“Looking over the passenger list, I only find three or four people I know, but there are a good many of our people I think.” – f. millet
Unsinkable Love By Richard Davenport-Hines
When the Titanic sank, Maj. Archibald Butt, a military adviser to President William Howard Taft and former aide-de-camp to his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, was among the heroes of the hour. Amid the disaster on the night of April 14-15, 1912, Butt fulfilled all the archetypes of manly courage, escorting women from their cabins to lifeboats, standing back to let them live and facing death with selflessness. One of the women he helped to save — he had known her when she gave music lessons to the Roosevelt children in the White House — later testified that after he helped her into the lifeboat, he tucked a blanket around her with careful nonchalance, as if she was going for a breezy ride in an open car.
Taft wept when it was confirmed that Butt was lost in the freezing Atlantic Ocean. Much of Washington grieved. In the press rooms of the White House and the War, State and Navy buildings, as one reporter wrote at the time, “the name of Maj. Archie Butt, once synonymous of laughter and jest, now symbolic of heroism, was repeated while eyes blurred and voices became queerly strained.” Ever since 1912, writers have depicted Butt as an archetypal Southerner and military officer. They have not noticed, or have shrunk from mentioning, that his was also love story, a story involving another man, Francis Davis Millet.
Butt was born in Augusta, Ga., in 1865, shortly after the Confederate surrender in the Civil War, and he graduated from the University of the South in Tennessee. He was a Washington correspondent for Southern newspapers, fought overseas against the Spanish in Cuba and against rebels in the Philippines, and looked impressive in his spurs, plumed hat and ceremonial dress.
In his career as a presidential adviser, Butt proved indispensable to both Roosevelt and Taft. He liked to be useful, popular and amusing. He had a swelling sense of accomplishment when his White House arrangements, introductions and discreet advice went off perfectly, as they usually did. He misplayed shots in order to cheer up the golf-mad Taft when he was disheartened, laughed at his boss’ dull legal jokes, ate the heavy meals that the obese Taft liked (broiled chicken, hominy and melon for breakfast; fish chowder, mustard pickles, baked beans and brown bread for lunch), salved the dignity of visiting politicos who did not know how to eat artichokes or cucumbers, and mollified Taft when brats yelled “Hello, Fatty” at him.
Yet all the while, Butt shared a house in an old-fashioned district of Washington, D.C., with Millet, his devoted partner. Born in Mattapoisett, Mass., in 1846, Millet served as a drummer boy and surgical assistant with Union troops in the Civil War. After a shining career at Harvard, he became an international war correspondent before settling into a peaceable life as a painter. His friend Henry James, the novelist, wrote of Millet’s “magnificent manly self … irradiating beautiful gallantry.”
Photographs of Millet show a handsome gentleman with an unwavering look and a calm, determined manner with no fierceness or bravado.
“Millet, my artist friend who lives with me” was Butt’s designation for his companion. (Their only recorded quarrel was over Millet’s choice of decoration for their home. Butt complained that the wallpaper, crammed with red and pink roses, from buds to full-blown flowers, made him feel giddy.) They held great Washington parties. “People come early to my house and always stay late and seem merry while they are here,” Butt wrote. At his New Year’s Eve party — attended by Taft, Cabinet members, ambassadors, generals, Supreme Court judges and “the young fashionable crowd” — he served nothing more elaborate than 11 gallons of eggnog, whipped by his Filipino houseboys, with hot buttered biscuits and ham served by his black washerwoman.
The couple had a tenant in the house named Archie Clark Kerr, a high-spirited, mischievous young diplomat at the British Embassy. Kerr had been born in Australia, but had a stagey, flamboyant pride in his Scottish ancestry. He certainly opened Butt’s eyes about the Scottish hostility to underwear. “Did you know that the kilt is worn without any drawers? I never knew it before Archie Kerr came to live with me.” Thirty-five years later, Kerr (by then known as Lord Inverchapel) returned to Washington as British Ambassador and alarmed the prudes of the U.S. security services by going to stay in Eagle Grove, Iowa, with a strapping farm boy whom he had found waiting for a bus in Washington.
Everyone stared when Millet and Butt departed together for Italy in March 1912 aboard the steamship Berlin. Considering their impressive outfits, it was hard not to. Butt wore bright, copper-colored trousers with a matching Norfolk jacket, fastened by big ball-shaped buttons of red porcelain, a lavender tie, tall bay-wing collar, broad-brimmed hat, patent leather shoes with white tops, a bunch of lilies in his buttonhole and a cambric handkerchief tucked in his left sleeve. The two men returned home to America together, too. They had separate cabins on the Titanic, not least because of their abundant luggage: Butt boarded at Southampton, England, with seven trunks of clothes and holiday purchases.
After the last lifeboat had been lowered, and the liner was tilting and about to plunge to the bottom of the ocean, Butt was noticed standing to one side on the deck. Millet was not a famous or recognizable man. No one remembered seeing him. But it is unthinkable that he was not near Butt at the end. When there are calamitous accidents or natural disasters that grab the headlines, reporters always seize on tragic stories involving families torn apart — or holding together against great odds. But the experiences of gay people are often written out of the narrative.
The enduring partnership of Butt and Millet was an early case of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Washington insiders tried not to focus too closely on the men’s relationship, but they recognized their mutual affection. And they were together in death as in life. The memorial fountain erected in the Ellipse area of the President’s Park in Washington is called the Butt-Millet Fountain.
Richard Davenport-Hines is the author most recently of “Voyagers of the Titanic” (William Morrow). THE DAILY