Icons / July 2018

Gardner McKay: Dashing Overachiever

Gardner McKay was the antithesis of the famehungry ’sleb that contemporary culture knows so well. He spurned heartthrob status for a life of adventureliterary achievement and existential restlessness…  

Gardner McKay driving in his Chevrolet convertible as his shaggy dog enjoys the ride, 1959. Photograph by Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

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 McCay’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. 

McKay became a household name thanks to his starring role in the television series Adventures in Paradise, based loosely on James Micheners Pacific Ocean-based yarns, which ran from 1959 to 1962 and in which McKay starred as a skipper of a schooner that plied the South Pacific in search of improbable adventures. In a sane world, that show would be but a furtive, small-print disclosure on his CV. The great-grandson of the shipbuilder Donald McKay, McKay was born George Cadogan Gardner McKay into a wealthy Episcopalian family in New York City, but brought up between there and Paris (between the ages of four and 17 he crossed the Atlantic eight times and stayed in 13 different boarding schools). 

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