The Dynamic Miller Pope: Artist, Author, Entrepreneur
Story By Jason Frye
Photography By Keith Ketchum
“I don’t go to bed until 2 am,” says Ocean Isle Beach’s Miller Pope. “I guess you’d say I’m one of the artistic types.”
To call Pope an “artistic type” wouldn’t do him justice. This 83-year-old served in World War II, illustrated a set of encyclopedias (remember those?), was a sought-after artist during the golden age of advertising, was a Mad Men–style ad agency executive on New York’s Madison Avenue and started (and sold) his own publishing industry art-production facility, all before he discovered the beauty of the South Brunswick Islands, created a real estate empire of sorts and wrote his autobiography.
When he and his wife, Helen, discovered Ocean Isle Beach in 1969, they stood in the surf and she turned to him and said, “Miller, this is where I want to be.”
That was all it took. After they returned to New York, they called Realtors in the Brunswick area. Helen came back, toured properties and purchased a lot. Pope designed a house, his father came down to build it, and that was that.
Once they moved here, Pope didn’t slow down. On his father’s recommendation, he’d purchased three more oceanfront lots and put buildings on each of them. The Four Winds were born. Pope gradually expanded his operation to include a 12-unit complex known as The Trade Winds and then grew more to include East Winds, West Winds and Sea Winds. Suddenly he’d built a little empire.
But real estate wasn’t Pope’s passion.
“Unless I’m doing something creative, I’m not happy,” he says.
So, naturally, he returned to his roots and began illustrating. First, he illustrated books about pirates and pirate ships, and eventually he did a memoir — Confessions of a Mad Man — and several books of history written with Jacqueline DeGroot.
Pope’s long career as an illustrator started in Greenville, South Carolina, where he drew as a child. Too young to join the military when World War II started, Pope waited until he was eligible then signed up. He found a home in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and before he could be sent to Europe or the Pacific Theatre, some of his sketches were sent up the command chain. They caught the eye of someone at Leatherneck, the USMC’s magazine. Pope spent his time in the war stateside, illustrating Leatherneck. His career was born.
After the war, Pope moved back to Greenville where he went to college on the G.I. Bill in the mornings and worked as a freelance illustrator for two ad agencies in the afternoon. In 1949 he and a friend decided to move to New York. He struggled at first but quickly found his footing when he joined an advertising agency. He moved quickly to partner and began living the Mad Men–style dream — a fancy Madison Avenue office and a thick portfolio of clients.
Pope married Helen and they moved to Connecticut, where they planned to raise a family.
“It was just too hard to raise a kid in the city,” he says. “I was from the country, so I wanted my kids to have the room to run and play and you can’t find that in Manhattan.”
Over time, the daily commute to his office became too much. Pope sold his partnership and set up shop in his studio in Connecticut.
“That was the best move I made,” Pope says. “I was able to spend more time with my family and I only had to go into the city once or twice every couple of weeks. I still made as much money and because Connecticut was so much cheaper than Manhattan, it felt like I got a raise.”
For the next few years, Pope continued his freelance work, providing illustrations to The Saturday Evening Post (where Norman Rockwell’s glimpses of American life graced the cover frequently) and Reader’s Digest as well as a number of textbooks and novel covers.
“In those days it was far too expensive and complicated to use a photograph on the cover of a book or as interior art,” Pope says. “For a book cover, I’d have models come to a studio and pose on a set I’d had built that resembled something from the book. I’d take pictures of them, do some sketches and color studies, then develop the photo and paint from that. Illustrations worked the same way — models would pose, you’d take some pictures, then you’re off to illustrate. It’s how everything was done at the time.”
From his time as a partner in an ad agency and time as an art director, Pope knew the cost associated with producing art for ads, books and magazines, and he saw another opportunity.
“Working on Madison Avenue, you have all the artists who can’t afford to live in Manhattan, they commute in from all over, so they don’t even get to work until 10 or 10:30 [am], then it’s coffee and Danish, then they’d work for an hour, break for lunch — which almost always meant a martini — then back to the office to work until 4 [pm], when they’d rush out the door to make the next train home,” Pope recalls. “You’d get three, maybe four hours of work out of them in a day. I knew from freelancing that this was crazy and inefficient. I came up with the idea of starting a company that delivered art to all the ad agencies. I mentioned it to a friend and fellow Mad Man, and he set the wheels in motion.”
Before long, Pope and his partner had set up shop in Connecticut and began taking on clients. In a flash word got around that Pope’s company could save 30 percent or more on production costs (and still make a profit), and soon they had more work than they’d imagined. But again, after a few years, a sort of malaise set in and the business wasn’t enough for Pope.
“I’m one hell of an entrepreneur and one lousy manager,” he says. “So I knew something had to change again.”
In 1956 Pope moved his family to St. Kitts.
“I wanted to try a tropical island,” he says. “But I discovered that I couldn’t live on an island, the separation and isolation, they were too much for me.”
They moved back to the States.
Then, in 1969, Pope planned a trip to Clemson, S.C., to visit relatives and his wife wanted to join him. They decided to spend some time in Myrtle Beach and extend their stay.
“I’d bummed around Myrtle [Beach] as a teenager and I really liked it there,” says Pope. “So I told my sister to rent a big house there and we’d all get together at the beach. She laughed at me and said it was too crowded there, but she knew another beach in North Carolina where we could go. That’s how we ended up at Ocean Isle Beach.”
Pope’s family rented a house — “the biggest one on the island” — and fell in love with the place. That’s where Helen told him it was time to really truly settle down and this was the place.
Once the Popes decided on Ocean Isle Beach, found a lot, built a house and moved here for good, he was ready to “retire.” His friends thought he was crazy.
“They all said, ‘You’ll miss the city’ and ‘Who are you gonna talk to down there?’” he says. “But I never had a problem finding friends and before long we were hosting parties at our house and we became part of the landscape in Ocean Isle Beach.”
As Pope was developing The Winds complex of 14 properties, Helen was busy helping organize the South Brunswick Chamber of Commerce. A copywriter by trade, she, like her husband, always had a creative streak and decided it was time to market the area in the right way, not only to get visitors into the properties her family owned, but also to benefit all of the businesses and help the area grow. Helen coined the term “South Brunswick Islands” and encouraged tourism officials to include the road to Ocean Isle Beach on the state’s maps.
“She organized golf trips for illustrators and cartoonists from back home and worked tirelessly to promote the area,” says Pope. “You’d never meet a fiercer champion for North Carolina. She adopted this state, this county and this beach as her own and told everyone she met about the wonderful people and beautiful beaches here.”
Helen passed away in 2003, but she left an indelible mark on the area and on her husband.
There’s much more to Pope’s story. His autobiography, Confessions of a Mad Man, details his time on Madison Avenue as an advertising big shot, but it only tells part of his tale. The man is full of adventures, like the time he almost bought a castle (“It would’ve been too expensive to rebuild”), the trip across the United States following a fascination for Native Americans (it resulted in a substantial book sale) and his work on what was at the time the largest full-color print project in history (the 10,000-plus page Grolier’s Book of Knowledge series). And, of course, there are more stories to come, based on whatever he’s up to next.
Pope may not sleep much, but no one could ever say that he spends his time idly. Given all that he has done in his career and his life, it looks like he put all those late nights to good use.