J. Irwin Miller:
The Shaping of An American Town
is Nancy Kriplen's most recent biography. Published in October 2019 by Indiana University Press, it has already gone into a second printing
J. Irwin Miller, subject of author Nancy Kriplen's new biography, was a remarkable man. Not only was he an industrialist (he headed Cummins Engine Co. for 30 years) but a patron of the arts, a civil rights activist, first layman to head the National Council of Churches, and a near-professional violinist. The book's subtitle, The Shaping of An American Town, refers to Miller's leadership in turning his small, midwestern hometown of Columbus, Indiana, into a gem of midcentury modern architecture. The spectacular schools, churches, libraries, fire stations and homes designed by luminaries such as I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, are not only used by the town's residents today but visited by thousands of visitors each year.
Nancy Kriplen's previous biography was The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur -- Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary (New York: Amacom Books, 2008). It is the biography of the colorful, controversial insurance and real estate tycoon whose money funds the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. At the time of his death in 1978, MacArthur was the second richest man in the US (after the reclusive shipping magnate Daniel K. Ludwig).
After making the first part of his fortune in Chicago with Bankers Life & Casualty Co., MacArthur moved his operations to Florida where he ran his empire from a table in the coffee shop of a modest beach-front hotel on Singer Island, north of Palm Beach. It was his hotel, of course. At the time of his death in 1978 MacArthur probably owned more land in Florida than any other single individual.
Nancy Kriplen's earlier biography was Dwight Davis: The Man and The Cup (London: (Ebury Press/Random House U.K., 1999), the life story of the man who donated one of the sporting world's most famous trophies, tennis's Davis Cup, in 1900 while still a student at Harvard. He later served as Secretary of War and Governor General of the Philippines.
Researching the lives of such different men was fascinating, says Kriplen. Though all three men were extremely wealthy, the similarity ended there. "Everyone wanted to talk to me about Miller and Davis. Many sources were reluctant to be interviewed about John MacArthur. Davis was polished, urbane, had a law degree, inherited his money and had a sense of noblesse oblige. Miller had degrees from Yale and Oxford and also inherited his money. MacArthur was a scrappy, risk taker, who worked his way up from genteel poverty and whiose education stopped in the eighth grade.
Nancy Kriplen was formerly on the staffs of Time Magazine and Scripps Howard's Indianapolis Times. She has also written for the New York Times, Smithsonian, Opera News, American History Illustrated, Saveur and other publications.
Kriplen is a graduate of Purdue University, where she was editor-in-chief of the campus daily newspaper. She received a 2009-2010 Lilly Endowment Creative Renewal fellowship, administered by the Arts Council of Indianapolis, and Indiana Arts Commission Individual Artist grants for 2011-2012 and 2015-2016. She was also named a Strnad Fellow by the Ragdale Foundation, an interdisciplinary artist community near Chicago. She and her husband are the parents of three adult children.