Early in the past century, Riverside, Washington, was a disreputable dockside community on a bluff above the Snohomish River. Max Carlton Miller, born in Traverse City, Michigan, spent his youth in Riverside, as some residents boast to this day.
His imagination and creativity surfaced early. In 1914, Miller, then a mere 15 years old, claimed to have spotted a sea serpent at the mouth of the river. A lad with such precocity was clearly college material, and he went on to attend the University of Washington. In his 20s, the adventure-loving young man traveled to the South Seas and to China.
He landed a job with the San Diego Sun, a Scripps-Howard newspaper that struggled to compete with the Copley-owned Evening Tribune and San Diego Union. The Sun “was a crummy paper — a third paper with a third-paper mentality,” recalls noted journalist and former congressman Lionel Van Deerlin, who in 1937 took over Miller’s desk at the Sun.
The newspaper’s two-story office was at Seventh and B, across from what is now Symphony Towers. Van Deerlin would bring a sandwich each day, “and before noon, the mice would get to it,” he recalls.
“It was dank down in the pressroom, but the editing and writing were done upstairs, and people seemed happy,” says Norman Roberts of La Jolla, who was then a high school intern assisting in the photography department.
It may have been a third-rate paper, but it was staffed by some who became giants of San Diego journalism. Dick Pourade, who later wrote several San Diego histories, was there. So was Eileen Jackson, who went on to become the city’s social arbiter for six decades. The majordomo was Magner White, who had won the city’s first Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for his vivid description of an eclipse of the sun. However, to beat a deadline, “the story was written in advance of the eclipse,” laughs Van Deerlin. (Today, that could lead to a disqualification, perhaps ex post facto.)
All three papers had reporters covering the San Diego waterfront, and Max Miller of the Sun was the best by far, agree old-timers who can remember San Diego in the Depression-wracked 1930s.
Thus, to San Diegans, it was no surprise that in 1932, Miller authored a book named I Cover the Waterfront.
What was surprising is that this earthy book immediately became a runaway best seller, garnering rave reviews from publications and/or critics known for their stuffiness.
Said the then-insufferably haughty and Eastern-centric New Yorker, “It’s a book you really ought to read.”
The old gray lady, the New York Times, dubbed the book “distinctive, original, unusual, fresh in tone and manner, with a quaint whimsicality of feeling and expression.”
Enthused Harry Carr of the Los Angeles Times, “This book has the touch of something dangerously like pure genius.”
Wow. That was high praise for a book of vignettes about San Diego’s waterfront — an area of seedy saloons, brothels, hard-toiling fishermen, hard-drinking dock workers, hard-bitten con men, and hard-up sailors that the preachers wanted to sanitize and city fathers wanted to keep hidden.
As those who devour the Reader’s serialization of I Cover the Waterfront will quickly learn, the book is, indeed, a work of genius. Only Max Miller could have written so penetratingly and concisely of the demise of the henpecked Johnny Lafferty. Or of the gangly, publicity-loving Charles Lindbergh, before he gained world celebrity. Or of the hermit on the rattlesnake-infested Mexican island who, on rare trips to the mainland, headed straight for Mrs. Morgan’s Boarding House for Girls, which really wasn’t a boarding house, “but the police do not interfere other than to visit [Mrs. Morgan] in a social way,” Miller tells us. One of Mrs. Morgan’s — er, uh — boarders winds up with the hermit on the island, but I am not going to spoil your fun. Read it yourself.
Miller seldom came to the office, recalls Roberts. “He had an office at the waterfront, where he hung out.” It was upstairs in the tugboat office, in a room belonging to a publicity agent. Today, such coziness with publicists would be ethically forbidden.
But like all Sun reporters, Miller had to come to the office for a weekly staff meeting, and his biting account of it will hit home with every journalist and most workers in corporations — but again, you have to read it yourself.
The book — and particularly its title — inspired other artists. There was a movie by the name starring Claudette Colbert. The flick bore almost no resemblance to the book, other than that a bordello was called a boarding house and the male star was a cynical, hard-drinking waterfront reporter. (More on that below.) The film originated the phrase “Not tonight, Josephine!” After it came out, Variety promptly labeled it a studio job that was unrelated to the book.
In 1933 came a wonderful song, “I Cover the Waterfront,” by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman. It was an instant hit — so electrifying that the producers of the movie reportedly dubbed its music into what may have been a remake. It has been said that the movie originally had another name but picked up the Waterfront moniker after the song took off. (That rumor has been challenged.) The song has since become a staple of the jazz repertoire, performed by such stars as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw, Charlie Parker, and Cannonball Adderley.
Miller “was eternally bitter because he didn’t make any money out of the movie version,” says Al JaCoby, who had several topside editor titles at the Union over many years. “I think what happened is that he sold the rights to the book to someone who then sold it to the movie producers.” Unfortunately, from a financial perspective, that’s show biz. That’s Hollywood. ’Twas ever thus.
What was Max Miller like? He was about five ten, stocky, with short hair, with a decidedly ruddy complexion and a cigarette dangling from his lips or in his fingers.