I hate asking for assist — a lot in order that I’d sooner spend an hour draining my telephone battery than cease somebody on the road for instructions. Which is why it’s wealthy that I just lately discovered myself posting to the group Fb pages of a tiny city I’d by no means visited, begging whole strangers for leads in fixing a thriller that had haunted me for 4 years.
The item of my fixation was a author and musician named Ruth Scott Miller, whose title surfaced repeatedly in analysis I’d been doing on the historical past of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Based mostly on what I may collect from digitized clippings, Miller discovered her solution to Chicago within the 1910s by the use of Kansas and Germany. By the point she was 25 — my age — her writing appeared in a Saturday Night Submit function on new literary expertise, alongside one other up-and-comer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1920, Miller deserted a promising profession as a live performance violinist to turn into the classical music critic of the Chicago Every day Tribune — the primary girl to fill that position, at a time when it was practically unparalleled for girls to put in writing underneath their very own bylines exterior the society part.
Earlier than that, she taught violin, schlepping six and a half miles from her boarding-house digs at 54th Road and Cornell Avenue to present classes within the Positive Arts Constructing downtown. By her personal account, she adored her studio, an ethereal, lake-facing area on the seventh flooring. Her college students, lots of them the heirs of Chicago’s elite, have been a unique story. “That bizarre scrap of humanity was actually swamped with lecturers,” she wrote witheringly of 1 scholar in an essay for the Saturday Night Submit. “I battled lengthy and hopefully with the onerous shell of stupidity with which he protected himself from these of my clan.”
The extra I realized about Miller, the extra my life appeared to parallel hers. Like her, I’m a violinist who ended up discovering my area of interest writing about music reasonably than performing it, and I, too, lived in Hyde Park. However no sooner had my fascination with Miller begun to flower than her path ran chilly. A one-paragraph discover in a music commerce journal introduced her departure from the Tribune after only one season. By the top of the last decade, her bylines had all however disappeared. I needed to discover out what occurred to her.
My first lead, curiously sufficient, was Miller’s loss of life certificates, which was uploaded to the web site Discover a Grave final summer time, seemingly out of the blue. It revealed that she’d handed away in 1984, on the age of 89, close to a village known as Chincoteague, on the island of the identical title off the coast of Virginia. That is how I discovered myself, fairly reluctantly, messaging members of varied Fb teams related to that tight-knit coastal group. Because it occurred, their response was something however reluctant. My notifications have been flooded with dozens of leads, most of them imprecise or whole useless ends.
Then somebody named Ernest replied. He remembered an previous woman who’d lived within the rear unit of a rental cottage in Chincoteague. An electrician, Ernest had put in a ceiling fan for one in all its house owners within the early 1980s and recalled his consumer ranting about “that girl within the again,” a troublesome tenant who owned a pack of unruly canines. “I’ll be glad when she’s useless,” she purportedly advised Ernest. “When she is, I’ll burn her physique, and we’re gonna tear down that cottage too.”
I requested Ernest how the girl in query may need made her solution to Chincoteague, however he had no thought: “Typically, I ponder if individuals who come right here simply toss a dart at a map of the USA.” Then he added, “I’ll guess you a greenback to a doughnut that girl” — she of the threatened funeral pyre — “is your gal.”
He instructed I contact a lady named Roseanne, who lived close by. Roseanne not solely confirmed that the previous woman in query was Miller however mentioned she’d truly been associates together with her. I instantly started bombarding Roseanne with questions, and as she answered them, the girl I’d recognized solely via bylines and grainy, time-nibbled pictures revealed herself. Ruth Miller was quick — underneath 5 ft, Roseanne remembered — and stout. She’d married in her 20s, however her husband had died younger, and she or he by no means remarried. Miller had talked fondly in regards to the years she spent in Paris, the place she translated a guide on French couture.
As for a way a sophisticated Chicago violinist ended up on an island off the coast of Virginia, all Roseanne may inform me was that Miller had been evicted from her condominium in no matter metropolis she’d been dwelling in earlier than that. The Ruth Miller that Roseanne knew nearly by no means left the cottage, ate Stouffer’s TV dinners, and most popular the corporate of her canines to that of individuals. Often, Roseanne would come by to chop Miller’s brittle grey hair, which grew previous her waist. “She at all times used to inform me, ‘I’m going to dedicate my subsequent guide to you,’ ” Roseanne recalled. I may virtually hear her head shake via the receiver. “Properly, I’m nonetheless ready.”
Roseanne additionally advised me in regards to the day in September 1984 when an ambulance was known as to Miller’s cottage. The canines inside went berserk. Animal management needed to be known as and the canines have been shot with tranquilizer darts in order that the paramedics may get inside. Ruth Miller died within the hospital not lengthy after.
I felt like I’d been punched within the intestine. I discovered it unsettling that somebody may have had the trailblazing profession Miller did and nonetheless be snipped out of historical past. As writers, we wish our phrases to matter. As a result of in the event that they didn’t, what did?
A cache of correspondence I uncovered shed a minimum of a bit mild on Miller’s descent into obscurity. Relationship from the late 1920s to 1940, it consisted of letters between Miller and the Curtis Publishing Firm, which owned each the Submit and the Girls’ House Journal, one other outlet Miller had written for. The letters recommend an acrimonious falling-out, with one missive alluding to Miller’s “unlucky angle.” Slinging caps locks and underscores for emphasis, Miller accused the Submit of catering to “Un-American stress teams.” In a reply, the writer wrote tartly, “Your splendid vitality needs to be directed in another helpful path at the moment.”
After discovering these letters, I repeated a pilgrimage I’d made 4 years earlier than, to Miller’s seventh-floor former studio within the Positive Arts Constructing on Michigan Avenue. In accordance with the signal exterior the door, suite 707 now belonged to a psychiatry observe. Standing there, I imagined arpeggios and the rising and falling of scales emanating haltingly from behind the door. What number of occasions had Ruth Miller crossed this threshold? I attempted the doorknob, but it surely was locked.
Typically, I suppose, the reality isn’t as glamorous as you’d hoped. And typically, it’s not yours to inform. There’s just one one that may have stuffed within the gaps in Ruth Miller’s story. I want she’d had the prospect.