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John D. MacDonald

Author

1916 - 1986
Inducted in 1991

Biography

At the time of his death in 1986, John D. MacDonald was the author of  78 books, with more than 75 million copies in print.  Combined with hundreds of short works of fiction, MacDonald's career achievements as an American mystery writer remain unparalleled.  Dozens of his most celebrated works featured Florida's culture and environment, most notably his series of 21 "Travis McGee" novels which profoundly influenced an elite corps of environmentally conscious writers in Florida and elsewhere.

Born in Sharon, Pennsylvania in 1916, John Dann McDonald grew up the son of a business executive.  When he was 10, his family moved to Utica, N.Y. where his father worked as treasurer for a large manufacturer of firearms, the Savage Arms Corporation.  When he turned 12, MacDonald lay sick for many months, suffering from scarlet fever and mastoiditis.  He turned to books to escape his confinement and became enamored of writers and their talent.  He wished he had been born a writer, assuming he had been unlucky in that regard.

After high school, MacDonald bowed to his father's urging and enrolled at the country's first collegiate business school, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  His interest in his studies at Wharton waned quickly, and in his sophomore year he dropped out.  After a brief series of menial jobs in New York City, MacDonald returned to school, this time to Syracuse University.  There he met a woman five years his senior who would become his lifelong partner–in 1937 he married Dorothy Mary Prentiss.  He graduated from Syracuse in 1938, and the next year earned an M.B.A. from Harvard.

But his newly minted, A-1 credentials as a qualified businessman didn't segue into success in the workplace.  MacDonald's temperament (outspoken) cost him two jobs, first as an insurance salesman and then as a repo man for a bank.  He soon found himself broke, jobless and facing medical bills for his wife's troublesome pregnancy with their first (and only) child.  When offered a job as a purchasing agent with the U.S. Army in 1940, he readily enlisted. 

With the world at war, MacDonald, at 27, got assigned to the Army's Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA.  He served in Burma, Ceylon and China as an OSS ordnance officer.  In his spare time he dabbled in writing, and mailed a short story (entitled "Interlude in India") home to amuse his wife.  Unbeknownst to him, Dorothy sold the piece to Story magazine for $25.

When he heard the news that he was a published author, MacDonald began to think he might have a future in writing after all.  Mustering out of the Army as a lieutenant colonel in September 1945, he returned home, secluded himself with his typewriter, and unleashed a torrent of writing.  In four months, he wrote roughly 800,000 words of short stories, firing finished manuscripts almost weekly to a variety of publishing outlets. 

A barrage of rejection letters ensued, forcing MacDonald once again to find a day job.  But eventually his stories began to sell, and by 1949 MacDonald had settled into his newfound career as a short-story writer.  He moved his family to Florida, choosing Sarasota as his new home. 

In 1950, MacDonald published his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, a hard-boiled detective novel based in Florida.  Over the next 15 years, MacDonald would use his Harvard business training and knowledge of the seamy side of the corporate world to frame more than 40 mystery novels, an astonishing output that established him as the "king" of American pulp fiction.

His first book to catch the attention of Hollywood was The Executioners, published in 1958.  After a screenplay based on the book made it to the big screen in 1961–becoming a hit thriller starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck–the book's title was changed to match that of the film, Cape Fear.  By 1964, four other MacDonald novels inspired movie or TV productions, making the author a world-famous (and wealthy) man.

Also by the early 1960s, MacDonald had become a staunch environmentalist, alarmed over what he saw rampant development doing to his beloved adopted home.  As a means of calling public attention to the wholesale destruction of Florida's natural areas, in 1964 MacDonald launched his most famous work–a long series of detective novels set in Florida and featuring "Travis McGee" as protagonist. 

MacDonald set his main character in Fort Lauderdale, living aboard a houseboat he'd won in a poker game, The Busted Flush.  "McGee" is an ex-football player and Korean War veteran who is a hero, if flawed, to powerless, largely innocent people who find themselves threatened by various criminal or immoral elements.  MacDonald used "McGee" to comment on such social issues as ecological insensitivity, political corruption, real estate scams, racism and infidelity.  The hugely popular run of 21 "Travis McGee" novels began with The Deep Blue Good-by (1964) and ended with The Lonely Silver Rain in 1984.  All of the novels contained a color in their titles as a marketing device for the series.

MacDonald's "McGee" series is credited as the spark that ignited an entire genre of Florida-based fiction built around the state's struggle to deal with enormous social and ecological problems brought on by a spiraling influx of people.  

Such prominent novelists as Carl Hiassen (whose "McGee" is an ex-governor-turned-environmentalist named "Skink"); James W. Hall; Randy Wayne White; Laurence Shames; S.V. Date and Tim Dorsey continue to write in the best tradition of MacDonald's "McGee" series. Hiassen is quoted as calling MacDonald "the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise and breath-grabbing beauty."

MacDonald punctuated his "McGee" years with other Florida-based novels with an environmental theme.  His 1977 novel Condominium, an indictment of bad development in the face of hurricanes, spent 27 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.  The story was turned into a TV drama starring Barbara Eden and Dan Haggerty.

MacDonald's influence on literature was hardly confined to Florida.  Novelists Kurt Vonnegut, Dean Koontz , Jonathan Kellerman, Mary Higgins Clark and Stephen King were long-time admirers.  King called MacDonald "the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller."

MacDonald collected numerous awards over his career, including the French Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere (1964) and the American Book Award in 1980.  He died of complications following heart surgery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in December 1986.