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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR | Books

Macdonald's Paper Trail Leads to Irvine Archives

March 27, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Tom Nolan began researching his biography of author Ross Macdonald a decade ago, he made a happy discovery: The renowned Santa Barbara mystery writer had been a lifelong pack rat.

Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, died in 1983 at age 67. In the process of earning a reputation as the most highly regarded crime fiction writer of his time, Macdonald had squirreled away thousands of letters, plot notebooks, preliminary drafts of novels--virtually "every scrap of paper that had any writing on it," Nolan said.

It was a biographer's dream stash. But, as Nolan discovered, the research treasure-trove wasn't stored in Santa Barbara, Macdonald's hometown for nearly four decades and the model for the fictional Santa Teresa in his series of 18 Lew Archer detective novels.

Instead, Macdonald's paper trail led his biographer 140 miles south, to Irvine.

Since 1966, the UC Irvine Library's special collections and university archives has housed the Kenneth and Margaret Millar Collection. (Margaret Millar, an accomplished mystery writer herself, died in 1994.)

"It was invaluable," Nolan, 52, said of the collection, which even includes Macdonald's report cards with teacher comments and postcards his father wrote to his mother before they were married.

Nolan's "Ross Macdonald: A Biography" (1999, Scribner, $32), the first full-length biography of the novelist, was published last spring; the Mystery Writers of America recently nominated it for an Edgar Award in the best critical/biographical category.

Nolan, a Glendale freelance writer who reviews crime fiction for the Wall Street Journal, will discuss his research methods and Macdonald's life and work at Beth Caswell's mystery class, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Mary Wilson Library, 707 Electric Ave., Seal Beach. Admission is $6. (562) 431-2527.

The discussion is part of a series of mystery classes conducted by Caswell through the city's Department of Parks and Recreation.

How UCI came to house the Santa Barbara author's papers is no mystery: Macdonald donated the material to UCI at the request of John E. Smith, the founding university librarian. Smith, former Santa Barbara city librarian in the 1950s, had been a good friend of Macdonald's.

Off and on between 1990 and 1994, Nolan holed up in the special collections reading room where he spent hundreds of hours examining every piece of the vast Millar collection.

Nolan said he was "helped enormously" by Roger Berry, then head of Special Collections and University Archives. "He retired during the course of my research, but he was nice enough to come in once a week after his retirement to help me."

Nolan, who would drive down to the library as often as three times a week, was in his third year of research when he made a startling discovery.

"One day," he recalled, "Roger said, 'You've seen the correspondence and all these other things, do you want to look at the plot notebooks now?' "

Berry then wheeled out a cart bearing several cartons containing dozens of lined, spiral-bound notebooks on which Macdonald had written the plot outlines for his novels from the mid-1940s through the '70s.

As Nolan sorted through the dated and undated notebooks, he came across one entitled "Notes of a Son and Father."

"It looked the same as all the others," he recalled, "but when I started reading it, it was obviously different."

Although written in the third person, Nolan said, the notebook was an autobiographical document in which Macdonald discussed his childhood living with a succession of relatives after his father deserted the family, a series of homosexual encounters he had as an adolescent, his early married life and his failures as a father--personal matters that the extremely private author had never publicly discussed.

"I was stunned," Nolan said of his find. "[Macdonald] had spent a lot of his life keeping secrets. And although he had hinted very obliquely at certain things in his past and adolescence in certain essays he had written, he had never gone into any sort of detail about those things."

Nolan surmises that Macdonald wrote the notebook in the immediate aftermath of his 16-year-old daughter Linda's hit-and-run accident in 1956: Her car struck two boys on a dark street with no sidewalks and one of the boys died. The tragedy so traumatized the girl, Nolan said, that she attempted suicide and was institutionalized.

"[Macdonald] stayed awake sort of on suicide watch through the nights and that's when he wrote this long, probing autobiographical piece where he is trying to understand what had happened to his daughter and how they had come to this dreadful pass," Nolan said.

These autobiographical writings, he said, "were essential to my understanding and knowledge of his early life and his psychological makeup through the middle 1950s."

The Kenneth and Margaret Millar Collection, which has grown incrementally over the years through a combination of donations and purchases, now covers 50 feet of shelf space.

"We continue to buy things when they show up and occasionally we still get things donated," said Jackie Dooley, head of Special Collections and University Archives.

To view the collection, a request must be made in writing to the trustee of the Margaret Millar Charitable Remainder Trust. Dooley said she receives two or three requests a year to examine the material.

"An archive like this doesn't get tons of use like your normal piece of fiction being checked out of the library," she said, "but both of the Millars' collections have had very remarkable use by a combination of biographers, scholars and students over the years.

"It's a standard literary archive, but a very rich one."

*

Dennis McLellan can be reached at (714) 966-5986 or by e-mail at dennis.mclellan@latimes.com.

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