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Unless MacDonald had an unpublished one tucked away, The Lonely Silver Rain of 1984 marks the end of the color-coded adventures of Travis McGee.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