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Viewpoint

My Marx Brothers cousins and Ellery Queen

Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo were not my relatives, but my father’s cousins, the four Miller Brothers, were. People in Claremont used to call them “the Marx Brothers,” so the title of this piece isn’t exactly a lie, it’s more like an exaggeration.

Somehow the Miller family found their way from the Old Country to Claremont, probably due to the fact that the Steinfields were already there, and Hirsch (“Harry”) Miller and my grandfather “Burt” were related. I’m not sure just when Hirsch and Dora, their four sons and one daughter (Goldie) arrived from Russia, but Claremont town records show that the sixth Miller child, Ida, was born there in the spring of 1907. There was one child yet to come, Bess (“Betty”), born in Claremont in 1909. She plays an important role in this story.

I have a clear memory of the Miller brothers, Burt, Hy, Ben, and Dave. We saw them quite often, either at Lake Sunapee or in Claremont when they would come to Stevens High School reunions. They would show up, and everyone would start laughing. I don’t have as clear a memory of the Miller sisters.

At one time, Ellery Queen was this country’s most popular mystery writer. Between 1929 and 1971 “he” wrote over 30 novels, all featuring a detective named “Ellery Queen.” Several of them are set in a town named “Wrightsville.” I had never read any Ellery Queen mysteries until recently when, thanks to an article in Claremont’s Eagle Times, I learned that “Wrightsville” is actually Claremont. So I sent away for “Double, Double,” a 1949 mystery novel that takes place in the not-so-fictional town of “Wrightsville.”

It’s a terrific book, filled with murder, mayhem, and plot twists. And yes, Wrightsville is unmistakably Claremont, right down to the hotel on the square and the mills on lower Main Street. The book doesn’t say so, but one of those mills was my father’s factory.

Who was Ellery Queen? Actually, the question should be “Who were Ellery Queen?” because he was two people, neither of whom was named Ellery Queen. One was Frederick Dannay and the other was his cousin, Manfred (“Manny”) Lee.

Manny Lee and Hy Miller, the funniest of the four brothers, met in college, and Hy introduced Manny to his kid sister, Betty. They married in 1927.

A year or two later, Manny teamed up with his cousin Fred, and somehow they came up with the name “Ellery Queen.” By then Manny had visited Claremont several times, even though the Millers no longer lived there.

I remember hearing from my parents that one of our Miller relatives was married to Ellery Queen. Maybe they said “had been married,” since Manny and my cousin Betty divorced before I was born. I think that means that I wasn’t related to “Ellery Queen,” at least by that marriage.

However, they had a daughter named Jacqueline, who must have been my third cousin. For a time she was married to my cousin Bob, and her last name became “Steinfield.” So I guess Jacqueline was my “Double, Double” relative, once by way of her mother (my cousin Betty), and once by way of her marriage to my cousin Bob.

Here’s a mystery: when my two cousins were married, did I somehow become related to Manny Lee and, therefore, to Ellery Queen?

It’s too complicated for me to figure out.

Joseph D. Steinfield is a partner is the Boston law firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. He lives in Boston and Jaffrey.

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