Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Visual Arts

By Kevin Comer

Despite a career in software development, I went to art school. I stopped doing art—except for home design and decorating—and started collecting long ago. My wife and I currently focus our interest on plein-air paintings of the countryside and coast near our home. I’ve noticed Travis McGee is something of an aficionado of the visual arts as well.

The first hints appear in Nightmare in Pink (1964). Travis is in the NYC apartment of commecial package designer, Nina Gibson. Nina is the sister of McGee’s tragically injured war buddy, Mike. Mike has asked Trav to check up on her following the murder of her fiancé:

Nina Gibson was clean but not neat. Great stacks of decorator and craft and design magazines. Shelves of presentation designs that never quite worked out. A huge drawing table with Luxo lamps clamped onto it, like big gray metal grasshoppers. Art books. Big action paintings, Klinelike, but without Kline’s sober weight and dignity…

“Kline” is Franz Kline, a New York based abstract expressionist painter—like Jackson Pollock—who was active during the 1940s and ’50s. Abstract Expressionism is sometimes called “Action Painting” because paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied. This is a pretty sophisticated, well-informed opinion T. McGee is uttering here.

Later in Pink, Travis is twiddling his thumbs waiting to talk to Terry Drummond, Charlie Armister’s sister-in-law. Nina’s murdered fiancé worked for Charlie. Extremely wealthy Charlie has been acting strangely of late and McGee is seeking insight into his behavior:

I picked through the magazines on the coffee table, and sat and leafed through one. There were some excellent color reproductions of three recent paintings by Tapies, work that had the burned, parched, textured, solemn, heartbreak look of his native Spain. I lusted to own one. I told myself I could bundle [Terry] into the sack and use her up, and she’d buy me one as a party favor.

“Tapies” is Antoni Tàpies i Puig, 1st Marquess of Tàpies, who began his career as a surrealist painter, but switched to mixed media in the early 1950s. He added clay and marble dust to his paint and used waste paper, string, and rags. No doubt creating works that “had the burned, parched, textured, solemn, heartbreak look of his native Spain.” Travis is no end of surprising when it comes to art appreciation.

One of the most surprising expressions of McGee’s insight into painting comes in One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966). Travis has flown to Chicago to investigate the mysterious disappearance of $600,000 from the estate of Dr. Fortner Geis. One of Travis’ broken birds, Glory Doyle, married Fort following a therapeutic interlude aboard the Flush. Fort has succumbed to a lengthy illness and the missing money means Glory is soon to be out of house and home.

His investigation brings Travis into contact with Fort’s 25-year-old artist daughter, Heidi. Heidi doesn’t know it yet, but she is going to benefit mightily from getting to know Travis McGee. But, things do not get off to a good start:

She came up and handed me my drink and stood beside me looking into the studio. “Please don’t ask me to explain my work.”

She had a rare talent for irritating me. So I said, “I doubt if you could, Mrs. Trumbill.”

With a cold smile as she turned toward me, she said, “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Sorry. I don’t think you know what you’re doing.”

“My dear man, abstract expressionism has been around so long that it…”

“That it gets imitated too much. You’ve got some color sense. You go too far in setting up weird composition. But that doesn’t mean you are setting problems or trying to solve them. It’s glib stuff, Heidi. It hasn’t got any bones. It hasn’t got any symbol values, any underlying feeling of weight or inevitability. It’s just sort of shock-pretty, and you certainly get some satisfaction out of doing it, but just don’t start taking it or yourself too seriously.”

Fury drained the color out of her face. She went striding away, whirled so quickly she slopped some of her sherry onto the living-room rug. “Just who the hell are you? My work sells! I’ve been in damned good juried shows. I’ve had some fantastic reviews.”

“I’m just a guy who buys a painting once in a while.”

“Then what could you possibly know about it? You jackasses learn a couple of stock words and voila! You’re a critic yet.”

“There’s nothing wrong with decoration, Heidi.”

“You will call me Mrs. Trumbill if you don’t mind.”

“I mind, Heidi. Your stuff will melt right into the wall after a week. Nobody will see it. That’s no disgrace. It’s decorative, but it ain’t art.”

“Get out of here!”

“You can call me Trav, or Travis.” There was a piece of paper on a table beside a lamp. I saw a pencil on the coffee table. I took the blank paper over and put it beside the pencil. “Just make me a sketch of that lamp and the window beyond it, girl, and I’ll go quietly.”

“Oh, you mean draw you a cow that looks like a cow?” she said with a poisonous and knowing smile.

“Go ahead. Funny, but everybody I can think of right off the top of the head could sure God draw a fat realistic cow if they ever happened to want to. Hans Hoffman, Kline, Marca-Relli, Guston, Solomon, Rivers, Picasso, Kandinsky, Motherwell, Pollock. And you know it, baby. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. You dabblers bug me. You want the applause without all the thousands of hours of labor learning how to draw, how to make brush strokes, learning all the things that give painting some bite and bones even when you don’t use any part of it. Go ahead, draw the lamp. Quick sketch. Prove I’m a jackass.”

Where on earth could Travis have picked up this more than passing understanding of mid-century art and the journey of the artist? Could it have been around the dinner table with Mrs. MacDonald?

Dorothy MacDonald graduated from the School of Fine Arts at Syracuse University in 1931. That fall, she began teaching art and French at the nearby Cazenovia Seminary. Cazenovia had been founded by members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, but was an academic, not a religious, institution and is now known as Cazenovia College. Dorothy could certainly have instructed McGee in the elements of fine art.

But so could some of JDM’s neighbors. In the autobiographical The House Guests (1964), JDM mentions Syd Solomon lives 10 minutes from his home on Point Crisp in Sarasota. McGee’s love interest Dana Holtzer, in The Quick Red Fox (1964), happens to admire a painting by Syd hanging in the lounge of the Busted Flush. Travis may have been buying direct from the artist.

Click here to watch a fascinating short video about Syd and his work. It might give you a sense of the milieu JDM and Dorothy inhabited in Sarasota; and an insight into McGee’s tastes in the visual arts.

 

Guest Post: Travis McGee & Big Data

By Kevin Comer

Travis McGee can seem remarkably prescient. To illustrate this point we need look no further than The Deep Blue Good-by (1964).

Blue is the first and definitive McGee novel. We’re introduced to—and seduced by—Travis McGee, the wry, amiable iconoclast, cultural critic, and unassimilated rebel, as JDM pithily puts it in “How to Live with a Hero” (The Writer, September 1964). Blue is very nearly the best McGee novel. It has everything—except Meyer.

McGee rescues his first injured bird, Lois Atkinson. He faces one of his most implacable foes in smiling Junior Allen. He is smart, tender, and tough. He makes costly mistakes. And all the while he amiably kvetches about modern times under a Florida sun shining on blue water, beaches, babes, and boats.

Departing Bahia Mar for a flight to NYC inspires Travis to ruminate on one particular necessity of modern times. A rumination that goes further than you might have anticipated. McGee is trying to discover what Junior Allen found hidden by Cathy Kerr’s father, Sergeant David Berry, in the marker at the end of the family driveway. He is leaving convalescing Lois aboard the Flush:

At the gangplank I kissed [Lois] like any commutation ticket husband, told her to take care of herself, scuttled toward Miss Agnes, slapping my hip pocket where the money and the credit cards were. The unemployed merit no credit cards. But I had a guarantor, a man for whom I had done a sticky and dangerous favor, a man whose name makes bank presidents spring to attention and hold their shallow breaths. The cards are handy, but I hate to use them. I always feel like a Thoreau armored with a Leica and a bird book. They are the little fingers of reality, reaching for your throat. A man with a credit card is in hock to his own image of himself.

But these are the last remaining years of choice. In the stainless nurseries of the future, the feds will work their way through all the squalling pinkness tattooing a combination tax number and credit number on one wrist, followed closely by the I.T. and T. team putting the permanent phone number, visaphone doubtless, on the other wrist. Die and your number goes back in the in the bank. It will be the first provable immortality the world has ever known.

Wow. Imagine—a government database containing everybody’s phone number.

I think it’s a safe bet that we’re hearing directly from JDM in this dystopian vision. He felt the world was changing, and not for the better. He wrote in the autobiographical The House Guests (1964): “As life gets ever more inconvenient, trashified, and irritating, it is possible to convince [those who don’t know any better] through electronic repetition…that everything is, in fact, getting better and better and better.” Those feelings came to a head a few years later when he went to war with AmEx over his credit card.

In late 1967, JDM disputed some charges on his AmEx bill. His complaint went unacknowledged and he received a letter stating he was in arrears. He replied:

“Whether or not my account is past due, sir, is a matter of interpretation. At least, I have had no such notifications from your establishment. And you have heard from me. Ah, yes, you have heard from me time and again, a detail which mayhaps the Great Machine overlooked when it upchucked my card in your “in” basket. I would be bedazzled, humble and grateful indeed if you would inspect the attached copies of certain documents and not only write me a prompt, personal, and thorough and thoughtful answer, but also unravel and eliminate the ancient , unadjusted, semi-corrected charge of $ 7.20 dating back, so help us all, to December of 1967.”

Unsurprisingly, this did not garner the requested prompt reply. Things moved more slowly back the late ‘60s. JDM waited six whole days before escalating:

“It must be a new age of efficiency there at Big Ex. No more fussing about with first, second, third notices. Send the final notice first! I think we can both safely agree that it would be distressing for both of us were the brute electronic equipment to start assessing delinquency fees before I even have a chance to get that prompt, personal, thorough and thoughtful answer you promised me.

“Of the 35 million copies of my thirty-odd books which have sold all over the world, several million have involved the adventures of a character I named Travis McGee. It is often very difficult to dream up brand new torments and handicaps for a fictional charater … I now realize I have been overlooking an affliction which even Mr. McGee might not be able to overcome. I am now thinking of, in the next novel, gifting him with an American Express Credit Card! It would make Poe’s bit about the pit and the pendulum look no more distressing than diaper rash.”

AmEx cancelled his card. He responded by suing for $600,000 in damages. In a letter to his friend, comedian Dan Rowan, he vented: “I want to know if a huge corporation can damage me with utter cynical impunity merely because it is big and I am small, and I want the Court to clarify this little point of citizenship rights, damages etc. in a computer-cold world.”

The suit was settled in 1969. JDM declared it a “Victory Claimed for Humans.”

I can’t help thinking JDM was being a bit obstreperous in all this. His reaction to a simple billing error was asymmetric to the offense given. The amounts involved were trivial. He was impatient. His correspondence didn’t need to be sarcastic. He could have phoned. But he was primed for this fight.

In October 1967, just months before he went ballistic, JDM published an article, “Everybody Knows Something Is Wrong,” ostensibly about the unassimilated McGee, in Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald. He wrote:

“McGee resents being processed, programmed, fed through the machinery by experts trained in handling people rather than persons. He knows that the dentist, the post office, the County, the IRS, the airline hostess, the librarian, the highway engineer, the supermarket, the city government, the census bureau, the banker, the advertising agent, the automobile agency, the hospital, and the mortician are all intent in using him as a statistic, as one atom in a manageable mass, then studying him, weighing him, measuring him, predicting his actions on some huge probability table. They use manuals and trade journals and computers and statistical methods and psychological testing devices to predict mass reaction, and handle mass demand on a totally impersonal and totally efficient basis. It irritates him to have society take away his face and dump him into the great hopper labeled Standard Operating Procedure. But don’t try to tell him that in a densely populated urban culture it has to be that way, that people must be turned into a commodity or we would have chaos. Don’t try to tell him that if the processors tried to measure the uniqueness of each human personality, the wonderful specialness, the delicious inconsistency of every one of us, all the memory banks would start smoking, the sorters would spew out a snowstorm of punch cards, and all the complex technology of our culture would grind to a sickening halt… He reserves the right to resent being sorted and graded on the basis of “sameness” rather than on the basis of uniqueness. It makes him feel degraded, and he reserves the right to do his little bit here and there to startle the processors out of their compulsion to flatten and deaden all human contact…”

Sadly, JDM may have won his battle, but—as everybody knows—not the war.