Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Sharon, Mercer County
Born in Sharon, John D. MacDonald served in the Office of Strategic Services in WWII and wrote the Travis McGee series of mystery novels.
John MacDonald was born July 24, 1916, in Sharon, Pennsylvania. MacDonald graduated with a BS degree from Syracuse University in 1938, earned a Harvard MBA in 1939 and also attended Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. During World War II he served in the Office of Strategic Services (1940-1946), forerunner to the CIA, and as a lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Army post in Burma-China-India theatre. After his return from the War, he began to write vigorously with little early success in the beginning later to become one of the most prestigious fiction mystery writers to date.
Born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, located just minutes from the Ohio border and 60 miles north of Pittsburgh, John MacDonald always wanted to be a writer. As a young child he believed writers were another race of human being, and the gift of writing was only conceived by the child at birth.
In 1937, he married Dorothy Mary Prentiss; they had one son. Shortly after this in 1938, he went on to earn a BS degree in business from Syracuse University which led him down a path of working several tedious jobs. MacDonald went on to further his education by earning his MBA from Harvard in 1939. During World War II he served in the Office of Strategic Services (1940-46), the forerunner of the CIA, in their operations in the Burma-China-India theatre, in which he eventually made lieutenant colonel rank. During this time he began to write fiction which later on would absorb many genres, including sports, adventure, science, and fantasy.
While serving his country in World War II, MacDonald continuously wrote his wife fiction letters. “The only kind of letters that would pass through censorship in those days made pretty dull reading, so instead of a letter, I wrote my wife a short story,” he said.
Around 1945, one of these stories would be his fist sold to the prestigious Story magazine to be published. This gave him the motivation to pursue a writing career.
Between this transition of returning home from the War and settling down, he wrote feverishly for 4 months, writing 7 days a week. All this hard work was barely paying off; only a string of stories were published. In 1949, MacDonald moved to Florida, where most of his future stories would take place. His first published novel occurred in 1950, and was titled The Brass Cupcake. This novel was the first of 36 popular MacDonald novels published by Fawcett/Gold Medal Publishing.
Between 1950 and 1960, MacDonald often wrote stories relating to places he has experience first hand. Relating his experience serving in India during WWII, “Ballroom of the Skies” was a science fiction story about an atomic war that leaves India world ruler, this was published in 1952. This same year he wrote The Damned, developed from his travels to Mexico. This theme reoccurred in his 1971 satirical Dress Her in Indigo, which is set in Oaxaca, Mexico which lampooned the American hippies and the drug culture.
In 1955, MacDonald’s skill in composing believable characters is greatly expressed in the short story, “In a Small Motel.” Everyday details are shown in great detail to real life in the story but suppressors in the characters lives are expressed by the minute hints presented in his writing. MacDonald has the ability to generate suspense through the moral standards of his characters. Also during this year he received the Ben Franklin Award for the best short story published in a popular magazine, “The Bear Trap.”
In the early 1960s, Fawcett Publishing production began to decline and as an answer to their problems they suggested to MacDonald that he write a series. Thus he created Travis McGee & Meyer series that consisted of 21 very successful books. MacDonald’s creation of Travis McGee, the most “colorful” of all unlicensed private detectives, occurred in his forty-fourth novel The Deep Blue Good-By, in 1964. This beach-bum intellectual enticed and captivated millions of readers around the world through his many adventures. Many would say Travis McGee is one of the most popular heroes of contemporary fiction. Upon creation of this character in 1964, MacDonald also received the Grand Prix de Littérature Policiere award.
During the late 1960s into late 1970s, MacDonald often wrote realistic science fiction stories about hurricanes that plagued his living condition in Florida, such as in the 1977 novel Condominium, which went on to be a best seller. Previous to this publication MacDonald received the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1972.
Following this award, he went on to write eight more very popular Travis McGee novels which concluded in 1984. Along with this he had many other published stories, including two best sellers, One More Sunday, in 1984, and Barrier Island, in 1986. He also received the American Book Award in 1980.
Several of MacDonald’s stories have been adapted to film such as Cape Fear (1962) which was based on his novel The Executioners. The film Man-Trap (1961), was based on a novelette. Kona Coast (1968) was based on a short story written by MacDonald. A Travis McGee character appeared in Darker Than Amber (1970). Travis McGee: The Empty Copper Sea (1982), was a made for television film. A Flash of Green, was an 1984 movie adapted from one of MacDonald’s 1962 novels. I Could Go On Singing (1963) was MacDonald’s novel adaptation of a screenplay, written by Mayo Simon.
John D. MacDonald died on December 28, 1986. By the time of his death MacDonald had written 78 books and approximately 500 short stories, with more than 75 million copies in print. The first John D. MacDonald conference was held in 1978 and has continued annually. His legacy not only lives through these conferences but through what he has provided the public; a wide variety of fascinating stories, composed of brilliant characters, twisted and turned by the magic of his words that express his deepest personal traits within them. Over and over again fans of John D. MacDonald will tell you he is one of America’s greatest authors of the mystery writing genre.
Selected Travis McGee Novels
The Deep Blue Good-By. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett/Gold Medal Publishing Co., 1964.
Darker Than Amber. New York: Fawcett/Gold Medal Publishing Co., 1966.
The Empty Copper Sea. New York: Fawcett/Gold Medal Publishing Co., 1978.
The Lonely Silver Rain. New York: Fawcett/Gold Medal Publishing Co., 1984.
The Brass Cupcake. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett/Gold Medal Publishing Co., 1950.
The Damned. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett/Gold Medal Publishing Co., 1952.
The Executioners. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958.