“Why detective Travis McGee spent time on Bleecker Street”


 Utica Observer-Dispatch

Posted Aug 27, 2007 @ 08:06 AM


This column has celebrated a number of artists and musicians, mostly the latter, but never a novelist.

It's not that the Utica area has never had a notable one, nor is it due to lack of esteem for that form of creativity. Instead, it might simply be something overlooked. Nevertheless, it's about time a writer is herein chronicled.

John Dann MacDonald was born July 24, 1916, in Sharon, Pa. His father, Eugene, took a finance position with the local Savage Arms Co., so the family moved to Utica when John was 12 years old. He went to local schools including Utica Free Academy.

The MacDonald family lived at 9 Beverly Place on a small island that separates lower from upper Beverly Place.

After his 1933 graduation from UFA, John furthered his education at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, then at Syracuse University, where he earned his bachelor's degree, and finally at Harvard for his MBA. It was while at Syracuse that he married his lifelong partner to be, Dorothy Prentiss.

Subsequently, he went into the military, writing regularly to his wife. Just for a change, instead of a letter, he once sent her a short story, which Dorothy submitted to a magazine for publication. It was accepted for the sum of $25, not too small an amount in the 1940s. When he was discharged in 1946, he worked for a brief time for the Utica Chamber of Commerce with an office on Elizabeth Street near Grace Church.

However, John's love was writing, so the decision to try doing it full time came easy, especially with a cushion of four months' mustering-out pay from his army post. Of that time, John once said:

"During those months, I wrote over a quarter of a million words of finished manuscript all in short story form. I kept from 30 to 40 stories in the mail at all times. I worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week ... one learns by writing," MacDonald noted. "

That indefatigable dedication paid off, as acceptance after acceptance of his submissions were received, causing the young author to believe he was able to make a long-term living from his creations. That he certainly did.

In his lifetime, in addition to many short stories, he authored some 77 novels of drama and mystery, many that became movies such as "The Executioner," filmed as "Cape Fear," and "Condominium," later adapted for television. His most popular work was a mystery-detective series with a private detective, Travis McGee, who appeared in more than 20 of his works. More than 70 million copies of his books were sold.

And it isn't unusual for his characters, including Detective McGee, to roam around the Utica area on their adventures. even having dinner at Grimaldi's on Bleecker Street with his sidekick, Meyer, where they each began with an extra-dry martini and later with Valpolicella wine served with their dinners. The surroundings are described including Chancellor Park, but not by name, west of the restaurant.

This gives testimony to MacDonald's fascination with this region, an appeal made even more evident by his the summer residency at Piseco Lake in the Adirondacks, while his permanent home was in Florida. His Piseco Lake cottage is mentioned frequently, as is Utica, in his book, "A Friendship," a rare nonfiction work that assembled MacDonald's letters to and from Dan Rowan, of TV's "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" fame.

Both his mother and his sister continued living here, even after the death of his father, causing him to be in Utica for visits and to purchase items when he stayed at his Piseco Lake cottage.

Utican Keith Caulkins, once a customer relations representative for what then was Business Services Co. in North Utica, remembers going up the MacDonald place several times each summer to assure the author was happy with his copy machine provided by Business Services.

"It was a nice cottage, not elaborate but comfortable, at the end of the lake in a remote area with a gorgeous view of the lake and the surrounding mountains," Caulkins said. "I loved going there because the MacDonalds were down to earth people."

He remembers that he sometimes was invited to lunch with them.

"Mrs. MacDonald was a quiet person, frequently sitting on the cottage porch knitting and dressed as though she was going out, always wearing a nice outfit, complete with jewelry," he said. Caulkins recalled that MacDonald, although in a vacation setting, nevertheless spent much time writing.

John MacDonald died Dec. 28, 1986, at age 70 due to complications associated with heart surgery. He was devoted to our area, and certainly one of the most prolific writers of fiction ever to have called Utica his home.

Malio Cardarelli is a local historian and author. This is the fifth of eight weekly local history columns publishing Mondays in the Local section

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