Monday, January 28, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 13: January 15, 1948

Another edition of John D MacDonald's 1947-48 Clinton Courier newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill. In JDM's prior column he wrote about a radio show he was really enjoying in spite of himself. He prefaced his remarks with many of the reasons he did not like radio in general, characterizing it as a medium full of "oily commercials" and "a series of ragged puns which will curdle your day." This apparently upset one of his readers, who responded with a long, detailed letter full of facts and figures. Here MacDonald shares that letter, along with his responses. 

I think JDM is trying to be funny here, but his constant use of the terms "pal" and "son" when addressing the writer brings to mind a letter Dan Rowan wrote to MacDonald many years later. He, too, had gotten on JDM's wrong side and began his letter thusly: "When you ream someone, I can see that old Army background shining through... you do a fine job of it."

Look What We Found in the Mailbox!

We found a letter objecting to our unpremeditated and unprincipled attack last week on the great institution of American Radio. In fact, the guy sending us the letter also sent it to WIBX to be read over the Rural Editor Speaks Program next Saturday between 8:15 and 8:30 A.M.

We reprint the letter in full, except for a poem, but set the letter up here as conversation, a discussion if you will. Because his viewpoint seems to be that of the radio business, we will call him Broadcaster, and call us Listener.

He starts off with the poem, which mentions a hill-top and for that we thank him dearly, then...

Broadcaster: I am sending this along to my friend the Timekeeper at WIBX who is also the fellow who tries his best to keep radio in the groove and enables us to listen to the medium thru the kindness of some sponsors, who, mind you, in the final analysis only get a modicum of advertising from a maximum of expenditure and I am asking that he reads this over his Rural Editor Speaks column next Saturday between 8:15 and 8:30 A.M.

Listener: Buried in that sentence somewhere, pal, are some pretty broad statements. In the final analysis, you say. Whose analysis? And I wonder about that word "kindness." Maybe the sponsors I have known have been exceptions. When they spend money for advertising, "Kindness" is furthest from their mind. They want sales. Pretty hard-headed cookies, believe me. And bless me, what's a modicum of advertising? My dictionary says it means a little, a small quantity of portion. What have you got to back this up?

Broadcaster: "I have been keeping a very close count on the amount of commercial chatter over WIBX for a typical day, and from my record which I have before me, I find that out of a total of broadcast hours, from 6:00 A.M. till 12:05 A.M., a total of 18 hours and 5 minutes -- there were exactly a total of 3 hours and nine minutes, counting what are called announcements between programs, and those included in quarter, half and full hour programs."

Listener: Look! He's going to beat me to death with statistics? Son, you say only three out of seventeen hours are filled with commercials. To me, that is like having a man beat you on the head with a hammer for three hours and then spend the next fourteen hours trying to tell you it doesn't hurt. I wasn't kicking about the quantity of the commercials. I was kicking about the flavor of same. Unctuous voices quoting phoney statistics about doctor's preferences. Flat little female voices whining nursery rhymes about where to buy what. Commercials that bleat the product name at you nineteen times in sixty seconds. "Love that Soap."

Broadcaster: "In other words, listeners heard 14 hours and 56 minutes of entertainment such as Lux Radio Theatre, My Friend Irma, Screen Guild, and while these programs paid the talent at no less than $61,000 and $28,895 for station time on complete network they only received a total of 3 hours and 9 minutes commercial chatter."

Listener: Three hours and nine minutes of severe test of the gag reflex, pal. And what makes you think the programs you get are so good once you have staggered through the ripe, juicy commercials? Let me refer you to the Saturday Evening Post of January 10th, 1948 in which Paul Schubert has an article titled "A Radio Man Looks at Radio." Paul is one of the people on the inside of radio. He says, and I quote, "I do say, however, that taken by and large, radio in the United States is dull, stereotyped, unimaginative and depressing, a mechanical mental narcotic which fills the hours of the day and night for countless people only for want of anything better. It is tolerated and accepted, but it is not really enjoyed." Last week's column was written and in the Courier office before Mr. Schubert's article hit the stands. I politely suggest you read it.

Broadcaster: "These figures may sound fantastic to you, John D., but when you consider that some of these programs attract in the neighborhood of 40,000,000 people, the cost per listener is much cheaper than the rate your estimable newspaper charges its individual reader for such stuff as you write."

Listener: You can get the Courier 40 years for what a $100 radio costs, son. I am not one to low-rate the American people. Okay, so 40,000,000 of us listen to a program. How does that make it good? Maybe it is the best program available at the time. Or shall we say the least bad. Look at our culture, pal. Books, radio and movies have for twenty years been finding a level of intelligence that is an insult to the capacities of the American People. There are more man hours of leisure today in this country than ever before. Maybe this mechanization and mass production of simple-minded amusements to fill the leisure hours marks the beginning of the decline of Western civilization. May I suggest you read, or re-read, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. There you will see the inevitable end of mass production of narcotic-type amusement which puts no strain on the listener's intelligence. And about the stuff I write, I am a free agent. I am protecting nobody's interests. I am uncensored. I can say what I think. Can radio?

Broadcaster: "Listeners to radio have the ability and responsibility of twisting their dials to find what they want, but when they buy your weekly, these either read it, or use for the garbage collector to pick up the remnants of a meal."

Listener: My goodness! It's far better to line bureau drawers with it. After it's read. But to get back to the radio audience. Sure, anybody can turn a dial. To what? To a very, very few acceptable programs. I recommend, rather than the tinsel splendor of the programs you suggested, Invitation to Learning, CBS is There, Suspense, Chicago Roundtable, and, a comedian as yet unspoiled by radio, Abe Burrows.

Broadcaster: "Perhaps John D might become a listener to the new science in radio: FM... YOU TRY IT. BUY A PILOTUNER for listening musical thrills: your friend John Farquhar will sell you one for $29.75 and then you'll get a real kick out of radio..."

Listener: Hey! You slipped a commercial in there, pal. Unfair! And by the way, I understand that one of the reasons for FM popularity is because sponsors' dollars haven't yet forced mediocrity on it -- and there is a delightful dearth of commercials. Don't tell me that too...!!

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Long Lavender Lament For Literacy

Walter and Jean Shine’s Bibliography-Biography, the sine qua non of bibliographic research into the works of John D MacDonald, was published in late 1980 by the University of Florida’s Patrons of the Libraries. Costing a mere $9, the initial (and, as it turned out, the only) publication run was 500 copies. Yet even that small number of books didn’t sell out and a year later the University was still sitting on quite a few copies. In November 1981 the University’s UF Today magazine published an article on MacDonald, containing interview quotes, info on the JDM Collection at the University, ordering instructions for the Bibliography-Biography, and bits of boilerplate from the the standard JDM biography. I recently found a copy of the article in my collection -- just the article, not the magazine -- titled "The Long Lavender Lament for Literacy," written by one Janie Gould, and I've transcribed it and present it below. Most of MacDonald’s quotes concern the lack of literacy in the young people of the day, thoughts that would later appear in his final work, Reading for Survival.

JDM seems to have been quite prescient on the wages of a non-reading public. I wonder what he would think of today’s cellphone-addicted culture.

Young people who are apathetic or cynical got that way because they are illiterate, says best-selling novelist John D. MacDonald.

"I think their despair and indifference is the product of ignorance, which in turn is the product of being unable to read,” said MacDonald, of Sarasota, author of more than 600 short stories and 70 novels, including the 1977 hit Condominium and the 19-book Travis McGee mystery series. The University of Florida Libraries, repository of his papers, recently published a bibliography on his life and work.

"Young people can read a contract if they have to sign it,” he said. “They can write a letter to Auntie if she's not too particular, but other than that, forget it.

“The only way you can get an appreciation of morality in its broadest sense is through reading philosophy, history and literature. If they don't read, they come away with the idea that, 'Oh dear, the world is corrupt.”

“They haven't the knowledge through reading that nothing has changed to that extent. If you read enough history you know that we live in a time that's so restful it's almost boring.”

Illiteracy isn't confined to the young, MacDonald said. Only six percent of all Americans read anything more than their daily newspaper and what they have to read at work, he said.

“Reading is an effort, because you have to make little pictures in your head. That causes a little electrical discharge, and if you read a long time you can get tired from the effort of constructing those images. It's easier to sit in front of the television set and let somebody make images for you."

The widespread popularity of romance novels isn't a bad sign, MacDonald said. In fact, he said the literary form was born in the fiction of such magazines as Collier's, The Delineator, and Ladies Home Journal during their pre-television heydays.

"When the market dried up, because television took the advertising money, television replaced those stories with daytime soaps. Reading, for a certain percentage of those people, is much more satisfying, and leads to a better conscience, than staring at the television. I don't care what they read, as long as they read."

MacDonald, who began his career writing for pulp magazines, has written everything from science fiction to sports fiction and western fiction. But no love books and no confessions.

"They were just too sticky."

MacDonald has been sending his papers to the University of Florida Libraries since 1956. Housed in the Rare Books Room and available for use by scholars, his collection includes most of his short stories and all of his novels, many in multiple printings and in languages from Norwegian to Spanish.

"We may have the first all the way through the 28th, 29th and 30th printings," said assistant
library director Sam Gowan.

The MacDonald collection contains manuscripts and a fascinating array of correspondence, including hundreds of letters from readers throughout the world.

From a Sarasota woman came this note: "I love mysteries, especially the Fibber McGee.”

From Newark, N.J.: "Dear Monsignor MacDonald, as I insist that my family call you ..."

A California prison inmate wrote this note: “I have, with your help, escaped from San Quentin and Folsom Prisons about 40 times...I have even flown out of my cell with the girl, the gold watch and everything...My work has taken me to all the islands of the Caribbean and to all the plush resort areas of Mexico...(Your work) has given freedom and adventure and excitement to a man who is entombed and has no life of his own.”

MacDonald recently sent the library typewritten manuscripts of the five false starts of his latest Travis McGee novel, Free Fall in Crimson. The manuscripts, of 28 pages, 57 pages, 10 pages, 44 pages and 39 pages, were written and then discarded before MacDonald settled on the beginning he wanted.

"I thought they might be of some interest to the student of writing, and also they illustrated beautifully my problem of trying to find the right starting place," he said.

MacDonald said he decided to deposit his papers in the UF Libraries to show students what writing is all about.

"They think that writing is traveling, cocktail parties and great broads. But what it is is sitting at a desk until you get shortness of breath and varicose veins and all that."

The bibliography, listing contents of the collection along with biographical information on MacDonald and critical essays, was compiled by Jean and Walter Shine of North Palm Beach, and is available for $9 a copy. Checks should be made payable to the Patrons of the UF Libraries, and sent to 217 Library West, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611. Proceeds will help pay for maintenance of the collection and for expansion of collections by other contemporary authors.

A few facts from that bibliography:

  • As a 12-year-old, MacDonald spent a year in bed with a combination of scarlet fever and mastoiditis. “I think that long episode of reading and being read to made a considerable difference in my mental climate,” he said. “I entertained myself by exercises of imagination, and still do.”

  • At the insistence of his father, a corporation executive, MacDonald entered the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out in his sophomore year. After working at a series of menial jobs, he earned a bachelor's degree at Syracuse and a master's at Harvard Business School.

  • He is married to the former Dorothy Prentiss, a photographer. Their son Maynard lives in New Zealand with his wife and five children.

  • MacDonald's first piece of fiction, a short story called “Interlude in India," was written to his wife in lieu of a letter while he was stationed in India during World War II. Mrs. MacDonald typed it and submitted it to Story Magazine which bought it for $25.

  • In addition to his novels and short stories, MacDonald has written two books of nonfiction, including No Deadly Drug, about the murder trial of New Jersey physician Carl Coppolino. It was required reading at Harvard Law School.

  • Total worldwide sales of his books are approaching 70 million, or roughly 7,000 copies every day since his first novel appeared in 1950.

The University of Florida eventually stopped offering copies of the Bibliography-Biography for sale and it never saw a second printing. A second edition that was planned by the Shines -- one that I helped do research for -- also never saw the light of day. Years later I would occasionally see copies for sale on eBay for three figures, but those sightings were few and far between. Happily, the University has scanned a copy and it is available for viewing on the web to anyone with a connection.

Monday, January 14, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 12: January 8, 1948

Another installment of John D MacDonald’s early Clinton (NY) Courier newspaper column From the Top of the Hill. Here he reacts to the then-recent Senate testimony of President Harry Truman’s personal physician, who was being investigated for having a discretionary brokerage account that traded in commodities. Then he writes about a radio show he had become “addicted to,” Youth Opportunity Program, a Major Bowes-like talent show hosted by bandleader Horace Heidt, and which ran from December 1947 to August 1949. Finally he presents a MacDonald family problem that probably occurred all too often given his chosen line of work.

Why All the Wrist-Slapping?

We are completely baffled by the governmental fingers wagged in a threatening fashion at the so-called "speculators" in grain and such.

It would be a criminal sort of activity if any member of the government speculated on the basis of inside information he obtained by reason of his government job. We doubt if the president's physician had any pipeline to the inside information. Thus we assume that the man was talking his chances.

All the recent fuss seems to ignore two very basic factors:

A. This so-called "speculation" is a basic and indispensable part of our economic system. It is the means by which price levels are ascertained. Stock prices are found by a lot of people buying and a lot of people selling, all of them hoping to make a dollar.

B. Also, the greater the risk, the greater the profit. The government apparently feels that speculation is some sort of synonym for making money. It is easier to lose than to make money.

President Truman apparently feels disturbed because this "speculation" is artificially raising the price levels to the ultimate consumers. Speculation can make periodic artificial increases or reductions in price levels, but ultimately supply and demand will determine the base price.

It seems almost stupid that in complaining about a basic device in our economic system, people should shout, "Nasty!" Nasty!" about the people who participate, in spite of the fact that they have a perfect legal right and, for our money, moral right to do so.

We are forced to assume that the government has placed itself in the position of saying, "All this speculation is a Bad Thing, and anybody who indulges is a Bad Person, but it does perform some kind of a function we think, and leave us alone long enough and maybe we'll find something which will do just as well."

Why shouldn't a man who works for the government use his own funds as he sees fit? Our economic system is based, for its controls and checks, on a lot of people trying to make a quick buck.

Now they are making it look as though the president's physician was going around shutting children's fingers in car doors.

* * *

For Your Listening Pleasure...

Usually we avoid a radio dial with the same care that an old line Democrat avoids Henry Wallace.

It's not that we are in any way proud of not being addicted to the narcotic which is merchandised over the air. We'd like to listen.

We do listen to some music now and again, but the risk is too great. You can be hunting for a program of music and, if you aren't quick enough, you can get a jolt of oily commercial, or a series of ragged puns which will curdle your day.

As a rule, we grasp the radio dial firmly and turn it sharply to the left. That starts the record turntable.

"Eminent physicians recommend..." Sixty-three percent of all housewives prefer..." You, too, can be free from..."

But five weeks ago last Sunday night at ten thirty the radio was on and we were too weary to walk over and turn it off. We heard a variation of the old "amateur night" stuff, all tied up into a brand new package.

Horace Heidt, travelling for P. Morris, hits a new city each week and carries with him the winner to the next city to compete with local talent.

The winner the first week, Dick Cantino, accordionist, has successfully defended himself against all comers for five weeks.

So now it is like taking drugs. Each Sunday night we have to find out if this Cantino character has run into someone better. We'd like to quit listening. We think of the carefree Sundays when the program didn't exist.

Now we're trapped. The advertising on the program is as objectionable as anybody's. The whole setup is as fraudulently commercial as can be imagined. And yet there is the Cantino kid from a Fresno butcher shop, knocking them over each week with an instrument we never cared for anyway. We keep asking ourselves why we should care one way of the other. But it seems that we do.

So we put this in here in hopes of trapping others. "You, too, can be an addict! Radio is one of the simplest, most effective drugs ever devised! Fifty-one percent of all practicing psychiatrists say: (New voice, heavy and impressive) 'In my long experience I have never found a more effective narcotic than modern American radio'"

* * *

Winter Scene

Setting: Warm house. Outside the sunshine is brilliant on the deep snow. Inside children run gaily back and forth making sound like herd of buffalo. Also heard -- feeble clicking of typewriter.

Male Voice: (Plaintively) Why don't those kids play outside?

Female Voice: (Forced cheerfulness) It's a lovely day, children. Why don't you play outside for a while?

Little Voices: (Yammering) Nah! We like it in here. We dowanna go out!

Male Voice: Don't ask 'em. Tell 'em!

Female Voice: Get your things, children. You're going out.

(Sound of bitter complaint and grumbling, then numerous grunting noises as feet are poked into leggings, overshoes are stomped on.)

Little Voices: Where's my other mitten? I can't find my hat. I can't get this zipper undone. Who took my other ski-pole? You seen my overshoes?

Female Voice: Look on the radiator in the hall. Have you looked in the front hall closet? How about the cellar stairs?

(Period of silence while noise of tramping buffalo fills the house and typewriter makes two small clicking noise.)

Little Voices: We dowanna go out. Do we hafta go out, huh? We dowanna.

Male Voice: Are they all dressed for the outdoors?

Female Voice: Yes, dear.

(Sound of heavy and determined male footsteps. Small bleating noise from children. Outside door opens. Swishing noises. Outside door slams shut. In the distance there is a faint sound like that which would be made by children head-down in thick snow. More heavy male footsteps. The house is silent. The typewriter begins, hesitantly at first, then confidently, almost joyously.)

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, January 7, 2019


The recent passing of President George H.W. Bush brought to mind a long-ago magazine article I once read in The Washingtonian magazine. It was the April 1982 issue and the piece -- written by Jack Germond and Jules Witcover -- was titled “Why Do Conservatives Hate Bush?” The authors postulated that although Bush was a loyal VP to President Ronald Reagan, he was viewed as “Nelson Rockefeller in sheep’s clothing” by something they called “The New Right,” a nebulous entity that included long-forgotten “masterminds” such as Terry Dolan and Richard Viguerie. Alongside the article was an info box titled “Facts and Figures: The Inside Stuff,” which listed birthdate, religion and a list of favorites. Here it is:

I was working with JDM Bibliographer Walter Shine at the time, helping him chase down some loose ends for a second edition of his Bibliography - Biography (which, sadly, was never published) and I sent a copy of the article to him as material for his column in the JDM Bibliophile. He wrote back a thank you, along with some fiery adjectives about the article's subject, proving that Bush, moderate Republican though he may have been, had no friends on the left either. (People who think things are overly partisan now have very short memories.)

Anyway, Bush was a good man, a war hero, a citizen who dedicated his life to the service of his country. And, I might add, a man with impeccable literary tastes.