Nathan Miller, 77, reporter, author

October 26, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Nathan Miller, a former reporter for The Sun who was the author of more than a dozen critically acclaimed books of American history and biography, died Friday at a Washington nursing home where he had been since suffering a stroke two years ago. He was 77.

"Every newspaper person has a yearning to be an author. Nat didn't talk about it, he went out and did it, and he managed to draw thousands of readers into naval and presidential history," said James H. Bready, a retired editorial writer and author of a monthly column on regional books for The Sun.

"His last book, New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, was a climax to his earlier works. It wasn't about battleships and presidents but of the U.S. coming alive and into its own after World War I," he said.

Many critics have suggested that Mr. Miller's book on the Jazz Age, published 14 months after his stroke by Charles Scribner's & Sons, is a likely successor to Frederick Lewis Allen's classic popular history, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, which was published in 1931.

Mr. Miller hypothesized in his book that the Roaring Twenties - including flappers, fast automobiles, Babe Ruth, radio, Al Capone, talking pictures, jazz, bootleg liquor and the soaring stock market before the crash leading to the Great Depression - were not an aberration, but to "an astonishing degree were a precursor to modern excesses."

Mr. Miller was born in Baltimore, the son of Russian immigrants. He was raised on Hamburg Street and dropped out of Polytechnic Institute to enlist in the Navy in 1944, serving in Charleston, S.C.

After his 1946 discharge, Mr. Miller earned his General Educational Development certificate, then bachelor's and master's degrees in history from the University of Maryland in the early 1950s.

"I take credit for getting him interested in history," said Samuel J. Miller of Towson, his elder brother. "When we were growing up, I'd read books about the Civil War and then pass them along to him. He couldn't get enough of them."

Mr. Miller began his career in journalism in the early 1950s as a reporter for The Evening Capital in Annapolis, where he worked until joining The Sun in 1954 as a police reporter. He was later promoted to general assignment and political reporter.

"He was one of the first to really get into investigative reporting at a time when there wasn't much of an emphasis on such reporting by The Sun as there is today," said James S. Keat, a retired assistant managing editor of The Sun.

He became the first chief of the newspaper's Rio de Janeiro bureau and in 1966 joined The Sun's Washington bureau. He quit in 1969 to become an investigator and speechwriter for Arkansas Democratic Sen. John L. McClellan on the permanent subcommittee on investigations and later the Senate Appropriations Committee.

When his first book, Sea of Glory, which chronicled the Navy's birth, was published in 1974, Kirkus Review said, "Miller's reputation as a naval historian of the first order is assured."

In 1977, Mr. Miller left the congressional staff to pursue writing full time, and during the 1980s returned to The Sun to work as a summer replacement for vacationing editorial writers.

"He was always interested in history, even when he was reporting current events. He loved the historical roots of a story. He was a treasure chest of historical background because he had read everything," said Ernest B. "Pat" Furgurson, former Sun Washington bureau chief and longtime friend. "His enthusiasms were the U.S. Navy, FDR and the New Deal, and he wrote history with flair and grace."

Gary Gerstle, professor and chairman of the history department at the University of Maryland, recalled Mr. Miller's "boundless curiosity with the past. He was always eager to learn more, which is why, periodically he shifted his focus from the navies to the history of presidents and pivotal historical moments."

A four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, Mr. Miller was the first writer to explore the letters of Theodore Roosevelt and his first wife, Alice Lee, in his Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, published in 1992.

Mr. Furgurson said that perhaps his most durable historical work was The U.S. Navy: A History, published in 1977 by Naval Institute Press and later in an illustrated edition by American Heritage.

"Between those naval histories and political biographies, Nat's works ranged from The Founding Finaglers, on corruption in early America, to Spying for America, a history of U.S. espionage beginning with the Revolution," Mr. Furgurson said.

In Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents, his subjective selection, Mr. Miller ranked Richard M. Nixon and James Buchanan at the bottom and stated that Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy were the most overrated.

"Though not among the worst 10, he wouldn't place Jefferson and Kennedy among the best 10, either," Mr. Furgurson said.

Mr. Miller also entertained readers which such presidential trivia as 320-pound William Howard Taft becoming wedged in a White House bathtub and Calvin Coolidge's anger at not getting change after sending an aide to purchase a 10-cent magazine.

Before his stroke, Mr. Miller had lived in a book-jammed apartment on Connecticut Avenue in Washington's Woodley Park neighborhood with his wife of 42 years, the former Jeanette Martick, who died in August. Earlier, the couple owned and operated a popular bed-and-breakfast near DuPont Circle.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.

In addition to his brother, Mr. Miller is survived by a nephew and three great-nieces.

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