Monday, May 27, 2019

John D MacDonald Put it on the Line Every Time

John Keasler was a longtime newspaper columnist for the Miami News, a now-defunct periodical that folded in 1988. Keasler was a Florida native and, in addition to writing a regular column for the paper, produced over two dozen works of short fiction that appeared in the magazines of the era. This particular column was written the day after the death of John D MacDonald and was published in the paper’s  December 30 issue. As remembrances of JDM go, this one is particularly insightful and close to the source. It was headlined "John D MacDonald put it on the line every time". 

Keasler passed away in 1995 at the age of 74.

He was the definitive free-lancer, John D. MacDonald was, and writing meant freedom to him.

That was what writing was to the strange tough breed of professionals called free-lance magazine writers, now all but vanished. Writing for a living was freedom.

"John D. MacDonald is dead," my office said the other night when they called me because they knew I had known him a long time.

And, only then, did I think about how well I had known MacDonald before I ever even met him.

I had even told him that once as we were having a drink at Midnight Pass on Siesta Key maybe 35 years ago.

"God, I used to hate you, John," I said. "Every hopeful writer hated you. There you would be, month after month, all over the covers of what seemed like half the magazines on the newsstand ... Street and Smith Detective, Black Mask, Popular Sports, Argosy, Bluebook - man, you purely pumped it out."

"The funny thing is, it never gets any easier," he said, laughing. "The penny-a-word pulp stuff was just as hard to write as the big-pay stories."

John D. MacDonald was the king of the pulps, and went on to become the king of the high-pay magazine suspense stories, and then when the paperback books came in he was a one-man industry there long before Travis McGee brought still more fame and money, and with all that — with 77 books and God only knows how many short stories to his credit - he never wrote any way except the best he could.

"You have to put it all on the line every time," he told me a number of times over the years. "If you ever set out to write less than the best you can produce, you'll sink without a ripple."

I think, personally, that MacDonald's readers always knew, and knew a damn sight better and sooner than the establishment critics did, that this man was producing a lot of fine literature in the guise of fine entertainment.

MacDonald had a string of formal-education credentials, including having been graduated from various high-toned finance and business schools and then receiving his master's degree from the Harvard School of Business.

"That has made my life hell," Knox Burger told me once, when Burger was MacDonald's editor at Fawcett Publishing's Gold Medal Books, which really established John D. solidly as a novelist long before Travis McGee came along.

"His business education has made your life hell?"

"Yeah," said Knox. "I mean, half the truly good businessmen in America waste their time trying to be writers, and are lousy at it. I got the only #%# in the U.S. who is a truly fine writer and wastes his time trying to be a businessman."

Getting my first letter from John D. MacDonald was a grand and glorious thing for me. I was hammering away at short stories, some published, lots rejected. His name, as I say, was known to every writer, at least every writer crass enough to consider money a partial motivation for writing. (And Samuel Johnson said nobody but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money.)

I never had the nerve to leave a newspaper paycheck with my swiftly-growing family, but I wrote a lot on the side. Eventually things picked up and, occasionally, I would sell a story to Collier's or Saturday Evening Post and, with progressive frequency, Cosmopolitan (which was different then).

MacDonald had the back-of-the-book mystery in damn near every issue of Cosmo. He was a very famous writer, particularly to writers. So one dull day when I pulled a letter out from my bills I could hardly believe it.

He had some kind things to say about my stories that he had read in Cosmo, and he actually knew I was from Florida, and John D. MacDonald asked me to let him know if and when I was in Sarasota. That was a very big day for me.

And when I went to Siesta Key a little later to do a magazine piece on Mackinlay Kantor, John lined it up for me. This was back in the days when there was one bar on Siesta Key, and when Kantor won the Pulitzer for Andersonville which he had written in a bug-filled van down the beach to avoid the gawking tourists he hated, and when (to my thinking) the greatest thing in Sarasota was the Friday writer's "lunch" at a local Spanish restaurant.

The lunch varied in length. Some swore one had once lasted three days.

I do remember one six-hour lunch when MacDonald won all the money at dollar-bill poker, I finally went out to sleep in his car and later learned he had dropped two other writers off at their respective homes due to inability to drive ... then he went home and, that night, finished the final 6,500 words of a novelette with a deadline the following day.

He got plots everywhere. (I was with him once in a bank. A devastating blonde was in line, the object of bug-eyed lecherous stares. He said, "You could rob the joint with her in here, and none of these guys would even know it." A year later I read his short story with that precise plot.) [The story JDM wrote was titled "Who's the Blonde?" and it was published in the August 9, 1952 issue of Collier's.]

He had an innocent look and a diabolical sense of humor. He took me with him to the private screening of Cape Fear, from his novel The Executioners, and had a stranger collect $6 from me at the door for our "tickets."

Last year he somehow talked me into speaking at the Sarasota Library Dinner. I fear public speaking, fear it badly, but he swore on the phone it was “just a few book lovers" who sat around and talked.

When I got to Sarasota he informed me, to my unspeakable horror, that I had to (and somehow did) speak from a podium at a formal luncheon to what seemed like, and I guess was, hundreds of people.

He thought that served me right for allowing myself to be conned.

Now what I remember is John D. showing me the great word-processing system he wrote on. He was enthusiastic as a 20-year-old. His silky white hair was messed up, his eyes bright with life, his laugh echoed throughout his big house.

He had a look of freedom about him. He looked the exact way the definitive free-lancer should look.

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."


"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:

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.

* * *


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.