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.
Or how, in the face of these internal and external difficulties, he continued to produce outstanding work. In 1962, he wrote a long article for The New Yorker called “The Edinburgh Caper”; it was published as a book the same year with the subtitle “A One-Man International Plot.” It bears some similarities to the Guam piece, but there, McKelway had a reasonable belief that, in his mind, grew way out of proportion. Here, he takes us step by step through the development of a paranoid delusion. Specifically, while on a trip to Scotland three years earlier, he imagined that he was involved in CIA skulduggery intended to foil a Soviet plot to kidnap Queen Elizabeth and President Eisenhower. Among other things, he fancied he was being sent messages by means of the letters and numbers on the license plates of passing cars. Even more so than in the Guam article, McKelway’s description of the onset and development of the delusion is compelling because it is so matter of fact. Waking up in his hotel room in Edinburgh, he writes,
a jumble of disturbing thoughts flashed through my head with great rapidity … . I thought of the Camerons [a pleasant Scottish couple he had befriended] as being somehow menacing. In short, I hated them. It is only to those we love that we turn at unexpected times the gnarled and ugly face of hatred. And in that realm, suspicion readily moves into the space close to our hearts that we thought could be occupied only by trust. These thoughts of mine, you understand, came into my head with terrific speed and were gone in a few seconds, but in those few seconds, I saw Cameron as a Soviet agent of the highest type, and Mrs. Cameron as a co-agent.
He ends up standing outside the hotel where an American officer is staying and — having gotten it into his head that this is the expected means of communication — singing excerpts from an Ethel Merman song at the top of his lungs. Not surprisingly, he is arrested, and in his jail cell, in addition to continuing with the Merman song, he shouts out “such phrases as ‘Now the Labradors. And now the setters and pointers. And here come the weimaraners.’ These seemed to me to represent the different types of Strategic Air Command bombers that were on their way to the rendezvous over Russia.” He ends up finding and confiding in the officer, but it turns out the colonel has been in touch with Curtis LeMay, knows all about the “ Guam caper,” and receives McKelway’s allegations in good humor. By that time, the writer’s cooler heads are prevailing, and he quickly wraps up loose ends. More than four decades later, “The Edinburg Caper” remains a unique and riveting work of interior journalism: a book resembling what Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret might have been had it been written by a lucid Joe Gould.