Saturday, October 5, 2013

John D. MacDonald (1916-1986)

Army Officer, Author
Born July 24, 1916, Sharon, Pennsylvania
Died December 28, 1986, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

John Dann MacDonald was born on July 24, 1916, in Sharon, Pennsylvania, where his father worked for Savage Arms Company. MacDonald grew up there and in Utica, New York. His schooling was split between New York and Pennsylvania as well. After dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, MacDonald completed his baccalaureate at Syracuse University in 1938. He followed that up with an MBA from Harvard University in 1939. The following year he received a commission in the U.S. Army. During World War II, MacDonald served as an ordnance officer in the China-Burma-India Theater. He was discharged as a lieutenant-colonel in September 1945.

MacDonald's writing career began when his wife sold his first story for him before he was even discharged from the army. "Interlude in India" appeared in Story in July/August 1946, just in time for MacDonald's thirtieth birthday. After four straight months of grueling work at the typewriter, he sold a second story and his career was off. Over the course of his writing life, MacDonald wrote nearly 500 short stories in the detective, mystery, adventure, Western, and sports genres. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, his first published science fiction story was "Cosmetics" in the February 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. MacDonald wrote two stories for Weird Tales, both published in 1949. His novels, beginning with The Brass Cupcake in 1950, numbered seventy-eight in all. Twenty-one of those were color-coded books about the fictional detective Travis McGee, played in the movies by Rod Taylor and Sam Elliott. Perhaps his most famous book was The Executioners (1958), which was filmed twice as Cape Fear.

John D. MacDonald was and still is a widely admired author. If only one or two of his fellow authors had remarked upon his greatness, I might mark it up as fannish hyperbole. Instead, we have the opinions of Kingsley Amis, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Ed McBain, and many others, who used words such as "treasured," "timeless," "mesmerizing," and "master" to describe him and his work. I regret to say that I have never read anything by John MacDonald, but a long, long time ago, I saw The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything (1980) on the small screen and remember it as one of my favorite television movies. I hope that if I ever see it again, it will be with as much pleasure as the first time around.

John D. MacDonald died on December 28, 1986, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after living his allotted three-score and ten. He was laid to rest in Poland, New York.

John D. MacDonald's Stories in Weird Tales
"The Great Stone Death" (Jan. 1949)
"But Not To Dream" (May 1949)

Further Reading

Thrilling Wonder Stories for October 1950, juxtaposing a jungle girl and a flying saucer, both subjects of pop-culture crazes in the the late '40s and early '50s. The cover story was John D. MacDonald 's "Shadow on the Sand." The cover artist was Earle Bergey.
MacDonald's first paperback novel, The Brass Cupcake, was published that same year. The perspective is a little out of whack, but that's a nice illustration. I can't read the artist's signature, but it could be Austin Briggs. 
MacDonald sold seventy-five million books in his lifetime in places like Germany . . .
the Spanish-speaking countries (I'm not sure which) . . .
and Italy. (This is un giallo, an Italian thriller like I wrote about the other day.) 
None could match the American knack for knowing what sells.
Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?” That’s from Kingsley Amis.

  2. Dear Elizabeth,

    Since writing my article on John D. MacDonald, I have read about four-fifths of the Travis McGee novels and I can say they are really good, some breathtakingly good. Here are some blurbs from the front and back covers of the paperback editions:

    "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." -- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

    "The best novelist in America." -- Pete Hamill, New York Daily News

    "A masterful writer." -- Chicago Tribune

    "These days John D. MacDonald is the wonder of us all. It makes other writers tired just to think of him." -- Cosmopolitan

    "A crime writer who never lets the customer down." -- Saturday Review Syndicate

    "A master storyteller, a wizard of dialogue, characterization, and plot." -- Chicago Tribune Book World

    "McGee has become part of our national fabric." -- Seattle Post-Intelligencer

    ". . . one of the most creative and reliable writers of paperback originals . . . Mr. MacDonald can create a series character just as well as he does everything else in the suspense field." -- Anthony Boucher, New York Sunday Times Book Review

    Thanks for writing. In the future, please refrain from vulgarity. This blog is intended for all readers, regardless of age or sensibility.


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