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John D. McDonald

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Charlotte Roberts
Source: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Photo Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - John D. McDonald photo

Dean Koontz calls him his all-time favorite writer.  Stephen King thinks he’s the great entertainer of our age. Carl Hiassen says he was the “first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise and breath-grabbing beauty.”
Dean Koontz calls him his all-time favorite writer.  Stephen King thinks he’s the great entertainer of our age. Carl Hiassen says he was the “first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise and breath-grabbing beauty.”

John D. MacDonald was born on July 24, 1916, in Sharon, Pennsylvania. His educational training was in business, and he earned a master’s degree from Harvard Business School.  MacDonald became a writer while serving in World War II. He wrote a short article about India and sent it to his wife, who submitted it to Story magazine. They paid him $25.00 and requested more material. Sarasota became his home in 1951, and from here he produced more than 70 novels and over 200 short stories on a variety of subjects. Over 90 million of his books have been sold around the globe, with 78 of them being translated into 30 different languages.
 
In July 1975, German actress Marlene Dietrich wrote to MacDonald, “Please send me Travis McGee!” She had been in several accidents for which she was hospitalized, and had read all of the books published to that time, and was “desperate for more.”

MacDonald may not have intended to use Florida as a backdrop in his novels when he moved here, but when he saw the wealth of material here, he changed his mind. Even though the Travis McGee novels are set in Ft. Lauderdale, most readers recognized Sarasota as the real backdrop, especially in Condominium and A Flash of Green. MacDonald would pause in mid-adventure, to rail against the runaway exploitation of the rare and dying paradise he considered home. He cared deeply for Florida, and his philosophical writing mixed with mounting suspense, both entertained and informed his faithful readers. He liberally sprinkled his novels with his views on Florida’s crime, growth and pollution. MacDonald was very critical of the greedy developers who valued the dollar more than the delicate and sensitive Florida environment.
 
People who read MacDonald’s novels today will learn about a Florida before six-lane interstate highways, prevalent giant chain motels, and cold glass and aluminum mega-architecture. The climactic scenes with McGee punching it out with an assailant or engaged in gunplay, will seem tame when compared to today’s blood-splattered serial killer thrillers.  Almost all of the female characters come to a bad end, leaving McGee to remember them fondly at the end of the story.
 
While living on Siesta Key, MacDonald helped start the Friday lunch group at the Plaza Restaurant, which included MacKinlay Kantor, Walter Farley, and other local authors. In a press article following his death in 1986, MacDonald was described as “heart and soul of the club,” which by then was known as the Liar’s Club. MacDonald was a supporter of New College and served on the board of the New College Foundation. As a commentator on local politics, he expressed concern for the quality of life in his chosen home city.
 
In 1962, MacDonald agreed to donate his works and related materials to the University of Florida.  The manuscripts in his collection occupy 300 linear feet and his books an additional 200 linear feet.
 
On December 28, 1986, John MacDonald died, at the age of 70.  He entered St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee on September 18 for open-heart surgery. Complications from that surgery kept him in the coronary-care unit, where he lapsed into a coma on December 10, 1986.