National News

Anita Miller, Author and Eclectic Publisher, Dies at 91

Anita Miller, who helped found an idiosyncratic but well-respected independent Chicago publishing house that entangled itself in a losing four-year legal battle with the estate of novelist John Cheever, died on Saturday in Chicago. She was 91.

Posted Updated

Sam Roberts
, New York Times

Anita Miller, who helped found an idiosyncratic but well-respected independent Chicago publishing house that entangled itself in a losing four-year legal battle with the estate of novelist John Cheever, died on Saturday in Chicago. She was 91.

Her son Bruce confirmed her death.

Miller, a published author in her own right, founded Academy Chicago Publishers with her husband, Jordan, in 1975. By the time it was acquired by Chicago Review Press as a separate imprint in 2013, they had hundreds of titles in print on a variety of subjects and in a variety of genres.

The Millers, who met as classmates in literature courses at Roosevelt University in Chicago, “publish books dear to their hearts,” The New York Times Book Review wrote in 1980, describing their output as “attractively made, mostly paperbound children’s books, feminist books and new editions of hard-to-come-by literary treasures of the past.”

The house’s list ranged from out-of-print Charlie Chan mysteries to the memoirs of Amelia Earhart.

Academy Chicago had been respected regionally early on, but it achieved even broader visibility in the late 1980s after Mary Cheever, John’s widow, agreed to a $1,500 advance to produce what the Millers envisioned as a collection of as many as 68 unpublished Cheever short stories. Cheever died in 1982.

It turned out, however, that neither party had vetted the vaguely worded contract with a lawyer, and the agreement led to four years of bitter litigation, four court judgments, more than $1 million in legal fees and, in 2004, the publication by Academy Chicago of an anthology of stories that were in the public domain but had not been widely read. It was titled “Thirteen Uncollected Stories.”

“The fact is that such a collection would not see the light if it did not have the Cheever name on the cover,” Sven Birkerts wrote in The Times Book Review. “But what fascination there is in reading these 13 stories in their chronological sequence, and what instruction!”

The fight also inspired a book about the case by Miller herself. Her “Uncollecting Cheever: The Family of John Cheever vs. Academy Chicago Publishers” (1998) portrayed the suit as a moral struggle pitting David (Academy Chicago) against Goliath (the Cheevers and their new publisher, Random House).

Critiquing her account in The Times Book Review, novelist Richard Dooling described “Uncollecting Cheever” this way: “Think of ‘Bleak House’ as narrated not by Dickens, but by one of the suitors of the endless fictional quagmire of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.”

Miller’s one-sided version of events appeared to have agitated Dooling nearly as much as the lawsuit had distressed Miller.

Invoking another literary work, Dooling wrote that “Uncollecting Cheever” was “a pathetic case study of the insidious effects of litigation on the human psyche” and “Exhibit A in a kind of ‘Caine Mutiny’ of the author’s sanity induced by years of legal warfare.”

Dooling wrote further that the book filtered the Cheevers’ testimony “through the manifestly strabismic eye of Anita Miller.” (Strabismic is another way of saying cross-eyed.)

Miller replied that she was baffled but largely unfazed by Dooling’s review.

“I must register a mild protest against his comments on both my mental condition and my visual acuity,” she wrote in a letter to The Book Review. “I must say this is a first for me: I have been called a cockeyed optimist, but never a cockeyed lunatic.”

Anita Rochelle Wolf was born on Aug. 31, 1926, in Chicago to Louis Wolfberg, who ran two retail currency exchanges, and Clara (Ruttenberg) Wolfberg.

When she met Jordan Miller at Roosevelt University, she was majoring in English and he in philosophy. They married in 1948 and lived most recently in Glencoe, on Chicago’s North Shore.

“Somehow we became book publishers — often called the accidental profession,” she wrote in “Tea & Antipathy: An American Family in Swinging London” (2015), a memoir of her family’s sojourn in Britain in the summer of 1965.

In addition to her son Bruce Joshua Miller, a publisher’s sales representative, Miller is survived by her husband; two other sons, Mark Crispin Miller, a journalist, author and professor, and Eric Lincoln Miller, a book packager and former publisher; a brother, Joseph Wolfberg; and four grandchildren.

Jordan Miller had started a poetry magazine and was running a news clipping service when the couple became accidental publishers. She had earned a doctorate at Northwestern and was seeking to publish her dissertation on English novelist Arnold Bennett when they mulled becoming publishers themselves.

Among the manuscripts they considered was “A Guide to Non-Sexist Children’s Books.” They published it as an experiment. Reviews and sales were so successful that they established what became Academy Chicago Publishers. Among the other books they published were “The Fair Women: The Story of the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893” (1981); “Sharon” (2005), by the Millers, the first full biography in English of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; “The Complete Transcripts of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Hearings” (2005); “What Went Wrong in Ohio” (2005), about election irregularities; “Hiding in Plain Sight: Eluding the Nazis in Occupied France” (2012); and “County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital” (2013).

Miller wrote or edited more than 75 books and, like her husband, worked with Chicago Review Press for two years after Academy Chicago was acquired. She received the Pandora Award from the British-based organization Women in Publishing in 1996.

She once described her unforeseen profession as an “addiction.”

“I was born with it,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2014. “When I brushed my teeth, I had a book propped up on the sink.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.