Alice Duer Miller, the daughter of James Gore King Duer and Elizabeth Wilson Meads, was born in New York City on 28th July, 1874. Her great great grandfather, was William Duer who had signed the United States Articles of Confederation in 1778.
Alice studied mathematics and astronomy at Barnard College. After graduating in 1899 she married the stockbroker, Henry Wise Miller. Alice taught but spent her spare-time writing. This included several poems on the subject of women's suffrage published in the New York Tribune. A collection of these were published as Are Women People?: A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times (1915). This was followed by a novel, Come Out of the Kitchen (1916) and another book of poems, Women are People! (1917).
Along with her friend, Ruth Hale, she was also a member of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS) that had been formed by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. The CUWS attempted to introduce the militant methods used by the Women's Social and Political Union in Britain. This included organizing huge demonstrations and the daily picketing of the White House.
According to Dale Kramer the author of Heywood Broun (1949), Miller introduced Hale to Heywood Broun at a baseball game. "It was on a hot July day that Broun invited Alice Duer Miller and Ruth Hale into the press box. They had no particular business there. Women were generally barred, which was one more irritant for the two suffragettes. Delicate Alice Miller, who was writing features for the Sunday Tribune, had a passion for baseball, especially as played by the Giants. When the two women, looking charming in wide picture hats and carrying fans, came down to the press coop to say hello to Broun, his courtliness overwhelmed the rule and he invited them in."
After the war Alice Duer Miller began taking lunch with a group of writers in the dining room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Murdock Pemberton later recalled that he owner of the hotel, Frank Case, did what he could to encourage this gathering: "From then on we met there nearly every day, sitting in the south-west corner of the room. If more than four or six came, tables could be slid along to take care of the newcomers. we sat in that corner for a good many months... Frank Case, always astute, moved us over to a round table in the middle of the room and supplied free hors d'oeuvre. That, I might add, was no means cement for the gathering at any time... The table grew mainly because we then had common interests. We were all of the theatre or allied trades." Case admitted that he moved them to a central spot at a round table in the Rose Room, so others could watch them enjoy each other's company.
This group eventually became known as the Algonquin Round Table. Other regulars at these lunches included Robert E. Sherwood, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Harold Ross, Donald Ogden Stewart, Edna Ferber, Ruth Hale, Jane Grant, Franklin Pierce Adams, Neysa McMein, Frank Crowninshield, Marc Connelly, George S. Kaufman, Samuel Behrman, Alice Duer Miller, John Peter Toohey, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Ina Claire.
According to Brian Gallagher, the author of Anything Goes: The Jazz Age of Neysa McMein and her Extravagant Circle of Friends (1987) "the Algonquin group was at the center of a social revolution". Gallagher quotes Alice Duer Miller, as saying the First World War was partly responsible for the creation of the Algonquin Round Table: "Alice Duer Miller, the eldest member of the Round Table set, noted, the war broke up the old social crowds in New York and allowed new ones to form, and she threw her patrician lot in with a younger group of writers and wits. New kinds of elites were forming: often less rich and less grand than the older elites, but also more numerous and more varied. Over the next two decades the members of the Algonquin group would go far, usually under self-propulsion, on the group's reputation as an intellectual elite."
Other books by Alice Duer Miller included The Happiest Time of Their Lives (1918), Wings in the Night (1918), The Charm School (1919), The Beauty and the Bolshevist (1920), Priceless Pearl (1924), The Reluctant Duchess (1925), Forsaking All Others (1931), Gowns by Roberta (1933), The Rising Star (1935) and And One Was Beautiful (1937).
Ely Jacques Kahn, the author of The World of Swope (1965) has pointed out that Miller played croquet with Herbert Bayard Swope and his friends, Neysa McMein, Alexander Woollcott, Beatrice Kaufman, Charles MacArthur, Averell Harriman, Harpo Marx and Howard Dietz, on his garden lawn: "The croquet he played was a far cry from the juvenile garden variety, or back-lawn variety. In Swope's view, his kind of croquet combined, as he once put it, the thrills of tennis, the problems of golf, and the finesse of bridge. He added that the game attracted him because it was both vicious and benign." According to Kahn it was McMein who first suggested: "Let's play without any bounds at all." This enabled Swope to say: "It makes you want to cheat and kill... The game gives release to all the evil in you." Woollcott believed that McMein was the best player but Miller "brings to the game a certain low cunning."
Alexander Woollcott considered Alice Duer Miller to be along with Dorothy Parker to be the cleverest of the women who were members of the Algonquin Round Table. According to Samuel Hopkins Adams, the author of Alexander Woollcott: His Life and His World (1946), "Miller's character and mentality he considered far above her product as a novelist, while not belitting the agreeable quality of her fiction." Alice pointed out in a discussion on quarrels with Woollcott on the radio that they held very different opinions on the subject: "You advocating them as a means of clearing up inherent disagreements between friends, I disapproving of them on the ground that nothing worth quarrelling about could ever really be forgiven." Alice once said, when clearly thinking of Woollcott: "If it's very painful for you to criticize your friends - you're safe in doing it. But if you take the slightest pleasure in it, that's the time to hold your tongue."
Alice Duer Miller was a close friend of Neysa McMein. She was a regular visitor to McMein's apartment. So did Dorothy Parker and she later claimed that McMein made wine in the bathroom and was always entertaining friends such as Alexander Woollcott, Ruth Hale, Jane Grant, George Gershwin, Ethel Barrymore and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She added that her friends loved "playing Consequences, Shedding Light, Categories, or a kind of charades that was later called The Game."
Some of her novels, plays and stories were turned into films. This included Ladies Must Live (1921), Man with Two Mothers (1922), Are Parents People? (1925), Someone to Love (1928), Honey (1930), Manslaughter (1930), Big Executive (1933), Roberta (1935), Charm School (1936), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), And One Was Beautiful (1940) and Irene (1940).
Alice Duer Miller was one of those who believed the United States should become involved in the Second World War. In 1940, she wrote the verse novel The White Cliffs. The story begins with an American woman, who falls in love with an Englishman while living in London. They marry and have a son but her husband is killed in the First World War. She decides to remain in England and the story concludes in 1939 with her worrying about her son being killed in the war that is about to begin. However, she decided to continue living in the country that she loves.
The novel was very popular with Winston Churchill who believed that it played an important role in changing attitudes to the war in the United States. The book sold nearly a million copies and in 1944 it was turned into the film, The White Cliffs of Dover, starring Irene Dunne, Roddy McDowall, Van Johnson, Gladys Cooper and Peter Lawford.
In July 1942, Miller wrote a letter to Alexander Woollcott telling him that she was dying. He wrote to her mutual friend, Marie Belloc Lowndes: "It will be no surprise to you that she took the bad news in her stride, and accepted it with philosophic serenity, revealing in her letters and her talks only a kind of rueful amusement at her own predicament. Of course, she made everything as easy as possible for those around her, and drifted off at last looking so pretty and benign."
Alice Duer Miller died on 22nd August, 1942.
It was on a hot July day that Broun invited Alice Duer Miller and Ruth Hale into the press box. They had no particular business there. Women were generally barred, which was one more irritant for the two suffragettes. Delicate Alice Miller, who was writing features for the Sunday Tribune, had a passion for baseball, especially as played by the Giants. When the two women, looking charming in wide picture hats and carrying fans, came down to the press coop to say hello to Broun, his courtliness overwhelmed the rule and he invited them in.
A piece of Neysa's hip had to be grafted to her spine, and she was forced to spend several very painful weeks in a cast at St. Luke's Hospital. When she returned home, her recovery continued to be slow, painful, and tedious, although made cheerier by a regular stream of visitors. Woollcott, who was feeling none too well himself (he was in the process of contracting pneumonia), was very much upset about Neysa's accident and wrote to Lily Bonner in terms that clearly show him as the devoted friend he could be when he let his sympathies rather than his self-concern dominate a relationship: "I don't know why it is that I should hear calmly of vast multitudes in agony in Russia and the Far East and then feel this highly localized disaster of Neysa's as if it were a blow on my head. Or rather, I have felt ever since as if someone were kneeling on my heart." In the same letter, Alec reported another, even more dire physical disaster concerning one of their intimates: "Alice Miller, who appeared to be in the pink... discovered something amiss inside her. It proved to be a malignant growth which involved deep and drastic surgery."
It will be no surprise to you that she took the bad news in her stride, and accepted it with philosophic serenity, revealing in her letters and her talks only a kind of rueful amusement at her own predicament. Of course, she made everything as easy as possible for those around her, and drifted off at last looking so pretty and benign.
© John Simkin, April 2013