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Raymond Chandler's favorite sourpuss

Max Miller in La Jolla

Where Miller lived on La Jolla coast. Seen from the perspective of 2001 and an always-choked Ardath Road leading straight into La Jolla, you wonder what he means by “crowd.”
 - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Where Miller lived on La Jolla coast. Seen from the perspective of 2001 and an always-choked Ardath Road leading straight into La Jolla, you wonder what he means by “crowd.”

Max Miller (1899–1967) was a journalist, author, and world traveler. He served in the Navy for three wars and lived most of his life at 5930 Camino de la Costa in La Jolla, just south of Windansea (from his hillside home, he could hear the Point Loma lighthouse foghorn). In 1932 he wrote a book about his job at the San Diego Sun. I Cover the Waterfront became a best-seller and hit movie. It changed his life. He stopped doing journalism, returning on occasion to write local interest columns, and wrote 27 books, averaging almost one a year in the crusty, simple style that became his trademark.

“He’s the first guy I looked up in San Diego, even before I became a civilian,” remembers Neil Morgan, who was at the time (1945) serving at Miramar. “He was gruff and funny and drank a lot. Had croquet games on his sloping lawn over the sea — sometimes the balls went over too.” Raymond Chandler, who lived a block down the hill, at 6005 Camino de la Costa, called him “a tall, angular sourpuss with moth-eaten hair and very surly manners.” Chandler, who played tennis with Miller, may have expressed authorial territoriality.

Elephant seal. They “do not mind being patted as much as they hate being stroked.”

Miller was drawn to water. Neil Morgan: “He loved to take a rubber raft out through the surf and fish.” He was also one of the main promoters of the La Jolla Rough Water Swim, in which for decades he always finished last. In 1947, the Swim’s “champ of stragglers” wrote a book about La Jolla. The Town with the Funny Name evokes a bygone time with a sharp sense of place.

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Much of the book comes in the form of friendly — and not-so-friendly — complaints. “Some small towns have their college,” he writes, “or maybe their penitentiary, to carry the name of the town everywhere.

But our town has none of these. We do have, though, the Institution of Oceanography. “But no great pole vaulter ever has come from there,” or school songs. Scripps has a pier, and probably the respect of oceanographers worldwide, “but it thinks ocean, and nothing but ocean, all day long.

“What the Institute needs is not so many test tubes as a whangdoodle of a football team…then when people elsewhere ask us where we live, they would know, from having read the sporting pages, how the name of our town is spelled and that there really is such a town.” He offers a similar proposal for the La Jolla Caves where, in 1947, “cormorants by the hundreds roost on the side of the cliff.” The Caves aren’t dark, deep, or mysterious; they’re just “high,” which leads to “visitor letdown” after seeing them.“All they have, actually, is natural beauty.” The Caves need “romance, with sacrifice and broken hearts” — some legend, either “murder or a miracle,”to attract pilgrims from around the world. If a murder, then “a royal one,” involving a Spanish queen and buried treasure. If a miracle, then one “like those they have in France or Italy, so that the ocean salt water inside the Caves could henceforth be known to do something to people who drink it.”

Miller concocts these yarns because, while San Diego “has outgrown its diapers and is a city now,” La Jolla in 1947 “has no traditions.… Or it could be that the traditions of the little town are just beginning and may not come to a head until 50 years from now, if they do come to a head.”

Except for people living on the margins of La Jolla society — Perky Adams, a beachcomber (a new word, at least to Miller), and an Auntie Mame figure he calls Mrs. Billings — Miller doesn’t talk much about people, except to say the “help” hired for parties may be the true insiders. “The help knows as much about all of us as we know about ourselves. Maybe the help even knows more. For the help is in on the knowledge of what is said about us after we leave the premises of each performance.”

La Jolla has two worlds,Miller claims,“and one is the underwater world,” which he prefers to write about.“There are some of us, raised here in the extreme West, who have our own affections, too, and they have to do with just the opposite of people.”

He describes Garibaldi — “golden and numerous and brave” — at the Cove,“clawless”lobsters and abalone (or “abs”), the latter in abundance around the Casa de Mañana,“one of the largest hotels here.” Dangerous moray eels, lurking off Windansea, compete with divers for “abs.” He says seals “do not mind being patted as much as they hate being stroked.” And that jocund sea lions can do serious harm while playing tag with unwary swimmers.

This undersea bounty, it turns out, existed in the 1920s. “Those were the days of the goggles, and not the face-glasses, and when abalones were more plentiful on the underwater rocks along here than at present. And when fish-and-game wardens, in reverse order, were not as plentiful.

“The devastation during the past two years has become such that today we natives see more empty shells than living ones.… The situation has gotten so now that whenever I see a pair of swim fins go down underwater I pray that the diver will come up empty handed.”

Miller writes immodest proposals to boost La Jolla’s visibility but finds they’re unnecessary. His town with the funny name — which does not mean “the jewel” in Spanish — attracts visitors enough. It started just after World War II.“The crowds have become ever thicker.” They “take pictures of each other…and take a long time in posing, in arranging their smiles, in fixing their hair, in wanting to look — simultaneously — both happy and noble.”

Seen from the perspective of 2001 and an always-choked Ardath Road leading straight into La Jolla, you wonder what Miller means by “crowd.” But the sense of things closing in affects him deeply.

“There should be on earth someplace for some of us to live which does not change every day and where in the morning we can look out and see at least something which is still familiar. But ever since I started writing this book, changes have taken place which make me almost wonder if I am here or somewhere else.”

Signs abound. They are dredging False Bay, which will soon become Mission Bay. The building of houses, the “pounding, pounding, POUNDING” of hammers, makes him mad. Driftwood is scarce. Poachers steal from locals’ traps and start “lobster wars.” And strange boats appear along the shore. “I used to recognize every boat and who owned it. I cannot do this any longer, partly because of the war-surplus sales in yellow rubber boats. They put a different hue on the ocean, especially on weekends, giving it almost a smallpox effect.”

Miller wrote almost every day, then walked the two or three miles to La Jolla Cove and swam, then walked home. Increased activity at the Cove becomes his yardstick. He sees countless painters “forever trying to do what they cannot do, make an ocean seem wet,” and tourists, many of whom sit in wooden lookout pavilions on the cliffs with their backs to the ocean.”

He’d love to write national ads for the Chamber of Commerce, claiming that La Jolla is “pestilence-ridden, scourged by locusts, swamps with water-moccasins and cottonmouths, and typhoon tidal waves resulting in chickens in the bedroom every Friday.”

He’d love to but can’t. All he can do is note changes. “So if we of La Jolla now have reason to think that the entire world suddenly has decided to descend upon us, and to go nowhere else, maybe some of the puzzled little guys in Pompeii had the same notion long ago and were saying,“Ye gods of Vesuvius, damn it, but I like things as they used to be around here.”

  1. “It almost seems as if we are designed not to have a full conception of anything.” 2. “For here we know ahead of time what it is like to be old and dying. Nowhere else perhaps are there so many aged or retired people living within a similar circumference.” 3. “If everyone limited himself to what he really knows, how little would ever be written. Or broadcasted. Or said on a lecture platform.”
  2. “The rest of us would just as soon that history would stop occurring for a while.” * * * The Town with the Funny Name, by Max Miller (E.P. Dutton & Co, 1948). Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Frank MacShane, Ed. (Columbia, 1981) Interview, November 2001: Neil Morgan, associate editor, senior columnist, San Diego Union-Tribune
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“I got super into Japanese drifting and boxing.”
Where Miller lived on La Jolla coast. Seen from the perspective of 2001 and an always-choked Ardath Road leading straight into La Jolla, you wonder what he means by “crowd.”
 - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Where Miller lived on La Jolla coast. Seen from the perspective of 2001 and an always-choked Ardath Road leading straight into La Jolla, you wonder what he means by “crowd.”

Max Miller (1899–1967) was a journalist, author, and world traveler. He served in the Navy for three wars and lived most of his life at 5930 Camino de la Costa in La Jolla, just south of Windansea (from his hillside home, he could hear the Point Loma lighthouse foghorn). In 1932 he wrote a book about his job at the San Diego Sun. I Cover the Waterfront became a best-seller and hit movie. It changed his life. He stopped doing journalism, returning on occasion to write local interest columns, and wrote 27 books, averaging almost one a year in the crusty, simple style that became his trademark.

“He’s the first guy I looked up in San Diego, even before I became a civilian,” remembers Neil Morgan, who was at the time (1945) serving at Miramar. “He was gruff and funny and drank a lot. Had croquet games on his sloping lawn over the sea — sometimes the balls went over too.” Raymond Chandler, who lived a block down the hill, at 6005 Camino de la Costa, called him “a tall, angular sourpuss with moth-eaten hair and very surly manners.” Chandler, who played tennis with Miller, may have expressed authorial territoriality.

Elephant seal. They “do not mind being patted as much as they hate being stroked.”

Miller was drawn to water. Neil Morgan: “He loved to take a rubber raft out through the surf and fish.” He was also one of the main promoters of the La Jolla Rough Water Swim, in which for decades he always finished last. In 1947, the Swim’s “champ of stragglers” wrote a book about La Jolla. The Town with the Funny Name evokes a bygone time with a sharp sense of place.

Sponsored
Sponsored

Much of the book comes in the form of friendly — and not-so-friendly — complaints. “Some small towns have their college,” he writes, “or maybe their penitentiary, to carry the name of the town everywhere.

But our town has none of these. We do have, though, the Institution of Oceanography. “But no great pole vaulter ever has come from there,” or school songs. Scripps has a pier, and probably the respect of oceanographers worldwide, “but it thinks ocean, and nothing but ocean, all day long.

“What the Institute needs is not so many test tubes as a whangdoodle of a football team…then when people elsewhere ask us where we live, they would know, from having read the sporting pages, how the name of our town is spelled and that there really is such a town.” He offers a similar proposal for the La Jolla Caves where, in 1947, “cormorants by the hundreds roost on the side of the cliff.” The Caves aren’t dark, deep, or mysterious; they’re just “high,” which leads to “visitor letdown” after seeing them.“All they have, actually, is natural beauty.” The Caves need “romance, with sacrifice and broken hearts” — some legend, either “murder or a miracle,”to attract pilgrims from around the world. If a murder, then “a royal one,” involving a Spanish queen and buried treasure. If a miracle, then one “like those they have in France or Italy, so that the ocean salt water inside the Caves could henceforth be known to do something to people who drink it.”

Miller concocts these yarns because, while San Diego “has outgrown its diapers and is a city now,” La Jolla in 1947 “has no traditions.… Or it could be that the traditions of the little town are just beginning and may not come to a head until 50 years from now, if they do come to a head.”

Except for people living on the margins of La Jolla society — Perky Adams, a beachcomber (a new word, at least to Miller), and an Auntie Mame figure he calls Mrs. Billings — Miller doesn’t talk much about people, except to say the “help” hired for parties may be the true insiders. “The help knows as much about all of us as we know about ourselves. Maybe the help even knows more. For the help is in on the knowledge of what is said about us after we leave the premises of each performance.”

La Jolla has two worlds,Miller claims,“and one is the underwater world,” which he prefers to write about.“There are some of us, raised here in the extreme West, who have our own affections, too, and they have to do with just the opposite of people.”

He describes Garibaldi — “golden and numerous and brave” — at the Cove,“clawless”lobsters and abalone (or “abs”), the latter in abundance around the Casa de Mañana,“one of the largest hotels here.” Dangerous moray eels, lurking off Windansea, compete with divers for “abs.” He says seals “do not mind being patted as much as they hate being stroked.” And that jocund sea lions can do serious harm while playing tag with unwary swimmers.

This undersea bounty, it turns out, existed in the 1920s. “Those were the days of the goggles, and not the face-glasses, and when abalones were more plentiful on the underwater rocks along here than at present. And when fish-and-game wardens, in reverse order, were not as plentiful.

“The devastation during the past two years has become such that today we natives see more empty shells than living ones.… The situation has gotten so now that whenever I see a pair of swim fins go down underwater I pray that the diver will come up empty handed.”

Miller writes immodest proposals to boost La Jolla’s visibility but finds they’re unnecessary. His town with the funny name — which does not mean “the jewel” in Spanish — attracts visitors enough. It started just after World War II.“The crowds have become ever thicker.” They “take pictures of each other…and take a long time in posing, in arranging their smiles, in fixing their hair, in wanting to look — simultaneously — both happy and noble.”

Seen from the perspective of 2001 and an always-choked Ardath Road leading straight into La Jolla, you wonder what Miller means by “crowd.” But the sense of things closing in affects him deeply.

“There should be on earth someplace for some of us to live which does not change every day and where in the morning we can look out and see at least something which is still familiar. But ever since I started writing this book, changes have taken place which make me almost wonder if I am here or somewhere else.”

Signs abound. They are dredging False Bay, which will soon become Mission Bay. The building of houses, the “pounding, pounding, POUNDING” of hammers, makes him mad. Driftwood is scarce. Poachers steal from locals’ traps and start “lobster wars.” And strange boats appear along the shore. “I used to recognize every boat and who owned it. I cannot do this any longer, partly because of the war-surplus sales in yellow rubber boats. They put a different hue on the ocean, especially on weekends, giving it almost a smallpox effect.”

Miller wrote almost every day, then walked the two or three miles to La Jolla Cove and swam, then walked home. Increased activity at the Cove becomes his yardstick. He sees countless painters “forever trying to do what they cannot do, make an ocean seem wet,” and tourists, many of whom sit in wooden lookout pavilions on the cliffs with their backs to the ocean.”

He’d love to write national ads for the Chamber of Commerce, claiming that La Jolla is “pestilence-ridden, scourged by locusts, swamps with water-moccasins and cottonmouths, and typhoon tidal waves resulting in chickens in the bedroom every Friday.”

He’d love to but can’t. All he can do is note changes. “So if we of La Jolla now have reason to think that the entire world suddenly has decided to descend upon us, and to go nowhere else, maybe some of the puzzled little guys in Pompeii had the same notion long ago and were saying,“Ye gods of Vesuvius, damn it, but I like things as they used to be around here.”

  1. “It almost seems as if we are designed not to have a full conception of anything.” 2. “For here we know ahead of time what it is like to be old and dying. Nowhere else perhaps are there so many aged or retired people living within a similar circumference.” 3. “If everyone limited himself to what he really knows, how little would ever be written. Or broadcasted. Or said on a lecture platform.”
  2. “The rest of us would just as soon that history would stop occurring for a while.” * * * The Town with the Funny Name, by Max Miller (E.P. Dutton & Co, 1948). Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, Frank MacShane, Ed. (Columbia, 1981) Interview, November 2001: Neil Morgan, associate editor, senior columnist, San Diego Union-Tribune
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