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Books: Jane Spillane’s life of crime (writing)

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Mickey Spillane knew that his fictional detective, Mike Hammer, would live forever.

The late crime writer’s widow, Jane Spillane, has collaborated on a book with Coastal Carolina University to make sure that memories of Mickey, the man, the father and the husband, stay alive too. “My Life With Mickey,” a 60-page collection of stories about their 23-year marriage, is due out soon from the university’s Athenaeum Press for $15. Coastal Carolina students Andrew Lesh, a writer, and Sarah Swartz and Sarah Evans, photographers and designers, worked on the book. Each chapter’s text is paired with documents and photographs.

“I had an absolute blast,” Lesh said from his home in South Bend, Ind., this week. “It was a lovely opportunity to hear Jane tell a bunch of stories about their life together.”

Mickey, who died in 2006, has an honorary degree from Coastal Carolina University. In fact, Coastal’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute director Linda Ketron encouraged Jane to write a book after sitting in on a class she taught about her husband’s career. “She was so open and so generous,” Ketron said. “She brought his trench coat and boxes of memorabilia, old films and interviews. It was two hours a week for six weeks, and she just scratched the surface.”

Jane’s book-signing at next week’s Moveable Feast luncheon has been postponed because the book is not due out till later this month. Ketron said she would probably reschedule Jane as an extra mid-week Moveable Feast event.

Her husband, Jane said, wasn’t like his characters. He was a disciplined, early-morning writer and a loving husband and father. He was a lot of fun, too. “I never realized how funny our marriage was until I started talking about Mickey, the man,” Jane said. “He lived life to the fullest. Every day was an adventure.”

She provides examples:

• Mickey joined the Clyde Beatty Circus as a human cannonball and ignored letters from his publisher that he come to book signings in New York.

• Mickey was shot while voluntarily working undercover for police. He mentioned it matter-of-factly in a letter to a producer in Hollywood.

• Mickey came home from Bible study one evening, got his .45 and shoulder holster, trench coat and hat and rushed back to a neighborhood gas station to prevent a robbery. He saw two suspicious characters lurking around the corner when he stopped to buy gas. “They probably didn’t know who Mike Hammer was,” Jane said, “but they high-tailed it out of there. That clerk could have been killed. To this day, she thanks me.”

• Mickey didn’t act his age. “He was racing cars. He was treasure diving. He was skydiving,” Jane said. “He could run circles around his own kids.”

Jane, almost 29 years younger than Mickey, was a playmate with his children in Murrells Inlet in the 1960s. Her parents were from Marion and had a summer house near the Spillane home on the creek. “He used to run me out of his yard,” Jane said. “I was noisy.” She remembers the first time she saw the famous writer. “I dove off the dock out there and the water was lower than I thought,” she said. “I had pluff mud all over my head and neck, and I tried to get it off before I came up. Mickey thought I might be drowning.”

Jane left the Inlet for college in New York. She married and moved to Connecticut. “After a divorce,” she said, “I moved back here to my parents’ house in 1982 with my children kicking and screaming.”

One of Jane’s girlfriends who helped her move wanted to meet Mickey. “My mom said, ‘No, you don’t want to meet him. He wrote those dirty books.’”

The children adapted to inlet life quickly, and so did Jane. She met Mickey just days after her arrival. She remembers them talking about a number of things and agreeing that neither would ever get married again. “I did not know this until after Mickey died,” Jane said, “but his friend Max Allan Collins said at the tribute that Mickey told him, ‘Little Jane, huh? Someday I’m going to marry her.’ A year later we were married.”

Mickey started the courtship slowly, inviting Jane to ride along in his old pickup truck to the A&P or to the garbage dump. “He’d never ask me out on a date,” she said. “He’d come over as a neighbor. My dad said that any man who wanted to take me to the grocery store and the garbage dump was getting serious. One day he finally said, ‘You want to go to dinner?’ I said that I didn’t have a sitter. He said that I didn’t need one, the kids were going with us. Then I thought, ‘What a great guy.’ When he decided he wanted to marry me, he went to my father to ask for my hand in marriage. Know what my dad said? Ask her mother.”

Being married to an obsessive writer took some adjustment, Jane said. “He would jump out of bed, turn on the light and write something on a sticky note,” she said. “They were all over the wall. He’d get back in bed, and an hour later he’d jump out of bed again. Sometimes he’d get up and go to his office, and I’d hear typewriter keys tapping and classical music, which Mike Hammer played.” Jane’s children would know when Mickey was on a writing binge. He’d only come out for coffee and, maybe, apple pie. “He did his best writing in the mornings, 5 o’clock,” she said.

Mickey left Jane a number of unfinished manuscripts, which she is publishing and recording with the help of actor Stacy Keach, who played Mike Hammer on TV, and Mickey’s old friend Collins. “One particular book, we could not find the ending,” Jane said. “I asked Max, ‘How are we going to finish this? It’s got to have a real twist to it.’ I was driving Mickey’s old pickup and reached into a side pocket and found all these old sticky notes. There was the ending. I got on that phone and called Max and said I found the ending. Mickey would always get to church early, and he had the sticky notes to write his ideas out. If he had typed it, we’d never have found it.”

Mickey became a real father to Jane’s children, taking them to school and giving away both daughters in marriage. Their youngest daughter was accepted by all the Ivy League colleges and Stanford University. Her biological father refused to pay when she chose Stanford over Yale. “That child was devastated,” Jane said. “Mickey had been out of town on a Miller Lite commercial. He came home, walked up those stairs and this is what he said to her: ‘Let me tell you something. You’re going to Stanford. I’ve already put the money aside for you. Your dad’s got problems. You have to love him. But you are my daughter.’ Guess who walked her down the aisle when she got married? Mickey cried so hard she had to console him. Mickey Spillane, this tough guy, bawling. He was in tears. He was so proud of her.”

Hurricane Hugo played a big role in their lives, and Jane gives that experience a chapter in her book. They were in California when the storm hit in September of 1989. Their house sitters high-tailed it out of town, Jane said, without boarding up the windows or taking the pets to safety.

“The chapter goes into how he reacted vs. how I reacted, which was hysterics. He was calm, cool and collected. ‘We’ll just get new stuff. Nothing to it. We’ll build a new house. It will be better. So I lost all my first editions, who cares?’”

Jane said Mickey had just finished “The Killing Man” and had the advance in the bank. When their insurance company stalled on the settlement, Mickey paid cash to repair the house and took the insurer to court. “Most people would have to wait or take what they gave them,” Jane said. “The judge down at Charleston was furious. They got in there and said the winds were 50 miles per hour, and the judge said, ‘Who do you think I am? I live in Charleston. Give them their money now.’”

Jane has a wealth of Mickey’s memorabilia, more than enough to start a museum. “He left so much material, documents, letters, VHS tapes that I’ve had transferred to DVD. They go all the way back to the ’50s, back to when he was a child. If you put things he wrote as a child next to Mickey Spillane’s adult writings, you would see they are the same. He never changed, never changed what he believed in. He was the same guy at 9 years old as he was as an adult. He’d formed his opinions and his writing style is exactly the same. He left all these unpublished works, all this memorabilia. Not many people have all that. I can go in that library, if I want to see Mickey, pop in a DVD and laugh my head off. He had a great sense of humor, great love of life. He consoled the doctors at MUSC after they told him that his cancer was inoperable. ‘Don’t feel sorry for me,’ he said. ‘I’ve done everything in life I ever wanted to do and how many people can say that?’”

The book may be ordered through at theathenaeumpress.com. It will be available for sale in the Chanticleer Store at the HTC Center on the Coastal Carolina University campus at the end of January.

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