Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Demon Weed


By Kevin Comer

She slept then. I went out into the night. The tropical earth was steamy-fresh, bugs chirring and tree toads yelping, and the bay a moony mirror. I sat on the end of her dock and blew smoke at the mosquitoes and wondered why I should be so cynical about her.

Reflecting on Lois Atkinson in The Deep Blue Good-By (1964)

Travis McGee doesn’t make nearly as big a deal about smoking as he does martinis. It is easy to overlook the fact that he smoked cigarettes at the beginning of the series. He had his last one in the epilogue of A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965).

Travis has been shot and, in and out of consciousness, he’s taken to a remote cabin in the Southern California high county by allies he’s picked up along the way. He comes to in an unfamiliar bed and discovers he’s received professional medical care and is being nursed by feisty Cuban heiress, Connie Melgar. Realizing he’s awake, Connie informs him it’s time for his pills:

She came back with two big capsules and a glass of chill water. Nothing had ever tasted better. I asked for more, in my little old voice, and she brought me another glass. She brought the lamp over and put it on a small table, and moved a straight chair near. I saw that I was in a deep wide bunk, with another above me, and a rough board wall at my left.

She lit two cigarettes and gave me one.

Good thing he wasn’t hit in a lung.

In the next book in the canon, Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965), much-changed acquaintance Arthur Wilkerson collapses on the deck of the Busted Flush and, enlisting the aid of Chookie McCall, McGee sets about restoring Arthur to health while enjoying a leisurely cruise aboard the 52-foot, barge-type houseboat. McGee has been letting himself go and is not in top form either:

But I comforted myself with thinking that while we were getting him in shape, I was doing myself some promised good. I was on cheese, meat and salad. No booze. No cigarettes. Just one big old pot pipe packed with Black Watch for the sunset hour. Due any time now.

Until he gives up smoking altogether in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974), Travis remains a once-a-day pipe smoker—and how about that South Beach diet? By the way, I’m pretty sure he meant his pipe was potshaped.

Travis subsequently shares his love of a finely crafted pipe. In One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966), he visits the still extant Iwan Ries & Co in Chicago in the course of helping Glory Doyle find the money missing from her husband’s estate:

I walked all the way down to Monroe and then over to Wabash and into one of the great pipe stores of the Western world, Iwan Reis, across from the old Palmer House, and celebrated my luck at having seen so marvelous a girl at so marvelous a moment by gifting myself with a pale Ropp with a birds-eye grain, comfortable bite, and generous bowl.

Ropp pipes are still made in France by Chacom.

While investigating the background of murdered prostitute, Evangeline Bellemar, in Darker than Amber (1966), Travis goes into great detail about a treasured gift:

I had been saving my tobacco ration, my single evening pipe. I tugged the pouch out of the side pocket of my slacks, unzipped the pipe compartment, took out the Charatan sent me long ago by a lovely and grateful client with superb taste. The shape is Bell Dublin. It is a straight grain of Coronation quality. Before sending it to me from London she had some small silver numbers inlaid in the heavy part of the bit. 724. The twenty-fourth night of a memorable July , a little code which, if her husband Sir Thomas could interpret it, would bring him in search of McGee, complete with horse whip and incipient apoplexy. I packed it carefully with Erinmore Flake. Whenever, in the rotation of my small assortment, I work my way around to the Charatan, though it is an excellent pipe to smoke, I feel somewhat pretentious and effete. I can never completely overcome my middle-class reservations sufficiently to take a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar pipe for granted.

Charatan pipes had been handmade in London since 1863; they were the first pipe to cost more than $100 in the U.S. Erinmore Flake tobacco was blended in Belfast, Northern Ireland by Murray & Sons until 2005.

When it comes to smoking, once again we seem to be encountering cross currents in the lives of McGee and JDM. Like nearly everyone of his generation, JDM smoked cigarettes. We don’t know what brand—my grandfather smoked Chesterfields—but we have evidence. The cover of Hugh Merrill’s JDM biography, The Red Hot Typewriter (2000), features a photograph of JDM with cigarette in hand. In the autobiographical The House Guests (1964), JDM describes how a thoughtful Sarasota landlord prepared the cottage they were moving into after a summer spent at Lake Piseco in New York:

We had written Randy when we would arrive, and it was raining hard that late afternoon when we got there, hardly in any mood to cope with the thousand irritating little problems involved in moving into a rented cottage. But Randy, bless him, had put a crew to work at the house. All the utilities were hooked up. The yard and house were spotless. Beds were made and turned down, opened packs of cigarettes on the end tables, Coke and beer in the refrigerator. Never have we been welcomed so imaginatively.

However at some point, JDM switched from cigarettes to a pipe. He appears in many photographs holding a pipe. The only clue I’ve discovered about why he made this switch is a comment in a letter to his good buddy, comedian Dan Rowan. At the end of a letter dated November 14, 1968, Rowan complained he’d given up cigarettes after an unpleasant encounter with the medical establishment and was jonesing bad. Near the end of his reply dated Nov 20, 1968, JDM includes a one sentence paragraph: “Cigarettes taste nasty.”

In the late ‘60s, JDM began to have health problems. In September 1970, he had a minor heart attack. His wife, Dorothy, was having heart problems as well; she had a pacemaker installed in December 1970. He wrote to Rowan in February 1971:

“Have been sort of marking time in some kind of professional personal sense, a fallow period of thought, appraisal, redefinition, a kind of delayed byproduct of the little coronary, and a definite product of my years, I suppose. A process of closing out all random noise and saying: What in the hell am I doing here, and what the hell do I want to be doing here? I am beginning to think that it is irrational sentimentality to try to impose on oneself this shit about walking slowly and pausing to smell the flowers. I am a worker and work is my pleasure and my nature and my way of life. So I think that what I shall do is wind myself up one notch below the spring tension of before, and get some of the exercise I despise, and stay off the weed…”

And on March 22nd, after a restorative vacation in Grenada, he wrote to Rowan:

“We did have a good unwinding time in Grenada. It even gave me a desire to improve my sorry physical condition, so as of this week I have given up smoking, drinking, and eating . . . indefinitely.”

It seems unlikely JDM maintained his resolve concerning eating. He may have given up smoking. Early on in Lemon, with doomed Carrie Milligan sleeping aboard the Busted Flush, Travis and Meyer are on the beach. Meyer is sitting on his towel. Travis is pushing himself through his fitness regimen. As he finishes his last mile run, T. McGee informs us:

It had taken such a great effort of will and so much pain to get back in good shape, I had vowed never to let myself get sloppy again. And that meant hot sun and sweat and exercise every day, no tobacco ever again, and easy on the booze, heavy on the protein.

Done with the demon weed altogether, but still committed to the South Beach diet.


New Audiobooks of JDM Classics

Audible, Amazon’s audio book imprint, has just released new audiobook editions of eight non-McGee classics by JDM. They are:

• Cape Fear (The Executioners)

• The Brass Cupcake

• A Key to the Suite

• Slam the Big Door

• A Flash of Green

• The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything

• Condominium

• Dead Low Tide

They’re read by two different voice artists—Richard Ferrone and Stephen Hoye. The cost per title ranges from $19.95 to $29.95. Each book has a spoken intro by Dean Koontz. You can get to them here.

Thanks to Kevin Comer for the heads up.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & All That Jazz


By Kevin Comer (for Sue Martin)

I prowled the place. I looked at the books and the records. Aside from an unwholesome taste for string quartets, and a certain gullibility about pre-digested sociology, she passed the McGee test with about a B+. Hell, an A–.

— Assessing Nina Gibson in A Nightmare in Pink (1964)

Travis McGee is a man of refined tastes, despite his bohemian lifestyle. He is a sophisticated collector of fine arts. He can appreciate—and will pay for—superior gin and beer. Both his pipe and the weed he smokes are first rate. He has an eye for country club sports. So it isn’t surprising that he is particular about the music he listens to.

T. McGee is taking his new runabout, the Muñequita, on her maiden run after six weeks of futzing around, setting her up just the way he wants in Pale Gray for Guilt (1968). He’s on his way to see soon-to-be-murdered old friend, Tush Bannon. As Travis cruises a mile off shore, he adjusts rpm and fuel flowmeter searching for the optimum relationship between fuel consumption and distance:

I switched the FM-UHF marine radio to the commercial frequencies and tried to find something that didn’t sound like somebody trying to break up a dogfight in a sorority house by banging drums and cymbals. Not that I want to say it isn’t music. Of course it is music, styled to accompany teenage fertility rites, and thus is as far out of my range as “Rockabye Baby.” FM radio was a great product when it was servicing a fringe area of the great American market. But it has turned into a commercial success, so they have denigrated the sound, and they have mickey-moused the stereo, and you have to really search that dial to find something that isn’t either folk hoke, rickyticky rock, or the saccharine they pump into elevators, bus stations and Howard Johnsons.

As I was about to give up I found some pleasant eccentric, or somebody who’d grabbed the wrong record, playing Brubeck doing Cole Porter, and I caught it just as he opened up “Love for Sale” in a fine and gentle manner, and then handed it delicately over to Desmond, who set up a witty dialogue with Joe Morello.

Columbia released Anything Goes! The Dave Brubeck Quartet Plays Cole Porter in 1966. Dave Brubeck (Piano), Paul Desmond (Alto Sax), Joe Morello (Drums), and Gene Wright (Double Bass) are the essence of cool.

The lounge aboard Travis’ houseboat, the Busted Flush, is equipped with the best in high-fidelity equipment. When Harry Broll empties his blue-steel automatic at scrambling McGee in A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971), the only serious casualties are Travis’ self-esteem and his stereo. Six minutes after Harry’s departure, Meyer comes aboard flaunting his garishly festive party outfit and chastened Trav is quick to remonstrate:

“You are supposed to walk in here, and instead of giving me a fashion show, you are supposed to snuff the air, look about with darting glances. Then you are supposed to find those six cartridge cases in that ashtray and snuff at them. Then you prowl around and find where all six hit, including the one that’s hard to find. It hit right smack in the middle of my model 18 Marantz and killed it as dead as Harry tried to kill me.”

When it debuted in 1968, the American built Marantz model 18 receiver was cutting edge. The ads declared: “Flawless performance was the engineering objective – flawless performance is the final result.” The model 18 weighed over 40 lbs and had an MSRP of $1,000. A new Ford Mustang had an MSRP of $2,578 and a curb weight of 2,758 lbs.

In Tan, Jillian Brent-Archer is intent on making McGee a permanent fixture on her 70 foot custom trimaran motor sailer. Travis is sorely tempted, but knows he’ll never be able to accept the inevitable compromises of being arm candy. He declares his independence by refusing to attend a party with Jilly:

She went clicking down the outside ladderway and clacked her way aft and off the Flush and down the dock and away into the night. I went below, turned on a few lights, built a drink, ran a thumb down the stack of tapes, picked Eydie [Gormé], and chunked her into the tape player and fixed the volume.

Eydie has comforted me many times in periods of stress. She has the effortlessness of total professionalism. She is just so damned good that people have not been able to believe she is as good as she is. She’s been handed a lot of dull material, some of it so bad that even her best hasn’t been able to bring it to life. She’s been mishandled, booked into the right places at the wrong time, the wrong places at the right time. But she can do every style and do it a little better than the people who can’t do any other. Maybe a generation from now those old discs and tapes of Eydie will be the collectors’ joy, because she does it all true, does it all with pride, does it all with heart.

So I settled back and listened to her open her throat and let go, backed by the Trio Los Panchos, Mexican love songs in flawless Mexican Spanish. She eased the little itch of remembering just how good my Irish lady had smelled, tasted, and felt.

Travis’ beloved Marantz suffers more insult in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974) when McGee narrowly escapes being blown to bits in the lounge of the Flush. Returning from the hospital with five days permanently erased from memory, he’s shocked at the sad state of his houseboat:

I went below and checked out my stereo set. I put on the new record, Ruby Braff and George Barnes. It is nice to have one that is just out and know that it is destined to become one of the great jazz classics. I knew I had lost one speaker. I suspected I had lost more. Delicate micro-circuitry cannot take that kind of explosive compression. When the noise came out, sounding like someone gargling a throatful of crickets, I snapped it off in haste.

Back to the shop. No new components. Get the Marantz stuff fixed. I did not think I could placidly endure another gleaming salesman tell me that I had to have quadraphony sound, coming at me from all directions. I have never felt any urge to stand in the middle of a group of musicians. They belong over there, damn it, and I belong over here, listening to what they are doing over there. Music that enfolds you, coming from some undetectable set of sources, is gimmicky, unreal, and eminently forgettable.

The new record was The Ruby Braff George Barnes Quartet Plays Gershwin (1974).

In the final entry of the series, The Lonely Silver Rain (1985), McGee explains: “It had been an oddly aimless year for me.” He’s been getting things in order. The Flush is “running well”, Miss Agnes is “docile and obedient,” and he’s upgraded the hi-fi:

… I had a few thousand stashed in my bulkhead bank forward, and the only recent expense of any moment was when I pulled out all the old music equipment, the tuner, amplifier, tape deck, turntable and speakers, and replaced it all with mostly Pioneer and Sony. The state of the art had left me far behind, and last summer I kept myself busy putting the best parts of the record collection onto cassettes, and the best parts of the reel-to-reel tapes onto cassettes as well. I set up a filing system. I was like a combination accountant, librarian and music director. I kept the editing function going for sixteen hours a day, and when everything was all neatened up and labeled, I found myself so sick of the sound of music I didn’t want to hear any at all, even from a boat moored three slips away. I knew I would get back into it later, carefully. After I’d given the records and the reel-to-reel tapes away to the local jazz appreciation society, along with the equipment I’d discarded, I had twice the fidelity in half the space, very clean sound, crisp as bread sticks. And tired ears.

This reminds me of ripping my CDs into iTunes. What a drag physical media is. I’m glad to be done with it.

I suppose it goes without saying that Travis doesn’t know a thing about jazz or high-fidelity equipment that he didn’t learn from JDM.