McKay memoir paints portrait of reluctant star
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
Gardner McKay was, by turns, a sculptor, a model, an actor, a deck hand, an explorer, a photographer, a lion tender, a drama critic, a writing teacher, a songwriter, a radio show host, a playwright and a novelist.
Of these, he is best known as the star of the hit TV series "Adventures in Paradise" (1959-1962), about a Korean War vet who buys a schooner and sails the South Seas as a charter captain.
But of all the lives he lived, the only one Gardner McKay disavowed and regretted was the very one that brought him fame — acting.
McKay, who lived in Black Point, died of cancer in 2001 at age 69. The memoir he worked on through the last year of his life, "Journey Without A Map," has just been released under the guidance of his widow, Madeleine Madigan McKay.
In this string of essays, vignettes and excerpts from his journals, it's clear that the one person McKay never wanted to be was Adam Troy, skipper of the fictional Tiki.
He loathed acting so much, he writes, that he refused to list it on his passport, even when he was traveling to Europe to accept an award for the show.
Drop-dead handsome, an avid sailor and under contract to 20th Century Fox was a no-brainer for the part in "Adventures in Paradise." The series became so popular that, in France, where it aired at dinnertime, husbands complained that their wives were abandoning cooking duties in favor of "Adventure dans les Isles." The matter was raised in the French Senate.
Ever the realist, however, McKay writes that the popularity of the show had more to do with the fact that everything else on TV at the time was Westerns and game shows.
To McKay, placing himself at the mercy of the studio star system was "selling out." He had done it on a whim, primarily because he was broke (he spent much of his life broke or near enough to it). He had never been able to make an adequate living as a sculptor in New York, despite receiving some important commissions and making history with the largest balanced sculpture ever created ("Winter Holiday").
He loathed the studios' attempts to appeal to the lowest common denominator, he resented the demands of fans and the press; he honestly seemed not to have understood what the fuss was about.
And the very fact of acting was foreign to his nature.
He was never an actor in the rest of his life; he spoke bluntly, had no trouble saying "no," went his own way and cared nothing for money although he enjoyed it when he had it.
"A lot of people thought he was eccentric and weird," said Madeleine McKay, "He wasn't afraid that his reputation would be damaged in order to say what he thought was correct."
He so wanted out that he quit at the height of his fame, refused a number of movie offers and fled to the South American jungle, where he lived rough for two years, nearly losing his life on a number of occasions.
When he returned, he moved to a large, shabby property on a dead-end road above Beverly Hills, where his companions included numerous dogs and a cheetah who slept on his bed with him. While serving as the drama critic for the Los Angeles Herald, he illegally kept and raised a number of lions, preferring them, for the most part, to people, though he had many friends.
With all these experiences, friends often urged her husband to write his memoirs. "They'd say, 'You must do it', but he never felt that," Madeleine McKay said. "He always had other things to do."
He said, too, that he'd rather not write in the first person, but instead fictionalize his story so it wouldn't seem so egotistic. He never got around to that. But then, when he got cancer, she said, "he had this whole repository of memories As it got closer, he decided it was probably what he should do."
After her husband died, Madeleine McKay said, completing the book project "was the only thing that kept me on the planet. I was like a lunatic. I just walked from room to room screaming."
They had been married 21 years. And, as McKay makes clear in the essay "Journey Toward My Wife," she was not just the love of his life, but the only love of his life. He had, he writes, been a dedicated and cheerfully hedonistic womanizer, fearing marriage as a trap that would strip him of his personhood, having seen years of ugliness in his parents' marriage. But when he met Madeleine, in his late 40s, "I pulled over to the side of the road and got out."
She had promised him she would do whatever she could to see the book to fruition. "When he died, he had not completed the book, but it was amazing," she said. He had made sure to finish the pieces that related to periods of his life about which she would know little. "The fragmented chapters were chapters for which I was able to find the information," she said. "And he knew I would."
She found it in the 200 journals of 200 pages each, plus some smaller notebooks from his time in the jungle.
One thing she did not do: She did not write a thing. "I am not a writer, I would not dare to add a word," she said. The only thing she did was to change the tenses in some pieces to make the whole more coherent.
She has been busy on many fronts, designing the look of the book (she is an artist), finding a publisher that specializes in celebrity biographies, networking with those who might help, including entertainer Jimmy Buffett (who included McKay in a song once and considers the writer a big influence on his life; Buffett has put up a link to the book on his Web site).
Though McKay waited a long time to start, believing he had to live for a while in order to have something to write about, in his latter years, writing was vitally important to him.
He got up at 4 and wrote from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day in a little studio on their Black Point property.
"He didn't have a phone (in the studio), he didn't have a fax machine, he didn't have a computer. He just needed to be in his own mind," Madeleine McKay said. He even put curtains over the bookshelves so he wouldn't be distracted.
His novel, "Toyer" (1998), about a particularly chilling serial killer, brought him moderate success.
And Madeleine McKay is now working on a deal to bring his 1971 play "Untold Damage" to PBS with Richard Dreyfuss in the lead.
It's important to her that the book get out, she said, "because I want people who know him only from 'Adventures in Paradise' to know that he wasn't that. He was a very cerebral person, and that was not his work.
"Writing was his work. And he believed in his own work."