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.

1 comment:

  1. A real find, Steve, and way to go--as always!--for finding it and sharing it. Thanks, man. You're a treasure--and not just because you know where the treasures are. Keith