Eleanor Elkins Widener

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Eleanor Elkins Widener
File:Eleanor Elkins Widener.jpg
Born Eleanore Elkins[upper-alpha 1]
September 21, 1861[1] or May 21, 1862[2]
Died July 13, 1937(1937-07-13) (aged 75)
Cause of death Heart attack
Resting place Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia[2]
Residence Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
Known for Gift of Widener Library

Eleanor Elkins Widener, née Eleanore Elkins[upper-alpha 1] (later known as Eleanor Elkins Widener Rice or Mrs. Alexander Hamilton Rice; c.1862 – July 13, 1937) was an American heiress, socialite, philanthro­pist, and adventuress best remembered for her donation to Harvard University of the Widener Library​​a memorial to her elder son Harry Elkins Widener, who (along with her first husband, George Dunton Widener) perished in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Widener later married Harvard professor Alexander Hamilton Rice, Jr., a surgeon and explorer. She subse­quently accompa­nied Rice on a number of expeditions, including one on which she "went further up the Amazon than any white woman had pene­trated" and, purportedly, he was attacked by cannibals.

First marriage

Widener was the daughter of Philadelphia streetcar magnate William Lukens Elkins. In 1883 she married George Dunton Widener, son of her father's business partner, thereby "[uniting] two of the largest fortunes in the city. She was known as one of the city's most beautiful women."[4]

In later marriage[clarification needed] they lived in her father-in-law's 110-room Pennsyl­vania mansion, Lynnewood Hall. Their children were Harry Elkins Widener, George Dunton Widener, Jr., and Eleanor (Widener) Dixon.[5]

Titanic survival and Widener Library

Widener, son George (l), and Wide­ner Library archi­tect Horace Trum­bau­er in Harvard Yard

In 1912 Widener and her husband traveled to Paris, with their elder son Harry, in search of a chef for their new hotel, Philadelphia's Ritz Carlton. On April 12 they embarked at Cherbourg on the RMS Titanic for their return to America. George, Harry, and their valet all perished in the Titanic's sinking;[2] but Widener, with her maid, "survived the Titanic by manning the oars in a lifeboat."[4][upper-alpha 2]

Soon after, Widener donated, at a cost of some $3.5 million, the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library to Harvard University.[8]:14 (Harry Widener, who was "intensely interested in the collection of rare and valuable books", had graduated from Harvard College in 1907.)[9] She also[when?] rebuilt St. Paul's Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia's Ogontz neighborhood as a memorial to George Widener, and gave a $300,000 science building to Pottstown, Pennsyl­vania's Hill School, from which Harry Widener had graduated in 1903.[4]

Second marriage and South American adventures

Miramar, the home Widener planned with her first husband and completed with her second[citation needed]
File:Rice Yacht Alberta full.jpg
The yacht specially con­struc­ted for the Rices' Amazon explorations[10]

At the library's June 1915 dedication, Widener met[11] Harvard professor Alexander Hamilton Rice, Jr., a surgeon and noted South American explorer,[12] a "certified Boston Brahmin"[12] who "knew headwaters the way other society folk knew headwaiters."[13]:29 In October she married Rice while wearing her "celebrated [$750,000] string of pearls which she saved from the Titanic disaster".[upper-alpha 3] (Another string, worth $250,000, had been lost.[14] One headline read: "Explorer Weds Titanic Widow".)[8]:20 She gave up her Philadelphia home, dividing her time among Newport, New York, and Paris when not accompa­ny­ing Rice in his explorations.[citation needed]

On one such foray Widener became "the first white woman to enter the Rio Negro country [where she] caused a great sensation among the natives. She was kindly treated and was looked upon with reverence. Natives showered her with gifts, and she made many friends with the women of the tribes by her gifts of beads, knives and other trinkets."[15][upper-alpha 4]

A 1920 trip on which Widener "went further up the Amazon than any white woman had penetrated" went less smoothly. "The party warded off an attack by savages and killed two cannibals"[4]​​​"scantily clad ... very ferocious and of large stature"[16]​​though "as luck would have it, [Widener had] remained on the specially constructed yacht" during this phase of the explorations.[15] That particular trip "was abandoned on the advice of Indian guides, but the Rices ventured several more times into the jungles."[4] (A subsequent headline read: "Explorer Rice Denies That He Was Eaten By Cannibals".)[12]

In 1937 Widener died in a Paris store.[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 [3] "[The December 31, 1912 agreement between Widener and Harvard University, regarding her donation of Widener Library], and the family genealogy spell Mrs. Widener's [given] name with terminal 'e'; however, she appears to have dropped the 'e' for her personal use and consistently signs herself to [Harvard] President Lowell without the 'e'." (Bentinck-Smith)[17]:77n
  2. Though not naming Widener as among those manning the oars, Emily Borie Ryerson's affidavit to the US Senate committee investigating the disaster does relate that Titanic's No. 4 Boat[6] was at least partly "great lady"-​powered:
    Mrs. Thayer, Mrs. Widener, Mrs. Astor, and Miss Eustis were the only others I knew in our boat ...
    Some one called out, 'Pull for your lives, or you'll be sucked under,' and everyone that could rowed like mad. I could see my younger daughter and Mrs. Thayer and Mrs. Astor rowing, but there seemed to be no suction. Then we turned to pick up some of those in the water ...[7]:1107-8
  3. The New York Times further reported:
    In order to avoid the publicity involved in the wedding in Trinity Church announced for tomorrow, [Rice and Widener] were married shortly after noon today in the vestry of Emmanuel Church ... The couple found no difficulty in getting around the Massa­chu­setts law requiring five days' delay after securing the license.
    [Best man] John C. Rice appeared at the registry of births, marriages, and deaths in the City Hall Annex this morning armed with a power of attorney from Dr. Rice. He requested a blank for a petition to the court, asking a waiver of the five-day law. This he filled out, and at the courthouse he presented it to Judge Grant. The Judge with­out delay issued the waiver. The five-day restraint on the bridegroom-to-be and his betrothed bride was thus dissolved and rendered of no more force than if such a law did not exist ...
    Their marriage comes after emphatic denials both from the bride and Dr. Rice that an engagement existed between them, which was first reported last August, while Dr. Rice was a guest at Miramar, the Widener villa at Newport.[14]
  4. The Evening Telegram continued: "Before leaving for the tropics Dr. and Mrs. Rice ordered a magnificent fountain on the Newport grounds containing eight [nozzles] which will be large enough to send streams of water seventy-five feet in the air."[15]


  1. "Eleanor Widener". Encyclopedia Titanica. Retrieved April 22, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[better source needed]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Titanic First Class Passenger – WIDENER, Mrs. Eleanor", titanic-titanic.com, retrieved April 18, 2014<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[better source needed]
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Mrs. Eleanore Elkins Widener (31840)", Lineage Book – National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 32, p. 310, 1911<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "Mrs. A. H. Rice Dies in a Paris Store – New York and Newport Society Woman, Wife of Explorer, Noted for Philanthropy – A Survivor of Titanic – Lost First Husband and Son in Disaster – Gave Library to Harvard University", New York Times, July 14, 1937<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "The Wideners: An American Family". Encyclopedia Titanica. Retrieved April 22, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[better source needed]
  6. Ireland, Corydon (April 5, 2012). "Widener Library rises from Titanic tragedy". Harvard Gazette.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Commerce. (1912), "'Titanic' disaster : hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce United States Senate Sixty-second Congress Second Session pursuant to S. Res. 283, directing the Committee on Commerce to investigate the causes leading to the wreck of the White star liner 'Titanic'", 62nd Congress, no. 806, Government Printing Office<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 William Bentinck-Smith (1980). "... a Memorial to My Dear Son": Some Reflec­tions on 65 Years of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. Harvard College Library.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Harvard College (1780- ). Class of 1907 (1913), "Harry Elkins Widener", Third report / Harvard College Class of 1907., New York: Press of Styles and Cash, p. 334–5<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "The 'Alberta' leaving New York for the Amazon River", Pan American Notes, Bulletin of the Pan American Union, 43 (6), p. 778, Dec 1916<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Harvard College Library (2009). "The Memorial Library. The Rotunda". History of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Collection. The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Retrieved 2014-05-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Plotkin, Mark J. (March–April 2013), "Alexander Hamilton Rice: Brief life of an Amazon explorer: 1875–1956", Harvard Magazine, Harvard University<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Tenner, Edward (May–June 1988), "Harvard, Bring Back Geography!", Harvard Magazine<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Explorer Rice Weds Mrs. G. D. Widener – Law Requiring Five Days' Delay After Securing License Waived by a Court Order – Plans for Secrecy Fail – Bishop Lawrence Officiates at Ceremony in Emmanuel Church Vestry Witnessed by Twelve Persons", New York Times, October 7, 1915<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 "Routs 25 Amazon Cannibals – Alexander H. Rice, Noted Explorer, Battles with Man Eaters in Wilds of World's Greatest River – Wife Remains on Yacht and Escapes Encounter" (PDF), New York Evening Telegram, p. 10, May 2, 1920<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Explorers Kill Cannibals – Former Mrs. Widener Shares Perils in South America", New York Tribune, p. 7, May 1, 1920<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Bentinck-Smith, William (1976). Building a great library: the Coolidge years at Harvard. Harvard University Library. ISBN 978-0-674-08578-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>