As venous pressure rises, the left side of the heart will also fail, causing congestive heart failure and death from fluid accumulation in the lungs (pulmonary edema).

If the report of Dunn’s scoliosis is accurate, it would suggest his chest capacity was even smaller than it looks. Severe scoliosis in a spine of normal length causes rib deformities that crowd the heart and lungs. In a spine with flat vertebrae, such as Dunn had, the ribs are closely stacked, and even moderate scoliosis may cause chest wall deformity.

Dunn also wheezed; a high-pitched rasp is easily audible with the wicked laughter of his most popular character, the mad scientist Dr. Miguelito Loveless. This suggests the presence of asthma or emphysema, which would have worsened his shortness of breath and contributed to his heart strain. He was a smoker, and long-term heavy smoking can lead to emphysema, wheezing, and cor pulmonale all by itself. In his case, the habit was especially damaging.

Dunn reportedly received several offers to train under opera coaches who were impressed by his beautiful voice. But he declined because of poor stamina.15

If Dunn was on prescription painkillers for his rampant arthritis, it is worth noting that narcotics affect breathing, making it slow and shallow. Such respiratory depression can easily be a fatal complication for someone whose oxygen intake is already reduced by chest constriction and cigarette smoking.

1999, Virtual Children's Hospital, Iowa

Surgical fusion may have been possible to straighten out Dunn’s spine and expand the rib cage slightly—although possibly not quite as early as 1973. But even now, there is no correction for a ribcage that is simply too small. An experimental surgery using an expandable spacer called a “titanium rib” is being used on children with severe, inevitably fatal thoracic constriction; but results as of this writing are uncertain.

Alcohol and tobacco excess

Dunn’s heavy drinking has been described clearly and casts an even darker pall on the bleak picture of his health.2 Alcohol abuse can damage the heart, liver and brain, cause malnutrition, osteoporosis and respiratory depression, and impair judgment. However, alcohol is an effective muscle relaxant and can bring temporary relief from the chronic spasms that plague arthritics.

In an interview for this article in March, 2002, Dunn’s singing and acting partner and old friend, Phoebe Dorin, confirms that doctors told him he would die early from chest constriction. She characterizes him as an alcoholic and she comments: “He self-medicated with alcohol. The arthritis wasn’t only in his hips, you know—it was everywhere. I used to plead with him about his drinking. I used to beg and threaten and cajole—the whole bit.” And: “Absolutely, he knew smoking was bad for him. But you couldn’t tell him anything—that was Michael.”

Dunn’s old manager, John Softness, has a different impression. “He did put away a fifth of Jack Daniel’s [whiskey] every night,” Softness admits, in an interview in April, 2002. (A fifth is 0.75 liter.) “But I don’t think that made him an alcoholic. I mean, how do you define ‘alcoholic’? I think he drank because it helped ease the pain. He used it as an analgesic.

Dunn’s drinking apparently was not confined to nighttime hours. The Times article from 1966 describes Dunn meeting the reporter at Downey’s, at 1:30 p.m., ordering “ ‘the usual’—Jack Daniel’s sour in a Bloody Mary glass,” and saying: “I can’t take food this early.”1

Drinking and smoking were part of show business during Dunn’s time, and even staid suburbanites held frequent cocktail parties. Relentless self-improvement was not necessarily a goal of the educated class, and debauchery was not commonly considered a medical illness requiring treatment.36 But regardless of moral distinctions or medical diagnoses, ethanol is toxic; and daily ingestion of a fifth or more of whiskey in a man weighing 78 pounds must surely have taken a heavy physical toll.

The same must be said for cigarette smoking in the setting of restrictive lung disease. Smoking directly damages bronchial and lung tissue, impairs oxygen perfusion throughout the body, delays healing, and contributes to osteoporosis.

Setting aside the cause of death, it seems clear that Dunn abused his health. He could have protected his heart to some extent, perhaps for years, if he had abstained from cigarettes and alcohol, even tethered himself to continuous oxygen by mask. Abstinence also could have slowed the progression of his arthritis.

Nonetheless, the same gusto and fatalism that may have driven him to fast living surely fueled his ambition and his accomplishments, which survive him as a rich legacy. If indulgent excess did hasten Dunn’s demise, his fans will easily recall the loyal defense of Miss Kitty Twitty, justifying the mad, murderous Dr. Loveless: “Well, can you blame the poor little one?”37

Tall tales

What about the Boy Wonder allegations of playing baseball and football “like a normal sized kid,” having a concert piano career in adolescence, being a self-taught aviator, skydiver and judo master, and never yielding to pain? The 1967 article in TV Guide quotes Dunn talking about childhood baseball games: “I wasn’t a very fast runner. I had to depend on sliding.”7 The 1966 article in The New York Times gives a clue about Dunn’s football prowess: “ ‘I was a great passer,’ he brags.”1 The same article says he swam and ice skated in childhood, which seems plausible; Phoebe Dorin has said he was a good swimmer as an adult.2

The Times interview continues: “Over the years, Dunn has taught himself to drive a car, fly a plane, and handle a gun. On a dare, he even learned how to parachute jump. ‘They gave me a little red chute, you know, the kind they drop cargo in.’ ”

The TV Guide article echoes the assertion that Dunn flew planes; but clearly he would have needed adaptive equipment, including pedal extenders for the rudder and a booster cushion for the pilot’s seat. Those limitations—along with Dunn’s poor vision, heart-lung condition, and limited arm and hand mobility—would have disqualified him from flight training, much less from ever getting a pilot’s license.38 And no pilot since the days of the Wright brothers has been self-taught. Either the same friend who dared him to parachute jump let him take control of the yoke for a few minutes, in flight—or Dunn made up the story entirely, and the parachute story, on the impish impulse to have some fun with Patricia Bosworth, the Times reporter.

Robert Higgins reporting for TV Guide seems to have been equally gullible in faithfully reporting Dunn as a judo master capable of breaking a thug’s leg “with one well placed kick.” (The story continues that, after disabling the thug, Dunn gallantly escorted his date back to her dormitory and called an ambulance for the bad guy.) Such a kick requires excellent balance, control and power from the hips and pelvis.

In response to an e-mail query, Softness comments:

Among Michael's many creative talents was an active and delightful imagination. His skills as an aviator were probably at the same level as his accomplishments in baseball. I am certain that at one time or another he flew in a private plane and possibly even had his hands on the controls. He also had a baseball glove. He knew a great deal about aviation and baseball—as he did about almost everything—but that does not make you a Top Gun or put you in Cooperstown. To my knowledge no one ever challenged him on his many interesting fantasies. On the other hand, maybe he was an accomplished flyer and ballplayer and I just didn't know it. But, I did know he could sing like an angel, and he could act and he could write and he was a brilliant raconteur. And, that, in itself, is something pretty special.

Softness exemplifies the adage that defines a true friend as “someone who sees straight through you and still enjoys the view.”

Dunn’s alleged employment as a sports reporter, hotel detective and missionary contain various elements of truth. The TV Guide article says he worked during college as a “sports rewrite man” with the Miami Daily News; the Times article quotes Dunn candidly describing his job duties: “Mainly, I learned to juggle 5 phones. Very difficult.” The Times article also quotes him demystifying the hotel detective job, which he took after leaving college: “What a gaff! I got my room free and all I did was play cards with the night clerk and keep an eye open for any funny business in the lobby. Who would ever suspect me of being a detective?”

Brother James Wolf, Provincial Archivist for the Capuchin monastery in Detroit, solves the puzzle about Dunn’s alleged missionary work:

Gary Miller arrived at St. Bonaventure Monastery, 1740 Mt. Elliott, Detroit, MI 48207, on February 25, 1958 and left of his own accord on May 8, 1958. He came with the intention of becoming a Capuchin non-ordained Brother. According to the designation in use at the time, he was a Brother Candidate. Candidacy was a six-month or more period of discernment prior to reception of the habit and entry to the Brothers' novitiate.

Dunn’s own explanation for quitting after less than three months appears in the TV Guide article: “ ‘I was at an age,’ he explains, ‘when most young men are social-minded. I felt I wanted to serve…[but decided] my need to serve was far more a feeling of guilt over being 4-F in the draft.’ ” An article in New York Post quotes Dunn about the monastery: “I went in to stay; it wasn’t an experiment. Everyone my age was going to Korea and I had this feeling that singing wasn’t exactly doing my part.” The article then says he quit because he felt “restricted.”39

The St. Bonaventure Capuchin Monastery in Detroit
©2000 The Detroit News

However, records from the monastery suggest Dunn’s decisions to join, then quit the order were anything but capricious. The application packet is thick with the main questionnaire, pastor’s testimonial, certificates of baptism, confirmation, and marriage of parents, college transcripts, and dental and medical reports (which unfortunately gloss over important questions about the musculoskeletal system with the response, “Compatible with achondroplasia”). The young applicant himself seems to have been scrupulously honest, confessing to a police record of “four traffic tickets—some parking violations.” He states he had been thinking about entering religious life for “more than three years,” and he writes: “The Capuchins serve God in many ways. I want to serve God in any way I can.”

The concluding report typed by the Master of Novices states:

A dwarf from early childhood. A convert, very well educated; an excellent singer. Very gifted. Good personality. Due to his handicap he found routine too strenuous. Just climbing the stairs was a strain due to his abnormally short legs. Although he was very gifted there were so many things in the line of work that he could not due [sic] because of his handicap—such as serving Mass, serving at table etc. Although he put up a brave front during the few months that he was here, he finally admitted that it was too much for him and felt that he should leave.

I feel that he should not be recommended for religious life, because of lack of physical fitness.

No doubt, few people would associate monastery life with a need for “physical fitness.” It is fair to suppose that, far from feeling “restricted,” Dunn was dismayed to confront the severity of his disability even in that sedate setting.  Brother James explains further:

The monastery, built in 1883, had no elevator. Private rooms were on the second floor and a classroom on the third floor, only accessible by stairs. Lavatories were at the end of corridors, sometimes far from a room. The building is large. To walk the corridors and the stairs must have been very difficult for Gary. Prior to the mid 1960's handicapped access was not addressed, neither for friars nor for anyone else. The laundry was in the basement and the tailor shop on the second floor. I mention this because when Gary was with us the non-ordained brothers did the manual work, cooking, cleaning, gardening, laundry, automobile maintenance, porter, sacristan, guest master, all the jobs that required physical fitness. There were no sedentary tasks for the non-ordained brothers. It was not before the 1970's that these tasks began to be shared by ordained brothers.

Born: October 20, 1934, Shattuck, Oklahoma; family home in Harmon, Oklahoma
Died: August 30, 1973, London, England

School record, according to Gary Miller’s monastery application:

  • Wallaceville Elementary, Dearborn, Michigan, 1939-1947, 1st – 8th grade—ages 5-13
  • Redford High, Detroit, Michigan, 1947-1951—ages 13-17
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1951-1952—ages 17-18
  • University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, 1953-1956—ages 19-22
  • University of Detroit, summer, 1957—age 23 (almost) St. Bonaventure
  • Monastery, Detroit, Michigan, February-May, 1958—age 23½

As for Dunn’s alleged concert piano career, his press kit biography says he took piano lessons as a child and participated in student recitals while enrolled at Wallaceville Elementary School (first through eighth grade), in Dearborn. Legions of middle-class children take piano lessons, and Dunn likely showed real talent; according to the Times interview, he could sight read any vocal score. But numerous sources have glorified the report to an assertion that Dunn “trained as a concert pianist”—as if an artistic career were an Olympic sport—or in fact had a brief concert career. The press kit biography adds: “As a child, he was a prodigy of the piano, but had to abandon all hope of a concert career when the congenital and progressive chondrodystrophy which afflicts him crippled his elbows.”

The registrar’s office at the University of Michigan says Gary Neil Miller entered in September 1951, the month before his seventeenth birthday—not at age 15. The registrar’s office from the University of Miami writes: “This is to certify that Gary N. Miller was registered at the University of Miami, September 1953 through June 1956, as a student in the College of Arts and Sciences. According to our records, no degree conferred.”

His monastery application also lists attendance at University of Detroit, Detroit, Michigan, summer, 1957. Next to the question, “What was the last grade you successfully completed?” Dunn’s handwritten answer in neat block print is: “Sophomore—college, U. of Miami.”

In answer to additional questions, Dunn states that his course of studies was interrupted for “almost a year” due to a “bad leg.” Dunn’s press kit biography says that, during his first semester at University of Michigan, he “was caught in a student rush and knocked down a flight of stairs, which sent him to the hospital for three months.” If Dunn found monastery life too strenuous, he must have been completely defeated by an inaccessible college campus with stampeding students and far flung classrooms.

The press kit biography also boasts of Dunn’s college achievements: “And he was the pride of Florida’s University of Miami as editor of Tempo, which that year [unspecified] won the Sigma Delta Chi award as best college magazine in the country…[he] took the journalistic prize in competition with every other college-magazine editor in the land.” A query to the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library to learn the date of this award reveals a misrepresentation of fact by Columbia Studios:

Gary Miller © 1954 U. Miami Tempo

Tempo magazine applied for and won the Sigma Delta Chi award many times; but credit went to the editor-in-chief, a position Gary Miller never held. Miller entered the school in September, 1953; and his name appears in the publisher’s box of Tempo for the first time in the December 1953 issue, as copy editor (Vol. 5, No. 2); he also contributed an editorial on “censorship of campus publications.” The magazine lists Geff Newton as managing editor and John Schulte as editor-in-chief.

In the first issue of 1953 (November), Schulte extends congratulations to his predecessors at Tempo for the 1953 award, for work done during the previous academic year. In the first issue of 1954, editor-in-chief George K. Smith extends congratulations to Schulte for the 1954 award: “Congratulations are in order for 2nd Loouie John Schulte, editor of last year’s TEMPOs. His issues made All-America for the fifth straight year.”

Gary Miller moved from copy editor to managing editor after one issue and continued for a year. Archives reflect his spirited participation in Tempo and in campus life, including singing in a talent show. In Schulte’s last issue as editor-in-chief, he confers the following breezy acknowledgment, in his first-page overview, “Behind the Scenes”:

This issue’s Out of Step was written by Gary Miller, Gremlin Managing Editor. For all we know, he’s probably the only 276-pica-tall M.E. in existence. Between singing and chasing females, Gary has little time for playing editor and even less for writing columns. By offering him beaucoup rewards, we persuaded him to write the fable you will find beginning on page seven.

But that particular fable is beyond the scope of this article.

Fly-by view

How do people with SED fare, today? A quick trip on the magic carpet of a Web browser turns up an Internet site for surgeons to exchange information about their patients.40 One surgeon writes from the U.K: “12-yr.-old boy, known spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, now presenting with pain, mainly in the right hip. Pain has been gradually increasing over the last 6 months and now is quite disabling. He gets around with the help of a zimmer frame [a walker] within the house. Any suggestions from the list?” The x-ray shows a narrow, almost pinched pelvis. The hip joints are well seated in their sockets, although oddly formed. But no space shows in the right joint, meaning that the cartilage is gone; very little remains on the left.

Only two surgeons write back; neither has much to offer. Hip replacement probably will be next for this boy, but not for a long time. Joint replacements wear out quickly in young patients—usually in less than ten years. Even patients as old as 55 are told to put off surgery as long as possible. Resorting to hip replacement too early condemns a young patient to a lifetime of revision operations, each of which carries a progressively higher risk of infection, dislocation, bone loss, and disabling muscle scarring.

What is it like to live with hip joint arthritis? The magic carpet whisks to a site called Totally Hip. Several people with severe arthritis have had to discontinue their usual painkillers before total hip replacement and are clamoring for advice about how to “hold out.” Others, in their 30’s and 40’s, have already had the surgery and comment about their lives before, with severe hip arthritis from various childhood causes:

“It is difficult for people to understand what constant pain is like. I used to define my pain like this, to those who asked: Take a 6-inch filleting knife, stick it into your hip, then go about your daily routines for the next 5 years. Then maybe you will understand.” Bob Robinson in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“I began using the electric cart at the grocery store and felt like I had a new life. It was the first time in several years that I had ‘browsed’ through a grocery store—it was great. Until several weeks after surgery, you don't understand how much being in chronic pain has affected your whole life. You can't do things with others. Decisions on what to do become based on which will hurt less, instead of what you want to do.” Dorothy Brumlow.

Cindy Gronbach describes her experience with congenitally dislocated hips, before arthritis set in and pain began: “I've always had a ‘lumbering’ gait—the typical Trendelenburg gait. I have never been able to walk great distances. It wasn't actually my hips that would hurt, but it was the lower back and gluteal muscles that would spasm; and I would have to rest until they decided to loosen up again, and I could go another 1/2 block or so. Of course those muscles were the only things holding everything else together in there—no wonder they got tired!”

In her interview, Phoebe Dorin reminisces about her old friend:

Phoebe Dorin

“Michael had a car in New York, and he really couldn’t walk more than about a block. So he just parked wherever he wanted to—you know there are no parking spaces in Manhattan—and he accumulated masses of parking tickets. He used to just shove them all into the glove compartment. I told him: ‘Michael, you can’t keep this up! You have got to deal with it. Go to the judge and explain!’ But he was so stubborn. Of course, eventually, it came to his having to hire a lawyer.”

Dorin describes Dunn’s other solution to mobility problems: “Dean Selmier used to piggyback him all over Manhattan,” she said. “Dean was a ‘John Dean’ type, a brooding young man from a wealthy Texas family. He started in acting but became a stunt man, and he adored Michael. They were total opposites. It always struck me, to see them walking around, that they were like some hybrid creature—Michael was the brains and Dean was the brawn.”

John Softness remembers Dunn’s first car—which he recalls as “just a car,” although old car buffs may be enchanted to learn it was a 1951 Austin. Softness and Dunn attended University of Miami together, when Dunn still used his birth name, Gary Miller. “We put together a campaign called ‘Wheels for Gary’ to get him a car,” said Softness, who later founded the PR firm The Softness Group, which did some pro bono publicity for Dunn. “We had it outfitted with extended pedals and I think some hand controls, so he could get around.”

More memories

Softness met Dunn when Dunn was a 19-year-old transfer student from Michigan, and he recalls his friend’s wit and warmth. Softness was editor of the campus newspaper, The Miami Hurricane, while Dunn—Gary Miller—eventually became managing editor of Tempo, published during 1949-1971.

The two ran into each other again in New York, after the Korean War, and Softness became Dunn’s manager on the side. “I never made any money out of it,” he says. “Michael got paid for what he did; but he never had ‘real’ money, and I never got into the position where I felt comfortable asking him for any.

"We used to go to Downey’s at 44th and 8th in Manhattan,” Softness recalls. “Mike had a little corner of the bar, where he used to sit right on the bar. He’d scramble up there—climb onto a stool and then onto the bar—and he’d stay till closing, which I think was three or four in the morning. I don’t think I was ever there that late with him—I had a family in the suburbs. But Michael could sleep late.”

Dunn was a frequent family guest and popular with Softness’s three young sons. “He used to sing and read to the children for hours,” he says. “They loved him.” Softness was best man at Dunn’s wedding and stood in for him—or kneeled in for him—during the rehearsal. “Michael had to work and couldn’t come to the rehearsal, so I went and did the whole thing on my knees,” he relates. “We told him about it afterward, and he thought it was funny. I wouldn’t have done anything to offend Michael.

"I remember asking him how tall Joy [Talbot] was, for publicity, and he said: “I don’t know. What difference does it make? Everybody’s taller than I am.”

The justice who performed the ceremony on December 14, 1966, was Milton Mollen. Mollen became presiding justice for the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court and later became well known through the Mollen Commission, which investigated police department improprieties in New York City.

“Michael was a great guy.” Softness says. “He was such a trooper. He never complained. He was so malformed, but he never complained about the pain.”

Richard M. Rosenthal, Esq., was Dunn’s lawyer and the executor of his estate. “He was a sweet man,” Rosenthal recalls, speaking from his home outside Los Angeles, in September, 2002. “He was in pain a good deal of the time—broke a couple of ribs just getting out of the bathtub, for instance—but he always tried to shrug it off. He was always compensating. In reality, his death wasn’t a big shock to me.

"He was always ‘going for it’ as much as he could, too. He drank much too much,” Rosenthal continues, in a matter-of-fact tone. “I remember being at that bar with him—yes, Downey’s—and him showing me around. I seem to remember his pal Phoebe in a flannel shirt and Joy in a red sequined dress. I remember a party at our house, one time, when my daughter was five or six and exactly his height. She was all dressed up in a blue pinafore dress, and she took him by the hand and introduced him to everyone in the room.”

Rosenthal’s former wife, Teddy, speaking from her Manhattan home recalls: “Michael was a darling man! He used to come over all the time, whenever we had parties. My daughter adored him—she always held hands with him. We all cared so much for Michael. We had a special chair for him when he came, that we had picked up at an antique auction. It was just so that he could be comfortable and not have his feet dangling when he sat. He had terrible problems with all his joints. We were all so upset when he died.”

Mrs. Rosenthal remembers Dunn’s wife. “Joy Talbot—yes, that was the name! The redhead! She was gorgeous. But oh, that became a difficult situation.” When told about Dunn’s monastery involvement, she laughs, alludes to his reputation as a ladies’ man, and remarks: “I can’t imagine Michael lasting any length of time around monks!” (continued)

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