Venture toward the dining room at Milburn Country Club in Overland Park, glance to the right among the wine lockers and you’ll be mesmerized by the 1927 Strauss Peyton portrait that casts the aura of a Hollywood icon.
“Her personality and demeanor and psyche,” Milburn general manager Tim Mervosh said, “you can see it in her eyes.”
Stare at the image, and it seems to engage you, too.
It beckons you back in time to the magic and the mystique that was Miriam Burns, who 90 years ago is believed to have earned Kansas City’s first national championship when she won the women’s golf title in Garden City, N.Y.
This was national news, including in The New York Times, which wrote that the championship cup “for the next year … will repose in the trophy room of the Milburn Country Club” — where she had learned the game and become a member.
Sportswriter O.B. Keeler, best-known as the chronicler of legendary golfer Bobby Jones, called Burns the “IT” girl of women’s golf.
“She deserves great credit for the honor she has bestowed on this city by her triumph,” wrote Edward W. Cochrane, The Kansas City Post sports columnist, advocating for a reception at Union Station.
But her national title was only part of what made her so compelling.
Her death on the Plaza at the age of 47 remains a mystery, as well. Every time I eat at Winstead’s, I think of her final days in that apartment building next door.
Jack Garvin, local golf historian and expert, on Miriam Burns
Because she also was straight out of central casting for the Roaring Twenties, a ripsnorting character who smoked and smacked gum and chattered on the fairways.
Because she was nonetheless not easily categorized: In addition to her pioneering golf, she attended Northwestern University and wrote newspaper and magazine columns about the game.
Because she was married twice by age 25 — scandalous for the time — and retired from competitive golf at 26, traveled the world and otherwise vanished from the public eye.
Until she died under murky circumstances in 1951 back in Kansas City.
“Her death on the Plaza at the age of 47 remains a mystery, as well,” Jack Garvin, local golf historian and expert, said in an e-mail. “Every time I eat at Winstead’s, I think of her final days in that apartment building next door.”
For the record, she died “at St. Luke’s hospital after an illness of two days … (after she) became ill with a respiratory ailment which developed into lobar pneumonia,” The Star wrote in an obituary.
The family, it added without elaboration on identities, “requests no flowers be sent.”
Now, though, is a fine time for bouquets.
Milburn this month began celebrating its 100th anniversary with Burns in some ways at the epicenter, thanks largely to the splendid work of John Garrity, who began playing there in the Kansas City Golf Association’s junior program.
The graceful, gracious longtime Sports Illustrated writer was commissioned to write a book celebrating the centennial (“The Phoenix Rises”) of a club twice engulfed in fires (1932 and 2010) that destroyed much of its memorabilia.
Milburn’s fascinating history also includes “how a gangster and a band of hapless kidnappers involved Milburn in two of the most notorious crimes of the thirties,” as described on the book’s dust jacket.
But Garrity became particularly intrigued by Burns, who was unknown to him before he began researching the book and, in fact, remains relatively anonymous even in the local golf world despite a landmark achievement that was much-celebrated at the time.
He learned of her on the Kansas City Golf Association web site as an inaugural member (2013) of the KCGA Hall of Fame, then sought information and images of her for the book.
That’s when he discovered the Strauss-Peyton glamour portrait through a Google search.
Her prominence, this club’s history, how those two things are tied, that says a lot about the club then, the club now and her. That photo of Miriam Burns kind of ties this clubhouse into the past.
Milburn general manager Tim Mervosh
With the help of Green Jacket Auctions, he tracked down the owner, Howard Schickler, who has a vast collection of vintage golf photographs (masterworksofgolf.com) that still features the one of Burns on the front page of its women’s archive.
As it happens, Schickler told Garrity in a phone conversation that he acquired the autographed print from a Hollywood collector of fine art photography.
For the book, Garrity needed only to purchase a high-res digital copy of the photograph.
But conscious of all the club had lost in the fires and enamored of the photo, Garrity and his wife decided to buy the original for $1,500 and donate it as a centennial gift.
One that transcends time.
“Her prominence, this club’s history, how those two things are tied, that says a lot about the club then, the club now and her,” Mervosh said. “That photo of Miriam Burns kind of ties this clubhouse into the past.”
The daughter of Clinton S. Burns and Mabel Miriam McComb was born on Feb. 3, 1904.
She soared to prominence in the Kansas City golf scene as a 16-year-old by winning the first of her seven Kansas City Women’s Match Play championships.
That victory came only two years after her father had given her her first set of clubs and she began taking instruction from Milburn pro Harry Robb.
According to the Journal-Post in 1927, Robb said “she’ll be a champion some day” soon after he began working with her.
By age 15, Burns was expressing considerable self-confidence. Prevented by age rules from participating in the city championship, the Journal-Post reported her saying, “I’ll get them when they let me play.”
And so she did.
At a time men and women typically played from the same tees, in an era when amateur golf consumed much of the sports pages and public sporting interest, she set numerous area course records and became a local sensation.
She was featured in 1923 on the cover of Kansas City Golfer magazine, and her personal life became of such interest and appeal that her first marriage was all the rage in the papers in 1925.
“CAMPUS ROMANCE ENDS AT ALTAR,” blared the Journal-Post photo caption with the story of her wedding to fellow Northwestern student Joseph H. Horn on June 6, 1925.
The marriage, the paper noted, had been announced in Chicago instead of Kansas City “on account of the objection of Miss Burns’ mother … to the wedding.”
In fact, the Journal-Post covered the wedding from Chicago, embellishing it with the language of the times:
“Miss Miriam Burns of Kansas City, who always plays golf to win, nevertheless lost to Cupid here today in the finals of a game of love … .”
It even made the papers the next year that she had taken 10 months away from the game, joined her mother in Europe and traveled around the continent with her infant son, Kenneth.
In late 1927, though, she became a national figure and sealed a place in Kansas City sports history when she beat Maureen Orcutt in a 6 1/2 hour, 36-hole final in Garden City.
Cue the contradictions she evoked, as Garrity captured with this paragraph in the book:
“The New York Times described her as ‘a grim fighter with nerves of steel,’ but Herbert Warren Wind pegged her as ‘the girl with the most sex appeal in the judgment of the galleries.’ ”
Even the golf writers who sneered at her game seemed enchanted by her.
“She doesn’t look like a champion. She doesn’t even play like one,” Mid-Week Pictorial magazine wrote. “She is small and lively; she has blond hair, thin ankles and a determined jaw; she smokes a package of cigarettes a round, chatters to her caddy, makes jokes to the gallery, waggles her wrists, chokes her mashie (club) and keeps her ball in the middle of the course. She never takes her mind off wining a match. That is why she is the champion.
“(She) will probably not be champion again. Her golf doesn’t warrant the position; her spirit does, it’s true, but spirit can’t always win tournaments.”
Yet the writer couldn’t help but add, “When Mrs. Horn wasn’t playing, she was the one you wanted to see as she walked lightly and quickly in front of the gallery with a cigarette in her hand and a blue scarf around her neck.”
Her own immediately known words about the triumph were far more humble than brash from a woman whose poise and articulation perhaps defied her boisterous image:
“I only acquired what some one person achieves each year,” she told reporters, “and it was my lucky time.”
But Burns caught on to the wisecracks about not looking or playing like a champion and later wrote, “It is the first time I realized one’s appearance had any bearing on a championship.”
She also later told The Associated Press that reports of Orcutt having had to play “in clouds of smoke blown from my nostrils” were overstated.
“Of course,” she said, “it was never that bad.”
I only acquired what some one person achieves each year, and it was my lucky time.
Miriam Burns to reporters after winning the 1927 national title
Whatever skepticism there was about her elsewhere was muted by the thrill here, where the Journal-Post had reportedly taken dozens of phone calls during her championship match seeking updates via the news service wires.
Her victory left the Journal-Post touting her returning at Union Station on the 5 p.m. Chicago and Alton Railroad from St. Louis and urging “Every Devotee of (The) Game … to Welcome Mrs. Horn” there.
Alas, there was no Kansas City Sports Commission at the time to handle logistics like it did for the Royals parade in 2015.
“Plans for staging a parade through the downtown district upon Mrs. Horn’s arrival were abandoned,” the Journal-Post reported, “when it was pointed out street traffic would be unusually heavy at that hour and that such a parade probably would not be in the interest of public safety.”
Just the same, the reception was overwhelming for the nation’s new “Golf Queen.”
She was met by dozens of her friends, reportedly frenzied in competition to be the first to congratulate her, and bestowed a great basket of flowers … even as she appeared more concerned about the fate of her golf bag.
She was toasted with parties and gifts and basked in the limelight for weeks.
But it wasn’t long before she faded and her life seemed to become complicated.
Newspapers reported she had an unspecified major surgery in late October, and she soon was divorced from Horn and in 1928 married George W. Tyson.
In 1930, at age 26, she retired from tournament golf.
According to Garvin, that same year in the census her son Kenneth was listed as adopted. Though he was mentioned as her sole survivor in her obituary, what became of him and whether she has any surviving relatives is unknown.
Garvin discovered documentation of her arriving at port in New York from Buenos Aires in 1937 and again in 1940, and she was divorced from Tyson in the late 1940s.
Even between Garrity’s extensive research for the book, Garvin’s previous exhaustive efforts and our own searches of Star archives and other databases, those are about the only known glimpses of her between retirement and her death in 1951.
Still, there is this portrait that you ought to see.
And maybe it says all we need to know … even if we wish there were so much more.
“She was certainly ahead of her time,” Mervosh said, “and we’re thrilled to have her as a part of Milburn.”