08 January 2013

Alice Duer Miller: Intrepid Girl Reporter

"Father, what is a Legislature?
A representative body elected by the people of the state.
Are women people?
No, my son, criminals, lunatics and women are not people.
Do legislators legislate for nothing?
Oh, no, they are paid a salary.
By whom?
By the people...."
  -excerpted from Are Women People? by Alice Duer Miller, New York, George H. Doran Company: 1915.

For all the derision that greets each session of the New York State Legislature when it meets at Albany, decades have passed since a journalist described their machinations with a Shakespearean sonnet.  Readers of Calvin Trillin's Deadline Poet series in the Nation should know that Alice Duer Miller did it first.  Miller, a correspondent for the New York Tribune during the 1910s, covered politics, an unorthodox assignment for a woman.  In her series, called Unauthorized Interviews, Miller deployed a form of verbal jiujitsu,  using the words of politicians and other public figures, only to flatten them with her witty and devastatingly rhymed rebuttals.   Miller's opponents gave her a lot to work with.  When not at her typewriter, Miller campaigned for women's suffrage. Her book Come Out Of The Kitchen (1915) was a best seller.  If only legislators knew what Miller had in store for them, they would have passed that amendment sooner.

("Three bills known as the Thompson-Bewley cannery bills have been advanced to third reading in the Senate and Assembly at Albany. One permits the canners to work their employees {sic} seven days a week, a second allows them to work women after 9 p.m., and a third removes every restriction on the hours of labor of women and minors." - Zenus L. Potter, former chief cannery investigator for New York State Investigating Commission.")

"Let us not to unrestricted days
Impediments admit. Work is not work
To our employees, but a merry play;
 They do not ask the law's excuse to shirk.
 Ah, no, the canning season is at hand,
 When summer scents are on the air distilled,
 When golden fruits are ripening in the land,
 And silvery tins are gaping to be filled.

 Now to the cannery with jocund mien
 Before the dawn came women, girls and boys,
 Whose weekly hours ( a hundred and nineteen)
 Seem all too short for their industrious joys.
 If this be error and be proved, alas
 The Thompson-Bewley bills may fail to pass!"

Unconventional from the start, Alice Duer studied mathematics and astronomy at Barnard College (1895-99), earning her way with stories, poems, and essays, published in such national magazines as McClure's and Scribner's. After graduation, she married Henry Wise Miller and the couple began married life  in Costa Rica, trying to make a go of it in the rubber business. Returning to the States in 1903 with their young son and not much money,  Alice took a teaching job (which she hated) until she was hired by the Tribune.  In the Heterodoxy Club, Miller found a group of like-minded women who met regularly in Greenwich Village to plot the future.
 Miller's future would include screenwriting for the movies in Hollywood, including Wife vs. Secretary (1936) starring Clark Gable as a magazine editor, Myrna Loy as his wife, and Jean Harlow as his secretary. Miller herself appeared in Soak the Rich the same year.   Back in New York, Miller founded the Women's City Club and became one of the first female trustees at her alma mater, Barnard.   Alice Duer Miller died in 1942 and was buried at Morristown, New Jersey.

None of the trio of stories that comprised the 1920 Fox Pictures production While New York Sleeps involved the State Legislature, but if Miller had written the screenplay they would have.   When I was looking for images to use along with Alice Duer Miller's Awakening for this article, I remembered Felix Vallotton's satirical woodcuts.  As I rifled through them, the doorway in his La sortie reminded me of the magnificent building that houses the the New York State Capitol.  Et voila!

Felix Vallotton - woodblock prints from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris:
 1. La rue (The Street), 1900.
 2. Le couplet patriotique (Patriotic Verse), 1893..
 3. La sortie (The Exit), 1894.
 Alice Duer Miller - Awakening, 1915, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Felix Vallotton - Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris.


Adel said...

You did a wonderful job in this post I am very entertain, I hope to see more posts like this in the future, Congratulations for having a wonderful blog!

Zero Dramas

Jane said...

Thank you so much, Adele. Alice Duer Miller is a hard act for anyone toseveral follow, but I shall try. (There are other articles here about books: The Shutter Of Snow, Irretrievable, and Eline Vere come to mind.)