From the 1950s through the 1980s, John Dann MacDonald was one of the most popular and prolific writers in America. He was a crime writer who managed to break free of the genre and finally get serious consideration from critics. Seventy of his novels and more than five hundred of his short stories were published in his lifetime. When he died in 1986, more than seventy million of his books had been sold.
But it was not just sales figures that made MacDonald important. London Times critic H. R. F. Keating selected his 1979 novel, The Green Ripper, as one of the one hundred best mysteries of all time. That same novel won him the American Book Award for the best mystery of the year. His books were translated into Afrikaans, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Serbo-Croatian. Eight of his novels were made into motion pictures, including The Executioners, which became the critically acclaimed Cape Fear. Kurt Vonnegut said of MacDonald, “To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.” The author and critic Stephen Vizinczey said MacDonald sketched “the laidback life of golf, boating, long cool drinks, the peculiar callousness bred by hot climates and luxurious comfort, better than anyone else since Graham Greene.”
As a master of detective fiction, MacDonald adapted a uniquely American hard-boiled style that influenced writers around the world. In 1995 the Library of America canonized this tough direct prose when it published a collection of the writing of Raymond Chandler. What was once dismissed as cheap literary entertainment now has a place beside Hawthorne and Faulkner. But hard-boiled literature is no museum piece. It began in the 1920s with the novels of Dashiell Hammett and the stories by other writers for Black Mask, the best of the thousands of pulp magazines of the era. The hard-boiled style continued with Raymond Chandler in the 1940s and redefined itself in the 1950s and 1960s with the novels of Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald, and John D. MacDonald.
Some purists believe the style eroded with the grotesque, comic-book-like, violent novels of Mickey Spillane and his imitators and then vanished forever. It did not. John D. MacDonald returned hard-boiled writing to the realm of literature and pulled it from the sewer of sadism where Spillane had dragged it. Because MacDonald’s early career was as a paperback writer, it was a long time before he was taken seriously by most critics. However, beginning in 1953, Anthony Boucher became his champion in The New York Times. “[His] writing is marked by sharp observation, vivid dialogue, and a sense of sweet, warm horror,” Boucher wrote. He also called MacDonald “the John O’Hara of the crime suspense story.”
In his Travis McGee novels, MacDonald gave the hard-boiled tradition something new, a likable hero. Both Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade were failed policemen who lived alone, had no friends, and went to the office every day. Hammett’s other detective, the Continental Op, didn’t even have a name. These hard-boiled heroes had small, lonely apartments in the middle of the city and ate greasy diner food. Travis McGee, on the other hand, lived on a houseboat in the Florida sunshine, drove a Rolls-Royce pickup truck, had lots of friends and scores of women, ate good food, and worked as little as possible. Millions of readers wanted to be Travis McGee, and after MacDonald’s death in 1986 other writers—Jimmy Buffett and Carl Hiaasen, for example—created heroes in McGee’s image.
And yet McGee was more than a detective. He was the mouthpiece for MacDonald’s diatribe against the spoiling of the environment and the corrupting of civilization.
“Far off on the north-south highways there was the insect sound of the fast moving trucks,” MacDonald wrote, “whining toward warehouses, laden with emergency rush orders of plastic animals, roach tablets, eye shadow, ashtrays, toilet brushes, pottery crocodiles, and all the other items essential to a constantly growing GNP”
To understand John D. MacDonald, his writing, his life, and his rebelliousness against mainstream society, you have to go back a generation, to his father, Eugene Andrew MacDonald. A believer in the bootstrap theory, he was devoted to the juvenile novels of Horatio Alger, the Gilded Age dime novelist whose books taught boys that hard work, education, good manners, and a little luck could give them everything capitalism could offer.
Eugene Andrew MacDonald was born in 1888 in a house in Gildeas Alley, New Haven. His own father, Hugh MacDonald, had come to America from the suburbs of Glasgow. He was twenty when Eugene was born. Eugene’s mother, Catherine King MacDonald, was seventeen.
Hugh MacDonald was a gardener and a handyman. He didn’t make much money, but his desire to own property so possessed him that food and clothing for his family were secondary considerations.
He was overwhelmingly jealous. He constantly accused Catherine of having affairs with other men. He apparently beat her regularly, although Eugene MacDonald doesn’t say so in his memoirs. His jealous rages became so bad that doctors advised Catherine that she would suffer a mental breakdown if she didn’t leave her husband. Her brother, Edward King, worked in Washington, and he sent her enough money to come south and live. Bur he didn’t send enough to bring her two children, Eugene and his younger sister, Lillian, with her. “She kissed us both goodbye and told us somehow, some way, she would secure enough money to come back to New Haven and get us,” Eugene wrote in an unpublished memoir. But she never did.
While Catherine was in Washington, Hugh tried to put his children in an orphanage. Eugene remembered “a cold, snowy evening with my sister and I hand in hand, being led up to one orphan asylum after another. Each asylum told my Dad that they could not take us in because both of our parents were living.” A few months later, Catherine and Hugh reconciled and she returned to New Haven.
Eugene was an excellent student. His teacher gave him copies of a few volumes of Horatio Alger’s books to take home, along with The Youth’s Companion. The books made a deep impression on him. “The stories gave me confidence, hope and ambition,” he wrote.
In 1902, when he was fourteen, he put those lessons to work. When he entered high school, he got a paper route to earn money for books. On the first Saturday he went out, he signed up fifteen subscribers to the New Haven Union. “I gave them a good story about wanting to stay in high school. It proved that Americans are always ready and willing to help the underdog.” He was so successful that the Union’s rival paper, the New Haven Register, hired him away. But no matter how well he did, there was never enough money at home. He and his mother got work sewing hooks and eyes on cards, he added another paper route, he got a job as a lamplighter for the gaslights that dotted the New Haven streets. With it all he still managed to get good grades.
But there was another problem: Hugh was beating Catherine again. “I realized that unless I could get my mother and sister away from such unpleasant surroundings, they would sooner or later crack up,” he wrote. “It was then I decided to work during the summer to build up a fund which some day I could use to start life anew somewhere with my mother and sister.”
One of his paper route customers was a foreman in the cartridge department of the Winchester Arms Company, and he helped Eugene find a job polishing .22 caliber cartridges. He took the new job but kept delivering the papers and lighting the lamps. By the end of the summer he had saved $66. Still there was not enough money. Congressman N. D. Sherry, one of his paper route customers, told Eugene he wanted to nominate him to attend West Point. “I was flattered and thanked him profusely,” Eugene writes. “But financial and home considerations were such that I could not accept.”
Another customer on his paper route, a professor at Yale, arranged for a college scholarship. Again Eugene thanked his benefactor and refused. “After the first of the year, I noticed that my mother was failing in health. The doctor advised us that she would never be herself again until she was relieved of the mental strain she was experiencing.” In June 1906, on the night Eugene was to graduate from high school, Catherine was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. She was not expected to live. Eugene made his graduation speech and then hurried by cab to his mother’s bedside. “The doctor told me they had done everything known to medical science to improve her condition without success.” But four weeks later she showed some improvement and was discharged.
Soon after she arrived home, there was a telegram from her brother, Edward, in Washington. His wife had died. Edward had a nine-year-old daughter and a thirteen-year-old son and needed someone to take charge of his household. Could Catherine and the children come as soon as possible? The three of them began counting the days.
On the first of August, Eugene resigned from his job and booked tickets to Washington. Catherine left a letter for Hugh. It was a bleak, gray day. “With fear and trepidation in my heart, I was not relieved until the train pulled out of the depot,” Eugene wrote. Nine hours later, the three MacDonalds arrived in Washington in a heavy rainstorm.
Eugene went to work at the Bliss Electrical School, keeping the books for $25 a month. Life certainly seemed better than it had been in New Haven, but then Uncle Edward decided to remarry and the MacDonalds had to move out. Eugene changed jobs and went to work for the Potomac Telephone Company; Catherine repaired old rugs and carpets for $5 a week.
MacDonald’s first assignment for the Potomac Telephone Company was cleaning out old phones in a brothel. “They assigned me to the red light district with instructions to call the office every half hour … I took [the first phone, a heavy coin-box phone] from the wall and laid it against the stair post with the [large] transmitter sticking out. One of the girls of the house, dressed in a funny gown and half awake, came down the steps and hit the set and bruised her toe. I never heard such a string of foul oaths in my life, not even by a man. I was so embarrassed I sweated like a horse, and the job, which ordinarily took ten minutes to do, took me one half hour, fortunately in time to put in my first report call.”
A few months after Eugene’s whorehouse job, he was reassigned to the White House, where he accidentally listened in on President Theodore Roosevelt. “What’s that? Somebody is listening on this line,” he heard the President say. Fifteen minutes later, Eugene was arrested by the Secret Service. Potomac Telephone cleared him, and he was assigned permanently to White House duties. Even so, telephone work didn’t seem the way to success. Times were better for the MacDonalds now—Eugene was making more money, his sister, Lillian, was working as a telephone operator, and his mother was able to quit her job.
Then Eugene was befriended again by N. D. Sherry, the congressman who had offered to nominate him for West Point. Sherry got him a job mailing the Congressional Record along with garden seeds to his constituents. The pay was $75 a month. But Catherine fell ill again and was advised to get out of Washington; the heat and humidity were killing her. Luckily, Eugene found work at the Winchester Arms Company in New Haven.
“My mother occasionally questioned me about the future, and insisted that I must look around for someone to marry, someone who had a good business head and knew how to watch the pennies,” he wrote. Most of the time Eugene was too busy working to pay any attention to girls. Then, in the Savin Rock amusement park in New Haven, he saw a redhead riding a white horse on the merry-go-round.
“That,” he told a friend who was with him, “is a Wow.”
The redhead was Marguerite Dann (called Margie, with a hard G), a secretary at the New Haven YMCA. Her mother had died when she and her sister were young children, and she had been raised by her father, Edward Odell Dann, and her mother’s spinster sister, Emily Grace (Nana) Williams.
Eugene and Margie began courting in 1911 when she was eighteen and he was twenty-three. Before they were married, Eugene had been successful in helping to liquidate the assets of the Gotham Shirt Company for a New York bank and had moved to New York City. Here he was able to streamline the business offices of the company that made the Owen Magnetic, an electric automobile with an automatic transmission. The car sold well for a time, until it turned out that no one knew how to repair it.
In the midst of this business crisis, on June 21, 1915, Eugene and Marguerite were married. They moved to an apartment in the Bronx. Within a few months, Eugene’s mother and sister took an apartment next door to the newlyweds. Again there was not enough money. Then Margie announced she was pregnant.
Eugene went back into the arms business. World War I had begun. His first job was supervising the manufacture of six-inch shells for the British navy. The MacDonalds moved again, this time to Sharon, Pennsylvania, where Eugene’s employer had a plant.
On July 16, 1916, the same day the MacDonalds’ furniture arrived on the train from New York City, Margie went to the hospital and began labor. It lasted for fifteen hours. It appeared that a cesarean section might be necessary, but finally the baby was born. It was an eight-and-a-half-pound boy. Eugene and Margie named him John Dann MacDonald. They called him Jack.
THE RED HOT TYPEWRITER. Copyright © 2000 by Hugh Merrill. All rights reserved.