My Brush With California Fame

Ann’s decision to feature Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem immediately brought to mind the Six Handshake Rule (aka the Six Degrees of Freedom Rule). Why I associate Didion’s book with the handshake rule is a long story; I’ll try to keep it short.

[Editors Note: The Handshake Rule was formulated pre-Covid time when handshakes were still considered to be appropriate rituals of interaction. If you are queasy about handshakes feel free to substitute fist bumps where appropriate.]

The Six Handshake Rule has to do with social networks and how we all are supposedly six or fewer social connections away from each other. The idea is that if you shake the hand of a person who has shaken the hand of a famous (or not so famous) person you are one handshake away from that famous (or not so famous) person. And subsequently, those who shake your hand are considered to be two handshakes away, and so on.

What a graphic representation of the Six Handshake Rule would look like in an era of the covid Six Foot Separation Rule (nothing is simple these days!)

You may (or may not) recall that back in September of 2020 I wrote a piece that dealt with this rule. In that blog I made the case that our handshake links don’t necessarily lead in a positive direction. Surely we all have some “darker celebrities” lurking in our social networks. To make my point I told about my top three one-handshake-away “rogues.”

  • Tom Horn, a famous gunman who in 1903 was hanged for murder in Cheyenne.
  • David Duke, “perhaps America’s most well-known racist and anti-Semite”
  • My great uncle who murdered his wife in 1929.

At the time I wrote that blog I somehow overlooked the rogue that should have been at the top of my list. That rogue (roguette?) is Lucille Miller, who is the main character in Joan Didion’s first essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.

On the surface, it’s a story about the sensational murder trial of Lucille Miller who on October 8, 1966, allegedly drugged her husband, “Cork” Miller, drove him in their Volkswagen to an isolated area, faked an accident, doused the car with gasoline, and set it on fire. She supposedly did it for his insurance and to be with another man with whom she was having an affair. Her arrest and the trial was national headline news for months. In the end she was convicted and sentenced to prison. To add more to the drama, she was pregnant at the time of her trial and gave birth to a daughter while incarcerated (go here for more details).

But Didion’s essay is much more than a brilliant account of a sensational murder. As the New York Times book review editor Jennifer McDonald puts it:

So instead of a simple tale of a dotty dame gone bad, we get a narrative that’s not really about Miller at all. It’s not even fundamentally about people. It’s about the perverting power of place. And from the first sentence, Didion pours her energy into the setting… This is a story about love and death in the golden land… [Editor’s note: Didion’s brilliant and insightful prose make this a great read, even for non-Californians).

Lucille Miller’s “golden land” setting is not far from Chino, where I grew up, which brings me to my claim to a one-handshake connection to Lucille Miller. It is via a man who, indeed, was very close to Lucille Miller. While literally I never shook his hand, he did have his hand in my mouth at one time. That man was my dentist, Cork Miller, Lucille’s soon-to-be-deceased husband and the inspiration for the title of my blog (think “My Tooth Brush with California Fame”).

Cork, Lucille, and Hayton Arthwell (Lucille’s lover)

Actually, I don’t remember much about Cork Miller. He had a dental office in Chino just a few blocks from where I lived and I went to him only a couple of times to have a cavity filled when I was 14 or so. But I do recall that he drove a sporty Ford Thunderbird, which to my adolescent mind made him super cool. I also recall the time when, reclined in his dental chair while he was drilling away at my molar, gazing up into the eyes of his dental assistant; paying little attention to him.

Thunderbird similar to Cork Miller’s. The fateful Volkswagen must have been the family’s second car.

Of course, when the news broke about what happened to him a few years later, I was riveted to the headlines along with everyone else. It seemed so unlikely that something like this could take place in our golden land, let alone to someone I actually knew.

Ironically, just a couple of months ago the filling in my tooth that Cork Miller worked on those many years ago was replaced by a crown. The last concrete vestige of my ties to that bizarre case is gone. Only the figurative “handshake” remains, which means that if you shake my hand, for what it’s worth, you will be only one handshake away from Cork Miller and two handshakes from Lucille Miller. It’ll be up to you to decide what it’s worth.


  1. Larry Squarepants says:

    Mrs. Miller was a role model for thousands of women who dreamed of murdering their husbands. She also helped bring equity and inclusion to the prison population, where male murderers were grossly overrepresented.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Mrs. Miller’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show during the mid-sixties, a time she was linked romantically to Keith Richards. Dreams can come true.


    • theRaggedys says:

      I hadn’t thought of the role model angle; good point. She served her time in the California Institution for Women (which is located in Chino by the way). Not sure how many muderesses were incarcerated there. And the rumor about Keith Richards may be inaccurate. I had heard it was Mick Jagger.

      Thanks for your brilliant input, per usual.


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