For Whom the "Bell" Writes: Author Resurrects Golf Legend's Life, Mysterious Death

LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY | Standing in the ladies’ locker room at Lexington Country Club, you’d never know what happened here. The walls are painted a soft shade of after-dinner mint green. The dark wood floors shine with recent polish. The windows along the far wall let in tendrils of afternoon sunlight that turn everything in the room a soft, golden color. A hallway leads you past a large glass display case to another room with windows and white wood detailing. And a well-loved, brown leather couch invites you to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet, away from the hustle of country club life below.

But this room up the stairs has a dark history, tainted by the memories of floorboards awash in crimson and bloody handprints smeared across the walls. They’re gone now, covered by fresh wood and paint, but the sinister feeling remains. If you know the story, this place gives you chills, the kind that won’t leave when the door swings shut behind you.

The funny thing about life is how quickly it can end, how abruptly a person’s light can be snuffed out. What’s even stranger is how easily tragedy is forgotten, swept under the rug and boarded over, tucked away until those who remember are themselves lost to history. But this apartment at Lexington Country Club, even with its modern facelift and new furniture, is a reminder of an early September dawn when one of golf’s brightest up-and-comers was permanently erased. When you’re standing in the corner, breathing the flat, stale air, the history of the lives lost in this place seems impossible to forget.

Miley 4

This is where Marion Miley was murdered.

Beverly Bell didn’t always know the story about the fatal shooting of 27-year-old Marion Miley and her mother Elsie in a botched robbery attempt in the fall of 1941, just a few weeks shy of the Pearl Harbor bombing. The news of the beloved golf star’s death shook Lexington to its core and her ghastly demise shocked the nation as word of the tragedy traveled from coast to coast. Even Bing Crosby was rattled by the reports, as were all of Miley’s notable acquaintances.

Born in 1914 to Fred and Elsie Miley, Marion spent her formative years in Florida learning golf from her father, a traveling teaching professional who was quick to foster his daughter’s talent. After Fred relocated his family to Kentucky in 1930 to work at Lexington Country Club, Marion began to solidify her place in history, winning 22 of the 41 amateur tournaments she played. Eighteen of those victories came in a single decade and included wins over would-be LPGA Tour founders Patty Berg, Betty Jameson, and Babe Didrikson-Zaharias. She was a member of three Curtis Cup teams and was considered one of the nation’s top golfers at the time.

In the early morning hours of September 28th, two men, Tom Penney and Bob Anderson, broke into the Miley family apartment at Lexington Country Club in an attempt to rob Marion and her mother. The pair concocted the plan after hearing from Skeeter Baxter, the club’s greenskeeper who was close with the Miley women, that Elsie kept large amounts of money hidden in the apartment. Fred was away that night, having taken a job at Maketewah Country Club in Cincinnati, Ohio. When the robbers entered, Marion attacked them and Anderson shot her twice, once in the torso and once in her head, killing the 27-year-old instantly. Elsie, also shot multiple times, managed to crawl 200 yards to a nearby residence to get help, and after providing a shockingly detailed description of the perpetrators, died just a few days later from her injuries.

Horrific, untimely death, especially of the young, tends to lodge itself in the psyche. Bell was no exception, first hearing of the case when she was nearly the same age as Marion was when she died. She was obsessed with the most minute of details and hoarded each shred of information she could find. Bell studied crime scene photos and case files for years, feeling inexplicably linked to this person who lived and died decades before she was born.

“I had started doing some freelance magazine work and my late father-in-law came to me,” Bell said. “He had grown up in Lexington and he said, ‘I've got a story for you.’ He was 16 years old when (Marion) was killed and as with many teenagers, those stories attach to your brain, and they never dislodge. And he knew all this stuff about her. That was the start. The story continued to live in me.

“I knew at some point that I was going to do something with it. I just didn't know what it was. It was the story that I needed to tell. I think I was meant to tell it. Not to get too lofty with it, but it felt a little predestined. It meant everything to me to be the person to bring it to life and let people get to know her.”

A Kentucky native and a Police Administration major in college, Bell’s interest in Marion’s grisly death is easily explained. She was never much of a golfer, only taking up the game in her twenties to spend time with her husband. But she has always been a writer, dreaming up stories and concocting narratives since she was a child. While that passion didn’t appear to be a fruitful career opportunity as she grew older, it never stopped Bell from doing what she loved.

“When I was in high school was when Watergate happened,” Bell said. “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein captivated me in terms of the power of words. I think I always thought in terms of non-fiction, so that's how I ended up gravitating toward magazines. I have a Bachelor's in Police Administration, but then I got another Bachelor's in Communications, and that was really because of the writing.”

Early in her literary career, Bell’s ambitions were focused on magazine work. The author profiled a wide variety of political figures and business executives, also writing about an Indianapolis 500 champion and a Pulitzer Prize winner. She even covered Marion Miley for the now-defunct Women’s Sports and Fitness, a publication that went out of print in 2000. That article was a start, scratching Bell's incessant itch to write about the young phenom. But she still wanted to flesh out Marion’s story further and thought a book chronicling the golf star would be the best way.

Marion MileyHowever, the timing never felt right as Bell’s life got busier. The idea lay dormant until she felt she could do Marion justice. Bell began piecing together a non-fiction take on Miley’s life, but as she worked her way through the beginnings of the book, she began to feel stuck, unsure of where the story was headed. It took a lot of early mornings and some urging from the late Rhonda Glenn — former manager of communications for the USGA and author of The Illustrated History of Women’s Golf — for Bell to find her footing. Ultimately the aptly described “hybrid” novel blending history, golf, and true crime, The Murder of Marion Miley, was born.

“I tried to write it non-fiction. I had gotten like a hundred pages in and it was the most boring thing that you've ever read,” Bell said. “I finally decided I had to have dialogue. The flexibility of using fiction and dialogue (made it) a lot easier. I don't know if you can say writing a book in three-and-a-half years is easy, but that's what I had to do because I had a full-time job and I was writing from about 4:30 to 6:30 every morning.

“I sent (Rhonda) an email, and before I knew it, I was on the phone with her and we had a great conversation. I was like, ‘It's just overwhelming to me. I really don't know how to approach the story. It’s not the easiest thing to do and I feel a little discouraged at times.’ I will never forget it. She goes, ‘Beverly, this is an important story, and you have to finish it. You have to do it.’”

Published in 2020, Bell’s novel encapsulates the events of that September morning and the resulting aftermath of the Miley murders, masterfully weaving together the story of Marion’s life through the voices of the people who loved her and the perspective of the crime’s perpetrators. Most writers would’ve chosen to leave out the murderers’ viewpoint. But Bell felt it was important to include Penney, Anderson, and Baxter. She details the trio’s arrests, trials, and eventual convictions - along with providing a glimpse into each man’s backstory - not because she wanted to give them any undeserved attention, but rather to prove how diabolical the robbery plot actually was.

“My personal opinion of Bob Anderson was that he was a sociopath,” Bell said. “He was definitely the most confident. He thought that he could pull this off and get away with it. Bob Anderson had been a liar for a very, very long time, and this was the culmination of that life of lies and manipulating people.

“I made a decision to tell part of the story from Tom's perspective because I was privileged to learn some things in detail about him in real life. I got to interview his son. I couldn't reveal his name, but he's got every letter that Tom wrote to his mother from prison. That's what happens sometimes when you're going down these roads and (wonder) should I be doing this? The universe taps you on the shoulder and goes, yeah, you should.”

The Murder of Marion Miley has captured the attention of readers across the country, even interesting those who wouldn’t know an eight iron from a curling iron. Bell’s writing immediately grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the last page, making it hard to put down. It’s obviously a great choice for Kentucky history aficionados with its detailed descriptions of 1940s Lexington with plenty of Bluegrass heritage sprinkled in. But the book also has resonated with a younger, college-aged audience, one who admires the 27-year-old and the impact she was making on the world.

The fervent fascination with the case still surprises Bell though she has always understood its significance. When she was alive, Marion was doing everything she could to grow the game at a time when few women were picking up clubs. Bell’s The Murder of Marion Miley continues that work, using words and paragraphs instead of well-struck golf shots and holed putts.

“I think (Marion’s story) humanizes the game of golf,” Bell said. “It brings a different perspective to it rather than just being out on a perfect fairway and buying expensive clubs. And I think it brings a story that has an appeal that can also help the game. I'm kind of surprised about the appeal of it. I figured history buffs would love it. Golfers, too. What I don't think I expected was that vast appeal.

“The University of Kentucky (women’s) golf team. Their coach got all of them a copy of the book, and she asked me to talk to them. So, it was kind of like their assignment. One of them called Marion a real badass. I think it's just because Marion was in her 20s and she was doing all this stuff that was really cool for the time. (Marion) was clearly a woman taking advantage of the opportunities that were presented to her. She was a woman in charge. She was doing things that other women weren't doing. In my mind, she would have continued doing that.”

Marion Miley was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery in Lexington. Her headstone is a six-footer away from the road that winds through the graveyard, and the Miley family plot is well-marked with a large, pinkish monument in section K. It seems like a plain arrangement for a star that burned so bright, but it fits the young woman who never fully understood what she meant to the world at large.

LCCFor Bell, it wasn’t how Marion was killed, but rather the legacy that the young woman was primed to leave behind that remains the most haunting part of her murder. It’s also what has connected readers to the story of Marion Miley, and that connection has been the most rewarding part of the process for the author.

“When it comes to a life, it shouldn't be defined by the way it ends. This (book) is about a horrible crime that happened, but it's also about an extraordinary life and that's really what we should be celebrating. This was a crime that occurred more than 80 years ago this year. It was a totally different era. But to see people connect to her and connect to the story, that's just a great feeling. People can still see it. They can still latch onto it. They can see the parts that matter.

“We each occupy our own space of time along the spectrum and what you do is you make a choice, you contribute to something in life or you don't. That is your legacy. Then the next person picks up the baton and they advance it. So when I look at the women's game in the thirties and Marion and all the other women that she played with, they grew the game. They grew the women's game to where it appealed to a much broader audience. Each one of those women did their part and that is a very cool thing.”

As far as Bell’s personal legacy goes, The Murder of Marion Miley will certainly be a part of it. Female golf writers aren’t a dime a dozen and it’s rare to find golf literature written by women with a female as the subject matter. But being able to bring Marion’s story back to life is what means the most to Bell. Shrouded in anonymity for nearly 80 years, the Miley murders have finally been resurrected, and the golf world’s collective memory has been refreshed. The Murder of Marion Miley reminds us that before the Babe and the 13 founders and the Kathy Whitworths and Annika Sorenstams, there was a young woman living in Kentucky that paved the way for everything that was to come. And it’s the fostering of that remembrance that Bell is most proud of.

“I love the enthusiasm. Anybody who wants to talk about Marion, I want to talk about it too, because you should be. I'm glad you're interested. She was an incredible golfer. She did all these incredible things with her life, and she was murdered, so those are realities of a story. And I think you have to acknowledge all of them to tell the complete story.

“But, for me, it was always about Marion. She's lived in my head a long time. I would say she doesn’t live in my head now. She's still gone, and she's still lost, but her story isn't. And that makes it all worthwhile.”