Monday, August 12, 2019

Literary Giants Seeking Refuge

In 1976 the Tampa Times published a group of brief interviews with several of the noted American authors who had moved to the west coast of Florida to live. These writers included Richard Glendinning, Erkine Caldwell, MacKinlay Kantor and, of course, John D MacDonald. Here is a transcription of MacDonald’s section of the piece, along with the article’s introduction. It included a photo of JDM I had never seen before.

MacDonald was 60 years old and months away from publishing his soon-to-be blockbuster novel Condominium.

Literary Giants Seeking Refuge: The Suncoast Has Become Their Haven

A Pulitzer Prize-winner. A recipient of the Newbery Medal for children's literature. Travis McGee's "papa.” The literary paver of Tobacco Road. They all live and work on Florida's suncoast.

So does a nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen award, and a novelist who at 22 was the youngest editor of a national magazine.

From Dunedin to Clearwater, St. Petersburg to Sarasota, the likes of Erskine Caldwell, Natalie Savage Carlson, Irene Hunt, Richard Glendinning, John D. MacDonald and MacKinlay Kantor have settled discreetly to live and work.

Chances are, though, you'd have a tough time locating these living legends because most of them seek to lose themselves in the thick underbrush of Siesta Key or on the outskirts of Dunedin.

John D. MacDonald settled in Sarasota and found that "there were so many other artists that I wasn't a novelty.”

MacKinlay Kantor lives reclusively on Siesta Key. If you are lucky enough to find him you will have twisted your way through a few brambles and branches.

Somewhere between Dunedin and Clearwater lives Natalie Savage Carlson, who has lived all over the world. Mrs. Carlson, whose children's books have been translated into hundreds of languages, settled there because "we had a lot of friends in here and we liked the area."

Erskine Caldwell was "looking for a quiet place to settle."

Despite their professed passion for privacy, these writers and others who make up the suncoast's network of authors granted interviews to discuss their successes, their work and their philosophies of life. Cindy Licht/Times Staff.

John D. MacDonald

It would be hard to determine who has the bigger following, Travis McGee or his daddy, John D. MacDonald.

McGee - a character in a series of MacDonald novels -- is a detective who chases after pretty girls, stolen goods and, of course, the bad guys.

His creator is a character, too.

Just vulnerable enough to be appealing, he, like McGee, prefaces his conversations with slang.

"You know there aren't many good newspaper reporters. I had a friend in the business - can't remember that sucker's name," he said.

He has a raffish chuckle - the kind that makes you think he is having private conversations with himself.

Writing is a 9-to-5 job for MacDonald. He loves writing, but he considers it a business.

The sin of sloth hangs over his head. He believes in the domino theory: if he allows himself the luxury of a day off, he may not go back to his work the next day...or the next.

At the edge of his desk was the manuscript of his new novel, Condominium, which depicts the horrors of a powerful hurricane hitting Florida's populated west coast. It took him two and a half years to complete.

MacDonald didn't begin writing until age 30 "because I never thought I could write. I used to think it would be wonderful to be a writer instead of me."

After earning a master of science degree in business administration from Harvard, and after being fired from several jobs, MacDonald joined the army and wrote his first short story.

Has his writing changed in the past 30 years?

"I think I have more control this year than I did last year," he said. "I think of myself as constantly changing. It's hard to explain. It's like when you have a conversation between two characters and instead of having to write, they said such and such, but they REALLY THOUGHT something else, I am getting better at conveying their inner feelings without really verbalizing them."

MacDonald works on three or four novels at one time. When he gets stuck on one he goes on to another. "And it seems when I go back to the first it's unstuck...I like to see clean, white paper and to know that I'm going to spoil it with God knows what."

Tidbits of his traveling experiences are woven into the fiber of MacDonald's writings.

"I couldn't have McGee go to Granada if I hadn't spent three weeks there," he said. "Little details are important, like the big almond tree in front of one of the hotels where old brown dogs lie around sunning themselves. You can tell when someone is faking it."

He's a good one to talk about faking it. MacDonald claims he gives each interviewer different answers to the same questions each time they're asked — just to keep himself from answering questions the way he thinks the person wants them answered.

"Some writers have a tendency to do this," he said. "Then they begin to believe the stuff themselves.

"See, I've been lying to you all along."

Monday, July 29, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 25: April 8, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1947 newspaper column for the Clinton (NY) Courier, "From the Top of the Hill". An article in Life magazine brought back memories of his days in the CBI theater in World War II. I’ll have a postscript after the column.

A few weeks back, Life magazine took a long look at some boys who, four years ago this spring, had a rough time with the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). That outfit was more popularly known as Merrill's Marauders.

We met Frank Merrill before he received that assignment. We saw him a few times while the assignment was in process.

The Life article made us remember. And we began to think of what North Burma must be like this spring.

Four years ago, it was a busy little place. Engineer outfits, QM truck companies and ordnance groups were grubbing away at the Ledo Road, later to be renamed the Stilwell Road. The Marauders were hammering down through the madly scrambled terrain toward Myitkyina. The Chinese divisions, trained in India, were cluttering up the place. Kachin guerillas, organized and equipped by OSS, faded in and out of the shrubbery. Combat Cargo was airdropping supplies. And, far overhead, the ATC and CNAC ships were shuttling on the hump run to Kunming. And, of course, there were the Japanese.

It must be quiet there, now. Deathly still.

No guns, no planes. The Nagas and the Kachins have it all to themselves.

The road must be pretty well washed out after this past monsoon season. And the leeches will be hungry. Billions of them. Little grey worms, they cling with their back legs to twigs and leaves, waving their front portion in the air. When anything passes underneath, they drop.

Those weird and wonderful names for the little villages in the jungle lived for a short time in history four years ago. They will probably never be heard of again.

Strange names. Tagap Ga. Shingbwiyang. Nsopzup and Sumprabum. Kamjaw Ga and Shaduzup. Tumbuzut and Okkyi.

No decent history of that operation will ever be written. The Marauders restricted their files for the sake of mobility while operating behind Jap lines. A Jap artillery shell scored a direct hit on the mule which carried the few records that were maintained.

On the third mission, the heavy rains and humidity turned all the paper records into pulp. The unit's intelligence officer was killed at Myltkyina and his records were all washed away before they could be located.

But a few things will be remembered. Like Lieutenant Woomer, leader of a weapons platoon who worked himself up within twenty-five yards of a Jap machine gun emplacement, and then, when our mortar fire was a little over, phoned back for them to bring it in about 25 yards, saying, "If you don't hear from me, you'll know you came this way too far. Then shift it back a little and you'll be right on it."

Or Tec. 4 Matsumoto, creeping close enough to his countrymen to overhear the attack orders, and scuttling back in time to warn the battalion.

Yes, it must be quiet in Burma now, up near the Chin hills. The lush, wet, green thickets, once scorched by the flame throwers, raddled by the mortar fragments, have mended their wounds.

The streams are probably still depopulated. The Chinese fished them dry with hand grenades.

But at dusk tonight a thousand billion mosquitoes will be singing shrilly along the Salween. We didn't even make a dent in their multitudes.

* * *

We're all tangled up these days with a pretty strange enemy. In 1940 there was no organized, cellular Fascist Party or Nazi Party in this country. But the phone books of this country list various Communist Party offices.

Naturally, they must have checking accounts and charge accounts, and must prepare tax forms and Social Security forms.

Maybe we're getting too emotional about this thing, but it seems darn strange.

Wonder how many Democratic Party and Republican Party offices there are in Russia. Anybody want to take a quick trip over there and open one up?

* * *

See you next week.

In a letter quoted by Hugh Merrill in his biography The Red Hot Typewriter, MacDonald went into great detail about his dislike of General Joe Stilwell, citing his administrative deficiencies and his total lack of mercy. He mentioned Merrill's Marauders and was much more open about the difficulties they faced.

I read in the papers that someone has asked for a Congressional Investigation of the use this theater made of the long range penetration unit called Galahad, or Merrill's Marauders. They had better hurry and have the investigation because there aren’t so many of those boys left. They were thrown in again and again and again long after any sane field commander [referring to Stilwell] would have removed them for a rest. They were decimated by the Japanese and by disease. They performed unbelievable feats of marching and fighting long after they were thoroughly “browned off” by a commander that apparently had no regard whatsoever for their welfare… The true story of the blood, sweat, tears, madness, dysentery and cruelty of [those troops] will never be written. They were abandoned in the face of the enemy and left to fight over their destiny. There are damn few of them left.

Monday, July 15, 2019

New Hero Debuts in 2 Paperbacks

John D MacDonald was a well established author by 1964 when he began the Travis McGee series and he had a bit of a following among the book critics of the era. His most reliable champion was Anthony Boucher of the New York Times, whose Criminals at Large column almost always mentioned a new JDM title, beginning all the way back to 1953’s Dead Low Tide. Other pre-Travis fans included Clarence Petersen of the Chicago Tribune, James Sandoe of the New York Herald Tribune, and syndicated critic John R Breitlow.

When the first two McGee books were published Breitlow wrote a column where he showed both his familiarity and ignorance of MacDonald’s work, an unfortunately common affliction. Transcribed below, Breitlow astutely notes McGee’s similarity to previous JDM protagonists, but makes an erroneous generalization about the setting of the pre-McGee work (they were not “mainly” set on the east coast of Florida, or even in Florida itself) and ends with the most tiresome of all complaints about MacDonald, that he was “too good” to be writing such drivel and needed to work on more serious stuff. Had Breitlow never read books such as Slam the Big Door, The End of the Night, or A Key to the Suite?

This column appeared in papers nationwide and was transcribed from the Winona [Minnesota] Daily News. The headline read “New Hero Debuts in 2 Paperbacks”.

THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE and NIGHTMARE IN PINK, by John D. MacDonald. Gold Medal Books, 144 pages each, 40 cents each.

By JOHN R. BREITLOW

The world of John D. MacDonald is a limited but fascinating one. Located mainly on the east coast with Florida as its base of operations, it contains large numbers of motels, modern offices and high-rise apartments, plus a proponderance of expensive boats. It is peopled by very worldly individuals, being mainly virile heroes, sinister villains, and attractive heroines with a tendency to meet a violent end.

Few of MacDonald's works begin life in hard cover, but they are found in profusion on thousands of paperback stands. Although their specific ingredients vary in fascination and timely detail, their general pattern has a consistency not unlike the great "Chateau - bottled" wines of Bordeaux.

A literary connoisseur might object to such a comparison on the qualitative level with considerable justice, yet the comparison is apt. MacDonald fans who regularly invest small sums at the newsstands of bus depots, drug stores and hotel lobbies, know exactly what they are getting and tend to like it just that way, to judge from the volume of sales and regular appearance of new titles.

Over the years, there has been such a similarity in John D. MacDonald's heroes that he has now taken the logical step which will save him inventing a new name and background every three months - he has inaugurated a series, having settled upon the name and character of Travis McGee.

Anyone who has read more than two MacDonald books has already met McGee. He lives on a lavish houseboat which he won in a poker game. He makes a precarious living by robbing thieves for a 50 per cent commission in an aura of slightly tarnished knight-errantry. Experienced with fishpole, fists and charm, Travis McGee is generally admired by women and respected by men. Some might call him a bum and others might label him the product of his age. Both would be correct.

John D. MacDonald introduces Travis McGee to the paperback world in two volumes which appeared on newsstands almost simultaneously: The Deep Blue Good-by and Nightmare in Pink. While usually strong on titles, MacDonald appears this time to have submitted to a publisher's whim. The only apparent reason for these colorful allusions is to justify the books' front covers, tinted to match the otherwise obscure titles.

The Deep Blue Good-by finds McGee helping two pleasantly - formed highly dissimilar females who have suffered damage to both purse and pride at the hands of one Junior Allen, a sinister character with muscle, sex appeal, a large cruiser, and the hidden charm of an angered perverted cobra. The loot involves some precious stones smuggled out of the Orient in the Second World War.

This particular crusade confronts Sir T. McGee with a successful New York contractor, a Texas playboy heading for destruction, and a motley gathering of young people whose quest for kicks lands them in troubled West Indian waters. (MacDonald's opinion of the adolescent generation is even lower than they warrant, if that is possible.) Also up for consideration is the author's rather philosophical treatment of what might be called the “Bunny Syndrome," rather harsh but not unfriendly view of the modern playgirl.

Nightmare in Pink, the second of the Travis McGee series, removes the kindly boat bum from his marina and sends him to New York to help the younger sister of a permanently disabled Korean War buddy. McGee falls for the girl (MacDonald is rarely above allowing his heroes to tamper with his heroines) but for reasons unclear they decide to go separate ways.

Nightmare in Pink actually has some frightening aspects to its plot, which involves the use of neurological drugs and surgery to control some large family fortunes and eliminate anyone who stumbles onto the scheme. McGee himself barely avoids this fate and in making his escape from a "Rest Home" of fiendish design, inserts a schizoid drug into the staff coffee maker. The results would be funny, if the clinical detail wasn't quite so realistic.

These columns have previously lamented the fact that John D. MacDonald obviously chooses to grind out this sort of thing when he could be doing something better. We consider him a good writer, and wish he would hurry and make enough money from his paperback empire so that he could quit being a hack. Until that time, we will, like Ian Fleming proclaims on the cover of one of the first Travis McGee books, automatically read everything John D. MacDonald writes, Everyone, it would seem, has his weaknesses.

Monday, July 1, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 24: April 1, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1948 newspaper column in the Clinton Courier.

Students of MacDonald’s short fiction will immediately recognize the setting of the first few paragraphs. Twenty-three years later the author used it in his short story “Woodchuck,” which appeared in the 1971 anthology S*E*V*E*N.

A myth is exploded:

Way back when each week consisted of seven Saturdays, and there was always sunshine, we went out with the grandfather we once had near a fabulous village named Orangeville while he shot woodchucks with great efficiency and dispatch.

The excitement of the gun and the hunt and the sharp crack of the shot was all very fine, but in a sense we felt we were betraying something by being a party to the slaughter of a superb animal.

It wasn't manly to mourn the stricken 'chucks, but we did. Secretly. The books of childhood had pictures of him on many pages -- sitting erect and wise, looking for his shadow, predicting the weather.

We suspect that our grandpop was killing off our furry friends.

Last week when the kids left for school one morning, they paused to report some sort of a beast down in the concrete hole by one of the cellar windows. We hurried through coffee and went out and took a look.

At first we thought it was a 'chuck. He wasn't very big, and he looked pretty calm and quiet. The cellar hole isn't deep, so, for his convenience a flat board was obtained. As soon as the board was within six inches of him, he pulled his underjaw out of the way and, using some large upper-story teeth, he hit the board like a striking snake, knocking off one large splinter and nearly knocking the board out of our hands.

He continued to hack at it while we put it in place. And then, even when he was left alone, the darn thing wouldn't climb out.

As a bit of further assistance, we dropped a small cardboard carton in there with him. He hacked at the carton like a crazy goldminer attacking a mountain with a pickaxe.

With a ski pole we attempted to urge him up the improvised ramp. He grabbed at the ski pole in his front paws and made four or five determined chompings at the metal part of it, removing some enamel from his teeth.

It was then and there that we decided that he wasn't a 'chuck. First, he had a foul disposition. Second, he was stupid. Everybody knows that 'chucks are amiable and intelligent.

After a time, Charlie Locke appeared, bearing the usual stack of disappointments from our editor friends. We asked him to take a look.

"Woodchuck," he said without hesitation.

Herewith we furnish readers of the Courier with a method for removing 'chucks from cellar holes. (A) Place carton on side near 'chuck. (B) Slap 'chuck into carton with board plank. (C) Tip carton over onto its bottom before 'chuck can scramble back out. (D) Make threatening motions with plank so he won't climb out while other party gets something flat to cover the top of the carton. (E) Lift out covered carton, and do not permit the 'chuck to take a hack at your hand or he will remove fingers at random.

It is only fair to add that Mr. Locke performed the more risky portions of this procedure.

Liberated, the 'chuck waddled off across the Saunders' Strip without a backward look.

This buildup that has been given the character of the woodchuck over the years is completely fallacious. The 'chuck is an evil little animal with a filthy disposition. If he ever climbed out of his hole and saw his shadow, he'd bite a hole out of it. He is so stupid that he couldn't get himself out of a cardboard box if the directions were printed on the bottom. Also, once you do him a favor, he ungraciously ignores you.

A week ago last Tuesday, hoping to arouse professional interest, we told Dr. Francis about the 'chuck leaving tooth enamel on the ski pole.

"Bring him in,” said Dr. Francis without hesitation.

* * *

Things we learned on Easter Sunday:

We learned the following from a CBS program, largely wire-recorded, called "Our Northern Exposure" and dealing with Alaska.

There are less people in the Territory of Alaska than in Utica. There is no rail connection with Canada or the States. There are no surfaced roads. Military officials on the spot consider our defenses inadequate. Siberia is minutes away. Forced labor in Siberia has been constructing airfields and military installations. Alaska is the ideal base for the bombing of our industrial centers.

Alaska is the frontier we have in common with our enemy in the Cold War.

A common frontier is the logical jumping-off spot in case of conflict. Not only are we unprepared to do any jumping-off, we are unprepared to hold what we have.

It is silly to think of the Atlantic as being between us and Russia.

In Alaska we sit in each other's laps.

Ant they, on the roof of the world, hold aces -- back to back.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, June 24, 2019

"MacDonald and McGee"

Two weeks ago I posted an article from the February 15, 1987 edition of the Palm Beach Post titled "MacDonald Leaves Literary Landmark: Slip F-18" written by staff writer Bobbie Meyers. This is the accompanying article, also written by Meyers, "MacDonald and McGee". Although there's not anything new here, and the author commits a major error citing The Empty Copper Sea when she meant Cinnamon Skin, it's an interesting take on McGee from the feminine point of view.

Although John D. MacDonald created 'a blizzard of words' in: his lifetime, his character Travis McGee, the tall, tan, knight errant who rescued ladies in distress and polished off bad guys and good gin, has colored the fantasies of the reading public.

Stories by BOBBIE MEYERS Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

During the hustle between Christmas and the new year, I lost an old love.

It was unrequited.

Travis McGee never knew I had a crush on him – and that was just as well, since most of his girlfriends got killed off anyway.

McGee, of course, was the best-known fictional creation of Florida-based author John D. MacDonald, who died Dec. 28.

I balked 10 years ago when my brother first suggested I read a Travis McGee adventure. It's not my sort of reading. I protested. But like many people, I was hooked from the first. I read the rest of the series and eagerly pounced on each new one that came out.

I was smitten. I named our new Weimaraner puppy Travis McGee. It was just fortunate I didn't have another child during that time - boy or girl, it would have been named Travis.

Bad guys and good gin.

MacDonald was a prolific writer who wrote 77 books and more than 500 short stories, along with essays, reviews and letters, during a 40-year career.

But the 21 color-titled Travis McGee adventures are some of his most popular books, Starting with The Deep Blue Good-by in 1964, the adventures continue, tinted with deadly shades of gold, long lavender looks and nightmares in pink.

Trav's friend, Meyer, “that hairy economist," plays faithful friend to the Lone Ranger of the boat docks and adds interest as a regular character in the books.

Unless MacDonald had an unpublished one tucked away, The Lonely Silver Rain of 1984 marks the end of the color-coded adventures of Travis McGee.

In his books, MacDonald has Travis McGee living in Fort Lauderdale aboard a houseboat at Bahia Mar Marina. The tall, tan, knight errant rescued ladies in distress and polished off bad guys and good gin.

We don't know his age, but last we heard of him, he was "down close to two hundred pounds" and looking fit with a new coat of "deep-water tan." He was doing tai chi exercises that a health spa instructor taught him, insulting him in the process by saying, "At your age it is very important to stay flexible and limber."

Many of the ladies in McGee's life were rescued from bad guys and were in dire need of TLC and R&R to help them recuperate. Bless his big, altruistic heart – McGee was just the guy to fill those prescriptions.

Travis would treat such a lady to a long, slow ocean trip to nowhere. Aboard the Flush, the soft roll of waves, ocean air and soothing sun would unwind the traumatized damsel. Of course, she would usually discover that our friend McGee had other areas of expertise besides slaying dragons.

Dose of social commentary

Through his characters, especially Travis, MacDonald voices his concerns about the changing Florida landscape. He was especially disgusted with the “paving of Florida" – overpopulation, overbuilding and the resulting destruction of the environment.

"My home is aboard the Busted Flush at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale," says Travis McGee in his last adventure. “And there I intend to stay until finally no one is able to either drink the water or breathe the air."

Travis was always involved in dangerous situations with mean, rotten, sadistic people who also strip mined the central Florida landscape, polluted the water, built condominiums all over the beaches and threw Styrofoam cups out of car windows.

A new MacDonald book was an evening's entertainment for me – an escape into adventure and romance. The style is spare and muscular (no surprise that MacDonald was a Hemingway admirer), plots, even when they were a bit thin, moved along with lots of action, snappy dialogue and doses of social commentary: "People hate their cars ... they all look alike for one thing ... they are expensive, murderous junk.'

But for me, at least, the continuing character of McGee was the big draw. MacDonald let the Travis character grow book by book and let him be inconsistent enough to be human. He gave him a sense of irony about himself and enough skepticism about the workings of the world and his own motives that the reader kept coming back.

Over the years, Travis McGee evolved into what is now being touted as the "new man" - the semi-macho man - Dirty Harry slouching toward sensitivity.

Long and leggy; short and sweet

When I worked at the North Palm Beach Library, I met Walter Shine. Along with his wife, Jean, he had compiled and published a bibliography of John D. MacDonald's work.

I knew he was in touch with the author occasionally and asked him to relay a complaint: “How come all of Travis McGee's lady friends were described as tall and leggy?” I whined.

When the next book came out - The Empty Copper Sea, Shine told me to be sure to read the description of the woman on the the first page. McGee, it tells us, is usually drawn to tall women with long legs, but his new girlfriend is short!

I don't know if MacDonald took the complaint of a short fan to heart or if it was just a coincidence. I like to think my whining had a short-term effect on Travis McGee's love life.

I began by saying that I had lost an old love, but that's not exactly true.

Even though we mourned the death of a talented writer when John D. MacDonald died, his survivors include not only his real family, but also the most famous child of his imagination – Travis McGee.

Monday, June 17, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 23: March 25, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1948 newspaper column, “From the Top of the Hill.” I posted the majority of this entry back in 2010 with the following introduction:

“John D MacDonald's first effort in the world of science fiction is generally dated to February 1948 with the publication of his short story ‘Cosmetics’ in Astounding Science Fiction. And although this 4,000-word tale had been preceded by two other stories that contained aspects of unreality -- they were more fantasy than s-f -- ‘Cosmetics’ was his first such entry in a science fiction pulp magazine. It marked the beginning of a relatively brief torrent of such works that produced ten stories in 1948, sixteen in 1949 and fourteen in 1950 before dwindling off to a mere handful. He then penned two early s-f novels before giving up on the genre almost entirely.

“MacDonald was living in Clinton, New York when he wrote ‘Cosmetics,’ and during that same period he authored a weekly newspaper column in the local newspaper. The following ... comes from the March 25, 1948 edition of The Courier, a month after ‘Cosmetics’ appeared and two months before his second s-f story -- ‘The Mechanical Answer’ -- was published. Reading between the lines, one can detect JDM's interest in a new market for his work, now that he had actually been published in an s-f magazine, and now that the field was -- as he termed it -- turning away from the ‘world of wooden men and steel space ships’ and toward more ‘believable’ stories with ‘oddly prophetic situations.’”


Fantasy, Unlimited:

Frequently these days we come face to face with the staggering platitude that this is indeed an odd world and an odd time to be in it.

While little men in laboratories are concerning themselves with the chore of exploding our planet with all the thoroughness of a dynamite stick jammed through a decayed apple, certain segments of our population are avidly collecting science fiction which makes such a catastrophe as impressive as the blast from a cap pistol on the Fourth of July.

The intense interest in science fiction has grown as quickly and as impressively as a certain odd-looking cloud over Hiroshima. (Accent on the second syllable, please.)

For many years science fiction was published without attracting much attention. Wells, A. Huxley and Verne fathered the breed. In the pulp magazines, the science fiction story became nothing but a Western with space ships instead of horses, heat pistols instead of 44's and far galaxies instead of the red-rocked mesa.

This world of wooden men and steel space ships rightly deserved the obscurity it achieved.

But now and again a story would be published in which the writer managed to make his characters human. The more gifted writers, gifted both scientifically and artistically began to put believable people into oddly prophetic situations.

In fact, one imaginative character during the peak secrecy of the Manhattan Project published a story wherein somebody fiddled around with uranium and made a bomb. If he had gotten two cents a word for every word he said to the FBI after that story was published, he would be a wealthy man.

A city went up in smoke, with a flash as bright as the sun. Science fiction suddenly became yesterday's news flash. A few hundred thousand fans were acquired.

The Saturday Review of Literature for February 28th, this year, carries a long editorial by Harrison Smith on this current phenomena in the publishing world.

The new fans of science fiction have dug through the files of old copies of various pulp magazines, and have found therein stories for their collections.

The Saturday Evening Post has published five science fiction stories within the past year by Robert Heinlein and Gerald Kersh.

Good publishing houses have come out with anthologies of merit. We strongly recommend, for the curious, one called Adventures in Time and Space published last year by Random House, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas.

In addition five new publishing houses have recently been born, with the object of handling only science fiction and fantasy: Arkham House, Fantasy Press, Prime Press, Hadley Publishing Company and Fantasy Publishing Company.

And they all sell every copy of every book!

Circulation of pulp magazines in the science fiction field has grown. Sam Merwin, Jr. edits two pulps for Standard Magazines, Inc. and John W. Campbell, Jr., edits one for Street and Smith. (For the citizen who picks his magazines off the news stand arid cares what thinkle peep, the titles are the kiss of death: Astounding, Thrilling Wonder, Startling.) There are others in the field, but these three are the toppers.

But In addition to this crescendo of Interest, there is one very special manifestation which could only exist in the science fiction field.

The readers, the fans themselves, have banded together in groups and they publish their own magazines—called fanzines. They are usually mimeographed and they contain criticism, offers to buy and sell science fiction and some fiction. There are nearly forty of these 'fanzines' being published. There are additional ones in England. Letters to the editors of the pulp magazines come from all over the world.

No other aspect of American letters Is expanding as rapidly as science fiction.

So, we say, this is a strange, strange world. We are in the atomic age. If we get sharp enough with the atom, we may arrange to make this planet uninhabitable. Maybe that fear is deep in the hearts of all of us.

Maybe science fiction is like the comforting words of a wise parent:

"Don't worry, little man. When you bust up this planet, I'll buy you a new one. A nice new green one. Two hundred light years away."

* * *

What Do You Call Robins?

Every March all the newspapers in the land dig down in their closets and bring out a word that is only used in March. It would be absolutely pointless to use it during any other month of the year.

Thand word is HARBINGER.

Robins are HARBINGERS of Spring. So are spring training trips for baseball players. So are income tax forms.

This year, all aspects have been HARBINGING as usual.

Nothing ever HARBINGS winter or fall or summer.

After March is over and everything has HARBUNGED, the word goes back in the closet, tied with cotton string, until once more March comes around and it can be dusted off again.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, June 10, 2019

“MacDonald Leaves Literary Landmark: Slip F-18”

John D MacDonald’s death in December of 1986 spawned a huge outpouring of newspaper obituaries, tributes and recollections by scores of reporters and features writers. Many of these pieces were perfunctory, at least from the point of view of rabid JDM fans such as myself, but a few were revelatory, bringing to light stories and remembrances about the author that I had never read before. One such article was published in the February 15, 1987 edition of the Palm Beach Post, the hometown paper of MacDonald’s bibliographer par excellence, Walter Shine. Written by staff writer Bobbie Meyers, Shine himself is interviewed for the piece and his recollection of how he came to finally meet MacDonald was completely new to me, despite the fact that I had worked with Walter for several years, helping him in his quest to hunt down a dozen “missing” JDM short stories.

Here is a transcription of Meyers’ article, which was titled “MacDonald Leaves Literary Landmark: Slip F-18”. It was one of two articles written about JDM by Meyers for this Sunday edition of the paper.

The fictional character Travis McGee lived on a fictional houseboat in a fictional boat slip in a real marina. Travis, hero of 21 adventure books written by John D. MacDonald, lives aboard The Busted Flush, (which he won in a poker game) docked at slip F18 in Fort Lauderdale's Bahia Mar Marina.

MacDonald knew that if he based his hero in Sarasota where the author actually lived, people would come to look for him, said Walter Shine of North Palm Beach. Instead. MacDonald sent them on a wild dock chase to Fort Lauderdale.

"He was very protective of his privacy," said Shine, editor of the John D. MacDonald: Bibliography/Biography, and possibly the ultimate MacDonald fan.

One person who went hunting among the moorings at Bahia Mar looking for the mythical F-18 was Dan Rowan, of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In fame. In a letter to MacDonald, Rowan relates: "We prowled the entire marina and came up with a McDonald, a MacDonough, and one drunk who steered me to a bust-out crap game ... but no J.D. Mac.”

MacDonald and Rowan began corresponding in 1967. A collection of letters between the two men, edited by the author and released in January under the title A Friendship, is MacDonald's last published book.

There never was a slip F-18. But this month Bahia Mar Resort and Yachting Center will renumber one of its slips and mark it with a brass plaque, in honor of its designation it as a "literary landmark."

The city of Fort Lauderdale, the Literary Landmark Association and the Florida Center for the Book are sponsors of the dedication, which will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the marina, 801 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale.

Literary landmarks are designated by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress to promote the concept of American literary heritage. Although an author's home is traditionally given this designation, this isn't the first time a fictional character's home has been honored – 221-B Baker St., London, for instance, was designated in honor of Sherlock Holmes.

But this is certainly the first time a boat slip has been named, according to Jean Trebbi, executive director of [the] Florida Center for the Book. Other Florida landmarks include the Hemingway house in Key West and Cross Creek in north Florida in honor of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Jean and Walter Shine will be among those in attendance when the plaque is unveiled at Slip F-18.

Collecting, annotating and cataloging the literary life of John D. MacDonald began 20 years ago for the Shines. It is almost a full-time avocation for the couple who are now in the process of putting much of their vast collection of material by and about the author on computer disk.

"He was a wizard with words who wrote a blizzard of words," said Shine.

Their interest in the works of MacDonald has put them in touch with people all over the country, he said. They have an immediate common interest with other MacDonald fans they meet.

"Hundreds of times people have told us how much MacDonald's books have meant to them - have actually changed their lives," said Shine.

The Shines' full-time hobby involves the 40-year career of a prolific author. MacDonald's 77 novels have sold 90 million copies, published in 30 languages. He also wrote more than 500 short stories along with assorted essays and nonfiction.

The Shines searched out foreign editions of the novels whenever they traveled and researched and compiled listings of old stories. Some of these were collected in two volumes, which they co-edited under the titles The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff.

While amassing a definitive collection of MacDonald's work themselves, the Shines used the materials and contributed new items to the John D. MacDonald collection at the University of Florida. In 1980 they published the MacDonald bibliography, an exhaustive compilation of his writings, in cooperation with the university. In 1985 they compiled John D. MacDonald: A True Bibliophile, a collection of brief reviews by MacDonald and comments and criticism on the state of current fiction and the craft of writing.

"It keeps us from becoming fallow in retirement," Shine said of their research. It also gave them the opportunity to meet and become friends with the author, who dedicated the last Travis McGee adventure, The Lonely Silver Rain, to them.

Even though they weren't misled by the fictional location of MacDonald's hero, they came up empty on several first attempts to meet the author. They first tried to snag his interest by sending him a cocktail invitation in verse. No nibble. They continued to send the author bits of humor or information they thought might amuse or interest him, but MacDonald never responded. They finally met the reclusive author at an evening-with-the-author event in Gainesville.

"When we were introduced, he recognized our names and thanked us for each time we had sent him something, incident by incident," Shine said. "I couldn't believe he remembered every one. His memory was astounding."

Once he learned how dedicated they were to collecting his work, "he couldn't have been more generous with his help,” said Shine, who characterized the author as retiring and hesitant to start up new friendships, but modest, witty and helpful when his friendship was won.

When slip F-18 was given Literary Landmark distinction more than a year ago, MacDonald was told about the designation and invited to attend the ceremony, said Jean Trebbi. He was amused, she said, but typically, reluctant to attend in person.

"I told him it might be a fun event," said Trebbi. "But he said, Oh, I'm terrible at fun events.'”

MacDonald, who died Dec. 28, was convinced that the written word was the foundation of civilization, according to Shine.

The last piece of writing published by the author who created a "blizzard of words” during his lifetime may be an essay on that subject, which will be published as part of a Center for the Book project titled The Reader as Survivor.


Monday, June 3, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 22: March 18, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1948 newspaper column, from the Clinton Courier, when the family was still living in upstate New York. I’ve previously published this piece, back in 2015, where I wondered how JDM got that topaz back into the United States.

We picked up some students headed down the hill toward the village the other day, and they were talking about various types of summer work and the relative merits thereof.

We were reminded of Ceylon. The army graciously dropped us into that garden spot for a time. It is a fine island. We were particularly intrigued with the type of summer work that many of the students perform.

During the spring monsoon, the heavy rains swell the streams and semi-precious stones are torn out of the mountains and carried down the steep slopes. During the summer months in the vicinity of Ratnapura, in the heart of the gem area, the streams are alive with students picking over the pebbles in search of semi-precious gems. They find topaz, blue and yellow sapphires, cat's eyes and other varieties.

We tried it. The standard technique is to find a place where a stream curves and has thus heaped up a mound of small stones. You make yourself as comfortable as possible and then start picking up likely looking rocks and holding them up toward the sun. You spin the stone in your fingers and, when you get a glint of colored light through it at any point, you stuff it in a bag.

When the day's work is done, you take the stones down to the proper alley in Ratnapura where the grinders work, You have to watch those boys.If you find something good, they are inclined to tell you it is worthless in hopes that you will throw it away where they can pick it up.

We squatted in the blazing sun for about two hours, getting very bored with the whole process of trying to look through pebbles. We must have looked through a thousand of them. Then suddenly one jagged hunk of stone gave forth a little gleam of yellow light when we held it up. We felt like a forty-niner.

Down in that alley in Ratnapura, the boys who do the grinding sit on the ground by a crude looking lathe with a grinding wheel on one end. The motive power is a bow string with rawhide. The rawhide is looped once around the lathe spindle. The bow is shoved back and forth and the grinding wheel is crudely geared so that it spins, of course, in just one direction. The end of the bow is held in the bare toes of the operator leaving both hands free to hold the stone against the wheel.

An ancient citizen took our precious rock, which we were sure was a priceless yellow sapphire, and ground it without ever seeming to look at it. It made us nervous.

Instead of a sapphire, it turned out to be topaz, about fifteen carats. And a darn poor color.

The man charged eight rupees for the grinding operation (About $2.60.) We have our topaz here and it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever -- because we found it.

Had not the army suddenly awakened to the fact that we were in a garden spot and sent along a cruel travel order, we would still be ankle deep in one of those streams near Ratnapura trying to see through pebbles and acquiring a terrific sunburn.

It is our nomination for the perfect kind of summer work.

* * *

Speaking of Ceylon...

Now that we are on the subject, it is a good time to do a sales job.

Go to Ceylon!

India, to the north, is a big, dusty miserable country that gives the impression of being a circus ground the day after the circus left.

But Ceylon is a garden spot. Lord Louis Mountbatten is nobody's fool. When he was the big wheel of the South-East Asia Command, he put his headquarters right smack in Kandy in the Ceylonese Hills.

In India you are expected to at least pick up a smattering of Urdu. In Ceylon it is recognized that Sinhalese is far too difficult to learn and nobody questions some of the British that have lived there twenty years without picking up a word of Sinhalese.

It isn't as hot as India and there are miles of perfect beaches where the white surf comes rolling in and you can, with a little practice, ride a surfboard for a quarter of a mile toward the beach.

For between thirty and fifty dollars a month you can rent a huge "bungalow" on Bambalapitiya Road in Colombo. Another nine dollars will provide a cook, a houseboy and a combination chauffeur-gardener.

For recreation you can play tennis and bridge at the Garden Club, dance at a very svelte nightclub called the Silver Faun, swim at the Hotel Mont Lavinia, shop in the bazaars.

So you see, it's very simple. All you have to do is save up a hundred thousand dollars and invest it at four percent. The income will enable you to live like a little king in Ceylon for the rest of your days, where you will enjoy all the languor of a tropical island plus all the comforts of city living.

Monday, May 27, 2019

John D MacDonald Put it on the Line Every Time

John Keasler was a longtime newspaper columnist for the Miami News, a now-defunct periodical that folded in 1988. Keasler was a Florida native and, in addition to writing a regular column for the paper, produced over two dozen works of short fiction that appeared in the magazines of the era. This particular column was written the day after the death of John D MacDonald and was published in the paper’s  December 30 issue. As remembrances of JDM go, this one is particularly insightful and close to the source. It was headlined "John D MacDonald put it on the line every time". 

Keasler passed away in 1995 at the age of 74.

He was the definitive free-lancer, John D. MacDonald was, and writing meant freedom to him.

That was what writing was to the strange tough breed of professionals called free-lance magazine writers, now all but vanished. Writing for a living was freedom.

"John D. MacDonald is dead," my office said the other night when they called me because they knew I had known him a long time.

And, only then, did I think about how well I had known MacDonald before I ever even met him.

I had even told him that once as we were having a drink at Midnight Pass on Siesta Key maybe 35 years ago.

"God, I used to hate you, John," I said. "Every hopeful writer hated you. There you would be, month after month, all over the covers of what seemed like half the magazines on the newsstand ... Street and Smith Detective, Black Mask, Popular Sports, Argosy, Bluebook - man, you purely pumped it out."

"The funny thing is, it never gets any easier," he said, laughing. "The penny-a-word pulp stuff was just as hard to write as the big-pay stories."

John D. MacDonald was the king of the pulps, and went on to become the king of the high-pay magazine suspense stories, and then when the paperback books came in he was a one-man industry there long before Travis McGee brought still more fame and money, and with all that — with 77 books and God only knows how many short stories to his credit - he never wrote any way except the best he could.

"You have to put it all on the line every time," he told me a number of times over the years. "If you ever set out to write less than the best you can produce, you'll sink without a ripple."

I think, personally, that MacDonald's readers always knew, and knew a damn sight better and sooner than the establishment critics did, that this man was producing a lot of fine literature in the guise of fine entertainment.

MacDonald had a string of formal-education credentials, including having been graduated from various high-toned finance and business schools and then receiving his master's degree from the Harvard School of Business.

"That has made my life hell," Knox Burger told me once, when Burger was MacDonald's editor at Fawcett Publishing's Gold Medal Books, which really established John D. solidly as a novelist long before Travis McGee came along.

"His business education has made your life hell?"

"Yeah," said Knox. "I mean, half the truly good businessmen in America waste their time trying to be writers, and are lousy at it. I got the only #%# in the U.S. who is a truly fine writer and wastes his time trying to be a businessman."

Getting my first letter from John D. MacDonald was a grand and glorious thing for me. I was hammering away at short stories, some published, lots rejected. His name, as I say, was known to every writer, at least every writer crass enough to consider money a partial motivation for writing. (And Samuel Johnson said nobody but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money.)

I never had the nerve to leave a newspaper paycheck with my swiftly-growing family, but I wrote a lot on the side. Eventually things picked up and, occasionally, I would sell a story to Collier's or Saturday Evening Post and, with progressive frequency, Cosmopolitan (which was different then).

MacDonald had the back-of-the-book mystery in damn near every issue of Cosmo. He was a very famous writer, particularly to writers. So one dull day when I pulled a letter out from my bills I could hardly believe it.

He had some kind things to say about my stories that he had read in Cosmo, and he actually knew I was from Florida, and John D. MacDonald asked me to let him know if and when I was in Sarasota. That was a very big day for me.

And when I went to Siesta Key a little later to do a magazine piece on Mackinlay Kantor, John lined it up for me. This was back in the days when there was one bar on Siesta Key, and when Kantor won the Pulitzer for Andersonville which he had written in a bug-filled van down the beach to avoid the gawking tourists he hated, and when (to my thinking) the greatest thing in Sarasota was the Friday writer's "lunch" at a local Spanish restaurant.

The lunch varied in length. Some swore one had once lasted three days.

I do remember one six-hour lunch when MacDonald won all the money at dollar-bill poker, I finally went out to sleep in his car and later learned he had dropped two other writers off at their respective homes due to inability to drive ... then he went home and, that night, finished the final 6,500 words of a novelette with a deadline the following day.

He got plots everywhere. (I was with him once in a bank. A devastating blonde was in line, the object of bug-eyed lecherous stares. He said, "You could rob the joint with her in here, and none of these guys would even know it." A year later I read his short story with that precise plot.) [The story JDM wrote was titled "Who's the Blonde?" and it was published in the August 9, 1952 issue of Collier's.]

He had an innocent look and a diabolical sense of humor. He took me with him to the private screening of Cape Fear, from his novel The Executioners, and had a stranger collect $6 from me at the door for our "tickets."

Last year he somehow talked me into speaking at the Sarasota Library Dinner. I fear public speaking, fear it badly, but he swore on the phone it was “just a few book lovers" who sat around and talked.

When I got to Sarasota he informed me, to my unspeakable horror, that I had to (and somehow did) speak from a podium at a formal luncheon to what seemed like, and I guess was, hundreds of people.

He thought that served me right for allowing myself to be conned.

Now what I remember is John D. showing me the great word-processing system he wrote on. He was enthusiastic as a 20-year-old. His silky white hair was messed up, his eyes bright with life, his laugh echoed throughout his big house.

He had a look of freedom about him. He looked the exact way the definitive free-lancer should look.

Monday, May 20, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 21: March 11, 1948

Here's the next installment of John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column, published in the Clinton (NY) Courier during the period when the family was living there. The original from which I transcribed this column was damaged and repaired with tape which developed some serious yellowing over the years, obscuring about three lines of text in two different columns. There's not much to miss here, as JDM offers very little original writing in this installment.

It's Delightful to Be Married:

Through channels too devious to describe, except that one of the links in the chain was one "Scoop" Benton of the Herkimer paper, we have received a society page from the Mayville [...] which tells of a wedding to [...] we print a few verbatim, unchanged paragraphs as they originally appeared in the Mayville newspaper:

"Arrangements for the wedding of Miss Duke are charming in every detail and notable for a number of reasons. Recapturing her idyllic connotation of a wedding in her ancestral home characterized by beauty without fanfare, Saturday's suave and sweet-smiling bride will see a dream fulfilled. Unabashedly sentimental, precious association within her charmed circle where care has only gazed at her wistfully, and enriched by tradition to delight in and to love will forever endear a host of enchanting memories to burn brightly of this important day."

Gosh!

"The recessed windows, prudently protected by inside shutters, will permit a golden ray of daylight brightness to seep through the old glass, tinted and iridescent with the sun and rain of years, to bestow the implied benediction, 'Happy is the bride the sun shines on.'

"The bride as she enters the room lightly elasping the arm of her father who will give her in marriage will be as lovely as happiness, youth and artistry can make one. Living up to her reputation for soignee, her flair for individuality and fastidious smartness will be expressed in a shirtwaist dress of pure silk introducing a novel and vibrant color combination of gold, cherry red and gray -- each shade accented with white polka dot. Cut with discernment, the gold-colored blouse has a high wing collar, push-up sleeves and in the back is buttoned twelve times. Underscored with taffeta to provide sound effects the agate gray twirl skirt -- hemmed a short eight inches from the floor -- swings and sways in fashion's new way. The fascinating aspect of the gown is the deep, boned cummerbund of cherry red tied at the back in a large bow finishing with long ends..."

Can't you just see her?

"Slanted aft and framing her lovely blonde hair will be a gray shadow-play straw bonnet with an upward tilt in front. Yards of matching veiling in large octagonal mesh swathe the head and shoulders."

Nice nautical touch, that.

"After the bride and bridegroom have cut the first slice of cake, the agreeable responsibility will be taken over by Miss Laura Browning who for the occasion will pick from her closet a gown of black crepe and wear with it a large beige felt hat with graceful spreading brim adorned with large black silk roses."

"For her journey the bride will change to a dark brown crepe dress with swish and swank. Deceptively simple in design, a pleated peplum gives its subtle perfection a dressy touch.

"Prophetic of a fashion to come, her costume will reach a sophisticated peak when she 'wings away' in a flattening minoche worn sideways on her head and hugging the right side of her face. The flamboyant bird-wings visualize the palette in brown ranging from deep, rich African brown to a tangerine orange... Topping this striking outfit will be a throw coat of mink flaring softly at the back like a cape.”

It is perfectly obvious to us why the correspondent of the Mayville paper reported this function in advance. Undoubtedly the function itself put the reporter into a swoon from which she may not as yet have recovered.

We go on record right now as saying that something is missing from local marriages up here in the austere North. We must regain that precious quality of breathlessness, buttoned in the back twelve times.

* * *

From the Mailbox:

Dear "Top of the Hill":

Ever since you got into local print, I have wished you well. Some weeks you quite amuse me. Some weeks you don't. All the same, I would rather you had an opinion I didn't agree with than no opinion at all.

The little whimsey of fashion was good, if simple fun. But the careless launching of a campaign for a public address system in the hockey building fills me with horror. If they gave them away, I'd be opposed. What do you mean the games "would be a great deal more enjoyable to all spectators"? People that really like hockey go to watch the game, they don't have to be told about it. Any spectator paying so little attention that he didn't know who made the goal, probably doesn't care anyway. As for penalties, if our side made the errors, the least said, the better. And the opponents should be shown the same consideration.

If you really want to raise money both the College and the village have worthy causes they are plugging. Why not adopt one of them? Or if you want to launch a new project, how [...]

Sincerely yours, Reader.

This letter was typed and, of course, anonymous.

However, we will go out on a limb and make a few guesses about the identity of the person who wrote it.

Something about the tone makes us think it is from a woman. There is a freshness of viewpoint and yet a maturity that leads us to guess she is probably in her late thirties. She can snarl a little, so we will assume she has claws. She takes an interest in local affairs so we can assume that she is probably a "joiner" as far as local organizations are concerned. The tree reference leads us to assume that she is not connected with the college.

She too freely uses the phrase "your home town". No one born here would use this phrase in reference to a furriner like us. So we can assume that she, like us, is in a certain sense also a newcomer to Clinton. Certainly not as much as ten years residence. Maybe closer to five.

And one last guess. She doesn't know hockey. When there's a tangle at the far cage, even the most died-in-the-wool fans are confused.

Has anybody seen a well-educated woman in her late thirties with claws, membership in local organizations, five years residence or so in Clinton, not connected with the college and relatively ignorant about hockey?

If a man wrote the letter, we're going to look pretty darn silly.

* * *

See you next week.