December 18, 2006


A reluctant author of bestsellers: Leslie McFarlane's diaries and letters take up a lot of shelf space at McMaster University. The newly donated documents reveal the hardscrabble life of the Hardy Boys author, better known as Franklin W. Dixon (MICHAEL POSNER, 12/18/06, Globe and Mail)

For a brief period in the mid-1920s, he worked as a staff reporter for the Springfield, Mass., newspaper, The Republican. During that time, he saw an advertisement for a children's book ghostwriter, placed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Among other best-selling series, it produced the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift.

Under the pen name Roy Rockwood, McFarlane subsequently produced seven novels in the syndicate's Dave Fearless series, then moved on to write more than 20 Hardy Boys novels.

For most of these, he was paid a flat fee of $100 per book and, although the novels sold many millions of copies and were translated into 50 languages, he earned no royalties. A well-preserved first edition is now worth about $1,500.

At the time, according to his son, Brian, himself the author of some 65 books, he regarded the Hardy Boys assignments as something of a nuisance, having no awareness of their growing popularity.

"In his diaries," Brian McFarlane said in an interview last week, "my father talks about having to write another of those cursed books, in order to earn another $100 to buy coal for the furnace. And he never read them over afterward. It was only much later that he accepted plaudits for the work."

"The major focus was money," concurs Spadoni. "He's a freelancer and he's churning the stuff out. The Hardy Boys recedes in the background. He wasn't in denial. He just didn't think it was important."

"They'd give him an outline," recalls his daughter, Norah McFarlane Perez, also a writer of short stories and novels. "But to make it palatable, he'd come up with different characters and add colour and use large words, and inject his wonderful sense of humour. And then he'd finish and say, 'I will never write another juvenile book.' But then the bills would pile up and he'd start another."

The diaries, Brian says, reveal his day-to-day life. "They're a remarkable read. He was a drinking man when he started out and my mother was into smoking, and he'd write how he'd gone drinking and fell in with bad companions and his handwriting would be jerky. He wrote about half a page for each day, sometimes a full page. Some diaries are missing, though. We don't know whether my stepmother destroyed them or gave them away."

But even when he realized the staggering amounts of money the books had earned, Leslie McFarlane had no bitterness. "He was very philosophical about it," says McFarlane Perez. "His attitude was, 'Look, I took these on and I was glad to get the deal.' There was no rancour."

Even a small percentage of the royalties would have made McFarlane wealthy. "It's kind of sad," says Brian McFarlane. "We never owned a car. The house was rented and a little chilly. But we never thought we were poor -- we sure had a good upbringing."

It was only a year before his death, with publication of his 1976 autobiography, The Ghost of the Hardy Boys, that McFarlane announced his role in their creation. The Stratemeyer Syndicate had insisted that their ghostwriters never reveal authorship.

"He left a wonderful legacy," says Brian McFarlane. "He got millions of kids hooked on reading."

Sister Norah says she's now writing a family memoir, about one-third complete, drawing heavily on the diaries and correspondence of her father. "My dad was a prolific letter writer. He wrote thousands. I kept all those he sent to me. And the diaries -- it's like getting my childhood back, day by day."

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 18, 2006 8:54 AM

When I was a kid in the early 70s, my sister and I and all sorts of friends at a small school found these series of books in the library. Not only did they have the 50s/60s rewrites, but many of the original 20s versions, which always seemed better. Just because they were anachronistic and 30 to 40 years old didn't mean we couldn't figure out what was going on. (I think my sister still has the ones we bought/were given as gifts.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at December 18, 2006 5:26 PM