When he wasn’t writing best-sellers, Mickey Spillane was driving race cars, diving for treasure, working undercover with cops, chasing moonshiners and being shot out of a cannon for the Clyde Beatty Circus.
“I thought, ‘He’s got to be making this up,’ but when you read the documentation, it’s all there,” said Jane Spillane, the crime novelist’s wife of 23 years. “He loved writing, but he loved life. He was 88 when he died [in 2006] but ran circles around his own children and didn’t slow down till the last year. There was not a dull moment – he lived quite a life.”
Mickey’s books, beginning with 1947’s “I, the Jury,” are famous for sex and violence, and hard-edged hero Mike Hammer, his most popular character, who transitioned to movies and two TV series. There was a lot of Mike Hammer in Mickey, “an Old Testament guy who believed in good and evil,” Jane said, but he was also a fun-loving husband and devoted father, who was known as “just Mickey” in Murrells Inlet, where he had lived since the 1950s.
Fans are about to see a different side of the writer they only know from his books and appearances in movies and on TV, including more than 100 Miller Lite beer commercials. A new book is coming out, offering Jane’s unique perspective on Mickey the man, and there is talk of establishing a museum to house a trove of Mickey memorabilia, including letters, movie mementoes, photographs and tapes.
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Jane developed the book with students from Coastal Carolina University’s The Athenaeum Press. “My Life with Mickey” will be available Feb. 5.
“He saved everything - this is just the beginning,” said Jane, who continues to unearth new surprises. “He is still alive through this, and I’d love to share it all.”
Reminders of Mickey
The Spillane home looks out on the inlet Mickey discovered while flying over the area during World War II. He bought his first waterfront house on an acre for $13,000, Jane said, but they had to rebuild after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
It was no big deal when the storm took his first editions, but she said the loss of their piano upset Mickey, who could play by ear. Mickey’s vehicle of choice was an old pickup truck, but he also owned a 1956 Jaguar, which is in storage.
“It was a gift from John Wayne,” Jane said of the car, as she walked through the front hall of the three-story house, passing Mickey’s trench coat, which was also the backbone of Hammer’s wardrobe. “Mickey wrote the script for [the 1954 movie] ‘Ring of Fear’ for his production company. It was a circus movie, and he played himself. He looked out – he was living in Newburgh, N.Y. – and it was in the driveway with a bow.”
Their friendship went further than just the movies – “Mickey also advised him on diaper service,” Jane said. The experience prompted Mickey’s circus stint as a human cannonball, which for a while took precedence over promoting his books. He appeared on the big screen again as Hammer in 1963’s “The Girl Hunters,” also starring Shirley Eaton, who was seen painted head to toe for “Goldfinger” the next year.
Mickey can be felt in every room of the house, which is warmly wrapped in the natural wood they both loved. A large Christmas village still standing in the living room continues to grow, she said, per an arrangement Mickey made with the manufacturer, unbeknownst to her, before he died. The dining room’s collection of Blue Willow china belonged not to Jane, but to Mickey – “That was his prized possession,” she said – and he loved their many cats, especially Opie, who was by Mickey’s side to the end and then grieved himself to death.
Mickey wrote in an office detached from the main house, which is still standing but not in the best condition. After Hugo, he set up shop on the house’s third floor, where his manual typewriters are assembled, although Jane added an item he would never have allowed.
“He hated computers,” said Jane, although he did move to an electric typewriter toward the end of his life. “If he couldn’t hear the sound of the keys, he couldn’t write.”
Jane rummaged through a closet in the office to find one of two military uniforms he saved that are still in pristine condition. Mickey joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, forerunner to the U.S. Air Force, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor but remained stateside as a flight instructor. He realized the future of paperback books, which were portable and popular with GIs, and they were the basis of his initial success with 1947’s “I, the Jury.”
“He turned a comic into, ‘I, the Jury’ because he needed some money to build a house,” said Jane, adding that Mickey was a reader at age 4 and began writing comic books as a kid. “It really started with comic books – I think that’s why the books are so graphic. Most people turned it down because it was too sexy, too violent, but his future business manager, Peggy McKenna, read it and said it’s a bestseller. It didn’t do well in hardback, but people bought paperbacks in the millions.”
Some of Mickey’s unpublished manuscripts, including a Western, have been popping up in the strangest places around the house, said Jane, who found one in a box labeled “ice skates.” Six Hammer books have been completed and published since his death, with the help of Mickey’s friend Max Allan Collins, who penned “Road to Perdition,” and there are other plans for movies and TV.
“Lady, Go Die,” an early work, was released in 2012 after Jane found the book’s ending scribbled on notes in the side-door pocket of the pickup.
“I don’t know why he put it away, but you never know with him,” Jane said. “We had to be very careful about every piece of paper we found.”
Life with a writer
Jane was Mickey’s third wife, but she had known him since she was a child, when her family stayed at their second home, located not far from his at the inlet.
“He met me on my tricycle – I used to hang out and play with his kids,” said Jane, a Marion native, who eventually took off to college in New York. “I went through a marriage, had children and divorced, then I decided I wanted to come back down here.”
When they met again, they both talked of how they’d never remarry, but Mickey told Collins, “I’m going to marry that woman someday,” Jane said, and he did in 1983.
Jane said there were adjustments in living with a dedicated writer, albeit one who could walk away from his work when he needed to be a dad.
“I had to get used to it – all of a sudden, this man would jump out of bed in the middle of the night and write something down on sticky notes on the walls,” she said. “Finally, you’d hear the classical music in the house – if you read the books, what did Mike Hammer listen to? – and we knew not to bother him unless it was an emergency.”
Jane was teaching an adult education course through CCU in early 2012, when friends urged her to write about the man the public doesn’t know. “My Life with Mickey” contains five chapters on their life, but Jane said she can see doing a second book because there are so many stories, not just for Mickey’s original fans but for a younger generation that’s discovering his work.
“He had a way of hooking people at the end of every single chapter that I absolutely love,” said Andrew Lesh, a student in CCU’s master’s program for writing who interviewed Jane and wrote the book. “You would not think the writer is a devout Jehovah’s Witness – that came as a huge surprise to me – but he was the person that started the detective genre. Without him, there’d be no ‘Criminal Minds’ or ‘CSI.’ ”
Chapin Memorial Library in Myrtle Beach has about seven of Mickey’s books in regular and large print, starting with 1961’s “The Deep,” said Deb Warrington, the library’s customer service supervisor. Most of them were published between 1961and 1996, although the library does have a more recent Mike Hammer selection from 2010, a collection of short stories from 2005 and a few books on cassette tapes.
“We try to keep a few because he is a South Carolina writer,” Warrington said. “We had a flurry of interest when he passed away, and he is still consistently popular with older readers who grew up reading him.”
Dan Turner, CCU associate professor of English, teaches from some of Mickey’s older novels, such as “Kiss Me, Deadly,” and said there’s a good possibility others will teach it, given the rise of new detective fiction, noir fiction, cultural studies about the reception of different writers and the popularity of TV shows, such as “Sherlock.”
“There’s a passionate fan base out there,” Turner said. “He definitely saw himself as a writer, not an author, and he was very savvy about the profession of writing, which is important to know.”
Turner said Mickey is a really interesting figure who had the ability to write in other styles and do it all, and his amazing life story has become part of his legend. While only a handful of Turner’s students come into his class recognizing the work, he said they respond to it well because it’s something different.
“It’s a quick read but an exciting read,” Turner said. “After a few weeks of Edith Wharton and Hemingway, it’s a fresh glass of water, or, in his case, a glass of beer.”
His work will endure
Mickey always knew he was going to be famous, Jane said, but her readers may be surprised to learn just how normal he was. Untouched by celebrity, he never turned down an autograph request and always was good to his customers.
When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was Mickey who comforted Jane, saying, “Don’t feel sorry for me – I’ve done everything in life I’ve ever wanted to do.’
“He knew his works would go on,” said Jane, and so will his prized possessions if she can achieve her dream of creating a Mickey Spillane museum.
Sally Hare, retired education professor and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at CCU, is one of Jane’s friends who believes in the project and is exploring options.
“Right now, it’s a vision, but it needs to happen, and it needs to happen soon,” said Hare, because there is so much to preserve, and it requires special care.
Hare said they are pursuing a number of avenues for the museum, which could be a boost for Murrells Inlet, where Jane insists it must be, and the timing couldn’t be better, given the media interest in Mickey’s newly released works.
“There is just so much – most people don’t leave things like this behind,” Jane said. “He said he would live forever, and when you see ‘I, the Jury’ still making royalties, then you see what he meant.”