Who was the greatest influence in my life? I can only answer my mother. For me, the stars were aligned perfectly when I was born to a successful writer. A preemie, I debuted six weeks early at four pounds two ounces, forcing me to spend time in an incubator at Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis. My mother, Marguerite McClain, a sophisticated Barbara Stanwych look-a-like, visited me every other day, calling the hospital alternate days to ask what I’d gained in fractions of an ounce. Once I’d reached a hefty five pounds, I was released to my glamorous mother and handsome dark-haired father who brought me home to my two-year-old brother Mickey who called me his little hitta.
Soon after the toddler stage, I discovered that all mothers didn’t write stories. They didn’t sit in the attic two hours a day, sweltering in summer and freezing in winter, tapping on the keys of a black standard typewriter.
“I’m going upstairs to write” my mother would announce to my brother and me, and off she’d go, armed with cigarettes, a Coke and a Hershey bar. Mickey and I never touched her stash of goodies, intuitively realizing it was what kept her going.
At the start of her career, my mother wrote for small markets such as Oral Hygiene, a dental magazine, Hi and The Catholic Miss, magazines for parochial school children. Located in a beautiful mansion perched on a hill in historic Groveland Terrace.
On arrival inside, she’d announce herself to one of the staff women scattered around what had once been the living room. After receiving the okay to see editor Harold (Sandy) Sandberg, we’d tackle two flights of stairs up a grand staircase to his office. Ecstatic to have reached the third floor, we would find Sandy holding court behind his huge wooden desk.
“How the hell are you?” he would ask, offer each of us a chilled Coke in a green glass bottle from a tiny refrigerator. Amenities over, my mother would hand him her manuscript. Waiting, I would study his face from where we sat on leather couch facing his desk. After ten minutes or so of silence, he’d speak into his intercom, ordering an assistant to cut a check. Another sale!
By the time my brother and I were in our last years of grade school, my mother had a monthly column for the Miss called “Sally Says” in which she gave advice. But to Mickey and me, the most exciting thing she wrote was a comic strip called “Linda Laing, Airline Stewardess.” Six pages in length, the stories revolved around Linda and her escapades as a stewardess. Sometimes we would even be asked to help with plot ideas.
“Okay,” my mother would ask, corralling us in the living room, “what can Linda do this month?” Being only ten or eleven, I don’t remember coming up with a single idea. But using us as sounding boards most likely helped her create several story lines which often involved jewel thieves disguised as nuns and talkative parrots.
By this time, my mother was cranking out two romance stories a month. Referred to as the pulps because of the paper on which they were printed (versus the slicks i.e. Good Housekeeping and Redbook printed on glossy paper), Confessions helped us maintain a comfortable lifestyle. It also created a reputation for my mother as being one of the country’s top romance writers.
Belonging to the Minneapolis Writer’s Workshop, a group established as a WPA project during the ‘30s, she was in her element. Originally meeting at the humungous granite library on Hennepin Avenue, the group eventually migrated to the 620 Club a few blocks down the street. Comprised of thirty plus writers, they met every Wednesday evening at eight o’clock, regardless of the weather.
Adding to the usual drama of any writing group was the fact that a member could not only get a critique and a sandwich those nights, he could get a drink of alcohol. Considering the fragile ego of most writers, it was a natural recipe for disaster.
Years later after we’d moved to California, my mother would return to Minneapolis regularly. Telegraph length letters from her went something like this.
Went to Workshop last night… Sandy and Edythe had a fight… No longer speaking…
Looking back, I realize I wanted to be a writer from the age of five. It was meant to be. And I would have had it no other way.