Interview with Robert Miller

Robert C. Miller was a UP/UPI war correspondent in World War II and in every war since then up to but not including Desert Storm (he retired in 1987). Miller began his UP career at Reno, Nev., as a part-timer while attending the University of Nevada. He reluctantly served in management positions in Honolulu and Sidney, Australia. He has homes in California, Hawaii and Australia. He is single. He drinks a gimlet. Following is the transcript of a recorded message for the Unipress History Project made by Miller on Oct. 24, 1995. It was transcribed by Dick Harnett.


Good Evening, Dick. lt is Tuesday evening, October 24, Pejon Pines, Shasta County, California. Beautiful evening. Thank you very much for sending me the information on Marge Bowman. I'll contact her. And I was very pleasantly surprised of your intentions to do a book on the United Press. You have quite a bit of work ahead of you, and I will be most happy to help you and give you a leg up in any way I can.

I don't think, Dick, that you're going to find a publisher or publishing house that will give you an advance and give you a contract for such a book. But that's not all bad. You're probably going to have to go the vanity press route, but at least that means you won't have some idiot editor looking over your shoulder telling you what to do about something he or she doesn't know what's to be done in the first place. The trouble is these days, from what my writer friends tell me, they all love to write but they hate to be published.

And I've heard nothing but horror stories from people who are trying to get books published.

In fact, now, I understand, no publishing house will accept a book or an outline unless it is submitted by an agent. But, as I say, that is not all bad because there is absolutely no way that anybody outside the United Press could ever edit a book on the United Press.

It's such a foreign country, a foreign area to every editor. So going the vanity route is not bad at all.

There is one possibility. The University of Nevada might publish the book. After all, the Scripps family, and I believe Bart made a few financial donations. In fact, I believe Scripps-Howard finances a lecture, a Scripps Howard lecture every year. And Bart told me at one time he was considering leaving part of his estate to the university. Of course, Bart said many things probably to many people. However, they might be amenable to publishing the book. And why not get Scripps-Howard to finance it. Challenge them, dammit! They killed the United Press so at least they ought to pay part of the burial expenses and funeral notices. They might go for it.

But I don't know how much financial support you're going to get on this, and you should have some. As I said, I'll be most happy to help in any way that I can.

I suppose, because of the attrition, that I know more about the United Press than anybody else does because the people who knew more than I did are all now dead.

My first suggestion would be to get yourself, your tape recorder, up to Sonoma, get ahold of those old phonies up there before they die, Meaning Beaton, Morgan, Garry Simmel by all means. Don't overlook Simmel. Simmel was the smartest man in the Asian Division and in some ways compensated for the clown prince of United Press, Ernie Hoberecht. Not entirely of course, but to some extent. Simmel is a brilliant man, erudite, very knowledgeable, and I suggest getting him on tape, and of course McCadden.

McCadden has some experience with the vanity press because of Bart's book. But I would suggest that Charlie Arnot, who lives in Arizona -- if you don't have his address I do -- he published his book through Valiant Press, a New York publishing house, and he can give you some pointers and some ideas on the way.

To get you started I suggest two books. You are going to have to go way back to get the whole feel of the thing in my opinion. You are going to have to go back to the man who created the United Press E.W. Scripps, also known as "Lusty Scripps."

There are two excellent books on Scripps. One that you should find no trouble getting. That would be Damned Old Crank, which was written by the late Charlie McCabe of the San Francisco Chronicle whom you may or may not have known. You were contemporaries. McCabe married into the Scripps tribe and so he did a book called Damned Old Crank, which is not bad. It's good.

The better book, however, is Lusty Scripps, published back in the 30s, and may be difficult to come by. But I would highly recommend a diligent search to try to get ahold of it because it gives the whole background of the United Press and how old E.W. got mad at the AP and decided to hell with it he'd start his own press association.

E.W. Scripps, Dick, is probably the most overlooked of all of the great, I suppose we would today call them media barons. But the Bennetts, the Hearsts, Pulitzer, they were really small potatoes compared to E.W., who was a brilliant mind, a brilliant man and who created an organization that is still alive and thriving.

And the way he did it, the way he went about it, was revolutionary. And then he did one thing that no other man in corporate history to my knowledge had ever done, Dick. He died, quote "died," six or seven years before his actual death and turned the whole organization that he had created, the Scripps-Howard Company, over to the people that he had selected to run it.

But he insisted that he get a copy of every letter, every internal document concerning the United Press, Scripps-Howard, the various newspapers. And he never once opened his mouth with a word of criticism, correction, compliments or what. Now that takes discipline!

Of course, he had great discipline. The story is in Lusty Scripps that he drank a bottle of bourbon and smoked a box of cigars every day until he woke up one morning to throw the sheet back from his head. There was no sheet there. He never took another drink and never smoked another cigar for the rest of the days of his life.

But with all the information coming in, he took off on his yacht and spent the last six or seven years of his life sailing around the world and digesting all of the internal memos, all of the correspondence and everything that happened in Scripps-Howard and never uttered one single peep.

Fascinating! So I do recommend you institute a search to try to get ahold in the various libraries of Lusty Scripps. I had the book, but there was somebody that I didn't particularly like, so I loaned it to them, knowing that I would never see them again, and I didn't. It was a fair price to pay.

There are companies who, I understand -- and Hazel Tow can help you on this -- that will locate books if you can't find them. It's a nominal fee. I think it only costs $15 or $20, and they'll dig up the book and get it for you if you want it. So I suggest you start with that. Start with old E.W.

The books that have been done about the United Press are not very good. Deadline Every Minute -- heh heh heh! Deadline Every Minute has an interesting story. After Baillie retired, and not voluntarily I might add -- I don't think any United Press president ever retired voluntarily -- anyway, after Baillie retired he set out to do Deadline Every Minute, and I don't know who the publisher was, but when they got Baillie's manuscript they were not very happy with it. So they had a meeting between his editor and Baillie, in which the editor explained: "Mr. Baillie, writing for a publishing house is a little bit different than writing for a press association."

"You just don't quite get the feel that we require and which we believe is necessary for this book. However, there is a tremendous amount of material here, and we do have people that we call ghost writers who take over manuscripts like yours and put them together in the way that we feel is most beneficial. And in fact we have one person who is very good at this and he is, I believe, yes, he is a press association person. In fact, you may have heard of him, Mr. Baillie. His name is Merriman Smith."

Baillie himself told me that story. I don't think that Smitty ghosted Baillie's book. Baillie's book starts out great. First chapter is good stuff, and then it just deteriorates into nothing. Myron Aker's book on United Press is not very much better. I suppose they'd be required reading for anybody like yourself whose going to do a book.

But outside of that I don't know what other books were written on the United Press. So anyway I think your idea is excellent. I think you got yourself a pretty good chore there in front of you. But I think you are the only person that I know of that can do this job, and do the book, and do it the way it should be done.

And as I said, I'd be most happy to help in any way. I will, from time to time as the spirit moves me -- says he, sipping another gimlet -- cut you a tape or two, with little things that come back, reminiscences, ideas that I think might help pad the book out.

In addition to that, I will arrange with the University of Nevada Archives Department for you to have access to the Miller diaries, through a lady, a very nice lady named Karen Gash, who's the archivist.

These diaries are not supposed to be made available to the public until after my death. But we'll make special dispensation in your case. If you need it I'll give you a note to Karen. The original of the diaries is in the American Heritage Center at Laramie, Wyoming, the University of Wyoming, but a copy of them is in the University of Nevada. You might find things in there for the padding youíre going to require for the book.

These diaries are neatly typed. The only smart thing I ever did in my life, Dick, was get loose leaf note books and typed them up and kept them very religiously.

So there's about 40-odd years of diaries, starting from my first job in Fresno right up until my retirement in 1987.

Indeed, the diaries certainly cover a multitude of sins. I suppose the reason they would be a bit valuable to you is because nobody in the United Press covered the whole spectrum of press associations as I did.

I pimped for the United Press. I laundered money for them. I was a boy reporter. I wrote scripts for United Press Television News. I ghosted the Richfield Reporter when they were our No. 1 client. In addition to covering a baker's dozen wars etcetera etcetera. I also achieved a notable first. I think I am the only reporter who ever legitimately travelled first class on an aeroplane paid for by the United Press.

When I was working with United Press Movietone News my cameraman would always travel first class. I'd go back in steerage. The cinematographers for Fox had in their contract they would always travel first class, as part of their contract. Heh heh heh! Try that with United Press.

However, one time on a flight from Manila to Saigon we were taking some teletypes to the Saigon bureau and we were not going to be paying the horrendous custom duties which were required. So I proved to the company it would be much cheaper if I flew first class carrying the teletypes as my personal baggage than to fly the usual steerage route and then pay the excess baggage charges. I know its the only time I ever legitimately travelled first class on anybodyís airline and I donít think anybody else ever did.

Of course we had the customs people in Saigon greased and don't know who handled that on that end. It could have been Dale Brix or it could have been Hwong Faree (?) or one of our many, many stringers. But anyway we got the teletypes in. I got a beautiful Air France first class ticket and set history.

Speaking of teletypes, John Hlavacek has a good story for your book on how we smuggled teletypes into the Neezam or Nizam of Hydrobad when Jerry Rock and Hlavacek signed a $100,000, payable in gold, contract for the Nizan of Hydrobad for exclusive United Press services and we had to smuggle the teletypes into Hydrobad because the government of India was squabbling with the old Nizam of Hydrobad and trying to prevent him from getting his own news service.

That glorious contract -- think the biggest ever signed in the history of Asia -- was nullified by New York, probably by pressure from the State Department, which had happened previously. But we did get the teletypes past the border guards. Hlavacek has that story for you.

Another little scheme you might try, Dick. You might send to the various people that you think have stories of the United Press, send them a tape recorder with a tape with a return padded envelope and your address and just ask them to put on the enclosed tape their impressions, their memories or theirs stories which you think would be beneficial to the book. You might get a very good response.

You mentioned in one of your Ninety-fivers about Merriman Smith using the five dollar bill. My namesake started that, Dick. Webb Miller used that trick when King George and Queen Elizabeth made theirs first American visit back in the 30s. They had a Broadway tickertape parade and of course there was very poor communications in those days.

Miller was riding with the royal party up Broadway, and what he did, he had little envelopes with a dollar bill in them, and he made notes, scribbled notes, and put them in the envelope with the dollar bill.

He tossed them out to the crowd and told them to keep the dollar bill and call this number. And of course the number was the United Press bureau at 220 East 42nd Street I believe. I think he threw, if memory serves me right, 26 or 27 of these little scribbled notes as the parade progressed. And I think all but one of them were telephoned into the United Press so that we had a moving report everywhere, what happened, every incident the whole way from the time the parade started until it ended. So he is the one, as far as I know, who started that idea and it worked beautifully on the coverage.

That was the time where they all ended up I guess at the Roosevelt mansion, having hotdogs and -- heh heh! -- on the Fourth of July picnic or something. I believe Baillie has that in his book too. I think your finest chapter in your book is going to be the chapter on the United Press stringers. There's never been a corporation in America that ever had such a collection of personalities, characters, as the United Press had on its payroll as stringers.

We had millionaires. We had poets. We had celebrities. We had knights. We had one man who was shot, executed by a Mexican firing squad. He received a coup de grace and lived. He was on my payroll. Just a list of the various stringers is going to enhance it. You are going to have a lot of fun with that chapter on stringers.

I probably had more crazy stringers on my payroll. A story, I might as well tell it now. Trying to pad an expense account during a war is difficult, particularly the Korean War.

The reporters were all under the jurisdiction of New York. But Hoberecht was supposed to take care of expenses and keep them down, and it was just -- covering Korea, there was no way you could pad an expense account in Korea.

Except for one small matter. I dug up a list of people whom I paid on my expense account -- put quotes around that word "paid" -- to keep me up on any emergencies that happened in their area, gunnery sergeants, anonymous of course, who were supposed to call me immediately if there was an attack in their area or if any great event happened, and therefore we would then relay that in and get a beat or two.

And so every month I duly listed all of these various sources on the various companies, Marines, Air Force, etcetera, that we had paid five, ten dollars for as beer money etcetera. Unfortunately the North Koreans launched an attack one night, chased us out of two or three towns, and we got our ass beat not only militarily but journalistically because I missed the whole damn story.

Hoberecht of course was on the phone the next day from Tokyo demanding to know what in the hell had happened. We'd been paying for all of these stringers in this area and what had happened. How come we had gotten so badly beaten on this story?

So I patiently explained to Ernie, "Doggonit, Ernie! we had the best stringer of the whole bunch up there. This guy had given us beat after beat after beat and he was worth every cent that you paid for it. Unfortunately for us, Ernie, he had to get rotated home the day before the counterattack was launched and we had nobody covering that section." Hoberecht hung up in disgust.

Another person you want to get on, Tremaine of course. Frank is a very lackluster character, but he's got a lot of good information and background. I got Frank, which was one of my more nobler achievements. Frank, as you may or may not know, at one time was head of the United Press picture service. The reason for this was I think that Bart went back to New York to take on the presidency with a chip on his shoulder. He didn't have any faith in anybody in New York and he didn't trust them, figured they were all Baillie people.

So he put Frank in charge of the picture service. Before that was McDowell, who incidentally I believe is still alive in Moraga. By all means get him. He was the head of the picture service.

Anyway, Frank, his orders are to cut expenses on pictures. So the first thing he did, he eliminated all of the bonus money the picture service used to pay the reporters. If you got a picture you'd get a five dollar bonus for each picture that was used on the service.

Frank's idea was we're all together in this thing, we're all brothers and sisters. Therefore there will be no additional pay made to reporters who take pictures and whose pictures are used.

Well, that edict didn't last very long. Everybody (said) just fuck you Tremaine, we are not going take any more pictures.

That was the easy way out, Dick. I figured there must be some, there's gotta be some way of doing this. I was working in Asia at that time. I donít know if a war was on or something. Anyway, I took all of my various whorehouse bills and bar chits that were written in Chinese and put them all together at the end of the month.

The figures were in Arasbic, in English, but all of the charges of course were in Chinese. I sent them to New York and sent to Frank as printing and developing charges for pictures. Now I'm sure that Frank knew they were no printing and developing charges. If they were, they were the highest price in the world.

But he paid them with tongue in cheek, and it was only about a month or two after that he decided to forget the thing. We'd go back to giving the ink-stained wretches a few extra bucks. I always like to figure it was my printing and developing charges that came in in Chinese those couple of months.

He paid, give him high marks, he paid. One of the reasons he paid was because I got him some pictures, the last pictures of some Asian journalists who were drowned going into Kin-min Island when their amtrak or alligator sank. AP had Jim Pringle there, and Pringle never even took the picture and I did.

But anyway it worked, and somewhere I suppose in the archives I suppose you could probably find the printing and developing charges which were various and sundry Chinese bars and whorehouse brothels and hostesses.

But give Frank high marks. I'm sure he knew, and if you ask him I'm sure he'll probably say he knew that I was. But after all, he wasn't getting any pictures to begin with. The idea was a bad one, and this was a nice way, with everybody saving face all around. So, Dick, as the Australians say, "get crackin," lad. I know you're going to have a lot of fun with this.

We seem to run out of tape there. You'll have a ball with it and, as I say, anything I can do to help, and I'll give you an occasional tape.

I'll be here up on Pejon Pines probably until late October or early November. When the first frost comes, coward Miller heads south for Australia, Cook Island and Hawaii.

In any way that I can help I'd be most happy to, and feel free to contact me at your convenience.

As I said, we'll dig up some more things. It's getting dark here on the front porch at Pejon Pines. The ice is melting fast in my gimlet, and there's some trout in the fridge which I, if I get enough energy, will put in the frying pan and have some trout, a good white wine and some strawberry shortcake, homemade of course, for desert.

And tomorrow I am off to Nevada. I have to see some people at the university, which is just an excuse to go and do a little gambling and enjoying some good food.

Over and out. And I'm mighty and mighty happy, Dick, that you came through the surgery in such good shape, all due of course to drinking nothing but good gin.

Oh! By the way. That brings to mind a very interesting point as a gin drinker. While up in Canada last week I picked up Pierre Berton's Arctic Grail, which is possibly the greatest book, well it is undoubtedly the greatest book that has ever been done on the arctic. It reads better than any fiction.

The fascinating thing is that there are several large areas of the arctic which are named after a gin manufacturer, a man named Booth.

The Royal Navy would not outfit and finance a couple of expeditions in the arctic and a man named Parry, P-A-R-R-Y I believe, went to the manufacturer and inventor of Booth's gin and got him to finance the expedition to the arctic. So if you look today on the map of the arctic, you will see Boothia Peninsula and Boothia Bay. Those were named after mister Booth, the distiller of Booth's gin. Over and out!