Article on Gardner McKay in: The Rake Magazine: July 20, 2018

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ICONSJULY 2018

GARDNER MCKAY: DASHING OVERACHIEVER

Gardner McKay was the antithesis of the fame–hungry ’sleb that contemporary culture knows so well. He spurned heartthrob status for a life of adventure, literary achievement and existential restlessness…

The Rake

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Gardner McKay driving in his Chevrolet convertible as his shaggy dog enjoys the ride, 1959. Photograph by Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

The issue of Life magazine that hit the newsstands on July 6, 1959 bore the image of an almost excruciatingly handsome man, then 27 years old, staring into the middle distance: dash-of-salt, tousled hair; lips puckered rakishly; eyes fixed in a gentle squint towards some unseen object of conquest (a cricketing nemesis’s middle stump, one might assume, given the raised right arm and cream V-neck sweater, were the man in question to hail from the other side of the Atlantic).

A strap at the bottom of the cover referred to this enigmatic Adonis as “actor, athlete, artist”, which now comes across as a rather cursory summary. Had the cover been published in the latter stages of Gardner McKay’s life, the magazine may have needed to accommodate other accomplishments, including sailor, basketball star, diver, fisherman, model, sculptor, theatre critic, photographer, and, improbably enough, agronomist’s assistant.

The cover line at the top of Life’s front page reads, “How about him, girls?”, and the feature inside exclaims: “This is the face that will launch a million sighs and burn its romantic image into the hearts of hordes of American females.” But while the girls would have been reaching for the smelling salts, it’s possible it was the boys in post-war America who felt more curious about the life of such a man. Indeed, when you get to turn down Marilyn Monroe’s personal appeals to become her co-star, and when your memories weave such a rich narrative that they scarcely seem plausible — as was the case with Gardner McCay’s unfinished Journey Without a Map, written as he succumbed to prostate cancer in 2001 at the age of 69 — you can relax in the knowledge that you’ve lived life to the full.

McKay became a household name thanks to his starring role in the television series Adventures in Paradise, based loosely on James Michener’s Pacific Ocean-based yarns, which ran from 1959 to 1962 and in which McKay starred as a skipper of a schooner that plied the South Pacific in search of improbable adventures. In a sane world, that show would be but a furtive, small–print disclosure on his CV. The great-grandson of the shipbuilder Donald McKay, McKay was born George Cadogan Gardner McKay into a wealthy Episcopalian family in New York City, but brought up between there and Paris (between the ages of four and 17 he crossed the Atlantic eight times and stayed in 13 different boarding schools).

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He worked briefly as a sculptor during his studies at Cornell University, and also worked as a movie-critic for the Cornell Daily Sun and the campus magazine The Widow, plus various articles for yacht magazines. Moving back to New York, he took up sculpture (he had one piece displayed in the Museum of Modern Art) while living in modest bliss in Greenwich Village and enhancing his credentials as a polymath by doing extra work as a designer, artist, record covers illustrator and painter.

Then came a brush with the more peculiar extremities of chaos theory. Having been offered a modelling job in Paris in 1956, a series of photographs with the model Suzy Parker, McKay took a ship to Europe that encountered the stricken Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria, which had, in dense fog, been struck by the Swedish cruise liner M.S. Stockholm off the coast of Nantucket. Lesser mortals might have looked on in horror as 51 passengers went to a watery grave: McKay scrambled onto a lifeboat and took photographs of the sinking liner that ended up being published in The New York TimesLife and many other global titles.

It was in far more tranquil circumstances — he was minding his own business, reading poetry in a Hollywood coffee shop — that McKay was spotted by Adventures in Paradise co-producer Dominick Dunne, and invited to take a screen test. He’d already had small roles in feature movies Raintree Country and Holiday for Lovers, but this chance meeting would lead to television colouring the next chapter of his life.

“Gardner was a classy guy — good goods, as they used to say,” was how Dunne described his meeting with the six-foot-five McKay, and their serendipitous encounter (it helped that McKay could sail, having whiled away many a pleasant hour marshalling his own 19-footer sailing boat, China Boy, in the Long Island waters as a teenager) led to him taking the lead role.

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A young McKay in a suit jacket and tie. Image courtesy of Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

It was his matinee-idol looks, rather than thespian prowess, that carried him through the gig: in an early review, one critic mentioned that McKay played his role “in one emotion”. But in his defence, his heart wasn’t in it, and his relationship with celebrity might best be described as unidirectional. Jean Doumanian, his film producer and friend, later said: “He hated the fact he was known for that television series. It was not the professional or private path he wanted to take.”

McKay was just as unequivocal on the matter: “Fame is so cheap that I wanted to go someplace where someone, some stranger, might be able to make up his own mind about me without already having formed an opinion based on drivel that needed to be overcome or ignored,” he wrote in Journey Without a Map. That place turned out to be (after another stint in France, where reruns of Adventures in Paradise had made him a sensation) the Sahara desert, where he rode from the Red Sea to the Atlantic coast with the Egyptian camel corps.

Perhaps creatively galvanised by a prolonged spell in a vast void the size of the U.S., McKay returned to his country of birth and began living by the pen, writing plays including the well-received Sea Marks, and several novels. One of his last, the thriller Toyer, about a twisted playboy who inflicts psychological torture on his victims then sends them into a drug-induced coma, is no beach read, but it became a bestseller. Many of his shorter writings won critical plaudits (his play Sea Marks won a writing gong from the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle).

The lust for rarefied experiences never dimmed, despite crewing on yachts in the Caribbean and hiking through the jungles of the Amazon. Even in the relatively settled period of his life, living in Beverly Hills, serving as drama critic and theatre editor for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and teaching playwriting at U.C.L.A., his yen for the spicier life prevailed. (“Gardner had a passion for lions and cheetahs, and actually had pet cheetahs at his place in Beverly Hills until his neighbours complained,” his friend, the actor Colby Chester, recalled.)

Some light into McKay’s extraordinary psyche is shone by a comment he made to People magazine in 1999. “I never knew what I was searching for,” he said, “only what I was not searching for. My life is defined by what I’ve quit.” While his life narrative offers us only glimpses of what made the man tick, it offers some edifying insights into a bygone era. Here in 2018 — especially if you’ve mistakenly flicked through the latest Freeview offerings in a bored after-dinner moment — the story of a dashing young man who spurned cheap fame for rich adventure and artistic accomplishment makes one feel not only vigorous admiration for that individual but for the values of an era that was culturally more edifying.

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Ten, Bloomsbury Square is now published!

Well, finally!

After ten misprinted proof copies, two months later, CreateSpace finally gave me a print that is publishable! So this afternoon I published Ten, Bloomsbury Square.

The origins of this whimsical tale began in Los Angeles, at our house on Cherokee Lane, in the early 1980’s.

Each week we would host a writers’ group in a space we created and named The Free Theatre. It consisted of a stable of writers who would present a few scenes from their works-in-progress each week. In addition, we attracted a regular group of wonderful actors who gave their time to read the various roles. Afterwards, there always followed a lively discussion, following which the work would be edited for reading the following week.

Bloomsbury began as a play in progress. Our daughter and two of her friends from down the hill were conscripted to read the roles of the children in the play, and they were wonderful.

Much later, in Hawaii, Gardner re-wrote the play in novella format. Later still, it was recorded for his weekly radio show on HPR, Stories on the Wind. The wonderful and talented English actor, Terrence Knapp, joined Gardner in reading the newer, prose version on the air.

Ten Bloomsbury Square is a story well suited for older children and adults who are seeking a bit of respite from this cynical world we live in.

On his way home after a late dinner at his club, 90 year-old Lord Peter Isling slips on a patch of ice and breaks the spell of amnesia that altered his life dramatically nearly eight decades earlier when he flew into the Eiffel Tower during WW1 while trying to find and rescue his beloved Wendy Darling’s younger brother, then a prisoner behind enemy lines. He soon discovers his true identity as Peter Pan, whose persona has lain dormant since that catastrophic event, and sets off on a journey back to Neverland to rescue the Lost Boys, who have been marooned there all this time, along with the dreaded Captain Hook…
 
 
 

This novella is now available on CreateSpace and Amazon. I will also have the Kindle version available next week.

Mahalo nui loa,
Madeleine

Ten, Bloomsbury Square

Aloha all,

Within the next few weeks I will be set to publish a novella by Gardner McKay. The book is titled: Ten, Bloomsbury Square.

The origins of this whimsical tale began in Los Angeles, at our house on Cherokee Lane, in the early 1980’s.

Each week we would host a writers’ group in a space we created and named The Free Theatre. It consisted of a stable of writers who would present a few scenes from their works-in-progress each week. In addition, we attracted a regular group of wonderful actors who gave their time to read the various roles. Afterwards, there always followed a lively discussion, following which the work would be edited for reading the following week.

Bloomsbury began as a play in progress. Our daughter and two of her friends from down the hill were conscripted to read the roles of the children in the play, and they were wonderful.

Much later, in Hawaii, Gardner re-wrote the play in novella format. Later still, it was recorded for his weekly radio show on HPR, Stories on the Wind. The wonderful and talented English actor, Terrence Knapp, joined Gardner in reading the newer, prose version on the air.

Ten Bloomsbury Square is a story well suited for older children and adults who are seeking a bit of respite from this cynical world we live in.

Update for Trompe L’Oeil

Some of you who have not seen me for awhile may wonder why I have not painted for the past few years; well it’s because I have been caught up (actually totally obsessed with) getting Gardner’s final novel Trompe L’Oeil ready to publish. This book has consumed my life for over the past two and a half years. I am so happy to say that the book is now ready for publication. One might ask why it took so long to get to this point, well to begin with, the only files I found in the computer that comprised a manuscript were hard to understand, given that the story was told from the point of view of “The Narrator” a character in the novel. This was problematic and did not make sense. There were no files in the computer of the hardcopy that was used when Gardner recorded the book and read it in chapters for his weekly show on Hawaii Public Radio. The tapes were lost for over a decade and only recently resurfaced. With the aid of the recorded tapes the whole manuscript made sense, because, as suspected, the story was told by the main character, Simon Lister. So using the recorded tapes we were able to justify them against the printed manuscript which resolved the issues at hand.

And so this week I handed over the final formatted PDF of Trompe L’Oeil, Gardner’s last novel, to be submitted to the major publishing houses in New York. The submission of this book would not have been possible without the love and support of those who helped to to bring this book to completion.

Words cannot express how grateful I am to Colby Chester who tirelessly worked with me over the months to edit this manuscript and for his amazing cover photograph. Thanks to Liza McKay Madigan for designing the cover and to Kenna Doeringer for her guidance as I formatted the book.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Dura Curry for her professional expertise, and critical reading of the manuscript.

I extend special thanks to Catherine Lejeune Denisiu, Deborah and Steffen Foster, Richard Fullerton, Robyn Schaefer and Bill Spear who very graciously gave their time to proofread the final manuscript; and to Jeff Ilardi who transferred all the DAT recorded tapes of Trompe L’Oeil, from Stories on the Wind, and put them on CD’s for me.

And I would like to express my eternal gratitude on behalf of Gardner to our wonderful friends who remained supportive and encouraging in my endeavors to publish Gardner’s work.

Pursuit of the “big publisher” grail may seem to be unrealistic, given the fact that the author is dead. They most likely will not want to put the funds required into publishing without the author being available to do the required publicity involved. That being said, I want to be sure that all avenues have been tried in order to get his work out to the widest audience and to do the best by Gardner and this amazing book.

So, here’s the plan…if by September they are not interested in publishing and promoting the book. I will then self-publish Trompe L’Oeil on Amazon, as I have done with the last two books.  All the work is done. The book is formatted, edited and reviewed by proofreaders.

 

Trompe L’Oeil

Aloha friends and fans of Gardner’s work,

I fully expect that by May 2015, I will publish  Gardner’s novel Trompe L’Oeil. I recently uploaded  a brief audio clip and the first chapter of the book.

I hope you are as intrigued as I am by this wonderful book.

Best regards,

Madeleine