The Most Beautiful Woman in Puppetland

June 5th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

If you’ve always wanted to read something sentimental and sappy from a hardboiled noir mystery writer, this is your lucky day.

Barb and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary on June 1. You can check out the “before” and “after” photos above to see how much damage the years have done to me, and how Barb only gets lovelier as time lightly touches her.

I am reminded of my great grandparents and their Golden Anniversary celebration – dim and yet vivid in my memory. My great grandmother Rushing appeared to have stepped out of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” while my great grandfather was more Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster – she was staid and long-suffering, and he was a twinkle-in-the-eye reprobate.

The entire Rushing clan was gathered at their home for a big and elaborate celebration, with more food than lunch on the Road to Perdition set. At the after-dinner round of toasting, my great grandmother announced that she was divorcing my great grandfather and that he was to gather his things and leave at once. The suffering had gone on long enough, and now that she’d had her celebration for putting in her time, the old boy was sent literally packing.

He died a few years later, hit by a car as he crossed the street heading to a liquor store from the hospital where he was drying out.

I am happy to report Barb has not sent me packing, although some might say she would have the right, even if I’m not a hard-drinking reprobate. I am difficult and self-centered and a classic only child, spoiled by doting parents. She was one of seven (all girls save one), and her mother was bi-polar (not yet the diagnosis) who could make things miserable for her.

That had a lot to do why we married so young – I was twenty and she was nineteen. Her home situation was one I wanted to rescue her from, plus we were – and are – very much in love.

We’ve known each other since childhood. The story goes that we once shared a playpen while our mothers visited, but neither of us remember that. Sometimes we’re described as childhood sweethearts, which is sort of accurate. In the fifth grade, when I first noticed her resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, as I approached an age where such a resemblance was meaningful, she was my girl friend. By the sixth grade we had both moved on.

We were friends in junior high. Barb was an excellent trumpet player and I was a trumpet player, too (note the absence of an adjective before the second “trumpet,” which is what I was – second trumpet). Yes, I was second chair and she was first, and she once humiliated me (quite without malice) when I “challenged” her for her chair. Look, I knew she would wipe the floor with me, but the band director expected it of us all to go after the next chair. Somehow she did not laugh when the band director said to me, “Well, Allan, let’s stop it right there – I lost you on the second page….”

In high school, we went our separate ways – she to band, me to chorus (you had to choose). Our relationship was limited to smiles and nods in the school hallway. She was going with an older boy, a senior. I was going with nobody, not for want of trying. At my first junior-senior prom, my date ditched me. Funny story – I took the same girl to the next prom, and we laughed about winding up together again, though she (like Barb) was going with an older (college) boy.

Prom night 1966, the class had a riverboat ride after the dance – the XL’s with my pal Joe McClean played dances at both the prom and on the riverboat. My band the Daybreakers had their first gig at the after-prom party following the riverboat ride. But, like Vivian in the Antiques books, I digress. Back to the riverboat….

My date somewhere dancing with somebody else, I found Barb leaning against the railing, alone, looking out at the Mississippi gliding by in the moonlight. I think it was misting a little. I joined her and we spoke for maybe five minutes. I don’t remember anything about the conversation, but I do know she was melancholy – I believe she had broken up with her now-college-age boy friend, or anyway her mother had broken them up. We had a very nice conversation, though, and connected, and I do remember wishing she was my date (no offense meant to my actual date, who had ditched me the year before, remember). We connected, briefly, but connected.

We both wound up at Muscatine Community College. Barb’s grandparents had offered their grandchildren funding for two years at MCC, and Barb took them up on it, as did her year-older sister, Ann (very pretty, the Veronica to Barb’s Betty). I had been offered a few football scholarships and a creative writing one at Iowa Wesleyan, where I had won a high school writing competition with a piece about how it felt for us at high school on the day Kennedy was shot. But I turned those down to go to MCC, because I was having a good time with the Daybreakers and wanted to keep the band going.

Meanwhile, a lot of our mutual friends – almost all of them – had gone to college elsewhere. Barb and I were, of our extended crowd, about it. So maybe it was natural we wound up together. Our first date was not a rousing success – it was part of a chorus outing at Wild Cat Den, and Barb has always loved the Great Out of Doors, and I haven’t (and don’t). I remember sitting on a rock high above a beautiful expanse of green with the first browns of fall, saying, “You know what the first thing was that the pioneers did, when they came west?”

“No,” she said.

“They built a cabin and got the hell inside.”

I have always known how to charm beautiful women.

Somehow I got a second date with her. I’m sure I was trying to impress her, babbling about writing and music, but she has reported the moment she fell in love with me as when – in the midst of some self-important discourse – I accidentally stuck my fingers in my water glass at Bishop’s Cafeteria in Davenport, Iowa.

We quickly became that arm-in-arm couple in the school hallway who made everybody else sick. We went out on weekends and frequently were together in the evening. We cut class and went to the nearby Quad Cities to have meals and shop (this is something we still do, although it’s work we escape from, not class). Barb’s mother, who called me a “juvenile delinquent,” did her best to break us up. She dragged Barb off to Arizona when a younger sister needed a change of clime for medical reasons, and this seemed in part calculated to put an end to the Barb-and-Al thing. The trip was truncated, only a few months long (despite Barb having transferred to a Tucson college), and we got serious. Really serious.

I don’t recall, exactly, asking her to marry me. I think we both sort of knew we had to get her out of that house. My parents were very supportive but a little suffocating, as the parents of only children often are, but overall they were great. Barb’s grandparents were great, too, letting us live in their home for the first months of our marriage while they stayed in a summer cottage.

I commuted to Iowa City and the University of Iowa while Barb supported us by working at the First National Bank. She was a stellar performer there and rose to an officer’s position. When I landed the Dick Tracy strip in late ‘77, she left the job – she got a retirement party at age 28! – and went back to school…Iowa Wesleyan, where I had almost gone, though she took most of the classes through MCC.

Then Nathan Collins came along in 1982.

To talk about how Barb has grown and blossomed – in ways I never have – would take a book, not a blog entry. It’s too bad the current generation has made “amazing” and “awesome” meaningless, because Barb is both those things. I truly believe if her husband had been a brain surgeon, she would have picked that up. Though she had no strong interest in writing fiction, or even reading it, she displayed a strong story sense from the start. We always went to a lot of movies, and her analysis of them – their strengths, their weaknesses – was always spot on.

She has been, from the start, my editor. I used to work nights, and would always have a chapter waiting for her in the morning. She continues to be the reader whose reaction is both first and foremost. Back in the Ms. Tree comic book days, when Terry Beatty and I were doing the “Mike Mist” minute mysteries as a filler, I asked her to do rough drafts for me. She did. Then when Terry needed a break from drawing the strip, I asked her to try writing a Mist mystery in prose format. She did.

I remember exactly what I said to her, after reading it.

“This is good,” I said. “A little too goddamn good.”

The thing is, she’s not a natural. She has to work at it, which she does – hard and diligently. She brings her considerable smarts and her willingness to work to a craft that many say they want to master, but don’t, or can’t. Soon she began doing short stories for anthologies edited by the late, so great Marty Greenberg.

Her work was so strong, and well-received, that I encouraged her to try novel writing. We did that together, with Regeneration and Bombshell. Then, at editor Micheala Hamilton’s urging, we tried a proposal for a cozy mystery series. That neither of us read cozies did not stop us.

We’ve done thirteen Antiques novels, which makes fifteen novels. Three times the number Dashiell Hammett published, and more than that piker Raymond Chandler ever managed.

Along the fifty year way, this beautiful, brilliant woman has put up with an egocentric lout with whom you may be familiar. She runs the household, and the business, and the cozy mystery series she co-writes with me is one of the most successful things I’ve ever been associated with. Our union has also produced an incredibly gifted son, who also married a fantastic woman, resulting in the cutest, smartest grandson (Sam) in the history of man. No brag, just fact.

Who can blame me for loving Barb even more today than when I was a fresh-faced punk and she was the most beautiful woman in Puppetland (as Pee Wee Herman described Miss Yvonne)?

For those out there who hate me – and I can hear you sneering – this is what you should hate me for most: the luck, the fantastic crazy luck, that has given me fifty-two years (thus far) with this awesome, amazing woman.

I love you, baby.

* * *

Speaking of the Antiques series, here’s a lovely review of Antiques Wanted.


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15 Responses to “The Most Beautiful Woman in Puppetland”

  1. Thomas Zappe says:

    Lovely piece, it could serve as the prologue to a story about senior citizens turning to a life of crime when their pensions get destroyed in the stench of the Bernie Madoff fiasco.

    My class of 1966 is celebrating our 70th birthday with an ensemble affair.

    I just finished reading KILLING TOWN; the expression “ripsnortin’ ride” somehow comes to mind. I’m curious, did the original Spillane fragment have that much sex & violence in it, or did you just add the extra cup and a half as a centenary present to Mickey?

    And yes, you do have the good fortune of being married to a lady upon whom the years have smiled. Does she have a portrait stashed somewhere up in an attic?

  2. Mickey’s sixty pages (which I turned into around 100 pages) was extremely violent. He was, shall we say, building up to the sex stuff but hadn’t quite got there yet.

  3. Thomas Zappe says:

    Well….you certainly offered a fitting climax.

  4. stephen borer says:

    What a charming, reflective, and loving post ! A belated happy anniversary. & I’m wondering where the new photo was snapped..

  5. Brian Van Winkle says:

    What a wonderful, heartwarming story – thanks for sharing. Barb is one of the most gracious, classy, elegant people I have ever met; you ain’t too bad either, I suppose. :-)

    Love both you guys and wish you many more years together. :-)

  6. Bryan K McMillan says:

    What a beautiful tribute and a cool story all around. Happy belated anniversary!

  7. Linda Donaldson Grim says:

    Being in the class of ’67, I don’t remember how I met Barb. I thought she was a kind and gentle person. Congratulations on your 50 years of marriage. Joe and I will celebrate our 50th next year. We are the opposite of you and Barb. I’m the only child and he is one of five. My Grandparents raised me, so to them I was chlld number three. I enjoy your cozy mystery series. I was a non-fiction and crime fiction fan. I can’t remember what non-fiction book I had just finished and decided I need a change of pace…….thus I read Antiques Roadkill. Have read all of them since. Happy Anniversary……may you celebrate many more.

  8. Thanks to all of you.

    Linda, thanks for reading and enjoying the ANTIQUES novels! We love working on them together.

  9. Terry Beatty says:

    Sorry to be late with the congratulations — but a Happy 50th to you both! How is it possible that you two have been together 50 years and Barb still doesn’t look a day over 30? You are indeed a very lucky man — not everyone gets it right the first time and gets to stick together for five decades. Erika and I will hit our 10 year anniversary in December — and it’s pretty certain that at my age, I won’t be around for a 50th — unless it’s as a head in a jar with a robot body. Hey — it could happen.

    Heck of a story about your great grandparents. How did I manage to never hear that one before?

  10. Yeah, Terry, that’s the funniest and saddest story I ever heard/experienced. Everybody gathered around and the bad old boy gets the boot. He deserved it! But he sure seemed lovable to a little kid….As for why I never told it before, it never had the resonance it does now! Ten years is no small feat, particularly when a woman is married to a cartoonist…shoot for another ten!

  11. Mark Lambert says:

    Al and Barb, my heartfelt congratulations! Fifty years — wow, that’s something! Happy Anniversary!!!

  12. Raymond Cuthbert says:

    Congratulations on achieving such a milestone! Each of you finding the person of their dreams!

  13. Brian Drake says:

    Thank you so much for sharing that story, Max.

  14. Susan and Doug says:

    Such fun reading this…and how you reference many of your writings! Cheers to fifty years of living life’s adventures together both in and away from your writing talents…blessings for continued health as you embark on the next chapters of your lives!!!

  15. Mike Doran says:

    Looking at love duets on YouTube, all the while kinda jealous of the two of you …

    My favorite is probably “You’re My Ever Lovin'”, from Stop, You’re Killing Me, performed by Broderick Crawford and Claire Trevor. Just gladdens my heart whenever I see it –
    – as do you and Barb.

    Looking forward to August at Augie’s.