The Lanes seemed to use letters as admissions of failure, intense self-scrutiny and promises of success, so let’s take another diversion with letters and listen to words of struggle from Mills Lane IV before we return to renovation.
As with many freshman college students, laundry loomed large every two weeks. “So by Christmas time, exactly four and one-half washes from now, I should be experienced and efficient,” he wrote home.
While an undergraduate at Harvard, he spent summers learning the family business at C&S Bank branches, but he often saw himself making life even more miserable for “polka-dotted tenant farmers.”
“… for three weeks I was an installment loan interviewer, wiping tears from the streaming faces of women who told me the woes of their lives and of the illnesses which made it impossible for them to work or of the fate which had turned against them. But these stories had a really devastating effect on me (I had to sympathize, since I was so deeply in debt myself) and I poured out my heart and the bank’s money with a wildly generous abandon.
“To correct this shameful and fatal weakness I was farmed out for two weeks in the country to collect loans which had gone bad precisely because of just this kind of emotional diarrhea. I have grown callous and brutish, as I have repossessed cars from screaming women, surrounded by a cluster of wailing and ragged stair-step children. It is all real life, but at the same time it is something rather unreal for a fellow like me who has led such a secure and protected life.”
Even though Mills IV eschewed the family legacy of Yale by going to Harvard, his father’s shadow grew as the bank became nationally known. At an evening of music during a vacation with the extended family in New York, Mills IV followed Mills Jr. down the aisle of the old Metropolitan Opera House and heard someone say, “There goes Mr. Atlanta.”
During his final Harvard winter break, he had watched his father in action in New York. He wrote to his grandmother, Mary Comer Lane, about the experience:
“For the first time, I followed father around on his business and banking calls. While I found myself sitting silently and stupidly at most of these talks, it was all awe-inspiring and memorable. Each day we had lunch at a different New York bank, and each of them has its own definite personality.”
When Mills finished his undergraduate work in history at Harvard in 1965, he struggled with which road to take from Boston after his first choice, staying in Cambridge for an MBA, was stuck on the school’s waiting list.
He thought about geography and family legacy. In letters he seemed to be trying to convince himself as much as reassure his family.
“ I have spent most of my thinking life – nine months each year since I was thirteen – within the twenty mile radius of Boston. But I am not a Yankee, just a Georgian with a difference. Now I really look forward to taking up the family reins, the bank and the family obligations and responsibilities. Many sons might not want them – and, of course, at one time, I did not – but I think there is an extra dimension to a life lived within family and tradition and responsibility. More than any material or social advantage, I value more than anything the pride of our family and its promise of accomplishment.”
And by June he was back in Georgia writing to his grandmother, Mama Lane:
“ I have started at the bank, and I am relishing each moment of my Macon expedition, which I have decided to make into a great adventure. … This morning, in fact, I tried to milk a cow; however it was without success. I have firmly resolved to make the most of everyone, every moment, and every opportunity, and I am having a wonderful time.”
But he couldn’t keep up the ruse much longer.
Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.
For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.