Literary Lions

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Once upon a time in the 1950s, Sarasota established a national reputation as an art colony that included a number of celebrated writers. Most of them lived on Siesta Key, a wilderness of shell roads and deserted white sand beaches and year-round sun. Life on this idyllic tropical island was quite different from the urban […]


Once upon a time in the 1950s, Sarasota established a national reputation as an art colony that included a number of celebrated writers. Most of them lived on Siesta Key, a wilderness of shell roads and deserted white sand beaches and year-round sun. Life on this idyllic tropical island was quite different from the urban labyrinth of New York City or the glittering unreality of Hollywood.

Many of these writers were best-selling novelists, but others wrote soap operas, newspaper columns, plays, film scripts, cartoons, poems or biographies. I knew almost all of them, and what I most remember is their vivid imaginations, which enabled them to create memorable characters and situations that captured the interest of readers throughout the world. Even today their work is remembered, with many of their books still being reprinted and being made into major films and television movies.

The most prolific resident writers were workaholics, adhering to a strict schedule at the typewriter during the day, except on Fridays when they gathered for lunch at downtown’s Plaza Restaurant. But on any day after five o’clock they often made a dash to the original Beach Club to relax with a martini. Writers like to be within range of other writers with similar interests in politics, crime and the environment. Later in the evening some were still drinking and singing in piano bars. They knew each other, and everyone knew them.

Mackinlay Kantor was one of these literary landmarks for more than 40 years. He was a big, tough guy who wrote tough books about noble wars-the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. Andersonville, a historical novel revealing the atrocities at the Confederate prison in Georgia, was not only a bestseller, but won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956. Characterized by The New York Times Book Review as "the greatest of our Civil War novels," it was a Book of the Month Club selection; and Columbia Pictures bought the movie rights. In 1999 it was dramatized as a television miniseries.

Mack knew about war. As a World War II combat correspondent wearing custom-tailored uniforms from Brooks Brothers, he flew missions over Germany and later hitched rides on B29s up the Yalu River in Vietnam.

In 1936, he and his wife, Irene, came to Sarasota with their two children, Layne and Tim. They commissioned prominent Sarasota architect Ralph Twitchell to design a cypress beach house on a site carved out of the Siesta Key jungle on Shell Road. Mack’s office-cluttered with photographs, books and memorabilia-was preserved after his death in 1977 and eventually installed at the Sarasota County History Center.

Not only a storyteller and historian, Mack was an actor. Parties at the Kantors always ended with Mack reading his current manuscript aloud in a voice rumbling with drama and emotion. It was not surprising that he began using a dictating machine in 1961. "It’s just the same as sitting down at the typewriter," he told me. He dictated Valley Forge on a cruise ship sailing through the South Pacific and returned with 60 tapes for his secretary to transcribe.

The cantankerous writer insisted he was born 100 years too late. He refused to have central heat or air conditioning. An outspoken critic of contemporary life, Mack was known for his satirical letters to editors and rants about Christmas, television and New College, which he considered a haven for hippies. His most vitriolic diatribes were against the winter visitors. At every opportunity he would sing the Tourist Song, hundreds of malicious verses set to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. His daughter, Layne Shroder, who wrote a novel titled The Four of Them, recalls some of the verses:

"We used to have wildcats all over the key.

We used to have ‘coons on the shore.

But now we have tourists so lively and quick,

They keep crowding in at the door."

Chorus:

"Here’s to the old Sarasota,

The land of the lazy and glad

Where the sharks and the sting rays,

Mosquitoes and mice

Were the worst enemies that we had."

All the liberal writers accepted Mack’s conservative stance with good humor, even Budd Schulberg, who discovered Siesta Key in the 1950s on assignment for Holiday magazine. He rented two cottages on Point of Rocks, and director Elia Kazan visited him to work on a film script for A Face in the Crowd. Previously they had collaborated on the film On the Waterfront, which won eight Oscars.

Budd grew up in Hollywood, where his father was head of Paramount Studios. When I met Budd at the Siesta Key home of Syd and Ann Solomon in 1979, he was writing a memoir on a yellow legal pad about his early life, which was published in 1981 as Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince.

His first book was the "great Hollywood novel" What Makes Sammy Run?, published in 1941 when he was 27 years old. (F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a blurb for the jacket, just seven days before he died.) Budd told me he was annoyed that the book had become "a business manual. I feel there has been a growing cynicism and acceptance of corruption. The things that Sammy did would once have shocked people. Now they tend to say, ‘Oh, that’s the way we do it, that’s business, so what?’ Sammy has become an all-American hero." Sammy also became the star of a Broadway musical and a television miniseries.

Budd is described as a "soft-spoken, gentle, modest man and a good listener" by Jerry Wexler, who came to Sarasota in 1985 and wrote his own memoir, titled Rhythm and Blues: A Life in American Music. His wife, Jean Wexler, whose latest novel is The Scissor Man, knew Budd earlier in Mexico. He and her late husband, artist Fletcher Martin, shared a passion for boxing. "He would travel anywhere to see a fight," she recalls. Fletcher also shared Budd’s father’s passion for actress Sylvia Sydney; both were involved with her romantically at different stages of her life.

During the five years Budd lived on Siesta Key, he made many trips to the Everglades. As he told me once in an interview, "I got the idea of doing a film about birds and an Audubon agent who gets killed. We shot the film around Everglades City." Wind Across the Everglades was released in 1958. The evil poacher was Burl Ives, a brandy-drinking buddy of Mack Kantor, who was also in the cast (playing a judge) along with Sarasota resident Emmett Kelly, the famous "Weary Willie" clown. Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque queen, played the madam of a brothel. According to her son, Eric Lee Preminger, who wrote a memoir titled Gypsy and Me, there was trouble on the set from the first day. After the first shot director Nicholas Ray, who had a drinking problem, invited the cast and crew to a champagne celebration that lasted all day.

The only reclusive writer in the group I knew was John D. MacDonald, who arrived on Siesta Key with his wife, Dorothy, and son, Maynard, in 1951. He loved the isolation of sailing, although he couldn’t swim. One of his few public appearances was serving punch with Mack Kantor at openings of the Petticoat Painters exhibitions, which included paintings by their wives. He usually wore a Swedish yachting cap and hefty dark-rimmed glasses with a guayabera shirt from Mexico.

In 1964, John D. introduced to the world Travis McGee, a scavenger consultant who lived on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale. This series of 21 mysteries has sold millions of copies. The lovable, cynic Travis and his cohort Meyer not only helped people in trouble but also exposed the corruption in modern life. John D. was a conservationist who also wrote novels such as Condominium and Flash of Green, which emphasized his concerns that developers were destroying the Florida environment.

John D. sat at his typewriter almost eight hours a day, seven days a week. On world cruises he took along a word processor so that he could maintain this arduous schedule.

In 1968 he commissioned Tim Siebert to build a "tin-roofed pagoda" on Fiddler Bayou. The one-bedroom house, with a spacious veranda overlooking the bay, was built on pilings that went deep into the ground to avoid the threat of high water. In December of that year he wrote, "The house is becoming spectacularly beautiful, bit by bit." Still, on the day he moved into his new office, John D., a creature of habit, complained, "Nothing is where it should be. Have to acquire a whole new set of automatic motions."

John Elmendorf, president of New College, and his wife, Mary, were special friends, as John D. was a trustee of the college. Mary, an anthropologist, published a book titled Nine Mayan Women: A Village Faces Change in 1976. She recalls that John D. often served a drink he called Elmira Mertz, a combination of Myers rum and grapefruit juice. As a wedding present for the Elmendorfs’ daughter, Susan, the MacDonalds gave the couple the use of their Siesta Key condominium as a hideaway for the honeymoon.

Another friend was Dan Rowan, whose television show, Laugh-In, was a breakthrough in comedy. The Erskine Caldwells, who were frequent visitors in Sarasota, introduced John D. to Rowan by letter in 1967. After a long correspondence in which John D. critiqued the new show and gave Rowan ideas for skits, the two met in Sarasota. Rowan bought beachfront property on Manasota Key, where he spent short vacations between bookings. In 1986, the year John D. died, Rowan published A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald, 1967-1974.

These letters reveal interesting details of the writer’s personal life. "I cannot stand din, random noise, confusion, a lot of obligations that I don’t want and didn’t ask for.What I would like and shall have, is a couple of nice long days when you are down here when nobody has to do or say or believe in anything constructive. Just whittle, spit and smile a lot."

During Hurricane Agnes in 1972, the MacDonalds evacuated Siesta Key with their two cats and two pet ducks. "We put the ducks in Howard Johnson’s bath tub," according to MacDonald. Later they acquired a newly hatched Chinese White Fancy goose. John D. wrote, "The new goose is great. I shall never again be without a goose."

MacDonald was a generous man who supported a number of young artists and gave advice to fledging writers. He told David Warner, who published Vanishing Florida in 2001, "Never use very. Something either is or it isn’t."

In contrast to the unobtrusive John D., Borden Deal was a gregarious fellow. He always brought his guitar to parties and sang country songs in a raspy hillbilly voice.

When he died in 1985, his wife, Pat, arranged a sunset memorial service on the bay at Selby Gardens. More than a dozen of the high-profile women in attendance were former girlfriends. They knew each other, and they all remembered Borden with affection. Borden liked women and they liked him.

Once people got past the Southern cotton mouth, the tattoos and the sweat, they discovered a sensitive man who really cared about people. Most of Borden’s 21 novels were about man’s mystical attachment to the contemporary South. His novel Dunbar Cove, about building a dam in Tennessee, was made into a movie titled Wild River, directed by Elia Kazan. After Borden’s death, his book Bluegrass became a television mini-series.

He and his then-wife, Babs, and their three children moved to Siesta Key in 1964. Babs was also a writer and published more than a dozen novels, including The Walls Came Tumbling Down, which became a television movie. The couple divorced in 1975 after 22 years of marriage.

Like all the writers, Borden had a dark side. Tim Kantor relates incidents about the writer’s dependency on alcohol in his memoir My Father’s Voice. "One night his [Borden's] wife had called Dad and said, ‘Mack, please come over right away! Borden’s drunk, and he has a gun, and he’s threatening us and waving it around.’ Dad, I was told, had gone over and taken the gun away."

In 1981 Borden revealed to his friend David Warner, who owned the X-rated theater on the South Trail, that he was the author of a series of popular porno books which he signed Anonymous. The books sold millions of copies over a 14-year period. In his will Borden stipulated that this scandal could not be revealed until after his death. The announcement sent shock waves throughout the community, particularly among the ladies, and generated a front-page story in the local newspaper.

Joseph Hayes chose not to join the writers’ colony in the steamy jungles of Siesta Key. In 1954 he rented a cottage on Anna Maria Island for six weeks and wrote the book that would make him famous-The Desperate Hours. Later he wrote the prize-winning play and the screenplay as well. This thriller about three escapees from a federal prison who invade a suburban home and hold the family hostage still intrigues audiences. In 1990 Joe worked with director Michael Cimino to update the script for a new version. "It moves a lot faster now and there’re more dirty words for today’s audiences," he told a reporter.

He and his wife, Marrijane, collaborated on many plays, one of which became the inspiration for the Mr. Peepers television series. They also wrote the novel Bon Voyage together, a fictionalized version of a trip to Europe with their three sons.

They built an Oriental house for their winter home on Lido Shores in 1956. Frank Lloyd Wright did the preliminary drawings, but they finished the plans themselves, as Joe wanted a secret place for writing. His office on the second floor was entered by a ladder that he pulled up behind him to ensure privacy. In this retreat he wrote in longhand, standing at a slanted Italian desk with a view of the Gulf of Mexico.

The exterior of the Japanese-inspired house was painted burnt orange, with turquoise steps leading up to black doors with dragon-shaped handles. Inside was a conversation pit and a pool with a swing positioned to fly over the water. It was a party house, and the effervescent Marrijane enjoyed cooking for as many as 100 guests. St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated every year, and visiting celebrities such as Art Buchwald, Erskine Caldwell and Billy Wilder mingled with the local writers and artists.

The world premiere of Joe’s play Impolite Comedy was mounted at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre in 1975. Joe insisted on directing the play about the desperate hours in the life of a publisher whose world is unraveling. Before opening night, there was talk of taking the play directly to Broadway. But the reviews by critics and friends were mixed, heightened by rumors about fierce arguments backstage. Alcohol was mentioned.

The couple continued their fast-paced career until Marrijane died in 1991. Joe married Polly Curry in 1994 and moved to Siesta Key. During their six-year marriage (they are now divorced) they traveled to Abbeyville, S.C, for the revival of Come Into My Parlor, a play that toured Europe for more than a year. Joe now lives near Ocala, and his landmark Lido Shores house was torn down.

Evan Hunter was a neighbor of the Hayes on Lido Shores. He and his wife, Mary Vann, and her teen-age daughter moved to Sarasota in 1975, where they lived in a house that has also since been torn down.

A guest house served as Hunter’s obsessively organized office. Evan was an extremely disciplined writer, working from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then heading for the tennis courts. The secret of his enormous torrent of books and screenplays was a large wall calendar above the desk marked with page numbers to be completed each day. "There has to be a sense of a goal realized," he explained.

One of his first jobs was at a literary agency. When magazine editors needed a story by the next day, Evan would write it under a pseudonym. In 1952 he legally changed his real name, Salvatore Lombino, to Evan Hunter.

Evan had his first success with Blackboard Jungle in 1954, after teaching briefly in a vocational school where the teachers were indifferent to the needs of students. "I wrote that book very quickly.It was all inside and it just boiled over."

He used the name Ed McBain when he began writing the 87th Precinct series in 1956. He feels the series is a long novel about crime and punishment, with each book a single chapter. His leading character is Steve Carella, a cop with a rich personal life beyond the crimes, smut and corpses in his professional life.

Other McBain mysteries include the Matthew Hope series about a Florida lawyer that began with Goldilocks, set in Sarasota in 1976. The name of the town was changed to Calusa, but places and events in the city are recognizable.

In 1980 Mary Vann published a novel titled Sassafras. After the couple divorced, Evan returned to Connecticut, where he continues to write several books a year. In 2001 Hunter and McBain teamed up on Candyland: A Novel in Two Parts.

These are only a few of the writers who added the aura of fame and fortune to the Sarasota literary scene. Some are no longer with us, while others are still writing in other places now that Sarasota has advanced beyond the congenial small-town ambience the writers enjoyed. But as Borden Deal noted in an essay titled The Function of the Artist, "There is no artistic creation in limbo; we are all creatures of our time and our place."

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