Long Island is known for its ties to literary heavyweights. Among them, Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Nelson DeMille and Vincent Lardo. Not familiar with that last name? Not surprising. Lardo is a very low-key guy, despite his six New York Times bestsellers.
Lardo's road to success had some detours; he began writing novels on his lunch hour while working for an advertising firm. "In the '80s, when word processors came out, I used to close my office door for lunch and write," he recalled. "I sent my first book, a 'mainstream' mystery to a number of publishers who rejected it."
Instead of giving up, he retooled his characters and came up with a winning formula. "As a gay man, I wondered what would happen if I changed the story to appeal to that market," he said. "I went back to the word processor, killed the protagonist's wife and gave him a gay son. Voilà, I had an offer from Alyson Publications. 'China House' was published in 1986 followed by 'The Prince and the Pretender' and 'The Mask of Narcissus.' "
The three novels gave Lardo a measure of success, but it wasn't until he turned 68 in 1999 that his string of bestsellers began.
Lardo was born in the Bronx in 1931, attended Evander Childs High School and the City College of New York. In 1952, with the Korean War raging, he joined the Army. By July 1953, he was in Seattle, boarding a troop transport ship headed for Korea. But the ship never left the dock; the armistice ending the war had been signed that same day. He spent the next year stationed in northern Japan. After his discharge from the service in 1954, he enrolled at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey under the G.I. Bill, where he received a degree in English literature. Lardo worked in the banking industry before landing on Madison Avenue, where his book writing career was born.
The three novels provided a foundation for the accolades that followed. After they were published, Lardo retired from Burson-Marsteller, the public relations arm of the well-known advertising agency Young & Rubicam. He and his partner, Bob Evans, a department store buyer, who died in 1999, moved from Manhattan to Amagansett where they had a second home.
'The Hampton Affair'
Once again, Lardo tried the mainstream literary market and began work on a mystery set in the Hamptons. The weekly newspaper East Hampton Star published one chapter of his book, "Two Holes of Water." An agent saw it, contacted Lardo, and "Two Holes" became "The Hampton Affair," published by Putnam Press in 1999.
That same year, while working on a sequel, "The Hampton Connection," his agent called with a once-in-a-lifetime offer. Would Lardo like to take over the Archy McNally series that author Lawrence Sanders, who died in 1998, had made popular? Lardo hesitated.
"I obviously knew who the late Lawrence Sanders was. I had read all of his 'Deadly Sins' books, but I was not familiar with the McNally series," Lardo explained. "I told my agent, 'Having never read one, I don't know if I can write one.' "
Two days later, the entire McNally series written by Sanders -- seven books total -- arrived at Lardo's door. "I figured the first one, 'McNally's Secret' would set the blueprint for the series. I was right. Archy McNally was my kind of guy and had much in common with my 'Hampton' character Michael Anthony Reo. Both lived in upscale resort towns, McNally in Palm Beach; Reo, East Hampton. Both moved among the rich and famous, enjoyed wine, women and song. They both lived a stone's throw from the same ocean, separated by a mere 1,200 miles," Lardo said. "I felt like I knew Archy."
Lardo accepted the offer to pick up where Sanders left off and began work. "It was crazy," he recalled. "I was trying to finish 'The Hampton Connection,' with a fast-approaching deadline while starting my first McNally book. Every day I would do five hours on McNally, break for a quick lunch while I made the mental transition from Palm Beach to East Hampton, then start on 'Connection.' "
Not only did he get the job done, both books were published to rave reviews. "McNally's Dilemma" was a huge hit in 1999, and Lardo's droll style was accepted by Sanders' legion of fans with nary a ripple of protest. This may have been because Lardo's name did not appear on the book's cover. One had to search the copyright page to find any mention that it had not been written by Sanders.
The transition was so smooth that even a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, missed the switch, commenting that "The murder mystery as comedy of manners may seem an old-fashioned genre in today's graphically violent mystery world, but Sanders makes it fresh as tomorrow."
Lardo's name appeared on the cover of the paperback version of "McNally's Dilemma" and the five McNally sequels that followed. All six of his Archy McNally books made The New York Times bestseller list.
Now 82, Lardo hopes to get his latest novel, "The Jockstrap Murders," published this fall. "Many years ago, Gypsy Rose Lee had a book called 'The G-String Murders' set in the world of strip tease clubs. My protagonist in 'Jockstrap' is a bisexual investigative reporter, Mike Gavin. I think the time is right for a bi hero."
Lardo's hunch may be right. His first three novels, published in the mid-1980s, have just been rereleased as e-books and in paperback by MLR Press.
With his own success firmly established as a best-selling author, Lardo derives much pleasure working with aspiring authors. He has been an active member of Marijane Meaker's Ashawagh Hall writers workshop in Springs since 1992. The group was founded by Meaker (who has had more than 60 books published under her pen names, M.E. Kerr and Vin Packer) in 1982 with one mission: "We exist to get people published," Meaker stated. "We've had 15 members reach that goal." When asked what it means to have a writer with Lardo's credentials on board, Meaker replies: "That's funny. Vincent is very humble. He never mentions his bestsellers. Some newcomers have been members for months before they realize that 'the quiet guy' is one of our most prolific writers. When he does offer advice, this too, he does quietly, with no fanfare, often calling or emailing the person with suggestions."
One Ashawagh Hall writer who benefited from Lardo's mentoring was Betty Varese. A charter member of the group, she had hit the writer's block wall and was ready to give up on her mystery novel. "I called Vince. 'I can't do this,' I told him. He came to my house, we sat down, and I told him the areas where I was stuck. He had some great suggestions," Varese said. "I was having problems trying to infuse humor into my mystery. How do you go from a murder scene to one where you are hoping for a laugh? He's a master at that. I would not have finished the book without him." Her book, "No Just Deserts," written under the name Elisabeth Bastion, was published in 2004 by Thorndike Press.
"I like helping," Lardo said. "I've found that writers, as a group, are generally very giving and willing to assist one another. It feels good to see others get published."
Helping others to publish
More than a dozen writers, who honed their skills at Marijane Meaker's Ashawagh Hall writers workshop in Springs, have had their books published. To name a few: Robert Boris Riskin (who uses Boris Riskin for his jacket covers ("Deadly Secrets"); Edward Hannibal ("A Trace of Red," just rereleased), and Helen Barer ("Fitness Kills").
Writers must qualify to join the group. To learn more about the workshop, you can attend a meeting where members will be reading their material at the East Hampton Library June 3-4, July 1-2 and Aug. 5-6 from 5:30-6:30 p.m. All are welcome.