Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Civil Rights Movement Part 1

By Kevin Comer

In these essays I strive to combine biography with details, episodes, and diatribes from the McGee canon to shine a light on the relationship between McGee and JDM. In choosing my topics, one factor I consider is relevance to our own times. I’m most inspired when we’re still wrestling with an issue JDM used McGee to take a punch at decades ago.

And, of course, I wish to entertain the readers of Travis McGee & Me with the perspicacity and sagacity of our hero and his maker.

Which makes this essay something of a risk because it casts JDM, and by extension McGee, in a possibly unsympathetic light. The topic reveals JDM as a man of his place and times trying to come to grips with change. But who isn’t?

When JDM moved to Florida, the state was part of the Jim Crow South. State and local laws—known as Jim Crow laws—established de jure racial segregation in the former Confederacy. In general, these laws mandated racial segregation of neighborhoods, public schools, public places, public transportation, restrooms, restaurants and even drinking fountains. They also banned interracial marriage.

There were federal Jim Crow policies as well. Ironically, these policies were initiated by our first progressive President, Woodrow Wilson. His administration practiced overt racial discrimination in hiring. Three years before JDM’s birth in 1916, Wilson ordered the racial segregation of the U.S. military and federal workplaces.

Jim Crow laws were slowly unraveled in the post war years. In 1948, President Harry Truman ended the policy of racial segregation in the military. The Supreme Court concluded in Brown vs Board of Education that state-mandated segregation in education was unconstitutional in 1954. The final blows were delivered by Congress under President Lyndon Johnson with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The end of Jim Crow was accompanied by numerous race riots throughout the U.S., the worst of which was the Watts Riot in August 1965. Six days of rioting in the Los Angeles neighborhood resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. The number of race riots peaked in what is known as the “Long Hot Summer of 1967.”

Public opinion polls revealed an approximately equal number of Americans believed the riots were linked to Communist groups as believed they were the result of social problems like unemployment and prejudice. Many felt, regardless of the root causes, the riots were a demonstration of outrageous lawlessness. In many cases, military force was used to restore order.

Meanwhile, debate raged among African Americans regarding the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. On one side, leaders such as Martin Luther King advocated integration into mainstream American life. On the other, leaders such as Malcolm X advocated establishing a separate African American society apart from that of white America.

JDM weighed in with his own views in one of the most out-of-left-field episodes in the entire McGee canon in Darker than Amber (1966). At the time, JDM was 50, successful, and enjoying an upper-middle class life in tony, segregated Sarasota.

Travis McGee is searching for clues to where murdered prostitute, Evangeline Bellemer, has hidden her cut of the money stolen from lonely middle-aged men whom she lured onto cruise ships, where they were drugged and thrown overboard by her male accomplice. Trav learns Vangie employed a African American maid, Noreen Walker, and decides to see what she might know. Noreen turns out to be a surprising character, to say the least. Although reluctant at first, Noreen agrees to a clandestine rendezvous:

As I followed her onto the porch and we sat in two comfortable chairs on either side of a small lamp table, she said, “[This is the home of] Friends of mine.” She took a cigarette from her purse, lighted it. “Very conspiratorial, I know. But we’re getting very used to that these days, Mr. McGee. Mr. Sam [Prominent African American attorney, Sam Dickey] said I could trust you. I’m one of the regional directors of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]. I’m a University of Michigan graduate. I taught school before I got married. He died of cancer two years ago and I came back here. Working as a maid gives me more freedom of action, less chance of being under continual observation. Racially I’m what you might call a militant optimist. I believe that the people of good will of both races are going to get it all worked out…

Noreen provides vital insight into Evangeline Bellemer, including a clue to where the money may be hidden. In the course of their conversation, Travis observes of Noreen:

When she stepped out of her housemaid role she had that slightly forced elegance of the educated Negro woman, that continuing understated challenge to you to accept her on her terms or, by not doing so, betray the prejudice she expected you to have. I cannot blame them for a quality of humorlessness. They carry the dead weight of all their deprived people, and though they know intellectually that the field hand mentality is a product of environment, they have an aesthetic reserve, which they will not admit to themselves, about the demanding of racial equality for those with whom, except for the Struggle, they would not willingly associate. They say Now, knowing that only fifteen percent of Negro America is responsible enough to handle the realities of Now, and that, in the hard core South, perhaps seventy percent of the whites are willing to accept the obligations of Now. But they are on the move with nowhere to go but up, with the minority percentage of the ignorant South running into the majority percentage of ignorant Negro America, in blood, heartbreak, shame and confusion. I hoped that this penny-colored dedicated pussycat wouldn’t stick her head under the wrong billy club, or get taken too often to the back room for interrogation. If, even on the word of one of their shrewdest lawyers, Sam Dickey, she was willing to trust a white man, it meant she had a vulnerable streak of softness in her, which could guarantee martyrdom sooner or later.

My intolerance is strictly McGee-type. If there were people around colored green or bright blue, I would have a continual primitive awareness of the difference between us, way down on that watchful animal level which is a caveman heritage. But I would cherish the ones who came through as solid folk, and avoid the slobs and fools and bores as diligently as I avoid white slobs and fools and bores.

 As they say goodbye, Noreen explains some facts of life to McGee:

“We housemaids have to keep in character. This is the ghetto. The laws don’t work the way they work outside. We’re the happy smiling darkies with a great natural sense of rhythm. You can’t hurt us by hitting us on the head. We’d still be nice and quiet except the Communists started getting us all fussed up.” She looked at me and I saw bitterness on her face. “In this state, my friend, a nigger convicted of killing a nigger gets an average three years. A nigger who rapes a nigger is seldom even tried, unless the girl happens to be twelve years old or less. Santa Claus and Jesus are white men, Mr. McGee, and the little girls’ dolls and the little boys’ toy soldiers have white faces. My boys are two and a half and four. What am I doing to their lives if I let them grow up here? We want out. In the end, it’s that simple. We want out, where the law is, where you prosper or you fail according to your own merits as a person. Is that so damned much? I don’t want white friends. I don’t want to socialize. You know how white people look to me? The way albinos look to you. I hope never to find myself in a white man’s bed. I don’t want to integrate. I just don’t want to feel segregated. We’re after our share of the power structure of this civilization, Mr. McGee, because, when we get it, a crime will merit the same punishment whether the victim is black or white, and hoods will get the same share of municipal services, based on zoning, not color. And a good man will be thought a credit to the human race. Sorry. End of lecture. The housemaid has spoken.”

 Is Noreen declaring she prefers separate but equal as long as it is truly equal under the law? I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that JDM is eschewing a comfortable and politically correct opinion. He took another swing at the race question in The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968).

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Guest Post: The Other JDM – The Damned

By Kevin Comer

Readers of a blog dedicated to Travis McGee might be surprised to discover JDM’s top selling novel was not one of the McGee canon.

The Damned, published by Gold Medal in 1952, sold 2.3 million copies in 19 printings and was unlike any of JDM’s previous novels up to that point. The two published just prior its release were science fiction, Wine for the Dreamers (1951) and Ballroom of the Skies (1952). These sci-fi novels followed The Brass Cupcake (1950), Murder for the Bride (1951), and Judge Me Not (1951), thrillers straight out of JDM’s hardboiled pulp repertoire. In fact, his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, was a pulp story he bulked up to novel length at the request of Gold Medal.

The Damned is a portmanteau style narrative. JDM weaves together the stories of nine characters over a single day spent waiting to cross the Rio Conchos by ferry on the main highway between Mexico City and Brownsville, Texas. It is a leap forward in terms of complexity. However, that is not why it became a best seller.

The Damned owes its success to the blurb splashed across the cover declaring: “I wish I had written this book! — Mickey Spillane.” Spillane’s endorsement sent sales through the roof. Mickey was at the height of his popularity. He didn’t do blurbs. In fact, he didn’t intend to endorse the novel.

JDM’s Gold Medal editor, Ralph Daigh, loaned Spillane a set of the galleys for The Damned. When he returned them, Spillane casually remarked, “That’s a good book. I wish I had written it.” The quick witted editor wrote the words on a card and Mickey politely agreed to sign it. When the blurb appeared on the cover, Spillane protested, but Daigh had irrefutable proof he’d said it.

Although readers may have been surprised not to discover a tale of misogynistic mayhem between the covers of The Damned, most were probably not disappointed.

The characters are well drawn and compelling—except perhaps for John Carter Gerrod, whose confusion about whether he’d rather be on Mars or Venus seems psychologically Victorian. Each is in the midst of their own drama. Some of their stories will find resolution as they wait to cross the Rio Conchos; for some, the wait is only an interlude and we’ll never know what happened next; and for others, new stories will be born as their paths cross.

Darby Garon is at the depressive end of a sudden mid-life crisis. In San Antonio on business three weeks ago, he met slatternly Betty Moony. He was armed with a credit card. Now he can’t wait to see the last of Betty, and he fears he’s fouled things up beyond repair with his wife and family. He’ll never get to find out. Ever adaptable Betty won’t miss a beat.

Young John Carter Gerrod is on his way home from a Mexican honeymoon. He isn’t sure what he thinks about the physical reality of marriage to his exquisitely lovely 19-year-old bride, Linda. He feels oddly put off and ashamed. His mother has come down to accompany them on their return to Rochester. They won’t be going back together.

Del Bennicke is on the run. Things had gone seriously bad in Cuernavaca. The authorities will never understand that it was an accident. His background as a small time operator on the fringes of crime isn’t going to help him beat a murder rap, especially of a popular matador. He’s got to keep his head down and get across the river. He can’t make it alone.

Bill Danton is waiting patiently to get back to his father’s spread in Mante with his crew of Mexican farm hands. Unless you knew he was from Texas, you’d think he was just another Mexican laborer. He and his father have made a good life for themselves here in Mexico. You had to be smart and know how things work, but this was a fine country. Sometimes, however, you can’t just stand by, you’ve got to act. And life can surprise you—and change you for good.

Phil Decker has struggled to find success in show business. But things have been looking up since he’d worked the twins, Riki and Niki, into the act. It’s just in time, too. He’s getting old. It’s now or never. Unfortunately for Phil, Riki and Niki have ideas of their own. It’s going to be hard to tell him.

Some of these characters are indeed damned. Poor Darby Garon is sitting, leaning against a tree beside the road, beating himself up with regret. He recalls his college courtship of wife, Moira; how good their life together has been; the joy of their children. He doesn’t know what happened. Betty is repulsive. Moira will never forgive him. Something is happening on the distant riverbank, some kind of struggle. A shot rings out:

His chin was on his chest. He lifted it with great effort. The scene wavered a bit and then came clear. Startlingly clear. He could see the muddy river, the far shore. Ferry was on the other side. The black cars going up the road. And a small figure over there … Hell, what had been the matter with his eyes! Even at that distance, you could tell the brown hair , and that sweater and skirt. Bought that outfit for her for her birthday. God, that was a long time ago. Thought she’d worn it out and thrown it away, long ago. One thing about Moira. She always used her head. One sharp girl. Traced him somehow. Came riding, riding, riding up to the old inn door. No, wrong line. Came riding to the rescue.

He grinned at the figure of his wife on the far shore. Now everything was fine. Sure, even at that distance he could read her eyes. He could read the sweet forgiveness, and the understanding. She knew the answers. She’d tell him why he’d done this thing to the two of them, and he would understand when she had told him. The sweet kid, she was standing over there with books held tightly in her arm, just like during campus days.

He got easily and quickly to his feet , bounded down through the ditch, and went swinging down the road, his head high.

She saw him, and she lifted her free arm and waved. And he broke into a run. Hadn’t run for years. Thought I’d forgotten how. But look at me go! Just like the coach said. Knees high and a lot of spring in the foot and stay up on your toes, Garon.

Running, running, with the wind in his face, running by all the surprised people who thought he was too old and too tired to run. And the river bank was speeding toward him, the way you’d see it from the windshield of a fast car. And Darby Garon went out in a flat dive, hitting the water, knifing down through the water, down through the blackness, feeling it against his face , like dark wings, knowing that he would rise to the surface and she would be close, and there would never again be any problems between them. With his arms straight out in front of him, and with a smile on his lips, he knifed through the blackness, waiting forever for the moment when he would begin to rise toward the surface.

The Damned is worth reading. It’s pretty damned good.