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.