The Chicago Years
I was eight years old, and we were frolicking in Wonder Lake, just outside of Chicago, where all good mob stories begin, when it happened. My friends and I were playing in the water not far from shore. Suddenly, my father was charging into the lake toward us, clutching a piece of wood above his head. As we stared, eyes wide, he began thrashing violently at the surface around us. In the next instant, we understood. Amazed, we watched as he hoisted an enormous water snake into the air and carried it ashore.
Ross Miller’s face betrayed no fear, uncertainty, or hesitation—only determination. The snake never had a chance. He draped its lifeless six-foot length over the cabin fence and left us to our child’s play.
That is one of the few, albeit telling and vivid, memories I have of my father, a man of few words and decisive action who, I would later learn, was an illegal bookmaker who consorted with underworld associates. My father was not in the mob, but he was of the mob, and it is part of my heritage that I neither shun nor embrace. It simply is. My father was a mysterious figure to me when I was a child … and, indeed, would remain so to most of the people around him for the better part of his life.
Ross Miller was born in 1908 in the tiny town of Equality in southeastern Illinois, the third of five children—four sons and a daughter. My grandfather was a coal miner who died when my father was a young child. Neither my dad nor any of my uncles would follow his dangerous career path. In fact, my father had to drop out of high school to help support the family. He had to become a man too young, but he was chronologically—and temperamentally, perhaps—still a teenager.
One night, he and my Uncle Herschel snuck into a factory after hours and started goofing around with the equipment. At some point, my dad placed his hand in one of the machines. In a stroke of horrible luck, Herschel happened to flip a switch that started the equipment running. My father’s right hand was terribly mangled. His ring finger was chopped off about two-thirds the way down, and his index and middle finger were broken. Ever-intrepid, he and Herschel found the missing finger and ran all the way home with it.
In those days, surgical reattachment was unheard of, but that didn’t stop my grandmother from hoping. She pickled her son’s severed digit and kept it in a jar in the kitchen for many years to come. Perhaps she prayed that modern medicine would prevail and the finger could be reunited with the others on her son’s hand. Or maybe she just wanted to preserve the floating finger as a lesson for her sons to avoid foolish behavior in the future.
My father was forced to live the rest of his life with a stub instead of a fourth finger, and the other two damaged fingers were bent at odd angles. He must have adapted well enough because many years later he became a very accurate marksman in the U.S. Army during World War II. He never got to use the skill in battle, though. Perhaps his sharp-shooting ability brought attention to his hand, for it wasn’t long after he scored high in target shooting that he was honorably discharged because of the disfigurement.
In their late teens or early twenties, my father and Uncle Herschel drifted between Detroit and Chicago. What they did to get by in that period, I don’t know. He never talked about it. But he eventually earned his high school equivalency diploma. At one point he worked as a clerk in a Chicago law office, on his way to becoming a lawyer. But he didn’t carry through. Perhaps the time commitment was too great and the wages too meager.
He expressed regret to me, in his later years, that he wasn’t able to continue long enough in that law office to become a lawyer. I’m sure this is one reason why one day he would so strongly encourage me to go to law school. He always made it clear that I was not to follow him into the casino business. I rarely questioned what was behind my father’s advice; I just always knew that if he said it was not right for me, he did so for good reasons.
* * *
Sometime after Prohibition ended in 1933, my father and Uncle Herschel, now in their late twenties, came to own a north Chicago bar. The Silver Palm was a combination burlesque club and bookie joint. To one side of the bar was a door with a secret buzzer that led to the betting operation in back. Down the other side was a stage for the strippers. The Silver Palm was on Wilson Avenue under an elevated (“El”) subway station. Today the bar is gone, but the building houses a large pawnshop. The neighborhood hasn’t changed much.
One way or another, the Silver Palm seems to have done good business. Dad was a go-getter, a real hustler, with a strong work ethic. Besides the bar, he managed prizefighters, which would eventually change his life and make mine.
In 1943, when Dad went to a Chicago club one night after a boxing card he’d promoted, he was struck by the beauty of a young dancer in the chorus line. Her name: Coletta Jane Doyle, known as “the Irish Songbird,” although she was more a dancer than a singer. She had light-brown hair, stood five-foot-two, was twenty-one years old, and had been dancing professionally since her late teens. She was talented; she’d even performed in a show with a rising young comedian named Danny Thomas (who went on to become one of America’s most celebrated TV entertainers), and she and the other dancers sometimes attended Mass with him on Sunday mornings. Her parents and three brothers had immigrated to America from the area of the port city of Drogheda, Ireland,1 in 1920. Coletta was born the following year. Her father supported the family as a house painter. Her brothers were thirteen to fifteen years older than she, and protective of their baby sister. After she and Ross Miller began going out together, one of her brothers always chaperoned. Of course, the fact that my dad owned a bar might have made that duty less onerous.
Eventually it was apparent that this was a serious courtship. My father and Coletta Doyle dated for a year. One of the few stories about my father that my mother told me in later years, after Ross Miller had died, concerned a time when a couple of wise guys, whom she described as Mafia-connected hoodlums, made some inappropriate comments about her. My father decided they had gone too far. In the ensuing brawl, two of them proved to be no match for one of him. But Ross Miller knew that might not be the end of it; they were the sort of weasels who could be tempted to shoot him in the back. He phoned Uncle Herschel at the Silver Palm to bring him a pistol, just in case. My mother said my father had no regard for Mafia thugs, and did not associate with them.
My father wasn’t a gangster, but because of the nature of his business, he moved in their world. He could handle it; he was a tough guy. Having grown up hard, he knew how to use his fists. When I was older, I learned from Uncle Hersch, as I and others usually called him, that when he and my father ran the Silver Palm, they never bothered hiring bouncers. The Miller brothers were quite capable of handling whatever problems came up. Uncle Hersch wasn’t as intimidating as my dad, but he was a bit larger and burlier. Later, after they sold the bar in Chicago, Uncle Hersch moved on to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the authorities tended to look the other way. Eventually he came to Las Vegas, and what little I learned about my father’s background, I mostly learned from Uncle Hersch in his later years, when we golfed together. My uncle, although fairly tight-lipped like Dad had been, would occasionally tell me a story about the old days in Chicago.
One anecdote speaks volumes to me about my father’s character. When Ross Miller and Coletta Doyle married in 1944, it was in a Catholic church. Dad was not Catholic. He was Protestant (though nonobservant). Yet when the priest who married them asked Dad to promise that he would raise his children Catholic, Dad gave his word. And true to his nature, he kept it.
He may have moved around in a rough world, but Ross Miller lived by certain unwavering principles. And paramount among those was that if you said it, you did it. Your word was your bond. In the world of illegal gambling, written contracts had little or no place. The ethic of keeping one’s word was deeply ingrained in Ross Miller. And it extended into all areas of his life, no matter who he was keeping company with.
Of all of my dad’s qualities, this one may have been most ingrained in his son. Later, when I would go into politics, I would try to keep all the promises I made. And I learned not to make promises I couldn’t keep. I might not have realized it contemporaneously with my campaigning or serving, but the spirit of Ross Miller was guiding me in how I conducted myself. People have said a lot of things about my father and about me, but those who knew us would say we were men of our word.
* * *
I was born on March 30, 1945, and from the time I was of age, in keeping with Dad’s promise, I was sent to Catholic schools.
Even though my father worked odd hours and I didn’t see much of him, it was far from a lonely existence for my mom and me. There were always aunts, uncles, and cousins around. Usually they were the relatives on Mom’s side, although my aunt Louise, Dad’s sister, had a daughter, Ethel, about my age, and so I spent a lot of time with her.
My uncle Hersch dropped by once in a while. My uncle Joseph, Dad’s youngest brother, lived in Chicago, and we occasionally saw him and his three children, who were a bit younger than me. He sold ads for the Yellow Pages of the phone book. Dad’s oldest brother, Eugene, drifted in and out of our lives. Uncle Gene was a character. He was smaller than his brothers and didn’t share their naturally macho nature. He compensated with an exaggerated image of himself. He sported a large mustache and considered himself debonair. He was a theatrical booking agent in Detroit, a wheeler-dealer type. He was the talker in the family.
My father, as I said, was stoic. To him, business was business, and these matters weren’t discussed with the wife or children. Ross Miller’s world was black and white. He did business with a word and a firm handshake, and that meant the deal was sealed and not to be broken. He expected those he dealt with to abide by this creed, as well. I admired Dad’s integrity, and strove to follow suit. I never wanted to disappoint him. I wanted to be a standup guy, like him. I also knew from a very young age that I wasn’t cut from the same tough cloth as he and Uncle Hersch. I didn’t have their personalities. Whatever it was I’d end up doing for a living when I grew up, I knew I wouldn’t be following Dad’s career path, of which I had only a vague idea at the time, anyway. He made sure of that, too. If there was one cardinal rule in our house, it was that there was to be no gambling of any kind, or even the instruments of gambling. No dice. No deck of cards. Not even for a game of gin rummy.
It was understood that I would graduate high school and go to college, even though neither of my parents nor any of their siblings had done so. The Millers were a family that aimed to get ahead. Ross and Coletta Miller recognized that education was the route to upward mobility, and respectability. And so they sheltered me from what Dad did for a living. Mom seldom brought me to the Silver Palm. When she did, it was in daytime when the club was empty. I never saw the back room that was a bookie joint. But one time when we showed up to get him, I walked down the other side of the room to where the stage was in back. What grabbed my attention was the drum kit. I sat at it and banged on the skins. Fortunately, no strippers were around to come out and shock me.
I had no clue what took place on this empty stage during performances at night. And no one was about to tell me.
* * *
Our little apartment was on the second floor of a three-story brownstone, about eight blocks from Lakeshore Drive, set among other brownstones. All the other kids in our neighborhood lived in the same sort of small apartments, dressed in similar clothes, walked to the same schools. Mine, St. Gertrude’s, was a half block away. One luxury item our family had that most of our neighbors didn’t was a television set. It was in a big wood frame with a tiny screen, and sat in the living room. I was a regular viewer of The Howdy Doody Show.2
On a typical Saturday, each of the kids in the neighborhood would be given a quarter by their parents and walk to one of the two nearby movie theaters, where a dime got you in and fifteen cents paid for popcorn and a Coke. You could spend hours there, watching the serials such as Flash Gordon, whose plots carried over week to week, followed by a feature film. Another destination was Lachman’s candy store, a couple long blocks from our building, where a penny bought you gumdrops, jelly beans, little dots, or a piece of licorice shaped like a record player; a nickel got you a fountain soda.
The brownstone buildings in our neighborhood were a good playground for the games of childhood: cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. There were little passageways, like tunnels, in and out of the apartment complexes. Alleys ran between the buildings. For some reason, when we played cops and robbers, I always chose to be sheriff. I was on the good guys’ side. Maybe we’re born with such a predisposition. I idolized Hopalong Cassidy, the clean-cut cowboy hero of Saturday movie matinees and a TV series, and whose likeness was re-created on lunch boxes. I played the part proudly. I carried two toy guns on either side of my belt, and a toy rifle. Sometimes I’d lead my posse through the neighborhood, trying to rescue the little girl who played the heroine in distress. Other times I’d try to hunt down Robbie Russell, who was a loner in the neighborhood and liked to play the bad guy.
I had no idea what my father really did for a living, but it’s fair to say my childhood was fairly typical. I played with my friends, watched movies, and, of course, discovered the joys (and obvious sorrows) of the Cubs—Ernie Banks and Ralph Kiner were the stars of the era. It was a typical Midwestern childhood, or so I thought. Until 1955, that is, when my life would change as my father’s did, as his world I knew so little about put him on a path to the place where my character would be hewn and I started down a road that could not have been more different.
Copyright © 2013 by Bob Miller