Ross Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California, on December 13, 1915, the son of John Macdonald Millar and Annie Moyer Millar. (He did not adopt the Macdonald pseudonym until 1956.) In 1919, the family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where his father (primarily a journalist) was a harbor pilot for a while. His parents separated the same year, and Macdonald (whose mother was a near invalid) lived with different Canadian relatives for about two years in 1928 and 1929 while attending St. John’s, a boarding school in Winnipeg.
From there he went to Medicine Hat, Alberta, for a year to stay with an aunt, and then moved to Kitchener, Ontario, where he lived with his mother and grandmother and studied at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School. While there (1930-1932), he met Margaret Ellis Sturm, whom he would marry years later. Both published for the first time in the same issue of the school magazine, The Grumbler; Macdonald’s story, a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle, featured a detective called Herlock Sholmes.
The 1932 death of his father gave Macdonald a legacy which enabled him to enter the University of Western Ontario; when his mother died in 1935, however, he left school and spent much of 1936 and 1937 traveling in Europe. Finally, on June 1, 1938, he received his A.B. degree and the next day married Margaret Sturm. After attending summer school at the University of Michigan, they returned to Toronto, where Macdonald did graduate work at the Ontario College of Education. A daughter, Linda Jane, was born to the couple in June, 1939, and for the next two years Macdonald taught English at his former secondary school while returning to Michigan in the summers for graduate work. After Margaret (writing as Margaret Millar) published her first mystery novel, The Invisible Worm, in 1941, Macdonald was able to become a full-time graduate student at the University of Michigan, but induction in the U.S. Navy interrupted his studies in 1944. Immediately prior to his induction, he had completed his first novel, The Dark Tunnel (1944), a spy story; while serving as communications officer on the escort carrier Shipley Bay in the Pacific, he wrote Trouble Follows Me (1946).
When he returned to civilian life in March, 1946, Macdonald and his family settled in Santa Barbara, California, where he wrote two novels in less than nine months: Blue City (1947) and The Three Roads (1948). All these books were published under his real name, Kenneth Millar. After an abortive attempt at autobiographical fiction, he produced his first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target (1949), using the name John Macdonald (his father’s given names) to avoid competing with his wife, who had already published eight mysteries. While writing his early detective fiction—by The Drowning Pool in 1950, he had become John Ross Macdonald to distinguish himself from John D. MacDonald, another crime-fiction author—he completed his graduate work at Michigan, receiving the Ph.D. in 1952. His dissertation was a study of the psychological criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the nineteenth century English Romantic poet.
Between 1952 and 1956, Macdonald wrote a novel a year, with the name Ross Macdonald first appearing with The Barbarous Coast (1956). His seventeen-year-old daughter Linda’s involvement in a vehicular homicide in 1956, for which she was sentenced to eight years of probation and ordered to undergo psychiatric care, led the Macdonalds to move to Menlo Park, California, where he as well as Linda underwent psychotherapy for a year. In 1970, he recalled this as a period when “seismic disturbances occurred in [his] life.” He wrote: “My half-suppressed Canadian years, my whole childhood and youth, rose like a corpse from the bottom of the sea to comfort me.” Because of the problem with his daughter and its aftermath, he said, “I’ve taken a step towards becoming the writer [Alfred Knopf, the publisher] would like to see me be.”
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