JOHN D. MACDONALD, NOVELIST, IS DEAD
By C. GERALD FRASER
Published: December 29, 1986
John D. MacDonald, the novelist whose best-selling mysteries sold millions of copies, died yesterday at St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee of complications from heart surgery. He was 70 years old and lived in Sarasota, Fla.
Claire Ferraro, associate publisher at Ballantine/Del Rey and Fawcett, said Mr. MacDonald underwent bypass surgery in September and had been in a coma since Dec. 10 .
From a modest beginning in 1946 with the sale of a short story for $25, Mr. MacDonald's writing career blossomed to produce about 70 books. Of those, 21 made up the highly successful Travis McGee series - about the adventures of a tough, cynical, philosophical knight-errant living on a houseboat in Florida.
Three-quarters of his books were originally published as paperbacks. His prodigious literary output also included 500 short stories.
In 1972 he won the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award. In 1980 he won the American Book Award for his hard-cover mystery ''The Green Ripper.'' In 1955 he won the Ben Franklin Award for the best American short story, and in 1964 he received the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere for the French edition of ''A Key to the Suite.'' The Resort Life
Robin W. Winks, a professor of history at Yale University, said last year in The New York Times Book Review that ''Mr. MacDonald's books are always about boats, and hot sun, and the putative glamour of resort life, as much as they are about the persistence of evil and the near-randomness of honesty.''
The Travis McGee series began in 1964 with the first appearance of McGee - a 6-foot-4, 212-pound thinking man's Robin Hood - in ''The Deep Blue Good-By.'' Four other books were published within a year. Since then all the Travis McGee novels have made best-seller lists, and some have been No. 1.
Mr. MacDonald gave each Travis McGee novel a title that included a color, such as ''Bright Orange for a Shroud,'' ''Darker Than Amber,'' ''A Deadly Shade of Gold,'' ''Dress Her in Indigo,'' ''The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper,'' ''The Green Ripper'' and ''The Long Lavendar Look.''
Although mysteries were his metier, Mr. MacDonald published other works, including ''Condominimum,'' a 1977 best-selling novel about greedy developers of substandard apartment complexes in Florida; a nonfiction work, ''No Deadly Drug,'' about the trial of Dr. Carl A. Coppolino, a New Jersey doctor convicted of killing his wife, and ''Nothing Can Go Wrong,'' a book about a cruise that he wrote with Capt. John J. Kilpack. A Book of Letters
Mr. MacDonald's final work - a nonfiction book, ''A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John Dann MacDonald,'' on the correspondence between the comic and the author - is to be published next month by Knopf.
In describing his fiction, Mr. MacDonald said in a 1970 interview with The Washington Post that ''most of my published novels are of the folk dancing category, the steps, the patterns traditionally imperative, the retributions obligatory.''
''Within these limits I have struggled for freshness, for what insights I can muster, for validity of characterization and motivation, for the accuracies of method and environment which enhance any illusion of reality,'' he said.
During most of his career, Mr. MacDonald wrote daily, for seven to nine hours, with a break for lunch and another at the cocktail hour. He used expensive bond paper, explaining: ''I think the same situation is involved as painting and sculpture. If you use the best materials you can afford, somehow you have more respect for what you do with it.''
He said he rewrote ''by throwing away a page, a chapter, half a book -or go right back to the beginning and start again.'' 'Like an Easter Egg Hunt'
''I enjoy the hell out of writing because it's like an Easter egg hunt,'' he once said. ''Here's 50 pages, and you say, 'Oh, Christ, where is it?' Then on the 51st page, it'll work. Just the way you wanted it to, a little better than anything in that same area ever worked before. You say: 'Wow! This is worth the price of admission.' ''
Suspense writing was ''like a mental exercise'' for Mr. MacDonald. ''Once you accept the limits of what you're doing, you try to do the best within those limits,'' he said.
Mr. MacDondald was born in Sharon, Pa., on July 24, 1916. He was graduated from Syracuse University in 1938 and received an M.B.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939.
Despite this background he was dismissed from jobs in an investment house and an insurance company because, he said, he mistakenly thought ''they wanted to hear my ideas.''
Rather than take a third job he joined the Army and became a second lieutenant. After about two years in the United States, he was sent to the China-Burma-India theater as a member of the Office of Strategic Services. ''Not the cloak and dagger O.S.S.,'' he once explained. ''In the keeping in touch with operational units behind the lines, I never got into a tough war, though there were times when a few shots were fired in anger, remarkably few.'' He was discharged as a lieutenant colonel.
Frustrated while overseas by Army censors who cut up many of his letters home, he wrote a short story and sent it to his wife. who sold it for him. At the war's end he was being published in pulp magazines as well as in Liberty, Esquire and Cosmopolitan.
Mr. MacDonald is survived by his wife, Dorothy; a son, Maynard, of New Zealand, and five grandchildren..