McDonald, John, 1906-1998

Alternative names
Birth 1906-12-05
Death 1998-12-23

Biographical notes:

John Dennis McDonald (1906-1998), a writer, editor, business historian, fisherman, and horse racing enthusiast, was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan, earning two degrees, an AB (1928) and MA (1931), in literature. He moved to New York in 1932 and became involved with political causes including the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, which resulted in his work on Trotsky's administrative staff during the Dewey Commission's hearings in Mexico in April 1937. McDonald worked briefly in the Washington office of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, and for the American Film Center in New York, before joining the staff of Fortune magazine in 1945 as a staff writer and an associate editor; he was elected to the magazine's board of editors in 1949, and retired from the company in 1971. While at Fortune, he wrote more than one hundred articles, specializing in the strategic aspects of business, including economic theory and game theory, and on fishing and horse racing. Research for several of his articles inspired his three scholarly books on fishing history, and four titles on business. McDonald married the painter Dorothy Eisner (1906-1984) in 1937; he died on December 23, 1998.

From the description of John McDonald papers, 1890-1999 (bulk 1945-1997). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702162602

John Dennis McDonald, a writer, editor, business historian, fisherman, and horse racing enthusiast, was born on December 5, 1906, in Detroit, Michigan. His father, John E. McDonald (1870-1944), a native of Ontario, Canada, was a builder and a pharmacist in the West Village neighborhood on Detroit’s near east side, and it was there that John D. and his sister Katherine (1905-1986) were raised. Their mother, Katherine Brown (1872-1953), was a school teacher in Canada before immigrating to Detroit in the 1890s and marrying in 1903; the McDonald’s first-born, Helen, died at birth.

After attending public schools in Detroit, and briefly (1918-1920) in Santa Monica, California, John McDonald studied the physical sciences at the University of Detroit (1924-1926). Moving on to the University of Michigan, he completed an AB degree in 1928, and, while working as a registered pharmacist and manager of the family's McDonald Drug Company in Detroit, earned an MA from the university in 1931; both of his degrees were in literature. McDonald's first marriage was to Lorraine Oven (1907-1995), a classmate from Detroit; their daughter Joan was born in 1929, and the couple separated immediately afterward. He met his second wife, the painter Dorothy Eisner (1906-1984), in the fall of 1935; they were married on November 7, 1936, and their daughter Christie was born in 1942. Eisner, a New York native who lived and worked in the Greenwich Village section of the city, was a childhood friend of the writer Tess Slesinger (1905-1945), the first wife of the leftist journalist Herbert Solow (1903-1964).

John McDonald’s literary career began after he moved to New York City in the summer of 1932. In his first years in the city McDonald made two good friends whose influences would come to bear directly on his professional and personal lives: Herbert Solow, with whom he would collaborate on political projects and would eventually become a co-worker at Fortune magazine; and Dan Bailey (1904-1982), who quit the New York academic scene to become a renowned fisherman and fly-tier in Montana. McDonald was introduced to fly-fishing in the streams of New York’s Catskill Mountains by Bailey, and as the sport became a life-long passion, his interest widened to encompass angling history.

Once in New York, McDonald became involved with radical political groups such as the Communist League of America and the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, the latter a collection of writers, artists, educators, and others supporting the Communist Party candidates in the 1932 federal election. Other activities in his freelance years (1932-1939) included a research project with the noted historian Louis Morton Hacker (1899-1987) and work for the New York State Department of Social Welfare. In September 1936 McDonald was hired as an assistant editor in the Washington office of the Federal Writers' Project of the government's Works Progress Administration. In February 1937 he began to coordinate local activities for the New York-based American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, a group of American liberals and intellectuals who supported the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials (also known as the Dewey Commission after its chairman, John Dewey). The commissioners were to hold their hearing with Trotsky in Mexico in mid-April 1937, but a committee of technical volunteers, primarily writers organized under Herbert Solow's direction, went ahead to assist the exiled revolutionary with tasks ranging from translating and preparing legal documents to purchasing and delivering his food (to avoid potential poisoning by Stalinist agents). In mid-March, McDonald resigned from the WPA and, accompanied by Dorothy Eisner, drove to Coyoacán (now part of Mexico City) where he served on Trotsky's secretarial staff, and Eisner painted portraits of Trotsky and the trial room. McDonald and Eisner returned to the states at the end of April, and he continued with his freelance writing, including the essays he wrote, and co-wrote with Dan Bailey, on fly-fishing.

In 1939 McDonald was hired by the American Film Center, an agency that the Rockefeller Foundation had established in 1938 and funded through its closing in 1948. The AFC’s director was Donald Slesinger (1897-1977); its function was to provide advice and support for documentary film makers and for the distribution of educational and public-interest films. By April 1940, McDonald was editing the AFC’s mimeographed newsletter which he soon developed into Film News, a substantial illustrated monthly. He remained at the center until 1945 when he joined the magazine Fortune as a staff writer and an associate editor. McDonald was elected to Fortune 's board of editors in 1949, and retired from the company in 1971.

While at Fortune, McDonald, by his own admission, turned out over one hundred articles and edited countless others. His specialty was the strategic aspect of American business, which encompassed economic theory and game theory, but his early writings on fishing, "Fly Fishing and Trout Flies" (May 1946) and "Atlantic Salmon" and "The Leaper" (June 1948), were probably his most popular and certainly his most colorful productions. Positive public reaction to those, and to the four articles he wrote for Sports Illustrated (appearing between the magazine’s August 1954 inaugural issue and 1958), inspired his three scholarly books on fishing history: The Complete Fly Fisherman: the notes and letters of Theodore Gordon (Scribners, 1947; reissued by Theodore Gordon Flyfishers in 1970, Nick Lyon’s Books in 1989, and Easton Press in 1995); The Origins of Angling (Doubleday, 1963; reissued by Lyons & Burford and Easton Press in 1997); and Quill Gordon (Knopf, 1972). The first and third titles introduced twentieth-century readers to Theodore Gordon (1854-1915), the legendary but forgotten scholar-fisherman of the Catskills, now acknowledged as the father of the American school of dry-fly fishing. The second centers on the fifteenth-century fisherwoman Juliana Berners, and was expanded from his Sports Illustrated articles. His work on these projects engendered friendships with a number of leading British and American fishermen and fishing historians, including Alfred W. Miller (1892-1983), a New York public relations executive who published under the pseudonym Sparse Grey Hackle.

A interest in gambling, particularly in card games and horse racing, led to McDonald’s work in game theory. It began with his research for a Fortune article on poker ("Poker: An American Game," March 1948) and continued in "A Theory of Strategy" (June 1949); both relied upon the writings of the Princeton economists Oskar Morgenstern (1902-1977) and John Von Neumann (1903-1957), the leading minds in game theory. The articles were followed by a book, Strategy in Poker, Business and War (Norton, 1950; reissued in 1963, 1989, and 1996, and in a Japanese edition), which McDonald once described as an interpretation of Von Neumann and Morgenstern’s landmark volume, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944). Both men assisted him with various projects over the years, and Morgenstern continued to advise McDonald in the decades following Von Neumann’s death. As with the Fortune article, the poker book was illustrated by his friend, the Connecticut artist Robert Chesley Osborn (1904-1994). Research for two other Fortune pieces, "How Businessmen Make Decisions" (August 1954) and "The Business Decision Game" (March 1958), inspired McDonald to continue and expand upon his game theory work with academics. With their help, he designed an intensive survey centered on strategic decision-making practices with which he interviewed executives at leading American corporations; armed with the resulting data, he composed The Game of Business (Doubleday, 1975; reissued in 1977; also in German, Japanese, and Russian editions). Perhaps McDonald’s least-known project is William S. Paley’s autobiography, As It Happened: a Memoir (Doubleday, 1979), in which he is credited with the selection and organization of material, research guidance, and editorial insight.

The work for which John McDonald is best known, and which was a constant presence throughout the last fifty years of his life, is the management classic, My Years with General Motors, by Alfred P. Sloan Jr. (Doubleday, 1964; reissued in 1972 and 1990; with editions published in China, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland, as well as recorded for the blind, between 1963 and 2004). John McDonald’s relationship with the giant automobile corporation began in 1949 when he interviewed Sloan (1875-1966), its board chairman and former chief executive, for a Fortune feature on the Sherman Antitrust Act. Afterward the pair planned out and began to co-author a series of articles on general management principles; that assignment eventually grew into a memoir covering Sloan’s fifty-year career in the automobile business and his contribution to the principles and practices of industrial organization. McDonald took a leave of absence from the magazine and, aided by research associate Catharine Stevens (1925-1997), and with his friend the photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) as picture editor, worked full time on the book from 1954 to 1959. While he officially received credit as the project’s editor, McDonald was in fact responsible for most of the text, and was therefore in a position to file a lawsuit against General Motors when, fearing the contents would open the potential for antitrust litigation, it ordered the manuscript suppressed. After several years of legal parrying, the corporation relented and the book was released in 1964 (serialized first in Fortune, beginning in October 1963). It immediately became required reading for business and management faculty and students as well as those in the industry, a status it has since maintained. For many years afterward, McDonald was encouraged by friends to write a book on his legal struggle with General Motors. He had kept all of his research and project files, as well as copious notes documenting the meetings and telephone phone conversations with the corporation's attorneys, during the decade-long process of creating the Sloan book. McDonald began working in earnest on a manuscript while in his mid-eighties, and his final literary work, A Ghost's Memoir: the Making of Alfred P. Sloan's My Years with General Motors (MIT Press, 2002), was published nearly four years after his death at age 92 on December 23, 1998.

With the exception of residing in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, from 1942 to1945, John McDonald and Dorothy Eisner lived and worked in New York City after their marriage. Eisner generally spent her summers painting in rural settings that included upstate New York (1937-1942), Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (1947), Livingston, Montana (1949-1958), and from 1960, on Cranberry Island off the coast of Maine. Cranberry Island was also a favorite place for McDonald, and he continued to spend time there in the years following Eisner's death on April 28, 1984.

From the guide to the John McDonald papers, 1890-1999, 1945-1997, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)


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Ark ID:


  • Flies, Artificial
  • Fishing--History
  • Suites (Piano, bassoon, clarinets (2))--Scores
  • Management games--Case studies
  • Authors, American--20th century--Archives
  • Game theory
  • Probabilities
  • Games
  • Automobile industry and trade--United States--Management--Case studies
  • Hearts (Game)
  • Strategic planning--Mathematical models
  • Piano music
  • Automobile industry and trade--Management--Case studies
  • Sonatas (piano)
  • Horse racing
  • Clubs--New York (State)--New York
  • Fly fishing
  • Industrial management--Case studies
  • Fishing
  • Fishing--Early works to 1800
  • Clubs
  • Business--Case studies--Mathematical models
  • Economics, mathematical
  • Business--Periodicals
  • Industrial management--United States--Case studies


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  • United States (as recorded)
  • Detroit (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • Detroit (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • New York (State)--New York (as recorded)