You've probably never heard of Geneviève McMillan
But the woman who's lived a private life far from usual is making an astonishing public gift
In 1946, Geneviève McMillan was one more French war bride steaming westward across the Atlantic, inching toward a life of suburban domesticity. Then she appeared on deck, lounging on a three-legged stool with a long, arching spine. The seat, a gift from a Parisian friend, had been carved in a village in West Africa.
Her shipmates were astonished by the curious-looking chair, so she led them to her cabin and showed them the African artwork she had stored in her trunk, including a metal and wood reliquary figure from Gabon, a country in mid-Africa that was then a French territory. The passengers, she said decades later, knew nothing about African art and were "a little bit upset."
It was an early sign that McMillan, then 23, was embarking on a life far from ordinary. Sixty-one years later, her artistic taste is on display on a far grander scale: Last week, an exhibition of more than 100 pieces of art she collected -- including at least one she carried with her that day -- has just opened at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Today, her collection of more than 1,500 pieces of art from the native people of Africa, Australia, and the South Pacific islands is one of the largest in New England, said Christraud Geary , the museum's curator of African and Oceanic art. Recently, McMillan promised 236 pieces to the museum, doubling its inventory.
She began amassing the art in earnest soon after arriving in the United States. Within a few years, she had divorced her American husband and moved to Harvard Square. Unimpressed by Cambridge restaurants, she opened her own, bringing in a chef from France, and later adding a disco.
And every summer, when the Harvard and MIT students left town, she closed down the kitchen at Henri IV and traveled the world. She returned with bark cloth masks from Papua New Guinea, knives from the Congo, woven cloths from the Ivory Coast.
"For other collectors, some see art as pure form," said Geary . "For her, it's always been connected with continents, it's always been connected with people."
As McMillan collected, she also quietly gave, donating millions of dollars to create scholarships and fellowships for black Harvard Medical School students, African filmmakers, and MIT professors who study women in the developing world. Recently, McMillan, born in a village in the French Pyrenees, created a scholarship for a Massachusetts College of Art student to travel abroad each year.
"If I had stayed in my native town, I would never have seen African art," McMillan said last year in an interview with her friend, Donald Kelley , a Charlestown artist. Now in her 80s, she declined recently to speak to a reporter.
McMillan, known to her friends as Genou , has never sought publicity, but she also has never been the kind of person who shrank into the background. As Kelley tells the story, after some of her Harvard Square neighbors complained a decade ago that the bells at St. Paul's Church disturbed them, McMillan donated money to a Catholic charity -- in the hope that the bells would keep ringing. Tall and outspoken, she turned her house and her restaurant into a French salon filled with internationals and academics, including many Africans.
"For us, it was a learning center," said Kibebe Gizaw , now a consultant in Maryland who met McMillan in the 1970s when he was a college student from Ethiopia. "People who go through Genou's are all over the place now."
McMillan was captivated by art when she moved to Paris to study at the Institute of Political Sciences. After the liberation of Paris in 1944, she met her future husband, Robert McMillan, an American in the Army and an architect. He introduced her to Madeleine Rousseau , a professor and collector of African and Oceanic art.
"I was fascinated by her, and I had never seen anything like these masks," McMillan told Kelley. "The African sculpture had an immediate impact on me."
Through Rousseau, who became a mentor, she met African students from the French colonies. Paris, she said later, was when "my life really began to be nice."
But after she joined her new husband in Lexington, she found suburban life unappealing. The McMillans lived in a modernist development built by the Architects Collaborative , where Robert McMillan was a founding partner. His bride, however, didn't have much in common with the other wives. It was the start of the baby boom and it seemed to her that the neighbors cared only about having children. She had already decided she didn't want the responsibility of motherhood.
"I was considered a stranger," she told Kelley, a woman with a red convertible "who frightened all these poor kids."
She was bored during the long hours her husband was gone, and eventually the couple divorced. Her restaurant, nicknamed by students mangling the French pronunciation as "Henry Cat," was a decades-long Harvard Square institution. And McMillan began to travel in earnest. In 1954, she planned a solo trip around the world, taking only a camera and one small bag. She stopped in New Guinea, Indonesia and India, and sent home many pieces of art.
McMillan has a remarkable eye for art, experts say, and amassed an important collection in her travels. Unlike some collectors, she made repeated trips to Africa, sometimes traveling the continent as the only passenger on small planes, and spent time in the villages. She bought pieces that appealed to her, rather than following trends. She collected African textiles, for instance, when others paid little attention to them.
"She loved the color and the vibrancy, " Geary said. "She bought them at a time when people hadn't quite realized how important these were."
And when Africans bringing art to potential American buyers would arrive on her doorstep, she invited them in for food and conversation, Geary said, rather than limiting the exchange to business transactions on the porch, like so many other collectors.
Even with the museum show, the bulk of McMillan's collection still decorates her home in Harvard Square, wooden masks covering the walls, carved figures resting on every surface.
"She just lives with her works, and she's intrigued with the forms, the colors," Geary said. "It speaks about her."
Kathleen Burge can be reached at email@example.com