Dates: 1863-1976; Bulk Date Span: 1961-1976
The papers of Merle Miller at the Harry S. Truman Library are copied from original materials that are part of a larger collection in the custody of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library. This collection mostly documents the writing of Plain Speaking (1974), Miller's best-selling oral biography of Harry S. Truman, which was based partly on interviews he had conducted with Truman in 1961-62. The collection includes seven hours and forty minutes of tape recorded interviews with Truman; a manuscript and manuscript fragments of Plain Speaking; interview transcripts; research notes; related correspondence; printed reviews of the book; and other printed material.
Size: About 4 linear feet (approximately 8,000 pages) of textual material, and seven hours and forty minutes of recorded conversation (tapes in the audiovisual collection).
Copyright: Merle Miller donated his copyright interest in his papers and tape recordings to the government of the United States. Documents created by U.S. government officials in the course of their duties are in the public domain. Other copyright interests are presumed to belong to the creators of documents or their heirs.
Processed by: Raymond H. Geselbracht, Carol Briley, Randy Sowell, Daphne Shelton, Michelle Loveall, and Mary Sue Luff (1993-2001).
|1919 (May 17)||Born, Montour, Iowa|
|1935-40||Student, University of Iowa and London School of Economics|
|1942-45||Served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as an editor of Yank magazine|
|c. 1945-49||Editor, Time and Harper's magazines|
|1948||That Winter (first published novel)|
|1949||The Sure Thing|
|1961-62||Interviewed Harry S. Truman as writer for television series on Truman, to be produced by David Susskind's company, Talent Associates|
|1964||Only You, Dick Daring! (with Evan Rhodes)|
|1974||Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman|
|1980||Lyndon: An Oral Biography|
|1986 (June 10)||Died, Danbury, Connecticut|
The papers of Merle Miller at the Harry S. Truman Library relate mostly to his book, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1974). Published shortly after Mr. Truman's death and in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Plain Speaking became a bestseller and contributed to a wave of retrospective public enthusiasm for President Truman as a man of simple integrity and forthright honesty.
Miller was an unlikely protagonist in the enshrinement of Harry S. Truman as an American folk hero. When he first met the former President in 1961, Truman (by Miller's own admission) "..hadn't been anywhere near the top of my list of favorite ex-Presidents." Miller had been hired as writer and "general organizer" for a series of television films on Truman's life and Presidency, which were to be produced by David Susskind's company, Talent Associates. At the time, Miller was forty-two years old, and the author of several well-regarded novels. "The Truman Program" (as it was tentatively called) was one of a number of ill-fated television enterprises on which he worked during this period, in association with Susskind or another producer, Robert Alan Aurthur, who was also involved in this project. (An amusing account of Miller's misadventures in television writing during the early 1960s can be found in Only You, Dick Daring! (1964), a book which he co-authored with Evan Rhodes.)
"The Truman Program" enjoyed the full cooperation of Mr. Truman, who was very interested in presenting the story of his Presidency to young people. The television series was to feature extensive interviews with the former President and others, along with film of the historic events they were describing. In conducting research for the series, Miller spent hours talking with Mr. Truman, usually in the former President's office at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, and usually in the company of Truman's friends and literary associates, David Noyes and William Hillman. About seven hours and forty minutes of these conversations were recorded on audiotape.
When the television networks displayed little interest in a series on Truman's life, Susskind abandoned the project after completing only two films (one on Truman's life and career, and the other on the Korean War). This ended Miller's association with the former President. Subsequently, Screen Gems took over the television project and produced a twenty-six part documentary series, Decision: The Conflicts of Harry S. Truman (1964). Still later, relying in part on the tape recordings of his conversations with Truman, Miller prepared an "oral biography" of the ex-President. At various times entitled "The Last Roman," or "Voices," it was ultimately published as Plain Speaking in early 1974. (Advance excerpts from the book were published in late 1973.) It consisted mostly of an extended dialogue between Miller and Truman, filled with the former President's colorful and sometimes profane comments on his life and times, and interspersed with snatches of narrative describing the circumstances surrounding the interviews and comments from other persons whom Miller had interviewed for the television project.
Plain Speaking was a spectacular success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and spending months on various bestseller lists. This "oral biography" of the nation's thirty-third President brought Miller the wealth and recognition that had eluded him through his long career as a novelist and freelance writer. The book received generally positive reviews, although various critics over the years have questioned the authenticity and accuracy of some of the statements Miller attributed to Truman in Plain Speaking.
With the success of his Truman biography, Miller promptly undertook a second project of a similar nature, and in 1980 published Lyndon: An Oral Biography, a study of President Lyndon B. Johnson that was based on extensive interviews with people who had known Johnson. Miller then began work on an oral biography of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but died in 1986 before completing it. The portion of the Eisenhower biography that he had finished was published posthumously as Ike the Soldier.
The papers of Merle Miller are organized into five series: a Tape Recordings of Interviews with Harry S. Truman File; a Manuscript File; a Research File; a Correspondence File; and a Review Article File. The Tape Recordings of Interviews with Harry S. Truman File consists of seven hours and forty minutes of recorded conversations between Mr. Truman, Merle Miller, William Hillman, David Noyes, and others who cannot be identified. The tape recordings of these conversations have been transferred to the Truman Library's audiovisual collection, and have been open to researchers since 1993.
The conversations occurred between the summer of 1961 and the winter of 1962. According to Miller's account in the preface of Plain Speaking, "Mr. Truman and I had days, sometimes weeks, of conversations, interviews if you insist, many of them on tape, many not." For those conversations that were taped, the two recording venues that can be identified with some confidence from evidence in the recordings are Mr. Truman's office at the Truman Library and some location in New York City. The conversations suggest that all the participants understood that what they said was being recorded. David Noyes, who speaks in a strong, deep, confident voice, occasionally explicates (sometimes at length) things that Truman has said. William Hillman, who speaks in a softer, gravelly voice, enters the conversation infrequently, usually to clarify some factual detail.
The recordings have a haphazard quality to them, and seem to begin and end without much technical finesse. The sound quality is not very good. Some of the recordings are at three-and-three-quarter inches per second, others at seven-and-one-half inches per second; one recording changes in mid-course from one speed to the other. The eleven individual tapes carry, with one exception, letter designations: A, 2A, C, D, E, F, G, H, J, and K. It is not clear what these letters meant to Miller, other than that they gave identities to the tapes. They do not seem to establish any meaningful order among the tapes. The interview that Miller identifies in Plain Speaking as being his first with Truman, for example, is recorded on the tape marked "H." Because Miller's letter markings do not seem to convey much meaning, the tapes have been given numbers, from one to eleven, and then the designation A and B in instances where one of Miller's tapes has been copied onto two tape reels.
The eleven tapes include a considerable amount of apparently haphazard duplication. About half of tape 1A, for example, is duplicated on tapes 4B and 10B, and the remainder of tape 1A is duplicated on tape 8A. A scheme showing the relationships among individual recordings is attached as an appendix to this finding aid, along with logs of the individual tapes. These tape logs are intended to guide researchers through the recordings and are not intended as complete descriptions. They include counter markings and elapsed time indications for specific topics discussed during the interviews.
The Manuscript File consists of two nearly complete typewritten manuscripts of Plain Speaking (one of them entitled "Voices"), along with manuscript fragments, outlines of programs for the Talent Associates television series, an introduction written by Miller for a book of Truman quotations, the manuscript of an article dealing with Miller's novel, The Sure Thing (1949), and other items.
The Research File comprises approximately two-thirds of the collection. It is organized into three subseries: an Interview Subseries; a Subject Subseries; and a Notecard Subseries. The Interview Subseries consists mostly of transcripts and summaries of interviews conducted with Mr. Truman and others in preparation for the planned television series. Included in this subseries are transcripts of some of Miller's tape recorded interviews with the former President, as well as transcripts and summaries of interviews with a wide variety of persons, ranging from such prominent figures as Dean Acheson and Omar Bradley to Mr. Truman's relatives and friends in Independence. Photographs of some of the persons interviewed are also included. The Subject Subseries consists of research notes, manuscript material, interview transcripts, newspaper clippings, printed material, and other items relating to a variety of topics connected with Truman's life and Presidency. Also included in this subseries are copies of two large charts listing various Truman-related topics, which were apparently used during the writing of Plain Speaking to help Miller organize his notes and subject matter. The Notecard Subseries consists mostly of typed research notes for the book, derived from published sources or from the interviews with Truman.
The Correspondence File includes many letters to Miller from friends and readers expressing their admiration for Plain Speaking and congratulating him on the book's success, along with a few negative letters, and copies of a few of Miller's replies to this mail from the public. The series also includes correspondence regarding public appearances by Miller to promote the book, as well as brochures and other promotional materials prepared for the hardcover and paperback editions of Plain Speaking.
The Review Article File consists mostly of newspaper clippings and other printed material featuring reviews of Plain Speaking; articles about Miller; bestseller lists on which Plain Speaking appeared; reviews of a television adaptation of Plain Speaking which appeared on the Public Broadcasting System in 1976; and German-language reviews of the book's German edition, Offen Gesagt.
More information about Merle Miller and his association with Mr. Truman can be found in the Secretary's Office File and the Television File of Truman's Post-Presidential Papers, and in the Truman Library's Vertical File. The Library's audiovisual collection includes the Decision series of television films which Screen Gems completed after Talent Associates was forced to abandon the project.