A Family Legacy Fortune Gone, Mother Drexel's Relatives Follow 'Obligation To Serve'

Posted: September 26, 2000

MOST DREXELS these days aren't named Drexel.

The hundreds who claim Blessed Katharine Drexel as an ancestor are more likely to be surnamed Biddle or Duke or Paul, Ingersoll, Baker or Cadwalader. Even Bouviers and Lankenaus are in the mix.

By whatever name, Drexels carry a twin legacy, burdensome at times: A public image of wealth and privilege, balanced by the family imperative to service and charity.

"It's a pretty neat heritage. The money has mostly disappeared. Most of us have the name and the heritage but not any huge inheritance," said Anthony J. Drexel Biddle III, an investment banker in Society Hill.

"We've always felt it was a huge responsibility. I try to involve these guys" - his three young children are Tony IV, Cordelia and Nicholas - "in the leadership and obligation to serve that comes with the name. Now all it does is open the door, you've got to go forward on your own."

Author Cordelia Frances Biddle, another great-great niece, worries that her comfortable life in Society Hill makes her appear selfish.

"I don't think wealth does any good unless you know what to do with it," she said. "Suddenly we have Katharine held up to us as an example of what we can do and it's very frightening."

That's despite her serving on the board of Episcopal Social Services, mentoring at an inner-city school, teaching writing to poor kids at the Police Athletic League and supporting other charities.

The riches of 19th century Drexels and Biddles have reverted to the institutions they founded and the charities they supported. The last Drexel family member left the Drexel bank in 1908; the firm itself, as Drexel Burnham Lambert, crashed in junk bond disgrace in 1990.

The family had its share of playboys and early 20th century ne'er do wells.

"I don't think money has served my branch of the family very well," Cornelia Biddle said. Some relatives didn't accomplish much, and "my grandfather never held a job."

Yet the current generation, which has inherited nothing, has been for the most part a non-feuding, ambitious and public spirited clan. They're so scattered, across the United States and Europe, it takes a saint to bring them together.

About 220 Drexel relatives plan to be in Rome on Sunday for Blessed Katharine's canonization. They're making it an informal family reunion that will rival the last formal one, organized by Drexel University nine years ago.

The idea that a mostly Episcopalian clan will include a Roman Catholic saint is a source of enormous pride.

"My vision of her - and this was before any miracles were proven - was as an absolutely visionary educator. She understood the critical importance of education," said Tony Biddle.

He finds it easy to connect her work to his namesake, great-grandfather Anthony J. Drexel, who founded Drexel Institute, now University, in 1891 as a co-educational school for the working classes.

Earlier that year, Katharine, who adored her uncle Anthony and looked to him for business advice, had founded her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She spent $20 million, her trust fund inheritance, to build schools and missions for poor blacks and Indians over the next six decades.

That lifelong work, said John R. "Nick" Drexel IV, is "the reason the pope is in love with her." John Drexel, a New York City venture capitalist, describes his saintly kin with worldly respect.

"She was a woman who was, first of all, white, from a wealthy family, personally independently wealthy, and she gave all that up for people of color," he said.

"She clearly fits what this pope has been trying so hard to do, which is to generate a sense of responsibility by the haves, by the whites. She's quite inspirational. She was consistent."

As Cordelia Biddle wrestles with the burdens of Drexel wealth - none of which she has inherited - she ponders faith as well.

Her middle child, Richard Dietrich III, 30, is an inspiration to her faith. As a boy, she said, he was epileptic and clubfooted, and given little hope for a normal life by doctors.

"I became very interested in spiritual healing," she said. "I'm an Episcopalian, I'm not praying to a saint but directly to God.

"Faith is something I turn to but it frightens me at the same time."

Cordelia Biddle said her grandfather, raised in the home of his university-founding uncle, "couldn't abide" Katharine Drexel and "I often wonder why that was." Perhaps it was because "what she did so challenged all that he had done," Biddle said.

Tony Biddle's major cause is Boys Harbor on Long Island, which he said every male family member has attended and where he's now on the board. The major force at Boys Harbor, which counts 45,000 alumni, mostly from the inner cities, is his first cousin, Tony Duke.

Nick Drexel sits on five nonprofit boards, including Drexel University. He serves as one of eight priors of the Episcopal-based Knights of Malta, which runs a hospital in Jerusalem and first aid-ambulance training programs worldwide.

He grew up Episcopalian in Paris, Newport, Palm Beach - never Philadelphia - with little awareness of his Catholic cousin and her good works. Then his older sister, doing field research on Southwest Indians, discovered Katharine depicted in stained glass at a New Mexico church.

Tony Biddle said it's coincidence that he "gravitated back to the old family business" and became a banker. He was involved in development banking to Third World countries, then investment banking in the United States, along with a stint in the oil business.

Biddle's father, Anthony II, had a distinguished career in diplomacy and government - ambassador to Poland and architect of a plan to cluster nine European governments in London exile after they were overrun by the Nazis during World War II.

Another kinsman, Chief of Protocol Angier Biddle Duke, swore in Anthony II to his final ambassadorship in a White House ceremony in the early 1960s.

"President [John F.] Kennedy walked in, looked around - there wasn't anybody who wasn't a family member - and said something like, could I be invited?" Biddle III said.

JFK actually qualified. First lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy traced her own lineage to Emma Bouvier Drexel, Katharine's stepmother.

Tony Biddle's grandfather, Anthony I, was an eccentric who inspired the 1967 Disney film, "The Happiest Millionaire. Young Tony III won a Hollywood photo-op with star Fred MacMurray, who played the title role.

(Anthony I earned movie treatment by having pet alligators that occasionally got loose from the conservatory and by teaching boxing at his Bible school. He also trained a brigade of homeless reformed drunks in the martial arts.)

Mother Katharine's extended family is thin on what Tony Biddle calls "pure Drexels" and missing any direct descendants because her sisters were childless and her two Drexel uncles produced mostly daughters.

A family so vast has all kinds of branches. There's author Cordelia Biddle's novelist-father Livingston Biddle, who founded the National Endowment for the Arts.

One prong includes the Duke University Dukes, the hospital Lankenaus, minor Euro-royalty, ex-anchorwoman Abby Van Pelt, and a co-founder of the radical Students for a Democratic Society.

A cousin, Robin Duke, has just been named ambassador to Norway in a family that teems with powerful and successful women.

Such an enormous reach also means notoriety. Earlier this year, Mark Biddle, whom Tony Biddle describes as "a closer friend than family member," killed his wife, Melissa Clothier, and then himself.

Years ago, distant relative Sydney Biddle Barrows was arrested for running a high-class prostitution ring in New York City's Manhattan borough.

The media dubbed her the Mayflower Madam, which she parlayed into three books and a movie.

Tony Biddle described her as "a good friend" and added, "We have Sydney and we're going to have Mother Katharine as a saint. We're a full-service family." Send e-mail to goldwyr@phillynews.com

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