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Who was John Ball?
Exploring the pseudonymity of a prolific author and discreet nudist leader
We know plenty about John Ball, though his Wikipedia page is a little slim. The entry mentions that he was born in New York, grew up in Wisconsin, died in California. He was an aviation buff. He had a brief career as a magician. Wikipedia focuses primarily on the obvious, his work as a novelist, best known for his mystery and crime novels. He was the author of the popular In the Heat of the Night series, which was later adapted into a film and television show. The series follows the investigations of Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective in the fictional Deep South town of Sparta, Mississippi.
Ball's novels are notable for their exploration of racial tension and social issues in the South during the Civil Rights era, and the Virgil Tibbs character is remarkable largely for its portrayal by actor Sidney Poitier in the film adaptation of In the Heat of the Night, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967. Poitier's performance as Tibbs helped to break down barriers for black actors in Hollywood and cemented his status as a leading man in American cinema. It also gave the world one of the more bad-ass images in cinema that year.
Naturally, John Ball attempted to replicate the success of In the Heat of the Night with more books about Virgil Tibbs, but none quite touched on the cultural zeitgeist in quite the same way as the original book so effectively did. Instead of the racially divided Jim Crow south, Ball’s second Tibbs novel, The Cool Cottontail, placed Detective Tibbs in a Southern California nudist resort, attempting to solve the mysterious murder of a conspicuously tan-lined cadaver who turns up dead in the clothes-free camp’s swimming pool. This setting didn’t quite produce the Oscar-winning spinoffs that its predecessor did, but it did lend itself to create a very fun little detective novel, and certainly expressed a deeply held interest of John Ball’s, who by then, in his private life, had become a vocal advocate and influential leader in the American nudism movement, working under the pseudonym Donald Johnson.
Who was Donald Johnson?
As Donald Johnson, Ball was an active member of the national nudist community, and had been for nearly two decades when The Cool Cottontail hit bookstores in 1966. Johnson had been an editor of Sunshine & Health magazine until 1951 when he resigned after the contested public ouster of its publisher Ilsley Boone, an ouster which Johnson publicly supported. Despite his prominence in the nudism movement, John Ball was secretive about his nudist identity in the textile world, and never allowed himself to be photographed for the nudist magazines to which he regularly contributed writing and reporting.
Donald Johnson went on to write several non-fiction books on the topic of nudism in the 1950s, including The Nudists and The Nudist Society, both of which educated the public about nudism using sociological studies and investigative reporting. Johnson also served as president of the Western Sunbathing Association—now known as AANR West—from 1964-1966. Over his impressive nudist career, he collected an extensive archive of nudist magazines and publications which are now housed as the Donald Johnson Collection at the American Nudist Research Library in Kissimmee, FL.1
Johnson's contributions to nudism include his advocacy for the rights of nudists and his work to educate the public about the benefits of social nudity. His writings and leadership helped to establish nudism as a legitimate and respectable lifestyle choice worth studying for health and social purposes. He was also a proponent of the idea that nudism is not just about nudity, but rather a way of life that encourages physical and emotional well-being, as well as a respect for the environment and nature. Notably, he also successfully challenges the popular notion that you must use your real name and image to properly advocate for nudism, proving that you can advocate just as effectively using your authentic voice.
John Ball died in 1988. Unfortunately, so did Donald Johnson.
Ball’s legacy will always be marked by writing the story that inspired the movie which cemented Virgil Tibbs and Sidney Poitier in the American cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s.
Donald Johnson's legacy, now somewhat lost to the textile world, is still celebrated by those in the nudist community who know of or even remember him, and is still often referenced by scholars and researchers of nudism. His archive at the American Nudist Research Library serves as an important resource for those interested in learning more about the history and development of the nudist movement in America. 🪐
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