Joan Didion – ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’ (1966)


This story begins well before the trial, tabloids and scandal shook San Bernardino Valley in the autumn of 1964. One must understand how significant it is to shake a place like San Bernadino, where the Mojave haunts quiet spaces between billboards, and Santa Ana winds reach 100 m.p.h. Particularly between April and October, when it doesn’t rain, and the wind spikes will correspond with suicide and divorce rates double the national average. It is during one such spike on the night of 7 October that Mrs. Lucille Miller ran up and down Banyan street for over an hour while Mr. Gordon Miller burnt to death in their Volkswagen. She later explained that Mr. Miller was made tired by migraine medicine, that the car had swerved inexplicably, toppling a gas can in the trunk as it slid down the embankment. She explained this even as she was arrested, twelve hours later, for murder.

Lucille Miller, born Maxwell, married Gordon “Cork” Miller in 1949, and their unhappy marriage so resembled others that the details are unimportant. Suffice to say, by 1964 they had reached the familiar season of divorce, but had seemed reconciled after counselling. However, the suspicions of the county Sherriff’s office were solidified with the discovery that Lucille was having an affair with Mr. Arthwell Hayton, San Bernardino attorney and one time member of the district attorney’s office. His wife, Elaine, a close friend of Lucille’s, had died in April, presumably from a hairspray allergy.

Once discovered, the lovers’ breakup was quick, acrimonious, and play-by-play featured in the courtroom. Recordings of phone conversations with Lucille threatening Arthwell with blackmail were played to the jury. Arthwell hosted a press conference to specifically deny that any romance existed between them. Asked by a reporter if he denied having an affair with Mrs. Miller, Mr. Hayton would only reiterate that there had been no romance on his part whatsoever. The trial dragged on for two months, and on March 5, 1965, a visibly pregnant Mrs. Miller was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.   

The story ends in a predictable fashion. The Miller’s children move in with family friends, and are joined 7 months later by the baby, whose father is never specified. The friends attempt to sell Lucille Miller’s story to Life magazine, but Life does not want it. Arthwell Hayton marries his children’s governess, who had testified on his behalf in court. The death of Arthwell’s first wife is never investigated, and the Santa Ana winds blow over the Valley.


Accompanied by Clyde McCoy performing Sugar Blues (1931)

It was in the breakup that the affair ceased to be in the conventional mode and began to resemble instead the novels of James M. Cain, the movies of the late 1930’s, all the dreams in which violence and threats and blackmail are made to seem commonplaces of middle-class life. What was most startling about the case that the State of California was preparing against Lucille Miller was something that had nothing to do with law at all, something that never appeared in the eight-column afternoon headlines but was always there between them: the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live. Here is Lucille Miller talking to her lover sometime in the early summer of 1964, after he had indicated that, on the advice of his minister, he did not intend to see her any more: “First, I’m going to go to that dear pastor of yours and tell him a few things…When I do tell him that, you won’t be in the Redlands Church any more…Look, Sonny Boy, if you think your reputation is going to be ruined, your life won’t be worth two cent.” Here is Arthwell Hayton, to Lucille Miller: “I’ll go to Sheriff Frank Bland and tell him some things that I know about you until you’ll wish you’d never heard of Arthwell Hayton.” For an affair between a Seventh-Day Adventist dentist’s wife and a Seventh-Day Adventist personal-injury lawyer, it seems a curious kind of dialogue.

It was all, moreover, in the name of “love”; everyone involved placed a magical faith in the efficacy of the very word. There was the significance that Lucille Miller saw in Arthwell’s saying that he “loved” her, that he did not “love” Elaine.  There was Arthwell insisting, later, at the trial, that he had never said it, that he may have “whispered sweet nothings in her ear” (as her defense hinted that he had whispered in many ears), but he did not remember bestowing upon her the special seal, saying the word, declaring “love.”  There was the summer evening when Lucille Miller and Sandy Slagle followed Arthwell Hayton down to his new boat in its mooring at Newport Beach and untied the lines with Arthwell aboard, Arthwell and a girl with whom he later testified he was drinking hot chocolate and watching television. “I did that on purpose,” Lucille Miller told {a friend to both the lovers} later, “to save myself from letting my heart do something crazy.”


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