As you walk through the many period rooms installed in the European wing on the second floor of the Museum’s main building, you’ll come upon a 1923 drawing room from a town house that once stood at 901 Fifth Avenue in New York City. The paneled room and its French furnishings—brilliantly colored Sèvres porcelain, Louis XVI furniture, tapestries depicting the story of Psyche—were bequeathed to the Museum in 1938 by Eleanore Elkins Widener Rice. She was not only one of the Museum’s esteemed donors, but also a survivor of the shipwreck that took the lives of both her first husband, George D. Widener, Sr., and one of her sons, Harry, on April 14 one hundred years ago—the wreck of the RMS Titanic.
The daughter of William L. Elkins, the streetcar magnate for whom Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, was named, Eleanore was born in 1861 and grew up to become one of the city’s most celebrated and beautiful women. Her collection of pearls was renowned, and her 1883 marriage to George D. Widener lit up the society pages.
The Wideners were also prominent Philadelphians, and George’s father, Peter A. B. Widener, was a close friend of Eleanore’s father. The couple had a daughter, Eleanor, and two sons, George, Jr., and Harry.
Eleanore and George boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, France. Harry, a collector of rare books who had picked up a few volumes at auction in Europe, was with them. Also with them were Amalie Geiger (Eleanore’s maid) and Edwin Keeping (George’s valet). They settled into an opulent, first-class suite of rooms on the port side of the C deck, cabins C-80/82. If you’ve seen the James Cameron movie Titanic, you can imagine their accommodations alongside those of Rose rather than Jack.
The Wideners’ traveling companions included a who’s who of early twentieth-century American privilege: John Jacob Astor IV and his wife, Madeleine; Benjamin Guggenheim; Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida; and fellow Philadelphians John B. Thayer (second vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad), his wife, Marian, and son Jack.
On the evening of April 14, the Wideners hosted a dinner party in the ship’s À La Carterestaurant in honor of Titanic’s captain, Edward J. Smith. After dinner, the men smoked and conversed while Eleanore retired to her room. At 11:40 p.m. the ship struck the iceberg.
George and Harry pressed Eleanore to board Lifeboat 4 with a group of other women from the first-class cabins. George gave her his emerald ring. Some say she survived by manning the oars in her lifeboat until the passengers were rescued by the RMS Carpathia and taken to New York. Eleanore then traveled by private train back to Philadelphia. The New York Times initially reported that Harry had survived, but Eleanore soon learned that both her husband and her son had gone down with the ship.
In time, she would honor their memory magnificently. She dedicated two Tiffany stained glass windows to them at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Elkins Park, where a memorial service was held. She also made donations to Harry’s alma maters, The Hill School and Harvard University—giving $3.5 million to Harvard to build a library, a meaningful tribute to a young man who so loved books.
At the dedication of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library on Commencement Day 1915, Eleanore found herself in the company of Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice, a famous “gentleman explorer” nearly fourteen years her junior. Within a few months they married.
In later life, Eleanore accompanied Dr. Rice on some of his explorations in South America; the two also traveled extensively in Europe and India. Eleanore Elkins Widener Rice died in Paris in 1937. She is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, just a few miles west of the Museum in Fairmount Park.
Her legacy, and that of her family, resonates with the Museum in important and lasting ways. She, her father, brother, daughter, son, and grandson all gave generously and enriched the collections enormously. In addition to the drawing room from her New York town house that was part of her bequest, Eleanore gave to the Museum the salon from the Hôtel Le Tellier (gallery 268). Her children also gave an important collection of eighteenth-century English silver that belonged to their mother; much of it bears Eleanore’s initials.
Eleanore’s son George D. Widener, Jr., became a Museum trustee, and served as chairman from 1947 to 1964. He later made a generous bequest that allowed the Museum to acquire Edgar Degas’s late masterpiece After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself). Eleanore’s grandson, the late Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr., also served on the Museum’s Board of Trustees, and it was he who endowed the Museum’s directorship in the name of his uncle. He wore the emerald ring throughout his life and today it is worn by his daughter, the great-grandaughter of George D. Widener, Sr.
Fitz’s wife, Edith, is a Museum trustee today. In 2009, she donated a painting of the drawing room from Eleanore Elkins Widener Rice’s Fifth Avenue town house, the very drawing room that now resides in gallery 265.
Want Even More Titanic Tie-Ins?
- In the exhibition Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, there’s a photo of a little boy sliding down the deck of an inflatable ship in the Delaware River. Its title? Titanic, Philadelphia.
- This fall, the exhibition Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and “The Life Line” will focus on the themes of peril at sea and the power of nature.
- One of the artists to be featured in the spring 2013 exhibition “Great and Mighty Things”: Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection is named George Widener. Upon learning by coincidence that he shared a name with one of the victims of the Titanic disaster, Widener began incorporating motifs of the ship in a number of his intricate works of art.