Wrangler/writer/broadcaster William “Bill” L. McGee, age 94, rode peacefully to his last roundup on October 30, 2019, from his home in Napa Valley, California. Sandra wrote this tribute to her husband and writing partner of 38 years…
Bill McGee’s writing career spanned six decades
He wrote 22 books, all in his signature writing style described as journalistic, spare, straightforward, and “as precise and economical as a Mickey Spillane novel.” (Marine Corps League Magazine) Bill had the reputation of being a straight-shootin’ author. When asked about his writing habits, Bill said, in his deep voice and Montana drawl, “There’s only one way to write… ass in seat.”
Bill was born in Montana in 1925 and grew up cowboying
When describing Bill, I like to quote a line by South Dakota cowboy poet Charles Badger Clark: “Cowboys are the sternest critics of those who would represent the West. No hypocrisy, no bluff, no pose can evade them.” This describes Bill McGee. Gruff-natured and quick-tempered at times, but solid on qualities that mattered… dependability, trustworthiness, honesty.
Some described Bill as a Renaissance man
After serving in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific in World War II, Bill returned to the work he loved – cowboying. From 1947 to 1949, he was the head dude wrangler on Nevada’s most exclusive dude and divorce ranch, the Flying M.E. It was the heyday of the Reno six-week divorce era. Bill entertained Eastern socialites with names like du Pont and Astor, and Hollywood movie stars like Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. Someday, he hoped to own his own ranch, raising cattle and taking in a few paying dudes.
In 1950, he accepted a temporary stint selling Willys Jeeps in New Jersey. He discovered he had a talent for sales and deal making, and could make more money in a month selling cars than in a year of cowboying. He made a big decision. He hung up his Levis and boots for Brooks Brothers suits (as he liked to say) and began the first of his many careers. After selling automobiles for Willys Jeeps and Chrysler, he owned and operated an open pit barbeque restaurant in Marin County in Northern California. He used his sales and deal making skills and became a major importer of wire and steel products on the West Coast in the world trade business.
In 1958, he set his sights on a career in the entertainment business. He used his proven selling and deal making skills in a segment of the business known as broadcast sales and marketing. He sold syndicated television programs and managed television stations on the West and East coasts.
In 1971, Bill launched his own company, Broadcast Marketing Company (BMC) in San Francisco. He became an innovator and leader in broadcast sales and marketing, and cooperative advertising. During the BMC years, from 1971 to 1984, Bill wrote eleven how-to sales guidebooks for television station managers and their sales reps.
When Bill wasn’t working or writing, he loved the outdoors
He scaled the summits of mountains. He ran the Colorado River. He skied, played tennis, and golf. He hiked the trails in Yosemite, the Sierras, and the Tetons. He was one of the first volunteers to help build the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail.
I’ve always had a fascination with the American cowboy
I met Bill in 1981 and it didn’t take long to convince me that Bill McGee, a genuine cowboy-turned broadcaster-turned writer, was the one for me. I was particularly enthralled with his cowboying years on the Flying M.E. I knew something about the Reno divorce era from the movies, The Women (1939) and The Misfits (1961).
And I just happened to be a good typist
Bill tried to retire in 1984 at age 59, but after a year of golf and travel, he missed having a creative project in the works. That’s when he began his final career – WWII Pacific war historian and memoirist.
I just happened to be a good typist and it didn’t take Bill long before he roped me in to type his manuscripts, which he wrote by hand on yellow legal tablets. Later, I would claim Bill married me just because I could type. In the beginning, I said nothing; I just typed. Then I began gently suggesting an edit or two.
In 2000, we collaborated on our first book, The Divorce Seekers – A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler. I was so passionate about the subject, Bill suggested I write a few of the chapters. He was so pleased with my contributions to the book – both in research and writing – he generously gave me co-author credit on the cover. We went on to collaborate on five more books – a WWII Pacific war history on military logistics and four memoirs – and my name was on the cover of each, alongside his.
Bill was a good editor. When he sadly became legally blind in 2003, I read his manuscript drafts aloud to him. I rarely got beyond the first paragraph without him raising a finger to make an edit. However, he always improved the copy.
Our writing collaboration lasted 20 years. As a husband and wife writing duo, I think we did well – except, perhaps, for the urge to edit each other’s copy.
Opposites do attract
I was soft-spoken, loved ballet, and cappuccinos. Bill was outspoken, liked camping, and was okay with instant coffee. Despite our differences, we were happily married for 38 years. Once or twice a year, Bill willingly donned his Western tux to escort me to opening night at the ballet and other galas, but, as the saying goes, he never got above his Montana raisin’.
After Bill’s passing, I was participating in a Hospice Grief Group for spouses. It was suggested we each write a letter to our dearly-departed, and then write what we thought they would write back to us. In my letter to Bill, I opened by thanking him for bringing me into his writer’s world – as reluctant as I was at first to be a part of it – and then I shared this 1,000-word tribute to him. I think Bill would have written back to me with something like, “Well, Sandra, your tribute’s okay, but cut it in half, and edit.”
Books by William L. McGee
“Bill McGee is no armchair historian.…He’s lived what he writes about whether it’s joining the Navy in ’42 at age seventeen simply to get into the fight, or cowboying in the West in the postwar ’40s, or working in broadcasting in the early days of 1950s and ’60s television.”
– Barnaby Conrad, founder of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and author of Matador