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.”