Monday, May 20, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 21: March 11, 1948

Here's the next installment of John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column, published in the Clinton (NY) Courier during the period when the family was living there. The original from which I transcribed this column was damaged and repaired with tape which developed some serious yellowing over the years, obscuring about three lines of text in two different columns. There's not much to miss here, as JDM offers very little original writing in this installment.

It's Delightful to Be Married:

Through channels too devious to describe, except that one of the links in the chain was one "Scoop" Benton of the Herkimer paper, we have received a society page from the Mayville [...] which tells of a wedding to [...] we print a few verbatim, unchanged paragraphs as they originally appeared in the Mayville newspaper:

"Arrangements for the wedding of Miss Duke are charming in every detail and notable for a number of reasons. Recapturing her idyllic connotation of a wedding in her ancestral home characterized by beauty without fanfare, Saturday's suave and sweet-smiling bride will see a dream fulfilled. Unabashedly sentimental, precious association within her charmed circle where care has only gazed at her wistfully, and enriched by tradition to delight in and to love will forever endear a host of enchanting memories to burn brightly of this important day."

Gosh!

"The recessed windows, prudently protected by inside shutters, will permit a golden ray of daylight brightness to seep through the old glass, tinted and iridescent with the sun and rain of years, to bestow the implied benediction, 'Happy is the bride the sun shines on.'

"The bride as she enters the room lightly elasping the arm of her father who will give her in marriage will be as lovely as happiness, youth and artistry can make one. Living up to her reputation for soignee, her flair for individuality and fastidious smartness will be expressed in a shirtwaist dress of pure silk introducing a novel and vibrant color combination of gold, cherry red and gray -- each shade accented with white polka dot. Cut with discernment, the gold-colored blouse has a high wing collar, push-up sleeves and in the back is buttoned twelve times. Underscored with taffeta to provide sound effects the agate gray twirl skirt -- hemmed a short eight inches from the floor -- swings and sways in fashion's new way. The fascinating aspect of the gown is the deep, boned cummerbund of cherry red tied at the back in a large bow finishing with long ends..."

Can't you just see her?

"Slanted aft and framing her lovely blonde hair will be a gray shadow-play straw bonnet with an upward tilt in front. Yards of matching veiling in large octagonal mesh swathe the head and shoulders."

Nice nautical touch, that.

"After the bride and bridegroom have cut the first slice of cake, the agreeable responsibility will be taken over by Miss Laura Browning who for the occasion will pick from her closet a gown of black crepe and wear with it a large beige felt hat with graceful spreading brim adorned with large black silk roses."

"For her journey the bride will change to a dark brown crepe dress with swish and swank. Deceptively simple in design, a pleated peplum gives its subtle perfection a dressy touch.

"Prophetic of a fashion to come, her costume will reach a sophisticated peak when she 'wings away' in a flattening minoche worn sideways on her head and hugging the right side of her face. The flamboyant bird-wings visualize the palette in brown ranging from deep, rich African brown to a tangerine orange... Topping this striking outfit will be a throw coat of mink flaring softly at the back like a cape.”

It is perfectly obvious to us why the correspondent of the Mayville paper reported this function in advance. Undoubtedly the function itself put the reporter into a swoon from which she may not as yet have recovered.

We go on record right now as saying that something is missing from local marriages up here in the austere North. We must regain that precious quality of breathlessness, buttoned in the back twelve times.

* * *

From the Mailbox:

Dear "Top of the Hill":

Ever since you got into local print, I have wished you well. Some weeks you quite amuse me. Some weeks you don't. All the same, I would rather you had an opinion I didn't agree with than no opinion at all.

The little whimsey of fashion was good, if simple fun. But the careless launching of a campaign for a public address system in the hockey building fills me with horror. If they gave them away, I'd be opposed. What do you mean the games "would be a great deal more enjoyable to all spectators"? People that really like hockey go to watch the game, they don't have to be told about it. Any spectator paying so little attention that he didn't know who made the goal, probably doesn't care anyway. As for penalties, if our side made the errors, the least said, the better. And the opponents should be shown the same consideration.

If you really want to raise money both the College and the village have worthy causes they are plugging. Why not adopt one of them? Or if you want to launch a new project, how [...]

Sincerely yours, Reader.

This letter was typed and, of course, anonymous.

However, we will go out on a limb and make a few guesses about the identity of the person who wrote it.

Something about the tone makes us think it is from a woman. There is a freshness of viewpoint and yet a maturity that leads us to guess she is probably in her late thirties. She can snarl a little, so we will assume she has claws. She takes an interest in local affairs so we can assume that she is probably a "joiner" as far as local organizations are concerned. The tree reference leads us to assume that she is not connected with the college.

She too freely uses the phrase "your home town". No one born here would use this phrase in reference to a furriner like us. So we can assume that she, like us, is in a certain sense also a newcomer to Clinton. Certainly not as much as ten years residence. Maybe closer to five.

And one last guess. She doesn't know hockey. When there's a tangle at the far cage, even the most died-in-the-wool fans are confused.

Has anybody seen a well-educated woman in her late thirties with claws, membership in local organizations, five years residence or so in Clinton, not connected with the college and relatively ignorant about hockey?

If a man wrote the letter, we're going to look pretty darn silly.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Writer's Image

Back in November I posted a transcription of an article on John D MacDonald from a 1978 issue of Maclean’s titled “The Dauntingly Prolific Beige Typewriter Keys”. It contained a photo of MacDonald, lying on the floor, propped up on one elbow, in back of a spread of dozens of copies of his paperback novels. I had never seen the image before, or at least had no memory of doing so. Well, I’ve since discovered its creator date. The photo was taken by Jill Krementz, the noted photojournalist who eventually focused on taking pictures of writers. She was also married to one, Kurt Vonnegut, who was a friend of JDM. In 1980 she published a book of her author photos, titled The Writer’s Image. It contained portraits of many, many noted writers, including Joseph Heller, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut (of course) and E.B. White, who is pictured on the cover of the book. MacDonald’s image is accompanied by the following caption:


JOHN D. MACDONALD
Sarasota, Florida, 1973


That would make MacDonald around 52 years old when he posed, the year he wrote The Turquoise Lament. Here is a nice, high-resolution scan of the photo.


Monday, May 6, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 20: March 4, 1948

Another installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1948 newspaper column, published in the Clinton Courier in upstate New York.

This is a fascinating entry, an insight into MacDonald’s political views early in his career, in the beginning years of the great Red Scare that eventually exploded into a national obsession in February 1950 with Joseph McCarthy’s “205 Communists” speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. (One can see from the column that these accusations did not begin with McCarthy.)

In one respect MacDonald’s views should not come as a surprise to readers of his early novels, which included two commie-rat potboilers, Murder for the Bride and Area of Suspicion. On the other hand, read this and recall MacDonald’s later-day opinions, especially his characterization of fellow author Richard Prather as a writer who “had some extremely strong right-wing political tendencies. He saw socialism and communism crouched behind every bush…”

MacDonald’s point here is to differentiate a Communist from a pro-Soviet, an interesting argument given today’s political climate.

Mr. Lewis and the News:

A taste for the newscasing of Mr. Fulton Lewis, Jr., is something that must be acquired, like a taste for smoked oysters. It is typical of him that his radio editorializing is often delivered in a tone of voice like that of an oracle on a hilltop yelling to the poor average citizens fumbling around down in the shrubbery.

It is not newscasting, which implies an unslanted survey of the day's news.

Sometimes we are agin him, but more often than not, we find ourself cheering him on. When he gets on the track of something he lets the news of the day go hang, while he devotes himself to an exhaustive analysis that may extend over two or three of his fifteen minute broadcasts at seven o'clock each weekday night over Mutual.

Mr. Lewis has recently devoted several programs to an analysis of the published reports of the committee which recently looked into the State Department in order to make recommendations on their budget requirements.

Mr. Lewis is very upset to find that many men in responsible positions in the State Department are sympathetic to Communism.

So are we upset.

The educator now in Milan, Italy, in charge of indoctrinating the Italians with all of the pro-democracy arguments available, has been a member of seven Communist front organizations. An investigation of this educator says that he desires "the advantages of the right as well as the popularity of the left."

In other words, a parlor liberal.

Another character with pro-Communist leanings is in charge of the policy desk in New York, editing the Voice of America short-wave radio programs beamed abroad.

There are dozens of others. The State Department is the ideal place for them to be, from a Moscow point of view. There is probably no other organization within our government more sensitive to the gentle, guiding touch of the parlor liberals.

What this "cold war" needs is a definition of terms. Communism is a very loose word, as it is used today.

Today's pro-Soviet is not a Communist. Any person who today is having himself an affair with Russia is pro-dictatorship, pro labor camp, pro-liquidation, pro-death, torture and violence.

We feel that the word Communist should be dropped as far as referring to these characters in our midst is concerned. It is too feeble a word. It implies a leaning toward a particular form of political ideology, exclusive of country.

There is not the slightest iota of difference between the men who are pro-Soviet today and the men of yesterday who came ashore from a German submarine and buried explosives in the sand. Those men from the submarines were not concerned about political ideologies. They were all hepped up to blow up something with a resounding bang.

So are these pro-Soviets in the State Department. Their explosives are words, hints, innuendos. They encourage a dilution of public opinion, splits and waverings in policy, a feeble approach toward world problems. Our weakness is Russia's strength.

The silent explosions which go on in the State Department are certainly not less destructive than those blow-ups planned by the men who buried explosives in the sand during a dark night.

The whole thing is incredibly important and too many of us are incredibly unconcerned. It is a truism that in the history of the United States, we have consistently paid for our casual attitude in blood.

Come on, Lewis.

* * *

Research:

The editors of the pulp magazines are remarkably concerned about the accuracy of background material. So, the other day, engaged in a thud and blunder thriller which has part of the action taking place near the East India Docks in London, we got hold of a London street guide. We were fascinated with the names of some of the streets and thought you might be, also. Here are a few:

Droop Street -- Epple Road -- Glaucus Street -- Honeypot Lane -- Ion Road -- Back Alley -- Black Boy Lane -- Blunt Road.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Would You Like Something to Read?

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

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

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

CRIME

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 22, 2019

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

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

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

Personals:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"LUANA: Please write. Joe."

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

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

* * *

Local Animal Life:

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

College Hill Driving:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *
See you next week.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Zeiser's

John D MacDonald was so associated with the state of Florida that the casual reader of his fiction could be forgiven for believing that he and his family had always lived there. MacDonald was born in Pennsylvania and spent his first ten years there before his father moved the family to upstate New York, where he (John) would spend the next 23 years (minus three years overseas during the war). It wasn’t until 1949, when JDM was 33 years old, that he, Dorothy and Johnny moved to Florida permanently. And by then the three of them had deep roots in the Empire State.

The MacDonalds never really left New York. In 1944 John had sent wife Dorothy some poker winnings from Ceylon and she used the funds to purchase a lot on the southwestern shore of Piseco Lake, located in Hamilton County in the Adirondack Mountains. Dorothy knew the lake well: her father Roy had purchased a cabin there when she was young, which they called Wahnahoo, and she spent most of her summers there as a youth. When John returned from the war in 1945 and decided on a career in fiction, finances were tight and there was no money to develop the lot. It remained empty until 1950, when the MacDonalds designed a cabin (they called it a “camp”) and began construction. As the family was now living in Florida, the work was supervised by JDM’s brother-in-law Sam Prentiss, who lived in Albany. Beginning the following year they would follow an annual pattern of spending the summer at the camp and the rest of the year in Sarasota, a practice they continued -- with the exception of a seven year period from 1963 to 1970 -- every year of their lives.

Despite its remote location, the Piseco camp wasn’t all that removed from civilization. There was a small store and post office located a mile and a half away, and the town of Speculator was a 16 mile drive up Route 8. The MacDonalds made frequent trips to Speculator while living at the camp, for “serious grocery shopping” and to enjoy eating out at a restaurant and inn called Zeiser’s. The establishment was a great favorite of the family: they had their own table and were good friends with the owners, John And Genevieve Zeiser. Back in 2016 I posted a transcription of a newspaper article published in the local Hamilton County News following the death of John, where this strong relationship was clearly evidenced.

In 1980 Barbara Crossette, a travel writer for the New York Times, published a guide to America’s Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns (in fact that was the title of the book). It was a collection of over 300 individual pieces on various off-the-beaten-track establishments throughout the country, written by various travelers that included “doctors, authors, lawyers, musicians, people who travel on business, a couple of Jungian analysts in their seventies, two United States senators, two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, the director of a film institute, distinguished professors, local historians -- and many people who did not identify themselves…” John D MacDonald was one of those authors, and his entry described Zeiser’s. Here is a transcription of his piece.

"I really believe you should include Zeiser's in Speculator, New York. It is owned and operated by John and Genevieve Zeiser (and Ludwig, the cat). The operation is housed in what used to be the Annex of the Sturges House, which was built in 1858 by David Sturges, back when the crossroads near the hotel was called Newton's Corners. The Zeisers have been in business here for twenty-three years. There is an attractive bar, lunch areas-including a long screened porch in season-and a handsome formal dining room, with lighting, napery, silverware and table settings beyond reproach. Every part of the operation is spotlessly clean. There is no American plan. You are expected to find your breakfast elsewhere in the village. There is no room service for drinks or food. The food is excellent, tending toward the German. The wine cellar is heavy on good Moselles. Mr. Z, a tidy and formal man, reigns at the bar. His no-nonsense attitude has given the bar the flavor of a good, small private club. Service is swift and courteous, and one would go a long, long way to find a better dry martini. Or more civilized conversation at a bar. Mr. Z is a host!

"Speculator, incidentally, is in Hamilton County, which is in the middle of the Adirondack Park Preserve and is the most sparsely settled county in New York State. It is reputed to have more black bears than people. The crossroads a couple of hundred feet from Zeiser's is the intersection of Route 8, which begins way down at Deposit, N.Y., on the Pennsylvania border and ends at Hague, N.Y., on the northwest shore of Lake George, and Route 30 which begins, or ends, down at Harvard and Shinhopple, N.Y., near the Pennsylvania border, and ends, or begins, at Trout River on the Quebec border.

“Lest this sound too obscure, let me say that Zeiser's is 42 miles from Gloversville, 61 from Utica, 75 from Schenectady, 90 from Albany, 94 from Troy and 109 from Syracuse. The most handsome way of driving up to Speculator is to exit the Thruway at exit 29, Canajoharie, and drive north on Route 10 to Route 8, and turn right on 8 to Speculator, twelve miles farther. The last seventeen miles of Route 10, before it intersects Route 8, is known locally as the Arietta Road. When it was repaved a few years ago, the Park Authority did not consent to the usual ‘straightening.' So there are sixty-five curves in those hilly miles, beautifully graded, a feast in autumn, but special at any time of year. Speculator is lakes and camping in summer, hunting in the fall, skiing in the winter.

“Room reservations are a must, and dinner reservations almost as necessary. This past year, the Zeisers had a Bavarian festival with tent, music, fantastic German food, superb beer on draft and the best zither player I have ever heard anywhere, an engaging chap named Toni Noichl.”
---John D. MacDonald

Open all year.
6 rooms, all with private bath.
Rates $9.50 single, $18.50 double.
Credit cards: American Express. Bar.
German spoken.


I’m not sure if Zeiser’s is still open for business. There are online reviews from as recently as 2018 and apparently Genevieve was still alive and running the place (John passed away), but some of the reviews seem to indicate a business on its last legs. They used to have a JDM display in the front lobby. I wonder if it is still there...


Monday, April 8, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 18: February 19, 1948

Another edition of John D MacDonald's 1947-1948 Clinton Courier newspaper column.

Box-Pleated Language Overlaid with Tulle:

Ever since we read Gibbon's Decline and Fall we've kept an uneasy eye on New York City for signs of mad decadence.

In a spirit of pure research, we have been dipping into the current issue of Vogue. The only trouble with criticizing such a periodical is that you are somehow placed in the position of a coarse character of the "dese, dem and doze" type.

Those people frighten us. Since they are the spear-laden phalanx of the "new look," the "thirteen inches from the floor" type of person, we have been looking furtively into the magazine.

One ad says, "For your grand manner, gentle lines, eloquently underscored, reach their crescendo in a skirt!" How about that? Slip into your crescendo, lady.

Happily they tell us, "Yours is a fragile, delicate beauty." How did they know? And they try to sell us a "butcher type rayon." We wonder if that's a weave designed to wrap meat. We are told to "follow spring around the corner on happy, dancing feet." In Clinton those happy dancing feet would freeze solid going around the corner.

Did you know that "fashion dictates veiled loveliness for Spring"? We assume that if you're minus the loveliness, you merely select a slightly heavier veil.

Editorially the magazine says, "There is more than one way of dressing; one method may be as good as another, always provided it is a method." That's pretty profound, you know. Our method has always been to get the clothes on as quickly as possible.

They admire a debutante of the current season, because she believes "that day clothes must be purisms, very casual, very simple." Our self confidence is vastly improved, as nothing could be more casual or more simple than this wool shirt and G.I. pants we wear during the day. But from now on, we call the shirt and pants "purisms".

One ad says, "Picture sheep grazing on a sunny slope. That's the beginning of this important fashion story." With their curly locks hanging thirteen inches from the ground, we assume. Can't say we'd approve of the silhouette.

Did you know that there is a new fashion for smoky, grey taffeta after five? That pink lipstick belongs in any wardrobe involving grey? That a little-bistro evening with red-checkered table cloths demands violent debates, gentle reminiscences, and artistic flights of fancy, and that bird-brain chatter simply falls to the sawdust and gets lost?

Next time we find ourselves in such a little bistro, we'll check on the feminine customers and see if all of them are restraining their bird-brain chatter, keeping the crumbs off their smoky grey taffeta, gooing up with the pink lipstick, smoothing the wrinkles out of their crescendos, scuffing their happy, dancing feet in the sawdust, and wearing their fragile, delicate beauty with the proper grand manner.

Free Stuff:

The other night our favorite radio comedian, Abe Burrows, was talking about the welter of modern songs which talk about all kinds of things being free. Birds and moons and June and love and wind in the willows and such. Abe says, "You ever stop to think that in that whole list of free stuff there isn't one thing you can put in a sandwich?"

Accordiana:

Had you listened Sunday night you would have heard Dick Cantino win again, provided you could have stomached hearing the name of a cigarette mentioned exactly thirty-seven times. We counted.

Who Made That Goal?

Ed Stanley says that there are only about a half dozen more games scheduled for the Clinton Hockey Club this year. Thus it is a little late for us to be starting this program. At least we'll mention it and get your reaction.

The games in the college rink -- both the CHC games and the college games -- would be a great deal more enjoyable for all spectators if there were an adequate Public Address System. Goals and penalties could be properly announced, as well as substitutions.

An adequate Public Address System would cost in the neighborhood of eight hundred dollars. It is apparently up to the citizens of Clinton who enjoy the games to get this idea rolling. If you show that you are interested we will set up a committee to rake in the voluntary contributions -- with representatives from the faculty and student body of the college, as well as the town. One buck apiece from 800 ardent hockey fans will make all games in the college rink next year more enjoyable. What do you say?

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, April 1, 2019

JDM in the SEP

Back in March of 2016 I wrote a piece on John D MacDonald’s 1961 Saturday Evening Post short story “Kitten on a Trampoline.” This work of fiction was MacDonald’s first to appear in the Post, and it’s interesting to ponder why it took so long for this most popular of general interest magazines to publish the author. Perhaps it was because JDM had such a good relationship with another popular periodical of the time, Cosmopolitan (in its pre-Helen Gurley Brown era), which had a long tradition of focusing on fiction. His work appeared in Cosmopolitan 36 times, the most of any other non-pulp publication. Beginning with “Kitten on a Trampoline,” MacDonald would go on to write a total of five stories for the SEP, including “Funny Man,” which would be included in JDM’s 1966 anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories under the author’s original title, “Afternoon of the Hero,” and 1961’s “Sing a Song of Terror,” which was later reworked as the opening chapter of the 1970 Travis McGee novel The Long Lavender Look.

When I wrote the piece on “Kitten” I neglected to look through the entire magazine, which I did recently, only to discover a brief entry on MacDonald in the SEP’s “Keeping Posted” section. It contains a photo of MacDonald I have never seen before, the author without his signature glasses. He looks kind of like a deer in the headlights.


I went through the rest of my Saturday Evening Post collection and found one other photo of MacDonald, included in the same magazine that featured his short story “The Obvious Woman” (which I haven’t written about yet). It has another glasses-less photo of JDM, this time looking much more at ease. I include them here for your enjoyment.

The entire run of The Saturday Evening Post has been digitized and archived, and is available for viewing for $15 a year, for those of you interested in reading the JDM stories listed below. You can sign up for the archive (including a current subscription) by clicking here. (I'm not a subscriber -- I include this only for readers who might want access to the stories.)

John D MacDonald stories published in The Saturday Evening Post:

April 8, 1961 “Kitten on a Trampoline”
September 9, 1961 “Sing a Song of Terror”
September 16, 1961 “Hit and Run” (one of two JDM stories bearing this title)
March 30, 1963 “The Obvious Woman”
May 21, 1966 “Funny Man”

Monday, March 25, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 17: February 12, 1948

This next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-48 newspaper column for the Clinton Courier was written in the teeth of a typically brutal upstate New York winter. It is full of fascinating biographical tidbits -- fascinating, that is, if your are fascinated by JDM’s biography.

Here we learn that one of his favorite books of the season was Ross Lockridge’s huge novel Raintree County, a work never mentioned in later years when the author listed his favorite books. The novel was filmed nine years later and featured, in a supporting role, Rod Taylor, who -- of course -- would go on to inhabit the only big screen incarnation of MacDonald’s Travis McGee.

We also learn that JDM had a literary agent, a female named Marian, who evidently supplanted the “joker” he had initially hired and complained about to editor Babette Rosmond in 1946. “Marian” would herself be supplanted by Cap Shaw, former editor of Black Mask Magazine, although I’ve never been able to discover when that coupling took place.

Finally, there is an interesting bit on the MacDonald’s offspring, Johnny, who later renamed himself Maynard, and who, when young, was nicknamed Pen -- short for pencil. John writes about his son’s nascent artistic ability, somewhat humorously, but with obvious pride. “Pen” was no doubt encouraged and instructed by his artist mother Dorothy. As of this writing he was two months shy of his ninth birthday.

Finally, there is a beautiful coda, another reverie recalling the family’s winter of 1946-47’s stay in Ingram, Texas, a time which obviously made a huge impact on them all. MacDonald mentioned it often in his column, recalled it in The House Guests, and used it as setting in more than one work of fiction.


Mystery:

Having recently finished Ross Lockridge's Raintree County and being very firm in our belief that it is the best novel we have read in five years we were interested in finding out the general reaction to it. Not the critic's reaction.

In Utica, we talked to a lady who handles the loan library for one of the stores. She told us that the first three people who took Raintree County out returned it unread, had given up somewhere along the line.

If it had no suspense, we could understand. If it was all conversation and no action, we could understand.

Maybe the size -- one thousand something pages -- scared them off. When a book is good, we like it to be long.

* * *

Our Friend, the Martian:

He went to the hockey game as we suggested. Apparently nobody noticed him. He looks a good deal like people. At the present time he has gotten himself up as a middle-aged, middle-sized man in a grey overcoat.

We reproduce his report in its entirety:

"Local creatures divide themselves into two groups and conduct mimic warfare on a slippery substance. They carry clubs with which they attempt to kill one another, seldom succeeding. They wear knives strapped to their feet, thus causing them to fall quite often and to run into the wall surrounding the slippery area. The players are surprisingly durable. During this period of warfare, a surprising thing happens. Every few minutes one creature who wears Number 25 hurries down the ice and propels a black wafer into a net. The others apparently watch him do this thing and are powerless to stop him. I do not understand all this. I do not even know why I like it. The creatures who do not play merely sit, shiver and make warlike shouts."

* * *

New Trend in Decorating:

The other day a letter came from our agent in New York and, instead of containing the usual disparaging comments about the deathless prose we have sent her, this letter said that her client, Jesse Stuart, had sent her a picture as drawn by his five-year old daughter. She liked it and decided that it would be nice to decorate her apartment with framed masterworks by the children of all her clients.

The request should have come a year ago. Before the Era of the Horse. Our offspring cannot pick up a pencil nowadays without turning any nearby hunk of paper into a quivering memorial to the Spirit of the Hoss.

We transmitted Marian's request to him and he went into a trance, returning some time later with a profile picture of a horse's head, complaining that the paper wasn't large enough or he would have made it life size. He wondered if we could find him a piece of paper big enough so that he could draw the entire horse, life size. In the picture he considered unsatisfactory, there was a balloon, a la comic strip, coming out of the horse's mouth with the cabalistic sound, "Wheeee". A very happy and contented hoss.

These horses of his have a wild look and teeth. The also seem peculiarly absorbed in the problem of trying to kick themselves in the head.

Next door is a fine friendly horse named Blue Genius. Pen's drawings lack Blue's placidity.

They also lack background. Some time back he did fine pictures in which there were houses, smoke, hillsides and blue mountains in the distance. We reminded him of those old happy days before the hoss. His second attempt had a background. A horse in the foreground and a background composed of horses.

He is anxious to please the agent -- almost as anxious as we are -- and he doubtless considers her to be a woman of intelligence who wants nothing better than a picture of one of his happy horses. If we should try to tell him that maybe she doesn't want a full face or profile of a trusty steed, he will lose all respect for her.

* * *

Winter Scene:

This morning, in the Hill Country of Texas, the doves were sitting in the live oaks, hooting at the dawn. The sun came up bright and hot, and the hills were misted with the grey-blue smoke of burning cedar. When the wind died, you could hear the faroff silver of the bells on the lead goats. In town cafe doors were open, the juke boxes filling the street with the nasal whine of the music of the plains.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Hero for Our Time

When John D MacDonald passed away on December 28, 1986, all but eleven of his 77 books -- novels, anthologies, non-fiction and a monograph -- were still in print in one form or another.* This included, of course, all 21 titles in the Travis McGee series. As far as I have been able to tell, these titles have never gone out of print and have enjoyed multiple editions over the years. While MacDonald was alive these various editions changed only insofar as their cover art and the accompanying blurbs. The Deep Blue Good-By, for example, went through 43 unique editions through 1987, including 38 in paperback (with five different cover illustrations), two Lippincott hardcovers, two large print editions, and one Detective Book Club edition. And I’m not even counting the two JDM trilogy anthologies that were produced. But if the McGee’s ever did go out of print, it would have happened sometime between 1987 and 1995, a period where my research is spotty and MacDonald’s popularity went into a steep decline.

Then, in the summer of 1995, Ballentine/Fawcett Crest began publishing brand new editions of the series, with new covers and, for the first time, additional material included. There was an introduction by fellow author and Floridian Carl Hiaasen and a brief piece by MacDonald’s son Maynard. That the covers stunk -- easily the worst ever produced for the titles, consisting of huge block lettering -- didn’t matter to JDM fans: the extras and the fact that they were available and taking up space in the Mystery sections of bookstore shelves was all that mattered.

To publicize this event, JDM biographer and editor of the JDM Bibliophile Ed Hirshberg wrote an article for the Tampa Bay Times titled “A Hero for Our Time,” which was published in the July 9, 1995 edition. I have transcribed it and present it below. Although it contains nothing that would have been new to readers of MacDonald’s works it does give a good sense of how far JDM had fallen off of the cultural radar, in that he even needed to be reintroduced to the reading public.

A Hero for Our Times
By Ed Hirshberg

Have you ever heard of Travis McGee, “that big brown loose-jointed beach bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl-seeker, that slayer of small savage fish, that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, argufier, that knuckly. scar-tissued reject from a structured society”?


No? Well now's your chance to get acquainted.


Starting this month with The Deep Blue Good-by, Ballantine/Fawcett Crest is republishing the entire Travis McGee mystery series written by Florida novelist John D. MacDonald. The classy new paperback edition of The Deep Blue Good-by includes such extra goodies as an enthusiastic introduction by Fort Lauderdale satirist Carl Hiaasen, a note from John D.'s son Maynard, and testimonials from Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, Dean Koontz, Jonathan Kellerman and Donald Westlake.


The Deep Blue Good-by was originally published in 1964, closely followed that year by three more Travis McGee adventures: Nightmare In Pink, A Purple Place For Dying and The Quick Red Fox.


McGee calls himself a "salvage expert," who waits until he needs money, then "goes out and takes it from the taker, keeps half and gives the rest back to the innocent." That's his profession, at which he makes a very good living, enabling him to take his retirement "in chunks" as he goes along instead of waiting until he's too old to enjoy it. He lives on the Busted Flush, a 52-foot barge-type houseboat, luxuriously accoutred with a sunken bathtub and plush furnishings. He won the boat in a poker game with a rich South American who was afraid to call his bluff, hence the name.


A superb physical specimen, McGee is handsome in a rough sort of way. He is of that indeterminate age at which he remains attractive to most women of practically any age. He keeps his boat moored at the Bahia Mar Marina on the Inland Waterway in Fort Lauderdale, where a permanent plaque near Slip F-18 now marks the sacred spot.


What Travis McGee has, in short, is everything: enough money, a plethora of women and an interesting job doing good for people, all of which has made him a fascinating figure for millions of readers of both sexes. He is the kind of guy most women would like to be in love with and most men would like to be.


John D. MacDonald, who died in 1986, wrote 21 books about McGee, between 1964 and 1985. The books, each with a different color in its title, have continued to sell briskly (though not nearly as briskly as they did when the author was alive, despite the efforts of a passionate group of MacDonald aficionados.)


So why has Fawcett Crest chosen to republish the Travis McGee series? The publishing house obviously wants to win over a new generation of readers who has never heard of Travis McGee, but the timing is also right: These days we all need heroes like McGee.


MacDonald carefully crafted his character in a heroic mold. In the tradition of such mythical heroes as Hercules, Achilles and Theseus, McGee is of mysterious origins, has great physical strength, and is indefatigable in his amorous exploits. Despite his sybaritic and free-wheeling lifestyle, including his daily tot of Plymouth gin and tonic and the stream of women who pass through the door of the Busted Flush's snug cabin -- and occasionally detour into its king-size bed -- he is, however, fundamentally a decent man, a fit role model for a time starved for heroes.


Despite his weaknesses (and there are many), McGee is unquestionably one of the good guys. The people he chooses to help are usually the poor and the put-upon. Invariably Travis tries to help good people recover from injuries inflicted on them by bad people. He usually succeeds, though often at considerable and grievous cost to himself in the form of injuries, insults and other indignities.


Unlike the ordinary hero, who is usually a strong, silent type, Travis talks a lot. Actually, he is MacDonald's mouthpiece, expressing the author's opinions on a host of social issues. After his fourth McGee book, MacDonald brought in a sounding board for Travis because the author felt that his character was indulging in too many interior monologues. Meyer, a garrulous, hirsute economist, highly intelligent, with whom Travis can discuss the things that are bothering him, suddenly appears in A Deadly Shade of Gold and plays a vital part in the rest of the series. MacDonald once remarked that he felt he had every right to move his suspense novels in the direction of the so-called "legitimate" novels “of manners and morals, despair and failure, love and joy.... I shall continue with my sociological asides, with McGee's and Meyer's dissertations on the condition of medicine, retirement, face-lifting, earmites, road construction, white-collar theft, apartment architecture, magazine editing, acid rain, billyrock, low fidelity, and public service in America today."


Wide-ranging and all-embracing as Travis' interests are, his most persistent and passionate

opinions have to do with Florida's besieged environment. There are 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 when Travis or Meyer made them back in 1965. For example, in Bright Orange For The Shroud, the sixth book in the series, Travis speculates about the Everglades. Having failed to subdue it from frontal attack, "we are slowly killing it off by tapping the River of Grass. In the questionable name of progress, the state in its vast wisdom lets every two-bit developer divert the flow into the dragline canals that give him 'waterfront' lots to sell. As far north as Corkscrew Swamp, virgin stands of ancient bald cypress are dying...”

*The John D MacDonald titles that were no longer in print in 1986 when MacDonald died were:


Title Date of Last Edition
Ballroom of the Skies February 1982
The Deceivers January 1984
I Could Go On Singing March 1963
Judge Me Not June 1984
Nothing Can Go Wrong March 1983
Other Times, Other Worlds January 1980
Soft Touch September 1982
Weep for Me January 1959
Where is Janice Gantry? December 1980
Wine of the Dreamers February 1984
You Live Once September 1981