Like most members of the New Yorker staff, McKelway joined the armed services during World War II. He landed a plum position as an Air Force information officer in the South Pacific and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, working under General Curtis LeMay. There, his peculiar mental illness possibly first surfaced and certainly first became an obstruction in his life. Shawn described it well in his New Yorker obituary of McKelway:
From time to time, he entered what was technically a manic phase but what he experienced as anything from “feeling good” to boundless euphoria. When he was in such a phase, small writing projects were pyramided into gigantic projects. His thoughts, and his telephone calls, would fly from his office on West Forty-Third Street to the White House, from there to other world capitals, and from there to outer space; then, after a while, he would subside and, again intact in his office, sit back and enjoy an interval of quiet, lucid composition. In retrospect, he looked upon these episodes as adventures, and was able to describe them with humor and detail.
McKelway eventually described in print nearly everything about his malady except the precise diagnosis; a perusal of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders suggests to this layman that it was bipolar disorder combined with mixed non-bizarre delusional disorder and a mild case of dissociative identity disorder.
And so it happened, in any case, that, sitting in his office in Guam, McKelway became convinced that Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Forces, had made tactical mistakes that in effect sabotaged the B-29 bombing program and amounted to high treason. He locked himself in his quonset hut, composed a long and strident radiogram to this effect, and sent it to the Pentagon. The longtime New Yorker contributor and editor Roger Angell, who encountered McKelway during the war, says, “The Pentagon amazingly enough realized what had happened, put a net over him, and put him in Walter Reed Hospital. He worked there for the rest of the war.”
As strange as the episode was, possibly even stranger was the fact that McKelway wrote a long New Yorker piece about it, published in 1958 under the heading, “That Was a Reporter at Wit’s End.” And stranger still was the way he described it with such equanimity and precision. A striking aspect was that, as with some dreams, he half-believed the fantasies and half-realized they were just that. “I got more and more worked up as I wrote,” he recalled in the article, “and toward the end the things I said seemed to me muddleheaded if not hysterical.” A clue to his compartmentalizing ability was the dissociative identity (sometimes called multiple personality) disorder. He once wrote, “I have pretty much come to the conclusion that I have a great many heads. I’ve counted and identified twelve separate and distinct heads, or identities, that I know and possess.” And so if one of the heads was weaving elaborate fantasies, another could keep it under close observation.
McKelway was handsome, well groomed, and charming, which explains why, by the early fifties, he had convinced five women to marry him. And he was bonkers, which explains why all of those marriages ended in divorce. In 1954 (the same year his only child, a son, died in a helicopter crash), he wed the novelist and New Yorker contributor Maeve Brennan; that marriage lasted five years and was his last. Between and sometimes during marriages, McKelway lived in third-tier Manhattan hotels and spent The New Yorker’s money. That was problematic. Since 1939 he had been a New Yorker staff writer, which meant that he was given an office and, instead of a salary, a drawing account, which amounted to advances against future article payments. He was prolific, but he wasn’t that prolific, so he always owed the magazine money. The amounts ranged from $7,138.76 in 1954, to $9,488.03 in 1966, to $5,357.23 in 1975. The exact figures are preserved in depositions given by New Yorker representatives when McKelway’s creditors tried to collect their debts through the magazine. The effort was never successful.