Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Ross MacDonald and some of the origin story

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I found this article in CrimeReads quite interesting. Sarah Weinman writes:

One: The Accident

Three boys, best friends, went to dinner at the Santa Barbara Armory on the night of February 23, 1956. Ernest Dal Zuffo, Michael Perona, and Patrick Sheehan (not his real name) lived near one another and had known each other their whole lives. Ernest’s family, close-knit and Italian, owned a grocery store in town. His father, also Ernest—everyone called the boy Junior—and mother, Gia, were particularly protective of him and his younger brother. Mike’s family was also Italian, while Patrick was of Irish-American stock.

The event celebrated the end of a basketball tournament at which their school, Our Lady of Guadaloupe, had been the victor. When it was over, the three eighth-graders took sacks of popcorn and began the walk home.

It was dark. The streets were poorly lit. The road was still slick from the earlier evening rain. There were no sidewalks on Alisos Street, something residents had complained about for years. The boys ate the popcorn as they walked, venturing into the street because the muddy shoulder would ruin their shoes.

They didn’t hear or see the green Ford Tudor coming up behind them.

Junior and Mike were hit. Their bodies catapulted in the air, thrown seventy feet before landing. Junior was slammed, literally, out of his shoes. The Ford screeched its brakes and fled, but not before hitting a concrete wall. It left behind vicious, angry skid marks. Patrick, who’d only been grazed, ran for help.

The two boys were rushed to Cottage Hospital. Ernest dal Zuffo was dead on arrival. Michael Perona had a concussion and a fractured leg, and would stay in the hospital for weeks, remembering next to nothing about the whole ordeal, piecing information only from newspaper clippings and what his mother told him.

The green Ford Tudor kept on its mad, inebriated journey. A few miles away, at the intersection of Cota and Laguna, the car rear-ended a Buick, stopped with its parking lights on. The car, and its driver, spun more than sixty feet. The Tudor rolled left, then onto the roof, before resting on its right side.

A different boy witnessed what happened and ran into Mom’s Italian Village restaurant, shouting of an accident. A man, in the middle of a dinner for the city’s Safety Council, ran out. He found a sixteen-year-old girl sitting on a curb. Weeping and screaming and impossible to console.

Still, the man tried. He said car accidents could have happened to anyone.

“Yes,” said Linda Millar, “but God damn, what will I tell my parents?”

***

When the accident that killed Ernest dal Zuffo and injured Michael Perona happened in February 1956, Linda’s parents, Kenneth and Margaret Millar, were at professional inflection points. Margaret’s crime writing career began first, with the 1941 publication of The Invisible Worm, and found critical and financial success with the psychological thrillers The Iron Gates and Wall of Eyes. She’d most recently published Beast In View, a classic suspense chiller of madness and mendacity that would best Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mister Ripley for the Best Novel Edgar Award later that year.

As Maggie’s fortunes rose fast, Ken’s had taken longer to achieve liftoff. He’d been a frustrated novelist, before then a frustrated academic, teaching and toiling and reaping the benefits of his wife’s achievements. He published two non-crime novels under his real name and then the first Lew Archer detective novel, The Moving Target, in 1949, as John Macdonald. Subsequent Archers bore the name of “John Ross Macdonald” before a different crime writer, John D. got irritated at the confusion.

From then on it was just Ross. Dropping “John” also meant dropping the need to imitate hardboiled giants Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Ross Macdonald found his voice. From then on, his private eye novels focused more on family secrets, and the ensuing, multi-generational psychological damage, than on classic detective work. As Ross, Kenneth Millar would eclipse his wife by several orders of magnitude, endorsed by literary writers like Eudora Welty, emblazoned on the front page of Time and the New York Times Book Review, and given the multi-volume treatment by the Library of America.

But that was in the future. A future that owed in no small part to the troubles of their daughter, Linda Jane, born June 18, 1939, a year after the marriage of Kenneth Millar to Margaret Sturm in their native Kitchener, Ontario. Maggie had been bedridden for much of the pregnancy—a “heart ailment” of some kind—and the first months after birth. The official word was migraine. The more probable reason was a mixture of mounting debt and post-partum depression (Maggie had once been diagnosed with a “mild schizophrenic episode” and had, before her marriage, attempted suicide.)

Maggie had all these ideas about how to bring up a child. Namely, to withhold affection, ignore the girl’s need for love, to focus her attention on writing and on her husband. An exclusive love like hers for Ken simply didn’t have ample room for a third wheel. Unless that wheel could be mined creatively, as Linda discovered, to her detriment, when she started reading her mother’s books at a tender age.

For Ken, it was complicated, at times shameful, because life with Maggie was complicated and shameful. (It’s worth noting that he pronounced his last name as “Miller” and she went by “Mill-AR.”) Theirs was not a placid union. They shouted. They shoved and slapped one another. They competed for who had the worse temper of the two. Maggie once dropped a typewriter from a second-story window. Ken once threw one of Linda’s rubber dolls at his wife, and when the detachable head broke off, she accused him of deliberately breaking the toy. He hit her and cut her eye. Linda witnessed the whole thing.

As Tom Nolan wrote in his 1999 Ross Macdonald biography: “Millar sometimes shook or slapped Linda, in misplaced anger at her mother. Linda was the prize her parents fought for. The family was deranged somehow, and all three knew it.” Such a hothouse of anger, emotional neglect, competitive spirit, and manipulation could only end badly.

Most of all, for Linda, born and raised in the spotlight of two well-known authors, and whose existence was always eclipsed by them. Through details in Nolan’s biography, newspaper accounts, court records, and interviews—some of whom had never spoken to a reporter before—Linda’s story can finally stand on its own.

***

Sitting on the curb, the green Ford Tudor dented and damaged, Linda Millar continued to cry about what she would tell her parents. Another teenage boy had fetched a blanket from his house and draped it around Linda’s shoulders. She would not be calmed. Linda tried to get free, saying she would kill herself.

The boy put his arms around her and held her. Her sobs filled the air as the police arrived. The boy stayed with Linda in the patrol car, on its way to Cottage Hospital. He restrained her when she tried, unsuccessfully, to jump out of the car.

At the hospital, the same surgeon who had declared Ernest dal Zuffo dead examined Linda Millar. He gave her a dose of Luminal to calm her down. “It was all my fault,” Linda kept saying.

“What was?”

“The car,” she said. “It’s all smashed.”

But you’re lucky to be alive, said the doctor.

That didn’t register. Linda repeated that it was all her fault. That she was bringing shame upon her family. She’d already caused her parents so much trouble this month alone.

They’d gone on an out-of-state ski vacation and Linda, who’d never skied, melted down on the first try. Riding the chair lift caused her to freak out. Her father had slapped her on the last night of the vacation, when she’d gone out in the evening and returned wearing a coat that wasn’t her own. She responded by crying and running out, barefoot, into the snow.

On the long drive home, Linda’s mother let her take the wheel. She promptly headed in the direct path of a dust storm. They stopped off at Disneyland—still new in early 1956—where Linda terrified her father by going twice on Mister Toad’s Wild Ride, which emphasized driving recklessly. (He would later write witheringly of Disneyland’s “organized childishness and emptiness.”)

The last straw of the awful vacation happened in Long Beach, where they stayed overnight with relatives. Linda and a boy cousin around the same age went out for Cokes. They didn’t return home until 1 AM. Linda’s father had gone out searching for the pair. When she arrived back, he scolded her for her “indiscreet and dangerous behavior.” It’s not known if Linda’s father gave the same lecture to the cousin.

When the Millars returned to Santa Barbara, Linda’s father insisted to his friends that the vacation was a success. This was the kind of thing he did. Better to keep up appearances than let on how stressful it was to coexist with his wife and his daughter. Better to appear overprotective rather than alert people to his sense of hopelessness. Linda didn’t know what to do. She knew things weren’t working. She craved her parents’ attention and was livid at their inability to see how much trouble she was in.

Her father bragged that Linda never lied to him, but he had little clue of her smoking, her drinking, her sneaking off for secret sex with inappropriate boys, her crushing loneliness. He despaired of her long fingernails, short hair, and cheap makeup, failing to see that these appearance shifts, these premature vaultings into adulthood in look and in action, were a way for Linda to mask her own mounting despair.

It was easier to pretend they were a happy family. Linda was so smart, and kept up good grades at Santa Barbara High along with all the extracurriculars. But her need for love from those who withheld it was too consuming. She tried hard to make friends, only to be rebuffed, dismissed as too odd. Better to drink to escape, to forget. Better to discard thoughts of a terrible future, or any future at all.

Better to obliterate herself, and the car she drove, the green Ford Tudor that was her sixteenth-birthday present.

But she wasn’t obliterated. Linda Millar was still here. What would she tell her parents?

Two: The Court Case

At 9 PM, Linda was released into the care of her father and her aunt. . . .

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more (Part 2 and Part 3). If you want to get started on Lew Archer (and Ross MacDonald really is quite good), begin with the first book in the series, The Moving Target.

Written by Leisureguy

28 November 2020 at 8:09 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

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