Remembering My Friend, Mentor, Social Activist Betty Millard

New York, N.Y.  Betty Millard of Chicago, a long-time social activist who had danced with Zhou Enlai after the Chinese Revolution and then was called to testify as a hostile witness during the McCarthy witch-hunt of the 1950’s, was memorialized last week in her home in Greenwich Village, New York City. Friends and family from as far away as Manila flew in to pay homage to her life. She was remembered as a cultured, generous woman with a wicked sense of humor.

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Betty Millard danced with Zhou Enlai in China after the revolution in 1949.

We met at a Northstar Fund dinner, back when I was combating the Fundamentalist Mindset through Fundamentalists Anonymous in 1985.  By 1986 she was major donor to my organization.  By 1987 she had invited my partner and myself to live in her brownstone at 57 Charles Street in New York’s Greenwich Village.  What Betty had seen in me most others had missed: a young WASP with his partner, deeply involved with social action.  All three attributes resonated with her.

Betty introduced me to her world: The New Masses for which she had written and edited for, the short-lived but influential Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War that she had promoted while at Barnard beginning in 1932, and the North Star Fund that she had supported from the 1980’s.  Betty taught me more about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Suffragette Movement.  I learned about the importance of photography to social movements and many other techniques for attracting a wide public.  I often joined her at events where I met her numerous comrades.

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Betty wrote for the prominent American Marxist publication The New Masses.

Betty lived, breathed, and funded social action.  Wealthy, she lived a modest life with a single exception: world tours on the QEII.  She was addicted to old sweaters and the New York Times.  She had a lateral relationship to U.S. president Millard Fillmore.

For the last half of the 1980’s I lived in her townhouse, dined with her once a week often down the block at Sevilla, and joined her frequently at her farm up the Hudson River in Duchess County where I would help her clear brush and watch her hand-feed wild chickadees.  I have vivid memories of using the outdoor shower, the outhouse, and the cast-iron wood stove.

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Betty had met global liberation leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Salvador Allende, and Fidel Castro.

The trails at her farm were lovingly named for the leaders of liberation movements around the world she admired so much: Ho Chi Minh, Salvador Allende, and Fidel Castro.  These were not academic interests – she had met them all in her long and fascinating life.

I believe my own desire to take a Vow of Poverty (story) was compounded by knowing how much Betty had given up to help “repair the world” – tikkun olam, as she liked to say.  Betty was not so much interested in the love of humanity (philanthropy), as she was social justice (Tzedakah).

Betty taught me both The Internationale and how to say Long Live Chairman Mao! – in Mandarin.  And far more – she showed by example how to grow old with grace and how to balance saving the world with not losing one’s life.

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Betty taught me how to say Long Live Chairman Mao! – in Mandarin.
Betty, a lesbian who came out only in her 80’s, helped me come out in my 20’s to my WASP family and friends.  She would join my family in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, drinking wine over long dinners, playing with words, speaking French with my parents Stan and Luan and helping them to accept their son.  Their full acceptance came only after I adopted my Chinese-Indonesian son 16 years ago.

Back in the late 80’s, year after year, Betty would host my staff and volunteers of Fundamentalists Anonymous at her 40-acre retreat near Rhinebeck.  I had left Wall Street to build this social cause, which Betty very much approved of.  Our group would take the Metro North up to Poughkeepsie and she would meet us all at the station.  She always found time to mentor my staff, and so she touched and shaped the lives of dozen of them.  She taught us social justice because she embodied social justice.

Betty used to regale me with stories of her “industrialist” father and affluent mother, growing up in Highland Park, Illinois outside Chicago.  My favorite tale was one of her mother being driven around Chicago, where she would lower her window and give unsolicited advice to those on the sidewalk.  She would critique the masses.  At the memorial we watched early footage of her family – there she was, a child growing up literally in a log cabin mansion.

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Betty was lifelong friends with two presidents of Guyana, Cheddi and Janet Jagan.

At the University of Chicago, Betty was friends with Janet Rosenberg.  Janet soon married a handsome young dentist named Cheddi Jagan and both Cheddi and then Janet would become presidents of Guyana.  Years later I reminisced with Janet in Georgetown about our dear friend Betty.  World-renown leaders like the Jagans often dined with her, through Betty I also was honored to meet folk-singer Earl Robinson who wrote Joe Hill and French Resistance fighter Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier.

Many have wondered about her support of Communism.  Betty was an ardent supporter of women’s rights which had turned her on to Communism in the 1930’s, but by the end of the 1950’s she had grown disillusioned.  But the ideal that the Party espoused – equality across race and gender – stayed with her.  The Party’s lack of acceptance of gays and lesbians confused her greatly, delaying her own admission of being gay until her 80s.

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Betty befriended French Resistance fighter Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier in Paris.

Betty could cook exactly three dishes including square hamburgers.  As a child they had had a cook, and as an adult, she did not wish to be trapped by women’s work.  Her favorite foods were cucumber salad and chocolate cake form the bakery.  Like my own grandmothers, she enjoyed her evening glass of sherry.

She loved to write, and often worked with me to improve my own writing.  In addition to The New Masses, Betty edited long hours for Latin America Today. She was an avid reader.  She was artistic, taking exquisite photographs and writing modern poems.

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Betty was life-long friends with Janet Rosenberg Jagan who became Guyana’s president.
I remember her idiosyncrasies.  Whenever we left her home she would never lock her door – unless she was “going above 14th Street.”  Then, she always felt compelled to lock it carefully.

Eventually, I moved away from Betty’s home to raise my adopted son.  Betty gave her brownstone to charity when she retired to a small garden apartment in the then-gritty Meat Packing District.  It was in that garden apartment that we gathered for her memorial.

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I continued to visit Betty’s farm for over a decade, here with my son and foster girls.

The leadership of Betty’s favorite charity, the Northstar Fund, showed up in great strength.  One long-term friend spoke of Betty’s life as one in synch with the twists, turns, and turmoil of the American Left.  I spoke briefly at the memorial, mentioning ironically how much I had loved this surrogate grandmother, but how as proper WASPs we had never discussed love or money.  I hope she knew how much she meant to me – I believe she did.  I told her often enough, as she lay quietly in the years before she passed on.

Now that I am 50 I am officially old.  Betty had shown me how to age with grace and dignity.  “I used to see old people as ugly, but now I see that they are very beautiful.”  She told me she wanted to live forever, and she set the stage for extreme measures to be taken to prolong her life over the last seven years.  She always planned her 100th birthday party in Alaska.  I had sworn to her I would attend.  She almost made it, letting go at 98.

Recently I was asked to speak to a group of young leaders from the Democratic Party on Life Lessons, which I then wrote about (here).  How strange that I would be asked, and then I reflected that all who had mentored me are now gone.  I am the conduit for their lessons.

Betty’s memorial was particularly poignant.  Like most, I could not speak of her life influence without my voice cracking.  She was born in 1911 when William Howard Taft was in the White House, dedicated her life to making America a more embracing nation, and died with Barack Obama as our president.

As I left Betty’s home for the last time following the memorial, I realized that I was saying goodbye to the last of her generation – and to my own early years in New York.  Betty was one of the first Thought Leaders and Global Citizens I had ever met.  She taught me how to connect goodness.  I recently have launched The Stewardship Report on connecting goodness.  Betty taught me in word and deed how powerful connecting good people can be.

Edited by Ethel Grodzins Romm. Originally published in The Huffington Post as “Memorial for Social Activist Betty Millard (1911-2010),” May 13, 2010.

See also:

Photographic Archives of Fundamentalists Anonymous

Essay: Where Were You Yesterday? (By Betty Millard)

About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

View all posts by Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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