By Lance Avery Morgan
Book cover illustration by Jill Prentice. Photograhy: Various archival
Here is an excerpt from The Society Diplomat by Lance Avery Morgan, In the last issue we went to a grand dinner party and now, let’s rewind to see how some the fabled glamour in Texas really began.
I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better. Sophie Tucker
Sabrina Goodfriend learned about Paris as a little girl, going to the City of Love with her grandfather in the 1970’s. He and his coterie of buxom buyers had been knocking off Paris designs for decades, buying one original then reproducing them in jersey, polyester or brushed cottons instead of fine French linen and silk, to be sold by the thousands in the bargain-priced Junior and Missy departments on the lower floors of the high-toned store. Everyone in retail did that back then. It guaranteed that the lowest paid secretary could strut her stuff in imitation Cardin, Courreges, and St. Laurent, while the overly-moneyed ladies of Houston and Dallas society bought the real thing in the pearl gray-painted salons of their actual ateliers throughout Europe.
Back then finding anything larger than a size eight at Miller’s would never be an option for two reasons. Yesterday’s size eight is today’s size four, or even, size two. Their womanly figures were corralled with latex girdles and other well-engineered foundations that delivered the ideal hourglass figure. People ate less now, and the definition of a “perfect figure” had changed radically. Sabrina’s fabled grandmother, Amanda, who helped define the peerless style of how women would dress for generations, oversaw Miller’s selection and sizing process.
A force of nature, Amanda Gold Miller wasn’t fleshy and certainly not flashy, but she did understand the female figure. To many of us, she was the heart and soul of the legendary retail giant, who knew the laws of the jungle better than any woman of her era. When I first met her she was holding court in her massive living room at the Four Leaf Towers, one of Houston’s first residential high rises. The eggplant velvet couches and grand portraits of her on every wall intimidated even the most ardent social butterfly except me. No, she was my kind of girl.
Like her granddaughter, Amanda reserved her affection for her closest family and intimates. I was lucky to be among them. She’d tell me about her days as a great beauty and how she wished that she had cashed it in like a foreign currency, regretting some experiences she did not pursue as a young ingénue. She pursued enough of them all right, though.
A Jewess known for her captivatingly dark, exotic looks and slim figure, she was a softer version of Elizabeth Taylor, except Amanda Miller’s eyes were as peridot green as Taylor’s were lavender. The two goddesses had actually met in a palazzo in Rome in 1948 during the filming of movie star Dirk Cane’s hit at the time, Two Days in Another Town. The star’s second wife, Dominique Cane, was a close friend of hers and was not due to arrive in Rome for two more days.
“It all started out so innocently,” Amanda told me one day. “Dirk asked me to go to the Bal a’ Ambassadoria, and what did I know about alcohol? We ended up together for the weekend, and it is a glorious memory but honestly, I have felt guilty about betraying my girlfriend for years. It was the times I guess.”
Rome was on fire then, thanks to the PR machine of La Dolce Vita and the Italian cinema movement at Cinecittà studios. Overtly sexual and always earthy in scope, the films accurately represented the hedonistic lifestyle of the maddening star-chasing character “Paparazzo” in the movie, and was recorded with great fervor. It is where the word paparazzi comes from, of course.
Mrs. Miller was just a girl then, in all of her Mad Men-styled glory. She hailed from Muleshoe in west Texas – a town so rinky dink then that the city limits signs were practically back to back. She knew she had a bigger world to conquer and early on made the decision to transcend her Dust Bowl roots and go for the gold in a more glamorous, and greener, spot.
Like her granddaughter Sabrina, Amanda knew that the talent for engaging an audience could be her calling card. It came in the form of a local radio station talent contest, where she recited a scene from a long outdated Broadway classic, By The Skin of Our Teeth, performed passionately enough to impress the judges and win their unanimous vote to represent the Panhandle in a Hollywood screen test at RKO Studios. She bleached her hair platinum in the tiny tin sink on the train, and by the time she arrived, she stood out from the hundreds of other doe-eyed starlets arriving in Los Angeles by the thousands.
Within days, Amanda found a part time job and a full time roommate, an actress from the Studio Club for Women, fellow Texan Barbara Payton, who was dating the studio’s popular comedian and prolific philanderer Milton Pope. The Texas gals turned heads and earned wolf whistles, and Amanda was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, a town well known for its share of lovelies. Jimmy Stewart once said within earshot of Amanda Gold that he liked women who liked to dance; a euphemism for sexy at the time.
Amanda was gorgeous in person, but it did not translate onto the screen. After six months of playing decidedly insignificant roles of waitresses, partygoers and saloon girls in various movies starring Marlene Dietrich, Irene Dunne and Katharine Hepburn, Amanda was not re-signed to a long-term movie contract. She continued to be a popular date, dining at the Brown Derby, dancing the night away at the Mogambo club and seeing MGM contract player Tom Drake, a rumored homo, just to kill time and get photographed around town.
Amanda was also a smart girl, and it didn’t take a lot for her to realize that getting cast as the wife of a financier or other successful man would be an appealing alternative to the studio grind anyway. Rather than sitting on a soda fountain stool like other starlets of the day waiting for their next opportunity (or the next jerk), or selling herself to B-movie studios like Monogram or Republic, she was willing to work for a living so she could buy what was necessary to attract a wealthy husband. She landed a job in the couture department of I. Magnin’s department store on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, and Amanda soon discovered something wonderful about herself: she had taste that surpassed that of her wealthy clientele.
One of her “regulars” at the store was a septuagenarian named Burt Stone, who just happened to produce network radio shows. With an ear for a sultry voice and an eye for talent, Stone talked her into giving show business another shot, and signed her under personal contract to act in radio shows like Chesterfield Supper Club, Life With Luigi and Meet Corliss Archer. To quell her stage fright, Jack Daniels waited backstage after every show. God, she loved that bottled nectar.
While she did earn the reputation of having a fine screaming voice for the mystery shows, it was not the life she wanted, by any stretch of the imagination. She was smart, pretty, and barely making it. She had arrived in California feeling like a good girl, and before she got stuck permanently at the intersection between No Hope and Might Never Be, Amanda made the best decision of her life.
“Enough of this fantasy land. I’m going back to a city with real people who do real things,” she told Barb, who later ended up as a skid row whore. Amanda packed up a few nice things, took the bus to Union Station and bought a one-way ticket to Houston.
In our moments together Mrs. Miller shared her high-minded thoughts in the low lighting of memory. The down-on-her-luck stories and obvious chutzpah made her even more fascinating, given what she set out to accomplish once she cleaned up her act and quit the boozing. As soon as she crossed back into Texas, she put the world on notice that bigger things were in store for her.
In those days of the early 1950’s Houston was the land of opportunity, where the oil boom was in full swing, thanks to the daily press on the extravagantly rich wildcatter Glenn McCarthy. Her goal was to spend her last hundred dollar wad of cash with a two-week’s stay in his hotel, The Shamrock. She hoped that fate would smile sweetly on her enough before her money ran out, so she could create a splash in Houston and attract one of the city’s eligible bachelors. It worked. After several days of sunning by the hotel’s pool, filled with green water honoring their Irish theme, she met Amon Miller, who had a penchant for bedding anything with a pulse but was very, very intrigued by the new girl in town with the lovely peridot eyes.