The furs of Margaret Thompson, whose second marriage was to U.S. diplomat Anthony Biddle, Jr., were lucky to escape unharmed from German bombing in Poland in 1939, according to a diary she kept of what was apparently a very unpleasant evacuation ordeal.
“Yesterday morning it all began when Tony telephoned me at seven a.m. to tell me to gather everything together and come immediately to the Embassy as the truck with all the baggage, commissaries, etc., was being loaded. No taxis were available so I took a drosker and arrived with my gas mask, fur coat and bags in time,” Margaret wrote on September 2nd, 1939.
The next day proved to be the most terrifying of Margaret’s life. Tony Biddle, who was the U.S. ambassador to Poland, was stationed in Konstantian, a summer resort town about 20 minutes from Warsaw. German bombers made a “power dive” and bombed the house next door to the one where Margaret and Tony were staying, along with their daughters from previous marriages.
A piece of shell dropped on the balcony where Tony was shaving, Margaret writes. Windows broke from the powerful vibration. The family rushed to the basement in gas masks.
Fortunately, Margaret’s fur coats weren’t harmed.
“As soon as we could collect our fur coats, passports, and absolute necessities, we came into Warsaw and are now settled in the chancellery and the truck has come and we have all belongings….”
It’s a good thing they arrived, because Margaret’s furs came in handy several days later when she and her husband [named the best-dressed man in America in 1960] evacuated to Krzemieniec, a hill town located in the southeastern part of Poland, near the border with Russia and Romania. The trip defined “eery” for Margaret as she passed long wagon caravans of troops, large army trucks, and tanks, moving steadily in the darkness.
“Believe it or not, Peg [her daughter] and I curled up on the floor on a blanket, used our jackets for pillows and our fur coats over us and slept for an hour and a half in spite of carpenters fixing doors that wouldn’t shut, chairs being brought in, floors being washed, and our Jewish landlords issuing orders in Yiddish! I can truthfully say I’ve never slept better or enjoyed anything more!”
That’s saying something, because Margaret shared in an $85 million estate left by her father, William Boyce Thompson. Margaret was his only child.
Margaret’s dog, Okay, a Great Dane, was a real sport throughout the ordeal, an “evacuating ‘tweedie,'” in Margaret’s words. The poor dog, she wrote, “hasn’t missed a raid or dugout since the war started.” It was a good thing Margaret wasn’t taking Okay for a walk along the hillside on September 12th. It was bombed that day, two days after the Biddles had picnicked there with Okay.
The picnic, by the way, was a great success. It was on “a hill just outside the town where the ruins of an old fort are and you can see for miles around. The British and French Ambassador and Count de Largard (secretary to Ambassador Noel) and Mr. Shapiro (New York Times correspondent) were our distinguished guests.”
When the entourage crossed into Romania, Margaret, who wore a woolen skirt and sweater, “my evacuation costume,” wrote quite a thoughtful critique of the native dress, which apparently did not include ermine.
“The peasant women are very picturesque in their gay skirts, and fascinating embroidered sheepskin jackets, but the boys are ‘something’ in their costumes of funny round hats, long straight white blouses (shirt tails out) and tight long trousers and some had on heavy sheepskin coats although it was very warm today.”
Margaret’s quest for a good bath — she went six days without one — took her to Cernauti, Romania, which she described as close to heaven: “you can have a comfortable bed, a bath, and delicious food.” After eating mostly bread, butter, beer, and cheese for a week, she had to admit that the “caviar certainly did taste good.”
Margaret’s furs once again came in handy when the group left by train for the Embassy in Bucharest. While waiting on the train, more than 100 Polish bombers flew over the station. “Peg and I had a compartment and were able to stretch out and cover up with coats. I didn’t sleep very well, but was thankful to have a place to lay my head.”
After a busy schedule of diplomatic lunches, cocktail parties, and dinners during the following four days, the group headed for Paris. “I can’t believe that we are really on our way to Paris. All the Americans are together in one car and also the Nortons and the French Ambassador.” And, one can only hope, Margaret’s furs.