Francis “Frank” Davis Millet was by all accounts an extraordinary man. During his lifetime he was an avid traveler, journalist, author, war correspondent and painter who spoke and wrote in a half dozen languages. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune (Nov 27, 1892) Millet’s ancestors had come to America aboard the Mayflower and his home was situated on the land that was purchased from the Native Americans by Miles Standish. He was born November 3, 1846 in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts and due in large part to his adventurous nature, he enlisted as a drummer boy at 15 years of age with a Massachusetts regiment at the beginning of the Civil War. He was soon promoted to assistant surgeon and assisted his father, a surgeon, during the war effort. It was said that he gained an appreciation for the vivid blood red color that he frequently used in his earlier paintings as a result of his assistant surgeon duties during the war.
He graduated from Harvard University with a Master of Arts degree in 1869 and worked as a reporter for the Boston Courier and as a correspondent for the Advertiser at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
In the 1870’s he had studios in Rome and in Venice. In 1876 he returned to Boston to assist in painting murals at Trinity Church in Boston. He later studied art at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp Belgium where he won silver and gold medals for his work.
He was good friends with Augustus Saint-Gaudens who sculpted both the “Standing Lincoln” in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and the statue of the seated Lincoln in Chicago’s Grant Park. He was also good friends with writer Mark Twain who was his best man at his 1879 marriage to Elizabeth Merrill in Paris, France.
His link to Chicago started in the summer of 1891 when he originally came to Chicago and was an instructor at the Art Institute. Construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was well underway and sometime between May and November of 1892 Millet replaced William Pretyman as Director of Decoration for the Fair. It was actually Millet who decided on the predominantly white color of the buildings in the Court of Honor which ultimately gave the Exposition its nickname “The White City”. He decided on a paint consisting of oil and white lead and due to time constraints came up with the idea of applying the paint using a hose and special nozzle as opposed to a brush and was credited with inventing the process of “spray painting”. In addition to overseeing the decoration of the Columbian Exposition he also supplied his own artwork. One of his paintings adorned the vaulted ceiling of the banqueting hall of the New York State Building.
It was known that Millet favored the English pronunciation of his last name and a Chicago Tribune article stated, “It ought to be settled that Mr. Millet is of English extraction, so that people who insist on going about the grounds inquiring for Mr. Millay will quit it and give him the benefit of the English pronunciation, Millet, with an italic breathing on the first syllable.”
After the World’s Fair in Chicago, he was asked by the War Department to design the Civil War Campaign Medal for both the Army and Navy in 1907. He also became involved in the American Academy in Rome and served as secretary from 1904 to 1911.
In early 1912 Mr. Millet took a trip to Rome for Academy business and took with him his good friend Major Archibald Willingham Butt. Major Butt (remember we are all adults here) was the military aide to Presidents Taft and Theodore Roosevelt and had just taken six weeks leave from the White House because the constant personal battles between Taft and Roosevelt were starting to take a toll on his health.
On April 10, 1912, Mr. Millet, with ticket number 13509, boarded the RMS Titanic at Cherbourg, Normandy, France en route to New York for Academy business. He was joined on the Titanic by his good friend Major Butt who was on his way back to Washington D.C.
On April 13, 1912, during his last trip to Europe, Daniel Burnham who appointed Millet as Director of Decoration of the Fair in 1893, boarded the Titanic’s sister ship the RMS Olympic. The two ships were supposed to pass each other but when Burnham attempted to send a message of greeting to Millet on the Evening of the 14th via the wireless operator he was told by the steward that his message was refused by the wireless operator because the Titanic had been involved in an accident. Burnham would never see his friend Millet again and would die himself in June of that year.
Some reports of survivors seem to indicate that the last acts of Millet and Butt before the last lifeboats were boarded were to give their life preservers to the last women to leave the ship.
Mr. Millet’s body was recovered from the frigid waters of the Atlantic by the crew of the MacKay Bennett. He was wearing a light overcoat, black pants, and grey jacket. On his person was a Gold watch with the letters “F.D.M.” on a chain, glasses, two gold studs, a silver tablet bottle, 2 pounds and 10 shillings in gold, 8 shillings in silver and a pocketbook.
His body was sent back to Boston where he was buried at East Bridgewater Central Cemetery.
Major Butt’s body was never recovered but a memorial marker exists at Arlington National Cemetery in the location where Butt had planned on being buried.
In one last tie to the Chicago area, a memorial was placed in the Ellipse in Washington D.C. just south of the White House to honor both Major Butt and Mr. Millet. The designer of the monument worked with Millet during the construction of the White City and was none other than Daniel Chester French who designed the iconic, 65 foot tall, gold leaf on plaster, “Republic” statue which towered over the east side of the Basin in the Court of Honor. French is more widely known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and also designed the Marshall Field Monument at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.
A 24 foot gold leaf on bronze replica of the “Republic” was dedicated on May 11, 1918 by French and architect Henry Bacon to honor the 25th anniversary of the Exposition and the 100th Anniversary of Illinois becoming a state. It currently stands at the Hayes-Richards Circle in Jackson Park on the spot where the Administration Building of the Fair had once stood.