Why the ruddy complexion? “He was a drunk. Just like me,” said the self-effacing Joe Stone, a wit known for exaggerating his own perceived flaws. Stone wrote Miller’s obituary for the Union, wrote a Milleresque column for the Borrego Sun, and, until he died in late November at age 90, believed he might have been able to match Miller snort for snort.
Miller “was a lush,” says Van Deerlin.
Union-Tribune columnist Neil Morgan, a lifelong friend and onetime competitor of Miller’s, puts it more gently: “It was rare that I ever went to that beautiful house on the cliffs without having some whiskey.”
Morgan was in college when he first read I Cover the Waterfront. Almost immediately after publication, Miller had become a cult figure on college campuses. While he was in the Navy in San Diego, Morgan read that Miller had lost the rubber raft with which he had gone snorkeling off the coast of that La Jolla oceanfront house he had purchased after the book had become a smash and he had quit the Sun.
Morgan commandeered a surplus raft and went to the posh home and presented the replacement raft. Miller was thrilled. And treated Morgan to a drink of low-grade bourbon, which was just about all that was available in those days. (According to Roberts, it was probably Waterfill & Frazier, produced by a Kentucky distiller that had moved to Juárez in 1927, during Prohibition. It was widely, if dyspeptically, consumed in San Diego in those days.)
After his initial success, Miller published a book every year up to the Korean War, some 28 in all. Some were on San Diego, such as a book on La Jolla, The Town with the Funny Name. He returned to the waterfront theme. He wrote extensively on Baja California. He wrote military books and some corporate vanity tomes that brought him some money. “His books were lovely, beautifully crafted essays, contemplative pieces, very soft in terms of outlook and view — they just didn’t have the zing of that first one,” says Morgan.
Miller also returned to his beloved prostitution theme. He teamed up with Fred Mazzulla, a Denver lawyer with a fascination for the history of 19th-century bordellos and a coauthor of the authoritative Brass Checks and Red Lights: Being a Pictorial Potpourri of Historical Prostitutes, Parlor Houses, Professors, Procuresses and Pimps.
After much correspondence on the topic of hookers and whorehouses, Mazzulla and Miller in the early 1960s coauthored Holladay Street, a history of 19th-century Denver prostitution. One section of that book engenders debate among Colorado historians to this day.
The book reported that on August 25, 1877, history’s only duel between two Colorado females took place. Mattie Silks and Katie Fulton were rival bordello madams. After a drinking bout, they decided to settle their dispute in a duel, according to the Miller/Mazzulla account. Each lady’s boyfriend served as a second. Katie allegedly missed Mattie but hit Mattie’s lover, who was standing beside her. It was only a flesh wound. Katie beat it out of town, but Mattie’s boyfriend survived and eventually married her. A musical, Mattie Got Her Gun, celebrates the alleged incident.
But other historians pooh-pooh the whole story, claiming that an earlier author had either invented the tale of the duel or had misinterpreted newspaper accounts of the ladies’ disagreement. In any case, documents at UCSD’s Mandeville Special Collections Library, where Miller’s extensive papers repose, indicate that Miller and Mazzulla meticulously researched every twist and turn, every bump and grind they reported upon.
In one letter, Mazzulla told Miller of an interview he had had with a long-retired lady of the evening. Mazzulla had asked her definitional questions, such as what “hustling” was all about. The former sportin’ lady told Mazzulla, “All girls hustle or hustled such as hotels, cribs, working windows, streets, street walkers, chippies and even call girls — in other words, all sporting girls hustle.”
But that book, too, garnered only a modest audience, despite its titillating subject.
Miller, however, remained a toast of San Diego society. “People whom you would describe as name-droppers would be the ones to mention Max Miller,” says Van Deerlin. “Max Miller was everybody’s darling.”
He and his wife entertained the Beautiful People, particularly since social columnist Eileen Jackson was such a close friend. All played croquet on the lawn that sloped down to the ocean. But Miller sometimes dropped out in midgame. “We would go there. He would be barbecuing chicken. He would go in the house for 30 or 40 minutes or an hour, and he would slide out of his chair because of his drinking,” says JaCoby.
One of Miller’s drinking buddies was the famed columnist Ernie Pyle, also a Scripps-Howard writer. Before becoming a household word for his World War II columns, Pyle, along with his wife, traveled the U.S. writing columns and when in San Diego visited Sun staffers, particularly Miller. “Max knew Ernie for many years,” says JaCoby. “Max had quite a good library of books and had several Pyle books, all very affectionately inscribed — ‘Max, here is my latest, just wish it was as good as yours.’ ”
Miller was a naval officer in World War II. Friends say he squired Pyle around. There is a yarn that Pyle wanted to go to a small island in the Pacific. But Miller begged off that day; he had a hideous hangover. Pyle went to the island and was killed. Others suggest, however, that the story may be apocryphal. (People may be shocked to learn that on occasion, a few journalists — dedicated to truth as they may be — relate stories that stray somewhat from verisimilitude. Miller, it is said, sometimes fell into that category, especially when he was under the influence of the firewater that people erroneously call “truth serum.”)
But there was one activity in which Miller never strayed from his announced intentions. In the annual La Jolla Rough Water Swim, Miller always made sure he finished last, said Stone, and local media would regularly point that out.