Kitty Miller, Remembered

She had blue hair in her old age. And a personality that was rarely softer than a dull roar. Tact was not one of her attributes. She would say anything that came to mind. And she was a snob, so she would also say anything about anybody who came to mind. One man, who liked her very much, said she could be one of the rudest people he’d ever known.

Neither was beauty an attribute. She was lantern jawed, had a mole on her nose, and one eye that went wandering off in its own direction. However, there were no complaints from her. She was not dowdy or ashamed of her looks but approached the situation practically. For she also had a highly developed aesthetic, always wore diamond earrings, and almost as frequently, diamond bracelets or brooches or necklaces. Thus producing the dazzling sparkle that, along with her bravado, disarmed everybody and offset everything else.

She had great taste, according to even her detractors (and there were many). As she wasn’t good-looking, she knew she had to be beautifully dressed. “She was not a pacesetter,” recalled Eleanor Lambert, the doyenne of American fashion publicists. “She had an aristocratic style, was well brought up, and knew how to dress with discretion, but was noticeably fashionable.”

She was also a well known and lavish hostess. From the 1930s through the mid-’70s, the world came to her table in New York, London, Palm Beach, Majorca, or any other place she set down. A staff of 30, in total, looked after her and her constant flow of guests. “Hang out the ham,” she used to say, “and they’ll all come running.” People got the message.

She was born Kathryn Bache, four years before the turn of the century, the second daughter of international investment banker Jules Bache and Florence Scheftel, a member of a prominent Manhattan family. The Baches were part of the now-legendary “Our Crowd” Jews. Jules, known as Julie to his friends and associates, looked the part, almost like the caricature banker from the Monopoly board game. White-haired and moustached, portly, a natty dresser, always with a cigar, he was a very outgoing, jolly fellow. He accumulated—much through the auspices of Joseph Duveen—a fantastic art collection which now rests in the Metropolitan Museum. He was also famous among the social set for having an excellent butler named Gilmore. Gilmore became legend (and rich) from listening in on Bache’s conversations for stock tips, as well as robbing his boss blind through kickbacks received from the grocers and vendors who supplied the Bache household. It was said that Mr. Bache was aware of the situation and once even offered Gilmore a raise, inquiring as to how much it would take to stop the skimming that was going on.

“Mr. Bache, you couldn’t afford it,” was Gilmore’s terse answer. So things continued business as usual.

In 1929, when she was 33 and therefore, by the standards of the day, on the predictable trail to spinsterhood, Kitty Bache married the Broadway producer Gilbert Miller. Miller, according to one who knew him well, was “a marvelous raconteur, a great disgusting fellow, who was quite fat and ate like a pig.” Theirs was the only dinner table in town where the butler came around with “thirds” for “dear Gilbert,” as his wife referred to him. The son of Henry Miller, a late 19th–century theatrical manager who owned his own theatre (which still bears his name on West 44th Street) he produced only imports from London and many of our now immortal stars, such as Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward, came to perform on the American stage under his aegis.

Kitty was a hostess. That’s how she was known. Hostesses by definition in her day were very rich, lived in elaborate apartments or houses, were “best dressed,” gave parties, and did—in the words of one who remembers that time well—“absolutely nothing else.” Mona (Mrs. Harrison) Williams was another. So were Thelma Chrysler Foy and Millicent Hearst. They entertained at home with dinners and dances and were New York society’s bridge between the Gilded Age and modern times.

It was an era when everyone dressed to the nines. Men wore black tie to a party and white tie and tails to opening nights at the theatre or the opera. Women wore gowns from Hattie Carnegie, Sophie of Saks, Mainbocher, and the Paris couturiers. People made a great effort to look awfully good, and succeeded. Thus they danced and drank (often heavily) and smoked their way through the best of the times and the worst of times, including the Great Depression.

   In the early years of the Millers’ marriage they lived with Papa. A lot of hostesses entertained very well. Kitty, however, had something extra. Gilbert Miller was theatre. The Millers could and did draw the stage stars who were then the great celebrities of the world. At Kitty Miller’s, Katherine Cornell, Cole Porter, Ina Claire, Ethel Merman, the Lunts, Gertrude Lawrence, and George Gershwin rubbed elbows with the titans of finance and industry and the denizens of the Social Register. Like a producer herself, Kitty knew how to enchant her guests with comfort, luxury, and surprise. She had the best: food, silver, china, flowers, and service. Everybody wanted to be there.

The Millers traveled to London frequently because of his business, and took a house a number 40 Hill Street as well as a place with swimming pool and tennis courts—Drunswick Manor—in Surrey where they spent weekends (and which Eisenhower and the OSS used during World War II). Her maid, chef, butler, and his valet accompanied them wherever they went. Soon she was as renowned in London for the lavish entertaining and the wonderful people she could bring together comfortably. In those early days, she had stiff competition from Mrs. Dudley Ward, Audrey Bouverie, and Wallis Simpson, all of whom were very much part of the Prince of Wales set. Furthermore, these women were known to be far more attractive and original in the way they dressed and set their tables. But again, Kitty brought out the stars, not only from London but from America. The Millers could take people to opening nights at the theatre and entertain them brilliantly at supper. It became smart to know her. Finally, when the Duke of Kent came to dine, her position was established for good.

The duke, the handsome younger brother of the King, was considered her greatest social triumph, and both Millers were very impressed by this achievement.

“Do you know that the Duke calls Kitty?” Gilbert Miller would ask a newcomer.

“No,” would be the response.

“He calls her Kitty,” the producer would proudly inform the ignorant guest.

London became as important to the Millers as New York, if not more so. Every late June or early July, Kitty would give a party honoring Gilbert in the River Room at the Savoy Hotel. It became the great dinner dance of the season and everybody who was anybody, including the Royals, wanted to be there. Everybody tried to get invited and she knew it. That’s when she would say certain people couldn’t come, which made other people want to go more. Those who were invited were told “I expect a hot meal (in return) or you won’t be invited again.” People got the message. Hostesses issuing invitations to a dinner which included Kitty might say, “this is the hot meal for Kitty.”

As her stock rose, her position in society solidifying, Kitty became more inimitably Kitty, which to some people was synonymous with the word “bitch.”  “She could be very entertaining when she talked,” recalled an old friend. “She spoke beautiful French and could tell you stories about all the dressmakers and all the people in Paris society too. But she was very critical of people. She could say remarkable, disparaging things and the world always gets back: Kitty said this, Kitty said that.”

Many had taken to caller Mitty Killer behind her back. Interestingly her feuds —almost always caused by her outspokenness—were often followed by a reconciliation, also initiated  by her. “After all,” commented one frequent visitor, “Kitty was in society and society lives off gossip. Who’s ever heard of any gossip that anyone wanted to listen to that was a happy story?”

Jules Bache died in 1944, leaving behind a huge trust equally divided between Kitty and her older sister Hazel in a holding company named Wenonah, his grand summer camp on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks.

The Millers by then had settled into their own large apartment, decorated by Billy Baldwin at 550 Park Avenue. Their new home had lots of color—dark reds, a great deal of velvet, satin, brocade, and chintz. The furniture was mainly French and comfort was the guide. Bache’s art collection went to the Met except for Goya’s Red Boy, which for years had awed guests in the banker’s mansion where it was hung at the top of the staircase leading to the library. Kitty allegedly had seen the picture first at Duveen’s. After her father died, she arranged to share it with the museum until her death, and so it hung in her living room at “550,” whenever she was in residence.

The death of her father brought her greater wealth and her spending habits escalated commensurately. On herself. Once, giving a dinner dance in Palm Beach, she couldn’t find the type of chair she wanted for the tables so she had ballroom chairs flown down from New York. Redecorating one of her dining rooms, she learned that the wallpaper she’d ordered (at $900 a yard) wouldn’t be ready for several months. She spent as much on a cheaper wallpaper and then had it glazed to give the color the right tone. She also spent money on clothes, clothes, clothes. She wore lots of scarlet, bright reds, and navy blue. The trustees who watched over her income would complain tactfully but incessantly. She’d go to the opening of a favorite designer and buy almost the entire collection and then report gleefully to a friend, “Oh, I’ve been so nasty, they’re going to kill me.” Trustees would plead with her and she’d laugh. “My father never denied me anything,” she’d retort. “My husband never denied me. I have no children to leave it to and so why should I deny myself?” Habitually she spent well over her annual income which amounted to seven figures (or nine figures in today’s currency).

By the 1950s, Mrs. Gilbert Miller had become one of the great dowagers of society, right up there with the Duchess of Windsor and Elsie Woodward. Her New Year’s Eve party became one of the most sought after invitations in New York. It was run as precisely as a Gilbert Miller play. Fifty were invited for ten o’clock. Dinner was served at 10:30. After-dinner guests arrived at 11:30. Champagne was passed; “Happy New Year” at midnight. Guests were very carefully selected and the list often included Diana and Reed Vreeland, the Winston Guess, Serge Obolensky, Cordelia Biddle Robertson, Astors, Vanderbilts, and Whitneys; stars from the theatre and Hollywood-—even Greta Garbo. A Hungarian orchestra in bright scarlet uniforms and gold epaulets played softly. After dinner, a hundred people were invited to join the party. The dining room would be cleared, little round tables were set up, and a huge buffet would appear for supper. The orchestra picked up and the living room and gallery would be opened up for dancing. The years passed but it never  became stodgy. In the early 1960s when the Twist became the rage, she brought in Chubby Checker and the band from the Peppermint Lounge. By the time the New Year came in, practically everyone in 550 Park, including the staff, were twisting the night away.

In 1959, Gilbert Miller died of cancer. As willful as she might have been, Kitty always towed the line for her husband. As a husband, he was a tyrant around the house. He could be kind and generous with his theatrical partners and stars but he was the kind of man who bullied people under him. Kitty could be subject to an earful and could return volleys.  She’d scream and yell too. He was devoted to his business and deeply appreciated his wife’s contributions to his life (she chose all the costumes worn by the actors and actresses in his plays), but he was never especially amused by the “society” friends that came to their dinner table. It was said that he was a man who went around with a hundred dollar bill and a bunch of quarters in his pocket. “The hundred for a pretty girl he might see and think he could put a leg over on, and the quarters for tips.” Once, when asked why she put up with so much from her difficult husband, she replied, “Because I’m too lazy to divorce him.”

She was also too clever not to know that being Mrs. Gilbert Miller had made the difference, a vast difference, in a world which, for a woman like her, required a husband. “She was imposing and demanded respect and careful treatment,” recalled a friend who added, “you did not take that lightly. If you did, you were a masochist.” After the death of her husband, she spent more time in London where she continued to entertain and to bring on the rising stars and the bright young things. One very exciting moment occurred one morning: thieves entered the house on Hill Street and made their way to her bedroom, held a gun to her head, and demanded she deliver up her jewels. All the while pressing on a secret alarm that was connected to Scotland Yard, she coolly instructed her by-now-famous maid Therese to unlock the safe and comply. Jewels in hand, one of the burglars, having just held a gun to his victim’s head, asked to kiss her cheek in thanks. After complying to this second request, she cracked: “Now I’ll have to wash my face!” The thieves made it to the street only to be met, chased, and apprehended by Scotland Yard. The jewels, however, were never recovered.

In the 1970s, her trustees made her leave London for tax reasons. Hill Street was sold, as was Drunswick and the house in Majorca. She bought a house in Mill Neck, Long Island, as a replacement. Age did not mellow her out-spokenness and, people’s objections aside, few ever turned down an invitation to dine. Many still continued to pay back with the “hot meal for Kitty.” She continued her extravagant ways and kept herself on the “best-dressed” list. Every year, come January, she’d leave New York for Palm Beach, Palm Springs (where Frank Sinatra was a friend), or Acapulco to stay with Merle Oberon. Now in her seventies, many of her friends had passed on but she added new, younger people to her list such as Aileen Mehle (“Suzy”), Kenneth Jay Lane (jewelry designer-purveyor), Truman Capote, and CZ Guest. She could and would still deliver a withering salvo at some hapless and hopeless victim but always responded with a good laugh when it came from someone who said it like it is. Once in London at a wedding, she emerged from the church to find her car was parked closer to the door than Princess Margaret’s. “How did you manage that?” she asked her beloved, devoted chauffeur Tony. “That’s easy, ma’am. I just told ’em I had a very drunken old lady to pick up.”

On October 15, 1979, Kitty Miller died. She’d owed her trust several million from the years of overspending and the lawyers decided to sell everything in her estate to recoup the debt, including her sheets, towels, pillowcases, and even framed snapshots of grandnieces and grandnephews who were known only to the family. The public who knew her responded by buying it all. Kenny Lane, attending the preview with a friend, amazed by the minutiae on sale, passed a box of handbags and cracked to a friend, “who would want these?” Then on second thought, he remarked, “of course, knowing Kitty, the clasps are probably all gold.”  Remembering the moment years later he said, “and they probably were. Either that or platinum.”