Alexander Weddell and Virginia Chase Steedman first met in Calcutta, India, in 1923 where Mr. Weddell was serving as U.S. consul-general. Alexander was a bachelor in his forties from Richmond, Virginia, and Virginia was a wealthy widow from St. Louis, when they were introduced by friends. Mr. Weddell accompanied Virginia Steedman and her companions back to the United States by cruise ship. Virginia's letters from the period increasingly mention first "Mr. Weddell," then "Alex." Four months later, on May 31, 1923, they were married at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. The couple combined their passions and resources to build Virginia House in Richmond.
Alexander Wilbourne Weddell was born in the rectory of St. John's Church on April 13, 1876, the son of the Reverend Alexander W. Weddell and Penelope Wright Weddell. Young Weddell was only seven years old when his father died leaving four young children and his widow to face life in genteel poverty. The youngster was tutored at home until he entered Richmond public schools at age eleven. As a teenager he spent his summers working sixty-hour weeks for the meager salary of $1.50 at a local grocery store to help support the family. Later through family friends young Weddell made his way into the banking and business world, but considering himself unfit for these jobs, he sought and obtained a post with the Library of Congress. He worked in the Copyright Office while attending law classes at George Washington University.
Then in 1907 he secured appointment as secretary to the newly appointed minister to Denmark, and in the diplomatic world he found his profession. His first assignment upon completing the Foreign Service exam in 1909 was Zanzibar. Stints in Catania, Sicily, Athens, Beirut, Cairo, and Calcutta followed as Weddell forged his diplomatic career.
By 1923, the forty-seven-year-old, tall, courtly Virginian was convinced that he would probably remain a bachelor for the rest of his life. In February of that year, however, a meeting for afternoon tea in a fashionable Calcutta hotel with some old Virginia friends and a vivacious widow from St. Louis quickly led to courtship. Weddell arranged to take his leave and met Mrs. Steedman's party in Rangoon, Burma. The romance continued on the trip back to the United States, and the couple married in St. Ambrose Chapel at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City four months after first meeting.
The couple returned to Calcutta late in 1923 where they remained until Weddell was transferred to Mexico City in 1924. Upon arrival in Mexico, the couple found a nation that was torn by revolution. Years of U.S. intervention into Latin American affairs and resentment caused by the vast profits American corporations syphoned from their extensive Mexican holdings were fueling a strong "anti-Yankee" sentiment. Americans demanded restitution for the deaths of several U.S. citizens during Pancho Villa's earlier border raids into Arizona and New Mexico. Weddell, who initially sympathized with Mexican interests, found coping with corruption and bureaucracy extremely vexing and discouraging.
In 1928, deeply concerned about his wife's health, yearning to return to Virginia, and disappointed in his assignment to Montreal by the Republican administration, Weddell, a southern Democrat, resigned from the diplomatic corps. Weddell's retirement came to an end, however, in 1933 when he finally achieved his dream of becoming an ambassador, being assigned by Franklin D. Roosevelt to the mission to Argentina. He and his wife spent "five interesting and happy years in that wonderful country," after which Roosevelt offered Weddell the very difficult post of ambassador to Francisco Franco's Spain in 1939. By 1942, advancing age, health problems, and the cumulative frustration of working with an unresponsive State Department and observing Nazi influence in the Madrid government convinced Ambassador Weddell to retire permanently from foreign service.
By 1943 the couple had returned to Richmond, where he was elected president of the Virginia Historical Society, and she resumed her gardening and continued her charity work. On January 1, 1948, the Weddells, accompanied by their English maid Violet Andrews, were traveling to Arizona for the winter. During a blinding snow storm their Pullman car was rammed by another train, and all three were killed instantly.
Virginia Atkinson Chase was born December 20, 1874, to Edwin E. Chase and Virginia Atkinson Chase. While she was growing up in Edina, Missouri, the youthful Virginia's seemingly secure affluent life was often undermined by her father's severe financial reverses. As an adult she rarely spoke of her childhood and has left almost no record of her remembrances. In keeping with upper-middle class practices, her parents sent Virginia to Miss Brown's School for Girls in New York City. After graduating in 1894, she departed for Europe where she toured many of the traditional tourist and cultural sites. In 1900 when she married James Harrison Steedman, the son of a prominent St. Louis family, Virginia was well prepared to assume her place in society.
Steedman was called into active military service during World War I. His health declined, and only two years after his return home he died. The James Harrison Steedman Traveling Fellowship at the Washington University School of Architecture was established by his widow and his brother George Fox Steedman as a memorial in 1924.
At age 45, Virginia Steedman was a childless widow with a comfortable fortune. Accompanied by her friends, Mr. and Mrs. William Cocke, she began an around-the-world journey in 1922 that would take her to Paris, Cairo, and Istanbul. When the party arrived in Calcutta, the Cockes arranged to have lunch with their old friend, Alexander W. Weddell, who was serving as the U.S. consul-general there. Smitten with each other, the couple conducted their courtship on a four-month-long journey to New York where they were married in the St. Ambrose Chapel of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, May 31, 1923.
As an ambassador's wife, Virginia Weddell entertained a vast variety of people at the United States embassies in Madrid and Buenos Aires. Sir Samuel Hoare, the British ambassador to Spain, wrote of Virginia Weddell "...she, [is] the soul of human kindness, generous to an extreme to Spanish good works, and friendly alike to Americans, Spaniards, and English." Virginia Weddell played an important role in the American diplomatic mission through the parties and other social events she hosted. Often these events allowed diplomats to exchange information informally and to glean insights that could not be obtained during formal meetings that were governed by the strictures of protocol.
The utter misery endured by the Spanish people in the wake of the bitter civil war spurred Virginia Weddell to organize a massive relief campaign. After establishing the Fondo de Socorro Español de Mrs. Weddell (Mrs. Weddell's Spanish Relief Fund), she raffled off her car to initiate giving among her friends and acquaintances in Buenos Aries. Subsequently she was awarded "una condecoracion de manos del conde" by the Spanish Red Cross.
Mrs. Weddell's early efforts in Spain included procuring wheel chairs, pajamas, cigarettes, puzzles, games, pain-relieving drugs, and artificial limbs for Spanish soldiers in military hospitals. She opened an office in the embassy to direct the Red Cross relief efforts and had bread baked in the kitchen for distribution among the poor.
Mrs. Weddell's charitable activities had begun long before she assumed the role of diplomatic wife. Throughout her long career, her domestic efforts would be as impressive as those projects she undertook overseas. The lovely setting she and her husband had created along the banks of the James River served as the stage for their diverse charitable and public service efforts. In addition to making garden club speeches, providing leadership in child welfare causes, and sponsoring the Navy League during World War II, Virginia Weddell undertook more controversial projects. Unfortunately, a very forward thinking attempt to build low-cost housing for African Americans in Richmond was stymied. Yet despite occasional opposition and sporadic criticism, Virginia Weddell always found a way to serve.
Tracy Bryan, site manager (Virginia House)
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