The California Room


Arts & Culture

Upstairs in the Norman Feldheym Library in San Bernardino County, California, there is a quiet room dedicated to local history. The California Room is large with a low ceiling and lavender-gray walls. It contains local history books, genealogy tomes, and metal shelves filed with black binders, each brimming with photocopies of old newspaper articles.

Among the black binders sleeps the story of Lucille Miller, tenderly filed by a squad of dedicated retirees. Her binder is so full that it barely closes. Papers stretch plastic side pockets, and crumpled white spills over the once clean, black edges. Some pages miss beginnings or endings, and often the print is so small and muddled that the words are almost impossible to read. Between the worn state of the photocopies and the old-style font, it is strange to think that these articles once spread through the local press with jittery contagion for almost five months.

Lucille Miller’s story is one of death, a love affair, and a pregnant woman on trial. Joan Didion dubbed it the quintessential “tabloid monument.” Didion was perhaps the first to discover the story, to filter through the newspapers’ fragmentary sensationalism and find the overarching meaning. But in its narrative precision, how perfectly the events align and the characters fit their roles, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” creates a mirror where the tight world of words reflects an unraveled reality. And within this strange symmetry, there’s an awareness of two entities, a woman who lived and a character that served a story.

The tension between these women led me to San Bernardino and the California Room. It led me to green-tinged microfilm of the Sun-Telegram and finally to the Miller binder, probably the most complete paper rendering of Lucille Miller’s life and crime. I’m fascinated by that gray area where we translate a person into words, and I wanted to know what remained of Lucille. She came to represent a forgetful and forward-looking culture, but what happened to the woman and her paper life when the main story passed?

Joan Didion’s essay begins with a new California. She describes a culture that looked forward rather than back as it strove toward bigger houses, better lives. On the night of October 7, 1964, Lucille Miller drove her husband, a dentist named Gordon “Cork” Miller, to the Mayfair Market to buy some milk. According to her testimony, the car suddenly swerved to the side of the road and caught fire. She escaped, but her husband, who had been asleep in the passenger’s seat, burned to death. It took Lucille two hours to find help.

What actually happened that night is unclear—most evidence was circumstantial. In any case, it is not how Gordon Miller died that was so remarkable. The death’s horror certainly attracted media attention, but the pregnant Lucille Miller and her motives held their interest—a marriage on the rocks, a mortgage on a house the family could not afford, Cork’s $140,000 life insurance policy, and an affair with a prominent lawyer and family friend, Arthwell C. Hayton. With all of these components in play, focus shifted away from Cork’s death and Lucille faced her jury, an “erring woman” prosecuted for the sin of desire—wanting more money, wanting a better marriage, and perhaps taking too much as she pursued a material dream.

The jury sentenced Miller to life imprisonment for first-degree murder. Didion’s essay ends with Miller in the California Institution for Women at Frontera and Arthwell Hayton married to Wenche Berg, his children’s young, pretty governess. Life moves on “in the golden land where every day the world is born anew.”

If words aligned perfectly with life’s structure, this story would have faded with the promise of tomorrow, but Joan Didion’s perception was so clear that she struck a nerve. Her essay lifted the story from dim pasts, and even forty years after the trial, the Los Angeles Times featured Debra Miller’s account of her mother’s arrest. She was a teenager when the trial took place. And so the story retells itself willingly, with the ease of a hand turning pages, and Didion’s critique of a forward-looking dream condemns its main character to the past.

Thumbing through the clips in the Miller binder, I found that Lucille’s story picked up again seven years later when the parole board granted her release after her first summons. During her time in prison, she left briefly, first in 1965 to deliver her baby Kimi Kai, and later for dental work, performed by her brother-in-law, also a dentist. As a prisoner, her behavior was exceptional. She worked as a stenographer, and had three job offers in the Los Angeles area upon her release. Her family supported her throughout her term. Even after Miller’s release, her lawyers continued to appeal to the higher courts. They stated that they were convinced of her absolute innocence.

On the day of her release, Lucille Miller wore rose-colored sunglasses, a navy blue skirt, and a print jacket. She smiled as she answered reporters’ questions, and informed them that she planned to change her name. Her parole forbade her to return to the San Bernardino-Riverside area, and she refused to tell reporters where she intended to live. As she left, reporters asked her lawyer Robert Steinberg where she was going. He answered, “She’s going to fade into the sunset.”

There are rumors about what happened next. A librarian that I spoke with thought that Lucille Miller had remarried and moved out of state. Someone wrote on WikiAnswers that she was arrested for shoplifting. In truth, the woman who was Lucille Miller slipped successfully from headlines back into everyday life. She died on November 4, 1986. I found her death date in her daughter’s article in the Los Angeles Times. Debra did not mention her mother’s later life except to say that Debra and her siblings were “hopelessly entangled” with their mother until she died.

I wanted to find Lucille Miller’s obituary, see how her family summarized her life, at least one sentence that said what she did or how she lived before the funeral arrangements and the list of survivors. Of course, her obituary was not in the San Bernardino County Sun (the Telegram underwent a series of name changes after the trial). She could not live in the county, and I found no record of her changed name or where she lived after her release. I scanned microfilm of the Sun to see if it mentioned her death in the two weeks following, but if the Sun was aware of Miller’s death, it was concerned with other things—“Americans Don’t Participate in Voting,” “Farmer Holds No Grudge After Losing His Arm to Pet,” “Ex-Porn Star Needs Liver Surgery.”

The sole published reflection by a family member that I found was Debra Miller’s 2006 article for the Los Angeles Times, and even it was squarely oriented in 1964. But for a moment at the end, the article dips out of the past to describe Debra’s adult life and the lives of her siblings, and within that beat, there’s a thought that could almost be an elegy.

In 1991, twenty-five years after Joan Didion published “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Debra Miller wrote to Didion. Her letter began: “It helped to make you famous but it’s my life.” A few years later, Debra attended a reading of Didion’s most recent book at the time, The Last Thing He Wanted. When she asked Didion to sign the book, Didion wrote: “To Debra, who knows more than anyone that I understand the ambiguity of the written word.”

The librarians in the California Room remember the Lucille Miller trial. “That’s some bad things that she did,” one volunteer said, when she found out I was looking at the Miller binder. Another woman, one of the librarians, lit up at the mention of the name. Her husband had gone fishing on Art Hayton’s yacht shortly before the news broke about Hayton’s affair. The two men were not close friends, but they were both members of the same club. And another librarian remembered the evening news on television. San Bernardino rarely made national headlines, except for the three-month period of Lucille Miller’s trial.

A librarian from the main library could not quite remember the case. He asked, “Lucille Miller, was that the secretary?”

“No,” another answered, “she was the dentist’s wife.”

This is what remains of Lucille Miller: a story that cycles through the consciousness of those who care to remember. When I said that Didion condemned her main character to the past, I forgot that I was in the golden land, “where time past is believed to have little bearing on time present or future.” Caught up in the story’s cycle, I forgot that most people had moved on. I was not really in the golden land. I was in the library, with the air conditioning and the archives and the elderly sifting through the past.

And reaching the end of this tapering narrative, its character spiraling back to 1964, I’m led to the woman who changed her name. Did she transform? She abandoned the public eye completely. Then again, perhaps she did not, and the world lost interest as one might expect in a world that is always pushing forward. I like to think that in changing her name, she split from the page and regained her personhood.

Jessie Kissinger is an editorial assistant at Esquire.