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Margaret Mills

By Jacques Barzun

For over two decades, Margaret Mills gave this institution devoted service, first as Assistant to the Director from 1968 to 1973, and from that year through 1989 as Executive Director.

To those of us who, as committee members or as officers, saw her frequently, working with her was a source of admiration and pleasure. Her competence was manifest, yet unobtrusive, and her personality, compounded of tact, firmness, honesty, direct speech and simple friendliness, banished the thought that going to the Institute in the line of duty was a chore. Everything needed for our work was always ready, purpose or problem clearly set out, and no time was wasted in aimless preliminaries. Any new recruit to the task force was gently put au courant,  and those whose memory lapsed between meetings were briefed anew without being made to feel either pitied or rebuked. Speaking with a slightly eroded English accent, and giving hearty laughs at the right time, Maggie would take notes while invisibly holding the chairman’s elbow to see him through the agenda. It was like a well-run dinner conversation at the hands of a practiced hostess.

Though her tenure was long, Maggie never became the sort of half-subservient, half-martinet character so often found in those who occupy her type of position. It is always a taxing role to be at once in charge of things and the employee of a shifting set of bosses who must be taught their business. This is especially true when these bosses come from a company such as ours, which defies arithmetic: it contains no average member with average needs: all expect superior and special attention.

Besides the duties I have sketched, Margaret Mills was responsible for the unending management of nominations, elections, committee appointments, and decisions on prizes and awards—all this in addition to arranging four dinners and two luncheons a year (including the one for the multitude under the tent in May), plus setting up an annual art show and seeing numerous publications through the press. And while guiding her staff through these mazes, she also had to keep the local police interested in giving this building and its denizens protection as they came and went, because the corner of 155th Street and Broadway had become an important trading post for drug dealers and their customers.

During Maggie’s tenure there came two occasions of great and protracted institutional stress. By chance, being president at those times, I was able to observe her remarkable character and abilities under different forms of severe trial. The first was the result of an agreement, made before my incumbency, to have the National Book Awards decided upon with the aid of our staff and conferred on our premises. In the abstract, this joint undertaking seemed reasonable: we have a populous section of literature, an auditorium, and an annual ceremony well-attended by the general public.

What the committee that studied the move did not foresee was the sheer size of the operation and the brute strength of its managers. We were not prepared for the invasions that brought down the Roman Empire. As in those, disturbance began mildly—a few visitors, a few phone calls; but soon it was a torrent of people, paper, demands—and ideas, ideas which proved hard to fend off and which, if carried out, would have caused half of our membership to resign. One I recall was to engage a stand-up comic, well known for his double-entendres, to entertain the crowd between the several parts of the award proceedings.

Throughout this ordeal, Maggie exhibited her best self unaltered—as courteous to the rude as to the civil, giving whatever service was called for within reason, explaining over and over that the impossible was not possible. Inwardly, she was often seething, as I noticed when we had to confer, at a moment’s notice, about how to deal with the latest act of the army of occupation. I must add that she bore the worst of the battle herself, sparing me and my fellow officers heroically.

The second time of troubles arose from forces within the house: it was the fight over merging the Institute and the Academy. There her predicament was subtler, but perhaps worse on that account. She knew that she must remain neutral or appear to be so. When asked, she made no secret of her belief that union would have administrative and financial advantages, but she expressed no partisan preference, and she gave no cheers when the union forces appeared (prematurely) to be winning. It was a measure of Maggie’s integrity—and an indication of the place she won in the hearts and minds of the membership—that some of the leaders on both sides confided to her their hopes or fears. When this trustfulness was not embarrassing, it had its amusing side and she relished the comedy.

One may well ask what previous experiences contributed to the making of such a character as hers. Margaret Mary Mills was born on December 16, 1921 in a suburb of Manchester, England, the daughter of an industrial chemist and a concert pianist. Her father’s work took the family to Brazil in 1930 for a stay of three years and again in 1939 for another eight. Maggie was fluent in Portuguese and kept such happy memories of the country that she returned to it several times for vacations.

Her schooling was interestingly varied. In Brazil she attended a German primary school for foreigners, then a Quaker school in England, followed by the University of London. Next, she went for one year to an agricultural school in Brazil. She worked first as a translator for a newspaper, but soon was taken on as researcher at the Brazilian Consulate in London. She came to this country in 1954, when transferred to the Brazilian Treasury Delegation in New York City as assistant director of purchasing.

One can make a plausible guess that it was her lively interest in music, art, literature, and travel that prompted her to make a change in 1964. A short spell with the Cheryl Crawford Productions led her finally from the realm of price quotations and publicity to the heady atmosphere of our many-sided concern with art, music, and letters. Outdoors, she cultivated various strenuous sports.

At the time of her appointment as Executive Director, she acquired American citizenship. After her retirement at the age of sixty-eight, she went to live in Naples, Florida, where she met her death in an automobile accident on March 14, 1993. She was driving alone and lost control of her car. Her friends take a certain comfort in the well-supported likelihood that she died before the collision and in the fact that it claimed no other victim.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 4, 1993.

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