Man of the People

Last month we saw how Amanda Gold Miller, the matriarch of the retail dynasty ran the show. In the latest installment from Lance Avery Morgan’s The Society Diplomat, Amon Miller’s ascent is also the story of Texas.

You can easily find people who are ten times as rich at sixty as they were at twenty; but not one of them will tell you that they are ten times as happy.

George Bernard Shaw

Amon Miller had it rough growing up.

“I was raised by a tyrant and loved by a saint,” Sabrina’s grandfather loved to tell Baccarat game opponents at The Golden Nugget about his father and mother, entertaining them with tales of his hardscrabble upbringing in the oil boom patches of Pennsylvania and West Texas where his father made him work to toughen him up.

“But the old man did me a favor. Nothing scares me, and nobody can outwork or outfox me.”

The truth was that Amon was poor for about a minute before his wildcatting daddy hit pay dirt, moved the family to Houston and got into retail, and fortunately, he inherited Sy Miller’s work ethic in principle and practice. His mother Grace, a goy, was everything her name implied, and taught her rough-edged boy to be attuned to the needs of others. As he grew into manhood, the legendary merchant enjoyed the luxuries wealth provided, but loathed the lazy noblesse oblige attitude more popular with his smart set contemporaries, all of whom graduated Magna Cum Loaded but many with mini-minds.

Tall and lanky with a long face and a determined stride, Amon did not inherit movie star looks but his fortune was unbelievably appealing. In his twenties, he bore a vague resemblance to young Howard Hughes at that age and had the same natural gift of being a deal-making savant. That man could coax a serpent back into its box, but also tear your wrist out of its socket with his handshake.

Amon had stories, all right. He enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Clark Gable, his neighbor in the Montrose area when the Millers first moved there. Gable stayed loyal to Miller’s Department Store, ordering custom made suits, shirts, cravats and shoes throughout his successful film career, returning the favor of the pick-up roughneck jobs Sy gave him in his salad days.

What Amon didn’t normally share was that the family moniker wasn’t really Miller. It was Millerstein. Yep, Jews, and Polish ones at that. Nobody knew for sure how a kid from Warsaw got out of the ghetto and into the oil bidnes, but the dynasty went from Poland to polo in three short generations. Sy Miller knew that it would take money and time to acquire taste and acceptance, and he was willing to make a deal with the devil to achieve WASPiness for his offspring.

He greased the palms of mobsters who could guarantee that beautiful furs, clothes and accessories would be delivered to his mercantile bastion straight from Seventh Avenue, before any of his regional competitors. Profits avalanched into the company coffers. Sy spent money like a drunken sailor on shore leave on fabulous art, charitable donations and an outrageously generous allowance for his only son and chief heir, Amon. A thousand bucks a month was big money in 1946 for a Dartmouth College kid, and seemed extravagant to the student who had served with so many regular Joe’s in the Signal Corps during WWII. Those long New Hampshire winters seemed much warmer with his dates in New York that he’d cuddle up to at Elmo’s, as El Morocco was called by the In Crowd, and long lunches at “21”, and the Colony Club.

Being best friends with Hollywood’s leading stud had its benefits and conquests on the town were plentiful. Both towns, in fact. Gable was Miller’s entrée into the Hollywood elite of the 1950’s, and he liked the fresh orange-scented air year ‘round and the even fresher women.

That was his first impression. He soon experienced the seamy underbelly of that city, as every single person seemed to be on the make.

Not that he didn’t take advantage of the bountiful bevy of beauties. His pal, Callen Curie, the schemata garment heir-turned-film producer, also showed him the ropes, such as how to work the Bel Air Hotel scene. Set in the hills above the intersection of Sunset Boulevard at Coldwater Canyon in the days before private cabanas, anyone with a tan, a smile, and a good line of bull could score with little effort. A big fat wallet didn’t hurt, either. Forget perusing the pretties on the Schwab’s drugstore stool near The Garden of Allah hotel down the street, it was all happening poolside at the Bel Air.

Afterwards, while most of the men would brag about their near-Olympian sexcapades with the boys at the Hollywood Athletic Club near the Goldwyn Studios, Amon became tight-lipped until later in life. An ambitious Miss Kiwanis Club from Butte or perky Miss Personality from Akron were fair game, but Amon Miller was nothing if not more of a gentleman than the rest of the pack of wolves of the era.

“I liked the ones who were classy in public with an international bent,” he said winking to me, over some very fine single malt scotch. “You know, Boston in the parlor but France in the bedroom,” of his preference for girls whose pedigree was pure Early American. This attitude may have informed his incredibly good taste in women’s clothing.

Amon Miller’s days in Los Angeles were not without a few surprises for a red-blooded Texas guy. One afternoon Jess Strident, a fairy Hollywood agent known for the stable of studs on his client roster, offered to set up Amon with a six month contract at Monogram Studios as a western actor… if he’d play horsey in the hotel’s bungalow around the bend.

“You have real star potential,” Strident said, moving in to close the deal (he thought), sidling up to Gable’s pal and a former college fullback. “Leave it to me, and the rest of the world will see it on screen.”

What a colossal creep, thought Amon, who had long since stopped being shocked by the come-ons of Hollywood’s hags and gay-keepers. No sir, Amon knew he could just as easily walk up to the front gate of any studio in town and do the deal on his own, if he was so inclined. After all, he was wildly applauded by the student body during productions by the Rising Oaks High School Dramatic Club, enjoyed a polished upbringing and was just as good looking as most of the fellas walking around the lots. And, underneath it all, he was a gentleman.

“A woman shouldn’t be anybody’s doormat,” he told me, a theory he would prove repeatedly as he took his family’s store to unprecedented financial heights as the decades would progress. And with it, their own personal wealth.

Back home in Houston, like the other fast-rising socially affable families of the era, the possession of Old Master paintings was de rigueur, especially if it had been in a family for generations. If by generations, that meant bought by Sy Millerstein, seven years before his name changed, from galleries along New York’s Lexington Avenue, then the generations indeed flew by fast.

With his looks that had evolved to be considered “regal looking” several years after college, the war and his stint in L.A., Amon became known as the guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer from a woman who knew how to fill out a tight cashmere sweater set. That sensibility and his innate flash and dash landed him in the Walter Winchell columns in the New York papers that coined him as the “Texas Retail Prince.” It was a first taste of notoriety that would serve him well before he would eventually settle back in Texas to mind the store, or The Castle, as the senior Mr. Miller called it, where Amon would meet a gal with a past at the Shamrock pool, Amanda Gold.

A castle is what the store seemed to the Millers, and a fiefdom to their employees. Amon Miller knew better than to dally with the newly high school-graduated crop of shop clerks or even with any of the more seasoned ones. His daddy had a little manly advice:  ‘son, don’t mess with the help. It’s too expensive,’ so he knew that his extramarital dalliances would not be on Texas soil. No, he was too smart for that, and preferred the vast luxuries that Paris could afford them anyway. Why drink American beer and mess with local babes when the finely tuned decadence of Paris was just a whiff away, over the pond?