Skip to main content

John McDonald papers

Call Number: GEN MSS 622

Scope and Contents

The John McDonald Papers consist of correspondence, manuscripts, and research materials related to McDonald's published writings on the practice and history of American business, management, game theory, and fishing. Also in the collection are files of his personal correspondence, and a few papers documenting his political, social, and professional involvements, including his work with during the 1940s with the American Film Center and earlier, with the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky and the Dewey Commission. The bulk of the collection concerns McDonald’s published writings, particularly his nine books on strategic business practices and fishing history as well as many of his Fortune magazine articles, and his unfinished works in fiction and non-fiction. The files contain personal and business correspondence, research material, notes, contracts, drafts, tear sheets, reviews, and fan mail, and a set of diary-like "logbooks," but little in the way of visual materials.

While the papers contain good documentation for most topics related to McDonald’s life and writing projects, there are fewer records for the years before 1945. As he wrote in a note to the files dated 1976, “Most of my records prior to 1936 were lost, some in 1932-33 to fire and vandalism in my absence.” In addition, McDonald was primarily involved in freelance work through 1940 and changed residences frequently; in his later years he moved regularly between the New York metropolitan area and Cranberry Island, Maine.

The John McDonald papers are an important resource for studying the organization and management of American corporations, and the history and theory of economics, game theory, and fishing. Though McDonald's associations with radical politics are not as well documented, when viewed in tandem with materials in the Beinecke Library's Dorothy Eisner Papers and his correspondence with the academics Alan Wald and Archie Hobson, the papers provide a small but valuable window on the literary left and their pre-World War II political activities in New York and Mexico City.


  • 1890 - 1999
  • Majority of material found within 1945 - 1997


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Restricted Fragile in box 55 may be consulted only with permission of the appropriate curator. Preservation photocopies or photographic prints for reference use have been substituted in the main files.

Conditions Governing Use

The John McDonald Papers is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Christie McDonald and Joan McDonald Miller, 1999-2008.


The collection is organized into three series: I. Correspondence and Personal Papers (1926-1999); II. Writings (1890-1998); and III. Other Papers (1911-1998).

Associated Materials

Additional material, including snapshot photographs, documenting John McDonald's time in Mexico are filed as part of the Beinecke Library's collection of Dorothy Eisner's papers.


46 Linear Feet (56 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The John McDonald Papers consist of correspondence, manuscripts, and research materials related to McDonald's published writings on the practice and history of American business, management, game theory, and fishing. Also in the collection are files of his personal correspondence, papers documenting his political, social, and professional involvements, and material collected for works of fiction and non-fiction planned but never written.

John D. McDonald (1906-1998)

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.

Processing Information

Material in this collection was formerly filed as Uncat Mss 75, Uncat Mss 76, Uncat Mss 218, Uncat Mss 386, Uncat Mss 502, Uncat Mss 976, Uncat Mss 997, Uncat Mss Vault File (1938), Uncat Mss Vault 866, and Uncat Mss Vault 870. Aside from letters to and from John McDonald and their daughters (which remain with this collection), Dorothy Eisner's correspondence was separated out and filed with the Beinecke Library's collection of her papers.

Guide to the John McDonald Papers
by Sandra Markham
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

P. O. Box 208330
New Haven CT 06520-8330 US
(203) 432-2977


121 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Opening Hours

Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.