Miller, Alice Duer
MILLER, Alice Duer
Daughter of James Gore King and Elizabeth Wilson Meads Duer; married Henry Wise Miller, 1899
Alice Duer Miller was born into a prominent New York family and spent a long, happy girlhood growing up with her two sisters on the family estate in Weehawken, New Jersey. The idyll ended abruptly, however, when Miller's father lost the family fortune in the Baring Bank failure. Undaunted by the crisis, Miller worked her way through a mathematics program at Barnard College by selling stories to Harper's and Scribner's magazines. Upon her graduation in 1899, Miller married a Harvard graduate, and they set sail for Costa Rica. Here, Miller was frequently left alone while her husband traveled on business, and the stories Miller wrote during the companionless hours supported the Millers throughout their Central American stay. Her efforts continued to be the family's main source of income long after their return to New York in 1903.
In 1915, after fifteen years of serious writing, Miller published a serial in Harper's Bazar entitled Come Out of the Kitchen that made her famous overnight. In 1916 it was published in book form and became a best-seller; a dramatized version ran a long season on Broadway; and Famous Players bought the motion picture rights. Come Out of the Kitchen centers on four children of an aristocratic family who cannot make ends meet, and therefore rent out the family mansion while their parents are away. The dashing young bachelor who leases the house falls in love with the daughter who is masquerading as a cook. The novel is light, amusing, and fast-moving; primarily concerned with narrative and dialogue, Miller makes little use of description or reflection. She creates a safe and sane world where nothing can go seriously wrong, yet this artificial world is deceptively simple. Along with the goodness and light, Miller employs a great deal of masterful irony. She puts the rich and proud in their place by highlighting their ridiculous manners and pompous stupidity. As Harvey Higgins writes in a 1927 New Yorker profile, Miller's stories "are written as precisely as if they were engraved by a fashionable stationer, but they are full of the devil."
Many of Miller's later novels follow this same pattern. In the best-selling The Charm School (1919) and Gowns by Roberta (1933), the simple and sincere are again rewarded, whereas the self-seeking and affected are again chastised. Limited in scope, Miller's stories are written to entertain. Only one of Miller's works, Manslaughter (1921), breaks through the insulation of upper-class reality. In this ambitious novel, a heroine who has taken unfair advantage of her wealth, beauty, and social position is convicted in a hit-and-run case like any other common criminal. For once Miller does not skirt around the ugly, and the result is surprisingly successful. Manslaughter is a complex novel inhabited by characters capable of depth. Like The Charm School and Gowns by Roberta, Manslaughter became a popular motion picture.
Miller is best remembered for her poetry, although it is inferior in quality to her prose. From 1914 to 1917, she wrote a poetry column for the New York Tribune entitled "Are Women People?" which she compiled into a book (1915) and then followed with the sequel Women Are People (1917). These heavily ironic poems point out the hypocritical nature of men's arguments against suffrage, and they are often hilarious. Miller is most famous, however, for The White Cliffs (1940), a serious narrative poem about an American girl and an English soldier during World War II. Written in sentimental verse, The White Cliffs is utterly devoid of the social satire that makes Miller's prose come alive. Throughout its dreary fifty-two sections, the poem remains childishly singsong and superficial. Nevertheless, it became an extraordinary bestseller both in the U.S. and abroad, and was read by Lynn Fontanne on NBC radio for the British War Relief. Miller agreed with the critics when they attributed the success of The White Cliffs to the emotional climate of the 1940s.
Miller never let her writing interfere with her personal life. She traveled extensively, was frequently called to Hollywood on assignment for Goldwyn or Paramount, and socialized regularly with prominent figures. Miller was happiest when among others, and she often admitted that she had no style and wrote only for money. Yet Miller's stories, although sentimental and simplistic, are solid and clever narratives. Like the charming, artistocratic woman who once worked her way through Barnard and supported her family in Central America, Miller's works are easy to underestimate.
Poems (with C. Duer, 1896). The Modern Obstacle (1903). Calderon's Prisoner (1904). Less Than Kin (1909). The Blue Arch (1910). The Burglar and the Blizzard (1914). Things (1914). The Rehearsal (1915). Come Out of the Kitchen (film version, 1916). Ladies Must Live (1917). The Happiest Times of Their Lives (1918). Wings in the Night (1918). The Beauty and the Bolshevist (1920). Are Parents People? (1924). Priceless Pearl (1924). The Reluctant Princess (1925). Instruments of Darkness, and Other Stories (1926). The Springboard (1927). Welcome Home (1928). The Prince Serves His Purpose (1929). Forsaking All Others (1930). Come Out of the Pantry (1933). Death Sentence (1934). Four Little Heiresses (1935). The Rising Star (1935). And One Was Beautiful (1937). Not for Love (1937). Barnard College: The First Fifty Years (with S. Myers, 1939). I Have Loved England (1941). Summer Holiday (1941). Cinderella (1943). Selected Poems (1949).
Miller, H. W., All Our Lives (1945). Overton, G. M., The Women Who Make Our Novels (1928).
NAW. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. TCA, TCAS.
NY (19 Feb. 1927, 9 Aug. 1941). NYTBR (29 June 1941).