The idea was so brilliant, I could barely resist patting myself on the back. It was the Fall of ’75, and I was a 24-year-old graduate student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio working toward my Master’s degree in Popular Culture. My epiphany: the subject of my thesis would be the legendary mystery author Mickey Spillane, who was riding a wave of renewed fame as the television spokesperson for Miller Lite beer. My plan was to write a critical essay about his early bestsellers, which had dominated paperback book bestseller lists throughout the Fifties, and then also conduct a phone interview with the hard-boiled icon himself.
My graduate committee approved the idea, so now it was up to me to see if Spillane would be agreeable. In this pre-Google age, that wasn’t such a simple process. I learned that he lived in the hamlet of Murrells Inlet in South Carolina, and, having no phone number, wrote him an impassioned fan letter requesting a phone interview. I simply addressed it to him in Murrells Inlet, SC, and hoped for the best.
To my surprise, a week later I got a call from Spillane, who suggested I visit him in Murrells Inlet to do the interview in person. I gleefully accepted his kind offer, and made arrangements to fly there early in ’76. I bought a cheap tape recorder and a stack of Memorex tapes. Mickey, as I thought of him, said he would make a reservation for me at a local motel.
I had never booked a plane flight before. I called a travel agent and secured a flight to South Carolina. Only, being the idiot I was, I apparently didn’t explain that I wanted to end up in Murrells Inlet. So instead of flying into the nearby Myrtle Beach airport, I ended up in Charleston, about ninety miles away. Flummoxed, I phoned Mickey to ask him what I ought to do. “Get a rental car and drive north on 17,” was his gruff reply. So I did.
When I finally arrived in Murrells Inlet, it was too late to begin any formal interview. Mickey told me to show up at his house at 7:30 am sharp. “Don’t eat anything; I’ll feed you,” was his sign-off.
When I appeared at the door of his rambling beach house the next morning, Mickey greeted me warmly, sporting a reindeer sweater and jeans, his silver crew cut positively gleaming. He was 57 then and looked to be in great shape, with shoulders that were twice the breadth of mine. “Help yourself, kid,” he said, pointing at a mammoth corned beef sitting on the kitchen counter. A foot-long carving knife had already done some damage. “I’ll get the eggs going.”
As we moved to the table to eat, Mickey nodded in the direction of the fridge. “Grab us a couple beers.” I opened the door to behold about 25 Pabst Blue Ribbon tall necks. There was not a Miller Lite in sight, but I made no comment.
We yakked while eating our he-man breakfast, then moved into the living room to begin the interview. He sat directly under an oil painting that I immediately recognized as the original artwork for the cover of his Signet paperback for One Lonely Night. It was my favorite of his original canon: Mike Hammer versus Commie thugs who were trying to take over the country. (Sadly, the painting was lost in the course of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.) I pressed the Record button and we were off to the races—but not before Mickey had refreshed our beers. As I posed question after question about his media stardom in the Fifties (Life Magazine profiled him as “Death’s Fair-Haired Boy”), the disdain of critics who considered him both a hack and a menace to society, and his semi-exile from writing after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 1952, the PBRs kept flowing. Spillane handled each question with aplomb and good humor, once stopping to recite several verses of an obscene version of Gunga Din, which made me break into hysterical laughter. (Giggles preserved forever by Memorex.)
At the stroke of noon, Mickey announced that it was time to make a field trip to the package store to secure a bottle of Seagrams 7. I was already feeling tipsy, not used to drinking four beers before lunch, but I happily rode shotgun. Back at the house, Mickey mixed us each a Seven & 7—the whiskey being combined with 7-Up—and we continued the interview.
Soon I was too impaired to remember to change the full cassette tapes, and so a couple hours of prime Spillane storytelling simply floated off into the ether. At some point Mickey himself instructed me to put in a fresh tape—thank goodness, else I might have returned to Ohio with six blank tapes. Even so, I wonder to this day what Spillane revelations I might have squandered in my Seven & 7 induced haze.
Eventually the evening came to an end, and Mickey mercifully led the way back to the motel to ensure that I didn’t drive my rental into the bay. He even showed up early the next morning to make certain I got on the road in time to drive the 90-odd miles back to the Charleston airport. His farewell: “Good luck with that thesis, kid! And keep in touch!”
But that would be the last time I ever saw Mickey. A follow-up phone call I made to him after my return posed a question that rubbed him the wrong way, and that was that. I’ve only revisited that regrettable call about 800 times since that day in 1976.
But thanks to Mickey’s generosity I did receive my Master’s degree several months later. And not a year has gone by since that visit that I don’t see him popping the tops of two PBRs, a twinkle in his penetrating eyes, handing the cold bottle to me with a gruff “Here you go, kid.”
Those were probably the best-tasting beers I ever drank.
MICKEY SPILLANE passed away at the age of 88 in 2006, survived by his wife Jane. His books have sold over 200 million copies worldwide, and several unfinished manuscripts have been completed for publication by Max Allan Collins, his longtime friend and now literary executor.