Thursday, May 27

Q&A: Beverly Bell, Author of 'The Murder of Marion Miley'; the Tragic Death of the Amateur Golfer Was Front-Page News Around the World

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ABOVE: Bridget Newell (left) and Marion Miley compete in a match at the 1936 British Women's Amateur.

By Elizabeth Short

Beverly Bell is a writer, pleasure golfer and author of The Murder of Marion Miley, which was a finalist for the Herbert Warren Wind Book Award, the USGA's top literary prize. Bell was also a consultant on a Marion Miley documentary made by Kentucky public television.

Bell's book recounts the tragic September 1941 murder of 27-year-old internationally-known amateur golfer Marion Miley, a Kentucky native who garnered a reputation on and off the golf course thanks to her outstanding game and magnetic personality. Bell sat down with Armchair Golf Blog to share about Miley's story and her experience telling it. 

Q: What made you gravitate toward Miley's story? 

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BEVERLY BELL: A couple of things attracted me to it. First of all, when I first became aware of Marion, I was in my late twenties -- there was this connection in terms of our ages [Miley was 27 when she died]. The second thing was I had taken up the game five years earlier. I had just moved back to Kentucky from Arizona, where you can play a lot of golf, so I was very energized by coming from that environment. The third thing was I had started some freelance writing work on the side. 

When I came back to Kentucky, my late father-in-law knew about each of these things: I had taken up the game and I was writing. He said to me one day, "I've got a story for you." He went on to tell me about this golfer I'd never heard of. Her murder had occurred when he was a teenager. If you know anything about teens, you know they can get very imprinted by events. I felt like even when he talked about Marion -- even though he wasn't a golfer -- that he had been imprinted by the experience of her very brutal death. He had latched on to that story and then he shared it with me. That's how it started, one step after the other. And I'll tell you, it didn't take long before I was really hooked. 

Q: How can you communicate, in today's terms, how well-known Miley was? I'm surprised more people don't know about her. 

BELL: I think all you need to say in terms of the breadth of her celebrity, was that the story of her very unfortunate death at the age of 27 made the front page -- above the fold -- of The New York Times. How often does that happen? 

When someone young dies, it seems to always catch us off guard. It doesn't matter how many times it happens. It is an affront to the way we think the world is supposed to work, which is that the old die first. Even though we've seen it happen time and time again, it always shocks us, shakes us. So in trying to understand what it was like at that time when Marion died and what the impact was, it's significant that the story hit all over the world. It wasn't just the United States. It was in Europe, Mexico, Australia. You can see how well known she was by looking at the newspapers that were reporting on it. 

Marion was very effective in reaching out to people, in connecting with people. That's one of the things that I came to learn. I think it certainly fed into how her death was reported, as well as the extent of that reporting. 

Q: Marion was an internationally known female golfer, which seems especially significant for the time. How was this possible, and what did it mean?

BELL: There are a couple reasons for that, I think. Women's golf was really, really big. In my understanding of the women's game, it really came into its own in the 1930s. That was attributed, for the most part, to when Bobby Jones decided to retire from golf in 1930. It created this little ebb, and at that point, women who played the game stepped in to fill the role. They provided this game -- some would say this exciting game -- to people who were interested. 

Another factor, in terms of the popularity of the game during that time, was that America was in the Great Depression. People were looking for opportunities for entertainment -- something that didn't cost a whole lot, something to enjoy, where you could attend something and push away the rest of life. I think that was definitely a factor. When you see photographs of some of those games, some of those matches, and you see how many people were attending a woman's match, it's just kind of startling. It was just this unique opportunity of a circumstance presenting itself and a group of women stepping in. 

Marion was one of a large group. I certainly don't want to leave the rest of those women behind because they were very important. She was popular, and she was a woman, and she was a golfer, and had these other circumstances happening in the world. It came together for this perfect picture. 

Q: Hearing you expand on the significance that way illustrates another dimension to the tragedy of her death. Golf was supposed to be this carefree, escapist activity, but the reality of the world we live in comes to meet her smack in the middle of that in a really unfortunate way. 

BELL: The fact that it happened in a beautiful place, at a country club -- these things just are not supposed to happen, like you said, surrounded by this lovely game. How in the world could this happen? There were so many things that came together for that crime and resulting deaths and you just think if we could run back the clock and play it again, it might just take one alteration of something and you change the outcome. But that's not the way life is.

Q: What was the thing that made Marion's story stick with you and haunt you? Would it be that tragic inevitability?

BELL: I couldn't get over how fundamentally unfair it was. I just couldn't get over it, and I carried that for years. I continued to gather pieces of the story, do an interview with someone else, and I had no idea where this was headed. I wrote one small magazine piece years ago, but I knew that was just one thing that I was going to do. Every time I would think about it, that's the thing I always got caught on, that this is so wrong, so unfair.

I'll tell you one other thing that kept me hooked. I was never disappointed when I dug under another rock. I continued to find surprising things that I would literally go, "Are you kidding me? Really?" 

I remember talking to a friend about it and I said, "You know why I keep at this story? Because it just keeps rewarding me. It just goes well, you thought you knew this, but how about this." Something else would happen. I can't even tell you how many times that happened.

Q: You said you didn't know where the story was going. Was that one of the challenges for you of figuring out how you want to tell the story? Is that why you ultimately decided to do a book about it? 

BELL: I ultimately decided to do a book because, one, I was tired of this thing around my neck. I had carried it around for so long wondering what to do with it. I knew that I was gathering this body of information and details of the story that it had to go somewhere. Part of it was me going, "I have got to do something with this." And honestly at the very beginning, I needed to push it off of me, because it had been pushing in on me for so long. I just had to do something with it.

It was when I started getting up early in the morning to start writing the book before my regular job -- I think it was maybe the next year after that -- then I became aware that the state public television network here in Kentucky was going to be doing a documentary on Marion. They put this call out. They were so stuck. Their main program was photographs and materials they could use as part of their visuals because there was no video of Marion anywhere except for one small clip. So they put this call out looking for help and I answered this producer. And I said I know some things about this, and actually I have been collecting photographs for years, so I have a big library. 

I was already working on the book and then the documentary came in and I was a consultant on the documentary. Maybe sometimes things just happen at the right time and place. 

Q: I think a lot of writers can relate to your sentiment about having to tell the story. 

BELL: It was interesting because I was getting up very early, the sun wasn't up, and I was in my little dark place with a couple of lamps on or whatever, no sunlight. All the time I had this thought, "Well, it's just me and this little book." Just like, who's really going to be interested in this? 

I was burning up with it but I didn't have any delusions and just felt like it was just me and this little book. Me and Marion, I'm just going to tell her story. 

When asked what she was working on next, Ms. Bell said:

You can only tell a story once. So I usually don't talk about what I'm working on. I will tell you that it's two story lines. One takes place in the 1960s, one in the 1990s, so I am actually getting closer to real time.

Elizabeth Short is a writer who lives in Woodstock, Georgia.

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