When Queen Elizabeth II attended a white-tie dinner at the White House in 2007, she ate her Maryland crab and chorizo pozole from flatware given to the White House by Margaret Thompson Biddle upon her death in 1956. Same with Prince Phillip, who was also there.
The gold-plated plates and utensils came from a priceless 1575-piece collection that also included vases, wine coolers, baskets, trays, vases, tureens, and candleabra. Many of the pieces are kept on permanent display in the so-called Vermeil Room of the White House, where the first lady entertains official guests.
Margaret Thompson Biddle, the daughter of the wealthy William Boyce Thompson, and the one-time wife of Tony Drexel Biddle, Jr., collected many of the pieces while she lived in Paris after WWII. She was considered the “grande dame” of American society in Paris after the war. The Eisenhowers were frequent guests at the Parison salon Thompson set up just off fashionable Boulevard St. Germain.
Margaret’s priceless collection ranges from Renaissance to 19th century French and English pieces. It includes work by Paul Storr (1771-1844), an English Regency silversmith, and French Empire silversmiths Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843) and Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot (1763-1850), whoever they are. There are also some American pieces in the collection: Gorham dinner plates and Tiffany goblets.
The collection arrived in the White House during the Eisenhower Administration. Close friend Mamie Eisenhower converted a billiard room, probably without consulting her husband, into the Vermeil Room in 1958 to display the pieces. The gift came in handy because Congress didn’t provide the Eisenhowers with usual $50,000 stipend for White House furnishings and redecorations that year, since it had just been renovated.
The collection is displayed in the room’s glass-enclosed vitrines. Portraits of six first ladies also hang in the yellow room, which has 19-century silk draperies and a Turkish rug. It was last refurbished during the George W. Bush years.
For the furniture junkies out there, the room includes a sofa attributed to the workshop of Duncan Phyfe, tables crafted by the New York cabinetmaker Charles-Honore Lannuier, an English cut-glass chandelier from about 1785, and a circular mahogany table in the Empire revival style.
Margaret’s vermeil collection made for memorable dinner parties when she entertained at her 18th-century Paris mansion. Guests could also admire her art collection, which included Renoirs, Utrillos, Constables and Gauguins. A year after she died, one painting owned by Margaret, Gauguin’s “Still Life with Apples,” sold at auction for nearly $300,000.
When her father died in 1930, Margaret shared in an estate worth an estimated $85 million. A year later, she divorced her New York banker husband Theodore Schulze and married Biddle, a dashing Philadelphia socialite who became U.S. envoy to Norway and Poland. The couple divorced after the war, but Thompson remained fond of the diplomatic high life.
According to a Time Magazine article, some of her guests in Paris included Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, General Alfred Gruenther, Papal Legate Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (Pope John XXIII), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands, Cardinal Spellman, Bernard Baruch, “and practically every noted French politician, artist, or writer.”
Margaret was a writer herself. She wrote a book of portraits of English women and served as a Paris correspondent for Realties and Woman’s Home Companion. According to Time, she would often write for U.S. women’s magazines about her “handsome, intelligent, or charming” guests. When she didn’t like a guest, such as Pierre Mendes-France, she would use adjectives such as “controversial.”
Maggie took her duties as a reporter so seriously that, according to Time Magazine, she would show up at Communist rallies in her chauffeur-driven Bentley.
She died on June 8th 1956, after attending a gala opera performance in honor of visiting King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece. Maggie went to her bedroom at 3 a.m. and had her maid unzip her dress.
“Suddenly she felt a pain, and then a paralysis, in her neck and right arm,” reads the Time report. “A doctor was hurriedly summoned, but Maggie Biddle was dead. His diagnosis: cerebral hemorrhage.”
Two U.S. generals, a French marshal, and three ex-premiers of France attended Margaret’s funeral. She was laid to rest in Fontainebleau. There were some suggestions of potential foul play in her death. But after a ten-week investigation, French police declared her death “completely natural.”
I have two high-backed French armchairs, originally covered in threadbare tapestry, that Aunt Meany and Uncle Bill gave my parents in the early 60s, I believe when the Thompsons were moving from NY to LA and downsizing somewhat. These supposedly had belonged to Uncle Bill’s Aunt Margaret. When my parents went to the great beyond in the 1980s, I rescued the tapestry as best I could and had it made into large cushions, and the chairs are still very grand in their damask upholstery, altho’ that is now coming up on 25 yrs and needs refreshing. Salute, Margaret!
Christiane Faucher says
Hi Mr Boyce Thompson Jr!
I enjoyed so much your site!
I’m preparing a documentary about the Zellidja’s mines in Morocco, where I was born in 1953 as my father worked there for the Jean Walter’s society.
I was impressed, while studying Zellidja, Newmont, plan Marshall and others stories, to discover Mrs Biddle leading role, helping with Fred Searls Zellidja to become the 2nd worl lead producer!
Very few informations about her, in the “Magnate” (I ordered last month to the Boyce Thomson Institute) and some others books (Ramsey, Morris), and I downloaded “Women of England” too
I found her name on several archives of Berkeley Oral History Office, I know she was married twice, and how important were her father and her husbands. But I would like to know more about her.
She was a very close Jean and Domenica Walter’s friend in Paris, and I think she met Domenica at Cap d’Antibes, where William Boyce Thomson cruised with his yacht the Elder!
Two days ago I was in Antibes, visiting the Villa Thuret’s botanical garden, because I read in the “Magnate” that Boyce invited at Picket Post the French professor of horticulture in 1929 “to advise him regarding the Arboretum”. Mrs Blanc, historian, and Mrs Ducatillon, botanist, gave me details about Mr Georges Poirault and his daughter‘s visit in Arizona (young mr Poirault studied two years in 1888 with Andreï Sergueïevitch Famintsyne in Russia)
Would you please to contact me, I would be very happy to know more about your family story, and I beg your pardon for my approximative English
Liz Ostermann says
Dear Mr Boyce Thompson Jr., I work at Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead, which was owned by Mrs Anthony Drexel Biddle (I believe Margaret Thompson Biddle?). She commissioned the Monkey Mural here for her cinema which is the highlight of the tour of the house! It was painted by John Spencer-Churchill, Sir Winston’s nephew. You can see the house and photos in our website: http://www.sainthillmanor.org.uk. Please can you shed some light on her connection with the Manor? The deeds show that she owned the Manor not her husband. What relation are you to Margaret Thompson Biddle? Are you based in the UK and able to visit or are you in the US? I would love to hear from you! Best wishes, Liz Ostermann
The name of her husband is Theodore Schulze and the only living direct/real heirs of William Boyce Thompson and Margaret Biddle Thompson are Schulze’s grand and great grandchildren, so please spell it correctly if you are going to write so much about your famous very distant relatives.