RARA-AVIS: Macdonald vs. MacDonald

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 14 Dec 2002

 Since the Macdonald/MacDonald byline dispute has been mentioned several times, I checked the detailed accounts given in Tom Nolan's excellent biography of Ross Macdonald and Hugh Merrill's biography of John D. MacDonald. Nolan has the most complete account and quotes from original letters. Merrill relies on a years later John D. account that adds some detail but may be unreliable in some of that detail. There were three separate dustups between Kenneth Millar and John D. MacDonald over the name issue and at times there was real anger.

Millar's first Lew Archer novel came out in 1949 under the name John Macdonald. John D. MacDonald then living in Utica, NY wrote agent Harold Ober a letter of complaint. It was serious but fairly good-natured. John D. had, after all, been publishing in slicks as well as pulps under that name for some years and his own first novel was to be published in 1950.

According to Nolan, Millar told Ober he would add a middle initial ("R") and together with the spelling difference, readers should be able to tell the difference between John R. Macdonald and John D. MacDonald. By the time THE DROWNING POOL came out in 1950, the byline had progressed to John Ross Macdonald, Ross being a name Millar liked. In recounting it later (as quoted by Merrill), John D. said this evolving change had all been worked out at the time with the final resolution being the byline Ross Macdonald. Nolan's biography of Ross does not indicate it was that clearly and cleanly worked out in 1949 and his references to the actual correspondence seem to bear this out.

In any event, the next dustup came when Ross Macdonald sold MEET ME AT THE MORGUE to Cosmopolitan in 1953. Cosmo made matters worse misspelling the name as it promoted the upcoming issue that included "A New John MacDonald novel."

John D. went ballistic and sent a telegram to his agent who thoughtfully forwarded it directly on to Millar. The cable referenced "limited approval" John D. gave through Ober for Millar to use the name for the Lew Archer series only. He asked his agent to register the "strongest possible protest" and his agent did, threatening an injunction.

Millar was infuriated and denied there was ever any agreement and wrote John D.'s agent that "the implication that a writer of my standing seeks or would seek to trade on his (John D.'s) reputation, gratuitous and insulting..."

After the writers exchanged broadsides, Millar wrote John D. "not an agreement or a contact but a statement of intent" that he would do his best to shift away from the name Macdonald. Of course, he did not leave
"Macdonald" but I think this may be about the time the "Ross" without the
"John" became standard.

John D. had included praise for Millar's work all the way back in the original 1949 exchange. The only praise Millar sent John D.'s way was to say in the final conciliatory 1953 letter that he was reading THE NEON JUNGLE and
"wondering how you write so much so well so fast." This was, as Nolan notes, somewhat ambiguous praise.

There was a final dustup over the last Lew Archer novel THE BLUE HAMMER in 1976. Now both writers were regulars on the bestseller lists. John D. sent a two page letter to Millar that while he did not believe this was a case of
"meretricious opportunism" he did believe that "it is a pretty dumb thing to do." According to Nolan, Millar did not answer the letter.

Consulting it again on this issue, my high opinion of Nolan's biography was lifted even higher. Nolan's ROSS MACDONALD is about as good as biographies get.

Richard Moore

# To unsubscribe from the regular list, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to
# majordomo@icomm.ca.  This will not work for the digest version.
# The web pages for the list are at http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/ .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 14 Dec 2002 EST