John F. Kennedy and Pell shared many moments, including on the waters off Newport, in the early 1980s.
Anyone who has worked in journalism in this state for more than 20 years has a Claiborne Pell story, either firsthand or among the reminiscences of other journalists. A journalist who has been lucky enough to have access to both sources has a leg up on anyone who attempts to explain one of the most complicated politicians this country has ever produced.
G. Wayne Miller is one of the lucky ones and his biography of Pell published last fall takes full advantage of that access.
“What surprised me was the extent to which he was curious about life after death and psychic phenomena,” Miller said over lunch last week. “He took the subjects very seriously.”
I met with Miller to discuss the subjects he will address Thursday night at the Warwick Public Library. His lecture will no doubt touch on his Pell book. I’m sure there are many people who want to know more about a man whose choice of college was never based on what it would cost, came to create the Pell Grants that allowed kids from any economic circumstances to afford college.
Miller satisfies that curiosity but he will also discuss the breadth of subjects he has written about in his 31-year career as a general assignment reporter and writer for the Providence Journal. The 57-year-old Miller lives in Warwick and continues his daily work for the Journal but he has also made a name for himself outside of the newspaper business as a movie producer, historian and novelist and says he is extremely grateful to the Journal for allowing him the occasional sabbaticals necessary to step outside the box, so to speak, as they did for the Pell book.
“I was especially pleased to have access to Pell’s family and to the incredible amount of material they allowed me to work with,” said Miller. “I’m lucky in that the Pell family wrote so many letters, that they had the old fashioned habit of writing long, thoughtful letters on all kinds of subjects.”
It is the “all kinds of subjects” that makes Miller uniquely qualified to take on a subject like Pell. He has written about things as diverse as a founder of open-heart surgery (King of Hearts), NASCAR (Men and Speed), the toy business (Toy Wars) and a year among the transplant researchers at Harvard’s medical school (The Xeno Chronicles). Toy Wars was published in 1998, opened the closed doors of toy giants Mattel and Hasbro.
In his day job, in 2004 Miller was a member of a team of reporters on the short list for a Pulitzer for the Journal’s four-part series on dangerously flammable foam used in household furniture and beds—and the soundproofing at the Station Nightclub Fire that killed 100 people in 2003. Miller did a series about the Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence in 2007, another on Governor Bruce Sundlun and a Journal series on Pell that personally introduced Miller to Pell and his wife Nuala, a story that did a lot to convince Pell’s widow to trust Miller with Pell’s story and help source his book.
But there are many sources of Pelliana beyond the family circle that could actually qualify as Rhode Island folklore, like the time Pell was invited to throw the first ball in a Pawsox game. It was the work of Pell’s Chief of Staff, Thomas Hughes, who wanted to enhance Pell’s image as an ordinary guy among the players:
“He engaged some of them in conversation.
What do you do for a living? Pell asked.
I play ball, the player said.
Oh, yes, I know that must be great fun, Pell said, but what do you really do? Do you teach school? Are you a plumber?”
And then there was the time that an aide ran into a Thom McAn Shoe store, a chain that offered well made but not patrician-quality shoes, to buy a pair of slip-on rubbers for Pell’s shoes during a downpour. As then Senator Joe Biden tells it:
“He put them on and walked out to the car in this driving rain with an umbrella and was driven home with Goose [consultant Mike McAdams] in the back seat. As Claiborne was getting out of the car he took out the rubbers and said, ‘where’d you get these, Goose?’
“And Goose said, ‘Thom McAn, sir.’
“Claiborne said, ‘Well, you thank Thom for me.’”
But, for all the poor-little-rich-boy resentment of people who are not to the manor born [Pelham Manor], you can certainly sympathize with the young Pell as he is shuttled from one elegant address to another as his mother and father move about the world to pursue their own pleasures and privileges. His letters to his parents only hint at what must, at times been excruciating homesickness.
“Dear Daddy,” he wrote to his father about his seventh birthday,
“The party yesterday was lovely, I got a gun at the end of a spider-web. My garden is fine & the two trees are living. I want you to come here, all you have to do is fold yourself up & get in an envelope, then post yourself here. There! Love.”
But Pell never displayed any resentment against his parents. If anything, he doted on his parents and his parents’ parents overly much for most people’s taste and many of the admirers cited in the book are often startled by the way Pell arranged the artifacts and documents of his family so ostentatiously in his home and offices. Journal Washington reporter John Mulligan described Pell’s Georgetown house as staged for dramatic effect:
“Mount the stair, round the banister, climb again to the landing and hark: this full suit of armor that was handed down from times when Pell forebears crested at well under six feet in height. In a hallway, upon a wall, the image of a bewigged ancestor who devised the dash-and-dots arithmetic symbol for division. More tokens and oddments in the senator’s cluttered study and more gleanings from his patter. The family-held fortress at Ticonderoga. The forefathers who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War.”
Miller also very forthrightly confronts the truly nutty aspect that Pell presented to the world when it came to subjects like ESP and the afterlife but you gotta love a United States Senator who seriously worried that the Russians were leaping ahead of us in the field of mental telepathy.
And, of course, there is the eccentric fashion sense that was so notable about Pell. Miller said he sometimes wondered where the rumpled patrician slept. I remember meeting Pell myself at Green Airport. It looked as if an old turtle has somehow slipped out of its shell and attempted to disguise himself in thrift shop clothing that was several sizes too large for him. Miller explains that the notoriously thrifty Pell looked that way because he wore his late father’s old clothes frequently, and his father, who was well over six feet tall and weighed at least 250 pounds, had few hand-me-downs that would fit Pell, who never weighed more than 185 pounds in his life and frequently much less.
Only a churl would fault Miller for taking the easy way out and letting people like Biden and Mulligan and others do so much of the work in the book, but as I said earlier, almost everybody has a Claiborne Pell story and only an idiot would not want to mine those sources for a biography of the man. It takes a pretty good writer to step out of the way and let the characters in a biography get all the attention and Miller has done that.
But Claiborne Pell aside, Miller still has plenty of stories of his own. It’s well worth going to the library tonight to hear some of them. Maybe he’ll tell you how he followed this high school student around in Burrillville for a book called Coming of Age in 1995 and that the same kid grew up to make a movie called "You Must Be This Tall."
Maybe he’ll talk about co-producing and writing the documentary "On the Lake: Life and Love in a Distant Place" about a quarantine hospital in northern Rhode Island with the same kid, and you don’t have to be tall at all.
For a behind-the-scenes look at Rhode Island personalities and institutions, catch A Writer’s Inside Look at Rhode Island at 7 tonight at the Warwick Public Library on Sandy Lane. Copies of "An Uncommon Man" will be available for sale. Plus, bring along your other G. Wayne Miller books to have them signed.