I Cover the Waterfront

I have been here so long that even the seagulls must recognize me.

I Cover the Waterfront by Max Miller

I Cover the Waterfront was one of the most popular and best-selling best selling books of the 1930s. A simple compendium of real-life vignettes about the lives of those who lived and worked along San Diego Bay, the book struck a chord with readers of the day. It’s wistful, low-key and charming and still makes for a good read today.

It’s author, Max Miller, was twenty-eight years old at the time and the success of the book allowed him to buy a house by the ocean in La Jolla, CA, just a block away from where Raymond Chandler and his wife lived. Miller and Chandler knew each other, drank together on occasion and sometimes played tennis together.

Which is why Miller, in addition to Raymond Chandler, became an important character in my historical mystery novel The Esmeralda Goodbye. The two men could not have been more different. Chandler’s personal appearance was more formal in style, favoring coats and bow ties. Miller preferred an informal look, happiest when barefoot in shorts and shirtsleeves. Chandler could be withdrawn and moody while Miller was ebullient and outgoing. Chandler enjoyed dinner parties and literary conversation. Miller played drums at parties and enjoyed boating, beachcombing, fishing and swimming (he made a point of finishing last in La Jolla’s Rough Water Swim every year). Aside from being writers, the only thing Chandler and Miller had in common was a fondness for alcohol. In The Esmeralda Goodbye, they serve as contrasting mentors to the protagonist, a very sober rookie policeman named Jake Stirling.

Max Miller, 1930s publicity photo
Max Miller in the 1950s

Miller wrote twenty-eight books in his lifetime, none of them remotely as successful as I Cover the Waterfront. One of his books that I enjoyed reading while researching mine was The Town with the Funny Name, another series of vignettes full of colorful characters that gave me a glimpse of life in La Jolla in the 1950s. Two of the real-life characters in Miller’s book—Perky Adams and Miss Billings—inspired two of the fictional characters in my book.

Miller continued to live in La Jolla the rest of his life and died in his home there in 1967.

I Cover the Waterfront remains Miller’s best known book and the one still in print today. It’s a charming portrait of an era and a place, the first book to put San Diego on the literary map. In its time it inspired both a movie and a song by the same name (it really is a great title, isn’t it?). Here’s a performance of the song by Peggy Lee.

The movie is available on YouTube. Warning: Aside from the title and its waterfront location, the movie bears almost no resemblance to the original book. It was produced during the pre-Hays code era of sound movies, and hints at the racier side of waterfront life noted in the book.

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