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A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald, 1967-1974

February 9, 2010

One of the downsides of people communicating with each other through Twitter, texting and email is that it has all but destroyed the art of letter writing. I have just finished reading A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald, 1967-74, and I had almost forgotten how beautifully crafted and sometimes openly and crudely emotional a letter can be. We are losing this form of writing and it is a shame. Dan Rowan was an American comedian who had a long running night-club act playing straight man to his zany comedy partner Dick Martin. Rowan and Martin performed their act touring nightclubs for around twenty years before they met their greatest success on the hit television show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Rowan was also a huge fan of the work of the crime novelist John D. MacDonald, and through the advice of mutual friend Virginia Caldwell (wife of the famed author Erskine Caldwell), Rowan and MacDonald began a letter correspondence despite the fact that they had never met. Rowan and MacDonald became close friends and the letters cover from 1967 until their friendship suddenly ended in 1974. The correspondence almost exactly covers the years Laugh-In was on the air, and as a consequence, Laugh-In forms the bulk of their conversation.

Laugh-In revolutionised American television comedy in ways not dissimilar to how That Was The Week That Was and Monty Python’s Flying Circus changed British comedy. Laugh-In’s title is derived from the ‘Love-ins’ and ‘Be-ins’ that were culturally important in the 1960s. The immediate style of show was vaudeville, like most musical/variety shows of the time, but it had a improvisational, anarchic and quickfire style that was new. Rowan and Martin were the hosts of the show. Rowan’s exasperated straight man persona is always being undermined by the zany imbelicity of Martin. Neither host pretends to have much control over events on the show as a form of anarchic and comedic mayhem breaks loose, as one sketch follows another with little or no narrative thread. Another novelty was to have big name stars making cameos but then downplay their appearance on show, such as putting John Wayne in a big bunny outfit and then follow it with a completely unrelated sketch.

Rowan and MacDonald’s letters form one of the most fascinating exchanges that has ever been published into the workings of a television show. Although MacDonald was only six years older than Rowan he is definitely the father- figure of the two and frequently gives Rowan advice and ideas for sketches, some of which make their way onto the show. Rowan had never experienced success as big as this before, and he frequently conveys anxiety and nervousness at keeping up the high ratings and quality of a show that very few people thought could last. Laugh-In defied the critics and ran for six series and one hundred and fourty episodes.

Other matters that Rowan and MacDonald discuss in their letters is MacDonald’s phenomenally successful Travis McGee series of novels, Rowan’s failing marriage to Australian model Andrea Van Ballegooygn, the sybaritic lifestyle of Dick Martin, and the Watergate cover-up. Rowan and Martin had a perceived public closeness with Richard Nixon. Nixon had made a well-received guest appearance on Laugh-In during the 1968 Presidential election. The result of the ’68 election was so close that some commentators claimed Nixon’s appearance on Laugh-In just tipped things in his favour. In one letter Rowan describes attending a reception at Nixon’s California home:

Last night Rowan and Martin and their wives, along with Paul Keyes and his wife, were invited to attend President and Mrs. Nixon’s reception at their home in San Clemente, La Casa Pacifica, or as it’s termed among the Republican press, the Western White House. We picked up a pair of choppers in the NBC parking lot, flew to Camp Pendleton, and were driven by Marine sergeants down to the house. He has a beautiful spread there and the party was attended by something like 400 guests. Mostly Republicans, of course, but a substantial number of the Hollywood liberal contingent. Nothing meaningful happened politically, but it was very interesting and I’m happy we went. I was given a pair of cuff links with the Presidential Seal on them, and since I was unable to get 2 pair, I will give you one link and keep one link, since I know how anxious you are to have a Nixon souvenir.

This was Rowan’s little joke. MacDonald was not a Nixon admirer and was constantly ribbing Rowan for being seen as a Nixon man. MacDonald said of Watergate: “It fascinates because it is a morality play and man has never tired of those. Also, it is a detective story.”

The letters end as abruptly as their friendship ended. The reason for this is complicated. Rowan was feeling bitter and miserable as Laugh-In was coming to an end, and he knew his career was on the decline (he worked very seldomly after Laugh-In). Also, he was going through a very expensive divorce to Van Ballegooygn and he appealed to MacDonald for sympathy. Unexpectedly, MacDonald almost completely takes Van Ballegooygn’s side, and the two exchange harsh words. What makes the letters so moving and thrilling to read is that it is possible to see both men’s points- of- view with sympathy. Rowan’s behaviour does sink into immaturity, as he is going through the emotional pain of divorce, but one is left with the feeling that perhaps MacDonald was just a little too harsh in his attempts at tough advice. The two men finally reconciled, ironically in a similar way to how they had met, at the suggestion of a mutual friend. Perhaps as a symbol of this reconciliation, they agreed to publish their letters in a book. The book came out in 1986. Both men wrote a separate introduction to the book. Rowan writes in his introduction:

I don’t know about you, but in a busy, varied and much-traveled life I have not made so many solid and worthwhile friendships that I can afford to lose one. I am happy that we are friends again, John D. and I. It’s not like before. But neither are we. I miss the time we lost. I hold dear the time we had. I look forward to what’s to come. Thank you John.

Alas, neither man had much time left to live. MacDonald died of complications of heart surgery during Christmas 1986. Rowan died of lymphona in 1987. It is a touching epilogue when reading this book to know that the two men reconciled before they died.

Below is an audio recording of a telephone conversation in which Nixon thanks Rowan and Martin for performing a comedy sketch at his sixtieth birthday party. Nixon’s reference to Haldemann and the tapes is unintentionally hilarious!:

Read my follow-up post, Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald’s Idea for a Television Show.

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