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MARSHALL DAWSON (MARK) MILLER

Mark Miller, born Marshall Dawson Miller, was an internationally renowned illustrator whose work was published in most of the world. His life and career took him from Oklahoma to Hollywood to New York and Europe. Born in Eldorado, Oklahoma on Jan. 2, 1919, Miller grew up on a cotton farm, studied art at the University of Oklahoma (where he took the name Mark) and then moved to Los Angeles where he attended the Chouinard Art Institute and later got his start as a costume designer for 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. After WW II, he moved to New York where he had a had a long career as an artist that culminated in the 1950s and 60s when he was an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post and other leading magazines like Colliers, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, Redbook, Cosmopolitan and many magazines throughout Europe, South America and Australia.

In describing the humble beginnings of his career, Miller has said, “My choice of an art career did not have the enthusiastic support of my conservative family back in OK. From their point of view, it was clearly my duty as the eldest son to help run the family farms, and they tolerated my errant pursuit of art only in the certainty that it would become as clear to me as it was to them that I couldn’t make a living at it.

“More than anything else I wanted to be an illustrator like Norman Rockwell or Pruett Carter and paint pictures, as they did, to accompany stories in magazines like the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and Saturday Evening Post. My scholarship at art school did not provide enough money, so I rather reluctantly went to work as a sketch artist in the men’s wardrobe department at 20th Century Fox film studios.”

At the time, in the early 1940s, he was one of only a handful of costume designers working in the entire industry. “Because I could draw like an illustrator, I was able to present my proposals for wardrobe in vivid action sketches which would usually carry the likeness of the actor who would wear them in the film. Before long I was given designer status with an office-studio of my own."

These were heady times with Hollywood at its zenith, and Miller describes them as “extravagant, self-indulgent years, intoxicating times” during which he developed an interest in wine that would shape his second career as a winemaker in later years. Miller’s self-described “hedonistic years” were interrupted by WWII. News of Pearl Harbor caused his romance with Nadine (Dene) Grant to ferment into marriage in 1942 when the two drove to Las Vegas one evening with a few friends and got married in a quiet little chapel.

A GROWING CAREER IN NEW YORK AND EUROPE

After army service in the war, Miller returned to Hollywood, but Fox and the film industry were in the throes of incipient unionization and upheaval, causing him to turn to illustration to make a living. An opportunity arose to go to New York, the center of the greatest market for magazine illustrators, so he moved with his young family, which now included sons Kim Brett (born in 1945) and Eric Bruce (born in 1949) to Hartsdale, NY. From there he commuted by train into New York City every day to work in advertising and at night continued to improve his skills as an illustrator.

During this time in the 1940s and 50s Miller was represented by the American Artists agency in New York. His pin-ups appeared on calendars published by Shaw-Barton and Kemper-Thomas companies. He provided pin-ups to the latter firm for a 1949 twelve-page calendar that featured his work along with that of American illustrator and pin-up artist Jules Erbit and American artists Arthur Sarnoff and Frederick Sands Brunner.

Before long, Miller began to get commissions there to paint illustrations for stories in household service magazines such as McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and Saturday Evening Post. The 1950s were one of the greatest periods of romantic fiction when paintings by leading American illustrators both reflected and shaped the self-image of thousands of young people. During this period, Miller’s work appeared in leading magazines throughout the world and he became quite prominent as perhaps the most widely published illustrator in Europe and the Americas.

Though he enjoyed great success, the timing was bad. By the early 60s TV was taking hold in American society, and its growth together with the increasing use of photography in place of drawings and paintings were making such an impact on American advertising that household magazines began to fail and others curtailed their use of fiction and began to print more feature articles, many of which could be more suitably and economically illustrated by photography.

In Europe, however, TV and the use of photography had not yet become so common. The magazines were still providing light romantic fiction and their editors were said to be willing to pay quite well to obtain illustrations from sound American artists. So Mark gathered up a few typical samples of his work and flew to Paris to see what kind of a market he could find for his services.

In both London and Paris he was given the most gracious welcome and a promise of future work. After careful thought he made the momentous decision to move the family to Europe to live and work during much of the 60s. While there he lived in England and France and established studios in London, Paris, the Cote d’Azur and Burgundy, before eventually returning to the United States in 1967. One of Mr. Miller’s favorite places was the small winemaking town of St. Romain in Burgundy, a romantic village that greatly influenced his second career as a vineyard owner and winemaker.

THE WINEMAKING YEARS

Mark Miller first came under the sway of wine during his California years, and continued as a passionate home winemaker when he moved to Hartsdale, New York. Here he surrounded the house with grape vines and made wine in the living room. His son, Eric, who eventually became a prominent east coast winemaker himself, recalls stomping grapes in a huge stoneware crock on the property.

Miller’s continuing interest in wine – and the necessity for more space to pursue this craft -- eventually led him and his wife Dene to search for a larger property where they could plant vines. In 1951 they purchased a 40 acre farm in the Hudson Valley, 70 miles north of New York City, near the small town of Marlboro on the west bank of the Hudson River. Parts of the estate had originally been planted in the 19th century by pioneering viticulturist Andrew J. Caywood.

The Miller’s named the new place Benmarl, coined from the Gaelic word “ben,” or mountain, plus “marl” for its mixed slatey soil – the family referred to it as their “hill of shale.” During the mid 1950s the Millers began planting grapevines and frequented the peaceful bucolic site as a weekend home and a place where Miller went to “unwind” from the pressures of his booming painting career. By 1958, the Miller’s decided to move to the farm. According to Mark “It was becoming too expensive to maintain two residences (in Hartsdale and Marlboro) as well as my studio in Manhattan.

Over the next decade, Miller spent much of his time painting and sculpting in Europe, including considerable time in Burgundy where he studied and learned French wine growing and making techniques. Returning to Marlboro to stay in 1967 he replanted his vines and applied what he learned in France, totally focused on converting Benmarl into a working winery. During this time, he came to be widely regarded as the father of the winemaking renaissance in the Hudson Valley, which had been home to winemakers since the 1600s but had long since fallen into disrepute. He was also one of several vocal advocates for reforming New York’s wine laws to make business easier for the small wineries popping up around the state (and the east coast) at that time. His efforts were so instrumental in getting the New York State Farm Winery Act passed in 1976 that he was rewarded with New York Farm Winery License #1.

Miller’s emphasis on production of quality table wines helped move the Hudson Valley region away from cloying sweet wines it was then known for and towards the development of more refined dry table wines. Though he was not the first modern winemaker in the region, he was for decades the best known, becoming a highly visible public advocate for small artisanal wineries and one who generated a great deal of publicity for his beautiful estate on the Hudson River.

During its heydays in the 70s and 80s, Benmarl won recognition not only in New York, but nationally. On November 21, 1977, Time magazine ran an article titled “Shaking California’s Throne” that included Miller and Benmarl. The July, 1978, issue of National Geographic featured an article “The Hudson: That River’s Alive,” that prominently mentioned Benmarl under the subhead “Wines to Rival the Rhine’s.” Many other publications followed, including one that listed Mark Miller as one of the world’s 20 great vintners and a 2001 Wine Spectator feature article that chronicled his life and endearingly dubbed him as “Don Quixote of the Hudson.”

Benmarl wines were also featured at prominent restaurants in New York, including the Four Seasons and the Quilted Giraffe. Its reputation was also enhanced by Mark Millers creation of the prestigious “Societe des Vignerons” wine society that attracted many famous politicians, artists, personalities and wine aficionados; as members, the “Vignerons” became participants in the winery operations and earned private label wines from the Benmarl vineyards.

Throughout his winemaking career, Mr. Miller continued to paint and used his talents to enhance his wine business. He often illustrated the Benmarl wine labels and captivated visitors to Benmarl with his “Gallery in a Vineyard” where he showcased many paintings, sculptures and other artworks from his earlier illustration days. He was also the author of Wine, A Gentleman’s Game, published in 1984 by Harper & Row, which details his exploits and second career in the wine business.

Mark Miller and his then wife Grace Pendell Miller retired from the wine business in 2003, and in 2004 he sold Benmarl Vineyards to his son Eric Miller, then winemaker and co-owner of the Chaddsford Winery in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley. He died in Wilmington, North Carolina on September 9, 2008, leaving the greatest body of his work to his son Eric and four grandchildren.


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