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The Grand Strand’s Own Mickey Spillane: Celebrity, Mystery Writer, WWII Hero

  By  Kathryn Hedgepath
Mickey Spillane

A household name

The day after Pearl Harbor was attacked on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a young comic book writer filled with patriotism joined the Army Air Corps with the intent of learning to fly, going overseas, and defending his country.  The only problem was that he became such a good pilot that he was kept stateside throughout WWII to instruct other young men how to fly.  He was stationed both in Florida and in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he met and married his first wife.  This Brooklyn-born flight instructor, Second Lieutenant Frank Morrison Spillane, would eventually come to be known as the celebrated mystery writer, Mickey Spillane, who called Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, along the Grand Strand, his home for most of his life.  How he came to discover Murrells Inlet was because of the war. 

From 1941 to 1947, what is now the premiere shopping, dining and entertainment destination in Myrtle Beach, The Market Common, was an Army Air Corps airfield.  One day, Second Lieutenant Spillane was tasked with flying to this airfield for some reason lost to history.  He had never been to Myrtle Beach before and knew nothing about it.  But when he made his approach over the Atlantic to land, he was captivated by the shoreline.  Apparently, this assignment was only supposed to be a day trip, but all of a sudden, Spillane wanted to spend a little more time here.  So his up-until-then-perfectly-sound P-51 Mustang developed some unidentifiable mechanical malfunctions that would take at least a few days to address.  While he was grounded, Spillane went fishing in Murrells Inlet, fell in love with the place and finally made it his home about a decade later.  But he had a legacy to create before that was going to happen. 

When Captain Spillane was discharged from the Army Air Corps, he returned to the comic book business in New York, a field he had been working in since about a year before Pearl Harbor.  He was both a scripter and an assistant editor for Funnies, Inc., who produced comic books.  However, it was not the first career he pursued. 

A graduate of Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, he attended Kansas State College to study law but dropped out in 1939, and found his way to the comics business in 1940.  His dad had given him the nickname, Mickey, when he was growing up as an only child in Elizabeth, NJ. 

After the war, Mickey and his new wife wanted to settle down and they needed $1000 to buy land to build a house.  He figured that the fastest way to earn that kind of money was to write a novel.  So he did, I, the Jury…in just three weeks. 

In 1947, the editors at Dutton Books, where he had submitted the manuscript, were not overly excited about the writing.  One critic summed him up by saying that Spillane was no innovator; the prose was hard-boiled boilerplate.  In fact, throughout his career, mainstream critics had little use for his work. 

Those original editors could have probably predicted that but they were businessmen and saw the potential.  They knew just the market who would devour this type of fiction served up in paperback form and they launched a lucrative franchise.  I, the Jury, sold over six million copies and became an overnight success paving the way for the others he was destined to write.  By the mid-1950s, six of his novels were among the bestselling books of all time. 

They introduced to the world one of the most recognizable characters in American mystery writing, Mike Hammer.  He has been brought to life on television with the actor, Stacy Keach, becoming almost synonymous with the role.  And on the big screen Mickey Spillane himself was once cast as Mike Hammer. 

Mickey Spillane referred to his work as an income-generating job.  He told the Associated Press in 2001, that “fame was never anything to me unless it afforded me a good livelihood.”  He would say that he considered himself a writer not an author because books by writers are the ones that sell.  And he once told fellow mystery writer, Robert Parker, “I don't have readers, I have customers.”

He also received accolades for the more than 140 million books he had sold by the twenty-first century.  They included the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America, the Edgar Allan Poe Grand Master Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America. Even one of his children’s books earned the Junior Literary Guild Award.  And he was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2012. 

If that wasn’t enough recognition, there may be a whole generation of fans who discovered him through an eighteen-year advertising campaign that was ranked by Advertising Age magazine as the eighth best such campaign in history.  From the 1970s to the ‘80s, Mickey Spillane was featured in Miller Lite’s “Great Taste…Less Filling!” commercials.  When they were all counted, he did more than a hundred of them.  He would often play himself.  Or sometimes he'd don a trench coat and spoof both himself and his famous character, Mike Hammer. 

By the time he and his family settled in Murrells Inlet, Mickey Spillane was a household name.  The house where he lived for thirty-five years survived Hurricane Hazel that came ashore on a high tide under a full moon on October 15, 1954.  To this day, that storm is the worst natural disaster the Grand Strand has ever experienced.  Unfortunately, that same home couldn’t withstand the forces of Hurricane Hugo on September 22, 1989, and the house was destroyed.

While just about everybody around here knew him.  My husband and I didn’t get to meet him until the fall of 2005.  We were just finishing Sunday lunch at one of Murrells Inlet’s most iconic restaurants that is no longer in business, Oliver’s Lodge.  It was founded in the mid-1890s by Captain Bill Oliver and his bride, Emma, as a boarding house that served meals.  By the time I came along 70 years later, it was the most quintessential of all of the Murrells Inlet seafood restaurants, of which there are many.  In fact, the quaint fishing village is aptly known at the Seafood Capital of South Carolina. 

As we were heading out, Mickey and his wife, Jane, were coming in and we held the door for them.  They thanked us and shared that it was their 22nd wedding anniversary.  They had been married by the fireplace at Oliver’s Lodge in 1983, and they would return every year on their wedding date to celebrate.  None of us knew at the time that it would be their last.  Mickey Spillane passed away on July 17th, 2006. 

Five years after he succumbed to pancreatic cancer, the state of South Carolina honored Spillane in a conspicuous and enduring way.  On May 11, 2011, the South Carolina General Assembly adopted a resolution proposed by two senators, Cleary and McGill, that read, in part:

“Whereas, Mickey Spillane had chosen Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, as his home for many decades; and

Whereas, Mickey Spillane loved the beautiful Lowcountry of South Carolina, and had dedicated many years to fishing the creeks of Murrells Inlet; and

Whereas, the residents of Murrells Inlet and Georgetown County take pride in Mickey Spillane's personal accomplishments and that many of his highly successful mystery novels began when they were authored here; and as a gifted writer, and successful lifelong businessman, Mickey Spillane's personal successes brought distinction to Murrells Inlet, and the South Carolina coast; and

Whereas, it would be fitting and proper to recognize the tremendous accomplishment of this renowned writer and Georgetown County icon by naming a portion of United States Highway 17 in his honor. Now, therefore,

Be it resolved by the Senate, the House of Representatives concurring:

That the members of the General Assembly request that the Department of Transportation name the portion of United States Highway 17 Business from its intersection with Ocean Highway in Georgetown County to its intersection with the Georgetown/Horry County line "Mickey Spillane Waterfront 17 Highway"…”

Now you too can drive the stretch of road he knew so well.  And remember the man who had such an impact on this area for whom it is named. 

Kathryn Hedgepath

Myrtle Beach native, Kathryn Hedgepath, loves to share her hometown’s history with visitors and newcomers to the Grand Strand.  She is the creator and narrator of the Myrtle Beach History Trolley and Step-On Tours, and the author of the book, Myrtle Beach Movies, that tells the stories behind the motion pictures that were made or premiered in Myrtle Beach.  She has traveled in 40 countries on 6 continents and uses her experience to convey our local history through a world lens. Kathryn returned home from NYC in 2002 to marry her beloved husband, Jenks, after a career in television and publishing (and even worked in Space Shuttle Operations at NASA Headquarters in DC for a semester before starting grad school at Georgetown University).  Her first career job was as Personal Assistant to television icon and wildlife expert, Jim Fowler, of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom fame. Her dad, Myrtle Beach’s first veterinarian, arranged the job interview when Jim Fowler came to Myrtle Beach for a speaking appearance at a veterinary conference in 1991.