Tom Eblen

A golf pioneer, a country club murder and a forgotten tragedy retold 75 years later

Forgotten Fame: The Marion Miley story

Marion Miley’s life and tragic death are explored in a new Kentucky Educational Television documentary film, “Forgotten Fame: The Marion Miley Story”.
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Marion Miley’s life and tragic death are explored in a new Kentucky Educational Television documentary film, “Forgotten Fame: The Marion Miley Story”.

Few people today have heard of Marion Miley, unless they are familiar with the annual women’s amateur golf tournament at Lexington Country Club.

Or unless they remember hearing about how she and her mother were brutally murdered during a robbery at the club 75 years ago this week — a crime that sent three men to the electric chair.

Miley was much more than a murder victim: She was one of the best and most famous women athletes of the 1930s. Her success, along with the founding of Keeneland Racecourse and Adolph Rupp’s first years as the University of Kentucky basketball coach, highlighted a decade in which Lexington’s identity would begin to be shaped by athletic excellence.

Miley’s life and tragic death are explored in a new Kentucky Educational Television documentary film, “Forgotten Fame: The Marion Miley Story”. The film premiers at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday — the 75th anniversary of her murder — at the Kentucky Theatre. It is free and open to the public, but advance registration is suggested: Ket.org/events.

After the screening, the producers and actors who re-created some scenes will take questions from the audience. KET will begin airing the documentary Sept. 29. Check Ket.org for times, dates and channels.

Miley’s murder also is the subject of a new E-book novel, “10,000 Days: The Country Club Murder that Shocked the World” ($7.99, MarionMiley.com), by Lexington writer Beverly Bell. She spent two decades researching the case and was a consultant on the KET documentary, which includes an interview with her.

“The whole tragedy of this story is a life cut short,” Bell said. “We feel like we’re trying to restore her memory.”

 
Marion Miley in 1941, the year she was murdered during a robbery at the Lexington County Club, where she lived with her mother, the club’s manager. Herald-Leader Archive Photo

Born in Philadelphia in 1914, Miley moved to Lexington from Florida in 1929. She was the only child of professional golfer Fred Miley, who after the stock market crash took a job as the golf pro at Lexington Country Club, and his wife, Elsa, who became the club’s manager. The family lived in an upstairs apartment in the clubhouse on Paris Pike.

Fred Miley taught his daughter golf when she was 12, and she soon became a star. She was exceptionally talented and her beauty and personality captivated golf fans and sportswriters, who dubbed her the “flower of the fairway”. Standard Oil hired her as a celebrity ambassador to make appearances at its gas stations.

In this era before women’s professional golf — a time when many people thought athletics wasn’t even proper for women — Miley won almost every important women’s amateur championship except the national title, which eluded her in some close tournaments.

She won six Kentucky women’s amateur championships between 1931 and 1938 and was on the U.S. Curtis Cup team three times. During tournament play, she beat the two top women athletes of her era, Olympic gold medalist Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and the 1937 national champion, Estelle Lawson Page.

After her golfing career, Miley had plans to return to college and perhaps become a doctor. But her life was cut short in the wee hours of Sept. 28, 1941, when Tom Penney and Bob Anderson, a Louisville bar owner and ex-convict, conspired with country club groundskeeper Raymond “Skeeter” Baxter to break into the clubhouse and steal the receipts from a dance the night before.

Fred Miley was in Cincinnati, where he had taken a job as the pro at a bigger country club. His wife and their daughter were in their apartment when two masked men broke in demanding money. During a struggle, Anderson mortally wounded Elsa Miley and murdered her 27-year-old daughter — but not before Marion Miley sunk her teeth into his leg, a wound that would help convict him.

The crime made headlines around the world — including a big story on the front page of The New York Times — and sparked a huge manhunt. After a sensational trial and many twists and turns that included Penney’s jailhouse religious conversion, the three men were executed at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville in February 1943.

Bell first heard about Miley from her father-in-law and became hooked on the story after writing a freelance magazine article about it. During decades of research, she secured material from the family and interviewed people involved with the case.

After trying to tell the story as a non-fiction book, Bell chose to make it a true-crime novel. While she sticks closely to the facts, Bell said she needed the freedom to create dialogue, which helps make her well-written book a compelling page-turner.

KET hired Versailles writer and producer Beth Kirchner to help it bring Miley’s story to television. She spent three years on the project, including a year of her own research in collaboration with Bell.

“I learned not to trust much of written history, because it seemed that a lot of misinformation would get continually repeated,” said Kirchner, who relied heavily on police reports and newspaper coverage. “I tried to let the story be told by the people who were involved or wrote about it at the time.”

Kirchner made an engaging film by layering vintage photographs and re-creation video with narration of newspaper stories and excerpts from Miley’s diary and scrapbooks.

To portray Miley, Kirchner knew she needed a real golfer. After looking at women’s golf team photos from across the state, she found Lindsay Bloom, a member of Transylvania University’s golf team who looks a lot like the 1930s star.

Kirchner said she went to great lengths to achieve accuracy in everything from facts of the story to costumes and hair styles of the actors recreating scenes. Officer Robert Terry, the Lexington Police Department’s historian, was a consultant on the documentary, and Kirchner enlisted him to portray a policeman in some scenes.

Kirchner and Bell said they were surprised by how quickly Miley’s fame faded after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which occurred during her killers’ trials.

“It was such a wound to the civic pride, such a tragedy, that people just couldn't really think about it,” she said. “And World War II gave them a great reason not to have to think about it.”

Lexington Country Club has always remembered Miley. The clubhouse has a display of memorabilia, and the tournament named for her has been played since 1942.

“My hope is that we really celebrate something that we allowed to be forgotten,” Kirchner said. “She did more than just excel on the golf course. She had the courage to push the boundaries of what women could do.”

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