Remembering John D MacDonald and His House on Siesta Key

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John D. MacDonald. I have been a huge fan of the novels of John Dann MacDonald since I picked up the first one "the Deadly Lemon Sky" and read it in 1973 while I was working at Station 5 on the Trans-Andean Pipeline deep in the amazon jungle. Back in the 1990's when I returned from working 15 years overseas and I had read all 60 some of MacDonald's novels, I found out about the annual "John D. MacDonald Seminar," a two day even each year to discuss the literary merits of MacDonald. My wife and I attended several of these and in 1997 met John Pete Schmidt, JDM's collaborator on the non-fiction "No Deadly Drug," and I had a powerful memory of a meeting I had with Schmidt 18 years ago at one of the last JDM conferences in Sarasota.
John D. MacDonald and John Pete Schmidt. Schmidt came to Florida as a bureau chief of the Tampa Tribune in 1964 and worked in the Tribune's Sarasota bureau from 1965-68, also working as news director for SCAN-TV in Sarasota. It was there that Schmidt met John D. MacDonald, and the two became fast friends. Schmidt collaborated with MacDonald on the nonfiction book, "No Deadly Drug," published in 1968.
No Deadly Drug. The book is about on the murder trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino for the killing of his anestheologist wife, Dr. Carmen Coppolino.
MacDonald's Home on Ocean Place in Siesta Key. "We were at the three story beachside cottage that MacDonald had built in 1970 and we had all toured the house courtesy of the owner at that time when Schmidt got up to talk about his memories of JDM and about the house.

Remembering John D MacDonald and His House on Siesta Key

by Hugh Pickens

Article Begun December 15, 2015

I have been an admirer of John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee novels since I picked up "The Deadly Lemon Sky," and read it in 1973 while I was working on the installation of a supervisory control system at Station 5 on the Trans-Andean Pipeline deep in the Amazon jungle. The book made an immediate impression on me and I began seeking out MacDonald's books from other oilfield workers and soon had read most of the Travis McGee canon. Like Robert A. Heinlein, another favorite author, I have found that I have been able to re-read MacDonald's novels my entire life and continue to be entertained and educated in human nature by his work.

By the time I returned to the United States after working 15 years overseas in South America, the Middle East, and Far East, I had read about 60 of MacDonald's novels. I never had the chance to meet MacDonald, who died in 1986, but in the 1990's I found out about the "John D. MacDonald Conference," an annual two day event held to discuss the literary merits of MacDonald's work. My wife and I attended several of these conferences in MacDonald's hometown of Sarasota, Florida and in 1997 met John Pete Schmidt, JDM's collaborator on the non-fiction "No Deadly Drug." I have a powerful memory of my meeting with Schmidt and what he told me about his life long friendship with MacDonald.

Contents

John D MacDonald Conference in 1997

I attended the next to the last John D. MacDonald conference in 1997 - the conference in which participants had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit John D. MacDonald's home on Ocean Place for a few hours and hear stories from MacDonald's closest friends about MacDonald's life on Siesta Key. This was the only time, to my knowledge, that MacDonald's home was ever opened to the public and those of us who attended the conference that year felt honored to have this opportunity to have a glimpse of the personal life of one of our literary heroes. I still have my photos of the house and remember climbing up into MacDonald's 'sacred' writing loft where he composed most of his novels.

We were at the three story beachside cottage that MacDonald had built in 1970 and we had all toured the house courtesy of the owner at that time when John Pete Schmidt got up to talk about his memories of MacDonald and about the house. I am absolutely sure it was Schmidt because he talked about his collaboration with MacDonald on "No Deadly Drug" and about what a pleasure it was to work with MacDonald during the Coppolino trial that he and MacDonald covered in 1967.

Schmidt finishing talking about the trial, but there was something he wanted to get off his chest. I was standing in the front of the group listening to Schmidt, about three feet away from him, when Schmidt changed the subject and told the group of about twenty MacDonald fans that "there is something I want to tell you about what kind of man John D. MacDonald was. It's a story that I have never told anyone but I want to tell it now because there may not be another chance."

Our group quieted as Schmidt began to speak with a calm intensity that demanded our attention. Schmidt started to talk about how after the trial his own life had taken a turn for the worse. Schmidt had lost everything and was down and out. First Schmidt's wife had died, then he began abusing drugs and alcohol, then he lost his job, and finally Schmidt hit rock bottom and had nowhere to go.

According to Schmidt, MacDonald found out about Schmidt's problems and cut Schmidt a check for $20,000, no questions asked. Schmidt refused to take charity but MacDonald insisted and told Schmidt that the money was Schmidt's share of back royalties from a translation of "No Deadly Drug" into "Chinese or Malaysian." The check had just come in from the publisher MacDonald told him.

You don't see it very often but when you see a grown man break down in public and cry uncontrollably, you never forget it. Through the tears Schmidt said he had never had a friend like MacDonald and he would always remember that gesture of generosity that had gotten him back on his feet. "John D MacDonald saved my life," said Schmidt, struggling to regain his self-control, "and I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him." Schmidt added that he does not know to this day if the "royalties" were legitimate or if MacDonald had simply told him a lie because it was the only way to get Schmidt to accept help. "And I don't really want to know," said Schmidt.

A year and a half later, Schmidt was dead.

It goes without saying that Schmidt's talk was an event that has remained engraved in my mind but it's funny how I haven't really thought about it since it happened and how seeing Schmidt's name on a blog posting in 2015 sparked the memories from that sunny afternoon in Sarasota on the second floor outdoor patio of MacDonald's beach cottage when John Pete Schmidt told us how John D MacDonald saved his life.

I have never told this story before but I thought with the passing of all the principals, that its telling is a fitting tribute to MacDonald - and to Schmidt. It's a story I want to tell now because there may not be another chance.

About Pete Schmidt

Schmift was a lifelong journalist who was born in Missouri, but found his home in Sarasota, Florida where he lived the last 34 years of his life. According to Brooksie Bergen, John "Pete" Schmidt liked to portray himself as a simple country boy. His lyrical "Postcripts" - essays he wrote for the Sarasota publication "Attitudes" that described his boyhood in Missouri - reflected that image But Schmidt, who lived in Sarasota for 34 years, had a lengthy career in writing, editing and publishing, and worked for a time as an assistant Sarasota County administrator.

Schmidt was born Nov. 18, 1938, in Steelville, a small town of about 1,500 in Missouri at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, and displayed an intense interest in writing in school. Graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1960, Schmidt was hired by the Tri-County News in Berkeley, Mo., as a cub reporter and later became news editor with the Centralia Fireside Guard in Centralia, Mo. Schmidt moved to Lake Wales in 1962 as managing editor with the Lake Wales News after winning a Blue Ribbon Award from the Missouri Press Association.

In 1964 Schmidt came to Florida as a bureau chief of the Tampa Tribune and worked in the Tribune's Sarasota bureau from 1965-68, also working as news director for SCAN-TV in Sarasota.

It was there that Schmidt met John D. MacDonald, and the two became fast friends. Schmidt collaborated with MacDonald on the nonfiction book, "No Deadly Drug," published in 1968.

"A little over two decades ago, I collaborated with John D. MacDonald on his first non-fiction work, 'No Deadly Drug', the story of a celebrity murder case, the Coppolino Murder Trials, set in New Jersey and Florida courtrooms," wrote Schmidt in 1989. "We became good friends and his many kindnesses to me extended far beyond the period we worked together on 'No Deadly Drug'."

MacDonald acknowledged Schmidt's contribution to the book and said in the book that "John Pete Schmidt suggested that we write this book. He worked with me every step of the way. It would not have been possible without him." Schmidt talked at the 1996 MacDonald conference about MacDonald's relationship with his wife Dorothy that he observed during the trial.

Dorothy was a very important, a very important part of his life. After every session of the trial, we would go back to the apartment. We stayed at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Dorothy was always there with cherry tomatoes and cashew nuts, and all these cheeses and snacks; and we would sit and rehash the whole day's trial. She would give her input and she was part of the whole creative process. She was a wonderful, wonderful person...

In 1989 Schmidt accompanied MacDonald to Fort Lauderdale where a film starring Rod Taylor was being made from one of the Travis McGee novels. Schmidt later wrote an article about MacDonald's visit to the set.

"In the public mind, in the past, the people have mixed me up with McGee," said the author. "Then when they meet me there is this terrible look of dismay. Now Taylor can be McGee and I can be me. People are always asking me where I get the ideas for McGee's escapades with the ladies, too. I tell them I have very uninhibited friends who do the research and report back to me."

"Watching a film version of McGee is interesting," he continued, "and must be considered in the context of cinematic values. For instance, McGee is an old fashioned guy and I may develop this during one five or six page passage. In the movie, they establish it with McGee looking at a pop-top beer can, inverting it, and popping it open the old-fashioned way with a can opener."

Schmidt left journalism in the late 1960's when he was selected by state Sen. Warren S. Henderson to direct his successful campaign and served as legislative assistant in Tallahassee for nine months. From 1968-70, Schmidt was a governmental affairs and special assignment reporter for the Sarasota Journal and Sarasota Herald-Tribune. In 1970, Schmidt left newspaper work to take a job as assistant to Sarasota County Administrator John Gray. Schmidt worked for the county for five years until resigning as assistant county administrator in 1975 to enter private business.

From 1975-85, Schmidt operated Gan Eden Publishing. He published "Camporama," founded and edited Florida Home Gardener and co-founded and published Table Tips Magazine. He continued contributing to many local publications as a freelance writer and was an editorial consultant to Bowes Publishing in Canada. He was a technical consultant for the HBO docudrama, "The Strange Case of Dr. Coppolino." Schmidt was editor of the Sarasota Times from 1989 to 1990 and assistant editor of "Attitudes" for the past three years.

Schmidt died in Sarasota in January, 1999.

About John D MacDonald

John Dann MacDonald (July 24, 1916 – December 28, 1986) was an American writer of novels and short stories, known for his thrillers. MacDonald was a prolific author of crime and suspense novels, many of them set in his adopted home of Florida. His best-known works include the popular and critically acclaimed Travis McGee series, and his novel The Executioners, which was filmed twice as Cape Fear. In 1972, MacDonald was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, and he won a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in the one-year category Mystery. Stephen King praised MacDonald as "the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller." Kingsley Amis said, MacDonald "is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels."

References

About the Author

Hugh and Dr. S. J. Pickens

Hugh Pickens (Po-Hi '67) is a physicist who has explored for oil in the Amazon jungle, commissioned microwave communications systems across the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia, and built satellite control stations for Goddard Space Flight Center in Australia, Antarctica, Guam, and other locations around the world. Retired in 1999, Pickens and his wife of 33 years moved from Baltimore back to his hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma in 2005 where he cultivates his square foot garden, mows five acres of lawn, writes about local history, photographs events at the Poncan Theatre, produces the annual Oklahoma Pride series with his wife at Ponca Playhouse, and recently sponsored the first formal dinner in the Marland Mansion in 75 years. Pickens is presently building a Museum of Turquoise Jewelry in Northern Oklahoma. Pickens can be contacted at hughpickens@gmail.com.

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In 1996, Pickens edited and published My Life In Review: Have I Been Lucky of What?, the memoirs of Jack Crandall, professor of history at SUNY Brockport. Since 2001 Pickens has edited and published “Peace Corps Online,” serving over one million monthly pageviews. Pickens' other writing includes contributing over 2,000 stories to “Slashdot: News for Nerds,” and articles for Wikipedia, and “Ponca City, We Love You”. Pickens has written the following articles available on his wiki at Research and Ideas.

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