Mickey Spillane Chucks His Shamuses and Molls to Write for a Tougher Audience: Kids
07/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT
A bright Carolina morning loud with birdsong: A pretty preteen girl enters the yard and walks timidly under tall live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. She knocks at the screen door of a low frame bungalow that needs a coat of paint. In her hand, a bit white-knuckled, she clutches a book, for she has come on a literary pilgrimage, seeking the autograph of her favorite author. Madeleine L'Engle? Judy Blume?
The man who answers the knock is built like a sumo wrestler, his mahogany-tan shoulders wide as the door frame, the thick neck topped with a face that would better suit a pit bull than a writer of children's books. His iron-gray crew cut looks rough enough to sand floors, and his voice is street-tough Joisey all da way. He is...Mickey Spillane.
Images rat-a-tat through the mind like slugs from a tommy gun: Mike Hammer, the meanest, most vengeful private eye ever to set fire to a Lucky or plug a scheming broad through the belly; Tiger Mann, intrepid American counterspy and slayer of Commies by the carload; Dogeron Kelly, tougher than week-old Irish stew, with a gun even quicker than Hammer's. Yeah, dat Spillane—the one the PTAs and Legions of Decency used to rant and cant about back in the innocent 1940s and '50s. So what's a nice girl like Debbie Curtis, 12, of Orlando, Fla., doing talking to a mug like this?
"I love your writing," she says shyly as she hands him her crisp new paperback copy of The Day the Sea Rolled Back. Almost as shyly, Mickey Spillane signs the book, then poses graciously for the girl's white-haired grandmother and her Instamatic. Some tough guy.
Since 1947, when I, the Jury first appeared, to the horror of book critics and the delectation of hard-boiled private-eye fans, Mickey Spillane has written 24 books that have been translated into 14 languages and have had worldwide sales of well over 100 million. Eleven of those books featured Hammer, the ex-GI turned PI, whose deadly .45-caliber automatic slew more bad guys (and gals) than Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer put together. Hammer escalated the tough-detective genre into a nightmare world of hyperviolence and machismo that left bluenoses gasping with rage and teenage boys of all ages cackling with quasi-sadistic joy. "Literature is only what people read," Spillane says. "I don't have fans. I have customers. I'm a writer. I give 'em what they wanna read."
But over the past decade or so, as Spillane's book production fell off a bit, he became more familiar to the American public on commercials for Miller Lite beer. On the tube, Spillane swaggers around in his Mike Hammer costume (stained trench coat and 1940s porkpie hat), acting mock-macho and chugging. "Look at this belly," he laughs off-camera, slapping that drum-tight protuberance. "Dat's all Miller Lite."
And now children's books?
"What's so strange about it?" he asks. Suddenly the Jersey accent falls away, and with it the tough-guy bluster. He says, "I started out writing scripts for the comic books—Captain Marvel, Blue Bolt, The Sub-Mariner, Captain America and many more. I've come full circle is all. A kids' book just seemed the best form for the sort of story I now want to tell," he continues. "Kids see so much that adults miss in the world around them. A friend of mine and I were talking about that once, and he said, out of nowhere, 'When's the last time you saw the bottom of a table?' Kids live in places like that, worlds of imagination and play that a grownup is forever banned from reentering."
The Day the Sea Rolled Back deals with the adventures of two boys, Larry and Josh, who live on an island much like Grand Cayman in the Caribbean. Larry is an American, his father an oceanographer turned treasure hunter; Josh is the son of a poor but noble Carib Indian fisherman. "I've already written two more Josh and Larry adventures," Spillane says. "And I'm just getting under way with the fourth. Here I thought I was in the beer business, finished with writing. Guess I'll always be a writer."
Certainly the research agrees with him. At 63 and three times a grandfather, Spillane still takes full advantage of the marvelous offshore fishing that first drew him to Murrells Inlet, S.C.—just south of condo-studded Myrtle Beach—nearly a quarter of a century ago. It is a scene that his imagination transforms into juvenile adventure. In his 22-foot skiff, Mickey ranges far out to sea in pursuit of tiger sharks and king and Spanish mackerel. Sometimes he is accompanied by his son Ward, 31, a mate on a sport fishing boat, who grew up in a kind of Robert Ruark world of fishing, gunning, crabbing and outdoor adventure. Another son, Michael, 27, tends bar on the Myrtle Beach strip, while Mickey's daughters, Kathy Spillane Spivey, 32, and Caroline Spillane, 24, also live nearby and visit frequently. All of the children are the product of his first marriage, which ended in divorce. He married his second wife, actress Sherri Malinou, in 1965. "She hates Murrells Inlet," he says curtly, "but I get together with her from time to time in Manhattan or L.A."
The house stands on stilts beside a tidal creek where oysters rear their muddy heads at low tide and mullet jump from dawn to dusk. Seabirds scream mournfully over the marshes that separate the creek from the beach. Like most writers' homes, this one is chockablock with books, and a brief perusal of the shelves reveals a catholicity in reading taste that one wouldn't expect of a man who made his fame with tough-detective thrillers. Saul Bellow rubs dust jackets with Raise the Titanic; Henry James shares shelf space with Robert Jastrow's Red Giants and White Dwarfs (a study of radio astronomy) and two of John Kenneth Galbraith's economic exegeses.
The rest of the house is reminiscent of a young boy's bedroom: model fighter planes and elaborately rigged ships stand on the shelves. There are guns everywhere—not plastic toys, but expensive weapons, including Mike Hammer's legendary .45-caliber Colt 1911A1 automatic. There are mounted fish, seashells, an ancient bayonet, a flare pistol dating from World War I, a brace of crossed swords.
Clad in his customary black T-shirt and white shorts ("Sometimes he doesn't change them for a whole week," sniffs daughter Kathy), he writes "a chapter a day when the mood is on me," using one or another of three separate offices in his sprawling white bungalow. He types his manuscripts on yellow paper, single-spaced to approximate what a final printed page will look like. The spacing leaves no room for corrective afterthoughts. "I don't rewrite a word," he boasts. "I'm no bleeder. Agonizing is for authors, not writers. Writing is like show business—the second word is the important one. The first word brings you fame, but the second brings you fortune."
Spillane doesn't abide editorial tampering with his words. Once, when an editor at Dutton (his hardcover publisher) changed a few words in the manuscript of I, the Jury, he told the man that not a single word could be changed without destroying the story. To prove it, he promised to leave a word out of one of his books and let the editor decide for himself. At the end of Jury, Mike Hammer had shot the woman he loved when she proved to be the murderer of an old Army buddy whom he had sworn to avenge. At the outset of his third book, Vengeance Is Mine, Hammer swears never to kill another woman. Yet sure enough, he falls in love with another knockout blonde, named Juno. The affair remains unconsummated, and in the end Juno turns out to be the baddie. After a torrid, last-page strip scene, Hammer kills again despite his vow. The last line is his rationale—and his trick on the errant editor. As it read in manuscript: "Juno was a..."
"A what?" the editor screamed with hooked-reader impatience. "Juno was a what?" Of course, the famous last line reads: "Juno was a man."
Frank Morrison Spillane ("I don't hardly recognize the name anymore") was born in Brooklyn on either March 8 or March 9,1918. "When I arrived," he chortles, "my mother yelled out to my pop, 'Jack, Jack—look at the clock.' It was a couple of minutes after midnight, but I'd been born a couple of minutes earlier. The Mystery Baby. Nobody will ever know." His father, John Joseph Spillane, removed the family (Mickey was an only child) soon after to Elizabeth, N.J., where he worked in the hardware business and later with Merck chemicals. Mickey was always an avid reader (he had finished the works of Alexandre Dumas by the time he was 13) and a pugnacious jock. At Elizabeth's Jefferson High School he was a quarterback and halfback on the football team and a freestyler in swimming. Then, at the end of his junior year, the family moved back to Brooklyn, where his father opened a bar. "I hated the move," Mickey recalls. "All my roots were in Jersey, and I couldn't stand the city." Perhaps that is why, in the dark hallucinogenic world of his thrillers, New York looms as the blackest of villains: a city in decay, both physical and spiritual.
The writer in Spillane burst loose while he was in high school. A comicbook nut, he sent his first script—a Blue Bolt story—to an agency called Funnies Inc. when he was 17. It was accepted and a career was born. "Over the years I wrote for most of the top comic-book heroes," he recalls, "but Blue Bolt was always my favorite. You got paid by the page—12 bucks—and each story, action and balloons, ran about 12 pages. Hardly a fortune, even in those late Depression days, but a whole lot more than pin money."
After graduating from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School, Spillane enrolled at Fort Hays Kansas State College, where he captained the swim team, played football and joined Kappa Sigma Kappa fraternity. He had planned to study law, but now he escalated from comics to the pulp magazines and a higher word rate. Then came Pearl Harbor, and all thoughts of a legal career went aglimmering. Mickey became an aviation cadet, won his wings and gold bars, and proved so adept a fighter pilot that he was assigned as an instructor for the duration of the war at Greenwood, Miss. "I wanted with all my heart to fly in combat," he says today, "but it never happened—no matter what you read in the press releases." His favorite plane was the P-51 Mustang, and to this day his aircraft's wing number, 819, appears on both his skipper's hat and his fishing boat.
As the war wound down, Mickey met Mary Ann Pearce, a secretary at the base, and married her in 1945. After V-J Day and mustering out, the newlyweds moved to Newburgh, N.Y., where Mickey went back to comicbook writing. "Sometimes I wrote two or three scripts a day," he says, "but still it wasn't enough. We wanted to build a house by ourselves, and we were living in a tent all that first summer and fall. I needed $1,000 for the house, so I set out to write a private-eye novel." The book, written in 1946 and published in '47, was I, the Jury. The paperback edition alone has sold eight million copies. Yet the house in Newburgh remains unfinished. "I'm still working on it," he says with a laugh.
The children came along after the first success, and Spillane kept pounding out an anvil chorus of Mike Hammers—six of them in five years, all big sellers. The last of the early, "classic" Hammers, Kiss Me, Deadly, appeared in 1952. That was the year Mickey became a Jehovah's Witness. How did that happen? "Like anybody else," he says, very serious now. "Somebody knocked on my door. I don't want to talk about my religion, and when people start bugging me about it—talk-show hosts, reporters, anyone—I just tell them that if they keep it up, I'll walk away. And I do. It's a private thing with me, a good thing."
Some students of the thriller genre suggest that the conversion turned off Spillane's tap as a writer. They point to the fact that his next full-length novel (The Deep) didn't appear until 1961. Spillane denies he was blocked. "I was writing all the time," he says. "Short stories mainly. I was also getting into other things."
Such as movies, the circus and scuba diving for Spanish treasure off Plantation Key in Florida. He donned tank and regulator for the first time in 1950, diving on such wrecks as the San Pedro, San Francisco and El Capitán, and did not give up the sport until two years ago, when he was past 60. During the '50s he also spent several summers traveling with the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus, actually performing on the trampoline and blotting up the circus atmosphere. While acting in the 1954 film Ring of Fear—one of many film appearances—he also met lion tamer Clyde Beatty and learned to love the big cats.
During the so-called fallow period of the '50s he also dabbled in stock-car racing ("short-track stuff in modifieds up in Newburgh"), shark hunting and skydiving—anything dangerous and adventurous to hype his image. Then in 1962 he and Mary Ann divorced. He resumed writing with greater vigor, creating new characters (Tiger Mann, Dog Kelly, et al.) and finding that his audience was still there.
In the mid-1960s, Mickey met a young blond model who later posed nude for the cover of his sexploitive The Erection Set. He and Sherri Malinou were married, but the 24-year difference in their ages took its toll. By 1976 they were on the verge of divorce, but instead arranged a modus vivendi that persists to this day. Sherri spends most of her time pursuing her career in New York and California. Mickey writes and fishes in Murrells Inlet. "When we get together, it's great for a little while," he says a bit mournfully. "But we get on one another's nerves in the end. Women are like cats clinging upside down on a ceiling, with their claws like this..." He hooks his big fingers and hisses. "The trouble is, they try to change you. If you don't change, you're a male chauvinist son of a bitch. If you do, you're a softy." He shakes his head sadly. "I don't need that anymore. But still, I love her."
Then he perks up, cocking an eyebrow, and the Joisey tough guy is there again. "I got a mistress, you know," he confides, winking broadly. "Her name is Smith-Corona."
A writer to the end.