The issue of Life magazine that hit the newsstands on July 6, 1959 bore the image of an almost excruciatingly handsome man, then 27 years old, staring into the middle distance: dash-of-salt, tousled hair; lips puckered rakishly; eyes fixed in a gentle squint towards some unseen object of conquest (a cricketing nemesis’s middle stump, one might assume, given the raised right arm and cream V-neck sweater, were the man in question to hail from the other side of the Atlantic).
A strap at the bottom of the cover referred to this enigmatic Adonis as “actor, athlete, artist”, which now comes across as a rather cursory summary. Had the cover been published in the latter stages of Gardner McKay’s life, the magazine may have needed to accommodate other accomplishments, including sailor, basketball star, diver, fisherman, model, sculptor, theatre critic, photographer, and, improbably enough, agronomist’s assistant.
The cover line at the top of Life’s front page reads, “How about him, girls?”, and the feature inside exclaims: “This is the face that will launch a million sighs and burn its romantic image into the hearts of hordes of American females.” But while the girls would have been reaching for the smelling salts, it’s possible it was the boys in post-war America who felt more curious about the life of such a man. Indeed, when you get to turn down Marilyn Monroe’s personal appeals to become her co-star, and when your memories weave such a rich narrative that they scarcely seem plausible — as was the case with Gardner McKay’s unfinished Journey Without a Map, written as he succumbed to prostate cancer in 2001 at the age of 69 — you can relax in the knowledge that you’ve lived life to the full.