By Kevin Comer
How many chances do you get to raise a child?
— T. Harlen Bowie asking a rhetorical question in Dress Her in Indigo (1969).
The propulsive force in Dress Her in Indigo is provided by a father seeking the gestalt of the final months of his only child’s life. Unable to go himself, paraplegic widower T. Harlen Bowie engages Travis McGee and Meyer—all expenses paid—to go to Mexico to uncover the “flavor” of the life his wayward daughter Bix led before being incinerated in a fiery automobile accident. Pressed by Meyer, McGee has reluctantly agreed. He thinks it’s too little, too late. Although Harlen readily admits to many failings as a parent, McGee questions his sincerity. On the plane bound for Oaxaca (WUH-hock-ca), he prompts Meyer:
“Mighty guru, take your bulging brain off the psychology of air travel and put it on your old buddy, T. Harlan Bowie. He did not ring loud and clear. There is a crack in the bell somewhere.”
Meyer’s initial grunted response is a less than helpful affirmative, but Travis insists on more, getting Meyer to expound:
“He rings true enough, as what he is. What you sense is that his concern seems a little faked. It isn’t. It’s limited by his own limitations. He’s using us to buy a kind of emotional respectability. He’s using us to pat his image back into shape. Oh, he adored her when she was a toddler. Tiny girls are cute and huggable, like puppies and kittens. Lots of people adore kittens, and when they get to be cats they take them for a nice ride and dump them out in the country somewhere and imagine them living in a nice barn, catching mice. McGee, the world is full of reasonably nice guys like Harl. They go through all the motions of home and family, but there is no genuine love or emotion involved. There is an imitation kind. They are unconscious practicing hypocrites. They’re stunted in a way they don’t and can’t recognize…He believes he is really in the midst of life and always has been. He doesn’t know any better, because he’s never known anything else. What a limited man believes is emotional reality is indeed his emotional reality.”
Travis asks Meyer to opine on Bix’s likely response to growing up in such a climate:
“…Maybe she thought it is what people mean when they talk these days about the generation gap. I imagine it would have given her the feeling that no matter how hard she tried, she could never really please him. She would believe, maybe, that there was some well of warmth and understanding and love that she couldn’t ever reach, without realizing that she couldn’t reach it because it wasn’t there, not for her, not for anybody.”
While in Mexico, Meyer and Travis encounter another bereft parent, Wally McLeen, who is searching for his estranged only child, Minda, one of the five companions who set off for Mexico with Bix Bowie. Believing Minda to be somewhere in megalopolis Mexico City, Wally has concluded his best bet is to wait for her to return to Oaxaca. In the meantime, he’s immersing himself in the counterculture. He explains:
“It’s more than just looking for her, Mr. McGee. It’s trying to understand more about what the young people are looking for…The only thing I’ve got in this world is my daughter, Minda. And if I can’t communicate with her, then there’s no point in anything…”
Trav and Meyer don’t know it yet, but Wally’s grief and frustration have driven him stark raving mad. Wally and Harl: Lost fathers trying desperately to find a way to bridge the generation gap to connect with lost children. I suppose there was a lot of this going on. The generation gap has rarely been wider. JDM was wrestling with it himself and I believe Indigo was one result.
In 1968, JDM’s son, Johnny, became involved with what is called by some a cult, SUBUD (SU-bood). He and wife Anne changed their names to Maynard and Lilliana. Then they moved to New Zealand.
Nondenominational SUBUD originated in Indonesia in the 1930s. Members engage in a group meditative practice called latihan kejiwaan. According to believers, the latihan connects the individual with what a Jedi might call The Force. Maynard is still a practicing member. He appears several times in this short film that scratches the surface of what SUBUD is and what members believe.
It is difficult to imagine rationalist and non-joiner JDM being very enthusiastic about these developments, much less wife and mother, Dorothy. I’ve been unable to discover any firsthand evidence of how he and Dorothy reacted. However, I’m indebted to Steve Scott—author of the remarkable Trap of Solid Gold blog—for digging up this exchange from a panel discussion at the 1996 JDM Conference in Sarasota involving JDM’s collaborator on No Deadly Drug during 1967 and ’68, Pete Schmidt:
Question: In all your meetings, did he [JDM] ever talk about his son?
Schmidt: At the time, he never did call him Maynard, for one thing. I never heard Dorothy or John ever call him Maynard. They called him Johnny. When we were working on the Coppolino book [No Deadly Drug], I think there was some sort of estrangement at that particular time, and we never really discussed it, other than to say Johnny was in New Zealand.
John just said, “There comes a time in every kid’s life and every parent’s life when the child looks and says, ‘Look, I’m going to teach you a lesson. I’m going to eat worms.’”
And John and Dorothy said, “Well, Johnny went out and he’s eating worms in New Zealand.” And that’s all I know about the relationship at that time.
Prior to this, Johnny’s behavior would have caused less indulgent parents only run-of-the-mill parental palpitations. According to Hugh Merrill in The Red Hot Typewriter (2000), it took Johnny a while to find traction in college. He dropped out of Rollins College during his sophomore year in 1958; became an apprentice to a sculptor in NYC and enrolled in NYU; made an extended foray to Europe where he studied painting in Paris for a time before walking across France and Italy on his way to Greece. While in Greece, he notified his folks he’d be coming home to continue his education; which he did, via France, Spain, Portugal, the Madeira Islands, and Venezuela.
Johnny began attending Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where he soon met wife-to-be Anne. Now committed to college success, he took summer classes at the University of Syracuse to make up for lost time and emerged from Cranbrook with an MFA. Johnny and Anne were married in June of 1962.
JDM would have found Johnny’s youthful tumult familiar and he was proud and supportive of his son’s interest in the visual arts. In the autobiographical The House Guests (1964), JDM describes—with unmistakable pride—how Johnny began to use his collection of the corpses of lizards dragged into the house as playthings by beloved cats, Geoff and Roger, and later found mummified in out of the way locations:
Totally dried and darkened, they looked far more prehistoric, savage little symbols of the frightful giants of the quaking earth an aeon ago. Johnny began saving the perfect ones, along with fishbones and bird skulls and the empty hulls of giant insects, shark teeth, oddly shaped stones. When, not too many years later, he began to draw with serious intent, began to show that almost ruthless unconcern toward other activities which is the plight and the strength of the artist, he turned to these things as models as he trained eye and hand.
In the final paragraphs of House Guests, JDM lets us know Johnny is coming home. Having finished school, he and Anne are opening a fine arts press business in Sarasota with another couple. They’ll be staying in the guesthouse until they can find a place of their own. Proud, happy, loving papa was determined to be a different sort of father than his own.
Stay tuned for Part 2.