The Tragic Death of Marion Miley

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Marion Miley, seen putting in the 1940 Women's Western Golf Association Championship, competed in the 1938 Curtis Cup Match at Essex County Club, site of this year's Match. (USGA Museum)

May 1, 2010

 By Rhonda Glenn, USGA 

On Sept. 28, 1941, just days after playing in the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Marion Miley was murdered in an apartment at Lexington (Ky.) Country Club.

Miley was 27 years old. Her mother, Elsa Miley, 50, was mortally wounded.

In an era of great amateurs, Miley had very nearly established an era of her own when her life was snuffed out in the most horrific crime in the history of the game.

Miley’s death made headlines from the United States to Canada and Australia. A lithesome brunette with a healthy competitive spark, she had won key matches in Great Britain, Canada and Mexico as well as in the United States. Newspapers pursued the story until three men were arrested for the crime, tried and convicted. In 1943, they were executed. To some, however, this coldest of cold cases remains unsolved and one of the convicted killers was wrongly sent to the electric chair.

Faint memories survive. For those who know her name, Miley’s story is fascinating, reviling and, finally, haunting. They try to keep it alive.

One is Mark Stuhlreyer, former president of Lexington Country Club. Stuhlreyer found Miley’s memorabilia in a clubhouse closet just a few feet from where she was killed. He has researched Miley’s career and, like a few others, can’t quite let her go.

“It’s like falling in love with a ghost,” Stuhlreyer said.

Miley was born in Philadelphia in 1914, the daughter of Fred and Elsie Miley. Fred was a golf professional who was proficient at every task. An expert clubmaker and teacher, he even dabbled in course design. He was a good player but couldn’t crack the pro ranks. In his only U.S. Open appearance, in 1918, he missed the cut by eight strokes.  But Fred cashed in on high-stakes matches and as he moved from one club job to another, gambling provided a nice side income. In the early 1920s he joined the migration of professionals to Florida to take advantage of the land boom and the new golf courses that were being built. Marion grew up in Fort Pierce, a small town on the Atlantic coast, a few miles north of Palm Beach.

Marion turned to golf when she was 12. Three years later, Fred accepted the head pro job at Lexington Country Club, and when Marion finished high school the following year, his wife and daughter joined him. Elsie became the club’s manager. Under Fred’s

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After sitting on the sidelines for the 1934 and 1936 Curtis Cup competitions, Marion Miley finally got her chance to play in the 1938 Match at Essex County Club. (USGA Museum)
tutelage, Marion’s talent took root during summers at the Lexington club. In the fall, she was off to Florida State Women's College in Tallahassee. She enrolled as a physical education major with a minor in music, but soon changed her plans. Golf had won out. She won the 1931 Kentucky Women’s Amateur and when she repeated the following year, she dropped out of college at the end of her sophomore year to concentrate on her game.

In 1933 the young woman from Kentucky qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur for the first time. Although she lost in the first round, her quest had begun.

With no professional tour in the 1930s, golf offered no real future for women. The Great Depression was under way and despite the bleak economic times, women’s amateur golf boomed. Stories and photos of the players were splashed across the newspapers and spectators temporarily forgot their empty bank accounts, turning out by the thousands to watch the women play.

A player could wrap up a slot on the Curtis Cup team in the big spring and summer events: the North & South, Trans-Mississippi, Western Derby (a stroke-play event), Western Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Amateur, while spending the winter on a pleasant little tour of nearly a dozen tournaments in Florida. In January 1934, Marion drove south.

The Florida tour drew the top players. It was founded in 1918 with the Palm Beach Championship and by 1934 the Orange Blossom Tour included nearly a dozen events. Marion made her debut with some three dozen crack players pursuing their dreams in Miami, Palm Beach, Ormond, St. Augustine, Orlando, Clearwater, Lakeland and Punta Gorda. The competition was great, the weather warm enough to work on their games and, if they won, the national attention might earn them a berth on the Curtis Cup team. It was a closely-knit group of great players and pretenders driving from one event to the next. When the Florida circuit ended, they headed north to the Augusta (Ga.) Invitational, forerunner of The Titleholders.

Maureen Orcutt was a key to their press coverage. “Duchess” was not only a threat in every tournament but also a reporter for The New York Times, where her dispatches about the amateur events added a light touch to The Times’ sports pages and were picked up by other newspapers. The players became stars. Almost equally talented, they were a cross-section of American life. One tournament might be won by a society woman, such as the stately Grace Amory, or a business executives’ daughter such as dynamic little Patty Berg or the graceful Betty Jameson. The next might be won by the gifted Babe Didrikson, daughter of a carpenter, or even Marion Miley, daughter of a club professional. They all made good copy.

Glenna Collett Vare was in a class by herself. A six-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, the polished Vare was fiercely competitive. Then there was Jean Bauer, as beautiful as a fashion model, and the other cast members: Betty Hicks, Charlotte Glutting, Kathryn Hemphill, Dot Kirby and Peggy Chandler.

They were feted at the finest clubs, where they laughed, danced and drank a little among the rich. Miley had grown up in country clubs and she moved in these grand circles with graceful ease. It wasn’t all roses. Some players had troubled climbs to the top. Babe Didrikson was a heroine of the 1932 Olympics, yet when she defeated Peggy Chandler in the 1935 Women’s Texas Amateur final, Babe’s rough manners were treated with disdain. Chandler, a snooty woman whose social position gave her a sense of entitlement, said before their final match, “We can’t let any truck driver’s daughter win our championship.” 

But sports can be a great equalizer and the Orange Blossom circuit gave all of the women a chance to shine. So they packed their suitcases with dinner dresses as well as golf togs, joined forces to rent cottages for the winter, stayed in members’ homes or booked rooms in the fabulous hotels at rock-bottom rates. Storming Florida like debutantes on winter break, they refreshed the state’s aging population and their exploits were closely followed by the press.

The 1934 Florida circuit was where Miley first attracted national attention. She endured a grueling final against Jean Bauer in the Riviera Championship in Miami. Their match went 36 holes, then 17 extra holes, and Marion won on the 53rd hole. She played well the rest of the winter and in April beat Jean Bauer again in the Augusta Invitational final.  

Miley’s reward was a coveted berth on the 1934 USA Curtis Cup team, although she was a last-minute replacement for Helen Hicks,

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Marion Miley first gained national attention during the 1934 Florida circuit. (USGA Museum)
who had turned professional. As an alternate, Marion never hit a shot for her country but it was her debut in the big time and she was a vivid presence on the sidelines at the Chevy Chase (Md.) Club. With Marion watching from the gallery, the USA team handily beat Great Britain and Ireland, 6½ to 2½.

Miley’s 1935 season was even better. Entertainers Bing Crosby, Joan Bennett and W.C. Fields went to the Baja Peninsula and watched her win the Mexican Women’s Open. Crosby was a dedicated golfer and when he met Miley, he promised to call her for a game. This was heady stuff, but her breezy self-assurance and impressive game would woo fans throughout her life.

She continued her success in 1935 by winning three straight Florida tournaments. That summer she notched her first titles of national importance, winning the Western Derby and the Women’s Western Amateur. In June, Miley won the Women’s Trans-Mississippi, overpowering the 17-year-old Berg, 9 and 7. The Associated Press tagged Miley’s day as “…one of the finest performances in a women’s golf tournament.”

But Miley couldn’t crack the higher tiers of the U.S. Women’s Amateur. For the second year in a row, she lost to Charlotte Glutting, this time in the quarterfinals. Her best chances at the national title were in the 1936 Women’s Amateur at Canoe Brook in Summit, N.J., and in the 1938 Women’s Amateur at Westmoreland in Wilmette, Ill. In 1936, a British player, vivacious Pamela Barton, quashed Miley’s hopes in the semifinals, 3 and 1, then defeated the Duchess in the final. Neither Barton nor Miley, in a great irony, would live to the age of 30. A member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in World War II, Barton died in a plane crash in 1943.

In 1938, Berg simply overpowered the Women’s Amateur field. Rowdy fans spurred Patty to make yards of long putts to edge Marion, 2 up, in a dramatic semifinal. It was the closest Marion would come to the national championship.

Miley, almost assured of a spot on the next Curtis Cup team, won twice on the 1936 Florida tour. When the team was announced in May, it was another appointment to the alternate’s slot, a dubious distinction Miley shared with Aniella Goldthwaite of Fort Worth. Nevertheless, while the team was in New York waiting to sail to Scotland, tabloid photographers fell in love with Miley, 22, and jubilant Patty Berg, 18, the team’s youngest members.

At Gleneagles, USA Captain Glenna Vare again kept Miley out of the lineup and was blasted by the British press, who had tabloid photographers trailing the young American and wanted to see her play. The USA eked out a tie, 4½ to 4½, holding on to the cup they had won two years before.

Marion played in an exhibition with Berg and famed Englishwomen Joyce Wethered and Enid Wilson, and then prepared for the Ladies British Open Amateur. No American had ever won, but Miley came close. “At the end of a wild, windy day which saw the American menace scattered all over Southport’s sand hills, only Marion Miley, tall daughter of a Kentucky professional, remained to combat seven Englishwomen for a trophy which has never crossed the ocean,” said a story in the British press.

Marion won that quarterfinal encounter against Elsie Corlett, but lost her semifinal match to Bridget Newell, 4 and 3.

When Miley made the 1938 Curtis Cup team, she finally got a chance to play. Berg was ill, unable to make the trip and Marion was the center of attention at the Essex County Club in Massachusetts. Paired with her friend Kathryn Hemphill in foursomes, they halved with Phyllis Wade and Mrs. J.B. Walker. In singles, Marion squeaked past Elsie Corlett, her rival from the 1936 British Amateur, to win, 2 and 1.

The final match came down to the battle between Charlotte Glutting and Great Britain & Ireland’s Nan Baird. Glutting was two holes down with three to play when players from both teams stormed out to follow. Glutting won, 1 up, and the USA escaped with a 5½ to 3½ victory. It was the last Curtis Cup match before the war.

You could find Marion in the middle of golf’s social whirl. She had hundreds of friends and, thanks to a stint working in the clothing section of a department store, dressed beautifully, wearing crisp blouses and skirts hemmed at mid-calf on the golf course. She played in more than 100 charity exhibitions, gave speeches and was wined and dined by entertainers, baseball players, horsemen and politicians. Life as a female sports star was seductive, but it also provided a good business opportunity and the whip-smart Miley took advantage of her newfound celebrity. Standard Oil of Kentucky hired her to follow the highways to inspect their service stations. While it was a legitimate job, her fame as a golfer was a decided asset to the company and her route – where all her expenses were paid – coincided with the amateur trail.

Miley routinely won the Kentucky Women’s Amateur, captured big summer events at the Trans and Western championships, and was a steady winner in Florida. This was no fluke; she had the game to back up her fame. She was a long hitter, first with hickory-shafted clubs and then with the new steel shafts, and she could outdrive Patty Berg by 15 yards or more. At the Augusta Invitational, Miley startled Didrikson, her closet competition, by winning the driving contest. Streaky putting seemed to be Miley’s only nemesis.

In 1940, Allan Trout, correspondent for The Courier-Journal’s Frankfort bureau, visited Marion at Lexington Country Club for an interview. The two sipped lemonade as they sat in lawn chairs and Trout asked Kentucky’s esteemed daughter about her future.

The high-spirited young woman flashed an impish smile. “To become the best woman golfer in the world. Then to challenge the men,” she said.

By the time the 1941 season rolled around, Miley’s collection of wins included two Trans championships, two Women’s Southern titles, two Women’s Western Amateur wins, two Western Derby crowns, the Mexican Women’s Open and a bushel of Florida titles, as well as the Augusta Invitational.  The year 1941 would not be as good as her earlier years. She did tie for first with Jean Bauer in a new invitational in the Bahamas, where she met the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but recurring tendinitis in her left thumb hampered her swing. The ailment had plagued her for a couple of years and professional Tommy Armour had suggested swing changes. So far, the results were disappointing.

World events would soon intervene in the pleasant little world of women’s amateur golf. War raged in Europe, the Nazis were bombing England and 1941 was the last season before most golf tournaments would be suspended for the duration of the war.

In Florida on Jan. 30, Marion beat Louise Suggs, 17, in the quarterfinal of the Miami Biltmore tournament. The teenager was impressed and nearly 50 years later in an interview with the USGA, she singled out Miley as one of the role models she had most admired.

By September, Miley’s swing changes were completed, her thumb rarely ached and she drove to The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., for the U.S. Women’s Amateur with hope in her heart. Twice, she had come so close, only to lose in the semifinals.

Miley’s good business sense had prompted a little deal with the Lexington Leader to write a column from the championship, and she was also bolstered by the fact that both of her parents would be watching her play. She cruised through the first two rounds, ending both matches on the 14th green, but publishing heiress Sylva Federman Leichner beat her on the 20th hole in the third round. Marion returned to Lexington to lick her wounds.

For the next few days she barely picked up a club and spent her time going over her new contract with the oil company and helping her mother prepare for a dance to be held at the club on Saturday, Sept. 27. By the night of the dance, she was exhausted and she spent the evening at the home of a friend, and then returned early to the apartment to sleep.

Just before dawn, she was awakened by the crash of the door being kicked in and raucous shouts, including the frightened voice of Elsie. Marion grabbed a golf club and dashed into the living room to defend her mother. Later, Elsie recalled that her daughter had fought the armed intruders fiercely.

During the battle one of the men fired his pistol and bullets plowed into Marion’s head and back. She collapsed to the floor, dead. One man shot her mother three times, ransacked the apartment and left with a sack containing about $140. It was only a fraction of what they thought would be rich proceeds from the dance, but most club members had signed chits for their expenses that night.

After the gunmen ran away with the money, Elsa Miley, in a superhuman effort, crawled down the stairs and up the long driveway to the house of a neighbor, who called police. Before she slipped into a final coma, Elsa told police what had happened.

Marion’s father now held a golf club job in Cincinnati and he hurried to Lexington after being told of “an accident” at the club.

Elsa Miley lived for three days. She died in a Lexington hospital on Oct. 1.

“Seven hours before she (Elsa) died, a priest stood before the gray metal coffin of Marion Miley and asked God’s mercy on her soul and retribution for her slayers,” said a story by The Associated Press. “Earlier more than 1,000 had streamed through the funeral home when Marion Miley’s body had lain in state for two days, clad in a tailored suit of gray tweed that had been her favorite.”

Patty Berg and Helen Dettweiler were among the mourners. Bing Crosby contributed $5,000 to a reward fund for the capture of the killers and other entertainers Marion had charmed also chipped in.

Three men were arrested and charged in the murders: Raymond Baxter, a drug addict and greenkeeper at Lexington Country Club; Robert H. Anderson, proprietor of a Louisville nightclub; and, the gunman, Tom Penney, who had served time in prison for armed robbery and for shooting two men.

The men were tried and convicted. Two years later they died in the electric chair. Some believed that Anderson was innocent, but Kentucky’s governor declined to stop his execution.

World War II raged on and Marion Miley was nearly forgotten by all but her closest friends. Dettweiler and Berg were now professional golfers, but they enlisted in the war effort – Dettweiler to fly bombers to Europe for the WASPs, Berg as a lieutenant in a recruiting office for the U.S. Marines. In 1946, they joined Hicks, Didrikson (now Zaharias), Suggs, Hemphill and a handful of others on the first women’s professional tour, the Women’s Professional Golf Association.

Women’s amateur competition resumed after the war, but the Women’s Western Golf Association soon discontinued the Western Derby. The Florida circuit blossomed for another 25 years, until many fine women amateurs deserted to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association. By the mid-1960s the circuit was reduced to seven tournaments; today there are only four. The players still have a fine time, but they’re a changing cast made up of older amateurs and youngsters headed for the pro ranks.

Marion Miley wasn’t alone in enjoying the broadening experiences provided by amateur golf in the earlier years of the 20th century. Through the decades, dozens of players enjoyed banner headlines and hospitality at the finest clubs. They too made friends with sports stars, political figures and entertainers of their day. Bing Crosby became fast friends with a few of them, taking them to dinner and to play golf.

Today, Miley’s name surfaces when Lexington Country Club conducts the Marion Miley Invitational and the Women’s Western Golf Association presents the Miley bracelet to the low qualifier in its women’s amateur and junior championships, but few modern competitors know who Marion Miley was.

Marion Miley is buried near her mother and father in a Catholic cemetery in Lexington. Nearly 70 years after her death, she is a ghostly presence wafting through the annals of the game. If she is remembered at all, it’s because she is the only fine player in the insular world of golf to be murdered in her prime. Surely she is worth remembering, for her life as well as her tragic death.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org.

  

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