"It is one thing to confess to political unorthodoxy but quite another to admit to sexual unorthodoxy." -MERLE MILLER, 1971Merle Miller was born in Montour, Iowa. He grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa, and attended the University of Iowa and the London School of Economics. Before World War II, he was a Washington correspondent for the late Philadelphia Record. During the war he served both in the Pacific and in Europe as a war correspondent and editor for Yank, The Army Weekly.
Following his discharge from the Army he was editor of both Harper's and Time Magazines. He also worked as a book reviewer for The Saturday Review of Literature and as a contributing editor for The Nation. His work appeared frequently in the New York Times Magazine.
During the course of a writing career that spanned several decades, Miller wrote numerous novels, including the best-selling classic post war novel, That Winter (1948). His other novels are Island 49 (1945); The Sure Thing (1949);Reunion (1954); A Day in Late September (1956); A Secret Understanding (1961); A Gay and Melancholy Sound(1962); and What Happened (1972). He also wrote a novel titled The Warm Feeling, but due to the fact that the publisher didn't give him the opportunity to read and edit the manuscript, he publicly disowned the novel and would not have anything to do with it.
His works of non-fiction include We Dropped the A-Bomb (1946), a book he wrote in collaboration with Abe Spitzer, a radioman who was on the bomber, The Great Artiste, one of the three B-29s that dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; The Judges and The Judged (1952); Only You Dick Daring (1964), Miller's scathing account of trying to make a show with CBS for the 1963-1964 television season; and On Being Different. What It Means To Be a Homosexual (1971).
He was a contributor of A Treasury of Great Reporting; The Best of Yank; and Yank: The GI Story of the War.
In 1967 he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest,” vowing to refuse to pay taxes raised to fund the Vietnam War.
Miller wrote many television plays and is the author of the screenplays, "The Rains of Ranchiphur" (1955) with Richard Burton and Lana Turner, and "Kings Go Forth," (1958) with Frank Sinatra and Natalie Wood. He wrote several drafts of a screenplay for "A Walk on the Wild Side," but by the time the screen version was being shot it was so far removed from what he had written or had in mind that he refused any screen credit.
His postwar career as a television script writer and novelist was interrupted by the advent of Senator Joseph McCarthy and Miller's inclusion on the "Blacklist." He did not re-enter TV until the late 50s and early 60s, during which time he was hired by Robert Alan Aurthur, a screenwriter, director and TV producer, to write the script for a proposed series on ex-President Harry Truman. In 1962, he spent hundreds of hours with Truman both at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, and at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, but all three of the major networks weren't interested in the series and turned it down. Miller felt that perhaps the time wasn't right; that many people were not aware of the greatness of the man; that it was possible the country wasn't ready to look back at the Truman years. He also felt one of the reasons it was never shown on television, even as late as 1962, was because he had been a blacklisted writer.
Robert Alan Aurthur, who was present during the filming and interviewing of Truman later said, "...an image I can easily evoke...in that brief time when we knew and worked with Harry Truman, is any moment when Merle Miller walked into a room or office where Harry Truman was waiting...if Truman did not ignore the rest of us completely...for Merle, always a smile, always an inside greeting that had to do with a couple of fellas from Missouri and Iowa...both were from the Midwest; both had strong mothers, weak eyes...a boyhood and lifelong devotion to books and music, total dedication to the truth, and a sense of history which encompasses an uncanny ability to relate past events, great and small, not with 20-20 hindsight or fashionable revisionism, but purely in their own terms as they happened."
Miller didn't know quite what to do with the interviews, some on tape and some taking up four full-sized file cabinets. He wanted to write a book about Truman, but he didn't want it to be a biography. But then Truman died and he was asked to appear on National Television and tell some Truman stories, some of which he had been entertaining friends with over the years. Someone at the station suggested he should write a book making use of some of the stories. He still had the tapes and the mountains of notes he had made after each conversation, and so he went home and put together a thirty page proposal. It was turned down by at least eight publishers before it was picked up by G.P.Putnam Sons.
In 1974, when the book was finally published it was titled Plain Speaking, which is exactly what the book is about. It is a book of conversations between Miller and the 32nd President of the United States as well as others who knew Truman over the years. Aurthur said, "No one will every study or write about the time of Truman again without a bow of gratitude to Merle Miller. Never has a President of the United States, or any head of state for that matter, been so totally revealed, so completely documented...."
In October of 1974, on a stop in Independence promoting the book, Miller was presented the key to the city by Mayor Richard King, who stated: "You captured the spirit of Harry S. Truman and President Truman respresents the spirit of Independence." While there Miller was interviewed by the editor of a local newspaper and asked if he had had any scathing criticism of his treatment of the Truman tapes. "Only minor criticism," Miller replied. "One of the controversial points was Mr. Truman's interpretation of the meeting with MacArthur at Wake Island. I'm satisfied that the account Mr. Truman gave me is correct."
With regard to any criticism of the book, Miller had this to say in the Preface to Plain Speaking. "Truman told it the way he remembered it. So as I think Mr. Truman would have said, the hell with the purists. There are already hundreds of books and there will be hundreds more to clear up those small details that Mr. Truman and his friends may have misremembered...."
The book received generally positive reviews, although various critics over the years have questioned the authenticity and accuracy of some of the statements that Miller attributed to Truman.
Within a short time of publication, Plain Speaking was listed as number one on the New York Times best-selling list where it remained for over a year. It stayed in print, either in hard or soft cover for many years and, as late as 2004, was published as a "Classic Bestseller" by Black Dog and Leventhal.
With the publication of Plain Speaking a new vein in Miller's talent was discovered and in succession he wrote two best-selling biographies, Lyndon, a Biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Ike the Soldier, a biography of General Dwight David Eisenhower. He had conducted scores of interviews with political figures, cabinet members, relatives and friends of the late President Eisenhower,as well as completed all the research with the intention of writing a second volume to be titled Ike the President, but died just after finishing the first volume Ike the Soldier.
Miller died on June 10, 1986, in Danbury Hospital in Connecticut, from peritonitis following surgery to remove a ruptured appendix.
Merle Miller Special Collections containing all of his taped interviews, research material, notes and correspondence are housed at three presidential libraries in Missouri, Texas and Kansas, as well as the University of Iowa and Boston University. They are all open and available to the public.
But the article that drew by far the most attention was published in Harper's just fifteen months after Stonewall. Written by the Chicago academic (and future neoconservative) Joseph Epstein, the story offered vivid confirmation of Ethan Geto's observation that liberal Jews were often "the most terrified and the most disdainful" whenever the "homosexual question" was discussed.
THE MOST WIDELY read reply to Epstein's article appeared four months later in an unlikely venue: The New York Times Magazine. Abe Rosenthal, who had commissioned the big front-page piece on the "growth" of homosexuality in 1963, had continued to consolidate his power over the daily news department: by now he was managing editor. But in 1971, there were still two separate New York Timeses-the daily paper, which reported to Rosenthal; and the Sunday sections, whose editors reported to Sunday editor Daniel Schwarz. Because of this division, there was real diversity within the news pages, and the Sunday paper often expressed distinctly different points of view from the daily-especially on the subject of homosexuality. (Rosenthal gained control of both the Sunday and the daily news departments in 1977.)
The editorial page remained independent of Abe Rosenthal, and from the mid-sixties onward, under John B. Oakes, Max Frankel, Jack Rosenthal, and Howell Raines, it consistently supported the repeal of sodomy laws and the enactment of basic civil rights protection for gay citizens. As early as November 1967, the Sunday Magazine had run a long piece advocating the repeal of sodomy laws and "civil rights for homosexuals," although it also described homosexuality as "theoretically destructive of the species."
The lead article in The New York Times Magazine on January 17, 1971, was entitled "What It Means to Be a Homosexual." This was a landmark event because the author, Merle Miller, was a well-known and well-liked novelist, and The New York Times had given its imprimatur to his confession. At this early stage of the movement, Miller was by far the most famous writer ever to "come out" in the pages of the Times. The vehemence of the Harper's piece made it perfectly clear how much courage that required.
Miller revealed many years later that Epstein's piece had directly inspired his assignment from the Times. Soon after the Harper's article was published, Miller had had lunch with two "liberal" Times editors, both of whom expressed their admiration for Epstein's opinions. For the first time in his life, Miller finally spoke up. "Damn it," he said, "I'm a homosexual!" The editors responded by commissioning Miller's response.
The implication of Epstein's piece was that homosexuals had no right to exist-and that society certainly had no obligation to temper its prejudices against them. Miller quoted part of what Epstein had written right at the start of his own article: "Nobody says, or at least I have never heard anyone say, `Some of my best friends are homosexual,"' Epstein had written. "People do say-I say-'fag' and `queer' without hesitation-and these words, no matter who is uttering them, are put-down words, in intent every bit as vicious as `kike' or `nigger."'
"Is it true?" Miller asked.
Is that the way it is? Have my heterosexual friends ... been going through an elaborate charade all these years? I would like to think they agree with George Weinberg,* a therapist ... who says, "I would never consider a person healthy unless he had overcome his prejudice against homosexuality." But even Mr. Weinberg assumes that there is a prejudice, apparently built-in, a natural part of the human psyche.... The late Otto Kahn, I think it was, said, "A kike is a Jewish gentleman who has just left the room." Is a fag a homosexual gentleman who has just stepped out? Me?Miller's piece had all of the knowledge, nuance and humanity that Epstein's lacked. The only things the two men agreed about were that "nobody seems to know why homosexuality happens" and "the great fear is that a son will turn out to be homosexual," as Miller put it. But the gay writer added, "Not all mothers are afraid that their sons will be homosexuals. Everywhere among us are those dominant ladies who welcome homosexuality in their sons. That way the mothers know they won't lose them to another woman."
I can never be sure, of course, will never be sure. I know it shouldn't bother me. That's what everybody says, but it does bother me ... every time I enter a room in which there is anyone else. Friend or foe? Is there a difference?
Miller described himself as a bookish youth who "read about sensitive boys, odd boys, boys who were lonely and misunderstood, boys who really didn't care all that much for baseball, boys who were teased by their classmates ... but for years nobody in any of the books I read was ever tortured by the strange fantasies that tore at me." As an adult, he was a closeted liberal who belonged to twenty-two organizations devoted to improving the lot of the world's outcasts; homosexuals were the only group he "never spoke up for." He recalled the silence of the ACLU in the fifties when gay people were being fired from "all kinds of government posts.... And the most silent of all was a closet queen who was a member of the board of directors, myself."
He displeased some young activists by saying he would have preferred to have been straight. But the piece still represented a tremendous leap forward, simply because it did so much to humanize the homosexual's predicament. During the next ten months Miller received more than two thousand letters, including one from an American army installation in Germany: "I was on leave in Paris and a French boy gave [your article] to me ... I read it, after which I burned it.... Thank you, though, just seeing something like that in print has meant more to me than you can rightly imagine."
Miller said the most common themes from his correspondents were "nothing I have ever read has helped as much to restore my own self-respect" and "so much of what you have to say I have experienced myself and have rarely been able to trust anyone to `let go."'
A "great many" straight readers realized for the first time "that homosexuals were people, too, with feelings, just like anybody else." Most telling was the reader who suddenly felt all the guilt that Epstein had specifically disavowed: "I've always reacted with horror and indignation at words like `Kike, Dago, Spic, Nigger, Pollack,' and yet for every time I've said homosexual, I've said `fag' a thousand times. You've made me wonder how I could have believed that I had modeled my life on the dignity of man while being so cruel, so thoughtless to so many."
To placate the young activists who were upset because he had said that he would have preferred to be straight, Miller explained in his follow-up article: "The assumption seems to have been that I consider straightness more virtuous, somehow superior. That is not what I meant. I meant that in this place and time, indeed in most others since the Hellenic Age ... being straight is easier." But even that sentiment was one that very few of the new young activists agreed with.
Although Miller's roommate at their house in the country had purchased a shotgun for protection the day before the original piece had appeared, like virtually everyone else who finally comes out of the closet, Miller was buoyed by the whole experience. He said that he had received "more than 2,000 pieces of evidence" that "most people are basically decent."
THE MONTH AFTER Merle Miller's article appeared, the conservative psychiatric establishment aired its point of view in two stories in the Times by Jane Brody, the paper's "personal health" expert. The first one, on the "Women's Page," carried the headline "Homosexuality: Parents Aren't Always to Blame." It quoted Dr. Lawrence J. Hatterer of New York Hospital's Payne Whitney Clinic, who "believes that environmental and cultural factors are becoming increasingly important contributors to the development of homosexuality." Among the influences the doctor cited were the "$i billion hard core homosexual pornography industry," "the growing public tolerance of homosexuality; which may make some men feel, `Maybe it's easier, and why not?"' and "the blending of traditional male and female roles that can lead to confusion in a boy's mind as to what is male and what is female." Nowhere in Brody's article did anyone suggest that a parent's proper role might be to accept a child's sexual orientation.
The mother of a gay son who wrote to Merle Miller put it best a few months later: "Being a nice human being, people everywhere accept [my son]. Above all, as he grows older he knows his family loves him always. ... Families of gay young men should not treat them as `sick.' Different, yes, but not sick. I think we'd have less suicides and better adjusted 'different males' if the family unit stayed close to these boys.... The whole problem in our generation is that we worry so much about what our neighbors think. Thank God this young generation doesn't give a damn." --Charles Kaiser. The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America. Kindle Edition.
A Gay and Melancholy Sound (Book Lust Rediscoveries) by Merle Miller
Paperback: 584 pages
Publisher: AmazonEncore (April 3, 2012)
Amazon: A Gay and Melancholy Sound
The first book in nationally renowned librarian Nancy Pearl’s new Book Lust Rediscoveries series, this lost literary classic is available for the first time in decades. As funny and entertaining as it is captivating and heartrending, A Gay and Melancholy Sound is a shattering depiction of modern disconnection and the tragic consequences of a life bereft of love.
Joshua Bland has lived the kind of life many would define as extraordinary. Born in a small Iowa town to a controlling, delusional mother who had always wanted a daughter rather than a son, her anger at him colors his life. His father, a compassionate drinker incapable of dealing with Joshua’s mother, walks out on his wife and son, leaving a vacuum in the family that is damagingly filled by his tutor-cum-stepfather Petrarch Pavan, scion of a wealthy New York family who has secrets of his own. Playing on Joshua’s brilliance, Petrarch trains him to win a nationwide knowledge competition, but Joshua’s disappointing results in the finals are met with anger and disbelief by both his mother and stepfather. If Petrarch was unsuccessful in teaching Joshua the information he needed to win the contest, he had more success in instilling Joshua with the cynicism, self-doubt, and self-hatred that fill his own soul.
Enlisting in the army during World War II, he serves first as an infantryman, where his irreverent letters home turn him into a best-selling author. Then, as a paratrooper, he meets the physical challenges he thought were beyond his reach and helps free the concentration camps before being wounded as the Allied forces free Buchenwald. Back home after the war, he becomes a wildly successful producer—and all of this by the age of thirty-seven. But when his production company flounders amid critical and financial woes, the reality of who he is becomes perfectly, depressingly clear: he has had a lifetime of extraordinary experiences—and no emotional connection to any of it.
On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual by Merle Miller
Reading level: Ages 18 and up
Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics (September 25, 2012)
Amazon: On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual
The groundbreaking work on being homosexual in America—available again only from Penguin Classics and with a new foreword by Dan Savage
Originally published in 1971, Merle Miller’s On Being Different is a pioneering and thought-provoking book about being homosexual in the United States. Just two years after the Stonewall riots, Miller wrote a poignant essay for the New York Times Magazine entitled “What It Means To Be a Homosexual” in response to a homophobic article published in Harper’s Magazine. Described as “the most widely read and discussed essay of the decade,” it carried the seed that would blossom into On Being Different—one of the earliest memoirs to affirm the importance of coming out.
Come Out Fighting: A Century of Essential Writing on Gay & Lesbian Liberation by Chris Bull
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Nation Books (August 9, 2001)
Amazon: Come Out Fighting: A Century of Essential Writing on Gay & Lesbian Liberation
Gays and lesbians have spent much of the last 100 years as outcasts and pariahs in their own families, communities, and nation. In Come Out Fighting, Chris Bull -- Washington correspondent for The Advocate magazine -- has assembled a collection of the most important and influential writing, taken from both the gay and straight press, which forms the basis of the political movement which has reached its zenith only recently. Come Out Fighting contains essential writing on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues from U.S. independent and alternative progressive journals. From Walt Whitman and Sigmund Freud, to Michael Foucault and Elizabeth Birch, this volume is a collection of the best and brightest authors on gay life, politics and culture, from the earliest days of the liberation movement. The essays provocatively illuminate the remaining obstacles to full gay and lesbian equality, and point the way toward a future where there will truly be liberty and justice for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
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