Monday, June 25, 2018

Book's Author Likes Travis McGee Film

In August of 1970, two days prior to the public release of the film version of John D MacDonald’s 1966 Travis McGee novel Darker Than Amber, a private screening for VIP’s and selected members of the local press was held in Miami. The affair was hosted by the film’s producer Jack Reeves and he invited MacDonald, MacDonald’s wife Dorothy, and the film’s star Rod Taylor. The MacDonalds made it, Taylor didn’t: a week before the event he was injured in an automobile accident in California and his doctor would not consent to him traveling.

This article appeared in the August 13 edition of the Palm Beach Post and was written by staff reporter Dave Simms, who attended. The few bits of opinion JDM offered on the quality of the finished product are -- given the circumstances -- kind but vague, and in stark contrast to those he voiced later on.

Book's Author Likes Travis McGee Film

MIAMI - There is this eidetic image stamped on the back of my mind of the John D MacDonald photographs printed on the back of the suspense writer's books:

His eyes peering curiously upward through horn-rims as if he were pondering a giant sculpture of Travis McGee;

His mouth firm on the stem of a briar pipe as if he were expecting the sculpture to issue forth with a McGee-ism;

His shoulders draped in the beginnings of what appears to be, incongruous for a writer, a business suit, sliced at heart-top by the crop of the photograph.

So I'm walking through the tubular maze of hallways in Miami's squatty, pink Wometco Building, the image of the MacDonald photograph in my mind imaging Travis McGee and his hairy companion, Meyer, walking the same corridors, getting step by step closer to the private screening room.

It's the room where John D MacDonald awaits, in the VIP row in back, the pre-public showing of his first Travis McGee book to be made into a movie.

I expect a pipe with some burly aroma steaming from its bowl. And, despite the summer Florida heat and the business suit in the image, I expect a jacket of tweed.

But John D MacDonald is sitting there in a pencil-point-gray, pencil-point-thin jacket over a blue-black, carbon-paper-colored shirt. And he's chain smoking little brown cigars.

The projectionists is late and the pre-public showing of Darker Than Amber is delayed 15 minutes, a half hour, a few minutes more.

MacDonald is murmuring in outwardly relaxed conversation about politics, youth, movie contracts and columnist John Keasler.

The clothes and the conversation feign nonchalance. But the rapid succession of little brown cigars, impulsively extracted from a package-box, suggests a different mood.

I don't think it would be too unwarranted to speculate that John D MacDonald is a bit apprehensive, flutteringly expectant and maybe downright nervous.

"We're awfully sorry about the projectionist," says a man, obviously used to coordinating things, who's been darting around coordinating the long wait.

John D MacDonald is done murmuring. "I loved the book," he chants with good-natured sarcasm.

Creator of Travis McGee in 1964 (he's written a dozen McGee books since then), creator of mathematical-minded Meyer at the same time to travel South Florida, Mexico, elsewhere with McGee, the two quite probably MacDonald's alter egos, the writer is becoming good-naturedly impatient at the delay of their movie debut.

Lights down finally, screen ablaze with opening scene headlights. And credits. John D MacDonald gets almost a full screen of credit. And Darker Than Amber is rolling.

Travis McGee, the human hero National General Pictures hopes will become a household word for movie-goers, the human hero MacDonald readers already have made into a household word, is on the screen.

But more about the movie itself, which was shot in South Florida, after it opens publicly Friday.

Movie over, lights up. John D MacDonald pops up from his VIP chair. "Well, back to glaring reality," he says with conviction.

I ask, in comment form, "It seemed to me he leered once. I can't imagine Travis McGee ever leering."

"No," says MacDonald with a hearty laugh this time. "He smirked, maybe."

The whole movie? "I liked it better than I expected I would," he says, bunched up with some others at the entrance to the dining room of the M-S Sunward, the cruise ship on which part of the movie was shot and to which the private screening party is bused for lunch.

He indicates he liked it much better than Cape Fear, a movie made a decade ago, in pre-McGee days, from the MacDonald-written The Executioners.

But he says, "I'm a grown up boy... enough so I realize that if you translate a book into a movie accurately, the movie would take eight hours to run and nobody would stay."

MacDonald's wife says he was unhappy with the first Hollywood draft of the screenplay, but it apparently improved along the way.

John D MacDonald ponders a restaurant scene in the movie that isn't in the book. "I thought those two buddies of that kid in the bar were quite chicken." If he had written a similar sequence into a book, he would have written it differently.

He muses over something else and suddenly says in a gee-whiz kind of innocent tone, "You'd think they had to raid a blood-bank to get the blood for the picture."

He's laughing now a bit and people are shuffling around John D MacDonald, trying to impress him with how many of his books they've read and how much they know about Travis McGee.

I get the feeling John D MacDonald is not the type of writer who gets impressed with that kind of tactic. But he bends a bit today, after the screening, to be especially gracious and polite about it.

Because, for John D MacDonald, Travis McGee, after six years in paperback, is now alive and well on the movie screen.

Monday, June 18, 2018

JDM on Barzun

“[Any] attempt to make a crime story ‘a real novel’ is headed for failure. Every few months a publisher boasts that his author has accomplished the feat, but what the reader finds is a book with a fatally divided interest: the business of elucidating the crime stops dead while character and society are being depicted in depth; and when this part of the job is interrupted in its turn so as to resume work on the crime, one must make an effort to remember the small significant details and the progress of the inquiry. The seesaw, moreover, repeats, and in each phase, one is impatient at getting, or not getting, the appropriate kind of entertainment.”

-- Jacques Barzun, A Catalogue of Crime (1971)

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) was a renowned social historian of the last century whose interests spanned much of American popular culture. His 1971 work A Catalogue of Crime, (written with Wendell Hertig Taylor) was a landmark study of the works of the literature of mystery and crime fiction, containing over 5,000 entries on novels written in the genre. But as important as this book was in the field, it had its detractors -- many who disagreed with his opinion of certain books and others who took exception to his very understanding of what crime fiction was and what it represented. The above quote, taken from the book’s introduction (or more specifically, the “Introductory,” as it was titled) seems, to the fan of John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, to be a direct aim and fire at the author. When a paper written for 1978’s John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detective Fiction, held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, brought up Barzun’s assertion, MacDonald responded.

[The writer of the paper] uses the Jacques Barzun dictum that “anyone who attempts to improve on the mystery genre and make it a real novel suffers from bad judgement.” He [Barzun] further claims that replacing clues with psychology and sociology is “childish tinkering with the genre.”... This strikes close to home, as anyone would know who reads the McGee books, Any writer who claims that he is writing a suspense story and at the same time writing more than a suspense story is open to a justifiable criticism of pretentious jackassery.

I know what I am trying to write. I am accepting the strictures and limitations of the medium and then, within those boundaries, trying to write as well as I am able, of the climate of the times and places in which the action takes place. I try to put violence into its contemporary frame of history, believing that not only does this make the people more real, it makes their actions more understandable. On page 45 of the Fawcett edition of One Fearful Yellow Eye, I have McGee’s interior monologue about Chicago women, slums, Hefner and professional sports. I did it because I felt then, and still feel, that the flavor of the city and its times is essential to an understanding of what had happened there to Doctor Geis.

I do not accept Barzun’s ground rules. No one can tell me that it is not within my authority to try to move my suspense novels as close as I can get to the “legitimate” novels of manners and morals, despair and failure, love and joy.

There are no ground rules. The only stipulation is: Does it work? And this, too, is an empty question, because any book, any author, will work for some and not for others. Any creative form presupposes a selective taste, just as the taste of the author, painter, sculptor or composer uses his own selective taste in the elements of his finished work.

Nor is the critic, amateur or professional, much help in establishing whether a specific book works or does not work -- does what is intended or fails to do so. Criticism in all the times we know of has been of little avail in judging contemporary work because such work is seen in the light of fads, fashions and degrees of public acceptance or non-acceptance. Only hindsight seems to have a precarious validity…

At any rate I shall continue with my sociological asides, with McGee's and Meyer’s dissertations on the condition of medicine, retirement, education, facelifting, ear mites, road construction, white collar theft, apartment architecture, magazine editing, acid rain, billyrock, low fidelity and public service in America today, permitting a certain amount of wandering, but subjecting it to the blue pencil when it begins to feel as if it has gone on too long.

The odd thing, I suppose, is that I find it easier to do this sort of thing in a medium where it is not all that customary than to do it in the novels I write which are not in the suspense genre.

Monday, June 11, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 2: October 30, 1947

Here is a transcript of the second installment of John D MacDonald’s Clinton Courier newspaper column "From the Top of the Hill," written back in 1947 when he was two years into his new job as a full-time writer. He reminisces about the war, tells a stale old joke, and opines on local matters.

The author once used Clinton as a model for the fictional town of Dalton in his 1956 murder mystery Death Trap.

The other night we stood on the sidewalk in front of the darkened shops at twelve fifteen, looking over toward the post office. The night was warm and quiet, with no car in sight.

Up over the post office, the windows were lighted and we could hear the hearty, solid stomp of a square dance step -- being done to the tune of "Roll Out the Barrel." Maybe it wasn't a square dance. At least it was something where a whole batch of shoes landed on the boards at the same time with a wonderful, vital thump.

The solid stamping was something in the present -- but the music was pure nostalgia. Maybe we are a sucker for symbolism. That tinny old tune made faraway sounds under the big elms. If the war ever had a universal tune, that was it. A half dozen nations picked it up and used it as their own.

Once we stood at the rail of a troopship and looked down at an Australian dock where the local band brayed and oom-pahed their way through it. We heard an Indian dance band at a swank New Delhi hotel fight their way through it. We heard British troops singing it as they swung down the main drag of captured Bahmo.

It is a song that somehow brings back the manic-depressive unreality of that big fat war. The other night it seemed strangely fitting that it should ring out across our peacetime village square. On the floor below the music were the empty mailboxes which were once cluttered with those stampless letters from APO numbers, from men under strange foreign suns.

It was very nice and somehow very sad to hear that tune the other night.

* * *

We shamelessly borrow jokes and tailor them for out purposes. Here is one.

It was dusk, and there were but a few minutes left to play in the bitter small-boy football game under the lengthening shadows of the elms in the village square.

The score was six to nothing, and Billy, a thin, imaginative boy with a streak of dirt across one cheek was desperately quarter-backing the losing team. Billy's team took over the ball on their own twenty, and as Billy hurried toward the huddle, he heard a deep, hollow-sounding voice just behind him say, "Around left end!"

Billy stopped and turned. No one there! Just for an instant he got the impression of a hulking, semi-transparent figure wearing the nose guard of yesteryear.

He gave directions in the huddle. The ball was snapped. Billy went around left end for a long gain. First down, minutes to play.

As Billy trotted toward the huddle, he slowed down and listened for the mysterious voice from the shadows of evening.

"Around right end!" the voice ordered. The quality of it sent shivers down Billy's spine.

He went around right end for a large gain.

The third time, he stopped and waited for orders. There was but one minute to play. "Right through the middle!" the voice ordered.

The ball was snapped. Billy juggled it for a moment. His line gave way. The opposition came through. Billy was hit and the ball bounced right out of his hands into the arm of an opponent who ran for a touchdown.

Billy stood up. Close in his ear the mysterious voice sounded.

"Oh, shucks!" it said.

* * *

Here is a statement of beliefs, and a guess about the future. We would very much like to join in a few arguments about this subject. We don't yet know enough about it. It concerns the future of Clinton.

Twenty years ago any design for living which contemplated commuting between Clinton and Utica was pretty optimistic. At that time Clinton was composed of two groups: the college and the village.

Now Clinton has three heads: the college, the village and the commuters. It appears that with the increase in the number of commuters, the village and the college have drawn closer together than ever before.

Once upon a time we lived in Fayetteville, just outside of Syracuse. Since it is a bit closer to Syracuse than Clinton is to Utica, its development as a commuter community has been more rapid.

At the present time it is a pretty deadly place. It is deadly because attempts at community integration have been feeble. As far as community unity is concerned, it is quite similar to a New York City apartment building.

We wondered how Fayetteville could have avoided becoming a residential satellite of Syracuse. Our guess is that a concerted community effort to make each new resident feel himself a part of the village structure would have helped.

We feel that Clinton is, in a sense, in the same position that Fayetteville was quite a while ago. The village, as an integrated unit, will be weakened by the influx of people who live here and work in Utica unless they can be made to consider themselves Clintonians who just happen to work in Utica. Every resident who feels that he is a Utican who just happens to live in Clinton weakens community structure, helps to make us a village of strangers and of cliques.

From a practical point of view, we can plan on continued growth, on a continuation of this migration. It can swallow us up. We feel that the answer is to absorb the new residents into community life. It is the best line of defense to maintain our integrity as a separate and distinct place.

Write us some nasty letters, will you? We can be talked out of this point of view -- if your arguments are good.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, June 4, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 1: October 23, 1947

Longtime readers of this blog are aware that John D MacDonald was the author of two separate newspaper columns, written 15 years apart, one published under his own name and the other under the pseudonym T Carrington Burns. Hugh Merrill, in his JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter, discusses and excerpts the second column, but nowhere in any of the biographical material on the author is there a mention of the first. In the past I have transcribed excerpts from these early works, and now I think it is time to present the columns in full. I will post these throughout the year, usually when circumstances prevent me from writing a regular piece, and eventually I’ll create a link to them all in the Resources section of The Trap of Solid Gold.

This is the first column, preceded by an introduction I wrote back in 2010. These columns reveal a personal side of MacDonald from the earliest years of his writing career: from the parochial to the world view, from the expansive to the mundane, all presented in a relatively humble fashion, the polar opposite of his manner in the T Carrington Burns pieces. Or the Travis McGee rants.

Here goes...

[From 2010] “In addition to the hundreds of short works of fiction John D MacDonald wrote in his lifetime, in addition to the scores of novels, the handful of biographical and fact-based books, a monograph, an anthology of mystery stories written by women and a movie novelization.... in addition to all of that, MacDonald wrote many non-fiction articles that appeared in the magazines and newspapers of his day. A well-educated man with an MBA from Harvard, he could -- and did -- pontificate of a wide variety of subjects over the years, the scope of which is pretty amazing. Not surprisingly, he wrote about the craft of writing, nearly forty articles that began as early as 1950 for the Writer's Yearbook. He wrote about the environment, a singular passion of his, in periodicals as disparate as Holiday, Life and The Conservationist (an organ of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation). And he covered lots of other topics, including sports, boating, travel, race riots, world population and even retirement planning. He was also a newspaper columnist -- twice.

“Readers of the two most readily accessible MacDonald biographies, Edgar Hirshberg's critical study for Twain's Authors Series and Hugh Merrill's cut-and-paste bio The Red Hot Typewriter, can be forgiven for not knowing this fact. MacDonald's authorship of [the first] column is mentioned nowhere in those books… Of course, Walter and Jean Shine knew of these works and owned copies of every column. They wrote about both of them in their JDM Bibliophile column and occasionally reprinted excerpts. MacDonald himself never talked about these obscure works and even attempted to hide his authorship of the second series -- it is one of the few cases in his career where he deliberately used a pseudonym...

“MacDonald’s [first column], undertaken in the very early years of his writing career… began in October 1947 and continued until the spring of the following year, 32 weekly pieces that represent the first known JDM works of non-fiction published. The column, called "From the Top of the Hill," was published in The Clinton Courier, the weekly newspaper of Clinton, New York, an upstate college town where the MacDonalds lived for about a year before heading to Mexico. The columns are fascinating reading today, not only for their examples of early JDM writing, but for the many biographical insights they drop: mentions of the two MacDonald cats who would later star in his The House Guests, discussions of the books he was reading, his progress as an author, and even a childhood recollection that would show up 20 years later as a part of a short story, "Woodchuck." He worries about things all young parents worry about, from local hot-rodders speeding past his house to the Communist Menace of postwar America. He has several very interesting reminiscences of his wartime service (including tales of a few Hollywood stars he met in India), and a piece on Merrill's Marauders where he explains why no real history of that Unit can ever be written (it involves a mule and a bomb).

“I own copies of all 32 columns and will be posting excerpts from them now and then. There is a nice Thanksgiving piece which I will post this November, and a hysterically funny Christmas recollection that should have been mined for one of his works of fiction (perhaps it was), plus lots of little bits here and there that make for interesting reading. He writes (as he did for the second column) using the editorial "we," a somewhat antiquated nosism that takes the modern ear a bit of getting used to, but one quickly adapts.

“The MacDonald family's relatively brief stay in Clinton deserves a little background. Despite being a native New Yorker, MacDonald's wife Dorothy hated cold weather and invariably spent most of each winter sick or feeling poorly. When John returned home from the war in 1945 the family lived in a second-story apartment in an old frame house on State Street in Utica. Although they remained in New York for most of the winter his first season back (1945-46) as John pounded out some 800,000 words that garnered 1,000 rejection slips, they did manage to briefly get away to Florida in February. The following winter, with no "day job" to hold them down, the family temporarily pulled up stakes, had Dorothy's mother Rita stay in their apartment to watch the cats, and headed south for Taos, New Mexico. They never made it. They got as far as Ingram, Texas, located in the hill country northwest of San Antonio, fell in love with the surroundings and rented a cheap, off-season cabin on a hillside. Upon their return next spring they discovered that they had lost the lease to their apartment and began looking for another place to live. MacDonald recalled that period in The House Guests:

'"After dreary rounds of overpriced and depressingly gloomy apartments, we decided to buy a house. Believing in our innocence that a small college town might provide a pleasant atmosphere for the writer, we looked extensively around Clinton, New York, near Utica, where Hamilton College is located, and at last found a large and very pleasant house up on the Hill, almost surrounded by college property.'

“The family moved in and John eventually snagged the columnist gig for the local weekly, an eight page tabloid that is still published today. At the same time he continued to produce an amazing amount of product, including fiction for slicks such as Liberty and Esquire, as well as for a large number of pulp magazines. The MacDonalds didn't head south the winter they lived in Clinton, mainly for two reasons: John's column and Dorothy's mother, who was ill and who would die in June of 1948. MacDonald ended the column with the May 27, 1948 issue and, quickly after Rita passed away the family packed and headed south again, this time for Cuernavaca, Mexico. They rented their home to a young couple but they had no intention of ever returning to live in Clinton. The academic and intellectual environment they had hoped to find in the town proved to be little more than constant gossip and bickering about faculty politics, and John himself felt as if he was viewed as some sort of quaint freak. Again, from The House Guests:

'"... it had been a bad choice of environment for us. We had found there many good and pleasant people, but instead of the intellectual stimulation we had anticipated from a college community, we had found a carefully established pecking order, with status often achieved and maintained through the elegancies of entertaining rather than any quality of wit or insight. As far as other outsiders resident down in the village were concerned, Dorothy treasures a ghoulish memory of a Save The Children meeting she attended whereat it was decided that those collage women who wanted to work at this charity but were not quite socially acceptable could be put in some sort of affiliated setup whereby they could work but would not be entitled to attend the teas. She attended no further meetings. We also discovered that we were the unwelcome targets of an avid and undisciplined curiosity. It is a mistake, unless you have an actor's flair and a poseur's inclinations, to be The Writer in a small community. No matter how limpid your normal behavior, how rotarian your tastes and habits, your every move will be examined and so interpreted that it fits the myths the townspeople choose to believe.'

“When the MacDonald's returned from Mexico late in the Summer of 1949, they came back to Clinton only to sell the house and tie up a few loose ends of Rita's estate. When they left that fall they once more headed south, this time to Florida, where they would live for the rest of their lives. John returned to Clinton only vicariously, in 1956 when he set his novel Death Trap in a small town with a college up on a hill, an obvious stand-in for the place he once called home. I've always wondered if the title of that novel had a double meaning for the author.”

Column Number One:

"The time has come," the walrus said... So right here and right now we begin a column which will speak of many things.

On the midway of a carnival the concessionaire spins his big wheel and the pointer stops on a number. We'll pick our items for this column in the same random way. And just like the man behind the wheel, we can put our foot on the lever and stop it just where we want it.

We discussed hiding behind a door and inventing a name to sign to the column. Somehow that seems akin to a window jimmied in the night by a gentleman in a mask.

So if one or both of our two friends stop speaking to us, or if people cross to the opposite side of the street when we approach -- it will be evident that we have said the wrong things.

* * *

Our opinions are not the result of long and constructive thought. They leap upon us from dark corners. On one day we read a profound statement. Three days later it has become our own opinion -- minus the longer words.

We will accept advice and criticism. A column is indeed a wonderful way in which to talk without interruption. We have long envied columnists their air of being lesser deities. Suddenly we have joined the ranks of those who have the impression (delusion, if you wish) that they have something to say. So your mailed comments -- the blunter the better -- will aid the Humility Department.

* * *

A week or so [ago] we pulled a bonehead play and we've been feeling slightly guilty ever since. A pleasant woman came to the door and said that she was taking orders for brooms made by the blind. We took a quick glance at our new broom and told her that we had a new broom, thank you.

She went away and we walked back into the house and leaned against the kitchen sink and wondered why we always find it so easy to say NO at the door. It must be the result of long practice. This time, we said it too quickly.

We have always believed that blindness must demand the highest quality of bravery and nobility in the human spirit. As children we fear the dark. To be in eternal darkness and to be unafraid is a test of the human soul. The blind can be less afraid of life if the work they perform can be sold for material gain. A man or woman who can earn money with his or her hands is not helpless.

And we refused to buy a broom.

A broom would have kept until our shiny, factory-made new one wears out. It would have cost as much as a trip to town to the movies. Or a small supply of cigarettes. Or a book which we have eyes to read.

Sometimes we say no too quickly.

* * *

We have always looked with great suspicion on the published results of the Gallup Polls. This may be because Mr. Gallup has injured our pride by never asking our opinion on national and world affairs. We acquired the habit of sneering and saying, "Bet he never asks anybody anything. Makes it all up out of his head."

But we are converted.

We have talked to a man who has been asked a question. We shook his hand. It was Dick Hughes.

Both Dick and his son were asked the same question: If at the present time you could vote for either Truman or Eisenhower for President, how would you cast your vote?

Dick wouldn't tell us his answer, but that is a minor point. The major point is that we now believe in Mr. Gallup.

* * *

One day seven years ago we found a small brown praying mantis on the sidewalk in Rochester, just in front of the Sibley, Lindsey and Curr Department Store. Since that time the mantis family has been a dead chapter until this summer.

This summer we have had dozens in the yard.

Their ability to swivel their heads around and stare at you seems to give them an incredibly evil look. They are absolutely fearless.

We found an article on the praying mantis. In the book it said they have dispositions to match their looks -- would eat any kind of a bug, including each other.

So we observed selected specimens. We spent several hours crouched in the yard staring at them. They stared right back. Assuming the duties of mess sergeant, we captured a few innocent insects and offered them to the mantis. In all, we offered a grasshopper, a cricket, a small red spider and a juicy-looking caterpillar. No soap. Our mantis stared woodenly at the offerings. The cricket crawled over it and the caterpillar shouldered it out of the way.

It may be that the article was written by a naturalist who had observed some poorly adjusted mantis -- one with paranoid tendencies. Or possibly Clinton is the home of the happy mantis.

At least ours are clean. They lick their elbows and use them to wash their heads. Much like a cat.

Maybe next year the new mantis generation will have the good old fighting spirit. We'll be out looking -- returning stare for stare.

* * *

See you next week.