A typewriter, lady luck and some Spam

Published 12:09 am Sunday, July 23, 2006

“I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word. They stepped back politely and I could feel their eyes on me …”

In the opening scene of “I, the Jury,” vigilante New York detective Mike Hammer learns from a cop that his best friend is dead. Murdered.

“… He let me uncover the body and feel the cold face. For the first time in my life I felt like crying. ’Where did he get it, Pat?’ ’In the stomach. Better not look at it. The killer carved the nose off a forty-five and gave it to him low.’ I threw back the sheet anyway and a curse caught in my throat.”

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And so began Mickey Spillane’s virgin murder mystery. Published in 1947, it was the first of a dozen dark thrillers about the hard-boiled detective Hammer. It would sell millions and spawn a radio show, cartoon strip and three television series.

That pulpy whodunit dripped first from a typewriter in a half-finished cinder block house in Newburgh.

The novel was a 20-something, comic book writer’s postwar shot at making a fast buck writing longer stories. He got 1,000 bucks for his lurid tale and bought the house some plumbing.

Frank Morrison “Mickey” Spillane died Monday, at age 88, in his South Carolina beach house. No bullet to the gut. No whiskey and arsenic. Just a fast fight to the finish with pancreatic cancer. He didn’t suffer long.

“Either that or he was fooling me,” says Jane Rogers Spillane, Mickey’s third wife, who was with him 22 years. “He always said he would live forever.”

She doesn’t remember her husband’s Newburgh days.

Jane says she knows a fella who was there, with Mickey, when he banged out that first thriller. “Call George Wilson,” she drawls, in her humid Southern accent. “He and Mickey been friends since the war.”

George Wilson, 87, lives upstate, in Granville. He’s an oil painter who kept in touch with Mickey for years through letters, visits and phone calls.

Wilson met Mickey in 1943 on a Mississippi Army Air Force base. They trained pilots, and after the war, George went to art school and Mickey started writing for comic books.

One day, Mickey called up George; told him to quit paying rent and build a place with him in Newburgh. Young and brash, they pooled their GI money and bought a few wooded acres off Rock Cut Road.

They lived off Spam and pancake mix, in a tent, with homemade swamp maple furniture and a kerosene heater. “People felt sorry for us,” says George. “They’d bring us eggs and milk. We were like the first hippies.”

Then, Mickey started typing, clacking out exploits with guts and glory and femme fatales. He read the pages to George as he went, and when the stack of sheets was tall enough, he headed to Manhattan, to the publishing offices of E.P. Dutton. “They made dictionaries and encyclopedias,” said George, “not whodunits. We thought he was crazy.”

Just before Spillane died, George dug out a bunch of pictures from their Newburgh days to send to Mickey.

“He was a reminiscing guy,” he says, “I always thought that he wanted to go back rather than forward.”

George didn’t get those photographs off in time.

“Oh well,” he says, “his was a full life.”