. She seems to have moved on and never looked back, and men generally don't have much interest in the travails of their spouses' earlier relationships, as interesting as this was. Thanks again, as I really enjoyed reading that background material on Dorothy. You must have spent a fair amount of time pulling all of that together, and your readers certainly appreciate it.

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    1. Thanks Steve. Yes, that was a lot of fun to research and write. I would imagine that both John and Dorothy followed the case as it unwound... it was reported in many of the local New York papers.

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