I’m working on a historical crime novel, set in La Jolla, CA in the nineteen-fifties. In the course of my research I’ve been able to interview some folks who lived here at that time. Here’s a profile of one of them, Dr. Herb McCoy, who turned 100 years old in December 2020.
Herb McCoy first visited La Jolla, California in 1940. His Dartmouth roommate, Francis Fowler III, heir to the Southern Comfort fortune, invited McCoy to join him at the family’s vacation home during summer break. A native New Yorker, Herb was thrilled by the opportunities for physical activity, the sunshine and beaches.
There were other highlights that summer as well. He entered and won the annual La Jolla Rough Water Swim. Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Pat O’Brien presented him with his medal and Pathe News filmed the ceremony. Back in New York, his mother exclaimed in surprise, “That’s my Herbie!” when he appeared onscreen in her local theater’s weekly newsreel. Herb dated a dancer that summer, one of “The Dancing Cansinos” performing at the Hotel Coronado. The young woman also acted in movies and would soon be a huge star, better known as Rita Hayworth.
By the end of that summer, Herb McCoy vowed he’d come back to live in La Jolla one day.
But first there was college and medical school, marriage and kids. Now Dr McCoy, he worked on a surgical team at Cornell that performed the first live catheterization. A plushy Park Avenue practice beckoned, but New York was cold, dirty and noisy. He couldn’t stop thinking about California. When his first daughter, an apartment baby, rebelled at having to sit outdoors on a grassy lawn, he decided La Jolla would be good for the family too. In 1950 he joined doctors Dieffenbach and Hellman as a junior partner in their La Jolla office. Later he became chief of medicine at the new Scripps Hospital.
Over the years, Dr McCoy’s patient list included any number of prominent locals and quite a few celebrated visitors. In the early years of the La Jolla Playhouse, he was the organization’s on-call doctor, taking care of Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Jose Ferrer. He became friends with Delmar Davies, escorted Eartha Kitt to opening-night parties and taught Cornell Wilde how to surf.
Surfing became one of Herb’s passions. The doctor with the surfboard sticking up out of his white T-bird convertible became a well-known fixture at local surf spots. Legendary surfer Butch van Artesdale showed up at Herb’s office one day, his head gashed and bleeding from an accident at Windansea Beach down the street. Herb sewed him up and Butch headed right back to the water. On a business trip to Hawaii, Herb met and surfed Waikiki Beach with Duke Kahanamoku (a friend in La Jolla had provided a letter of introduction).
I asked Dr McCoy about some of the well-known writers who lived in La Jolla during the 1950s and 60s, several of whom appear in my novel. He said he’d met Raymond Chandler at a cocktail party once, but felt intimidated by Chandler’s literary reputation and prickly personality.
Another writer featured in my novel is Max Miller of I Cover the Waterfront fame. Miller lived in La Jolla from the 1940s until his death in 1967 and wrote several books about the area. He was a regular participant in the Rough Water Swim in which he proudly and loudly finished in last place every year. Dr McCoy recalled his own fascination with Miller’s practice of covering himself in grease before the swim to protect himself from the cold water.
Helen Geisel, Dr. Seuss’s first wife and collaborator, was one of Dr. McCoy’s patients (as was her husband, on occasion). She worried about her husband’s smoking, but also laughed when confiding to her doctor that her famous husband got nervous around children.
But my favorite story was about Emperor Hirohito’s visit to Scripps Oceanographic Institute in 1975. Unaware of the security precautions in place, Dr McCoy went for his regular morning run along Scripps Beach. He carried a rock in each hand for additional weight training. As he approached the pier that morning, he wondered why the beach seemed so deserted. He got his answer when a helicopter swooped in over head and FBI men confronted him with their guns drawn. Hirohito and his entourage had just started to walk out on the pier when an FBI spotter reported a man headed toward them armed with two hand grenades. Dr McCoy was detained momentarily by the authorities, but his misadventure was memorialized in the next day’s newspaper and in family lore forever.
He’s in great shape for his years, which he credits to a lifetime of regular exercise–surfing, swimming, tennis, running and scuba diving–and to his second wife, Lani. He’s lived in the same house above the Shores neighborhood since the 1960s. Sundays are family Zoom sessions with his kids (seven of them) and their families. Altogether a remarkable story about a kid from New York whose summer vacation 81 years ago changed his whole life.
Book awards season is here. Time to celebrate! I’m happy to report that it’s been a good one for me, with Ballast Point Breakdown taking some honors.
First up, BFB was selected as a first place winner in the 2020 CLUE Awards for Suspense and Thriller fiction.
Secondly, BFB was honored with two awards in the 2021 San Diego Book Awards. First, it was named best Published Mystery/Suspense Fiction. And it was also named SDBA’s 2021 Geisel Winner, which is their “best in show” overall award.
If you’ve been reading this blog or my newsletter, you’ll know I’m working on a historical novel that includes Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel as a character. You’ll also know that I have some family connections to his work. So it feels especially gratifying to have one of my books honored with an award in his name. Some kind of full circle thing, I guess.
At any rate, it’s always nice to get some recognition for your work. Now back to finishing the next book.
Copies of the newly published I Can Read It All By Myself: The Beginner Books Story by Paul V. Allen arrived at my house last week. It’s a highly readable and extensively-researched history of Random House’s Beginner Books, one of the most innovative and successful children’s book imprints ever created. Founded in 1957 by Ted and Helen Geisel (Dr. and Mrs. Seuss) along with publisher Phyllis Cerf, it created a whole new type of books for children aged 3 to 9. Some of its best-known titles include Cat in the Hat, Sam and the Firefly, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, Go Dog Go and The Berenstain Bears. You probably read some of these titles when you were a kid, or had your own kids read them, maybe both.
So why am I, former rocker and crime fiction writer, extolling the virtues of this scholarly history of children’s literature? Well, first off it’s a top notch piece of work, but also because I was able to make a small contribution to the research. My father, Lynn G Fayman, provided photographic illustrations for three books in the series. Mr. Allen discovered my post about my dad’s photographic work and contacted me for an interview. I was happy to share what I remembered about the books and the people involved in creating them. Paul may be a children’s literary specialist now, but like me he used to play in rock and roll bands, so we got along well. Kudos to him for doing such a great job on this book.
As to the title of this post? Well, The Sunburned Fedora gets quoted on page 175. That represents the first, and probably last time, any post from this blog gets noted in a scholarly publication.
I myself make a brief appearance on page 167. Among the memories I shared was one of the nine-year-old me having a temper tantrum which provided the ending to a book called Do You Know What I’m Going to Do Next Saturday? My first creative effort to make it into print! There’s more to that story, but I’ll save it for a later post.
For the month of June 2021, there’s a discount for anyone who wants to purchase a copy of the book. Use the code PCA2021 to get 30% off at the publisher’s website.
I spent the first fifteen years of my adult life (and several years of my non-adult life) co-leading various rock and roll bands with my brother. In that time, we auditioned quite a few musicians, mostly guitar players. For whatever reason, that was always the biggest revolving door in our lineup. For every guy we hired (they were always guys back then) we probably interviewed and/or auditioned twenty more. We learned to watch for things they might say that would immediately disqualify them. Herewith a personal list, with translations for non-musicians:
Top Ten Things Guitar Players Say That Will End The Audition
10. I graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology.
Translation: You have recently learned how to play a lot of scales very fast but have yet to develop any personal style or sense of taste.
9. I don’t use any effects, ’cause they’re bullshit.
Translation: You’re a techno-purist. You’re also a cheapskate. Okay if you’re Steve Cropper.
8. I play jazz. I shouldn’t have any trouble with your stuff
Translation: You will try to make all our songs into jazz songs. Neither of us will be happy about this.
7. I know a guy who works with name of the biggest band in town
Translation: You met a guy once who knows a guy who used to be a roadie for name of the biggest band in town. Yeah, I’ve met him too.
6. I never worked with a real drummer before
Translation: You have your own unique sense of rhythm that doesn’t involve regular time. Or you’ve only played with a drum machine in which case your rhythm will be so regular our drummer will throw sticks at you.
5. I can’t really play at a lower volume
Translation: You only have one sound/tone and we’re hearing it. You’ve never played an acoustic guitar
4. I can play the Blues. Sure. They’re easy.
Translation: Shows a lack of respect. You’ve learned the notes but not the feeling.
3. I don’t really play rhythm guitar
Translation: We’re not looking for Ritchie Blackmore, unless you’re actually him.
2. I’m looking for a band with a record contract
Translation: And we’re looking for a guitar player without any ego.
1. I wrote a song I think you guys should play
Translation: That’s nice. Let’s see if you can last three months as our guitar-player first
Heard any other good ones? Feel free to add drummers, keyboard players, etc to the list. This is an equal opportunity snark zone.
We’ve been spending some time in Moab, Utah, hiking the red rocks and canyons, floating down the Colorado River and viewing the natural wonders of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Little did I know when we planned this trip that one of its highlights would be a musical tribute to Bob Dylan.
Perusing event listings in the local newspaper I learned there were bluegrass concerts held every week at something called Moab’s Backyard Theatre and that one of the concerts would be a Bob Dylan 80th Birthday celebration. We decided to go. It was free, after all. What did we have to lose? (travel tip–always check the local newspapers, community message boards etc when you visit a new area; there’s treasure there you won’t find in your guidebooks and websites).
Just a block west of Main Street near the Mill Creek Parkway, the venue itself was about as homespun and sincere as you’ll ever encounter. A dirt lot surrounded by a wood fence. Simple painted backdrops, a string of lights above, and a scattered collection of plastic chairs that faced a small stage under a large cottonwood tree. We found some seats and settled in. The band, Quicksand Soup, started to play.
It was transcendent. I can’t explain why, not exactly, but some combination of the band’s skillfulness, the songs they chose to play and the bucolic setting made it wonderful. Because I was ready for wonder again, after a year too full of death and fear and vicious stupidity. By the time somewhere in the middle of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door when the singer pitched his voice into the high lonesome to repeat the last verse it felt like a great illness had started to heal.
And as we walked home, flush with the sense of community and interconnection that live music can bring, I wondered if Bob Dylan himself might have liked this concert as much or more than any of the grander events dedicated to him.
A guitar and a voice. People gather to listen. Words and melody drift across the dry evening air as other voices and timbres chime in. The sun sets. The light changes. The songs linger deep in our bones like essential minerals. They sustain.