In December of 2011, there was a deep snow covering my back yard in Northern Michigan. I thought back to a very different winter 26 years earlier, a winter of sunshine, desert sands and palm trees as I lived for a few months at the elegant Monterey Country Club near Palm Springs. I was enjoying an e-mail conversation with Allan Glaser, the long-time partner of Tab Hunter, and we were discussing my friendship and professional association with silent movie star Patsy Ruth Miller, who had a condo at that country club.
I was telling him about the day she and I arrived there to work on her memoirs. Her husband of 35 years had just died and she didn’t want to grieve. She wanted to distract herself by working on a book and she probably thought that having a young man to help would make the project more pleasurable.
Dear Allan –
Where did I leave you hanging? Oh yes. She had interrupted my blissful trance as I looked at that gorgeous view from her living room windows by asking for a drink. As I recall, I just stood there, not knowing what to say or do. “And fix one for yourself, too, if you want one,” she added, and then disappeared down the hallway.
I had prepared a drink for her in Connecticut a couple of times, but it had been a while and I had forgotten her alcohol of choice. There was a wet bar in one corner of the room and a small cabinet with glasses for wine, snifters for brandy, tall narrow glasses for aperitifs and cordials and short squatty glasses for various cocktails. Below the bar was another cabinet and inside were bottles of wines, liquors and liqueurs. I saw creme de cacao, creme de menthe, Barbados rum, brandy and a bottle of Wild Turkey among other bottles with labels I couldn’t even pronounce.
When she returned after a couple of minutes, expecting to enjoy her cocktail, she found me standing there looking like a fool! “Oh, I forgot,” she grinned. “You’re a preacher’s kid. I’ll have to corrupt you!”
I watched as she pulled a perfectly nondescript glass from a cupboard in the kitchen and dropped in three ice-cubes, over which she poured two jiggers of Canadian Club, and then filled the glass with soda water. That was her favorite drink, and as long as I knew her, I never saw her drink anything else. I eventually became a reliable bartender, and when it got to be late in the afternoon, she’d look at me with that twinkle in her eye and that coo in her voice and say, “fix me a drink, dear. If it isn’t five o’clock here, it’s five o’clock somewhere in the world.”
She’d have two or three drinks every evening, but that was it. I never saw her drink any more than that, and she was proud of the fact that she had successfully sued a woman in the 1970s for saying in a book that “Tay Garnett was an alcoholic, as was his wife, actress Patsy Ruth Miller.”
She was not shy about filing a lawsuit to protect her reputation. A few years later, in the spring of 1994, I saw book while browsing in Barnes & Noble about the history of Warner Bros., the major Hollywood studio. It was called HOLLYWOOD BE THY NAME and was written by a member of the Warner family. Finding Patsy Ruth Miller’s name in the index, I turned to the page and was surprised to read that she had been the mistress of Jack Warner, the head of the studio! Miss Miller was living permanently in California by that time and her health was not very good. Nevertheless, I called her and told her about the book. She was furious and instructed her lawyer to sue the authors for one million dollars! Well, all hell broke loose. The Warners had powerful attorneys and they had no intention of paying an old actress a million bucks.
They sent some attorneys to her condo one afternoon in July of that summer to ask a series of questions. It was a legal deposition, and she got so confused and had so much trouble remembering the details of her career that her credibility was challenged. And an article I had written about her in 1988 was a very important piece of evidence used to discredit her position. “I’ve had three husbands and I’ve had lovers, but my private life will remain private,” I quote her as saying. It was damning, and her case was dismissed before it could begin.
I was not there when the deposition was taken, but I’ve seen a video. The lawyers asked questions that were often silly and stupid, and she became more and more frustrated with them as the interview went on. She even gave up being serious and tried to make a couple jokes, but the lawyers seemed too dull or dense to notice.
“Have you ever had an affair with a married man?” one of the lawyers asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” she answered, then added “unless it was OK with the wife!”
She mentions me several times, but she tells some fibs, quotes me as saying things I never said and attributes things to me that I never did.
It was interesting to watch the tape. The camera is on her the entire time, for 62 minutes, and it was sad to see how she had declined since I had last seen her. She was 90 years old and still pretty sharp, although her memory was not reliable. She looked tired and weak and could barely see. She said, under oath, that she was not under a doctor’s care and took no medication other than an Advil now and then. That was not true. She was being treated for terminal cancer. She died on July 16, 1995, almost exactly a year later.
I’m always amused by your questions, Allan. The friends who are in my life now know me only as an old movie buff. I don’t talk about Patsy Ruth Miller. And, frankly, I would feel slightly uncomfortable telling them that I was once a houseboy for a silent movie star! But yes, I think that’s essentially what I was, or rather, what she wanted me to be.
Best to you and Tab. –Jeffrey
Allan wrote back the next day and told me that he and Tad had enjoyed close friendships with old movie actresses Evelyn Keyes and Joan Perry. “Those two women had their quirks, but they weren’t as temperamental as Patsy Ruth Miller was,” he wrote. “But you must have enjoyed living in California, despite the frustration. It’s so beautiful in the desert.”
Hi, Allan –
Yes, Miss Miller’s condo was a very comfortable place to live, and the setting was certainly gorgeous. There was a lemon tree next to the patio, so we had fresh lemonade every day. The condo was furnished in a style very similar to her home in Connecticut, with comfortable furniture in various shades of pink and lavender. It was not that big, but had a nice airy feel.
The people who lived at that country club certainly enjoyed a pampered lifestyle. I didn’t meet any other retired film stars living there, except for Skippy Homeier, whose condo was on the other side of the fairway, but there may have been others. The neighbors on either side of Miss Miller, the Johnsons and the Spencers, had retired from the corporate world. I also remember meeting a man named Paul Hershey, a scion of that famous family.
On that first afternoon in that beautiful place, after she had finished her CC and soda and I had emptied a can of Coca-Cola, she suggested we go for a swim. It was only about 4 in the afternoon, and the sun was still high and bright, and the day was very warm. But I had foolishly not packed a swimsuit, and when I told her, she shrugged and suggested I could wear one of her husband’s. She found one and held it up for me to see. It was bright yellow, not my favorite color, and it looked huge. I’d have had to wear suspenders to keep it up!
“Won’t do, huh?” she said, noticing my less than joyful expression. “I guess we’ll just have to buy one at the mall. You can drive and I’ll show you the way.”
The idea of driving in the desert thrilled me. I had visions of tooling around in an open-topped foreign sports car, sleek and chic… until she handed me the keys to a great big heavy blue boat of a car. Have you ever seen a Cadillac Fleetwood? It was enormous!
There was a Fleetwood in her garage in Connecticut and the car in California was its twin. I had driven the car in Connecticut only once, which was not enough time to learn how to handle such a big automobile.
“Let’s go!” she said impatiently, getting in the passenger side and clicking the remote control. The garage door swung open, filling the space with bright, hot, sunlight. “We’ll go to Penney’s. I’m sure they have a good selection.”
Back home in Tennessee I had a little Toyota, a 1978 model that didn’t have air conditioning, but was just the kind of car I liked to drive. It sped up quickly and was easy to steer and control. When I got behind the wheel of that behemoth in California, started the engine and backed out of the garage, it was like trying to control a yacht!
And Miss Miller was the worst kind of back-seat driver. “Watch out for the pedestrian!” “You’re too close to the curb!” “Slow down, the light is turning yellow!”
I was already uptight, trying to get used to a car that seemed to be 25 feet long and 8 feet wide, and her nagging made me even more nervous. Finally, though, we made it to the mall which was only a couple miles or so from the country club. And I managed to find a parking space near the front entrance.
The mall was beautiful… filled with people, old and young, and all of them very attractive. Up the escalators we went and she held on to my arm as we strolled into Penney’s.
“I want to buy this young man a pair of bathing trunks,” she said to a clerk, a man of about 50 who stared at us over dark-rimmed glasses that had slid part of the way down his nose.
“Come with me,” he beckoned and led us to a section of the men’s department. She started picking up swimsuits and then putting them back, obviously seeing in her imagination just what she wanted me to wear. It made me slightly uncomfortable, as I was sure people were staring at us.
She selected three. There was a fourth, but it was yellow and I asked her to put it back
“Well, go on,” she prodded. “Try them on and let me see how you look.”
The clerk was still nearby, and I’m sure he was amused It occurred to me that it was just like the scene in SUNSET BOULEVARD where Gloria Swanson takes William Holden clothes-shopping, and I couldn’t help smiling. But my grin turned to a frown as I remembered that the film ended with William Holden’s lifeless body face-down in a swimming pool.
All my best to you and your life-partner. –Jeffrey
Hi, Jeffrey – Your stories are really fascinating. And I want to read more. It’s like reading an intriguing novel that you just can’t put down. I was just re-reading a few of your last e-mails and, ironically, Tab starred in the last picture Tay Garnett ever directed called TIMBER TRAMPS, a grade Z production that was a total embarrassment for everyone involved. And Tab loved Teresa Wright. There was a popular song at the time they were working together called LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT by Kitty Kallen. Tab use to sing it to Teresa all the time and every time we hear it (which is rare) Tab always mentions Teresa. I wish I been able to meet her. It’s after 11 p.m. so I’m off to bed. Maybe I’ll have more of your story to read when I get up. By the way, who inherited all of Patsy Ruth Miller’s property? Cheers! Allan
Dear Allan –
You asked who inherited her estate. Her son and daughter-in-law did. They inherited the big house in Connecticut and the condo in Palm Desert. Both were sold. The big house sold fairly quickly but they did hold onto the condo for about 10 years.
I went back to Palm Desert for a weekend in 2001 with my boyfriend at the time and we stayed in that condo. It had been 14 years since I had lived there and nine years since I had last visited, but it hadn’t changed… not in the slightest. The furniture was the same and was even arranged in the same way that I remembered. It was as though the clock had stopped ticking. And I kid you not, that giant Cadillac was still in the garage!
Miss Miller had been dead for six years, but I could feel her presence in every room. She had died in her bed, and I did not want to sleep in that room. We used the guest room instead, which had always been my favorite, with its lovely white wicker furniture and light blue walls.
I was only in Palm Desert for four months, from early November of 1986 to the end of March in 1987, but they were very dramatic months. Living with a silent movie star was a memorable experience, and although most of the time was spent working on that book, I had some fun, too. She was adjusting to life as a widow, but I didn’t see her grieving. Only once did I see a tear on her cheek, and she was embarrassed that I had caught her in a moment of sadness. She did not like to show any weakness and was not what I’d call sentimental, although her face would soften whenever she talked about her mother or Alla Nazimova, the actress who had discovered her.
We did have occasional disagreements, but they were minor. She was actually very good to me, and by the time the book was completed and I left in late March, I had grown very fond of her. I was able to see and appreciate a side of her personality that she didn’t reveal to most people. And she could be very kind and generous. She sent a check for $35,000 to her husband’s secretary to pay off her mortgage. And one day, after we had gotten into an argument, she handed me a check for one thousand dollars. It was more money than I had ever seen at one time.
My impression of her as a vain, thoughtless and self-centered woman began to soften, just a little. However, I never could warm up to her extreme right-wing politics or her disdain for minorities. She was certainly a believer in white supremacy! Also, she had no sympathy for the poor and thought that the European settlers should be celebrated for pushing the Native Americans off of their lands. “They were savages,” she said. “It is our responsibility to bring civilization to the wilderness.” I would try to defend the indigenous people of North America, but she’d have none of it. She could also be very rude to restaurant employees, criticizing their manners and service. She was a woman of contrasts, and during the moments when she was behaving badly, I would think of what her brother had said to me: “Try to understand her. She’s an old and tired star still trying to shine.”
I especially had to remind myself of those words one afternoon when the erstwhile Hollywood columnist Radie Harris arrived for an afternoon visit. Miss Harris, who was probably close to 80 at the time, had a prosthetic leg and once she made it to a chair and plopped into its cushions, she did want want to get up again. I had helped her to the chair and once the two ladies were seated in the living room, Miss Miller asked me to bring them some ice water “and put some of those roasted peanuts into a little dish.”
The kitchen was next to the living room and I could clearly hear them chatting as I poured water into glasses and looked for the can of peanuts.
“Where did you find that handsome young man?” Miss Harris asked. “Is he your companion?”
“Oh no, dear,” Miss Miller answered. “He is my serf!”
One thing that always amazed me was how lucky she wast to have loyal friends and very patient and devoted maids and cooks and housekeepers. The first day that I was with her in the desert, I heard the front door open early in the morning and a few minutes later I was introduced to Gloria Jiminez, a delightful woman in her 40s who cooked and cleaned and tried to be helpful in every way possible. Miss Miller was often unkind to her, but Gloria was always respectful and didn’t argue.
I liked Gloria enormously and she and I developed a system to make her job easier. Miss Miller hated the noise of the vacuum cleaner and the laundry machines. She would let her dirty clothes pile up before she’d allow Gloria to wash anything, even keeping the same sheets on her bed for weeks at a time, merely switching from one side of the bed to the other. When Gloria decided that she couldn’t wait any longer, she’d discretely ask me to take Miss Miller to the pool for a swim, or to the mall to do some shopping. “Keep her out of the house for a couple of hours,” she’d say and I was happy to oblige.
Gloria would stay until late in the afternoon, but then Miss Miller and I were on our own, and it was my responsibility to prepare our dinner. I have never had any culinary talent, but fortunately she was fond of Stouffers TV dinners. The dining room table was cluttered with our book-writing materials so we’d eat on trays every evening in the den as we watched television. I have many pleasant memories of those evenings.
I don’t have many pleasant memories of our afternoon swims, however, as I was keenly aware that she kept her eyes on me. I did not have a face or a body that would have turned heads, but she liked the way I looked in a bathing suit and she’d have a towel handy to dry my back when I’d emerge from the water, dripping all over the hot concrete. It was flattering in one way, but a bit creepy in another.
Several months later, in August, when I was staying with her in Connecticut and we were suffering through a heat wave, I left my hot room on the third floor one night and slept in the slightly cooler bedroom on the second floor that her late husband had used. I had forsaken pajamas and was sleeping in the buff. There was no lock on the bedroom door and the next morning, I threw back the sheet, swung my feet out and was standing up when I noticed that the door was open slightly. Beyond the door, in the dim hallway, I could see the outline of Miss Miller as she silently spied on me. I was mildly amused but mostly annoyed, so I quickly lay back down and slid under the sheet.
Another unpleasant memory is from an afternoon in California when I thought she was having a fatal heart attack.
By the way, I’m sending you and Mr. Hunter a copy of her book, MY HOLLYWOOD. Hopefully it doesn’t take as long to reach you as it did to write it.
All my best. –Jeffrey
The book reached its destination a few days later and Allan wrote to me right away. “It’s a lovely book,” he said. “I did not realize how big and heavy it would be. I haven’t started reading it yet, but I did look through it and I’m impressed to see so many photographs. I know it’s not easy to get a publisher to approve a lot of illustrations, as we went through that process when Tab’s autobiography was being prepared for publication.”
Dear Allan –
I’m glad the book reached you safely. Yes, it certainly has heft! As Miss Miller and I were working on it, we envisioned a slim paperback that could be carried onto planes and busses and slipped into pockets for reading on nice days in city parks. But it turned out to be a thick coffee table book, and it wasn’t cheap. I think the price was $49.99, and it wasn’t easy to find. Most bookstores didn’t carry it and not many people bought it.
It was finished in late March of 1987, and I left Palm Desert to take a reporting job at a newspaper in Tennessee. Miss Miller wanted me to stay on with her as a driver, secretary and general companion, but I was young and I needed to live my own life. She was very controlling, and I didn’t relish the idea of being at her beck and call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I must tell you, Allan, that the book you are holding in your hands is not the same book that we worked on for almost three years. It was completely re-written before it was published. The book started out as a series of letters between a young fan and an old movie star… i.e., me and Patsy Ruth Miller. I would write to her with various questions, and she would write back with her responses. We used that famous book by Helene Hanff (called 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD) as a model. That was the format we followed as we typed and re-typed, arranged sections and then re-arranged them, and we ended up with 287 pages. When the last period was put at the end of the last page and I left for Tennessee, her parting words to me were “thank you for the help, dear heart. Your name will be on the cover right below mine, and I’ll take you with me on a publicity tour.”
She had a friend in Springfield, Mass named Elaine Kregeloh who had contacts in the publishing field, and she agreed to act as our agent. The manuscript was shipped to her with high hopes for fame and fortune.
What we didn’t know was that the book as written didn’t have a chance. All through the summer of 1987 – while I was in Tennessee working as a reporter — Elaine was sending the manuscript to one publisher after another, but no one wanted it. They all turned it down. The format we had used was awkward and robbed the book of balance and continuity. One editor attached a note to the standard rejection letter suggesting that the book would work better as a straightforward autobiography “without the character of the young man asking questions.” Miss Miller decided to follow that advice and re-write the manuscript, but she didn’t tell me.
Late that summer I enrolled at New York University as a graduate student. Miss Miller had returned east for the summer and, being so close to New York, she invited me to move into her house. She was there alone, with no cook or housekeeper or maid, and she welcomed my company. It was only then that I learned about the new direction the book was taking, and she pressed me into service re-typing the pages. Classes began in September and I was in the city three days a week, but the rest of time the house echoed with the sound of typing. By the time she left for California in early November, most of the book had been rewritten. She finished it that winter in California, but when the revised manuscript was re-submitted to publishers the following spring, it was still rejected, the editors complaining that it was not racy enough. They wanted scandal. It finally did get into print, but that is not the happiest of stories.
When she returned to Connecticut in the spring of 1988, I was living in New York City, but I would occasionally take the train up to Stamford to spend weekends with her.
Having given up on me as a companion, she had invited another young man to move in, a tall, handsome Egyptian named Matouk, but he was rather surly and was prone to late night drinking and morning hangovers.
I’ll tell you something funny about him. One Saturday later that summer, I took the train to Stamford for an overnight visit. I got there late in the afternoon and found Miss Miller in an agitated state. “It’s Matouk,” she said. “He was drinking a lot last night and I haven’t heard a sound from the third floor all day.” She told me some shocking stories about him and his behavior and then added, “Could he be dead? Could I be that lucky?”
“I think we’d better find out,” was my sober reply, so we took the elevator to the second floor and then slowly climbed the narrow stairs to the third floor. He was staying in the little room under the eave that I had once occupied, and the door was slightly ajar. We inched toward it, but we were afraid to look in.
“Matouk?” she called softly, then called again, more loudly, “Matouk?”
We heard someone stirring in the room and a long sigh, and then the door was suddenly flung open…. and standing there was Matouk… naked! I was so startled that it took me few seconds to notice that only his head was covered…. with a white turban!
“We were concerned about you,” Miss Miller said with surprising composure. “I’m fine!” was his unfriendly, slightly accented response, and he closed the door in our faces. I thought I heard a woman giggling.
We didn’t speak as we made our way back down to the first floor, but as soon as we settled into comfortable chairs that afforded a lovely view of the harbor, I couldn’t help saying, “Mrs. Deans, I am shocked that he would let you see him like that.”
“Oh, think nothing of it, dear,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, and then winked. “I’ve seen him without his turban!”
Regards to you and Tab. –Jeffrey
Dear Jeffrey! What a story! I laughed so hard when I read about the Egyptian wearing only a turban. Whatever happened to him? I’ve started reading her book and I’m loving those beautiful illustrations. I’m even more impressed now than I was at first glance. Allan
Dear Allan —
Regardless of her disdain for Matouk, Miss Miller took him with her to California for the winter. It was very strange. No one liked him, but she held onto him for some perverse reason. She even took him on a New Year’s Eve cruise. I think he was with her for a couple of years and caused all kinds of problems, including kiting checks and renting a car in her name which he never returned.
And yes, you are right; the book is lavishly illustrated. It was a beautifully produced book, with hundreds of photos. And most of them came from Miss Miller’s own collection. Unlike Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD, she didn’t have framed pictures of herself on every table and hanging on every wall. She had long-ago packed away all the remnants of her Hollywood life and piled them in a dingy, dusty room at the very end of the third-floor hallway.
The little room I stayed in was also on that floor and during one of my early visits when the book was still in the planning stage, I had trouble sleeping one night and decided to do a little exploring… and opening the door to that room was like passing through a portal to the past. The room had one light, a bare and dusty bulb that bathed the room in a diffused light, and after my eyes adjusted to the dimness, the first thing I did was open an old hamper. It was filled with pictures, framed pictures. The frames were painted red, and the pictures were old and faded… but I could see they were portraits of lovely young women in beautiful gowns. They were Miss Miller’s bridesmaids when she married Tay Garnett in 1929. They were all film stars at the time and had signed the portraits with sweet messages of best wishes. The inscription I remember best was from Virginia Fox, who quit making movies when she married Darryl F. Zanuck. “Patsy dear,” she had written, “never will I forget this day and how beautiful you looked. May perfect happiness be yours. Always, with love, Virginia.”
The other portraits were of Lila Lee, Lois Wilson and Helen Ferguson, who left acting and became an agent for Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young, among others.
Under that stack was a portrait of Tay with his groomsmen, and I recognized James Gleason and Robert Armstrong standing on either side of the smiling young director. And then I saw a lovely photo of the bride and groom — Patsy and Tay — looking happy and very much in love. It made me feel a little sad to realize that the happiness captured in the photo did not last. They were divorced in 1933.
I put the photos back in the old hamper just the way I had found them and spotted some boxes near the window. Obviously, it had been a long, long time since anyone had been in that room, as dust had accumulated on everything. The slightest movement caused it to fly up into the air. Fighting back the urge to cough and sneeze, I opened the first box and grabbed a large stack of brittle paper. It was a bundle of letters from Tay Garnett, some of them mailed from Germany in 1933 when he was over there directing a movie called S.O.S. ICEBERG. He said if he’d been a better husband, she wouldn’t have had an affair with someone else, but he also blamed her for his own infidelity. “It’s all arranged for us to be divorced in Budapest,” he wrote. “So let me know the name of the ship and I’ll have someone meet you in Southampton.”
It was fascinating stuff. I couldn’t stop reading, even as the edges of the old letters started crumbling in my hand. I also found telegrams from the 1920s, several them from George Jessel and others from Marc Connelly, the playwright. And there was a long letter from Richard Barthelmess declaring his love, dated March 14, 1926. And in the next box was a few chapters of her life story. The pages were yellowed and out of order, but I sat cross-legged on the floor and started to read. It was good, very good, about a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl from St. Louis who went to Los Angeles on vacation and became a celebrated movie star. I had just reached an exciting episode about a trip to Tahiti with Lila Lee and John Farrow in 1931 when I suddenly heard a noise.
“Jeffrey! What are you doing up there?” It was Miss Miller. I realized with sudden panic that her bedroom was directly below me and that my exploring had wakened her. “Jeffrey!” she called out again. “Answer me!”
Well, I must end here. It’s getting close to five, and I have dinner with a group of wonderful people every Monday. I mustn’t be late.
I’ll write again soon. –Jeffrey
Jeffrey! You are so naughty to leave so many strings dangling. I want to know more about the book’s publication, what happened after she discovered you snooping through her memorabilia and, especially, about the heart attack! Please tie up these loose ends soon. Tab and I wait with bated breath! Allan
Dear Allan –
I’m sorry to leave you with so many questions unanswered, but I do like the challenge of maintaining your interest.
I’ll start by explaining about the heart attack. As I think I mentioned to you in an earlier missive, Miss Miller had occasional angina pains, which were treated with nitro pills. As soon as she’d feel discomfort, she’d put a pill under her tongue and the pain would go away after a minute or two. It didn’t seem to bother her very much.
One beautiful day in Palm Desert, she was preparing to have lunch with two of the neighbors, Rita Spencer and Eve Vallario, but just before they arrived to pick her up, she felt a pain in her chest. She put a pill under her tongue and waited… but the pain worsened. Even after a second pill, the pain persisted. She looked pale and beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. I was there alone with her, and I panicked! I called 911 and requested an ambulance. “Please hurry!” I demanded. “An 83-year-old woman is having a heart attack! I think she is dying!”
As I was hanging up, the ladies arrived and rushed to the sofa where Miss Miller was resting on pillows and moaning. Rita held her hand as Eve wiped her forehead with a damp cloth. I expected her to die at any moment.
The paramedics arrived with sirens blaring and were very gentle as they put her on a stretcher and loaded her into the ambulance. I called her son, Timothy, to tell him what had happened and then the two ladies took me out to lunch.
Later that afternoon, Timothy called to tell me that he had been in touch with the hospital and that his mother was fine. Angina was the culprit, but she was being kept overnight for observation, just in case.
Miss Miller called the next morning from the hospital and asked me to pick her up. She was very cross and berated me for over-reacting. I told her that I was not going to apologize because it could easily have been something much worse than angina and “how do you think I’d feel if I’d just let you die without calling for help?” She had no answer.
I always thought she would eventually die of a heart-related issue, but no, it was cancer that finally got her. I was with her when she received the diagnosis.
When I arrived at her Oceanfront house late in the summer of 1987, I noticed a small bandage under her right arm. I asked about it and she said a small “knot” had been removed, but she didn’t seem concerned. A few days later we were doing a little work on the book when the doctor called with the news that the tumor was malignant. He wanted to schedule radiation treatments, beginning right away.
She burst into tears, which the only time I ever saw her displaying so much emotion.
“I’m not going to have the treatment,” she told the doctor. “I’m not going through that. I’m 83 years old. How much time do I have left anyway? So what if it adds another year to my life. What’s another year at my age? I’ll just make good use of the time I have.”
The cancer returned in the early 1990s and she had a breast removed, but that did not slow its spread. It continued to expand, gradually wearing her down. She was bedridden the last few months of her life, although she was still talking to friends and family on the phone. I spoke to her a week before she died and we had a very pleasant conversation. “Call again soon, dear Jeff” were her last words to me.
I think she was content as she was dying, but I know she never completely got over the frustrating failure of her book. A few months before she died, she was still trying to interest a publisher in a second edition, still brooding over the mishandling of the first edition.
A few years earlier, in the spring of 1988, with still no deal for publication, it was beginning to look hopeless. Elaine, the woman in Massachusetts, finally gave up and sent the manuscript back to Miss Miller, who was in a very dark mood for weeks. However, to her rescue came Phil Riley, a man for whom she had written a foreword a few years earlier. Riley owned a small publishing company called Magic Image which specialized in re-printing the shooting scripts of old horror films. He contacted her and asked if she would consider writing another foreword and she said no, but she’d be willing to let him publish her memoirs. He was hooked! He formed a separate company for the sole purpose of putting out Miss Miller’s book and christened it O’Raghailligh Ltd. His idea was a two-books-in-one sort of deal, with Miss Miller’s life story being the first half and a reproduction of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME script being the second half. And that’s exactly what he did.
To his credit, he worked very hard on the opus, putting himself in the hospital a couple times with exhaustion and once with a heart attack. And Miss Miller did not make his job easy as she called him almost every day asking questions and demanding to see proofs. I think she got to be such a big pain in the you-know-what that he stopped taking her calls and didn’t send her any proofs at all. I wasn’t involved with the book anymore, but Miss Miller would give me occasional updates.
I had assumed, all though this long and complicated process, that I was still listed as a co-author, but when I joined Miss Miller and Phil Riley at the Museum of Modern Art in December of 1988 to celebrate the book’s release, I held it in my hands and saw the title — MY HOLLYWOOD – WHEN BOTH OF US WERE YOUNG. THE MEMORIES OF PATSY RUTH MILLER. There was no “with Jeffrey Carrier” in small letters at the bottom. No mention of my name whatsoever. I did finally find my name in a preface by Miss Miller which read, in part, “This book came into being because of the urging, pleading insistence and nagging of a young newspaper man from Tennessee named Jeffrey Carrier.” And that was it. The acknowledgment of my contribution to the book — all those days and hours and months — had been removed and erased.
However, I guess in a way I got the last laugh. Mr. Riley declared bankruptcy just as the book was being published, and Miss Miller had to pay to have the copies released from the printer. I can only imagine how many thousands of dollars that must have cost. She even had to pay for her own book-signing parties. And royalties? Not one cent was ever paid. And because she had alienated herself from Phil Riley and wasn’t permitted to see proofs, the book was filled with mistakes. Words were misspelled, pictures were misidentified, sentences and some entire paragraphs were either missing or out of place. It was embarrassing and I was rather glad my name was not on the cover!
She spent the rest of her life trying to interest someone in putting out a second edition in paperback, with revisions and corrections. She wrote close to a hundred pages of new material and sent it to Grace Houghton, the owner of Vestal Press, who had expressed some interest. But neither she nor anyone else released an expanded edition. I have no idea what happened to those pages, but I did see in a recent biography of film director Victor Fleming that there are several long quotes from “the unpublished second volume of memoirs by Patsy Ruth Miller.”
Will there ever be a corrected edition? I doubt it.
Now… let’s see what I can do to relieve all the stress that has built up as you wonder what happened when Patsy Ruth Miller caught me snooping.
I froze when she called to me, not knowing what to do. Should I just be still and quiet and let her think she had been dreaming, should I bow low and beg for forgiveness, or should I chide her for not telling me she had a room full of treasures?
Before she could call out to me a third time, I walked out of that dusty room and into the hallway, where I could see a shaft of light at the bottom of the stairs and the unmistakable form of her shadow.
“I’m so sorry if I disturbed you,” I said in a whispery voice. “I couldn’t sleep and was walking around. I was just about to go to bed.” She didn’t answer but the shadow disappeared, the light went off and I heard a door close in the distance. It took me a while to go to sleep, and I felt a strange combination of misery and joy. I kept thinking about all those amazing artifacts from her career just a few feet away, but I was also terrified of what she might say to me the next morning.
The cook had already fixed my usual breakfast of an English muffin with butter and jam when Miss Miller came downstairs about 9. She had already read the paper, had two cups of coffee and devoured a fried egg with toast. She liked her eggs one way, and one way only. A pat of butter was dropped into a hot skillet, and as soon as it started melting and bubbling, an egg was cracked and dropped into the pan. It was allowed to fry for 20 seconds and then carefully flipped and allowed to fry for ten seconds on the other side. It was then slid ever so gently onto a plate that had been warming in the oven. If it was flipped too soon or allowed to fry too long, Miss Miller was somehow aware of it and she’d demand that it be done over. She liked two pieces of toast — white bread only — toasted on both sides, with a little butter spread over each piece. The final touch was placing two tiny glass bowls on either side of the plate. One was for jam (strawberry, raspberry or blackberry) and the other for ketchup. It was the first time I had ever heard of anyone eating eggs with ketchup, and even though I’ve seen it done since then, it’s something I still don’t understand. It’s a good thing I was paying attention as the cook was preparing the eggs because during those few months in the fall of 1987, when I was Miss Miller’s only companion, I had to make breakfast for her every morning.
I was eating the last few bits of the English muffin when she appeared in the doorway and looked at me with a withering stare.
“I want to know what you were doing up there last night,” she said in a voice that was as cold and sharp as an icicle.
I felt myself starting to tremble and I tried to control my voice as I said, as meekly as I could, that I was sorry I had disturbed her, that I was just walking around until I got sleepy and had gone into the storage room without thinking “but when I saw the letters and papers, I couldn’t keep from looking at them and then I saw those beautiful portraits of your bridesmaids and a signed portrait of Reginald Denny and a telegram from George Jessel and wow, there were pages of an old manuscript which was about your life and I only intended to read one page but I had to read another and another because it was so good and I learned about your trip to Tahiti in 1931 with John Farrow and how you had to bandage his wrist when he tried to kill himself and why didn’t you tell me you had written your autobiography?” I stopped to take a breath and expected the ceiling to fall on me, but then I noticed that her stern expression had turned into a smile.
“Do you really think it’s good?” she asked, her anger obviously swept away by my enthusiasm. “I started it years ago and never finished it. ”
“Yes, it’s very good,” I responded. “I think you should finish it. You brought me here to help write a book about your life, and it’s already half-done!”
It wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds, however. The pages were irritatingly out of order and were scattered about in several boxes. How would we ever get it organized. With some help from the cook, however, we gathered all the scattered pages and finally put them in order. Those pages became the foundation for the final manuscript.
As I think back to my difficult but rewarding friendship with Patsy Ruth Miller, I remember something she said that could easily be her epitaph: “My life has been fun and exciting and successful, but inside I’m still a sixteen-year-old girl from St. Louis.”
I’ll stop here because I’m hungry and think I’ll fix myself some breakfast. It will not be a fried egg with ketchup! 🙂 –Jeffrey