By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
They move past the matched set of maroon Cadillacs and a Halloween harvest display cast against the French colonial backdrop, and toward the floor-to-ceiling windows adorned with plantation shutters. One of the marshals makes his way to the front steps, but hesitates as if awed by the majesty of the Highland Park address.
Suddenly, as if from out of nowhere, a diminutive, blonde steel magnolia of a woman stands defiantly in their path, catching everyone off guard. The marshal mutters something about his authority, saying a federal judge has given them the legal right to come in and search the house.
"Oh no you're not," says the 62-year-old woman standing her ground. "You're not coming into my house." She then turns to lock the door shut, giving a parting glance to her would-be intruders that dismisses them with a "Who the hell do you think you're dealing with" resolve.
"We know this is Henry Miller's son's house," says one of the marshals to Brenda Collier, the attorney attempting to collect the judgment. To her amazement, the marshals put their hands in their pockets and amble about the property, instead of using the force of law and the locksmith to break into the house. In deference to the family, to their position on high, the marshals decide to wait the woman out.
But Brenda Collier is tired of waiting. The man of the house, Vance Miller Sr., a member of the city's power elite, owes the U.S. government $26 million on an old real estate debt from the funny-money days of the S&L crisis. The debt has been wrangled over in legal battles for nearly four years, gone up to the Supreme Court of the United States and back down again, and now his creditors have come to call.
Yet in mid-October of last year, there is far more scraping and bowing by the authorities than usual, far more than if the marshals had knocked on some bungalow in Mesquite. After all, this is the home of the scion of a wealthy Dallas family, the first family of Dallas real estate, a dynasty whose name is woven into the fabric of the last hundred years of Dallas history: Henry S. Miller.
About an hour and a half later, the lady of the house, Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, emerges again. This time she is in the company of a chauffeur who is carrying two large suitcases. He deposits them in the trunk of a white limousine. Walking gingerly, the 62-year-old socialite-cum-politico heads to the car, waits while the door is opened, climbs into the back seat, and is driven away.
As they say on the "A-list" social circuit, h-o-o-o-o-o-w embarrassing.
Here was the queen of Dallas' 1997 society season being rousted from the same home where she'd been hosting teas, fashion fetes, and chic planning parties for the Crystal Charity Ball, the big mid-December soiree that she chaired. Throughout the year, the many swell moments--the trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, to research the waiters-in-powdered-wigs theme; the fashion show with Italian clothing designer Gianfranco Ferre at Hotel St. Germain; the chic, sneak-preview luncheon at Mediterraneo--were memorialized in The Dallas Morning News' society columns, or in D magazine's unctuous coverage of the Park Cities' leisure class.
Before she fled, Tincy Miller had summoned her sons, Vaughn, 35, and Gregory, 31, both of whom work for the family company, to take over protection of the fortress.
"Any reasons to have those moving vans parked in front of the house?" Vaughn asks the invaders. On this stretch of the boulevard, fretting about what the neighbors might think means worrying about investor Thomas Hicks, who last week bought the Texas Rangers, oilman-SMU philanthropist Edwin Cox, and heiress Betty Hunt.
Until now, few people outside of the family and a circle of lawyers and judges knew anything about the Miller saga.
To the untrained eye, real estate executive Vance C. Miller Sr. and his wife are extraordinarily rich. They sponsor matches at the Dallas Polo Club and make the scene with Oscar de la Renta. They are honored guests at fashion and jewelry shows at top-drawer boutiques like Hermes and Cartier. He tees it up at the exclusive Preston Trail Golf Club, where memberships start at $75,000.
Vance Miller, who is 64, is listed in public records as president or CEO of two dozen companies, many under the umbrella of the Henry S. Miller Cos., the privately held real estate brokerage firm begun by his grandfather in 1914. That's roughly one company for every five pairs of designer pumps in Tincy's wardrobe. A videotape of the Miller home interior shows approximately 120 pairs of Ferragamos, Cole Haans, Manolo Blahniks, and other pricey footwear occupying their closet--enough Italian leather to trigger at least a small tremor in Imelda Marcos' bosom.
Under oath, however, Vance Miller insists his existence is not as golden as it may appear. He is tapped out, he says. Too poor to have a bank account. His dad lends him money to buy his clothes. He's not even sure how the money in his wallet got there, living as he does on "petty cash." Answering questions put to him in October by Collier, the lawyer attempting to collect the $26 million he owes U.S. taxpayers, Miller says he lives on the charity of his wife--a former schoolteacher who came to the marriage 40 years ago with no independent wealth--and his father, Henry S. Miller Jr., who in the middle decades of this century turned the little family real estate agency into a major corporate conglomerate.