Monday, April 15, 2019

Zeiser's

John D MacDonald was so associated with the state of Florida that the casual reader of his fiction could be forgiven for believing that he and his family had always lived there. MacDonald was born in Pennsylvania and spent his first ten years there before his father moved the family to upstate New York, where he (John) would spend the next 23 years (minus three years overseas during the war). It wasn’t until 1949, when JDM was 33 years old, that he, Dorothy and Johnny moved to Florida permanently. And by then the three of them had deep roots in the Empire State.

The MacDonalds never really left New York. In 1944 John had sent wife Dorothy some poker winnings from Ceylon and she used the funds to purchase a lot on the southwestern shore of Piseco Lake, located in Hamilton County in the Adirondack Mountains. Dorothy knew the lake well: her father Roy had purchased a cabin there when she was young, which they called Wahnahoo, and she spent most of her summers there as a youth. When John returned from the war in 1945 and decided on a career in fiction, finances were tight and there was no money to develop the lot. It remained empty until 1950, when the MacDonalds designed a cabin (they called it a “camp”) and began construction. As the family was now living in Florida, the work was supervised by JDM’s brother-in-law Sam Prentiss, who lived in Albany. Beginning the following year they would follow an annual pattern of spending the summer at the camp and the rest of the year in Sarasota, a practice they continued -- with the exception of a seven year period from 1963 to 1970 -- every year of their lives.

Despite its remote location, the Piseco camp wasn’t all that removed from civilization. There was a small store and post office located a mile and a half away, and the town of Speculator was a 16 mile drive up Route 8. The MacDonalds made frequent trips to Speculator while living at the camp, for “serious grocery shopping” and to enjoy eating out at a restaurant and inn called Zeiser’s. The establishment was a great favorite of the family: they had their own table and were good friends with the owners, John And Genevieve Zeiser. Back in 2016 I posted a transcription of a newspaper article published in the local Hamilton County News following the death of John, where this strong relationship was clearly evidenced.

In 1980 Barbara Crossette, a travel writer for the New York Times, published a guide to America’s Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns (in fact that was the title of the book). It was a collection of over 300 individual pieces on various off-the-beaten-track establishments throughout the country, written by various travelers that included “doctors, authors, lawyers, musicians, people who travel on business, a couple of Jungian analysts in their seventies, two United States senators, two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, the director of a film institute, distinguished professors, local historians -- and many people who did not identify themselves…” John D MacDonald was one of those authors, and his entry described Zeiser’s. Here is a transcription of his piece.

"I really believe you should include Zeiser's in Speculator, New York. It is owned and operated by John and Genevieve Zeiser (and Ludwig, the cat). The operation is housed in what used to be the Annex of the Sturges House, which was built in 1858 by David Sturges, back when the crossroads near the hotel was called Newton's Corners. The Zeisers have been in business here for twenty-three years. There is an attractive bar, lunch areas-including a long screened porch in season-and a handsome formal dining room, with lighting, napery, silverware and table settings beyond reproach. Every part of the operation is spotlessly clean. There is no American plan. You are expected to find your breakfast elsewhere in the village. There is no room service for drinks or food. The food is excellent, tending toward the German. The wine cellar is heavy on good Moselles. Mr. Z, a tidy and formal man, reigns at the bar. His no-nonsense attitude has given the bar the flavor of a good, small private club. Service is swift and courteous, and one would go a long, long way to find a better dry martini. Or more civilized conversation at a bar. Mr. Z is a host!

"Speculator, incidentally, is in Hamilton County, which is in the middle of the Adirondack Park Preserve and is the most sparsely settled county in New York State. It is reputed to have more black bears than people. The crossroads a couple of hundred feet from Zeiser's is the intersection of Route 8, which begins way down at Deposit, N.Y., on the Pennsylvania border and ends at Hague, N.Y., on the northwest shore of Lake George, and Route 30 which begins, or ends, down at Harvard and Shinhopple, N.Y., near the Pennsylvania border, and ends, or begins, at Trout River on the Quebec border.

“Lest this sound too obscure, let me say that Zeiser's is 42 miles from Gloversville, 61 from Utica, 75 from Schenectady, 90 from Albany, 94 from Troy and 109 from Syracuse. The most handsome way of driving up to Speculator is to exit the Thruway at exit 29, Canajoharie, and drive north on Route 10 to Route 8, and turn right on 8 to Speculator, twelve miles farther. The last seventeen miles of Route 10, before it intersects Route 8, is known locally as the Arietta Road. When it was repaved a few years ago, the Park Authority did not consent to the usual ‘straightening.' So there are sixty-five curves in those hilly miles, beautifully graded, a feast in autumn, but special at any time of year. Speculator is lakes and camping in summer, hunting in the fall, skiing in the winter.

“Room reservations are a must, and dinner reservations almost as necessary. This past year, the Zeisers had a Bavarian festival with tent, music, fantastic German food, superb beer on draft and the best zither player I have ever heard anywhere, an engaging chap named Toni Noichl.”
---John D. MacDonald

Open all year.
6 rooms, all with private bath.
Rates $9.50 single, $18.50 double.
Credit cards: American Express. Bar.
German spoken.


I’m not sure if Zeiser’s is still open for business. There are online reviews from as recently as 2018 and apparently Genevieve was still alive and running the place (John passed away), but some of the reviews seem to indicate a business on its last legs. They used to have a JDM display in the front lobby. I wonder if it is still there...


Monday, April 8, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 18: February 19, 1948

Another edition of John D MacDonald's 1947-1948 Clinton Courier newspaper column.

Box-Pleated Language Overlaid with Tulle:

Ever since we read Gibbon's Decline and Fall we've kept an uneasy eye on New York City for signs of mad decadence.

In a spirit of pure research, we have been dipping into the current issue of Vogue. The only trouble with criticizing such a periodical is that you are somehow placed in the position of a coarse character of the "dese, dem and doze" type.

Those people frighten us. Since they are the spear-laden phalanx of the "new look," the "thirteen inches from the floor" type of person, we have been looking furtively into the magazine.

One ad says, "For your grand manner, gentle lines, eloquently underscored, reach their crescendo in a skirt!" How about that? Slip into your crescendo, lady.

Happily they tell us, "Yours is a fragile, delicate beauty." How did they know? And they try to sell us a "butcher type rayon." We wonder if that's a weave designed to wrap meat. We are told to "follow spring around the corner on happy, dancing feet." In Clinton those happy dancing feet would freeze solid going around the corner.

Did you know that "fashion dictates veiled loveliness for Spring"? We assume that if you're minus the loveliness, you merely select a slightly heavier veil.

Editorially the magazine says, "There is more than one way of dressing; one method may be as good as another, always provided it is a method." That's pretty profound, you know. Our method has always been to get the clothes on as quickly as possible.

They admire a debutante of the current season, because she believes "that day clothes must be purisms, very casual, very simple." Our self confidence is vastly improved, as nothing could be more casual or more simple than this wool shirt and G.I. pants we wear during the day. But from now on, we call the shirt and pants "purisms".

One ad says, "Picture sheep grazing on a sunny slope. That's the beginning of this important fashion story." With their curly locks hanging thirteen inches from the ground, we assume. Can't say we'd approve of the silhouette.

Did you know that there is a new fashion for smoky, grey taffeta after five? That pink lipstick belongs in any wardrobe involving grey? That a little-bistro evening with red-checkered table cloths demands violent debates, gentle reminiscences, and artistic flights of fancy, and that bird-brain chatter simply falls to the sawdust and gets lost?

Next time we find ourselves in such a little bistro, we'll check on the feminine customers and see if all of them are restraining their bird-brain chatter, keeping the crumbs off their smoky grey taffeta, gooing up with the pink lipstick, smoothing the wrinkles out of their crescendos, scuffing their happy, dancing feet in the sawdust, and wearing their fragile, delicate beauty with the proper grand manner.

Free Stuff:

The other night our favorite radio comedian, Abe Burrows, was talking about the welter of modern songs which talk about all kinds of things being free. Birds and moons and June and love and wind in the willows and such. Abe says, "You ever stop to think that in that whole list of free stuff there isn't one thing you can put in a sandwich?"

Accordiana:

Had you listened Sunday night you would have heard Dick Cantino win again, provided you could have stomached hearing the name of a cigarette mentioned exactly thirty-seven times. We counted.

Who Made That Goal?

Ed Stanley says that there are only about a half dozen more games scheduled for the Clinton Hockey Club this year. Thus it is a little late for us to be starting this program. At least we'll mention it and get your reaction.

The games in the college rink -- both the CHC games and the college games -- would be a great deal more enjoyable for all spectators if there were an adequate Public Address System. Goals and penalties could be properly announced, as well as substitutions.

An adequate Public Address System would cost in the neighborhood of eight hundred dollars. It is apparently up to the citizens of Clinton who enjoy the games to get this idea rolling. If you show that you are interested we will set up a committee to rake in the voluntary contributions -- with representatives from the faculty and student body of the college, as well as the town. One buck apiece from 800 ardent hockey fans will make all games in the college rink next year more enjoyable. What do you say?

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, April 1, 2019

JDM in the SEP

Back in March of 2016 I wrote a piece on John D MacDonald’s 1961 Saturday Evening Post short story “Kitten on a Trampoline.” This work of fiction was MacDonald’s first to appear in the Post, and it’s interesting to ponder why it took so long for this most popular of general interest magazines to publish the author. Perhaps it was because JDM had such a good relationship with another popular periodical of the time, Cosmopolitan (in its pre-Helen Gurley Brown era), which had a long tradition of focusing on fiction. His work appeared in Cosmopolitan 36 times, the most of any other non-pulp publication. Beginning with “Kitten on a Trampoline,” MacDonald would go on to write a total of five stories for the SEP, including “Funny Man,” which would be included in JDM’s 1966 anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories under the author’s original title, “Afternoon of the Hero,” and 1961’s “Sing a Song of Terror,” which was later reworked as the opening chapter of the 1970 Travis McGee novel The Long Lavender Look.

When I wrote the piece on “Kitten” I neglected to look through the entire magazine, which I did recently, only to discover a brief entry on MacDonald in the SEP’s “Keeping Posted” section. It contains a photo of MacDonald I have never seen before, the author without his signature glasses. He looks kind of like a deer in the headlights.


I went through the rest of my Saturday Evening Post collection and found one other photo of MacDonald, included in the same magazine that featured his short story “The Obvious Woman” (which I haven’t written about yet). It has another glasses-less photo of JDM, this time looking much more at ease. I include them here for your enjoyment.

The entire run of The Saturday Evening Post has been digitized and archived, and is available for viewing for $15 a year, for those of you interested in reading the JDM stories listed below. You can sign up for the archive (including a current subscription) by clicking here. (I'm not a subscriber -- I include this only for readers who might want access to the stories.)

John D MacDonald stories published in The Saturday Evening Post:

April 8, 1961 “Kitten on a Trampoline”
September 9, 1961 “Sing a Song of Terror”
September 16, 1961 “Hit and Run” (one of two JDM stories bearing this title)
March 30, 1963 “The Obvious Woman”
May 21, 1966 “Funny Man”

Monday, March 25, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 17: February 12, 1948

This next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-48 newspaper column for the Clinton Courier was written in the teeth of a typically brutal upstate New York winter. It is full of fascinating biographical tidbits -- fascinating, that is, if your are fascinated by JDM’s biography.

Here we learn that one of his favorite books of the season was Ross Lockridge’s huge novel Raintree County, a work never mentioned in later years when the author listed his favorite books. The novel was filmed nine years later and featured, in a supporting role, Rod Taylor, who -- of course -- would go on to inhabit the only big screen incarnation of MacDonald’s Travis McGee.

We also learn that JDM had a literary agent, a female named Marian, who evidently supplanted the “joker” he had initially hired and complained about to editor Babette Rosmond in 1946. “Marian” would herself be supplanted by Cap Shaw, former editor of Black Mask Magazine, although I’ve never been able to discover when that coupling took place.

Finally, there is an interesting bit on the MacDonald’s offspring, Johnny, who later renamed himself Maynard, and who, when young, was nicknamed Pen -- short for pencil. John writes about his son’s nascent artistic ability, somewhat humorously, but with obvious pride. “Pen” was no doubt encouraged and instructed by his artist mother Dorothy. As of this writing he was two months shy of his ninth birthday.

Finally, there is a beautiful coda, another reverie recalling the family’s winter of 1946-47’s stay in Ingram, Texas, a time which obviously made a huge impact on them all. MacDonald mentioned it often in his column, recalled it in The House Guests, and used it as setting in more than one work of fiction.


Mystery:

Having recently finished Ross Lockridge's Raintree County and being very firm in our belief that it is the best novel we have read in five years we were interested in finding out the general reaction to it. Not the critic's reaction.

In Utica, we talked to a lady who handles the loan library for one of the stores. She told us that the first three people who took Raintree County out returned it unread, had given up somewhere along the line.

If it had no suspense, we could understand. If it was all conversation and no action, we could understand.

Maybe the size -- one thousand something pages -- scared them off. When a book is good, we like it to be long.

* * *

Our Friend, the Martian:

He went to the hockey game as we suggested. Apparently nobody noticed him. He looks a good deal like people. At the present time he has gotten himself up as a middle-aged, middle-sized man in a grey overcoat.

We reproduce his report in its entirety:

"Local creatures divide themselves into two groups and conduct mimic warfare on a slippery substance. They carry clubs with which they attempt to kill one another, seldom succeeding. They wear knives strapped to their feet, thus causing them to fall quite often and to run into the wall surrounding the slippery area. The players are surprisingly durable. During this period of warfare, a surprising thing happens. Every few minutes one creature who wears Number 25 hurries down the ice and propels a black wafer into a net. The others apparently watch him do this thing and are powerless to stop him. I do not understand all this. I do not even know why I like it. The creatures who do not play merely sit, shiver and make warlike shouts."

* * *

New Trend in Decorating:

The other day a letter came from our agent in New York and, instead of containing the usual disparaging comments about the deathless prose we have sent her, this letter said that her client, Jesse Stuart, had sent her a picture as drawn by his five-year old daughter. She liked it and decided that it would be nice to decorate her apartment with framed masterworks by the children of all her clients.

The request should have come a year ago. Before the Era of the Horse. Our offspring cannot pick up a pencil nowadays without turning any nearby hunk of paper into a quivering memorial to the Spirit of the Hoss.

We transmitted Marian's request to him and he went into a trance, returning some time later with a profile picture of a horse's head, complaining that the paper wasn't large enough or he would have made it life size. He wondered if we could find him a piece of paper big enough so that he could draw the entire horse, life size. In the picture he considered unsatisfactory, there was a balloon, a la comic strip, coming out of the horse's mouth with the cabalistic sound, "Wheeee". A very happy and contented hoss.

These horses of his have a wild look and teeth. The also seem peculiarly absorbed in the problem of trying to kick themselves in the head.

Next door is a fine friendly horse named Blue Genius. Pen's drawings lack Blue's placidity.

They also lack background. Some time back he did fine pictures in which there were houses, smoke, hillsides and blue mountains in the distance. We reminded him of those old happy days before the hoss. His second attempt had a background. A horse in the foreground and a background composed of horses.

He is anxious to please the agent -- almost as anxious as we are -- and he doubtless considers her to be a woman of intelligence who wants nothing better than a picture of one of his happy horses. If we should try to tell him that maybe she doesn't want a full face or profile of a trusty steed, he will lose all respect for her.

* * *

Winter Scene:

This morning, in the Hill Country of Texas, the doves were sitting in the live oaks, hooting at the dawn. The sun came up bright and hot, and the hills were misted with the grey-blue smoke of burning cedar. When the wind died, you could hear the faroff silver of the bells on the lead goats. In town cafe doors were open, the juke boxes filling the street with the nasal whine of the music of the plains.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Hero for Our Time

When John D MacDonald passed away on December 28, 1986, all but eleven of his 77 books -- novels, anthologies, non-fiction and a monograph -- were still in print in one form or another.* This included, of course, all 21 titles in the Travis McGee series. As far as I have been able to tell, these titles have never gone out of print and have enjoyed multiple editions over the years. While MacDonald was alive these various editions changed only insofar as their cover art and the accompanying blurbs. The Deep Blue Good-By, for example, went through 43 unique editions through 1987, including 38 in paperback (with five different cover illustrations), two Lippincott hardcovers, two large print editions, and one Detective Book Club edition. And I’m not even counting the two JDM trilogy anthologies that were produced. But if the McGee’s ever did go out of print, it would have happened sometime between 1987 and 1995, a period where my research is spotty and MacDonald’s popularity went into a steep decline.

Then, in the summer of 1995, Ballentine/Fawcett Crest began publishing brand new editions of the series, with new covers and, for the first time, additional material included. There was an introduction by fellow author and Floridian Carl Hiaasen and a brief piece by MacDonald’s son Maynard. That the covers stunk -- easily the worst ever produced for the titles, consisting of huge block lettering -- didn’t matter to JDM fans: the extras and the fact that they were available and taking up space in the Mystery sections of bookstore shelves was all that mattered.

To publicize this event, JDM biographer and editor of the JDM Bibliophile Ed Hirshberg wrote an article for the Tampa Bay Times titled “A Hero for Our Time,” which was published in the July 9, 1995 edition. I have transcribed it and present it below. Although it contains nothing that would have been new to readers of MacDonald’s works it does give a good sense of how far JDM had fallen off of the cultural radar, in that he even needed to be reintroduced to the reading public.

A Hero for Our Times
By Ed Hirshberg

Have you ever heard of Travis McGee, “that big brown loose-jointed beach bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl-seeker, that slayer of small savage fish, that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, argufier, that knuckly. scar-tissued reject from a structured society”?


No? Well now's your chance to get acquainted.


Starting this month with The Deep Blue Good-by, Ballantine/Fawcett Crest is republishing the entire Travis McGee mystery series written by Florida novelist John D. MacDonald. The classy new paperback edition of The Deep Blue Good-by includes such extra goodies as an enthusiastic introduction by Fort Lauderdale satirist Carl Hiaasen, a note from John D.'s son Maynard, and testimonials from Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, Dean Koontz, Jonathan Kellerman and Donald Westlake.


The Deep Blue Good-by was originally published in 1964, closely followed that year by three more Travis McGee adventures: Nightmare In Pink, A Purple Place For Dying and The Quick Red Fox.


McGee calls himself a "salvage expert," who waits until he needs money, then "goes out and takes it from the taker, keeps half and gives the rest back to the innocent." That's his profession, at which he makes a very good living, enabling him to take his retirement "in chunks" as he goes along instead of waiting until he's too old to enjoy it. He lives on the Busted Flush, a 52-foot barge-type houseboat, luxuriously accoutred with a sunken bathtub and plush furnishings. He won the boat in a poker game with a rich South American who was afraid to call his bluff, hence the name.


A superb physical specimen, McGee is handsome in a rough sort of way. He is of that indeterminate age at which he remains attractive to most women of practically any age. He keeps his boat moored at the Bahia Mar Marina on the Inland Waterway in Fort Lauderdale, where a permanent plaque near Slip F-18 now marks the sacred spot.


What Travis McGee has, in short, is everything: enough money, a plethora of women and an interesting job doing good for people, all of which has made him a fascinating figure for millions of readers of both sexes. He is the kind of guy most women would like to be in love with and most men would like to be.


John D. MacDonald, who died in 1986, wrote 21 books about McGee, between 1964 and 1985. The books, each with a different color in its title, have continued to sell briskly (though not nearly as briskly as they did when the author was alive, despite the efforts of a passionate group of MacDonald aficionados.)


So why has Fawcett Crest chosen to republish the Travis McGee series? The publishing house obviously wants to win over a new generation of readers who has never heard of Travis McGee, but the timing is also right: These days we all need heroes like McGee.


MacDonald carefully crafted his character in a heroic mold. In the tradition of such mythical heroes as Hercules, Achilles and Theseus, McGee is of mysterious origins, has great physical strength, and is indefatigable in his amorous exploits. Despite his sybaritic and free-wheeling lifestyle, including his daily tot of Plymouth gin and tonic and the stream of women who pass through the door of the Busted Flush's snug cabin -- and occasionally detour into its king-size bed -- he is, however, fundamentally a decent man, a fit role model for a time starved for heroes.


Despite his weaknesses (and there are many), McGee is unquestionably one of the good guys. The people he chooses to help are usually the poor and the put-upon. Invariably Travis tries to help good people recover from injuries inflicted on them by bad people. He usually succeeds, though often at considerable and grievous cost to himself in the form of injuries, insults and other indignities.


Unlike the ordinary hero, who is usually a strong, silent type, Travis talks a lot. Actually, he is MacDonald's mouthpiece, expressing the author's opinions on a host of social issues. After his fourth McGee book, MacDonald brought in a sounding board for Travis because the author felt that his character was indulging in too many interior monologues. Meyer, a garrulous, hirsute economist, highly intelligent, with whom Travis can discuss the things that are bothering him, suddenly appears in A Deadly Shade of Gold and plays a vital part in the rest of the series. MacDonald once remarked that he felt he had every right to move his suspense novels in the direction of the so-called "legitimate" novels “of manners and morals, despair and failure, love and joy.... I shall continue with my sociological asides, with McGee's and Meyer's dissertations on the condition of medicine, retirement, face-lifting, earmites, road construction, white-collar theft, apartment architecture, magazine editing, acid rain, billyrock, low fidelity, and public service in America today."


Wide-ranging and all-embracing as Travis' interests are, his most persistent and passionate

opinions have to do with Florida's besieged environment. There are strong statements about what man's greed has done and is doing to despoil our state's natural resources - statements that are just as relevant today as they were when Travis or Meyer made them back in 1965. For example, in Bright Orange For The Shroud, the sixth book in the series, Travis speculates about the Everglades. Having failed to subdue it from frontal attack, "we are slowly killing it off by tapping the River of Grass. In the questionable name of progress, the state in its vast wisdom lets every two-bit developer divert the flow into the dragline canals that give him 'waterfront' lots to sell. As far north as Corkscrew Swamp, virgin stands of ancient bald cypress are dying...”

*The John D MacDonald titles that were no longer in print in 1986 when MacDonald died were:


Title Date of Last Edition
Ballroom of the Skies February 1982
The Deceivers January 1984
I Could Go On Singing March 1963
Judge Me Not June 1984
Nothing Can Go Wrong March 1983
Other Times, Other Worlds January 1980
Soft Touch September 1982
Weep for Me January 1959
Where is Janice Gantry? December 1980
Wine of the Dreamers February 1984
You Live Once September 1981

Monday, March 11, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 16: February 5, 1948

Here's the next installment of JDM's weekly newspaper column from 1947-48 when the family was living in Clinton, New York. The column ends with an interesting self-appraisal by the author.

Ten Years Ago This Month

All the juke boxes were beginning to drive people out into the cold with aging versions of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen".

The Leviathan was hauled out into the New York channel for the last time, headed for Rosyth, Scotland, and the scrap pile.

Gandhi, very ill with high blood pressure and heart disease, suffered a relapse in Bombay and went inland to the Berar cotton country to "mend or end there."

Joe Goebbels, through the Reich propaganda machine, told the joyous Nazis that 65,000 people were starving and freezing in Cleveland.

There was snow in Clinton.

* * *

Program Note:

Our friend, Dick Cantino, the kid who got us into that radio argument, is still top man on the H. Heidt show, in spite of rugged competition. We're even learning to like the accordion. Note to Sykes. We still don't like the commercials.

* * *

Visitor in Clinton:

Forgive us if this sounds almost incredible, but we have a Martian in Clinton. He escaped from Orson and has spent the last few years practicing to look like people.

Look for him on the street. He is dressed as a middle-aged, middle-sized man in a grey overcoat, grey hat, overshoes, pigskin gloves.

Once a week he writes us a report on his findings. You see, he's investigating our civilization. He slips his reports under our door, laughs wildly and runs like anything.

Here's the one we found this week:

"Over the tan stone building where you creatures get green paper and metal disks there is a big room where once every seven days many men gather and sit in groups of four and do odd things with colored oblongs of stiff paper. These bits of paper carry odd designs in black and red. Then men hold the bits of paper and stare at them. Then each man throws a single piece into the middle of the table and one man picks up all four bits of paper and places them carefully in front of himself and smiles. I have watched them often. On one night I took away from that place some of the paper they make marks on while they are engaged in this odd activity. On the paper I took is said, "Chip Walker -- minus 6000 points."

We couldn't give him an answer on this. In fact, we couldn't understand it either. Instead , we distracted him by leaving instructions for another assignment. The instructions told how to get to a hockey game. We're waiting for his next report.

* * *

Advertisement:

Strange things happen in this business of putting words on paper, and in the interests of breaking a wrist, slapping our own back, and in order to bolster the sagging newstand sales of our major masterworks, we herewith record this one.

This is the month in which we became the composite author, the cross section of American scribblers. All at the same time, and all on the same newstand we were shocked to find ourselves published as follows:

One gentle little love story in Cosmopolitan entitled "Pickup."

One humorous story in Blue Book entitled "The Pastel Production Line."

One sports story in Sports Fiction entitled "Punch Your Way Home".

One story of politics and murder in New Detective entitled "One Vote for Murder."

One psychological crime story in Dime Detective entitled "High Walls of Hate."

One worlds-of-the-future story in [Astounding] Science Fiction entitled "Cosmetics".

The thing which gives us pause is the fact that not yet have we ever written a story of which we are completely proud. We are serving an apprenticeship to the Angry Gods of the Typewriter, but we can't bury our lesser efforts. We have to sell them for grocery money. It's a good thing they don't let doctors practice this way.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Mystery Scene Interview

Mystery Scene Magazine began life in 1985 as a four-page insert to Mystery and Detective Monthly, a fanzine produced by Cap’n Bob Napier of Tacoma, Washington. The brainchild of authors Ed Gorman and Robert Randisi, Mystery Scene was created to be to the Mystery Fiction industry what Locus was to science fiction: a focus on the authors and publishing business of all things mystery. It eventually grew to a 50-60 page magazine and was, by the third issue, published and distributed on its own. Gorman -- who, if I may brag for a moment, was a great fan and supporter of this blog -- and Randisi and, later, Martin H Greenberg, ran the operation until 2002, when the magazine was sold to others. It is still published to this day.

In issue Number 16, published sometime in 1988 -- two years after the death of John D MacDonald -- Mystery Scene published an interview with JDM, conducted via mail by fellow author George Vasallo. There was no introduction, no explanation as to why this interview had never been published before, or even a mention of when the interview took place. Based on the books mentioned by MacDonald, one can place the time as close to late 1983-early 1984. The answers provided are to a specific list of questions sent to the subject, and one can tell when JDM is impatient or even exasperated by the banality of the subjects he is asked to comment on. Still, when his interest is piqued, he rambles on. His observations on the fragmentation of culture in the United States was downright prescient.

INTERVIEW: JOHN D. MACDONALD
George Vassallo

What is the significance of the use of colors in each Travis McGee title?

Years ago I sat in The Red Devil, a New York restaurant and saloon, now long gone, with friends and agent and writers and we tried to think of some way to clue the reader that he could have read the book before. Didn't want to number them, because I wanted the McGee series to be readable in any order. We discussed musical terms, months of the year, finally all agreed that colors would be the best and easiest to remember.

Have you contemplated having McGee die?

No, not really. I have threatened it, but it would be too unfair to readers who are just now discovering the fellow.

What observations do you have on all of the other detective fiction authors who have followed you? Do any really impress?

I do not read all of them, so there may well be some I would like as well as I like Ross Thomas, Robert Parker and Elmore Leonard. Their work has immediacy, strong sensory images and a wry view of the world which pleases me.

How do you feel about the current state of publishing in America?

Very tough for the new writer. Hard cover costs are high, but people forget that dinner for two at a decent restaurant is going to run a lot more than a good book. Which taste is going to linger the longest -- the porterhouse you ate, or The Little Drummer Girl. Publishers intent on bottom line, and too intent on having every book make money. Paperbacks getting too expensive. But these things correct themselves. There are lots of good regional publishers who are into modern methods -- like typesetting from the information on the 5 1/4 inch disk out of the writer's word processor. Nothing can replace written word. It is the only way that complex and subtle ideas can get from one skull into the next.

Where do you and McGee differ? Where are you and Meyer alike?

Too difficult a question to answer. I took the MMPI as myself and McGee and Meyer. Here is a psychologist's interpretation (enclosed). I cannot give permission for you to use any direct quote.

Is it particularly difficult to be the villain in your stories?

Or in life? Come on!

What makes the better villain .. a businessman gone bad or a pure psychopath?

The very best villain would be a little of both.

Is McGee's lifestyle attainable?

According to the mail I get, it is not only attainable, some of the readers have added flourishes McGee never contemplated.

When was the time that you made your "breakthrough" to become one of the best known and best-selling authors in America? Was any one event of primary importance?

When the McGees began to pop up on the New York Times list, Knox Burger who had edited many of them when he was at Fawcett, called me up to congratulate me, and told me I had achieved fame the same way the Chinese devised the ancient water torture. I had dropped books on the head of the public, one at a time, until they finally noticed.

Where do you perceive the U.S. heading culturally?

Into a further fragmentation. Contemporary education is depriving many of the richness of any cultural experience. The elite go kiting off after fads and fancies, and the professors in the art areas so subdivide their specialties, that, as has been said, each year they know more and more about less and less until finally they know everything about nothing.

What is your favorite leisure pursuit?

Varies from year to year. Have no favorites. Photography, music, collecting, backgammon, chess, conversation, travel.

As a world traveler, what observations do you have on other countries that you have visited?

One basic observation. It is ridiculous to go trotting about the world and come back with the idea that people in all places are just like us and want the same things. There is no common humanity, no gauge that fits us all. The Kashmiri Hindu and the Kenya tribesman and the Amsterdam merchant, were they miraculously given a common language would find their concepts of life and time and destiny so variant, meaningful discussion of ideas would be impossible. Only when you clearly understand this can you begin to comprehend, for example, a group of schoolteachers in Iran setting fire to a theatre and burning hundreds of their young pupils to death. Or a fakir who has sat in the public square all day all his adult life, following the passage of the sun that has burned out his eyes, by the feel of the heat on his face. My best observation about other countries and cultures is that the more you learn about them, the less you comprehend them. The instant tourist has no doubts.

Is there a working title for the new McGee? What type of situation will we find him in?

Not yet. He will be tracking down a pirated cruiser in the Bahamas, manned by the drug merchants who slew the owners.

The McGee novels contain violent encounters which appear quite genuine. Have you ever found yourself in as tough a situation as you put McGee in?

I have been hit in the face. It makes me throw up.

How much time goes into writing a McGee novel? What are your working habits?

For a McGee, from three to seven months.

Does any one of the McGee novels stand out in your memory? Why?

Cinnamon Skin. It got both me and McGee over a mutual malaise which had dimmed the prior three novels.

Publishing today shows little venture capital and shrinking publishing lists. What does this mean to the experienced writer? What does it mean to the novice trying to break into the field?

Shrinking publishing lists, but expanding numbers of titles per year. To the experienced writer this means a sensitivity to new technologies in printing and publishing is essential. To the novice breaking in, it means look to the small local houses.

Your books paint such beautiful pictures of harbor life and sailing? Is it really that idyllic?

At times it is as idyllic as trying to comb your hair while falling downstairs.

There have been numerous love interests for McGee throughout the series. Has McGee's tastes changed over the years? What changes has he noted in women?

They are, by and large, a bit older, more independent, less prone to believe the usual bullshit.

What are some of the pitfalls of fame? Do you enjoy being recognized?

My old friend, now dead, Maximiliano Truzzi, used to be billed by Ringling as the world's greatest juggler. When he was cornered by fans who loved his work, he could always grab the nearest tableware and juggle. What can I do? Write for them? I just have to stand there looking like a kindly real estate salesman. I have gone out of my way to avoid being recognized. My contact with the reader should be through the books, nothing else. Not even this.

If you were to move to another country which one would you choose? Why?

Mexico, because we have lived there before and we like the countryside and the people, and speak broken Spanish.

Millions of us thoroughly enjoy detective fiction. Why does the literary elite always try to belittle it?

For probably the same reasons that the literary elite proclaimed Crime And Punishment a hack job by a hack writer.

Are there plans to put McGee in a new environment in the future?

Not that I know of.

Are hardback books on the way out? Do you foresee format changes in the way your books reach the public?

No. Not when 25-35,000 copies of coffee table art books can be sold at prices from $35 to $65 a pop. When the hard cover folk get off their dead behinds and can take my disks and set type directly from them, after copy editing them on a screen, we can do hard cover books more quickly and more cheaply.

What, if any, responsibility do you have to your readers?

My responsibility to the readers is, once I have recognized the limitations of whatever format I am writing in, to do the best damn job I am capable of within those limits, and, while doing that job, to reflect my own visions of the truth as I saw it at the time of the writing. As I grow and change, my concept of what is real changes as well.

Self-defense is a central theme in detective fiction. Does this also include avenging the lives of those one holds dear?

When there is a direct, demonstrable, emotional involvement on the part of the protagonist, the writer has an easier task keeping tension high.

Quite often someone disappears in a detective story and the entire story revolves around finding him or her. How far would McGee go in probing a client's personal background?

As far as he feels necessary, and as far as is consistent with the character he has acquired in 20 books.

Are you proficient in firearms? Boxing?

I am a respectable marksman with pistol, rifle, longbow and throwing knife. As to boxing, I have lost the edge. No wind and slow reflexes. My mind remembers the moves, but the body won't comply.

What contemporary Americans do you hold in high esteem?

Chuck Yeager, Vonnegut, Updike, Paul Volcker, Syd Solomon, Bobby Fischer, LeRoy Collins, Paul Newman, Joan Didion and Harry Reasoner.

Meyer feels that the world economy is doomed. Do you agree? What can alleviate the situation?

Yep. Unless we dump Keynesian theory and embrace Schlumpeter's vision of the reward to the innovator.

You have spent much time in Mexico. Will Mexico become a "51st state"? Is Mexico a serious threat to the security of the U.S.?

Mexico will never become a 51st state. If we treat that country with the respect and consideration it deserves, and if we each exercise patience, then it can be a useful though frequently troubled relationship. If we keep on patronizing them as if they were some sort of inferior form of life, the whole thing may well blow up in our face.

What new writing projects are you looking at? Do you still enjoy writing as much now as you did earlier?

The more I learn, the more I enjoy it. I am rounding the clubhouse turn on a long novel about an electronic pulpit called One More Sunday.

If John D. MacDonald had not become a writer, what type of vocation do you feel we would now find him in?

Feeding the worms. 

What would McGee never do?

Inflict physical, mental or emotional pain for trivial reasons.

What literature do you most enjoy reading?

Almost every kind.

Does McGee have a world view?

He is willing to live in it without too much bitching.

How can we get children once more interested in reading?

Utilize family reading sessions, out loud. Everybody takes a turn. Old classics, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson. Or modern ones like Watership Down. Short sessions, one every night possible, and no cheating and reading ahead to find out what happens next.

Have you ever collaborated on a book?

Yes, the recent Nothing Can Go Wrong with Captain John Kilpack. It worked because his only presence was sixteen hours of cassette tape, all in the present tense, first person and most of it all one sentence.

Do you read reviews of your work?

I read them, but I have no clipping service. Publishers and friends send them along. Once in a blue moon I find a valid criticism that makes sense to me and I use it in future work. Most of it is quite silly -- with the reviewer talking about his own prejudices and life experience rather than the book. The worst kind of review is when the reviewer criticizes the book he wishes you had written rather than the one you wrote.

What do you see in the future for the state of Florida?

An uncontrolled influx of residents who will use up the air, the water and the earth itself, turning the state into condominiums, asphalt, shopping malls and roadside rubbish.

How will the advent of word processing affect the writing profession?

It won't make the writing any better or any worse. It will have the same effect as when the typewriter took over from the quill pen. It merely speeds the process.

How have McGee's attitudes about sex changed over the years, if at all?

I would recommend a re-reading of the collected works.

What irritates McGee the most about people?

Pretension, gratuitous cruelty, self-deceit, inattention to the wonders of life itself.

What was the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Don't tell 'em, show 'em. Bad version: "Fred was a man with a very bad case of body odor." Better version: "As Fred came walking down the country road, a herd of goats looked at him in consternation, then all ran off into a field and began gagging and coughing.”

Monday, February 25, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 15: January 29, 1948

Here's the next installment of John D MacDonald's 1947-1948 Clinton Courier newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill. Here he continues his rant on the low quality of commercial radio in the United States, obviously needing to get in the last word on the subject. His mention of the "race-destruction potentialities of the atomic bomb" is interesting, in that he had just seen his novella "And the World Will Die" published in the November-December issue of Doc Savage Magazine. It's very early JDM science fiction about nuclear proliferation in the early 1950's.

The Battle of the Airwaves

We've got another letter from that Friend of American Radio -- Bill Sykes. Sorry, Bill, but we can't use the letter. You see, in that conversational column we split the conversation between us. You had your say and we had ours.

In the latest letter of yours, you give both sides of a conversation, inserting a mythical Britisher in there to talk to you. Thus you put us on the side of being a Friend of the BBC. We're not. We think it's terrible.

You make the assumption that if we criticize American Radio, we must want government operation of radio. That's pretty fancy logic, Bill. We think it's up to American Radio, as free enterprise, to prove its right to lease the air waves by cleaning its own house.

So let's leave the BBC out of this. Neither of us like it. Okay?

Now to get to the additional points you bring up in your letter -- points which bear on our original argument.

You say that the British, or any foreign listener, is thrilled to hear J. Benny, F. Allen, Lux Radio Theatre. Agreed. So would anyone else be, if they were hearing it for the first time. It's novel, and, being novel, has a certain vitality.

But, on the basis of a decade, the same old formula gets a little tiring. Benny is right up there on top, but is his supremacy challenged by anything fresh, novel? No. The kids that try to steal from Benny's Hooper Rating do it by trying to copy Mr. Benny.

I gather that you want the dissatisfied listeners to gripe to the Federal Communications Division. Not with our complaint, Bill. That system is set up to handle gripes against individual stations and individual programs. We just feel that the broadcasting industry, as a whole, has too condescending an attitude toward the intelligence of the average listener, and could improve quality of programs. You can't send that sort of gripe to your Congressman or to the FCC. That kind of gripe has to be aired in something like the public press. The program quality will improve when listeners boycott the products of the companies who subsidize mediocrity.

You wonder, Bill, why we should complain when, as you say all we have to do is just "twist the dial". Twist it to what? Look back at our previous conversation.

You state that the broadcasting industry had sampled the public and found a strong preference for "Soap Operas" during the daytime hours.

We think that we could sample the third grade and find a strong preference for bubble gum chewing instead of arithmetic.

Not that we feel the public should be bound hand and foot and have "culture" fed to everyone with a tin spoon. No indeed!

But we do feel that the broadcasting industry should shoulder a small portion of our perpetual problem of adult education. Bill, a lot of the brightest men in this country are deeply concerned because the public cannot be awakened to the race-destruction potentialities of the atomic bomb. If, as a nation we are to survive, it must be through a constant, slow, steady increase in awareness and this awareness can only be achieved though education. All of us must become just a little smarter and a little better informed.

Radio can shoulder its share of the burden by raising its sights a trifle and making the average program of every variety a bit more mature.

It is so obvious that nothing will be gained by a perpetual maintenance of the insipid, flavorless and unrealistic antics of the soap operas.

Continue to have soap operas, Bill. But make them better, Make their little two dimensional pasteboard characters face honest and adult problems. This cannot be achieved by the mass-production writing methods used by the soap opera teams, It could be achieved by taking the strong, mature novels of the past and present, and presenting them in soap opera form, adapted for radio.

Take Ross Lockridge's recent novel, Raintree County. A soap opera on that could run two years five days a week.

Incidentally anyone who wants to inject their two bits in this little radio squabble is welcome to do so by writing us a letter.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Shades of John D MacDonald

The year 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Deep Blue Good-By and the introduction of Travis McGee. To help celebrate the event, the Washington Post included a John D MacDonald/Travis McGee-centered crossword puzzle in their Sunday magazine supplement, requiring knowledge of all of the colors in the Travis rainbow. To even the most casual reader of McGee, this was not much of a challenge, but it proved to be a lot of fun. If you feel like giving it a try I've created a download link to a PDF that you can print on standard 8½x11 paper. I'll post the solution tomorrow.

Shades of John D MacDonald Puzzle

Monday, February 11, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 14: January 22, 1948

Here's another installment of John D MacDonald's weekly 1947-48 newspaper column From the Top of the Hill, published in the Clinton Courier.

Battle Royal

Sunday the Town Team carries the fight to Syracuse.

A healthy rivalry is a fine thing. The desire to win makes for good contests. But the payoff is in goals, not in Bandaids and iodine.

Last fall's football warfare between Columbia and Syracuse was a black eye for college football. A good, hard, clean, tough game is a wonderful thing. That game last fall drew penalties for everything except biting the ears off the opposition. It was on the same level of sportsmanship as a barroom brawl where a busted bottle is better than a chair leg.

The last Clinton - Syracuse hockey game had its free-for-all, too.

Seems odd, when you remember that the payoff is on the scoreboard, and it isn't measured in the size of the lump that can be put on somebody's head.

For our money, if the game degenerates into the sort of fracas that the last one did - nobody wins.

A little tangle between players is expected in the fine, wide-open game of hockey. But not a mob scene. Not a deal where a young kid with the flag is trounced for trying to do his job.

* * *

Cicero Makes a Movie

Once upon a time there was a joker named Cicero Bugwilder, who, between writing the comic book sequences for Doc Destruction, managed to get the novel done that his wife had been needling him about for lo these many years.

To Cicero's intense astonishment, the prominent publishing firm of Hardesty and Snood took the book and appropriated enough advertising so that Cicero's book, The Breeze Across the Woodwind, poked a cautious nose up over the bottom line of type in the best seller lists before sinking down into eventual oblivion.

Snood, being almost as smart as Hardesty, manages to put the bite on Magnifico Films to the extent of one hundred and ten thousand bucks for the movie rights to Bugwilder's novel, even getting them to agree to take Bugwilder on the Magnifico payroll to work on the screen treatment of The Breeze Across the Woodwind.

Cicero Bugwilder, wondering what Wilshire Boulevard would do for his asthma, packs a bag, kissed his wife and spent a long time on the Super-Chief watching small dark men play gin-rummy, before climbing down into the arms of the agent recommended by Snood.

Within an hour Bugwilder had been located in the small damp room in the small damp hotel on the small damp street, and had been dragged off to Magnifico and installed in a small, anemic office with a typewriter and three reams of paper.

His secretary was an amphibious looking little creature with a face like a child moose, and, within the hour she announced a Mr. Wenesly Gnud. Mr. Gnud, a solid man with hair, muscles and a cerise sports shirt came breezing in, contemptuously tossed a book onto Bugwilder's desk and said, "Weep for us, pal. Lookit the turkey they gave us to make a picha outa!"

Bugwilder fingered the book, looked carefully at Gnud, and said, "I... I wrote it."

Gnud looked at him with barely disguised contempt and said, "Cheer up. Mabe there's a picha in it. I doubt it. I had to read it last night... Got too much labor stuff. No music. No young love. No nothing. Anyway, we got a month to think it over. The producer is Ben Rustle, great guy. He wants Hillary Grainway as director. Great guyt. Grainway won't be off Spring Angels for maybe a month.

It turned out to be two months before Grainway was ready for The Breeze Across the Woodwind. During those two months Cicero Bugwilder gradually became accustomed to going about without a hat and necktie. He found that he enjoyed the circus excitement of watching pictures made, and he spent many happy hours roaming around the lot.

When Grainway was ready, Magnifico, distressed by the low gross of Grainway's last two pictures, let him go.

The day before the second director was selected, Bugwilder's three month option came up and wasn't renewed. His agent was, at the moment, re-marrying in Mexico, so Cicero Bugwilder, fit and tanned and reasonably affluent, went back to New York by train.

One year later, most of the money was gone, and two days after Hardesty and Snood sent back the manuscript of his second novel with sincere regrets, Cidero Bugwilder and his wife went to the movies.

Cicero was disturbed out of his usual sound sleep by the sound of a familiar name. One of the characters on the screen was being called Henry J. Thyme. Cicero stayed and saw the picture twice and then went to see his lawyer.

"Joe," he said, "They stole the name of a character out of my book and used it in another picture. I want to sue."

Joe sensed a certain nuisance value in the suit which, in contingency, might net his some small change, so he investigated.

Thus it was with considerable regret that he called up Cicero a week later and said, "Old man, I'm afraid we haven't got a leg to stand on. You see, that picture you went to -- the one called Love Dawning -- is the picture they made from your book. They didn't like your title, the plot, or the action -- but they did keep the name of one character. Hey! Bugwilder! Anything the matter?"

For, over the line he had heard a soft muffled thud. For several minutes Joe sat listening to the dense silence, frequently shaking the phone as though that would somehow help.

* * *

Post Script to the Radio Argument

In the Sunday, January 18th issue of the Herald Tribune, B.H. Haggin, in his column "Music on the Radio," points out that by virtue of the principles established by Congress, the people own title to the wave lengths of the air which private persons and commercial companies may use as leasees for a limited period, provided they operate in the public interest, convenience or necessity.

Then he said something which reminded me of the letter we got last week which spoke of the "kindness of sponsors in giving us these wonderful programs with their "modicum of advertising."

We quote Mr. Haggin: "That is something for radio listeners to keep in mind when they are asked to be grateful to the broadcasting industry for what they receive from it. It is the broadcasting industry that owes radio listeners something for the privilege of using their property to make a lot of money. And it can be held to account for its failure, out of sheer greed, to give music lovers what it owes them."

The letter we received last week was obviously the result of indignation that someone, who knows as little about radio as we do, would dare to criticize it.

We not only dare to criticize, but, in absolute fairness we fail to see how any of the data contained in that letter had much bearing on the point. Thus, it is only fair that we request of him an additional letter. Surely there must be more convincing arguments on the side of the broadcasting industry!

* * *

See you next week.