I was a 24-year-old graduate student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in the fall of ’75, working toward my master’s degree in popular culture, when I had my epiphany: the subject of my thesis would be the legendary mystery author Mickey Spillane.
My graduate committee approved the idea, then I had to see if Spillane would be agreeable. Pre-Google, that wasn’t such a simple process. I learned where he lived, wrote him an impassioned fan letter simply addressed to Murrells Inlet, S.C., requesting a phone interview, and hoped for the best.
A week later, Spillane phoned me to suggest I visit him in Murrells Inlet to do the interview in person. I gleefully accepted and bought a cheap tape recorder and a stack of Memorex tapes. Spillane said he would make a reservation for me at a local motel.
I had never booked a flight before. I called a travel agent but didn’t explain exactly where I wanted to end up, so instead of nearby Myrtle Beach airport, I flew into Charleston, 90 miles away. Flummoxed, I phoned Spillane. “Get a rental and drive north on 17,” he said.
I finally arrived in Murrells Inlet, too late to begin any formal interview; Spillane told me on the phone to show up at his house the next day at 7:30 a.m. 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, Spillane greeted me warmly, sporting a reindeer sweater and jeans. He was 57 then, with shoulders twice the breadth of mine.
“Help yourself, kid,” he said, pointing at a mammoth corned beef sitting on the kitchen counter. “I’ll get the eggs going. And grab us a couple of beers.”
I opened the door to behold about 25 Pabst Blue Ribbon longnecks. There was not a Miller Lite in sight, but I made no comment about loyalty to the brand he was spokesman for on TV.
We ate our he-man breakfast, then moved into the living room to begin the interview. I pressed the record button, but not before Spillane had refreshed our beers. As I posed question after question about his media stardom in the ’50s (Life 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 beer kept flowing.
Spillane handled each question with aplomb and good humor, once stopping to recite several verses of an obscene version of Gunga Din. At the stroke of noon, Spillane announced that it was time to make a field trip to secure a bottle of Seagram’s 7. Back at the house, Spillane mixed us each a 7 and 7, and we continued the interview.
Soon I was too impaired to remember to change the cassette tapes, and hours of prime Spillane storytelling simply floated off into the ether. At some point Spillane himself instructed me to put in a fresh tape—thank goodness, or else I might have returned to Ohio with six blank tapes. Even so, I wonder to this day what Spillane revelations I squandered in my boozy haze.
At the end of the evening, Spillane mercifully led the way back to the motel to ensure that I didn’t drive into the bay. He even showed up the next morning to make sure I got on the road in time. His farewell: “Good luck with that thesis, kid. And keep in touch.”
But that would be the last time I ever saw Spillane. A follow-up phone call with a question that rubbed him the wrong way was the end of it. I’ve only revisited that regrettable call about 800 times since that day in 1976. But I did receive my master’s several months later. And I can still see Spillane popping the tops of two beer cans and handing me one with a gruff “here you go, kid.”
Michael Barson is the publicity director for Poisoned Pen Press and has written a dozen books on popular culture.