Monday, April 29, 2019

Would You Like Something to Read?

One of the oddest entries in the canon of John D MacDonald’s writing has to be his single piece written for the “Adult Humor” magazine National Lampoon. Published in the November 1985 issue titled “The Mad as Hell Issue,” the issue featured scores of brief rants by noted writers and celebrities on things that particularly irritated them. MacDonald’s piece was titled "Exploitation of Grief" and I transcribed it back in 2010 for the blog. It reads like an aside in a Travis McGee novel.

Four years earlier JDM was the subject of Nat Lamp’s particular brand of humor in its July 1981 issue they called “Endless, Mindless Summer Sex”. (I suppose nearly all of their issues could have been labeled thusly.) A piece written by Sean Kelly and Ted Mann titled “Would You Like Something to Read?” was a satire of a regular book column and featured “reviews” of new novels John D MacDonald, along with a handful of made-up writers like Angelica Sitwell, E. Claude Boll and Hugo Lestoil.

Here is a transcription of the Crime section, featuring the review of JDM’s new Travis McGee book. Like most of National Lampoon’s humor, it is adult and politically incorrect.

CRIME

Monthly, John D. MacDonald issues a new paperback private-eye thriller from his costly Florida bunker chronicling the adventures of that "slightly tarnished knight in tanned and lanky armor” Travis McGee. But fans of the series have detected a certain drop-off in quality recently. The Awful Yellow Chinaman was just a reworking of last year's The East Is Terribly Red; and The Horrible Key Lime Pie was not so much a murder mystery as a Miami restaurant review. The Terrific Pink Gin and its successor, The Scary Purple Elephant, suggested that John D. was losing his battle with the bottle, and one feared that an appropriate title for the next McGee caper might be A Black Eye for Detective Fiction.

But we are pleased to be able to praise without reservation Mr. MacDonald's new book, another in the Travis saga but in every way a superior departure from the norm. Set in the demimonde of the homosexual writing community in Key West, it sheds new light on the relationship between Travis and his swarthy longtime boat buddy, Meyer. Most exciting scene? The bitchy brunch chez Tennessee Williams, after which Meyer salves Travis's many psychic bruises and seduces him gently with a twelve-page monologue explaining supply-side economics. We can heartily recommend this new and different Travis adventure, The Winking Brown Eye.

Angelica Sitwell, heiress apparent to Agatha Christie's title as queen of English detective fiction, has another elegant whodunit in the bookshops this summer. It features the intelligent and charming amateur detective, herself a successful writer of detective fiction, Angela Standgood, to whom we were first introduced in Ms. Sitwell's previous Murder Most British. This one is titled, in England, Murder at the Women Writers of Detective Fiction Club, but it has been released in America as Scribble Scribble Die Die! The plot? In a series of gruesomely fitting murders, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James, Amanda Cross, Catherine Aird, and Mary Stewart are all bumped off, leaving the indefatigable and delightful Ms. Standgood as the only member, and thus president, of the club. The identity of the killer is a real surprise!

Aficionados of offbeat European detective fiction -- and aren't we all? -- will be sure to enjoy A Specter Is Haunting, the latest case for Eurocommunist vegetarian Interpol inspector Marco Venzetti to solve. Marco, a "big, hairy, lovable, mystical bear of a proletarian intellectual of a man,” this time investigates a series of Swiss industrial accidents, and proves, with the aid of his underground pal, Carlos the Jackal, that reactionary capitalists are the real culprits! Marco's many American devotees, will eat this one up like mung beans!

Monday, April 22, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 19: February 26, 1948

The next entry in John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column from 1947-48 when the family was living in Clinton, New York. Back in 2016 I presented this in its entirety as one of the entries for this blog. Here it is again. 

As mentioned in that previous post, this "contains a cat story that was omitted from The House Guests (the mole) and one that was included, albeit in a more detailed version (the Mattingly’s Gothic cat door)."

Personals:

We have a subscription to a magazine called Writer's Digest, and we are fond of it not only because it has information about changes in editors and magazines and such, but because it has one of the most fascinating "Personals" column we have ever seen anywhere. This week we'll give you a random sample.

"GUAM POSTMARK -- Your letters mailed from Guam. 25¢ each -- five for one dollar."

Right there, friends, you have the perfect method of handling those eager creditors. Acknowledge receipt of your bills from Guam.

"A PLAN OF ACTION lies behind every success. Write me about one thing you desire. A specific plan by return mail. $2 Box...."

Think of the incredible wisdom of someone who can whip up a plan of action for you and get it off by return mail!

"A YOUNG MAN struggling sincerely to achieve writing success. I need time. Your dollar may turn the tide. Box...."

After the first three dollars arrive, this paying for the ad, our unknown friend is in the only business I've ever heard of with a 100% net. And whatever he gets is apparently subject to gift taxes, not income tax.

"25 CENTS WILL BRING a poem written just for you. Any subject, any length."

One of these days we're going to send in two bits and ask for a poem on the subject of writing a newspaper column.

"HELP WOMAN. Unpublished novel yours for $1.50, cash. Box...."

Sadder words than these were never written. As a short, short, short story, it is superb.

"LUANA: Please write. Joe."

If we ever meet Luana, we'll certainly tell her a thing or two. Poor old Joe has been putting the same line in for month after month after month. We suspect that Luana is a rich, cool and heartless debutante who. during her war career with the WAVES, was stationed at some little town where she toyed heartlessly with the affections of poor, but honest Joe. Luana has gone back to the dizzy whirl of the big city, leaving Joe with enormous tears in his eyes and no way to find her except by paying his forty cents a month for those four little words that are like a moan in the night.

Luana, why don't you at least write to him?

* * *

Local Animal Life:

One of our cats, Geoffrey, the adventurous one, has insisted a dozen times this winter on being dropped out one specific window. It is not politic to ignore the demands of our cats. They have high, nasal voices and limitless persistence.

Each time he was dropped out of this one window he proceeded to dig a hole in the snow in which he would wedge his head, and we had about decided that he was psychoneurotic. We thought maybe the endless winter we getting him and he was trying to finish himself off in a suitable manner.

Then the snow melted, and we find that deep under where Geoffrey was digging, a mole had rooted up a patch about two yards square, going around and around and around where we had optimistically hoped to have grass, come summer. Friend mole operated like a miniature trench digger.

Anyway, Geoffrey has vindicated himself by depositing the body of the mole on the side porch, and has been walking around looking smug ever since.

But even with all the snow, we suspect that Geoffrey has been getting his mouse ration regularly. Our neighbor, earlier in the winter, asked us to bring him over to the barn. We did so and introduced him to a new, small Gothic arch cut through the barn door. Since the introduction, his tracks have led directly to the arch.

* * *

College Hill Driving:

Driving a car up and down College Hill is the most exciting winter sport available in this vicinity. Ski enthusiasts, well versed in high-tempo turns and forty degree slopes have been known to turn pale before making even the first turn on College Hill.

As a topic of conversation, the condition of the Hill is unexcelled. Old residents spend many happy hours comparing techniques and methods for the proper approach.

There is no thrill comparable to rounding the first turn on your way up, only to find someone bearing down on you sideways. Strong men, having zoomed all the way up, only to come to a dead stop with wheels spinning a scant fifteen feet from the crest, have been known to sit behind the wheel with the tears dripping off their chins while the cars slowly sagged backward toward the abyss.

Coming down the hill is most exhilarating. The moment of suspense arrives when you let the car take over and let it decide whether it will carom off a snowdrift, or off another vehicle on the way up.

A few times a winter there comes what is known as a "tangle". This is a technical term and refers to that moment when two or three cars, with fenders locked, slide slowly and majestically down to the foot of the hill, where they provide a sort of backstop for any number of other cars which crunch into the group.

The happy people laugh and shout, and their cheers are punctuated by the crinkling of fenders and the tinkle of breaking headlights.

Unless you have participated in one of their "tangles" and unless your car bears the honorable wounds and scars of the icy battle, you cannot claim to have really enjoyed the sport.

A much gayer time would be had by all. of course, were it not for the spoilsports who are all the time sprinkling the grand slide with salt, ashes and sundry abrasive materials.

* * *
See you next week.

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”