Saturday, 2:15 PM
Obituary: Gregory Mcdonald, author of 'Fletch' mystery novels
By David Mehegan, Globe Staff
Gregory Mcdonald, author of the best-selling "Fletch" mystery novels that became hit movies, died Sunday of prostate cancer in Pulaski, Tenn. He was 71.
Mcdonald, a former Boston Globe reporter, epitomized the familiar figure of the newspaperman who longs to write fiction. Unlike most reporters, though, he did something about it.
"On April 20, 1973, I sat down and wrote my letter of resignation,'' he told the Associated Press in 1984. "I had been working for the morning, evening, and Sunday editions, and it was impossible for me to write fiction. I was 36 years old, with a family to support. I had $14,000 in the bank but no other assets. I quit cold turkey."
It proved to be a good move. With 26 books and millions of copies in print, four of them made into successful films, Mcdonald transformed himself into the literary writer he wanted to be. It wasn't the first or last time he tackled something completely new.
"He was a Renaissance man," said his stepson, Jason Johnson. "He wasn't afraid to try anything."
Mcdonald's best-known book was "Fletch," about I. M. Fletcher, a California reporter with a crime-solving talent. The protagonist was played by Chevy Chase in the 1985 hit movie.
The other movies adapted from Mcdonald's novels were "Running Scared" (1972), "Fletch Lives" (1988), and "The Brave" (1997), starring Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp. A new movie based on "Fletch Won" is in progress (the lead role has not been cast, though Chase will have a cameo), produced by Harvey Weinstein. Seventeen of his novels were mysteries.
Born in Shrewsbury, Mass., Gregory Mcdonald wrote in a 1968 autobiographical sketch for the Globe that he earned his Harvard tuition as a professional yacht captain, and continued skippering sailboats in seas around Europe, Africa, and North and South America after graduation in 1958.
"In all, I skippered sailing vessels about 30,000 miles," he wrote, "inadvertently broke a historic time-weight-distance record between Puerto Pollensa, Spain, and Isle of Levant, France, and have been accredited by a generous paper in Colon, Panama, with having saved either 16 or 18 lives at sea."
Later he worked as a marine insurance underwriter, then as a volunteer trainer with the Peace Corps, based in Puerto Rico.
He taught Spanish, math, and history at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, and in 1964 published his first novel, "Running Scared."
In 1966, he was hired as a reporter by Globe editor Thomas Winship, even though he had no journalism experience. He wrote on his website (www.gregorymcdonald.com) that Winship told him, "Go have fun and write about it. If you end up cut and bleeding on the sidewalk, call the City Desk."
Over seven years at the Globe, he wrote for the Sunday magazine and the editorial page, worked as critic-at-large and as an editor for the arts section. His interview subjects included Joan Baez, Abbie Hoffman, John Wayne, Andy Warhol, and Jack Kerouac, and many pieces were published in a collection, just back in print, titled "Souvenirs of a Blown World." Several contemporaries, now retired, remember him as a respected writer who little resembled his tough-guy character, "Fletch."
Two years after Mcdonald left the paper, in 1975, "Fletch" was published and won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for a first mystery novel. It and its 10 sequels have sold tens of millions of books in dozens of languages.
"It's one of the few comic mystery books that translates into other languages," said David List, Mcdonald's manager. "The character of Fletch has a sardonic manner, a disdain for those in authority. Greg said Fletch never solved a crime; he solved a criminal."
He wrote two other mystery series, the Flynn and Skylar books. His novel, "The Brave," won France's Trophees 813 Best Foreign Novel for 1997. In his 45th Harvard anniversary report, Mcdonald wrote, "My favorite literary award was in 1992, when subscribers to the Moscow Literary Review voted me 'Best Foreign Author -- Not Yet Dead.' "
"He tended to see things a little differently from other people, without ever judging whether others were right or wrong,'' List said. "I always felt he had this air of aristocracy about him. He would use terms like, 'Very well, press on relentlessly, old man.' "
Shy of celebrity, Mcdonald reinvented himself again in 1986, moving to rural Giles County, Tenn., where he bought a 200-acre antebellum cattle farm and became active in local affairs.
"He loved the farm, loved animals," List said. He was co-founder of Giles County United, a community organization that led efforts to oppose the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.
In addition to his stepson, he leaves his wife, Cheryle Mcdonald, and five children At Mcdonald's wish, there will be no funeral.