I conducted this interview with Ms. Millett last year. It stands out as one of my favorite interviews I’ve done yet. In the 3+ hour conversation, Caroline’s stories of chic, glamorous international intrigue captured my imagination. Ms. Millett can be found on LinkedIn and Facebook
I had the pleasure of interviewing Philadelphia designer Caroline Dunlop-Millett this week. Born in Kansas City and raised near Chicago, she’s been a U.S. diplomat, studied design under Louis Kahn, and helped transform West Philadelphia into University City. She is currently the head of Millett Design and has written two books.
BB: So you grew up near Chicago. Tell me how you ended up in Brazil as a U.S. Diplomat in the 60’s.
CDM: Well, I really wanted to go to law school. I was going to be a trial lawyer who defended the poor and downtrodden. I really believed that! But that isn’t what lawyers do, I know that now. So went to Stanford, where there were only four women in my class. Within two weeks, I knew it wasn’t the place for me, and I was very unhappy. I no longer had a life path. Some women, their path is to get married and have babies, but I certainly wasn’t giving over to that.
BB: You didn’t know what wanted from your life?
CDM: It was my transition period. I had been cast out by my then-true love, too. He said, “Caroline, I love you, and you’re beautiful, intelligent and charming—but you’re not glamorous! There’s nothing I don’t know about you at all,” I lay in bed for two days. And on the third day I got up, and I said to myself “I’ll show him glamorous!” So, I applied for the Foreign Service, went through all the rigmarole to become a diplomat, and I was off to Brazil. Really, he did me a great favor.
BB: I’d say so. And you stayed in Brazil for 18 years.
CDM: Oh, I quit several times. I’ve told you those stories before, like touring with Duke Ellington, and my boyfriend who ended up in jail.
BB: You told me about touring with Duke Ellington, you did not tell me about anyone going to jail.
CDM: Well, he was a fashion photographer. Lew Parrella. He was totally apolitical. But the police at that time— there was a lot of terrorism in Brazil in the 1960’s and 70’s. The Fascists were after the Anarchists and the Communists, though there weren’t really many of those. The police would go after artist, writers, anyone bohemian at all. Lew was at a railroad station, photographing, and the police, who had been told there’d be Anarchists on the train, they needed to arrest someone. And there he was.
BB: There was no form of habeas corpus in Brazil at that time, either.
CDM: Oh no, I knew from my Portuguese friends that he would be tortured, and he would eventually be killed, or castrated.
BB:. How did you find him?
CDM: I couldn’t find Lew, I went to everyone in the Consulate. No one knew where he was. Finally, I asked my riding instructor, who was the head of the military police. His name was Figueriedo. He became President, eventually. He knew everything. And he whispered to me, “You’re looking at the wrong side, Caroline. Seek out your answer on your own dark side.”
BB: What does that mean?
CDM: In the slang of the Portuguese, what he meant was the CIA. So, I prepared a speech for the overt CIA operative, whom I’d met at cocktail parties. I explained that Lew was certainly innocent, he had no ties to the Communist Party and I had been hunting him for two weeks. I told the operative I was getting on the next plane to the States. I had called a press conference for the next day with this and that reporter present, and I’d tell everyone what was going on in Brazil, that they were arresting journalists and artists and killing them, if I did not hear from Lew by the time the plane took off. None of that stuff about the press conference was at all true, of course, I made up every word. The operative said he’d look into it. The phone in my office rang fifteen minute later. Lew was free.