Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Civil Rights Movement Part 3

By Kevin Comer

Comedian Dan Rowan and JDM maintained a close friendship for eight years beginning in the late ‘60s. During this time, they exchanged many letters. Sadly, their friendship was eventually a casualty of Rowan’s nasty divorce from wife Adriana and his career anxiety following the cancellation of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In after a five year run on the NBC television network.

Rowan rekindled the friendship in 1981 by phoning JDM on Christmas Day. Both men welcomed the opportunity to renew their ties. JDM, who was a pack rat, had kept copies of all of their correspondence, and in 1986, A Friendship – The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald 1967 – 1974 was published just months after JDM passed away from heart bypass surgery complications. The letters are a touching chronicle of friendship and provide insight into the creative processes of both novelist and comedian.

Beyond the final bitter exchange in 1974, the letters document only one other serious disagreement between the two friends. On July 1st, 1969, JDM wrote in a short note to Dan: “When at that final dinner we got into that charged discussion of black/white and you termed me a bigot, I was more than a little upset… It is totally obvious that unless you and I and other men of good will give this area sound and good and constructive thought, the whole situation will merely worsen.” He concluded by saying, “As a writer I become skeptical of contemporary fashionable attitudes, and of my own too often automatic acceptance of those attitudes, and so I have to put them through the grinder and see what happens.”

Dan replied on the 8th: “I asked Adriana [Rowen’s wife at the time], ‘My god, when did I ever call John a bigot?’ and she told me what you remembered… You don’t need me to tell you that you aren’t… You are one of the brightest people I know so you couldn’t be if only because intelligence doesn’t admit of bigotry… In the heat of discussion I used a shocker to grab your attention.”

Dan went on to explain why: “…it would be difficult to imagine a better intentioned but nonetheless distorted view of fact. In the first place, the ‘law’ which you feel should never be subverted by black or white has been used to knock underprivileged citizen’s brains out since Moses showed his tablets. Our country has been so abusive, brutalizing, unfair, to man of color both red and black, that if I were they and someone asked me to ‘respect the law’ my own reaction would be violent… I feel guilty for my white American ancestors… I am also ashamed and remorseful and feel the colored races are entitled to reparations…”

JDM responded on the 15th: “I like your letter… We both have the public ear, and it is a fearsome responsibility. What we project will touch others.

“The law is two things. It is the Law—Bill of Rights, Constitution, men created equal etc. That is the one I meant… The other is the small ‘l’ law, the one you point out has been used to as a device by misguided men to knock the brains out of the underprivileged. Black and white must not permit the subversion of Law by lower-case law to flourish. Without the support of the Law, we are nothing. We are a mob…

“I feel no guilt, shame or remorse for the social and economic oppression of the black because I do not feel any personal responsibility for the past actions of the political animals in the historical fabric of our country. I feel no guilt, shame, or remorse for the gutted countryside in Kentucky and West Virginia, for the disappearance of the buffalo and passenger pigeon, for poisoning the soil and the water and the air. Man can always be counted on to do the worst possible job with his environment, and with his relations to people of other races and other nations…

“…I wish I knew why people shy away from an acceptance of a very real fundamental, ineradicable DIFFERENTNESS between the races. A thing, a person, can be different without being better or worse. The ‘differentness’ I mean is far more than a difference in skills, abilities—it is a difference in the very climate of the mind and heart and soul…

“Look. If we have gotten so screwed up by pretending that all men are ONE, that if everybody is really truly alike—if we have painted ourself into a corner with the illusion that skin color has no more significance than blonde or brunette, is it not worth the try to see what happens to race relations when we accept, boldly and without self-consciousness and without guilt, the idea that there is indeed a difference of consequence? For chrissake, where does the black find his sense of racial pride, racial identity, species identity, if we keep insisting he is a dusky white man?”

At the end of a long letter written on August 3rd, Rowan diplomatically called a truce: “I think we can leave the discussion of black folks, don’t you? We are probably on the same side approaching it for various reasons from different paths…”

I’ve previously established JDM shares many traits with his creation, Travis McGee. It is useful to step back and consider just how similar the two of them are at their core. Travis is an outsider. He has chosen to chart his own course. He lives by his wits. He is extremely independent. He is critical of conventional wisdom. He is confident of his own judgement. He is unconcerned with the judgements of others. Although amiable, he doesn’t go along to get along.

JDM was born into a prosperous upper middle class family. He grew up in relative affluence. His father, Eugene, wished for him to follow a path similar to his own. He majored in business at Eugene’s insistence. He got an MBA. He bombed out at a series of jobs. In 1940, he enlisted in the Army as a 1st lieutenant because he was desperate to provide for Dorothy and infant, Johnny. He was assigned administrative tasks. Even with the outbreak of war and an overseas billet in the India-China-Burma Theater, he was in a back room coordinating logistics. He was a bureaucrat. He didn’t like it.

When he returned home following the war, he rejected the whole kit and caboodle. He eschewed the conventional wisdom. He chose to live by his wits. He chose to work independently. He decided to rely on his own judgement. His family was aghast, but he did it anyway.

And he succeeded. He proved to himself and everybody else that he didn’t need to pursue the safe and assured path. He had the judgement and wit to live on his own terms. Like Travis.

And like Travis, JDM was a keen observer, who didn’t feel responsible for the shape of the world. People do what people do, and the results are all too often predictably awful by his reckoning. It’s not his fault.

So when JDM tells Dan Rowan, he is skeptical of contemporary fashionable attitudes and feels a need to “put them through the grinder and see what happens,” he’s telling the truth. He doesn’t trust the conventional answers. He needs to figure things out on his own.

We may be uncomfortable with JDM’s judgements as he put the Civil Rights Movement “through the grinder.” Some of us might conclude he was a bigot. Others might apply Lil and Kris Neville’s assessment of McGee in The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper as “a well-meaning man with an inability to see past the stereotypes he carries.” We’d certainly have to agree with Lil Neville that JDM could be defensive based on his letters to Dan Rowan.

This is a difficult topic. My wife says I should stick to writing about booze, books, and backhands and stay away from the tough stuff. I don’t know. I feel like I have to figure things out on my own. Like Travis. And JDM.


Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Civil Rights Movement Part 2

By Kevin Comer

Following Noreen Walker in Darker than Amber (1966), JDM attempted to depict only one other non-ephemeral African American character in the McGee series. In The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968), JDM created a motel maid—also named Mrs. Walker—who has several interactions with Travis and proves instrumental in breaking the case. JDM second-guessed himself sufficiently concerning this character to seek feedback from Len and June Moffatt, who published The JDM Bibliophile from their home in Los Angeles.

The Moffatts read the book and Len replied: “We got the impression you wanted to bring the race problem into the novel, and that you were concerned about the way you (and McGee ) handled it … . Would the maid respond to McGee in this way or would she respond some other way? … June suggested we show the pages to some friends of ours who were certain to have some reactions on the subject.”

The friends were an interracial couple, Lil and Kris Neville. Lil was from Watts. Kris Neville wrote in a letter to the Moffatts: “Lil’s … reaction was the impossibility of communicating the situation to Mr. MacDonald in a way that would be meaningful to him, and that any suggestions she would offer would just get him uptight with defense mechanisms and would serve no constructive purposes. I think we all agreed that the portrayal of McGee was of a well-meaning man with an inability to see past the stereotypes he carries.”

In Brown, Travis flies to Fort Courtney, FL at the posthumous request of Helena Pearson Trescott, an older wealthy widow with whom he’d spent a magical healing summer five years before, following the violent death of her first husband, Mick Pearson. Travis received a letter—including a certified check for $25,000—just days after Helena succumbed to cancer, asking him to do what he can to help her eldest daughter, Maureen, who in the wake of a second miscarriage has developed severe psychological issues and attempted suicide several times. Maureen lives in suburban Ft. Courtney with her real estate developer husband, Tom Pike, and younger sister, Bridget, who is helping care for her.

Believing it to be something better left to medical professionals, Travis nonetheless concocts a not entirely implausible story and sets out to find out if there is anything he can do. True to form, he soon finds himself in a hornet’s nest of intrigue and murder.

A pair of amateur sleuths—nurse Penny Woertz and her married lover, attorney Rick Holton—attempt to drug McGee by doctoring his Plymouth in an elaborate ploy to find out if he is involved in the death of Penny’s employer, Dr. Stewart Sherman. The authorities have ruled the death a suicide, but Rick and Penny don’t believe it for a minute. McGee resembles a very tall man seen leaving the doctor’s offices. Is it coincidence that Maureen was Dr. Sherman’s patient?

Hilariously, Travis thwarts the couple, first, by playing opossum, and then inciting a lovers’ quarrel. Not only does McGee subdue pistol-packing Rick, who ends up leaving in a huff, but he beds Penny after opening a fresh bottle of Plymouth. Unfortunately, Penny is found on her kitchen floor with a pair of scissors buried in her throat the next day. The cops brace McGee but he has an iron-clad alibi. He was seen by a motel housekeeper taking a much needed nap at the time of Penny’s death.

Suddenly needing information about the local players, Travis reckons the African-American community that supplies the maids, gardeners, and other menials around town will know who’s who and who’s up to what in Ft. Courtney. And he’s got an idea about who can help him plug into this network.

McGee goes looking for Mrs. Lorette Walker, a maid at the spanking-new, pseudo-Hawaiian Wahini Lodge motel where he’s established his headquarters. He’s already enlisted Lorette’s aid in discreetly dealing with one of her co-workers he discovered unconscious in his room after she’d taken a couple of surreptitious pulls from the doctored bottle of Plymouth. Travis tracks down the initially reluctant and extremely suspicious Lorette in the motel Laundry Room:

It was all too familiar and all too frustrating. It is the black armor, a kind of listless vacuity, stubborn as an acre of mules. They go that route or they become all teeth and giggles and forelock. Okay, so they have had more than their share of grief from men of my outward stamp, big and white and muscular, sun-darkened and visibly battered in small personal wars. My outward type had knotted a lot of black skulls, tupped a plenitude of black ewes, burned crosses and people in season. They see just the outward look and they classify on that basis. Some of them you can’t ever reach in any way, just as you can’t teach most women to handle snakes and cherish spiders. But I knew I could reach her because for a little time with me she had been disarmed, had put her guard down, and I had seen behind it a shrewd and understanding mind, a quick and unschooled intelligence.

I had to find my way past that black armor. Funny how it used to be easier. Suspicion used to be on an individual basis. Now each one of us, black or white, is a symbol. The war is out in the open and the skin color is a uniform. All the deep and basic similarities of the human condition are forgotten so that we can exaggerate the few differences that exist.

Eventually, amiable, wily, convincing Travis breaks through Lorette’s armor. She provides insight into the local law enforcement community and agrees to keep an eye out for information that might help him solve the murder of sweet, klutzy Penny Woertz. A satisfied McGee reflects on their encounter:

Nobody looks far enough down the road we’re going. Someday one man at a big button board can do all the industrial production for the whole country by operating the machines that make the machines that design and make the rest of the machines. Then where is the myth about anybody who wants a job being able to find it?

And if the black man demands that Big Uncle take care of him in the style the hucksters render so desirable, then it’s a sideways return to slavery.

Whitey wants law and order, meaning a head-knocker like Alabama George [Wallace]. No black is going to grieve about some nice sweet dedicated unprejudiced liberal being yanked out of his Buick and beaten to death, because there have been a great many nice humble ingratiating hardworking blacks beaten to death too. In all such cases the unforgivable sin was to be born black or white, just as in some ancient cultures if you were foolish enough to be born female, they took you by your baby heels, whapped your fuzzy skull on a tree, and tossed the newborn to the crocs. And so, Mrs. Lorette Walker, no solutions for me or thee, not from your leaders be they passive or militant, nor from the politicians or the liberals or the head-knockers or the educators. No answer but time. And if the law and the courts can be induced to become color-blind, we’ll have a good answer, after both of us are dead. And a bloody answer otherwise.

JDM still isn’t pulling any punches. It would be out of character. I note his comment regarding employment.

Sometimes folks—even the best of friends—have to agree to disagree. JDM’s opinions on the race problem, as the Moffatts termed it, brought JDM and his good buddy, comedian Dan Rowan, to just such an impasse in 1969.

Stay tuned for Part 3.