Note: Mrs. Virginia Hamill Biddle recalled her years (1947-49) at the American Legation in her lengthy (she must have gone through a bunch of cassettes) 1994 Library of Congress “Frontline Diplomacy” oral history, in cooperation with ADST, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. Tangier made an impression: it was her first full Foreign Service posting. And Mrs. B. made an impression too, mixing with the crème of Tangier’s still-flourishing international set. To read her entire account, go to the LoC’s website and type in Memoir Mrs. Biddle in the search box (see illustration above).
We’ve chosen these bits – chatty, opinionated – for their flavor of life in Tangier and at the Legation. Be ready for a few un-PC expressions and attitudes (“Moorish,” “my fatmah”) which are a reflection of her time. This being oral history, some of the proper names may be approximations. Virginia Hamill Biddle died in 2007 at the age of 103, then the oldest retired Foreign Service member.
Stay tuned for revelations: “the Legation plane;” the “perfect spy.” Enjoy.
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Keep the classified safe from the donkeys!
The Legation was the oldest in the history of our Foreign Service and probably the most unique having been a gift from the Sultan in 1821. It was in the old quarter of Tangier and divided by a tiny thoroughfare, which we had to cross to get from one office to another. We all quickly learned to flatten our backs against the walls, sometimes with highly classified documents in our arms, to allow the caravans of donkeys with their burden of faggots to pass, because here the animals have the right of way.
I was kindly offered the office previously occupied by Mr. Alling [note: Paul Humiston Alling, Diplomatic Agent/Consul General Tangier, July 16, 1945-July 14, 1947], which I thought was a most kind gesture. Looking down upon me from the walls were photographs of all the former representatives of our government to Tangier. It was a big room with an old Moorish tile floor and I looked out upon an ancient courtyard planted with flowering vines where a fountain played and little gold fish swam.
There was a staff of about 35. The hours were from 9-1 and 4-7. Everyone usually had their traditional siesta or went to the beach. The legation car transported us back and forth from our homes to the office, but sometimes I enjoyed walking through the old streets.
Tangier Tummy and Arabian Nights
[I was in bed for two weeks]. It seems I had succumbed to the common complaint so many new arrivals to North Africa get from germs in certain fruits and vegetables and fish and from so much oil used in the cooking here. Apparently few escape Tangier Tummy. The ailment is the same depending on which country you wish to blame it on. It goes by various names in different parts of the world. It is Pharaoh’s revenge in Egypt; and in Mexico, Montezuma’s revenge; Balkan Blight in southeastern Europe; and Turkey trots in Turkey.
Once back in the office I gradually became absorbed in the work. The code clerk, Ruth Charles, was so security conscious and quite rightly, when she returned from lunch one day and saw a bundle thrown in the wastebasket she immediately picked it up with fright in her eyes and exclaimed, “Is this Top Secret?” I couldn’t help suppress a smile as I assured her it wasn’t and explained that it was a sandwich I had ordered at noon which had been made from a long hard loaf of French bread cut into lengths with a thick slab of goat’s cheese inside. I couldn’t get it in my mouth so I threw it in the wastebasket, failing to classify it.
Occasionally there were English-speaking movies but not too good. One I saw was “Arabian Nights.” As we were coming out of the theater, I noticed a great many Arabs leaving and wondered what they thought of the Hollywood version of themselves.
One Christmas Day the Plitts [note: Edwin August Plitt, Diplomatic Agent/Consul General Tangier, September 11, 1947-April 25, 1951] invited the staff – 35 in all – for a luncheon. It was then that I learned about the “protocol of the sofa,” that it was not just a piece of furniture for comfort but a symbol of rank! In veiled hints it was conveyed that only the wife of the Minister had the privilege of sitting on it! It had been a day when thoughts are certainly directed to our loved ones in America so being with the Plitts and the Legation family was like a home from home.
I left [Marrakech] early Tuesday morning and arrived home about 2:30pm. That evening I dined at Francis Fileo’s. The other guests were two interesting women and a representative of Coca Cola. As someone said, “American culture has come to Tangier when Coca Cola arrived, a world wide symbol of American capitalism.”
Quick, to the showers, there’s water!
The never ending water shortage reached tragic proportions [note: she mentions a murder in the Casbah]. But sometimes things get so tragic they get comical. A funny thing happened when several people were sitting around chatting at one of the consul’s homes. The door of the kitchen had been left open when suddenly they all heard a slight trickle. There was dead silence for a moment, and then everyone dashed out of the door and ran home to take showers. Converse Hettinger, one of our new vice consuls who always looked very impressive carrying a briefcase bulging with reports, came in one morning and said, “Well, I had to brush my teeth with scotch this morning.” Water was becoming more scarce than scotch. Once there was such a waste – my fatmah went away forgetting to turn off the taps and the salon was flooded. My beautiful long draperies showed the water marks ever after.
On the 4th of July there was a reception at the Legation, which is usually given to celebrate our Independence Day. To attend is almost a sacred duty of every American. At various parties I kept meeting Dr. Dunlap, who took such good care of me when I was so ill, and his wife, everyone called Teddy. She was blond and bubbly and a vice consul at the British legation. But, what I didn’t know until some years later was that she had been a highly efficient member of their Secret Service because she never appeared to take anything seriously. The perfect spy.
Our electricity had been cut to such an extent that for three consecutive days and nights we had none at all in the apartment. Everyone had to make huge investments in candles. Working under feeble lights until 7:00pm at the office and trying to do urgent work by candlelight began to be irksome to us all.
The daily rounds of duty that by now had become routine continued at the office. Then one day news circulated that the Legation plane was going to Rome on June 10th. These occasional trips were one of the fringe benefits of being posted in Tangier and I was not one to ignore the opportunity whenever it presented itself. Who was it said, “Three things come not back to man or woman – a sped arrow, a spoken word and a lost opportunity?”
Mr. Seate, our administrative officer, telephoned me to ask if I could take off at 7:00 the next morning for Port Lyautey, the naval base about two hours from here where we have medical examinations. But as my Spanish visa had expired I was unable to go. However, I went with a group later. The staff is obliged to go there regularly, a rather strict examination. The commissary and PX are also there so we can make some purchases before returning.
“Non-pro” courier: can a woman do it?
At last I was given permission to take the diplomatic pouch to Gibraltar. One of the officers had been going over with it every other week and some time ago I asked if I could take it because I was anxious to see the Merrills. But the powers to be were not certain if a female could act as a courier. I was quite excited about the little mission.
A hundred invitations were sent out for a cocktail party I was having, which was sort of a “hail Mildred [note: Biddle’s visiting sister] farewell Virginia” affair. A few days before the party I heard Mildred going into peals of laughter. When I went to see why, she was leaning over the window watching a little donkey deliver all the liquor that it had carried on its back. A usual sight in Tangier, but not in Washington, DC.
There appeared this account in the Tangier Gazette, dated October 14, 1949. “The American Minister, Mr. Edwin A. Plitt and Mr. Bolard Moore, American Consul and his wife, were amongst the 100 guests that thronged the lovely apartment of Mrs. Virginia Hamill Biddle on Sunday evening last. Mrs. Biddle is shortly leaving to return to Washington, DC. Her masses of friends and American consulate colleagues will miss Virginia who has resided here for 2 and a half years and, so she says, has been very happy. Good luck to you Mrs. Biddle, and thank you for the lovely party.”
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And Thank You, Mrs. Biddle, for the rare glimpses of life at the Legation!