I hate asking for help — so much so that I’d sooner spend an hour draining my phone battery than stop someone on the street for directions. Which is why it’s rich that I recently found myself posting to the community Facebook pages of a tiny town I’d never visited, begging total strangers for leads in solving a mystery that had haunted me for four years.
The object of my fixation was a writer and musician named Ruth Scott Miller, whose name surfaced again and again in research I’d been doing on the history of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Based on what I could gather from digitized clippings, Miller found her way to Chicago in the 1910s by way of Kansas and Germany. By the time she was 25 — my age — her writing appeared in a Saturday Evening Post feature on new literary talent, alongside another up-and-comer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1920, Miller abandoned a promising career as a concert violinist to become the classical music critic of the Chicago Daily Tribune — the first woman to fill that role, at a time when it was nearly unheard of for women to write under their own bylines outside the society section.
Before that, she taught violin, schlepping six and a half miles from her boarding-house digs at 54th Street and Cornell Avenue to give lessons in the Fine Arts Building downtown. By her own account, she adored her studio, an airy, lake-facing space on the seventh floor. Her students, many of them the heirs of Chicago’s elite, were a different story. “That weird scrap of afflicted humanity was literally swamped with teachers,” she wrote witheringly of one student in an essay for the Saturday Evening Post. “I battled long and hopefully with the hard shell of stupidity with which he protected himself from those of my clan.”
The more I learned about Miller, the more my life seemed to parallel hers. Like her, I’m a violinist who ended up finding my niche writing about music rather than performing it, and I, too, lived in Hyde Park. But no sooner had my fascination with Miller begun to flower than her trail ran cold. A one-paragraph notice in a music trade magazine announced her departure from the Tribune after just one season. By the end of the decade, her bylines had all but disappeared. I had to find out what happened to her.
My first lead, curiously enough, was Miller’s death certificate, which was uploaded to the website Find a Grave last summer, seemingly out of the blue. It revealed that she’d passed away in 1984, at the age of 89, near a village called Chincoteague, on the island of the same name off the coast of Virginia. This is how I found myself, quite reluctantly, messaging members of various Facebook groups associated with that tight-knit coastal community. As it happened, their response was anything but reluctant. My notifications were flooded with dozens of leads, most of them vague or total dead ends.
Then someone named Ernest replied. He remembered an old lady who’d lived in the rear unit of a rental cottage in Chincoteague. An electrician, Ernest had installed a ceiling fan for one of its owners in the early 1980s and recalled his client ranting about “that woman in the back,” a difficult tenant who owned a pack of unruly dogs. “I’ll be glad when she’s dead,” she purportedly told Ernest. “When she is, I’ll burn her body, and we’re gonna tear down that cottage too.”
I asked Ernest how the woman in question might have made her way to Chincoteague, but he had no idea: “Sometimes, I wonder if people who come here just toss a dart at a map of the United States.” Then he added, “I’ll bet you a dollar to a doughnut that woman” — she of the threatened funeral pyre — “is your gal.”
He suggested I contact a woman named Roseanne, who lived nearby. Roseanne not only confirmed that the old lady in question was Miller but said she’d actually been friends with her. I immediately began bombarding Roseanne with questions, and as she answered them, the woman I’d known only through bylines and grainy, time-nibbled photographs revealed herself. Ruth Miller was short — under five feet, Roseanne remembered — and stout. She’d married in her 20s, but her husband had died young, and she never remarried. Miller had talked fondly about the years she spent in Paris, where she translated a book on French couture.
As for how a worldly Chicago violinist ended up on an island off the coast of Virginia, all Roseanne could tell me was that Miller had been evicted from her apartment in whatever city she’d been living in before that. The Ruth Miller that Roseanne knew almost never left the cottage, ate Stouffer’s TV dinners, and preferred the company of her dogs to that of people. Occasionally, Roseanne would come by to cut Miller’s brittle gray hair, which grew past her waist. “She always used to tell me, ‘I’m going to dedicate my next book to you,’ ” Roseanne recalled. I could practically hear her head shake through the receiver. “Well, I’m still waiting.”
Roseanne also told me about the day in September 1984 when an ambulance was called to Miller’s cottage. The dogs inside went berserk. Animal control had to be called and the dogs were shot with tranquilizer darts so that the paramedics could get inside. Ruth Miller died in the hospital not long after.
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I found it unsettling that someone could have had the trailblazing career Miller did and still be snipped out of history. As writers, we want our words to matter. Because if they didn’t, what did?
A cache of correspondence I uncovered shed at least a little light on Miller’s descent into obscurity. Dating from the late 1920s to 1940, it consisted of letters between Miller and the Curtis Publishing Company, which owned both the Post and the Ladies’ Home Journal, another outlet Miller had written for. The letters suggest an acrimonious falling-out, with one missive alluding to Miller’s “unfortunate attitude.” Slinging caps locks and underscores for emphasis, Miller accused the Post of catering to “Un-American pressure groups.” In a reply, the publisher wrote tartly, “Your splendid energy should be directed in some other useful direction at this time.”
After finding those letters, I repeated a pilgrimage I’d made four years before, to Miller’s seventh-floor former studio in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. According to the sign outside the door, suite 707 now belonged to a psychiatry practice. Standing there, I imagined arpeggios and the rising and falling of scales emanating haltingly from behind the door. How many times had Ruth Miller crossed this threshold? I tried the doorknob, but it was locked.
Sometimes, I suppose, the truth isn’t as glamorous as you’d hoped. And sometimes, it’s not yours to tell. There’s only one person who could have filled in the gaps in Ruth Miller’s story. I wish she’d had the chance.