Geneviève McMillan, at 85; MFA donor

Geneviève McMillan had a passion for African and Oceania art that friends attributed to her days as a student in France. Geneviève McMillan had a passion for African and Oceania art that friends attributed to her days as a student in France. (Globe File/1967)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / May 24, 2008

When French-born Geneviève (Lalanne) McMillan came to Boston as a war bride in 1946, the most important items in her trousseau were not her wardrobe or perfumes, but the African artwork in her trunk. That was the nucleus of a collection she would one day donate to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In a 2007 exhibition, the MFA showcased the 236 African and Oceanic objets d'art that Mrs. McMillan had collected around the world or purchased from other sources.

Mrs. McMillan, who also owned and operated the Henry IV French restaurant formerly in Harvard Square and encouraged young people to study the arts through scholarships, endowments of academic chairs, and gatherings in her Cambridge home, died May 18 at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge of complications of neuropathy, her niece said. She was 85.

"The gift of Mrs. McMillan's collection to the museum was a very significant one," MFA director Malcolm Rogers said. "She was a very striking woman with a distinguished manner and she was passionate about Oceanic and African art. She was so stylish in everything she did, in her whole carriage, her bearing, her manner. She was a very determined woman with very strong opinions and also a very generous spirit."

Rogers said a visit to Mrs. McMillan's Cambridge residence - which was much like a salon where students, artists, writers, and other literati gathered - was memorable for the display of African and Oceanic art "arranged in a really unique manner."

Her passion for African and Oceania art - or works by native peoples of Australia and the South Pacific islands - go back to her days as a student in France, friends said.

Born in 1922 in Orthez in the French Pyrenees, she arrived in Paris in 1943. Anne Marie Stein, dean at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and a longtime friend, said Mrs. McMillan earned a bachelor's degree in English at the University of Bordeaux and was one of the first women to graduate from the École des Sciences Politiques, the leading school in France for public administration.

In 1944, after the liberation of Paris, she met Robert McMillan, an American officer and an architect. It was he, Stein said, who introduced his future wife to Madeleine Rousseau and her salon in Paris. Rousseau was a collector of African and Oceanic art and sparked that interest in Geneviève, who was also known as Ginou.

She became Ginou's mentor, according to a MFA catalog about Mrs. McMillan's collection.

"In the young woman's eyes, the most interesting attendees [at the salon] were fellow students from the French colonies, the future elites of their countries," it said. Mrs. McMillan sponsored and mentored young students from African countries in years to come.

By 1946, Mrs. McMillan had earned her college degree, married McMillan, and left for the United States.

The McMillans divorced in 1950, Stein said. Mrs. McMillan moved from their house in Lexington to Cambridge, where, friends said, she felt more at home.

In 1950. Mrs. McMillan opened Henry IV, one of the first French restaurants in the Boston area, which had a pastry shop and a nightclub, Stein said. She brought in a chef from France.

The restaurant, which was downstairs in the two-family house Mrs. McMillan had purchased in Harvard Square, attracted such artists and writers as William Faulkner, Thornton Wilder, and Juan Miró, she said.

The MFA catalog tells how Mrs. McMillan expanded her collection in different ways.

"During the summers when Harvard was closed, she went on long journeys," it says. "In 1954, she visited New Guinea for the first time during a trip around the world acquiring objects and taking photographs. That year she visited an impressive number of destinations in Africa: Dakar, Monrovia, Kinshasa and Tunis."

In a 1968 visit to Mrs. McMillan's home and restaurant, a Globe reporter wrote of "the decorative knives from the Congo" and "ceremonial masks" from African countries that decorated the residence.

Stein said that although Mrs. McMillian had not started out wealthy, she was a brilliant businesswoman who acquired properties around Harvard Square, which helped her build her collection and support the arts, civil rights, and various political causes.

She also shared her wealth with others.

Marisa Escribano of New York City, who was a doctoral student at Harvard when she met Mrs. McMillan, said she was "a feminist before the word was coined and an intrepid fighter. . . . One of her main concerns was helping women in developing countries, particularly Africa, to improve themselves through education."

For this purpose, Ginou facilitated scholarships at the Harvard Medical School, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and elsewhere, Escribano said.

Philip S. Khoury, one of the Harvard students who attended Mrs. McMillan's salon and is now associate provost at MIT, said Mrs. McMillan endowed a chair there to study women in the developing world.

Mrs. McMillan had dual citizenship here and in France, and she kept up with the news in France and abroad. Although she lived in this country for more than 60 years, Escribano said, "Ginou still had [the French newspaper] Le Monde delivered to her door every day."

Mrs. McMillan leaves two nieces, Catherine Lalanne-Gobet and Virginie Lalanne, both of Paris.

A funeral Mass will be said at 9 a.m. today in St. Paul Catholic Church in Cambridge. Burial will be in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

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