MURRELLS INLET 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 mementos, photographs and tapes.
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.”
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 “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 best-seller. 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.”
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