Guest Post: Travis McGee & Gin

BoodlesBy Kevin Comer

Just as the recipe for the Vesper, James Bond’s signature martini, features Gordon’s gin, imported Plymouth gin was the essential—and nearly sole—ingredient in Travis McGee’s preferred adult beverage. That is until we learn early on in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974) that the inexorable march of so-called progress has trampled upon one of Travis’ simple pleasures.

In Chapter 3 of Lemon, Travis lets us know something truly dreadful has happened. He and Meyer are aboard the Flush chugging northward up the Atlantic coast of Florida. An old friend, Carrie Mulligan, has been killed in an apparent roadside accident. Travis has his doubts. Two weeks before, a disheveled Carrie had shown up unexpectedly on his gangplank at four in the morning after a six-year absence. She asked him to hold $94,200 in cash for her, with instructions to send the money to her sister if she didn’t return to claim it. He’s to keep ten grand for his trouble. Near certain Carrie’s death was no accident, McGee and Meyer are on their way to the Westway Harbor marina in Bayside, Florida to investigate:

At drinking time I left Meyer at the wheel and went below and broke out the very last bottle of the Plymouth gin which had been bottled in the United Kingdom. All the others were bottled in the U.S. Gin People, it isnt the same. Its still a pretty good gin but it is not a superb, stingingly dry, and lovely gin. The sailor on the label no longer looks staunch and forthright , but merely hokey.

Wouldn’t you know it, another example of excellence spoiled by the self-defeating logic of modern commerce. Travis laments:

There is something self-destructive about Western technology and distribution. Whenever any consumer object is so excellent that it attracts a devoted following, some of the slide rule and computer types come in on their twinkle toes and take over the store, and in a trice they figure out just how far they can cut quality and still increase the market penetration. Their reasoning is that it is idiotic to make and sell a hundred thousand units of something and make a profit of thirty cents a unit, when you can increase advertising, sell five million units, and make a nickel profit a unit. Thus the very good things of the world go down the drain, from honest turkey to honest eggs to honest tomatoes. And gin.

 The bad news about Plymouth may be somewhat tempered for readers by the recipe for McGee’s favorite martini:

I put cracked ice in two sturdy glass mugs, dumped in some sherry and dumped it out again, filled with Plymouth gin, rubbed peel around the rims of mugs, squeezed oil onto surface of gin, threw peel away…

Thereafter, gin takes a back seat to murder and a very close call for Travis as he and Meyer track down Carrie’s killer. The prime ingredient of a great martini doesn’t come up again until Chapter 3 of The Empty Copper Sea (1978).

T. McGee and Meyer are in the hamlet of Timber Bay on the gulf coast of Florida. McGee has undertaken to salvage the reputation of Van Harder, a professional captain stripped of his papers for being in a drunken stupor when his boat ran aground and his employer was lost at sea. Van Harder claims he’s been done dirty and Travis is prone to believe him.

Our beloved duo is exploring Timber Bay when they stop at the Captain’s Galley—where the parking lot is full of local cars—for a bite to eat. No table is available, but the dark bar features captains’ chairs. They settle in and Travis orders drinks:

 …when I asked for the brand of gin we wanted the iced martinis made from, there was no confusion or hesitation. The young man in the sailor suit whipped the blue-labeled square bottle of Boodles out of the rack, poured generously, made us the driest of the dry, glacial and delicious.

 From now on, it’s Boodles for McGee.

I have a theory about McGee and gin. I don’t know about you, but I wonder why Travis insists on gin, much less a particular brand of gin. Wouldn’t beer be a more appropriate drink for a self-described beach bum? Why not chardonnay? Or triple malt scotch? Could it be that JDM was one of those “Gin People” Travis addresses in his Lemon lament?

I like to keep Travis McGee and JDM separate in my mind; two closely related, but quite independent, beings. Of course, it isn’t like that at all. T. McGee is the product of JDM’s design. He touches on the character design in “How to Live with a Hero,” his article describing the birth of the series that appeared in the September 1964 issue of The Writer. He informs readers: “I made [Travis McGee] an iconoclast, a critic of the cheapening aspects of his culture, an unassimilated rebel in an increasingly structured society. I gave him a light, wry, amiable touch…”

But McGee can never be wholly separate from JDM. Travis is like a chimera, an organism made up of a mixture of genetically distinct cells. Some of those cells are aspects of JDM’s character design and others are like the epithelial cells CSI technicians are always finding on the murder weapon in the ubiquitous television police procedurals, bits of JDM that have flaked off and stuck to McGee.

Gin might be one of those bits. JDM was no stranger to the pleasures of an alcoholic beverage. In 1952, he began a decades long custom of attending regular Friday gatherings of Sarasota’s not insignificant—male—writers colony, where they would have lunch and spend the afternoon telling stories, playing liars poker, and drinking. Drinking was part of the writing lifestyle in Sarasota. In fact during the week, writers seeking company would hang large “drinking flags”outside their homes to encourage drop-in guests. Reportedly, JDM, who spent his workdays diligently punishing the keys of his typewriter, was one of the few who did not engage in this practice.

Nonetheless, drinking played a large enough role in JDM’s lifestyle that in 1958 he considered giving up alcohol altogether. His sister was a full blown alcoholic and middle-aged JDM wondered if it wouldn’t be better for his own health to take a break for a couple of years.

He began by quitting entirely for a few months. Then he decided an occasional drink would be okay, if he was more than 50 miles from home. He stuck to that rule for a while, but eventually jettisoned the distance requirement, concluding only his home would be off-limits. It wasn’t long before he dropped rules all together. He later wrote: “Had I decided I still couldn’t handle it after the two years schedule was over, I would have quit forever.”

Based on Travis’ enthusiasm for Plymouth and Boodles and his dismay at the decline in quality when Plymouth began being produced in the U.S., I posit that a taste for imported premium gin might be a trait that isn’t merely an aspect of character design, but a reflection of the JDM’s own preferences. I’d be willing to bet that sometime between 1974 and 1978, Plymouth was replaced by Boodles in JDM’s own liquor cabinet and when he fixed himself a drink, he “put cracked ice in [the glass], dumped in some sherry and dumped it out again, filled with [Plymouth/Boodles] gin, rubbed peel around the [rim of the glass], squeezed oil onto surface of gin, threw peel away…”

There is probably some terribly imposing and intellectual term for trying to identify those bits of JDM that are mingled in McGee’s genome. I don’t know what that term might be. I just call it fun.

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11 thoughts on “Guest Post: Travis McGee & Gin

  1. I grew up with parents who prepared a small pitcher of Gordon’s or Gilbey’s martinis several evenings a week, but didn’t acquire the taste myself until I was rather older. My old man taught me how to make them. Pretty simple, really. Four or five parts gin to one part vermouth + an olive + a little slpash of olive juice, all on the rocks. But I make very small ones, just two or three evenings a week. My dad used to make big tumblers, and they were just too much.Wish I could afford Boodles or Plymouth, but I just get the best brand name that’s on sale. Lately, that’s been Seagram’s.

    And I want to thank Kevin for the enjoyable post, too.

  2. Fun post, Kevin.

    Raised in the south, our choice of liquor was beer from about 12 to 15, then moonshine. 😀

    My choice of alcohol changed as I aged— thank you, Lord. I worked with an older fellow who loved martini’s so he took me down that long road of being a discriminating martini drinker.

    Never being a lemming, I usually bought the best brand on sale, never the highly marketed “new” brands.

    I’ve pretty much backed off drinking because of meds I have to take, 😦

    Recently after the results of an exam came out negative, I gave myself a treat at our local fern bar, Bennigans.

    I told that sweet young blonde I wanted a martini, up with three olives, please. She looked at me like I was nuts…guess I looked like a beer or moonshine drinker.

    She then asked me if I wanted it made with vodka. Right then I wanted to become Teacher of the Year giving that blonde a “yada, yada, yada” but only said very sweetly “martinis are always made with gin, dear, unless the person specifies vodka (or brandy, rum, tequila, moonshine, etc.) 😀 Sweetly, I swear I said it very sweetly. But then she asked if I wanted it frozen. That’s when I broke into a sweat…no, just up, please. I wanted to make the damned thing myself.

    Bless her heart, she would have flopped over had I said I wanted a Manhattan, Old-Fashioned or Sidecar.

    After this conversation with myself, I’m wanting a martini and you guys knows how I want it. It’s these little things that make life fun.

  3. I think you’re right on this aspect of the JDM/Trav genetics. I do the same thing in my novels. I once described making a souffle (in IN THE OCEAN OF NIGHT), which I’d done in grad school, and one critic thought it was a boast. Go figure.

  4. I can’t believe those stupid faces are in my post up there. I hate those damned things. And want a martini bad.

    Had a couple of guys (another forum) ask ME what I think about Leo no longer set to play Travis. They told me whose name was mentioned but I can’t recall. I have no opinion on who plays Travis. Anyone here have anything to say about it?

    I’m still thinking about that martini myself.

  5. I’m reading A FRIENDSHIP: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald 1967-1974 in quest of material for my posts and have confirmed that my supposition concerning JDM’s drinking habits is correct. In a letter dated 6/12/67, JDM invites Rowan to stop by for a drink he has dubbed the “McGee”, made just as it is described in LEMON.

    BTW, I have IN THE OCEAN OF NIGHT — among others — in my library. 🙂

    And Cathy, don’t worry about the emoticons, we’re all friends here. I don’t mind them at all.

    • Oh my Kevin…you made me laugh. I was thinking about those emoticons just this morning…the ones on here.

      I read that book except it was titled A Friendship. I wrote a review of it on Goodreads dot com. There aren’t any spoilers, I’m sure, because I’m so fanatical about them. Get a chance you might want to take a look. I loved the book and think I gave it five stars.

      I’ll never do that again, put up a smiley face. I didn’t know they system automatically puts in the artwork.

      I’ve said this before but I sure am enjoying your guest posts here so thank you. Great idea, yours or D. R.’s. Whoever…it was a great idea.

  6. As with gin, so with the pipe. I’ve always thought it incongruent that the McGee character would favor a pipe. But in publicity pictures of JDM, the author always has one in his mouth. His loving descriptions of both the pipe itself and the tobacco smoked make it rather easy to guess whose “voice” we’re hearing. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that McGee’s later swearing-off of the pipe parallels events in JDM’s life also.

    As to the gin: in one of Martha Grimes’s early Richard Jury mysteries (which aren’t bad), one of the characters observes that the best martini is a slug of gin right out of the bottle.

  7. I, along with Travis, mourned the passing of Plymouth as much as I mourned thee passing of JDM. And it is to Travis that I owe my strong affection for and attraction to gin yet today.

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