Monday, January 20, 2020

Architecture as Art

Edward J. “Tim” Seibert
On August 7, 1999 the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects awarded the firm Seibert Architects of Sarasota their 25-year “Test of Time” award for the design and construction of a particular building within the state. The building in question was John and Dorothy MacDonald’s last home on Siesta Key, built on a private and relatively remote (at the time) waterfront site at the end of Ocean Place near Big Pass.

In 1966 when the planning process began for this new home, the MacDonalds had been living in a home near the end of Point Crisp Road, two and a half miles down the key on a small spit of land jutting out into Little Sarasota Bay. Built for the MacDonald’s in 1951-52 the house was located at the end of what was supposedly a private road that ran the length of the peninsula. But the road wasn’t gated or guarded, and anyone who wanted to could drive down the road and park in front of the house and bang on the door -- which, apparently, happened frequently.

“The road and the right of way go right past the front of the house,” MacDonald wrote in 1966. “People we do not know have an increasing lack of respect for the privacy we need in order to work.”

The design and work on the new house took three years, with John and Dorothy moving in in July 1969, and it couldn’t have been more different from where they had been living for the past 17 years. With vast, open spaces and lots of light, the house looked like no other and provided the MacDonald’s with their much-sought privacy.

On the morning of the awards ceremony the Tampa Bay Times published a reminiscence by Edward J. “Tim” Seibert, the designer of the home and owner of the architectural firm. It’s an illuminating piece with (for me) one big surprise, which I’ll address at the end. The article was preceded by a short intro written by Times “Homes Editor” Judy Stark.



A glimpse into the design process

For some people, the image of Florida is shaped not by theme parks and palm trees but by the fiction of John D. MacDonald, longtime resident of Siesta Key. His rough-diamond hero, Travis McGee, is the ultimate beach bum, man-about-the-waterfront and solver of mysteries.

McGee served as his creator's mouthpiece, speaking out in behalf of the state's ruined beauty: the poisoned Everglades, overdevelopment, building on the beaches. MacDonald crafted "strong statements about what man's greed has done and is doing to despoil our state's natural resources - statements that are just as relevant today" as they were in the mid-'60s, writes critic Ed Hirshberg.

Tonight in Naples, the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects recognizes Seibert Architects of Sarasota with its 25-year “Test of Time" award for the home where MacDonald and his wife, Dorothy, lived for years.

The award honors works that, by the timelessness of their design, have influenced a particular building type. The MacDonald house, designed in 1966, draws on characteristics of Florida Cracker houses, and through the use of natural materials and compatible forms becomes one with its site, preserving existing mangroves and palm and oak trees.

In this essay, architect Edward J. “Tim” Seibert reflects on the design process and his relationship with John D. and Dorothy MacDonald during what he calls “a golden time" on the west coast of Florida.
- JUDY STARK

Architecture as Art

By Edward J. “Tim” Seibert

If one is going to feel romantic about a house, the John D. MacDonald residence on Siesta Key is a good choice. It stands on Big Pass, and one can look southwest to the Gulf of Mexico and northwest to the end of Lido Key, with pines filtering the view of resort hotels and condominiums. To the north and northeast, the sparkling city of Sarasota is a nighttime jewel of lights.

A little inlet called Fiddlers' Bayou curves in around the house, giving it water on three sides and making it potentially as vulnerable to tidal fluctuations and prevailing winds as the surrounding mangroves, oaks, palms and wild grasses. It is a structure specially built to withstand storm tides and high winds, as it has done for a third of a century now.

Approached from a boat on the gulf side, the great pyramidal, metal roof shining in the brilliant sunshine reflects the plan of the house, a powerful form that speaks eloquently of shelter to the sailor passing by. At night, the lighted underside makes the form more delicate, showing the poles and beams that hold up the 62-foot-square shape.

From the very beginning this house has been a magnet, attracting imaginative and historic interpretations: "a beautiful South Seas home," "reminiscent of the old fish houses on Florida's eastern coast," "shares many characteristics of the early Florida Cracker cottage," "a classic achievement in contemporary architecture" and on and on. It caught editorial attention in architectural and shelter publications in the United States, Europe and Japan.

For me, its designer, the form and function of the MacDonald house exists to offer its owners the joy of a close, secure relationship with its pristine coastal site. I was seeking clarity of form rather than style, with minimum intrusion into the site.

John D. MacDonald was one of America's most prolific and admired writers, completing 67 novels, five collections of stories and 500 magazine stories before he died, unexpectedly, in Sarasota in 1986. He was exceptionally quick to grasp new ideas. But until we began our work together to create the very private utopia John and his wife, Dorothy, had dreamed about for many years, they hadn't given the architecture of their new home much thought. Dorothy was a painter of abstract canvases and had studied with the acclaimed Syd Solomon, also a Siesta Key resident. My didactic nature welcomed their desire, as clients, to collaborate with me, their architect. In fact, Dorothy drew up the first floor plans.

We worked for several years on designs, beginning in 1966. The first house we designed was to be built on Manasota Key. My father, E.C. Seibert, who worked with me then as a structural engineer, got so far as building a fine boat basin at that Manatee site. John then decided he did not want to leave Siesta Key, where he had lived on Point Crisp for many years. So the project was moved to the present Big Pass site, and I designed quite a large house of heavy timber and stone, as John and Dorothy then wanted.

But as I worked along, my feeling grew that such a house would be much too massive and heavy-handed for its open, waterfront location. I was able to convince the MacDonalds that their residence should be more concise and elegant, designed from a clear geometric concept. It might also be less expensive, I advised, if it were smaller and designed in the contemporary manner. This is the concept of the house we finally built.

After my draftsman, Tom Walston, and I completed working drawings, another associate, architect Buddy Richmond, convinced me that he could make a final version that was more polished and spare, and with less expensive detailing. This final concept was drawn at office expense. John and Dorothy were such good clients, I felt they should have my very best effort. Besides, they understood and appreciated the design. Ours was the best relationship an architect can have with a client.

John and Dorothy moved into the house in 1969. For some time, as the house took shape, they had come to feel at one with the space. As the years went by, the house became more and more theirs, for both worked at home and spent the greater part of their time there. One corner of the house was Dorothy's studio, the other was filled with John's office machinery and files. Furnishings and art were not "designed" but were very much a part of the MacDonalds' lives, giving the space an authenticity that no designer can really accomplish. The only complaint I ever heard from John was that his house was so beautiful, it attracted gawkers.

My father did all the structural work for this building, which was unlike any other, at least any other built in these parts. One of the great problems to be solved was how to fasten together the uneven pine tree trunks that support the house, for they are rather like asparagus waving in the wind until you can capture them at the top. My father designed a series of specially fabricated steel connectors, which, being exposed and a design feature, were galvanized after fabrication. This was not inexpensive, and at times of such decisions, one comes to respect and enjoy an understanding and enthusiastic client.

The first selection for the poles was greenheart timber, imported from Central America, carefully specified for straightness. When the trees arrived, they did not meet specs. We sent them back. This was a hassle, and again we appreciated having a client like John D. My father and I then went up to Central Florida to choose growing pines. They were harvested, barked and treated for the house. All of this, added to our "courtesy" redraw of the final plans, was not conducive to profit. But then, the idea was “architecture as art.”

It was a golden time then. We were doing something good for the sake of doing it and giving it our very best. We were happy. Frank Thyne, our builder, joined us for lunch frequently at Sarasota's old Plaza Restaurant, the favorite watering hole of resident artists and writers, many internationally known. Frank gave me a two-martini education in literature and philosophy. In return, my father and I educated him about sailboats. Frank had attended the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne in France and had earned a doctorate in philosophy. He came to Florida in 1956 to teach himself to be a developer and house builder.

The Thyne construction crew were Mennonites, the very best craftsmen, who were proud they “could build anything an architect could draw.” Frank worried because they had an occasional habit of fasting. He made sure they ate regularly because “they tended to slow down when hungry."

The house is a strong one. As it was designed to do, it has weathered several hurricanes and a tidal wave. Each of the great Florida pine columns rests on a strong connector fitting of galvanized steel, set into a cubic yard of poured concrete, which in turn is supported by a piling that goes 12 feet down into Siesta Key's shell sand. My father also designed a breakwater in front of the seawall, made of stone riprap to absorb the force of the waves. The main structure of the house is 9 feet above the grade. John and Dorothy were the kind of people who could handle ideas like 49 trees going up through their living space. This stormproof house was built a good 10 years before the federal government made up all the building codes of today. The concept of a house that could withstand natural beachfront forces was a new idea then.

The 50-foot-square living space and the 12-foot surrounding porch have a constant roof slope that starts at 8 feet on the porch perimeter. The porch has a 4-foot overhang for tropical downpours. At the glass walls, 12 feet in from the porch edge, the roof is 12 feet high. It rises to some 22 feet at the center. It's a grand space, as only one bedroom and bath and the entry foyer have walls that touch the ceiling. The ceiling is structural deck, consisting of two layers of pine for strength and one layer of cedar. On top is a triple layer of insulation, over which is the galvanized roof.

Cut into the pyramid of the roof was a sun deck. I mention this to show what an understanding client John was. Perhaps people who write books understand the problems of composition with which others must struggle, for John was fair of skin and didn't sunbathe. However, he agreed that the deck was a place for a monumental stair to be built from the main floor hallway below. The hallway, a tall, triangular space, needed a sculptured form, the stairway, to fill it. Later we roofed over the sun deck, and John serendipitously had a rooftop writing room. Problems like this were solved in laughter and understanding friendship. John was a man of quick wit and high humor, and I miss him.


For me, this glass pavilion provides the ultimate visual extension, the architect's art of using the transparency of glass to extend the interior experience outward while bringing the surrounding landscape inside, making it a part of the interior landscape. From this strong, safe glass shelter, one becomes part of a soft, starlit, tropical night, the clash and flash of a thunderstorm, the wonderful serenity and soft dawn light of early morning.

Edward J. "Tim" Seibert's firm Seibert Architects is in Sarasota.

Edward J. “Tim” Seibert began his professional career in the Sarasota office of Paul Rudolph, premier conceptualist of the Sarasota School of Architecture. The Seibert firm is the longest continuously operating architectural practice in the area. The Sarasota School won recognition for the city in the 1950s and 1960s as the home of some of America's most innovative architects. In 1995, Tim Seibert received the Florida AIA Award of Honor for Design and last year was elected to the Jury of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.

To Seibert, the John D. MacDonald residence entirely represents the Sarasota School's philosophy. He does not believe in the validity of designing in "styles" but rather that building form should spring from the site, the owner's feelings and design program, and the traditions of the place where the structure will be built. A building, Seibert says, must express its own time and place, and so today, a contemporary form is the only logical way to build. “Without this basic logic, there is no architecture as art," he said.

Siebert writes “The first house we designed was to be built on Manasota Key. My father, E.C. Seibert, who worked with me then as a structural engineer, got so far as building a fine boat basin at that Manatee site. John then decided he did not want to leave Siesta Key…” In 1969 JDM’s friend Dan Rowan was building his own house on Manasota Key and was unhappy with some of the building restrictions preventing him from having “our own boats docked at the back of our property.” (Notice that “boats” is plural.) He wrote a letter a State Senator complaining about “curious restrictions” on dredge and fill. MacDonald heard about this and wrote Rowan a letter bringing him to task about this action. (Rowan wrote in response, “When you ream someone, I can see that old Army background shining through… you do a fine job of it.”)

Were the MacDonalds guilty of doing the exact same thing three years beforehand? In the same place?

For a nice color version of the house photo above check out Siebert's website here.


Monday, January 6, 2020

From the Top of the Hill #31: May 20, 1948

The next installment of John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column for the Clinton (NY) Courier back in 1947-1948. I presented this three and a half years ago on The Trap of Solid Gold.

Cinemantics:

A boy in his last year of Syracuse U. was up the other day to talk about this odd business of writing. His yen is to write for the movies.

There is a funny thing about writing for the movies. Any shooting script or plot outline sent to any major studio is returned unopened. And they have a good reason.

Suppose you send in a script, they read it and reject it, and four years later you see a movie which contains a scene startlingly reminiscent of your effort.

The odds are that it is a coincidence -- based on the very paucity of available plots. But the courts are inclined to discount coincidence, and any suit you might bring would have a high nuisance value.

So how do you arrange to write for the movies?

One -- write a novel that sells well. Despite popular superstition, the vast majority of sales to the movies are in the one to five thousand dollar range. Suppose they want to give you five thousand. You say, "No. Give me twenty-five hundred outright, and a ten week contract at two-fifty a week to work on the movie treatment."

That is your 'in'. Whether or not they pick your option at the end of the ten week period depends on whether you are able to produce for them.

Two -- make a name in the smooth paper magazines. Sooner or later a studio will see movie possibilities in one of your stories. Every story published in national magazines, both slick and pulp, is read by people in the major studios whose job is to do nothing else.

Three -- and this is the new way -- graduate from the University of Chicago out of that Hutchens 'best books' course, or go to the Graduate School of the Cinema at the University of Southern California. Maybe you will be hired on graduation as a sort of apprentice. Dore Schary of RKO is a writer-producer. He feels that the hope of the industry is to develop specific movie talent in the writer-director-producer field, rather than acquiring people from other lines of endeavor.

And those are the three ways to cut yourself a hunk of those fabulous salaries out there. The fourth way is to be a nephew of one of the studio heads.

While with the OSS during the war, we got to know a few of the Hollywood names.

Gene Markey was one of them. When his navy promotion came through, elevating him to the rank of Captain, a certain Major Willis Bird and I went to see him. Bird said, "If you're real good, maybe they'll make you a major one of these days."

Birdie is now a bone buyer in Bangkok. In addition to importing 25¢ books. Every month he has to ship so many tons of ground bones to a chemical company in the US.

Gene Markey baffled me a little. He seemed, at first glance, to be such an unimpressive guy to have been married to all that beauty. [Markey's wives, up to this point in his life, included Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamar and, at the time this column was written, Myrna Loy.] But he has that charming knack of making any acquaintance feel that he, Gene, has been languishing around for years without ever having met as unique and marvelous a person as yourself. It is a wonderful knack to have.

Melvin Douglas was in the same headquarters as we were for a time. He was a fine, hard-working, reticent guy, forever backing out of the limelight with almost obvious annoyance. He organized an entertainment outfit and took them all over the theatre, with the one provision that he would work behind the scenes, never taking a bow.

[John] Ford, the director, was around for a time. He was a vast, moody, unpredictable man, hard to meet and harder to know.

In addition to the 'regulars,' some of the other Hollywoodians made flying trips through our malarial sector. We were in hospital when [Joe E.] Brown came through. The man with the mouth. He chatted with everybody. His son had but recently been killed in a plane crash in the states. Above that wide grin of his was a pair of the saddest, warmest eyes we have ever seen. No talent ever worked harder in our theatre.

Maybe the fates sorted out a few of the best for us, but those we did meet gave us the idea that the screen colony contains a batch of very fine people.

* * *

Art Note:

If you are a mature person of not more than three feet six inches in height, there is a promising career waiting for you as a model for the artists who illustrate the automobile and appliance advertisements.

Naturally, drawing automobiles with normal sized people in the front seat would make the cars look far too small. Thus the ads contain models who can barely reach the steering wheel and peer out over the bottom sill of the window.

This is also desirable with drawings of prefabricated houses. When the tiny models, who would have difficulty in reaching the knob on the front door, are posed in front of the prefab, it looks truly enormous.

Refrigerator ads utilize tiny women not more than three feet tall. If one of the models ever opened the door to the refrigerator, standing on tiptoe, a quart of milk falling out would smash her flat.

Some cynics affirm that this use of tiny models is to make the products look so huge that the public is enticed into buying.

We have a different theory. We feel that in the beginning the models and the appliances were in scale. And the artists have merely changed the scale to keep abreast of the rise in prices.

If the trend continues, we can expect to see refrigerator ads where the female model stands beside the product, a happy smile on her face, a scaling ladder in her hand and climbing irons on her dainty feet.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Dud Drawer

The brief article below was written by an unnamed reporter for the Associated Press and was published -- in this instance -- in the May 3, 1992 issue of the Tampa Bay Times. There’s absolutely nothing new here, even for the most casual fan of John D MacDonald, with the exception of the last two paragraphs. It confirms something I’ve long suspected about several latter day short stories. More on that after the article, which was titled (in the Times, at least) “JFK Shooting Altered Character Name”.

GAINESVILLE – John D. MacDonald's famous hard-boiled detective, Travis McGee, originally was called Dallas McGee, but the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy led the author to change the name.

That and other revelations have come from papers MacDonald and his estate left to the University of Florida.

MacDonald, Florida's most successful writer, was finishing The Deep Blue Good-by when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963.

Until then, the mythical Fort Lauderdale detective, complete with his houseboat The Busted Flush, a high-powered sex drive and a brooding social conscience, was to be called Dallas McGee — "Dall” to his friends.

"John D. didn't like the connotations,” explained Carmen Hurff, literary manuscripts curator for the UF libraries. MacDonald decided to change the name and began looking for a substitute.

"He was talking to a friend of his who said Air Force bases have good names, so he started looking down a list of Air Force bases," Hurff said. Eventually, he came to Travis Air Force Base — and hence, Travis McGee.

Travis worked out pretty well.

Twenty more Travis McGee novels followed The Deep Blue Goodby, ending with The Lonely Silver Rain in 1984, two years before MacDonald's death.

Travis accounts for the bulk of the more than 70-million copies of MacDonald's works, in 18 languages, that have been sold.

MacDonald started sending materials to the UF collections in the 1960s. Now the library has acquired the remnants of his office from the writer's estate.

The extensive MacDonald manuscripts, books, correspondence, photographs and other effects in the UF library special collections would fill seven shelves the length of a football field.

Most archive users so far have been students of pop culture or simply John D. MacDonald fans.

The manuscripts include a rejected first ending to The Deep Blue Good-by. There are false starts and endings to books. Sometimes MacDonald wrote 50 pages before deciding he was at a dead end.

The letters show his impact on modern popular fiction, including homage from many of today's generation of writers who use the mystery and suspense format as a springboard for other themes.

MacDonald grew up in the Northeast, earned a master's in business administration from Harvard and decided he wanted to be a professional writer. He tried it in Texas and Mexico a few years before moving to Florida in 1949. eventually settling in Sarasota and developing into a passionate Floridian.

MacDonald suffered, by his estimate, 1,000 rejection slips before finally breaking into pulp magazines with names like Shocking Stories with detective stories and science fiction.

MacDonald always knew writing was only part of the business of being a writer, and that marketing was part of it.

The Travis color scheme - every title had a different color in it — baffles many readers, Hurff said.

According to his notes, the books always were intended to be a series, and the colors were simply intended to make it easier for readers to remember which stories they already had read.

He also believed in protecting his investments. The manuscripts include stories magazines rejected early in his career.

“Bimini Kill” was published in the July 1987 Yacht magazine. A letter to his agent submitting the piece said, “I went through my Dud Drawer and found this one, circa 1961. ... It doesn't seem too bad."

John D MacDonald had almost 400 original short stories and novellas published during his lifetime, almost all in the popular magazines of the era. His output prior to 1950 -- the year he wrote his first novel The Brass Cupcake -- was nothing short of phenomenal, with almost half of his output appearing in the four short years before he hooked up with Fawcett Gold Medal. The remainder was spread out over three and a half decades, and that final decade-and-a-half saw a mere 14 short stories published, five of which were collected in his 1971 anthology S*E*V*E*N.

Part of the reason for this drop off had to do with the general reduction in fiction being published in popular magazines, especially beginning in the 1960’s. Another was the fact that MacDonald’s focus changed to producing novels rather than short stories, a trend that accelerated with the introduction of Travis McGee in 1964. But a third factor had to be the fact that JDM was simply worn out with the short form: there are only two big bursts of creativity after the 1950’s. The first was a series of works done for This Week Magazine, a periodical he had first worked with in 1950. From 1963 to 1966 he wrote 12 stories for this Sunday newspaper supplement, the most for any other title during that decade. The second began in 1967 and ended in 1971 with the publication of S*E*V*E*N, which contained three original stories, with the balance being stories that had been published in Playboy.

But beginning in 1968, and perhaps earlier, some of his stories began appearing that had a different, earlier style and tone to them, certainly different than the S*E*V*E*N tales. I’ve reviewed most of these here on the blog and have often mused that perhaps MacDonald had taken an old story out of the reject pile and submitted it again for publication. “The Reference Room,” which was originally (and only) published in a Mystery Writers of America anthology titled With Malice Toward All read like something the author had written years before. The same was true of “Wedding Present” in 1977, “The Accomplice” in 1980 and “Eyewitness” in 1979. In fact, “Eyewitness” was a rewrite of a 1964 short story that had been published in Argosy.

I haven’t written about “Bimini Kill” yet -- it’s the last original story of MacDonald’s ever published, but the author’s admission that it was an older story from the “dud drawer” confirms that this was indeed a practice he used.

Monday, December 9, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 30: May 13, 1948

Here's the next installment of John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column, from the early years of his writing career.

War Surplus:

Two years ago the tub was being thumped to call attention to all of the vast wonderful stocks of super-thermal gimmicks and double-reversing whatchits being offered to the public out of the collapsing grab-bag of our military might.

But the stuff wasn't all dragged out of the warehouses in time to meet the peak of interest -- and thus, right now, weird and wonderful items are being offered for sale without much attention being attracted. Check with your New York paper, last or next Sunday's edition.

Did you know that you can buy:

One ten-man balsa wood raft for only $12.95, a 1000 gallon portable fuel-oil tank for $24.50, one brand-new parachute for only $5.40, two used field desks, with filing cabinets for $11.00?

Or, if you have a terrific desire for one M-3 Medium Tank, with riveted hull and turret, you ought to be able to swing a deal for less than a hundred dollars. This, for a village, makes a most inexpensive and yet durable type of war memorial. Beyond chalking couplets on the outside of it, vandals are relatively powerless.

In fact, some small villages have been bright enough to run a campaign, buy a surplus tank as a visual memorial, and use the surplus to either endow a memorial scholarship for bright youngsters, or buy books for the local library.

Such goings-on are generally considered a bit more creative than an ungovernable yen for statuary.

And there is a venerable precedent. In Jackson Square in New Orleans there is a Civil War Memorial in the form of a Confederate submarine. Yes, we said submarine.

The corroded steel hull, shaped like a fat cigar, is probably twenty feet long. It was propelled by two men pedaling madly, as on a bicycle. This mutual effort turned a stern screw. The fellow in charge steered and, when they muzzled up to a warship below the water line, he manipulated levers which detached explosives fastened to the bow and transferred them to the hull of the warship.

In its day, that little tin cigar was considered a horrible weapon of war, deadly and not quite cricket.

The measure of its success is that it had to be dredged up off the bottom to be put in the park.

Now it is a pathetic and quaint little toy, seeming, like a sea shell, to echo faintly with the shrill yip of the rebel which was heard from Manassas to Gettysburg.

Beyond a doubt those tanks placed on village greens across this country will one day be looked at in the same way that we look at the Confederate submarine. As plaintive and fragile relics of a disastrous war fought in the almost forgotten past, when the technology of warfare was in its infancy.

* * *

Conspiracy:

Here is a subject that needs airing. Adequately aired, it may mean death to a large segment of American industry.

How many millions of dollars worth of lawn mowers are sold each year? And grass seed, and weed killer and strange tools for trimming borders and such?

And for what? After all the purchases are made, and all the energy is expended, the net result is a smooth green expanse of little grass blades. Somehow we have all been deluded into thinking that grass is the only thing to have around a house. Grass is a frail and stubborn organism. An incredible amount of effort is expended to get it to grow, and then to crop it off to the required shortness. Industry could certainly devise a plastic substitute. Once installed, there would be no seeding, rolling, clipping, cutting and cursing.

Evidently the manufactures of gimmicks for the lawn subsidise the magazines which show pictures of impossibly beautiful lawns. They keep the myth going. After a full season of enormous labor, all the homeowner has to show for his efforts is an expanse of snow and the prospect of starting all over again in the Spring.

The ultimate insanity is encouraging the grass to grow, and then cutting it down before it can grow tall enough to seed itself.

It's time for revolt. All that is necessary is to have brave men in the community allow their lawns to grow into the lush, untamed beauty of a vacant lot. Pleasant little flagstone paths can wander through the tall grasses.

Once the movement is started, those who follow the leaders will see the natural beauty of wild lawns, and soon the lawn mower manufactures will feel the crimp in sales and realize at last that this incredible conspiracy they have nurtured throughout the years is at an end. They can turn to the manufacture of something practical.

Like hedge clippers.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, November 25, 2019

No Credit Cards for Travis McGee

The following article was published in Florida Accent, the Sunday supplement to the Tampa Tribune, on February 28, 1965, written by reporter Jack McClintock and titled “No Credit Cards for Travis McGee.” It was the same month that the fifth McGee novel -- A Deadly Shade of Gold -- was published (not April, as McClintock reports) and JDM obviously agreed to do the interview to push the book. There’s not much new here for the dedicated MacDonald fan, but there is an interesting bit of conversation about Ian Fleming, which amplifies JDM’s opinion of him expressed elsewhere. There’s also a photo -- taken at the old Point Crisp house -- that I’ve never seen before.

When John D. MacDonald decided to do a series after writing some 50 novels and hundreds of short fiction pieces - he knew he needed a hero he could "live with."

So he wrote two more novels, trying out two heroes, and scrapped them both. On the third try he came up with Travis McGee: boat bum, skeptic, retriever, for a price, of ill-gotten gains.

"McGee is essentially an iconoclast who feels displaced in this highly-structured society," MacDonald says of his livable protagonist, "and he's aware there probably won't be room for him in 20 years.

"At first his name was Dallas McGee, but the semantics of that name went sour."

MacDonald says that for a long time he resisted pressures to write a series. But the book market was changing and the pattern of pressures changed and MacDonald changed his mind and has published four novels built around Travis McGee. A fifth is due in April.

"I have letters in my files stating explicitly why I would never write a series,” he declares wryly. "And here I am with Travis."

McGee titles are colorful: The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, The Quick Red Fox.

"That was a cold and arbitrary decision," MacDonald confesses cheerfully. "Bookrack displays are a visual thing, and people will remember the colors and know which ones they've read."

The writer has prematurely silver hair and talks with humor and vitality. His previous novels are read all over the world — a fan club in France numbered Albert Camus and Francois Sagan among its members.

"And a lady at the University of Nice is doing her Ph.D. on MacDonald," says MacDonald.

He got into writing almost by default. After graduating from the Harvard School of Business with an M.A. degree in 1939, MacDonald, as people are expected to do, went to work.

"Then I was fired from my first four jobs," he admits without a trace of regret. "It was a case of 'bigmouth.' It wasn't that I wasn't diligent, I just kept saying the wrong things to the wrong people.

"I'm essentially inner-directed. I dislike phoniness and people who cannot evaluate themselves," he says. And he told them so.

The army beckoned in 1940 "just as I was beginning to think there was no place for me," he chuckles. "So I asked what it paid and it sounded pretty good so I went."

He wrote short stories home from overseas instead of letters, and when his wife sold one he decided to write for a living. He makes a good living at it, and cannot be fired for baiting phonies.

MacDonald has opinions and doesn't care who knows it. They're in his conversation and in his books. And sometimes in his letters.

When a critic claimed Travis McGee was an "undisguised imitation" of Ian Fleming's James Bond, MacDonald wrote him:

"Fleming was kind enough to state his admiration of my work on several occasions, and I must risk appearing tasteless and say that perhaps the most serious flaw in the Bond books is that Fleming really could not write very well."

He caught some errors in the critic's article and wrote: "I must forgive you for making the charge of imitation, as it was made without having read the books.

"May I be so forward as to commend them to you?” MacDonald added slyly.

One who has read the McGee books sees some of MacDonald in them - his ironic wit, his vitality – and, no doubt, his opinions. Travis McGee, however, is mostly just Travis McGee.

The hero says earnestly of himself, "I am wary of a lot of things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny.

"I'm also wary of all earnestness," he adds with deadly aim at his own.

McGee lives on a plush houseboat called the Busted Flush -- which refers to the way McGee came to own her and not to her lavatory facilities which include a seven-foot-long sunken bathtub in excellent working order.

He does base acts for nearly-noble motives, nearly-noble acts for greed's sake -- and talks of himself with clear-eyed and conscious irony. He's fallible, sometimes weak, sometimes strong, often ridiculous. He can be vaguely puritanical, or outstandingly vicious. He's complex, contradictory, human.

At his best, he's an ironic inspector of his own interior who laughs loudest when he's taking himself most seriously.


Monday, November 11, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 29: May 6, 1948

In the spring of 1948 British mystery author John Creasey made his first ever trip to the United States, arriving in New York on the Queen Elizabeth on April 13th. He was embarking on a multi-state speaking tour that included many chapters of the Rotary Club, of which he himself was a member. His travels took him as far as Arizona and, in early May, visited Utica, New York, where he met and spent an afternoon with rookie writer John D MacDonald.

We MacDonald fans stand in awe of the sheer quantity of JDM's output: 66 novels, 6 anthologies, 5 works of non-fiction, and nearly 400 original short stories published during his lifetime. He was a piker compared to Creasey, who, by the time he died in 1973, had written over 600 novels under 28 different pseudonyms, including crime, westerns, romance, and science fiction. He created many different series characters, the most popular of which was George Gideon of Scotland Yard, who appeared in 21 separate novels and who made it to both the big screen (John Ford’s 1958 film Gideon’s Day) and the small (the British television series Gideon’s Way).

When Creasey toured America he had written “only” 230 books, according to JDM, who took him to a minor league baseball game in Utica. He wrote about it in his weekly Clinton Courier column.

Visitor:

Last week-end we became most pleasantly involved with a visiting British gentleman making his first trip to the States. He is John Creasey, a writer of mystery novels that are published in England.

From the viewpoint of sheer productivity, he has left us with a feeling of awe and concern. He has published two hundred and thirty books, and has sold four million copies in Great Britain.

Mr. Creasey is a quiet and pleasant fellow, thirty-nine years old. And he is one of those rare people who have not lost the ability to be enthusiastic.

His constant companion is a small black notebook which is whipped out frequently and into which goes even bits and pieces of casual conversation.

In Utica he saw his first baseball game -- Blue Sox versus Binghamton -- and, as an ardent cricket fan, he said that he could see how it could become most exciting. We got all tangled up explaining the intricacies of the "hit and run” and the rule which says that the third foul is not called a strike.

We were explaining that a home run occurred when a fair ball was hit outside the playing area, and thereupon the batter hit a double into the left field stands, and the local ground rules made a liar out of us.

He seemed very dubious about the statement that the pitched ball actually does curve in the air, breaks sharply in front of the plate. And he failed to see the necessity of leather gloves to protect the hands. He said that the cricket ball is of the same construction, is thrown and hit equally hard, and the players merely get used to catching it barehanded. Hmmm!

* * *

Change of Heart:

During the past years the New York Central Railroad has seemed to consider the passengers as a highly objectionable sort of freight that must be taught humility as it is shunted from place to place. Deluxe service has been available on extra-fare trains.

But last week we treked down to New York, paid coach fare and got on something called the Upstate Special which is made up at Syracuse.

To our somewhat enormous astonishment we ended up in a luxurious observation car, sitting in a deep chair, listening to soft music, holding a tall cool glass and watching the Hudson Valley unroll.

The astonishing train, where you are not clipped for luxury service, leaves Utica every day at 9:25 a.m. and takes five hours and twenty minutes to get to New York. Since it is made up at Syracuse, there are seats available, and there will always be room.

Ed Stanley tried to talk us out of taking the train, saying that it is a local and that it makes six stops between Utica and Albany. Ed is right. It does. But on that train, it’s even pleasant to stop. It makes the trip last longer. Five hours and twenty minutes seemed hardly long enough. For the first time we began to feel that the NYC is beginning to cooperate with us in our perpetual ambition of getting something for nothing.

* * *

Hotel Service:

On this trip we obtained, for the first time, a "televised" room in a New York hotel. And, for the first time, we are anxious to have a coaxial cable to come into Utica so that television, in clear and distant image, can be available here.

As a practicing skeptic, we were not convinced by the ardent claims or the television boys. We had to be shown.

In baseball parks they don't sell the sort of seat that you get when you watch a game on the screen. To get the same view, you would have to sit on the shoulders of the umpire. Watching a boxing match, you begin to worry about whether a wild left hook will knock you off your chair. In the wrestling matches, they throw large gentlemen into your lap.

Maybe one day a television crew will focus the cameras on a scene of combat. And everybody sitting in their parlors watching the screen will get a slightly different slant on warfare. A slant that may help this battered old world find some better answers.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Who Will Kill Travis McGee?

On June 10, 1984 the Fort Lauderdale News published an article/interview on John D MacDonald in their Sunday supplement Sunshine. It was a lengthy piece, written by one Patrick Hynan, a Toronto-based journalist who, to his great credit, seems to have been a well-read fan of the author’s works.

Students of MacDonald’s work and life can recite the answers to all of the usual questions asked in these kinds of interviews, and one can tell when MacDonald is treading water, hoping to get the conversation over with so he can get back to writing. Not so here: he had invited the writer into his home and thoughtfully answered even the questions he hated getting, putting a spin on them in a way one doesn’t usually read. Here we learn where MacDonald came up with the method of killing an attack dog and that he really did originally intend for McGee to live in Sarasota. His comments on his hero presage much of the mood of the book he was about to write, The Lonely Silver Rain.

He mentioned, as he often did in later interviews, his mythical “Black” McGee novel, hidden away, half-written, ready to be published to kill off his hero. Unfortunately the editor of Sunshine jumped on this little bit of mischief and built the layout of the piece around it, titling it “Who Will Kill Travis McGee?” and repeating the tease in the table of contents and the caption underneath Tim Kantor’s portrait photo of JDM. Of course, we all now know better.

It’s a good article, and I’ve transcribed it below.

Who Will Kill Travis McGee?

He calls his tales "why-did-its," not whodunits, and likes to think of the Travis McGee novels as "folk dances." Yet the man who has written more than 70 books that have sold nearly 80 million copies around the world since he began writing them in 1950 still doesn't think of himself as a writer. "I'm somebody who has learned to imitate being a writer," he insists, "which is what Agatha Christie once admitted, and which is maybe why I sometimes feel a little schizophrenic. Maybe, I'm like two people ... there's me, John, and there's John the imitation writer over there."

The John who still thinks of himself as an imitator is John D. MacDonald, creator of the famed Travis McGee mystery-suspense series and considered by many of his peers to be the finest mystery writer in the world. But it is those rejection slips from forgotten pulp magazines back in 1946 that preoccupy him now as he sips a Bloody Mary in the large, sundrenched living room of his secluded home in Sarasota.

"I guess I must have written about 800,000 words before I got my first short story accepted," he recalls, "and for the life of me I can hardly remember what any of them were about."

Modestly overlooked by MacDonald is his short story, "Interlude in India," which was written while he was serving with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Ceylon during World War II, some time before he set out to become a professional writer. Because all mail was strictly censored, MacDonald had written and sent the story to his wife, Dorothy Prentiss, as a way of relating some of his observations of India without provoking the censor's heavy hand. "I mean, how many times can you write letters about the weather from that part of the world?” he adds with a quick grin. His wife sent the manuscript to Story magazine, which accepted it and paid $25 for it.

After the war, in 1946, there followed a stream of rejection slips while MacDonald was living with his wife and their young son in a small apartment in Utica, New York, buttressed only by a stubborn belief that, as he relates, "I could break through.” He did - four months later. "I had no idea I could be a writer before I sold that first story," he says. "I had the feeling that writers were some kind of exalted people, that they had some kind of invisible mark on them that made them different from me. If Dorothy hadn't typed up that story and put all that effort into selling it, I guess I wouldn't be sitting down here talking about all this.”

At one time during those four months while he and his family lived off his four-month army termination pay, MacDonald had as many as 30 stories circulating among pulp magazines and, as fast as they came back, new ones would be sent off. "By the time I finally began to break through a little bit, we'd used up the four months and we were about $200 in debt to our friendly grocer. Thank goodness for him!"

At 67, the six-foot-four, white-haired MacDonald has just published his latest novel, One More Sunday, about a fundamentalist Southern church that, he admits, he invented "for fun and profit.” The novel's protagonist is the Rev. John Tinker Meadows, son of the founder of the "Eternal Church of the Believer.” It concerns Meadows' hugely successful electronic ministry, and it deals with one of MacDonald's favorite themes: power corrupts. 

It is the author's first non-McGee book since his 1976 Condominium, a bestseller that did more to arouse people's consciousness about the danger of proliferating condominium development in Florida than the combined efforts of all of the state's politicians and environmentalists.

MacDonald's house lies behind tall Australian pine trees up a long gravel driveway on Siesta Key, a seven-mile-long island with dazzling salt-white beaches and row upon row of condominiums (he filed suit in 1977 to block the construction of one seven-story condo tower). Located about 200 miles northwest of Fort Lauderdale, the house is built on 12-foot pilings (sufficient to withstand the strongest hurricanes) by an inlet facing the Gulf. It is at once secluded enough to satisfy this most private of writers and Edenic enough to be the envy of all naturalists. The large house has only one bedroom --- to discourage "anyone from staying here while I'm writing.”

Stairs lead up to a wooden veranda with a 16-foot overhang that runs completely around the house. Built in 1970, it was designed by Dorothy, who is a well-known local artist.

Inside, a wide, sun-filled corridor filled with paintings and photographs leads to a large, high-ceilinged living room that looks directly on the inlet. To the left is MacDonald's study, a collage in many ways of his career and hobbies: stamp albums, a chess board, an elaborate stereo system whose speakers MacDonald built from a kit, a word processor, and a glossy beige IBM Selectric typewriter. Up a further flight of stairs is his second office with a commanding view of the inlet. Here at a large desk he writes most of his personal and business correspondence (he long ago incorporated himself). Opposite is a shelf where a model of the Miss Agnes, McGee's famous Rolls-Royce pickup truck, stands — a gift from a fervent admirer. Two sleek Abyssinian cats pace the desk, jump off, and return just as quickly with graceful leaps. MacDonald, a noted ailurophile, grins at the commotion. He once wrote a book called House Guests about two of his former cats. And he dedicated another to them: “To Roger and Geoffrey, who left their marks on the manuscript."

“I like cats because, unlike dogs, they don't stick their heads out of the car window and pant like gushing teenagers," he says when reminded about that dedication. "And they'll learn a trick or two, as we do, and then they'll repeat it a few times before they become bored with it. They're independent and they expect you to have a civilized relationship with them."

John Dann MacDonald was born on July 24, 1916, in Sharon, Pa. His father, the son of a handyman, later became vice-president and treasurer of the Savage Arms Company in Utica, N.Y. As a boy, John was as strong-willed as his father; while there was respect between the two, there was little affection. An attack of mastoiditis and scarlet fever at the age of 12 kept John in bed for a year. He then turned to what was to become one of the first of his lifelong hobbies: reading.

A year after graduating from the Utica Free Academy in 1933, MacDonald enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance in Philadelphia. He quit in his sophomore year because, he said, he had the feeling of “not knowing where the hell you are or where you are going or why.” Later, he received a degree in business administration from Syracuse University, where he met and married Dorothy Prentiss.

MacDonald also has an MBA degree from the Harvard Business School, and tried his hand at various businesses, at which he says he was “miserable.” In 1940, he gave up and joined the U.S. Army as a lieutenant.

He joined the OSS in Ceylon and India, operated behind Japanese lines and emerged as a lieutenant-colonel in 1945. Even to this day, he will not talk about what he did in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, though when he's reminded that he once wrote about how to stop a killer dog in its tracks he pauses, thinks for a moment, and admits he was taught how to do it in the OSS by a Shanghai police captain.

MacDonald wrote his first Travis McGee book, The Deep Blue Good-by, in 1964. Since then, his fictional hero has had adventures in 20 colors, including the latest, Cinnamon Skin, published last year.


A filing cabinet in MacDonald's study contains an unfinished manuscript titled A Black Border for McGee. His many fans naturally hope that this tale of McGee's demise will not be published for a long time.

McGee, the persnickety shamus who roams the continent as a self-styled "salvage expert" righting the wrongs of victims (for a fee) and avoiding the love traps of beautiful damsels, is usually to be found at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, aboard The Busted Flush, the old houseboat he won in a poker game with "four pink ones up and a stranger down.”

After 20 adventure books, McGee has achieved independence from "plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, checklists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, Junior Chambers of Commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny."

The first McGee books came about more by accident than any deep need by MacDonald to create a series. Fawcett Gold Medal Books, his long-time publisher, urgently needed a new series after one they had contracted from another writer fell through. By 1962, when Fawcett senior editor, Knox Burger, asked him to come to New York to talk about a new series, 
MacDonald had been attracting more and more impressive reviews across the country. He wasn't thrilled about the idea Burger and other Fawcett editors proposed for a series "because I didn't want to be locked into something that I would find hard to get out of if I didn't like it.”

Originally, MacDonald intended to call his protagonist Dallas McGee. However, while writing the first book, The Deep Blue Good-by, word came of President Kennedy's assassination. MacDonald was so upset by this that he changed McGee's first name to Travis, after the air force base in California. "To this day, whenever I'm driving through Texas, I think twice about going through that city," he says.

MacDonald's deep moral ire and acute social observation have been aroused by New York (Nightmare in Pink); motel cleanliness, aggressive women and renting a car (A Purple Place for Dying); the drugstore and the ruination of cities (Bright Orange for the Shroud); Chicago, the Playboy syndrome and credit cards (One Fearful Yellow Eye); and the decline of San Francisco (which used to be one of his favorite cities) in The Quick Red Fox.

While writing his first McGee book, he admits he had a feeling (“Like one of those twitches you get about something you know is about to happen") that it might be a success and that if it was, “I didn't want him in my back yard. So in the process of writing it, I moved him from the Sarasota municipal pier to Fort Lauderdale."

In 16 of the novels, McGee has been sustained, counseled and aided by his trusted friend Meyer, an economist of international reputation who came aboard the series after the fourth novel. "I had to bring in Meyer then," MacDonald says, “because there was too much interior monologue with McGee talking to himself. I had to have a foil, but I didn't want a clown.”

Meyer lives on an ugly little cruiser called The John Maynard Keynes, moored near McGee's. Through Meyer, MacDonald has probably taught more people about economics than many of America's leading economists. The author pooh-poohs this idea. "The thing about economics is that it's a fascinating science because it's the only inexact science that's so closely tied in with everybody's aspirations. You take the other inexact sciences - sociology, psychology - and you'll find that they don't have that direct, personal 'Oh, my God’ relationship that economics has to our daily lives. A lot of people who were coasting along in the '70s, thinking that all the factories were going to stay open forever, are suddenly terribly interested in economics, in finding out what's happening."

Many fans value the McGee novels for the author's ability to show how things work, as well as for the plots, dialogue and McGee's musings on man, nature, assaults on the environment, villainy and corruption. McGee has taught millions of readers how to caulk a houseboat, how fishing boats work, how geologists explore for oil, and how to travel and survive without credit cards. Additionally, he has offered more than the usual answers to readers' detective questions: how to analyze the decline and fall of Plymouth Gin, develop a near-perfect picture, spot fake rare stamps and doctor a set of books without breaking the law. McGee is a tinkerer in the grand old American tradition because his creator himself passionately wants to know how things work. In MacDonald's upstairs office is the two-volume classic How Things Work, which he calls “my bible.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., his friend and, like MacDonald, one of the original paperback writers of the 1950s, has said of him: "To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen." Dik Browne, creator of the widely-syndicated cartoon, Hagar The Horrible, is one of the regular writers and artists who meet at Merlin's restaurant in downtown Sarasota every Friday lunchtime to play a three-round game of liar's poker, a ritual jointly founded 30 years ago by MacDonald and the late MacKinlay Kantor, author of Andersonville and The Best Years of Our Lives.

Browne, who is considered one of the wits of the table, sees MacDonald about a dozen times a year. "It's astonishing what information he comes up with whenever he comes to the liars' lunch," Browne recalls on the patio of his large apartment on the outskirts of Sarasota.

"He's a fund of arcane information. While we're in the middle of a particularly tense part of the game, he'll suddenly start talking about the possibilities of finding diamonds in Bolivia, say, or, just to break your concentration, he'll casually let you know how to cure the bite of a tsetse fly, or he'll give a brief and very witty discourse on how the gold exchange works in Ghana ... He always has something to say that nobody around the table has ever thought of."

But not all of MacDonald's fans appreciate such detailed information about how things work. Some don't like McGee's musings either, as they were quick to let MacDonald know after this aside of McGee in The Empty Copper Sea:

"If I were the king of the world, I would roam my kingdom in rags, incognito, dropping fortunes onto the people who are nice with no special reason to be nice, and having my troops lop off the heads of the mean, small, embittered little bastards who try to inflate their self-esteem by stomping on yours. I would start the lopping among postoffice employees, bank tellers, bus drivers and pharmacists. I would go onto checkout clerks, bell boys, prowl-car cops, telephone operators and U.S. embassy clerks. By God, there would be so many heads rolling here and there, the world would look like a berserk bowling alley. Meyer says this shows a tad of hostility.”

MacDonald leans back in his chair and roars with laughter when reminded of this and some other McGee broodings. "I can't even begin to tell you what kind of letters I get from all sorts of people, and not just about that one. Some will say, ‘I wish you would just write down the essays, the feelings, the asides and forget about all this junk of people jumping off boats.' Or the next letter will say, ‘Oh, MacDonald, get off your soapbox! Quit boring me! I skip those places, anyway.' I learned a long time ago that the only opinion of my work that matters is mine. If I'm pleased with something, okay. Now being pleased with something doesn't mean it's the greatest piece of writing.”

He bristles for a moment at the ritual question, "Who is McGee, really?" He looks up after a while, his eyes astonishingly blue behind the glasses. He rubs his right ear and moves the hand to rest on his right knee. “One of the reasons I gave up doing most interviews a long time ago was because that was all everybody wanted to know. I'm not McGee, never have been and don't want to be."

MacDonald pauses for another few seconds. “Well, if you want to know, I see him as a damaged figure. He's dreadfully afraid of being unable to handle any total emotional commitment. It maybe was something that happened to him in his youth, maybe a family situation; he'll get close to committing himself but then withdraw from the brink because there's a coldness that he can't quite overcome — though he'd like to and he doesn't totally recognize what it is that prevents him from overcoming this.

"But aside from the pure mechanics of it, I have to make not only McGee's unwillingness to commit himself plausible, I have to hint at it in all honesty, otherwise the reader will say, 'Gee, MacDonald keeps pushing this guy around. Why doesn't he let him settle down?' McGee can't. And when he dies, there won't be many people around who will mourn him. Oh, there'll be some who would be grateful to him for his help, but he'll end unmourned, unhonored, unsung.” MacDonald indicates with a strong shake of his head that he has told you about as much as he is ever going to tell you about McGee.

Unlike the late Ross Macdonald - his only real rival in the suspense field since the deaths of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler - John D. MacDonald's novelistic interests have ranged far beyond the mystery novel. He has written everything from science fiction (Wine of the Dreamers) to horror (Soft Touch) to whimsy (The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything) to bawdy comedy (Please Write for Details) to true crime reporting of classic vintage (No Deadly Drug). The last work was based on the sensational double murder trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino, and have long been required reading at the Harvard Law School.

Back in the 1950s, original paperbacks were a new idea in publishing, reviewed infrequently by the general press and never by the serious press. For MacDonald, serious critical attention only came when he began publishing in hardbacks towards the end of the '50s. "No, it never bothered me that The New York Times or the others hadn't heard of me," he says. "After all, I wasn't reading them, either. I was too busy writing down here." But he does remember the best advice he ever got that gave him the final kick to finding his own voice. It came from the late Mike Tilden, editor of Dime Detective.

"He said, "John, you tell people too much. Stop telling them. Start showing what you mean. You say, 'He was a very ugly man.' Don't! Instead, you should have children fainting in front of him when he walks down the street. And don't say, 'She was a very clumsy woman.' Show her falling down the stairs, putting her head in the bucket.' I've never forgotten that, though it seems to take most writers too long to learn, and some don't learn it at all.”

MacDonald and his wife have had a 34-year love-hate relationship with Florida: loving it for its climate, fishing and clear pungent smells of orange blossoms coming from groves after a heavy rain on warm, humid summer mornings; hating it for its rapid unplanned growth, its greedy real estate development, its spoliation of the rivers, estuaries and beaches and, above all, for what MacDonald sees as its endless march to pave over whatever remains green. For a long time he carried on a one-man war about these issues, speaking at every opportunity and writing about them in such novels as A Flash of Green and Condominium, which has been compared to a manual for land sharks.

All of MacDonald's novels bear the stamp of prodigious research. In No Deadly Drug, he consulted hundreds of medical dictionaries and books to understand the complex medical testimony of the two long Coppolino trials. For Condominium, he spent nearly two years criss-crossing Florida to research the labyrinthine policies behind condo development.

“When I was researching Condominium, I read every trade periodical and book on land development that I could get my hands on, and I interviewed an awful lot of people around the state. There was one man I talked to, an engineer, who got absolutely livid — not at me, but just at the idea that there could be buildings sitting on a fragile barrier island where the details of their construction in the county commission building department showed them as having fantastically straight foundations; yet the buildings themselves — sitting like boxes on the sand — were, in fact, on top of completely fictitious foundations. The man got madder and madder as he was telling me this and finally he began shouting, "How can these things happen?' It was very illuminating because I knew, listening to him, that he wasn't trying to put me on. He was absolutely emotionally involved.”

MacDonald rises from his chair, shirt dampened by the humid heat of the office, and descends the stairs to the living room. In the hallway, he pauses at a photograph he had taken of Balinese dancers when he and his wife were on a South Pacific cruise. It was shot from a balcony above the swirling multi-colored dancers. It looked good enough to be in Life magazine. He seemed pleased at the admiring interest.

"I learned photography a long time ago," he says, peering more closely at the picture, “because I wanted to remember what places look like. Sometimes you forget, and it's a good thing to have pictures around that remind you what a place truly looked like.”

He never mentioned that, as a first-rate photographer, he has sold many pictures to magazines. "Oh, yeah." He looks up from the picture, a little surprised. "But that was a long time ago." He chuckles.

On the veranda, MacDonald is reminded one last time about that dreaded black border title for McGee waiting in his beige filing cabinet. He grins. "Don't forget, I do have a contract for at least two more McGee books." He continues down the stairs, the temperature in the middle 90s. "Now let's see," he says as he begins walking up the path to collect his mail, "How many more colors are there before you get to black?"