The New York Yankees were establishing their dominance over America’s favorite pastime. The Golden Era of Hollywood was in full swing. And a nation recovering from the sacrifices of World War II had begun to heal and find itself.
It was a world of big cars and even bigger personalities. A world that sportswriter John D. McCallum, a U.S. Army veteran and former pro baseball player, found he could navigate with surprising ease.
McCallum resumed his English and journalism studies at Washington State after returning from the war, and briefly played for the Portland Beavers in 1947. But it was after he hung up his cleats and moved to New York City, where he worked as a sportswriter, that he found the niche that would help him become one of the hardest working celebrity biographers of the Fabulous ’50s.
He was handsome, confident, and skilled in the art of conversation, traits that enabled him to gain the confidence of America’s industrialists, freely interact with its sports heroes, and court Hollywood starlets. McCallum’s personal and professional calendar read like a who’s who of mid-century America.
He spent two often frustrating months with baseball legend Ty Cobb while writing The Tiger Wore Spikes, a combination biography and how-to manual that The New York Times described as the best sports book of 1956. He immersed himself in the drama and history of President Dwight Eisenhower’s prominent Kansas family. And, he introduced America to the blue collar Philadelphia roots of Grace Kelly, the movie star who became princess of Monaco.
By the time he died in 1988, at the age of 64, McCallum had written nearly 40 books, ranging from biographies to sports history and reference manuals. He was what the publishing industry would describe as a working writer rather than a novelist, a distinction the Tacoma native embraced.
“He was very gifted,” McCallum’s sister, Doris Dorwin, recalls. “It didn’t surprise the family at all that he found his way into so many circles.”
Dorwin, who also attended WSU, remembers her brother as talented, funny, and driven.
To interview Cobb, for example, he traveled to the notoriously mean-spirited retired Detroit Tiger’s hunting lodge near Lake Tahoe and spent several weeks serving essentially as his driver, cook, drinking companion, and personal secretary. “Because no one could live with him—and that included two wives who left him, butlers, housekeepers, chauffeurs, nurses, and former friends he had driven off— I fell into the role of Man Friday,” McCallum later wrote.
Much of McCallum’s work reflects his background as a New York sportswriter and columnist, the career he chose over baseball after being advised by the Portland, Oregon, Beavers he was being assigned to the minor league farm team in nearby Salem.
His personal papers now are part of a special WSU collection. In addition to his book manuscripts, the University’s archives hold several boxes of correspondence, including handwritten letters from Grace Kelly, Ty Cobb, and others.
They provide a largely behind-the-scenes look at the business side of biographical journalism. But there are also thinly-veiled references to surprisingly intimate details of East Coast high society as well as the Hollywood social scene. Purposely ambiguous language often used to convey messages without compromising confidences.
He advised a trusted friend at one point that, while he enjoyed dating, he found serious relationships interfered with his ability to get work done: “There’s nothing more stifling to the creative mind—more all-consuming and energy-killing—than a 100-per cent love affair.”
But he surprised his extended family one day when he brought Hollywood actress Marjie Millar home to meet them. Millar, also a Tacoma native, had landed recurring roles in television shows such as Dragnet and starred as the love interest of Dean Martin in the film, Money from Home.
“She was so beautiful and so nice,” recalls McCallum’s sister, Doris. “There was never any hint from her about being a movie star, she was just really likable.”
McCallum and Millar both had moved back to Puget Sound and they wed in 1961. But, like many Hollywood marriages, it lasted just a few years. Millar had suffered a leg injury that left her partially disabled but she returned to southern California, where she died two years later from liver failure. McCallum stayed in Tacoma, where he turned his focus back to writing, and confided in friends even years later it was tough to watch TV when one of his former wife’s shows or movies was being broadcast.
Nonetheless, he remained the life of nearly any family gathering.
“He rubbed shoulders with so many famous people,” recalls McCallum’s nephew, Bryan Dorwin. “He was the fun uncle—the uncle who could entertain and surprise us kids for hours on end with his stories.”
The ability to spin a good story was a skill many in the McCallum family possessed.
McCallum’s mother wrote children’s stories during the Great Depression. His older brother, George, who went by “Pat,” also served in World War II before returning to Washington State to finish a master’s degree in 1948. He was a linguist who taught overseas and authored books on conversational English.
Although he spent most of his adult life as an English professor in Europe, Pat McCallum remained close to his family and to his alma mater. He left a significant portion of his estate to WSU’s Murrow College for a scholarship program in honor of his brother, John.
The John D. McCallum Memorial Scholarship in Communication is in the final stages of development.
Before he died, McCallum reflected on what drew him to biographical journalism in a 1969 autobiography, Going Their Way.
“All this has taught me that the most interesting subjects in the world are people, because they are the world,” he wrote. “It is unfortunate that we do not get a chance to meet more of them in a lifetime.”