By Kevin Comer
In the last few years I had been ever more uncomfortably aware that one day, somewhere, I would take one last breath and a great iron door would slam shut, leaving me in darkness on the wrong side of life. But now there was a window in that door. A promise of light. A way to continue.
— Travis McGee consoles himself in The Lonely Silver Rain (1985).
In Dress Her in Indigo (1969), Travis McGee and Meyer meet wheelchair-bound T. Harlen Bowie in his suite at an upscale assisted living facility, where he explains his reasons for wanting them to investigate the life wayward daughter Bix led in Mexico before her death:
“Mr. McGee, I know damned little about what my daughter, Bix, felt and thought and believed. I’ve had a lot of time to think. And a lot of the thinking has been painful. Appraisal of myself as a father—very, very poor…”
In a 1967 journal entry, JDM laments his similarity to his father: “He appears most often when I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror at such an angle that the look of my mouth and jaw reminds me of him and it always makes me despise myself instantaneously, then tell myself what else can you expect from genetics, for God’s sake, and was he so bad of a man? What kind of a man was he? I am afraid I shall never be able to determine that, but I will be able to accept the fact that I cannot appraise him truly. I cannot root him out of me in certain physical ways, nor in certain habits of mind and emotion, I expect. It seems wasteful to have to keep trying, or wanting to try.”
For his part, JDM’s father, Eugene, had occasion to write of JDM: “I can see myself in him in so many different ways.”
Born in 1888 in New Haven, Connecticut, Eugene MacDonald was a completely self-made man. The son of a violent and impoverished father who worked as a gardener and handyman, Eugene lifted himself up by his bootstraps in the spirit of his guiding light, the novels of Horatio Alger. He wrote in an unpublished memoir: “The stories gave me confidence, hope and ambition.”
Eugene started working at age 14, yet completed high school with excellent grades. He seems to have been able to make a very favorable impression on people. A congressman on his paper route—one of several concurrent jobs—offered to sponsor him for West Point; another customer arranged a scholarship to Yale. Concern for his mother kept him from accepting either opportunity.
After using his meager savings to finance the family’s escape from his father’s rages to his uncle’s home in Washington, D. C., Eugene gradually worked his way up in the world through a myriad of odd jobs and correspondence courses. By the time JDM was born in 1916, he had entered the middle class.
Eugene’s big break came in 1918, when while moonlighting as an accountant, he discovered his wealthy client had overpaid his taxes by $100,000 ($2,380,000 in 2015 dollars, but that’s another matter). The grateful client made him secretary-treasurer of his rail tank car business. At age 30, Eugene was in the money.
When that firm fell on hard times, Eugene joined the Savage Arms Company in Utica, New York as a vice-president and treasurer where he remained for the rest of his career.
Eugene was a stern and gloomy father, except perhaps at Christmas, according to JDM’s sister, Doris. His conversation with the children consisted most often of the aphorisms of success, such as: “You get out of a thing just what you put into it.”
His father had definite ideas about what JDM’s educational and career goals should be. When Eugene was unable to convince JDM to pursue a career in law, he prevailed upon him to study business. JDM began his college career in 1933 at the very prestigious Wharton School of Finance affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Eugene had come up the hard way. He did whatever work was available to get ahead and take care of his mother and sister. Multiple paper routes, sewing hooks and eyes on cards, working as a lamplighter, doing telephone maintenance, mailing seed packets, polishing shell casings, bookkeeping, and taking correspondence courses in his free time. He’d found poverty and hardship very motivating.
When JDM returned home and enrolled at Syracuse University three months after dropping out of Wharton during his sophomore year and—like Johnny years later—scampering off to try his luck in NYC, Eugene made him take part-time jobs to pay for school. And when he struggled to find his footing in the work world, Eugene declined to help. He wrote: “During the last year he has supported himself, his wife and baby not at the scale of living to which he has been accustomed, but none the less they have not suffered for something to eat or a place to sleep. In my contacts with him I have tried to make him independent, and I think he is succeeding.”
JDM apparently took a much different tack when it came to his son Johnny (Maynard) and money. Johnny’s education and spontaneous travels were fully funded. Money was never made an issue according to Hugh Merrill in The Red Hot Typewriter (2000).
It’s clear JDM resented his father’s austere—emotional and financial—parenting style. He could have thought him the sort of unconscious hypocrite unable to give “warmth and understanding and love” Meyer describes in Indigo. When Eugene died in 1961, JDM had a near breakdown and developed symptoms of acute anxiety. Twenty years later, he wrote: “He had copped out on me. [He] died before I could prove to him what a great kid I was (at 44!). I never seemed to be able to live up to what he expected of me.”
JDM was 30 when he made his postwar declaration of independence from the expectations of his father and Maynard was the same age when he made his. We can’t know what happened between the 1964 publication of The House Guests and 1968, but it’s hard to imagine a more potent symbol of rejection than changing your given name when you’ve been named after your father, even if perhaps that wasn’t your conscious intent. Add embracing a seemingly extreme form of mysticism and moving as far away as you can get and it’s got to have stung—and resulted in much more parental angst than suggested by the lightly ironic “he’s eating worms in New Zealand” recalled by No Deadly Drug (1968) collaborator, Pete Schmidt.
I think it’s possible Eugene may have felt JDM’s determination to become a writer paid a penny a word to produce adventure stories was roughly equivalent to declaring, “I’m going to eat worms.” After all, armed with a Harvard MBA and emerging from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, JDM could easily have become one of the successful executives in a northeastern industrial firm that populated so many of his novels during the ‘50s. There’s no doubt an anxious parent would have felt JDM wasn’t playing the odds.
If he wasn’t put off by the racy covers, Eugene—who had found “confidence, hope and ambition” in the novels of his day—may have come to terms with JDM’s choices in the wake of his success. JDM and Dorothy maintained their ties, both to family and the region, returning each year to spend the summer months at Lake Piseco. Eugene would have plainly seen that JDM had listened to him when it came to getting out of something what you put into it.
We can only wonder to what degree JDM and Dorothy came to terms with Maynard’s decision to structure his life around SUBUD on distant shores. But I don’t doubt that JDM loved Maynard all the same; anymore than I doubt Eugene loved JDM. We are who we are. We have hopes for our children; we worry about their choices; sometimes we suffer. That’s the nature of the generation gap. And nature can be cruel.
The denouement of Dress Her in Indigo is bleaker than most in the canon. Although Travis McGee delivers more than T. Harlen Bowie asked for, there is no joy in it. Falling in with the wrong crowd, his lost child has been complicit in her own exploitation and abuse. The damage done is extreme and irreparable. The future holds little promise. Were these the fears of a father whose generation gap encompassed oceans?