In our time and place there was no one like Sam Miller. The outpouring of sentiment upon his death in March was a rare testimony of a man’s
public legacy of genius, generosity and stewardship in an often fractured community.
However, missed in the celebration of Sam’s life was the lifting of a cloak of secrecy that bound the man and made him such a curious figure. Throughout the years, try as I might, I was unable to penetrate that veil and unravel the myth and legend that grew around him.
In the nearly 30 years of writing about Cleveland, I interviewed virtually everyone of note in town including George Steinbrenner, Art Modell, Dick Jacobs, Nick Mileti, Carl Stokes, George Forbes, Peter Lewis and others.
My many entreaties to Sam were brushed aside with a dismissive wave of the arm and a shrug of indifference. He always was pleasant enough, but he made it clear that he did not want me to be poking into his past. He did this generally with the media, which left us to our own estimates of the man, which were substantial.
Sam became such a force in the community that almost everyone seeking public office sought his blessings and a campaign contribution. He thought Mike White was the best mayor the city ever had and no doubt did everything he could to keep him from the scandal that enveloped his administration.
All this enabled Forest City Enterprises to profit from Sam’s political and civic connections, which made the company a powerful fixture not only here but nationally.
When it was clear he would not sit for the kind of interview that would tell his story, I adopted a different strategy. The idea was patience and that was employed during a series of casual meetings with Sam on various occasions.
I would present innocent enough questions about his life in the hopes that, if I collected a pastiche of information, I could weave a story out of them.
“I remember when I was 6 and coming home to our house on East 46 Street and finding we had just been evicted and our belongings were on the curb,” Sam told me one day. “My father collected paper and rags in a horse-drawn wagon, and he came to get our belongings. The horse had only one eye.”
And then he looked at me with a wane smile and said he knew what I was doing. “You are going to write about that when I’m dead, aren’t you?”
On another occasion I ran into him in an elevator in the Terminal Tower and asked how he got into Harvard when he was a student.
“I was studying at Western Reserve when the dean called me from class one day,” he said. “I was told that I had been awarded a scholarship. I didn’t know that the school had put me up for it.”
Sam went east with one suit, a new pair of shoes that were too tight and a suitcase that his mother had fashioned out of cardboard and rope.
At Harvard he had two roommates of East Coast breeding who were residing in a room once occupied by a future president of the United States. Sam said it was a bewildering time and then stepped off the elevator and left my next question hanging in the air.
It was a couple of weeks before I saw him again in his office, which was festooned with photographs with worldwide notables, from popes and presidents to ward bosses and some who looked like they were still reporting to their parole officers. The photographs symbolized Sam’s reach in society, which was enormous and complex.
I wanted to pick up on his Harvard years before he would change the subject.
“Well, the war came and my entire class joined the Navy in en masse, as did I.”
Sam wanted to be assigned to an aircraft carrier, but the Navy recruiter told him that they don’t like Jews serving on those ships. Instead, Sam was assigned to an ammunition ship in the Pacific, which was considered extremely hazardous duty. Later he commanded an all-black construction battalion, which his poverty-ridden youth enabled him to identify with his sailors.
After the war, Sam married Ruth Ratner, whose family owned Forest City. Sam’s efforts in developing suburban housing helped the company grow into one of the largest in the country. He spoke of luring Ford Motor Co. into building a plant here. Then he told me he didn’t want to say much more of his life.
But I wanted to know more about the late 1940s. It was the time of the creation of the state of Israel, and there were murmurs of Sam running guns to support the battle that secured the Jewish nation. Rumors also rose of him assisting Israeli intelligence on secret missions.
One day I alluded to these stories and instead of that smiling denial, I got a warning scowl that meant I was treading on dangerous ground. I will always wonder whether his reaction was an unwitting confirmation, or was he dismissing me as a pest?
In all likelihood, the mystery that was Sam Miller will probably remain so. But one thing was for certain: His presence made the town more interesting.