April 12, 1923 – Ann Miller
Let’s get the sad stuff out of the way first. When I think about Ann Miller, and I think about her often, I remember how her wealthy steel baron husband threw eight-months-pregnant Miller down a staircase in their home, breaking her back and injuring their unborn baby.
Weeks later, Miller gave birth in a steel harness to her only child. The baby died within a few hours. Her husband’s influential family then took away the baby’s body to a secret grave, not to be found for another half century, along with this chapter in Miller’s story.
Suffering with osteoporosis, and regretting never having children or having found someone with whom to share her later years, suffering from osteoporosis, Miller wrote:
No matter what you’ve achieved, honey, if you aren’t loved, you ain’t nothing but a hound dog. I can still tap, but who wants to pay an old lady to tap?
20-year-old Miller had briefly dated powerful 60-year-old MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer in 1944. Mayer begged her to marry him, she turned him down. The distraught Mayer swallowed sleeping pills and he immediately sent his chauffeur to bring Miller to his death bed. The ambulance arrived first; he recovered.
Instead, Miller married Reese Milner, a rich heir to a steel fortune, and they went to live on the biggest ranch in California where they raised prized cattle. The marriage ended less than a year later after Reese shoved pregnant Miller down the stairs.
She lost the baby and Miller filed for divorce from her hospital bed, her broken back in a steel harness. Later, returning to MGM to work, Mayer told Miller: “If you’d married me, none of this would have happened“.
In 1958, Ann Miller married William Moss, another millionaire, Texas oil man who, she later quipped: “…looked exactly like my first husband. Three months later, he broke my arm.”
Her third marriage was Arthur Cameron, another rich oilman. This marriage lasted less than a year, but he was never violent with Miller and they remained friends.
You probably just remember Miller as the long-legged tap-dancer with the lacquered raven hair and Nefertiti eye makeup whose athleticism made her a star of movie musicals in the 1940s and 1950s.
She was America’s female tap star, inheriting the mantle of Ginger Rogers and Eleanor Powell. She always took a vigorous approach to dancing, and it was claimed that she could produce 500 taps a minute. Nobody doubted it.
She consistently won praise and fans for her roles in the great film musical of the era such as Easter Parade (1948), in which she danced gracefully with Fred Astaire as she tried to woo him away from Judy Garland, a role she only got because Cyd Charisse, the first choice, broke a leg, and she had to dance in flats because Astaire was barely taller than she was; Kiss Me Kate (1953), playing Lois Lane, a nightclub hoofer who became Bianca in Cole Porter‘s version of William Shakespeare‘s Taming Of The Shrew; and On The Town (1949), smartly paired her with Jules Munshin, the funny sidekick of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, three sailors desperately looking for girls on their 24-hour shore leave in New York.
In 1936, at just 13-years-old, Miller became a showgirl, dancing at the Black Cat Club in San Francisco, after telling them she was 18. She was discovered by Lucille Ball and talent scout Benny Rubin. With their help, Miller was given a contract with RKO and she remained there until 1940.
She first grabbed attention in 1938 when she played quirky dancing Essie Carmichael in that year’s Best Picture Academy Award-winning You Can’t Take it With You, directed by Frank Capra and starring Lionel Barrymore and James Stewart.
In 1941, she signed with Columbia Pictures, where, starting with Time Out For Rhythm, she starred in 11 B-movie musicals from 1941 to 1945. In July 1945, with World War II raging in the Pacific, she became a major pin-up girl when posed in a bathing suit for Yank magazine (get your mind out of the gutter; it was the U.S. Army’s weekly magazine). She ended her contract at Columbia in 1946 with one just one “A” film, The Thrill Of Brazil with Evelyn Keyes and Keenan Wynn. The poster featured Miller’s leg in a large, red, bow-tied stocking as the “T” in “Thrill”. She finally found the right studio with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, maker of the most biggliest musicals.
Miller claimed to have invented pantyhose in the 1940s as a solution to the continual problem of tearing stockings during the filming of dance production numbers. The common practice had been to sew hosiery to panties. If torn, the entire garment had to be removed and resewn with a new pair. Miller requested a hosiery maker produce a single combined garment.
Miller reflected the ideal of female glamour of the era: massive black bouffant hair, heavy makeup with a splash of crimson lipstick, and fashions that emphasized her lithe figure and long legs.
Her film career basically ended in 1956 as movie musicals lost favor with film fans, yet she remained active in the theatre and on the new medium of television. She stayed busy in summer stock, and she starred on Broadway in the musical Mame in 1969, wowing audiences in a big tap number created just for her.
In 1979, after a long hiatus, she made a tremendous comeback, starring with former MGM star Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies, a musical salute to Vaudeville that ran for nearly three years on Broadway, which toured the extensively after its Broadway run. She appeared in a special 1982 episode of The Love Boat, along with showbiz legends Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Della Reese, Van Johnson and Cab Calloway. Her last stage performance was a 1998 production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Follies at the Paper Mill Playhouse, playing hardboiled Carlotta Campion singing I’m Still Here. Miller:
At MGM I always played the second feminine lead. I was never the star in films. I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl. I never really had my big moment on the screen. ‘Sugar Babies’ gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for.
Miller was born Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier in Chireno, Texas. Her father, John Alfred Collier, was a successful criminal lawyer who counted among his clients Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. He dreamed of having a son he could call John Jr.; instead, he named his daughter Johnnie. Her mother was Cherokee.
Her family moved to Houston, where her mother had her study piano, violin, and dance to build up legs affected by rickets, a condition caused by a vitamin D deficiency that can lead to softening of the bones and deformity.
When her parents divorced, her mother took her to California where she developed a dance act and performed at meetings of local civic organization for $5 a night, plus tips.
My own Baby-Boomer generation remembers Miller from 1972 when she made a memorable, popular commercial for Heinz’s ”Great American Soups”, in which she tapped danced atop an eight-foot soup can.
In between her failed marriages she was able to fit in affairs with Conrad Hilton and Howard Hughes.
In her prime, Miller’s flamboyantly glamorous appearance, especially her hair, often a bouffant, lacquered wig, made her the butt of jokes about falling and breaking her hair. She seemed to revel in making television appearances in her big wig and big makeup. In her memoir, Miller’s High Life (1972), and in other writings about her serious spiritual side, she claimed to have been Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt in a past life. She also wrote:
There’s a part of me that will always be Johnnie Lucille Collier, and she’s just waiting for this long-winded Hollywood love affair to end with the Ann Miller creature.
Before she left this world she made one last big splash, playing “Coco” in director David Lynch‘s masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001).
In 1999, a friend of Miller finally found little baby Mary Milner‘s grave. After Miller was taken by lung cancer in 2004, baby Mary was exhumed and her tiny coffin was laid on top of her mother’s at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, with a nice view of the MGM studios.