First Person

My Search for John D. MacDonald

In 1979, I’d never been to Sarasota. But the writer I admired most in America lived there—and so we set off.

By John Jakes April 24, 2014

John Jakes

John Jakes

Editor's note: John Jakes passed away at age 90 on Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Sarasota.

In the dark Ohio winter of 1976, our family fled down I-75 to Florida. We found weather much like that we’ve suffered recently. We spent Christmas at a large motel on St. Pete Beach and ate dinner while a forlorn beach boy picked up chairs he’d set out that morning. I’d wearily finished The Seekers, the third novel of my Kent family chronicles, and the darkest. All three had made it onto the Times list and I wanted a rest before continuing with The Furies.

But I had another goal, one I broached to my wife and kids after a couple days of relaxing.

The writer among all American writers that I admired most lived just an easy few miles down Tamiami Trail on Siesta Key, Sarasota, where we’d never been. We set out one afternoon in our new black Seville to pay a brief visit—unannounced, I regret to say.

John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald

For me, John D. MacDonald was and is a consummate artist—a keen observer of the flamboyant, often corrupt American landscape. At the time, before he had started his Travis McGee series, his novels hadn’t received the respect afforded to other writers in his genre. John D. wrote Gold Medal paperbacks.

On U.S. 41 in Bradenton we came upon road construction. Concrete barriers. Flashing lights. Traffic at a crawl. We traveled a mile in half an hour. Willing to indulge me at first, the kids turned fretful. Reluctantly I headed back to St. Pete, where I phoned to say we were stymied. Thus, before his untimely death at 70 in a hospital in Milwaukee, I never met John D.

I was bitterly disappointed but I doubt he felt the same. He’d known nothing of my plans for a visit. Still, he was gracious on the phone, one writer to another. In the years that followed we had a friendly correspondence. The letters were kept at the Smathers Library at the university in Gainesville. Just last year, the library kindly provided me with a complete file of those letters.

We moved to Sarasota permanently years later. Today I’m a duly elected member of The Liars, the once-a-week literary lunch gathering started by John D. and others in 1952. Lots of drinking back then, they say. Not so much anymore.

Yes, there were many other fine craftsmen in the Liars; MacKinlay Kantor of Siesta Key was a founder of the group. My dear friend, the late Dr. Stuart Kaminsky, was a regular. Distinguished visitors have sat at the table— William Manchester, William Inge, Burl Ives, to name just three.

But John D. lived here. That’s why I do, too.

John Jakes sold his first short story at 18 and wrote more than 80 books, the last 18 all New York Times best sellers.

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