Adventure Book Writer John D. MacDonald Dies

Times Staff Writer

John D. MacDonald, one of the most prolific and successful of action-adventure writers, died Sunday. He was 70.

MacDonald, a longtime resident of Sarasota, Fla., died at St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Wis., of complications following heart bypass surgery, said Claire Ferraro, associate publisher at Ballantine, Del Rey and Fawcett books in New York. He had been hospitalized since September.

Best known as the creator of Travis McGee, the eccentric anti-hero detective who became the ‘60s answer to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, MacDonald’s career spanned more than 40 years, including at least 77 books and 500 short stories.


More Than 70 Million Copies

In all, his books have sold more than 70 million copies. Of these, 21 were novels about McGee, the salvage expert-amateur detective and adventurer who lived on a Florida houseboat, the “Busted Flush,” won in a poker game.

Beginning in 1964, with “The Deep Blue Goodbye,” McGee solved crimes and, indulging his creator’s dislike for many of the trends and customs in contemporary life, delivered shrewd commentaries on modern life as the mysteries unraveled.

In McGee mysteries and other novels as well, MacDonald’s voice was one of a social historian, particularly of the Southern coast. In a first person McGee-MacDonald voice, the detective lamented the “locust population” of large cities advancing south, and the sad transformation of Florida’s paradise of birds and marshes turned “flashy and cheap, tacky and noisy.”

In “Barrier Island,” published this year, MacDonald sketched “the laid-back life of golf, boating, long cool drinks, the peculiar callousness bred by hot climates and luxurious comfort, better than anybody since Graham Greene,” author Stephen Vizinczey said in a review.

He won two major awards, the Edgar Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1972, and the American Book Award’s mystery competition in 1980.

John Dann MacDonald was born in Sharon, Penn., on July 24, 1916. He attended the Wharton School of Finance and the Syracuse School of Business, then received a master’s degree from the Harvard School of Business in 1939.

He earned his first paychecks from pulp magazines, selling stories while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He spent 30 months in the China-India-Burma theater, mostly with the Office of Strategic Services, and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In the first four months after he was discharged he wrote 800,000 words, and virtually never stopped writing. At first, he lived in Utica, N.Y., selling to the pulps as well as to Esquire and Cosmopolitan, often using a number of pseudonyms. When he had earned $6,000 from writing, he moved his wife and son to Texas.

Over the next three years, they moved some more, back to upstate New York, to Mexico and finally to Florida, where MacDonald had lived since 1949.

In 1950, his first book, “The Brass Cupcake,” was published. By 1964, when his first McGee mystery appeared, he had already written 43 novels.

“When McGee was created, I set about coldly to devise a character who would be likable, yet substantial enough for me to be involved with for a series,” the publicly reticent MacDonald said in a rare interview, in 1973. “In the first novel, he was too somber. . . . I threw it out. In the second version, he was too much of a smart-ass--too quick and funny, too much of a winner. But by my third try, a character emerged that I enjoyed: a physically tough man who was vulnerable, yet strong.”

He admitted that McGee, moralistic yet supremely knowledgeable about travel, food, drink and women, was “my Walter Mitty projection, in the sense that every banker likes to think secretly that he can pull off that big job.”

In a 1984 television interview, he called his hero a “tattered knight on a spavined steed.”

In later years, the non-McGee novels tackled corporate swindles and greed, as in the 1977 “Condominium,” about corporations grabbing land in Florida, or “One More Sunday” (1984) about spiritually bankrupt evangelical church leaders who raise funds through television and computers.

A lover of boats--like McGee-- MacDonald also enjoyed chess, poker and was once a semi-pro bridge player. A disciplined writer, he kept regular hours, working from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., producing from 900 to 9,000 words a day.

He put off writing, he said, only to travel with his wife or to go fishing.

A compilation of correspondence titled “A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald” is due to be published next month.

His editor, Leona Nevler, said Sunday she believed MacDonald had been working on another Travis McGee novel before his final illness. There have been rumors for years of a “final” book, called “Symphony in Black,” in which McGee dies.

He is survived by his wife of 49 years, Dorothy, as well as a son and five grandchildren, who live in New Zealand. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.