Beverly Bell first learned of the ground-breaking life and tragic death of Marion Miley from her late father-in-law years ago. Over an eight-year book-writing process in which Bell tweaked her authorship approach mid-stream, she found what best worked for her in the telling of the story of the 1930s golfing great who was murdered in Lexington in 1941.
She settled on “true crime,” which despite the literal meaning of the title of the genre allows license to supplement gospel with educated conjecture — think a much less pervasive version of the “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” that flashes across the screen at the beginning of “Fargo,” both the movie and every episode of the television show of the same name, neither of which is actually non-fiction.
Bell employs what she calls “connective tissue” both in the mechanics of the book and an implied theme of Miley’s personal life.
“The whole format of it, I’ve heard it referred to as ‘faction,’ a blending of a fact-based story with fiction,” Bell said. “I did try a non-fiction approach, tried to write it that way, and it just fell flat for me. I didn’t feel like I was really capturing it at all.”
The dialogue, which Bell manufactured based on deep character study of Miley and interaction with surviving family of supporting characters, turns a history book into a page-turner that allows the star — or a version of her — to speak for herself, as well as those in her inner circle and the men charged in her death.
“The facts really serve as the foundation of this book,” Bell said, “and then taking a fiction approach just allowed me to weave in what I thought could be the emotions and the conversations of all those who were impacted in such a horrible way by Marion’s death. I have so much fact-based material because I was able to research it so thoroughly, and that’s everything, the foundation of the book.”
The book returns to social consciousness the life and shocking death of a prominent golfer who was a contemporary of the 13 women who founded the LPGA in 1950. Miley played and beat six of them, Bell said.
Miley’s legacy remains well-known in some golfing circles, but doesn’t have the mainstream recognition it might if not for her death and its timing — mere weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to effectively begin United States involvement in World War II.
“And then, once we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, everything became about the war effort,” Bell said. “When the war ended in 1945, it’s like we had all landed on a different planet, because everything was changed. Going forward, the dividing line was before the war and after the war. It’s a really interesting idea that you can ponder about forever: what would’ve happened if it hadn’t happened right before the war?”
Another theme peculiar to the time of Miley’s life and death is her sexual orientation and the role of perception in how society addresses such matters.
“The Murder of Marion Miley” doesn’t say it explicitly, but the titular character and a close female friend are each repeatedly implied to have been homosexual. Bell said she doesn’t know for certain if this is accurate or not, but her use of this thread is partially based upon thinking of the time that anyone as athletic as Miley could not be a heterosexual woman.
“Honestly, if a woman showed an ounce of athletic ability in terms of taking that full golf swing or tennis swing, the assumption was, she must have been gay,” Bell said. “I didn’t just make that up. So you have that. And of course, through today’s lens, say Serena Williams got out there on the tennis court and gave some little delicate swing, we would all think, she must be ill; there’s something wrong. It’s about expectation.”
More important to Bell than speculation on that topic, she said, is Miley’s “achievement and her visibility in the world, how many people around the world knew who she was.”
“She was just a great ambassador in the state of Kentucky for the game of golf,” Bell said. Miley also worked for Standard Oil in a role that allowed her to travel extensively — an atypical job for a woman in that day.
Bell’s scholarship on Miley included interviewing the son of one of Miley’s murderers and the sister of the second wife of Miley’s father, she said. She said she learned from that interaction that Miley’s father had made his second wife promise they would not have children, still feeling acute pain from the loss of his only child.
“To me, that just puts flesh on the bones for these people being very real,” Bell said. “We see black-and-white photographs and read old newspaper stories, and somehow people don’t seem real, but then you hear a detail like that ... it just informed the story and how I approached the project.”
Bell was born in Louisville and grew up in Huntington, where she attended St. Joseph before returning to Kentucky for school and to settle permanently in 2000.
Thirteen years later, having written a magazine article about Miley that convinced her there was more work to be done on the topic, Bell committed to writing a book. She worked around what she with a laugh called “real jobs,” often rising at 4:30 a.m. to write. Bell did that for about three and a half years before obtaining the services of a literary agent and diving into the book full-time.
“The Murder of Marion Miley” was published by South Limestone Books. It retails for $19.95.
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