Pilgrimage tales of Travis McGee, 'Busted Flush,' Bahia Mar
Oct. 2 was John D. MacDonald Day in Fort Lauderdale, and about 300 of his more avid fans were on hand to pay tribute to the late, great novelist.
|Dedicated John D. MacDonald historian Cal Branche at the rededicated plague marking Slip F-18 at Bahia Mar Marina, Fort Lauderdale. Islander Photo: Paul Roat
MacDonald died in 1986 after writing 78 books and countless short stories. He is still regarded as the father of Florida mystery authors which came about years ago in a time when the Sunshine State was a far cry from a literary focus. There are more than 40 mystery authors with ties to Florida today.
Saturday's celebration was spurred by the rededication of a plaque at the Radisson Bahia Mar Beach Resort, fictional home of MacDonald's most enduring fictional character, Travis McGee, who fictionally lived on his houseboat "The Busted Flush" and engaged in "salvage" pursuits.
The plaque honors MacDonald's work and McGee's fictional home at the marina, slip F-18. In February 1987, a slip in the marina at Bahia Mar was named the first Florida Literary Landmark by Friends of Libraries USA. The plaque reads:
"Dedicated to the 'Busted Flush'
"Home of Travis McGee, Fictional Hero and Salvage Consultant
"Created by John D. MacDonald, Author, 1916-1986
"Designated a Literary Landmark Feb. 21, 1987."
This year's event did not have an auspicious beginning. A pair of elderly women were waiting to register when one asked her friend if she thought Mr. MacDonald would be at the event.
"Dear, Mr. MacDonald is dead," she said.
"Oh, I hadn't heard that," was the reply.
Of course, as long as there are books, John D. MacDonald will never really die. In fact, his creativity has surpassed the written word and has entered into the realm of - gasp! - television.
Paul Levine, author of a series of Miami-based private detective novels, pointed out that the boat-bum McGee character had been captured by television through Jim Rockford in "The Rockford Files" and Thomas Magnum in "Magnum, P.I."
"Rockford was Travis, except he lived in a trailer next to the beach in California," Levine said. "Magnum was Travis, except in Hawaii. He even shared Travis's initials - T.M.
"We all steal from John D.," Levine added with reluctant nods from the other authors present."
Jim Born, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement officer and mystery novelist, described MacDonald's influence bluntly. "If it weren't for John D., I wouldn't be here."
His father gave him a copy of a Travis McGee book, "A Tan and Sandy Silence," as a child in 1974. "Through that book I developed a love of reading and, eventually, writing, and decided to create a book myself." His first novel, "Walking Money," has been published to critical acclaim.
Randy Wayne White, who himself has been described as the contemporary MacDonald by many critics, told a story of his first meeting with the Siesta Key author in the mid-1970s.
White and three buddies were sitting at his house on Pine Island one weekday morning, talking about books, when someone brought up the name MacDonald. White said he hadn't read any of John D.'s books, and the others started telling stories of the famous author's stories.
"You know, he just lives up the coast," someone suggested. "Let's take a boat and go see him."
"You have to remember that beer was involved," White told the audience with a laugh.
The crew headed north and, shortly after the last of the beer was gone, arrived at Siesta Key only to find that no one had a clue where MacDonald lived. They pulled up to a little beach at the north end of the key and asked a fisherman on the shore if he happened to know where a guy named John D. MacDonald lived.
"Right there," the fisher said, pointing back to a big house with wide porches that was right where they'd pulled their boat ashore.
With that fateful event under their belts, the motley bunch started to trudge up to the door. White said a head popped out of a window, then ducked back in as they climbed the steps to the house. John D. himself invited the scruffy crew in, gave them more beer and chatted for hours.
"He couldn't have been nicer," White said, adding that he and friends started an annual pilgrimage to Siesta Key to see MacDonald every summer until his health failed in 1985.
Jonathan King also said John D. influenced his writing career. Living in Philadelphia, he read of the sun, sand and surf, the beautiful blondes and the joys of South Florida and, when he was offered a job with the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, jumped at the chance. That was 20 years ago, and he hasn't left - although he did leave the Sun-Sentinel last July.
He and Michael Connolly were at an author event at Bahia Mar several years ago, King said, and during a break in the proceedings they strolled down to where the original plaque was installed at the marina.
"We read the plaque," King remembered, "and then we both put our hands on it and said, 'Thank you, John.'"
I can only echo that sentiment: Thank you, Mr. MacDonald.
Although the Florida father of mystery writing penned 78 books, only 25 of them were first printed as hardback copies.
In fact, his first hardback edition was his fifth novel, "Wine of the Dreamers," a science-fiction novel published in 1951.
MacDonald factoid, too
Spider Robinson is a sci-fi author who has added a new chapter to the MacDonald lore. "Callahan's Key" is a story of a ragtag band of more than 100 people who decide to give up the cold and gloom of Long Island and migrate to Key West in 24 bright yellow, converted school buses - kids, dogs, belongings, everything. Just pack it up and get gone.
The iconoclastic band meandered all down the Eastern Seaboard, making new friends and having all sorts of adventures. The group, as Robinson's character and leader Jake Stonebender put it, "was about as easy to control as a herd of cats," but the band all agreed on two stops they had to make - Cape Canaveral for a shuttle launch, and Fort Lauderdale, Bahia Mar marina, to see the homesite of Travis McGee.
As Robinson puts it, they pulled into the marina in their 24-bus convoy - the marina is huge, by the way, and really can accommodate all those vehicles - parked, and made their way to the F-dock, where they found the plaque and an empty boat slip.
I won't spoil the fun of what happened when security showed up to throw the group out, but the characters were told that yes, there was a gift shop at the marina complex and no, they didn't think there were any books there by that MacDonald guy.
I had to check when I was there and, yes, there is indeed a gift shop at the Radisson Bahia Mar Beach Resort and, no, they don't have a single book there by that MacDonald guy.
'Busted Flush' kicked up a few notches
Yachts at Fort Lauderdale are amped up a few magnitudes from the size we see in Southwest Florida. Since Bahia Mar is so big, I didn't really get an impression of the size of some of the ships until I was walking across a parking lot and spotted a yacht that seemed to dwarf the huge complex. It had a weird name, too - "Aussie Rules."
Rightfully so, since it was built for and is owned by golf legend Greg Norman of Australia.
The $70 million vessel, at 228 feet, is the largest aluminum-hulled luxury motor yacht in the world, according to its Web site.
"It boasts a secluded cinema and a spectacular observation lounge," the site continued. "Furnished with sumptuous sofas, the state-of-the-art sound and projection system provide the ultimate in entertainment, as well as on-demand and satellite technology. Its aft deck houses a 42-foot custom sportfisher, a 29-foot SeaVee used for fishing and diving, a 31-foot Novurania Equator [that's a rigid inflatable boat that's used as a tender], two 18-foot Hewes flats fishing boats, four Wave Runners, two sea kayaks, wakeboards, surfboards and ancillary equipment allowing for all types of recreation. Extensive fishing and diving equipment with 200 rods and reels, a dive instructor and 24 sets of snorkel gear are also onboard."
Jeez, all that for a guest list of 12, with 16 crew members.
It has twin 1,492-hp engines that cruise at 15 knots with a range of 8,000 nautical miles. According to my math, that lets "Aussie Rules" go from the North Pole to the South Pole without the bother of refueling.
John D. MacDonald historian Cal Branche told a cute mystery writing story.
An English teacher had been going over the art-trade-craft of writing mystery stories. For the final exam, she instructed her students to write a mystery story. She reminded them that successful stories included sex, murder, a mystery of course and that if royalty could be included it seemed to make the piece better.
Giving them two hours to pen their work, she started grading some other papers and looked up after a few minutes to find one student leaning back in his chair with his legs propped up on the desk.
"You know, you've only got two hours," she reminded the student, who said he was already finished.
She went back and snatched his story from his desk. His story:
"'My god, I'm pregnant!' the princess exclaimed. 'I was raped, and when I find out whodunit, I'm going to kill him!'"