The classic newsman digs by day and drinks by night. Loves scoundrels and underdogs. Writes tight, bright, juicy.
One died yesterday.
His name was Gene Miller of the Miami Herald, and he was a loud, lusty, likable guy who had two Pulitzer Prizes and two olives in every martini. Always wore a bowtie, rarely knotted it. Knew everyone worth knowing in Miami, from jewel thief Jack "Murph the Surf" Murphy to future Attorney General Janet Reno to the man who founded Burger King. Preferred Wendy's -- single with cheese.
You probably never heard of him. He was not the kind of reporter who spouts political analysis on TV. He was the kind of reporter who saves people's lives.
But you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who taught more valuable lessons to more of the newsmen and newswomen plying the trade. Off the top of my head, the ranks of the "Millerized" include senior editors at the Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the St. Petersburg Times and the Palm Beach Post. Also top reporters at the Journal, the New York Times and a lot of other big papers. You can't walk 10 feet at The Washington Post without meeting someone whom Miller discovered, recruited, coached, rewrote, hectored, backslapped or admonished in Miami -- including much of the Style staff, almost half of the magazine staff and dozens of Metro, National, Foreign, Financial and Investigative writers and editors.
Holy smokes! Look how long that paragraph was.
Miller would say, blasting like a trombone:
Here's how he wrote. It's from his obituary, which he drafted himself because, as he often said, "if you want something done right, do it yourself."
"Gene Edward Miller, 76, newspaperman, died 9:12 a.m. June 17, 2005, at home. Cause: cancer, the family said. Noted Gene: 'Excellent health . . . except for a fatal disease.'
"Self-portrait: Born in Evansville, Indiana, Sept. 16, 1928, grandson of a Utah railroader and a grandma who could outshoot the sheriff. Pre-kindergarten firebug. Hid under bed as firemen from Engine 15 extinguished grass fire.
"As a $12 a week copyboy, misfiled clips in the morgue of the Evansville Press. Look for 'assassination' under 'assignation.' "
And so on. Miller liked facts more than description and believed that details add up to meaning. So we learn that he played the oboe, won a gold (plated) medal and served in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps. "On surveillance, forgot where parked car."
Worked his way up to Miami by the late '50s, arriving when the mob was still big on the Beach and dames wore furs. He charmed the place. He liked to go upstairs and laugh with the paper's owner, Jack Knight. In those days, the newsroom was manned by the likes of Al Neuharth, who was destined for the top of Gannett and a private jet, and Derrick Daniels, who wound up running Playboy Enterprises in a gold lame jumpsuit during the heyday of Hef.
Miller was the one who wound up winning all the prizes because he was more focused, more organized and more passionate about his calling, which was news. For 20-odd years the Herald sent Miller on every big story in America. He was, the late Herald columnist Charles Whited once said, "the guy you send to cover the end of the world."
He traveled in style. "Nothing's too good for Knight Ridder!" he liked to say as he signed his expense accounts. The stories came down to the details. When he wrote about the Kent State shootings in 1970, Miller learned that a bell had tolled just after the gunfire. He called a professor to learn precisely which note the bell played.
Later he became the paper's talent scout, writing coach and living legend. One young hotshot, now a senior editor at Time, filed a riveting story about a man who committed suicide by running a hose from the tailpipe of his car to its interior.
What kind of hose? Miller asked.
More digging. The kid finally answered proudly, a vacuum cleaner hose!
"Was it a Hoover?"
If you wrote a glowing piece about a good Samaritan, he'd ask if the guy had a girlfriend on the side. On the other hand, when Post columnist Marc Fisher, in his Miami days, delivered the goods on a crooked cop, Miller sent him back to find out the best thing the cop had ever done. When you finally managed to satisfy him, the whole newsroom knew it, because he'd announce, "Good copy, champion!" at the top of his voice.
Some writers took this intensive editing better than others. A story that arrived on Miller's desk reading like the New Republic often hit the presses sounding more like Mickey Spillane. Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker once observed that Miller wrote like he was paid by the period.
Trillin also admired Miller's signature storytelling device, which was known as "the Miller chop."
"He would go along gently for a couple of sentences, set you up, and then poom! A word or two that landed like a blunt instrument," Trillin recalled yesterday.
One classic, written on the occasion of the murder of a prominent Miami Beach attorney:
"Harvey St. Jean had it made. He had money, a reputation as a crack criminal lawyer, and time to tee off for 18 holes at La Gorce Country Club any afternoon he wanted. Most afternoons he did.
"When he left his apartment at the Jockey Club Wednesday morning . . . he had his golf clubs in the trunk of his Cadillac. Wednesday looked like an easy day. He figured he might pick up a game late with Eddie Arcaro, the jockey. He didn't."
"He didn't!" Trillin repeated, with a laugh. "I just really thought he was the goods. So totally straight. It was hard to believe that he really did the sort of reporting where you get guys out of Death Row. He didn't come on that way. A lot of reporters who are in that line of business are obsessive personalities or egomaniacs or cynical beyond redemption."
At least five people were sprung from Florida's death house because Miller determined that they were innocent; others were freed from life sentences. In his most celebrated work, Miller pursued the wrongful and racist convictions of Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts for nearly a decade, through the grimmest realms of Jim Crow Florida. He was denounced, beaten and threatened with death. With his friends Warren Holmes, a lie-detector specialist, and Martin Dardis, a private eye, Miller secured a new trial for the two men -- only to see them convicted again in a sham proceeding.
Desperate, Miller wrote a book, "Invitation to a Lynching," a thrilling, sadly overlooked work, and sent the galleys to then-Gov. Reubin Askew. The governor commuted the sentences.
Years later, I wanted to buy a copy and complained to Gene that I couldn't find one.
"That's because there aren't any!" he roared, and barked his seal-like laugh. "The book bombed! But I only cared about one reader: Reubin Askew."
Not true. In his thirst for justice, in his love of a good story, in his brutal refusal to waste a word, Gene Miller cared fiercely about his readers. A generation of acolytes, working for readers across the country, would do well to remember his lessons.