The Marvelous Millie B.

04/01/2015 01:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

This is the third of a short series highlighting the personal experiences of the U.S. diplomatic community in France in 1914. Read Part One, "A Rendez-Vous With History," and Part Two, "The Rugby-Loving U.S. Consul in St. Étienne."

The marvelous Mildred Barnes Bliss was a hyperactive philanthropist extraordinaire during the Great War.

Millie B., as some called her, was a diplomat's wife whose strong, heartfelt determination to aid others fueled her wartime endeavors. She organized relief agencies, toured battlefields, feuded with Edith Wharton, and more. Bliss improved the lives of many, efforts facilitated by an inheritance derived from the Castoria patent medicine created by Dr. Samuel Pitcher, a Natick, Massachusetts, native.

The heiress's Bay State connection was strengthened through her husband's devotion to Harvard University. A graduate of the class of 1900 (and her stepbrother!), Robert Woods Bliss retained a deep affection for Cambridge. The couple eventually gifted their Washington D.C. estate, Dumbarton Oaks, art collections, and personal papers to the university.

The Blisses were based in Paris when war broke out on July 28, 1914. Robert, a member of the Diplomatic Service (precursor to the Foreign Service), was Embassy First Secretary--akin to today's Deputy Chief of Mission. Mildred, on vacation in Switzerland, found herself instantly stranded, as did many other American tourists. Railways prioritized trains that ferried troops to the frontlines on the French side of the frontier. Military authorities requisitioned many private automobiles. Transatlantic and transcontinental communications were intermittent.

Despite the chaos, Mildred returned to Paris on August 14 after a 34-hour train ride and found Robert and the Embassy staff busy at work. The chancellery at number 5, rue de Chaillot illustrated U.S. Ambassador to France Myron T. Herrick's joke that he presided over a bank, a travel agency, and a benevolent society. As representatives of a neutral power, U.S. officials cared for, protected, and evacuated American citizens. They also acquired responsibility to care for German and Austro-Hungarian subjects. French banks refused to issue hard currency in the war's first weeks, thus the Embassy also provided money and temporary accommodations for their numerous charges.

While Embassy staff and volunteers toiled, 35-year old Millie B. deployed her considerable skills in different ways. She co-founded Enfants de la Frontière to care for displaced Belgian and French refugee children. Bliss worked with Elise Jusserand, wife of French Ambassador to the United States JJ Jusserand, to enhance transatlantic relief efforts. She also established the American Distributing Service (ADS), a vital entity that dispersed privately acquired medical supplies to military hospitals in France. Mildred and Edith Wharton were rivals in their respective charity endeavors, and their different management and personality styles clashed in public. Yet, despite the occasional setback, most of Millie B.'s initiatives were met with success.

The Blisses practiced what they preached. They donated to the American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly, a privately administered and financed hospital that treated war wounded of all nationalities, and the ambulance-driving American Field Service (AFS). Mildred's inheritance sustained private hospital beds as well as a military hospital at Nevers, France. In order to finance her causes, Bliss sold off most of her diamonds by October 1918.

Millie B. marveled many. She visited battlefields, including Verdun, to witness the destruction and convinced fellow Americans to provide further aid. She documented the war's horrors in her wartime photo album, a rare, stunning record from the U.S. diplomatic community.

Ever proactive, the heiress promoted women's wartime work. She encouraged friends in the U.S. military to harness female labor through programs like Britain's Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Bliss attended the 1918 Inter-Allied Women's Congress, and applauded French and British recognition of women's service to national defense.

As it did for so many U.S. volunteers and diplomats in Paris, the strain of war accumulated. Bliss alleviated the pressure through occasional trips: New York, southern France, and in autumn 1918, The Hague, where Robert was temporarily assigned as chargé d'affaires. Throughout, Millie B. golfed, rode horses, and enjoyed cycling. She also kept up a stream of correspondence. Letters served as a narcotic, according to Mildred's friend Elizabeth Perkins, to ease worn nerves and long hours of work.

Bliss acquired "bling" during the war from the French and Belgian governments. Among the decorations she received for her philanthropic efforts were the Gold Medal of Honor with Rosette in 1915 (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the Medal of Queen Elisabeth in 1918 (Government of Belgium), and the Legion of Honor in 1919 (Government of France).

The story of Mildred Barnes Bliss reminds us that women are not just "vulnerable populations" when disaster or violence strike. They are valuable agents and partners who are essential to finding solutions and addressing the challenges and crises we face today. Despite the many risks women often face, they do all they can to advocate for the full economic, political, and social participation of women and girls.

Millie B.'s marvels live on at Harvard University Archives. Her extensive, well-preserved correspondence with artists, intellectuals, family members, and friends reveals how one woman and her Bay State-originated fortune brought relief to so many.

To learn more about the experience of the U.S. diplomatic community in France, 1914-1918, we invite you to read "Views From the Embassy" and visit U.S. Embassy France's World War I Centenary page.