For as much art, artifacts and singular travel memorabilia are in their home, Mimi and Burnett Miller always seem remarkably unencumbered. Sitting beneath Roy DeForest’s imposing painting “Midnight Cowboy” Mimi mildly disapproved of Burnett’s occasionally smoking a cigar in the house. He nodded as if to say, “She’s right, I probably shouldn’t.”
Though Burnett didn’t get any cigars on a recent trip to Cuba because “they were too expensive,” he did get a couple of watercolors on the street, which he said were “quite reasonable.”
The Millers have traveled extensively – China, Bali, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Morocco – and haven’t been shy about picking up things along the way.
Around their 40th Street house are the works of artists such as Troy Dalton, Roy DeForest, Helen and Alan Post, Kathleen Noonan, Ann Gregory and good friend Fred Dalkey. “The Crocker wants this one,” Mimi said, pointing to a Sacramento street scene done by Dalkey in oil.
“The art is personal,” Mimi said. “They all have meaning to us.”
Whether it’s the Helen Post sculpture in the backyard or the two ornate octagonal coffee tables in their living room, the Millers have personal connections to pieces, making them more than simply decorative objects.
The tables came from a Victorian mansion on what was formerly Whitney Ranch in Loomis, when it actually was a ranch, not a well-heeled subdivision of “ranch style” houses. What functions as a little bookcase is actually a “houdah,” or elephant saddle, they got in Nepal.
“Our taste is very lively,” Burnett said. “We like it kind of colorful, and it works that way for us.”
Mimi, though clearly an enabler, fingers Burnett for being “the instigator” of the art collecting. “I think so, probably,” he said, agreeing with her. “I’m more of a collector.”
Burnett has lived in the east Sacramento house since 1964. The couple were married in January 1965. They met first when Mimi was at Mills College (class of ’50) in Oakland and he was living in Sacramento, but they “didn’t really connect,” as Mimi said, until later after each had been married and lost a spouse to death.
Their marriage could be its own story, as they were reintroduced when Mimi, then 36, was a widow with two boys and girl. Burnett, then 41, was a widower, also with two boys and a girl. “All six months apart – it was like having twins,” Mimi said. They then had two more children together. Burnett turned 90 last month.
“Not bad for a second marriage,” Mimi said.
Their families likely have been crossing paths for 150 years.
Burnett’s ancestors, Philitus and Henry Burnett, in the 1860s founded the Telegraph Mill on Eighth and P streets, a business that became Burnett & Sons Planing Mill & Lumber Co. A great-grandfather built the stairs and did a lot of the finishing work at the state Capitol building. The company is still active today under family leadership in Sacramento’s Alkali Flat neighborhood.
Mimi is a descendant of the Glide family, who were significant Northern California landholders and philanthropists. Her great-grandmother Lizzie Snider Glide was responsible for Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco and commissioning famed architect Julia Morgan for the original Sacramento public market. Mimi’s grandmother Mary Glide Goethe and her husband, Charles, commissioned Morgan for the architect’s landmark house at 34th and T streets.
By the time Burnett and Mimi married, he had a Purple Heart and Silver Star, having fought in the Battle of the Bulge and served with the U.S. Army’s 11th Armored Division as it liberated Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. His service was featured in Ken Burns’ documentary “The War.”
After the war Burnett lived in Europe for several years, and his art education began in earnest. He lived in Paris working for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes and spent his time with colleagues, whom he described as “mature guys mostly from New York.”
“One of them knew (famed French cityscape painter Maurice) Utrillo, and we went out to his house (in Le Vesinet), and I became interested in art education through my environment with more knowledgeable people,” Burnett explained.
“It was always awfully cold in those days – not much heat. But they always had the furnace on at the Louvre, and I found out where the furnace outlets were and stood on them and got to know the art around the furnace outlets really well.”
He even did some painting of his own while living in Europe, though he didn’t think the work was very good. Still, the owner of the house where he was lived said some of her friends were interested in buying the pictures. “That’s really weird, I thought, but I said fine,” Burnett said. “It turns out they wanted the canvas – there was a terrible shortage at the time.”
While running the family business and becoming involved in Sacramento politics (he served on the City Council from 1971 to 1977 and as interim mayor in 1982), the Millers also became dedicated arts advocates and supporters, raising funds for the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento Symphony and Sacramento History Center. He is chairman of the California Capitol Historic Preservation Society. They host an annual fundraiser in their home for the Sacramento Poetry Center.
“I find it stimulating, very interesting, and it is terribly rewarding to your life,” Burnett said. “That’s why I like to read poetry, and we’ve cultivated the poets and we support them and we try to do the same with music.
“The arts certainly improve your life so much, without you even thinking about it.”