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Marilynn Miller: In Search of the Silver Lining

Marilynn Miller poses in couture fashions for Town & Country Magazine. This image is an original 1918 model photographic proof. Courtesy of curator Joy Bennett, Curator, Hancock Historial Museum, Findlay, Ohio. Digital enhancement by Julia Henri.

Findlay, Ohio. 1920.

Marilynn teetered back into the rocking chair on her mother’s front porch. Barefoot, she stretched out her legs and balanced both ankles along the edge of the porch railing. Nestling down into the chair’s deep cushion, Marilynn drew a long pull on her cigarette through its ebony holder. She watched the smoke escape from her lips and scroll away, out into the warm Indian Summer air.

A sharp breeze caught her long skirts and blew the expensive silk chiffon up over her knees, but Marilynn didn’t seem to notice. She rested her elbow on the wicker arm of the rocker, and held the end of the cigarette close to her face, somehow fascinated with the twinkling orange smolder as she watched it burn away and turn to ash.

When the breeze kicked up again and exposed her thighs, she flicked her cigarette onto the porch floor. She knew she appeared out of line for any proper lady in that small town, but Marilynn didn’t care.

Emma May and her mother, Mrs. Gray, walked along the sidewalk past the front of the Miller home. The little girl was dazzled by the sight of the willowy woman in the wicker rocker and her brightly colored silk dress that floated in the breeze around her. She seemed like a golden-haired apparition from a fairy tale.

“Please mama, can I go talk to her?”

“No, Emma, not today. We mustn’t bother her.”

“But I want to! Why can’t I talk to her?”

Her mother paused to think of what to say.

“Well, because she’s very tired.”

“But why is she so tired, Mama?”

Marilynn's sea blue eyes rolled to one side, and she looked directly at her neighbors but said nothing. Although she knew them, and could hear them talking about her, she intentionally did not acknowledge them.

“She’s very tired Emma," her mother said, "because she’s a dancer.”

Marilynn Miller started dancing with Ziegfeld Follies when she was 20 years old, after spending most of her childhood touring with the family vaudeville act that travelled throughout the United States and England. When not on stage, the Miller family lived in Findlay, Ohio. As her career progressed, Marilynn became a talented ballet and tap dancer, singer, model and actress. She appeared on Broadway and in three popular Hollywood movies before her untimely death at the age of 36.

Emma May Gray is now one hundred and one years old, and one of the last remaining people from Marilynn’s hometown who actually saw the famous actress sometime around 1920. Yet, Emma May never saw her again after that day when she and her mother walked by the Miller home. By then, Marilynn was only 22 and had already become a sensation in the theater; her wholesome good looks and big smile were tarnished by a reputation that had already started to grow.

By then, Marilynn Miller was also heart-broken.

The most remembered legacy attached to Marilynn Miller’s life is that Norma Jeane Baker (Mortenson) was endowed with Marilynn’s name, ten years after Miller died. Ben Lyon, who had once co-starred with Marilynn Miller before becoming a 20th Century-Fox Film executive, had the opinion that the two Marilyns looked and acted much alike.

And so, Norma Jeane became Marilyn Monroe, and history would show that her life would closely parallel Miller’s. Both Marilyns were married three times and they also suffered from migraines, depression, substance abuse and career problems. Monroe’s life was also cut short just after her 37th birthday, but there is one similarity that would outweigh the rest: Marilyn Monroe actually became Marilyn Miller after marrying the playwright, Arthur Miller.

Although Miller was just as famous as Norma Jeane in her day, little has been written about Marilynn Miller of Ziegfeld Follies fame over the recent years, and her story has slowly slipped away. The most recent mention was when National Public Radio released a story and review for Fresh Air in 2010 after Warner Archives made a DVD release of Marilynn Miller’s black and white films. Before that, The History Detectives on PBS television explored a family provenance behind a pair of Miller’s ballet shoes in one of their 2005 episodes. Finally, the most referenced biography about Marilynn was written by Paramount executive, Warren G. Harris in 1985: “The Other Marilyn.”

Yet, Marilynn Miller’s legacy is still in the air. Singer Tony Bennett has just released “Look for the Silver Lining” in his latest album entitled “The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern.” Only days ago, this has made Number One on the Traditional Jazz Albums chart.
“Look for the Silver Lining” was Marilynn Miller’s theme song in the 1920 musical hit, “Sally” which was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and was the longest running show on Broadway at the time. Later, Marilynn Miller would also star in the 1929 film version.
Marilynn Miller was most assuredly looking for that silver lining in her personal life when she first starred in Sally. The show opened the night of December 21, 1920 and although she laughed, danced and sang on stage as if she hadn’t a care in the world, in real life Marilynn was mourning.

Frank Carter was Marilynn Miller’s love of her life and they met during the summer of 1918, while World War I was raged. Frank was a vaudeville performer and he met Marilynn during Ziegfeld’s patriotic performances for wartime fund-raising, including shows at the Casino Theater in New York City. The program was a big one with numerous comedians, acrobats and fantastic music. The shows included such famous names as W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Irving Berlin and Earl Fuller’s Jazz Band performed alongside Eddie Cantor, Ann Pennington, Frank Carter and of course, Marilynn Miller.

Carter had grown up in a circus family and was known for his acrobatic style of dance and crooning, romantic song. He was handsome and charming. The two soon fell in love and were seen slipping off time and time again for supposedly secret romantic rendezvous, often with the help of their close friend, Eddie Cantor.

The following spring, Marilynn Miller married Frank Carter on May 24, 1919. They were separated often, however, due to their stage performances, but traveled at every break in order to spend time together. Carter, no longer with Ziegfeld at the time, had performing contracts in Chicago and Wheeling, West Virginia while Marilynn’s work continued in Philadelphia and New York.

When Marilynn went to visit Carter in Illinois at the end of his Chicago run in January of 1920, they attended the glamorous Chicago Auto Show together. It was fashionable scene as the rich and famous admired the most luxurious new automotive designs. The most spectacular motorcar in the Show was aptly touted as the 1920 Packard Special. It was a Twin-6, 4-Person Passenger Touring Car with a Fleetwood body and painted in a deep maroon color. Marilynn openly admired the automobile, which was considered the highlight of the Auto Show, while her new husband took notes.

When the Packard Special sold to an unnamed buyer, it made headlines with a selling price of $10,000. The unnamed buyer was actually Frank Carter who had secretly purchased it for their first wedding anniversary. While she was admiring the car, Marilyn must have said something about the color, because Frank paid nearly $300 more to have the car repainted in what was later described as an unusual “fawn” color, according to newspaper reports.

Frank Carter was in love, and instead of carving his wife’s initials next to his into the bark of a tree, Frank had their initials, “F. C. and M. M.” installed onto the doors of the Packard.

By the end of April, the motorcar was parked and waiting to be delivered outside the Packard offices in Detroit, Michigan. After Packard officials photographed the car for their records, it was delivered to Frank Carter in Wheeling, West Virginia where he was finishing up the last three weeks of his lead role in the musical See-Saw. As soon as the press caught sight of the spectacular auto, the secret was out, and Marilynn quickly learned that it been her 28-year old husband who had purchased the Packard Special at the Chicago Auto Show.

When the last show of See-Saw closed, Frank Carter set out to drive the Packard to Philadelphia where Marilynn was waiting. With him were three of his friends, actors and dancers from the show, and they left Wheeling just after midnight. As the local newspapers later reported, the men were driving through a mountainous region of Maryland just before dawn, at high speed. Carter was behind the wheel; the moon was full and the night clear. He was anxious to get to Philadelphia, although there were still several more hours of hard driving ahead of him.

As he descended a long straight hill, the road ahead appeared to open up. Believing that he had finally left the mountains, Frank pushed on the accelerator. The car revved, gained speed, but a sharp hairpin turn appeared in the road. The brakes weren’t quick enough to slow the vehicle, so Carter slammed on the emergency brake, which threw the Packard into a hard skid. According to the reporter for The Republican that was published on May 13, 1920, “the momentum of the car caused it to catapult over the bank,” and the magnificent Packard rolled twice before coming to rest at an angle, nearly overturned, against a high dirt embankment.

Two of the actors, Guy Robertson and C.J. Risdale, managed to escape the wreck with only minor injuries. However, their two friends were trapped inside. Somehow, the men managed to pry the car up enough to rescue Charles Esdale, who had been sitting directly behind Frank. He was suffering from broken ribs, a collar bone and internal injuries, but Frank Carter was dead.

Since they knew they were only one mile west of Grantsville, a village of only 260 residents in 1920, Robertson and Risdale started to walk the road, looking for help. Just past that fateful turn, they found the rural home belonging to Joseph Beachy. Between the three of them, the men managed to carry Esdale back to Beachy’s house and moments later, the local doctor happened to drive by on his way home from a weekend visit with his mother. He immediately began treating Esdale’s injuries.

Dr. Seán Henry is Library Webmaster and Historian at the Frostburg State University of Maryland.

“The road would have been exceptionally treacherous that night. It was a mountainous section of U.S. Highway 40, which was a route that went all the way to the West Coast. It was well traveled but known to be incredibly dangerous. In fact, several years before this accident, the government had gone into the area to photograph and survey that particular section of highway, because it was in such poor condition. By 1920, that was considered one of the most dangerous roads in America; even after the governmental reports were filed, no one began repairs on that section until the early 1930s.”

After Frank Carter’s funeral in May, Marilynn Miller took only a short time to mourn. Then she was back to work according to her contract with Ziegfeld, as lead performer in the musical “Sally.” The show opened just before Christmas.

Newspaper reporters wrote stories about how the young widow had found solace in her work and that she was recovering nicely from the shock. They generally described Frank Carter’s accident with a kind of nonchalance such as that found in movie scripts, and how he faded away from this life due to chest injuries.

What happened to Frank Carter was far more devastating to Marilynn than anyone gave her credit for enduring.

The reporter from The Republican who was on the scene that night in Maryland gave the most graphic and detailed report.

Frank Carter “died instantaneously,” he wrote.

“Carter’s head was caught between a boulder and the back of the seat, the weight of the tonneau crushing his skull as if it had been an eggshell.”

He added that Carter’s wife had been apprised of the accident by long distance telephone and when she rushed to Maryland to be by his side, Marilynn Miller fully believed that her husband was still alive.

The reporter for the Cumberland Evening Times was on the scene when Marilynn arrived by train that evening.

“When Mrs. Carter arrived at the Queen City Station yesterday…with her sister, also an actress…they were met at near the train by Mr. Risdale (who escaped injury).
Miller, in great agitation said, “Where is Frank? How bad is he hurt?”
Risdale said, “Frank is not here.”
The young widow again said, “Well where is he?”
When Risdale said, “Why Mrs. Carter, Frank is dead” the young woman collapsed into the arms of her sister and then Mr. Risdale.”

The reporter went on to briefly describe how Marilynn was immediately required to go to the undertaking rooms in order to identify her husband’s body and make arrangements for his remains to be returned to New York for burial.

The experience of seeing her husband so badly disfigured would have been one that forever changed Marilynn Miller. Biographers to this day claim that Carter died from chest injuries, but the Director of Reference Services at the Maryland State Archives, Michael McCormick produced the official coroner’s report for this article. Frank Carter died from a fractured skull.

As years went on, Marilynn Miller’s party girl and diva reputation grew right along with her fame and fortune. After several dance accidents, especially one during a flight when she played Peter Pan in 1924, Marilynn suffered from excruciating migraines caused by sinus problems and a deviated septum. Alcohol and pain-killers eased the pain.

When she married Mary Pickford’s brother Jack, more than one account said that her love for him was due to his resemblance to Frank Carter. Other stories tell of how the young actress would leave the stage and cry in her dressing room, only to return to perform in front of adoring crowds with seemingly unsurpassed happiness.

Miller divorced Pickford after a difficult marriage. She continued to work on stage and modeled couture designs for high fashion magazines, but the migraines continued and the pain limited her abilities. When she met Chet O’Brien, a chorus boy who was 11 years younger than she was, they married in 1934 while the press declared that she was a fading star who had to buy love. The New York Times celebrity headline read, “Musical Comedy Star Bride of Dancer Who Was in Chorus.”

By the time she was 36, the migraines and sinus condition forced her to seek surgery. Although the condition seemed to improve, she relapsed and was ultimately given questionable treatments that, by some reports, amounted to quackery. When she died on April 7, 1936 one doctor stated that she died from infection and swelling of the brain due to inadequate surgical procedures, whereas her death certificate refers simply to an exceedingly high fever.

After her death, people mentioned the kindnesses that the actress bestowed on others. She donated money to help the poor and always requested anonymity. Her laugh was said to be infectious and her disciplined work ethic was far stronger than most ever gave her credit for.

Marilynn Miller’s legacy is found in her silver lining. She is buried next to her beloved Frank Carter at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx of New York. Their marble mausoleum was paid for by the funds from the 1920 sale of the Packard Special.

With special thanks to Joy Bennett, Curator at the Hancock Historical Museum, Findlay, Ohio; Dr. Seán Henry, Frostburg State University of Maryland; Mark Donaldson, Accessionist, Hancock Historical Museum, Findlay, Ohio; Michael McCormick, Director of Reference Services, Maryland State Archives. Photographs: Kevin Parker, Automotive Research Library, La Mesa, CA and Mitch Frumkin, Chicago Auto Show, Illinois.