In May 1943, John D. MacDonald was assigned to duty in a New York State Military headquarters in preparation for leaving for India as an Ordnance Officer. He arrived in India in the fall of 1943. Dorothy rented an apartment at 8860 Main Street in Poland, N.Y. from April to late November 1943, when she moved to 1109 State Street in Utica. She lived there until John came back from overseas.
In order to understand references in their letters more fully, it is necessary to provide some important family background on John and Dorothy. For John D. MacDonald, the impact of his father’s history on his own life proved to be very significant. But no less important was the influence of her parents’ history on Dorothy’s life.
Brief Background of John and Dorothy
In the case of John one can find evidence of father Eugene’s work habits which had a great impact on John’s later life as a writer. Much of Eugene’s success with several companies over 40 years, in particular Savage Arms Corporation, was the result of his “financial watchdog” reputation. He was a man who could be counted on to “put things right” in a business sense.
In Dorothy’s case, we find in the letters a strong-willed woman who had not forgotten the impact of her father’s premature death on her, brother Sam, and mother Rita. Her father had been very successful as a businessman, and his untimely death in 1926 from typhoid fever was a shock. In May 1943 she was partially caring for her mother – a psychologically demanding task, often exacerbated when John’s and her finances were in dire straits, which was quite often in the early years of their marriage and during the War.
In their World War II letters, references are made to events and people in the family history of both John and Dorothy which need clarification to make the letters more easily understood when such references are made. (See Persons Most Often Mentioned.)
Eugene MacDonald (1888-1961) and Marguerite (Dann) MacDonald (1893-1975) (“Margie” with a hard “g”)
Omnipresent in the letters is MacDonald’s father Eugene. It is useful to know that while he himself had accomplished a lot in his life, Eugene perceived that his son was a failure in jobs he had between his marriage in 1938 and when he entered the Army in 1940. Eugene had survived hardships as a youth only to find that his son did not seem to be cast in the same mold. (One can look at the list of jobs John had between 1939 and 1940 and find that he was either fired or he quit because he did not like a particular job.)
Although it was never published, Eugene wrote a 285-page autobiography in 1960, and reading it provides insight into his character and success. Eugene’s childhood had been quite hard. His father, Hugh, was jealous and abusive of his wife, which caused a very rancorous and difficult home life. He worked off and on as a gardener and handyman but failed to provide support for his family.
Since his father was not a good provider, fourteen year-old Eugene got a paper route and then added a job turning on and off street gas lights in his home-town of New Haven, CT. In the summer he worked for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company polishing cartridges. Eugene hired another boy to do the paper route so he could keep his job at Remington Arms, and he still profited.
Young Eugene was given several Horatio Alger books by a teacher and the theme of rags-to-riches in the books affected him a great deal. This is reflected in the autobiography: his life was a Horatio Alger story. He was very positive in his work habits, and was a “go-getter,” using the terminology of the times. Many of his paper customers thought very highly of him, and one went so far as to tell young Eugene that he was in a position to recommend him for appointment to West Point Military Academy. Another said he would help Eugene get into Yale University, but Eugene’s family commitment kept him from accepting these chances. He felt he was needed at home to help his mother cope with his father. He continued to take courses in accounting, shorthand, typing, and business law, all of which provided Eugene with very strong qualifications.
In 1906, Eugene and his mother and sister moved to Washington D.C. because of his mother’s ill health. He held several jobs there, including Assistant Chief Clerk to the General Passenger Agent for the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad; the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company where he became a trouble shooter in the field for the company; the Forestry Bureau; and in the Capitol Basement “mailing seeds and copies of the Congressional Record.”
His mother’s declining health forced a return to New Haven. Eugene found a job with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in the Comptroller’s Office in New Haven. This was 1910 and he was now 23. He met his future wife, Marguerite Dann, at that time and, after saving to get married, they were wed in 1915. He was approached by the Vice president of Savage Arms in Utica, N.Y. which had purchased a plant in Sharon, PA. The plant made shells for the British Navy and gun mounts for the U.S. Navy. Eugene reported July 1st to Sharon and on July 24, 1916, John Dann MacDonald was born – on the same day the furniture arrived by train.
In 1920, John’s sister Doris Jean (“Dorrie” in the letters) was born. And now, at the age of 32, Eugene was successful and happy. A chance meeting in New York City with Mr. Wright, the President of Savage Arms, resulted in his being asked to come back to Savage in Utica to help straighten out financial problems. He returned to work there in late 1926, and by 1927 they were living at 9 Beverly Place in Utica.
By the 1930’s he had achieved way beyond what one might have expected given his beginnings: He was the Treasurer and Vice-President of Savage Arms, Inc. in Utica. During World War II he was an instrumental part of the war effort at Savage, and traveled often to represent Savage Arms with the U.S. and U.K. governments. Eugene MacDonald continued working at Savage Arms until 1946 when he retired.
Eugene had pulled himself up “by his own bootstraps,” and he felt that young John should do the same. There are frequent references to financial difficulties John and Dorothy faced with not much help, or begrudging help, from Eugene. The lack of financial security in John and Dorothy’s life is a constant theme in the letters.
Eugene noted in the “Easter 1950” section of his autobiography that John is a “writer of both pulp and slick stories,” but he did not seem to understand that the writing, by that time, was supporting his son’s family quite adequately, and was allowing work on the family’s cottage at Piseco Lake to begin. John regretted that he never seemed to measure up well in his father’s eyes, even after his writing had become popular and respected.
In 1928, at age 12, John’s school career at Utica Free Academy was interrupted by a year’s bed convalescence while he recovered from a bad case of mastoiditis. It was during that year when part of the foundation for later writing was laid. He read constantly, a habit he would carry on throughout his life.
It was in 1934 when Eugene MacDonald gave his 18 year-old son John a choice for the following year: 1) take a high school post-graduate course to help him prepare for college, or 2) take a trip to Europe. John chose the latter. A family friend, Harold Howell, was asked to be the chaperone. When John boarded the ship, he found this two-page letter from his father in his suitcase:
Just a few lines to let you know how much pleasure it has given mother and me to make your European trip possible, especially when we never had a similar opportunity. We feel that this trip will be a great experience and a great education for you, so naturally we want you to make the most of it.
(1) Howell is to be the boss, not that we don’t trust you, but rather because his age and experience will be helpful to you.
(2) Make and keep as many new friends as possible on the trip.
(3) Eat and function regularly, and if you do not feel well at any time do not hesitate to secure medical attention.
(4) I think you should write your mother from Paris, Rome, Venice, Oberammergau, Amsterdam and London as soon as you arrive or at least once a week.
5) Be sure and attend a religious service at least once on each Sunday.
(6) Take as many interesting pictures as you can, so that we can live the trip over again with you when you come back.
(7) Keep a record of your expenditures as a training for your college days.
(8) Don’t worry about me as I will be O.K.
(9) Get as much rest as is practical.
(10) Keep your nose clean and your tail up and don’t stretch your hat and above all, be courteous to all.
The foregoing are not the 10 Commandments but rather the sincere values of fond and loving parents of a swell guy.
‘Auf Wiedersehen’. May your trip be all and more than you expected it to be.
Samuel Roy Prentiss (1885-1926) and Harriet Mariah Van Woert (Rita) (1884-1948)
Samuel and Harriett Prentiss had two children: Dorothy (1911) and Samuel (1912). Samuel married Evelyn Martin in 1933; she died in 1988.
An examination of Dorothy’s family reveals why feelings of family position and class were important to her. Evidence of this appears in a book by Bard Prentiss, son of Samuel and Evelyn. He published a history of the Prentiss family going back as far the early 1600’s in England.
Samuel Roy Prentiss, Dorothy’s father, attended Syracuse University and graduated from the Cazenovia Seminary where he met Harriet Van Woert. They were married in March of 1910, and Dorothy was born the following February.
Prentiss was the Secretary-Treasurer of the Hinckley Mercantile Company and also Secretary-Treasurer of the Prentiss Corporation, and a Director of the Vermont Products company. He was active in local civic affairs, served three terms as the president of the Poland, New York, Board of Education, and was quite successful as a merchant. The family’s social and home life reflected that success.
Dorothy was 15 when her father died. She, her brother Sam, and their mother suddenly found themselves in a much lower social position than they had been accustomed to for many years. It was not until 1944, when the estate of her father was finally settled, that it became known that much of the wealth of the estate had been mishandled at the time of Samuel’s death. Things might have turned out quite differently for them if more money had been available.
Dorothy received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Syracuse University and married Willard Teed in June, 1932 in Utica, N.Y.. The marriage did not last more than three months, and in the Fall she was back at Cazenovia Seminary teaching Art and French. Her interest in art continued throughout her life, and much later in Sarasota she was able to take further art instruction and worked hard at her painting. She was known locally as an accomplished artist.
In March of 1937 Dorothy met John D. MacDonald and they began to date quite seriously. On August 15, 1937 they drove to Pennsylvania to be married, but they kept their marriage a secret until they were married in public in April of 1938 in front of the family in Poland, N.Y.
From 1938 to 1945
After John graduated in Business from Syracuse University in 1938, he and Dorothy moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where John was enrolled in the MBA program at Harvard. They lived a very frugal life brought about by the fact that John was in school full-time. Dorothy, now pregnant, worked for the Kelling Nut Company. She suffered convulsions in March of 1939, and the diagnosis was eclampsia. John Prentiss MacDonald was born six weeks prematurely.
After the birth of their son and John’s graduation from Harvard, they moved to Fayetteville, N.Y. and John tried to find work in order to support his family, and to pay off the loan his father had given them for some of the hospital bills. They lived for a while in Massena, N.Y., known for its bitterly cold winters, to which Dorothy refers several times in the letters.
Because of his MBA degree at Harvard, John was qualified to apply to the Army for an appointment as a First Lieutenant in the Rochester Ordnance District (ROD) in June, 1940. This was his first successful job after years of failure. (The chance may have been provided by contacts which his father had in his work at Savage.) Because of his ordnance skills, MacDonald was one of a few whom Col. Bowlin took with him to New Delhi, India to serve in the India-Burma-Ceylon theatre in August, 1943.
The assignment was in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was a wartime intelligence agency of the United States during World War II. Now a Major, the OSS assignments sometimes took John out of India on flights to determine the military needs of combat troops outside of India.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, Dorothy MacDonald rented an apartment with their son, John Prentiss, at 8860 Main Street, Poland, N.Y. She moved to 1109 State Street, Utica, in November, 1943.
One of John’s letters was a short story he wrote because the tedium of everyday life was too much to repeat in letter after letter. He titled it “As Through a Glass.” Dorothy sent it first to Esquire, but it was rejected; then she sent it to Story Magazine, which accepted it. (The original title was changed to “Interlude in India” and it was published in 1946.) It appeared to MacDonald that India was far removed from the action, and the closest war came was via news and radio. By the time he was discharged from the Army he had served two years in India and Ceylon.
1945 to 1947: Learning to Write
On audio tapes of MacDonald interviews he often spoke of this period as being one of great effort and of great frustration, until he began to sell short stories on a regular basis. He noted that he often had as many as 30 stories in the mail to different publishers at one time. A few years later he had his son burn “two or three million words” which had been written in this time frame, claiming that he was too ashamed of them to keep them any longer.
His work habits from 1946 to 1986 reflect, in kind, his father’s attitude toward work. John said: “Put your ass in the seat and begin to write, and then write, and write, and write” are words which he used to describe his writing habits.
Although he never sent it, writers and would-be writers who have received rejections slips will empathize with MacDonald’s feelings when he wrote this in 1946 or early 1947:
The MacDonald Treadmill
Don’t be upset about receiving this form letter!
We would like to write a personal letter to each and every one of you, but the great mass of stories submitted from this office makes such a procedure impractical. Surely you can understand that!
If by any chance we have been unable to use your magazine, don’t be discouraged. It may not be due to any particular deficiency in the magazine but instead to the fact that we haven’t recently been writing the type of THING that you are.
Try again, won’t you?
John D. MacDonald
Fiction published by:
Doc Savage the Shadow
Dime Detective Adventure
Blue Book The Bombay News
The Dubuque Bugle Detective Tales
Also many minor publications such as Esquire, Story, and the Congressional Record.
MacDonald began to be published more regularly in 1947, and his output was staggering. He was so successful that many publishers began to rely almost solely on his story-telling ability by using his many pseudonyms to fill their magazines. Between 400 and 450 stories seems to be the most accurate count written between 1946 and 1950. He continued to write short stories even in the 1960’s.
1947 To 1986: Novels and McGees
This was a most productive period of time for John; his writing was accepted more and more now that he was featured in Gold Medal Original Paperbacks. He was writing feverishly and beginning to enjoy the fruits of his labors.
His success introducing the character of Travis McGee brought fame and fortune. His production overall averaged out to one new McGee novel each year, but he was also writing other fiction, including the best-seller Condominium, in 1977. The McGee novels – and several non-McGees – stand out in their time.
Condominium appeared on the New York Times best seller list for several weeks, and the lesson learned from his description of condominiums collapsing due to shoddy building practices during a hurricane led to the implementation of newer and tougher building codes in Florida.
Other prescient novels, such as One More Sunday (1984) foretold of evangelical scandals, examples of which would be Tammy and Jim Baker. And Barrier Island, (1986) predicted the impact of a hurricane on that area of Louisiana 20 years before Hurricane Katrina.
The John D. MacDonald Collection at the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries contains some copies of tapes made from MacDonald speaking to audiences on the art of writing. His answers to often-asked questions of authors are memorable for their clarity. He spoke as he wrote: carefully and thoughtfully.
Piseco Lake bound John and Dorothy together. It was her lyrical words describing the beauty of the lake that inspired them to gather the funds necessary to buy 200 feet of land in 1944 even though they were hardly in a position to do that.
John D. MacDonald died on December 28, 1986, after a short illness and heart surgery, with pulmonary complications.
Dorothy MacDonald died in February 1989. She had fought cancer over many years and through many operations, always coming back somehow to a relatively healthy state before finally succumbing.
John D. MacDonald’s assessment of war came in a January 1945 letter to Dorothy:
“How any two ideologies can exist in the minds of men and yet be so different as to cause the slaughter and misery of millions is beyond me. Maybe it is because deep down the basic nature of man is evil, thus making all groups of men, and all governments the mass expression of common evil, cruelty and hate. Thousands of men each week are making this their last silly little acts in this screwy world and it is impossible to translate those acts into something which means a greater good for all. We must kill those who would oppose us, even as they are saying [the same] to themselves. I guess the world has just gotten too small for a quiet short war. I am beginning to hate all evidences of “bigness” and “organization” and “regimentation.”