Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Demon Weed

erinmore-flake

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.

 

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Demon Weed

  1. Kevin…your research pays off in this post. For some reason I remembered more of Travis’ (and JDM) fight with cigarettes than I do other habits. But putting this altogether was definitely a bonus read for me.

    And we’re sure that it was tobacco that Travis used, right? Just asking.

  2. Great commentary on a great series. Of course everyone smoked, everywhere and all the time and without the slightest concern. Doctors competed as to which endorsed brand was the most beneficial. The notion of not smoking entirely was reserved for Mormons and other obscure odd fish.
    Doctors, nurses and receptionists used to smoke in their offices, and in exam rooms while examining patients. Smoking was never a concern, only ‘excessive smoking’, meaning anything in excess of a ‘sensible’ 1 or 2 packs a day.
    Getting free daily cigarettes to the troops was a vital logistics priority in WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

    JDM is simply being a normal man of the era. Cigarettes were like coffee, a universal daily pleasure, something everyone did, and which the thoughtfully inclined did in appropriate moderation. Hence the references not to quitting, but to ‘cutting back’…temporarily, of course, like cutting back on desserts.

    A good pipe is more author-ly. It’s also an enjoyable bit of business with the hands and the aroma and the packing and the collecting of beautiful pipes (pot shaped included) and handsome accessories, which aren’t available in a cardboard pack of Camel’s.
    Healthier too, as many still contend, because unlike ‘cancer sticks’ (a much later term) a pipe is not inhaled.

    My parents were of JDM’s generation. They never smoked because they concluded early on that cigarettes tasted nasty and were a messy, joyless habit generally. But every room of the house always had crystal ashtrays for guests.
    And among my mementoes of my Dad are the pipes he toyed with intermittently in the 1950s, then lost interest in. They weren’t considered ‘real smoking’.

    • Great historical perspective, Andrew. My dad smoked most of his adult life and it killed him at 68. He described how, in the army, if you wanted that cigarette break every hour (or whatever it was) you had to smoke the free cigarettes provided. Otherwise, keep working. So, of course, he smoked. I myself grew up in his (and my mom’s) cloud of Marlboro smoke. I like to think I’m out of the woods on that one.

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