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Robert Woods Bliss


Centurion, 1920–1962

Born 5 August 1875 in Saint Louis, Missouri

Died 19 April 1962 in Washington, District of Columbia

Buried Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, Washington, District of Columbia

Proposed by George W. Wickersham and Grosvenor Atterbury

Elected 6 November 1920 at age forty-five

Century Memorial

Effective and intelligent men can cut red tape no matter how much of that encumbrance binds the position they hold. A Centurion remembers that Robert Bliss once got him out of a tight spot by doing just that. It was when Bliss was with the American Embassy in Paris. This young man, who had been in the French army during the early years of the First World War, was in the process of transferring to the A.E.F., and told Bliss his troubles.

“When I changed armies I wanted to go to England to see my mother while waiting for orders in the American Army. The question was ‘how.’ I was no longer a French soldier, I was not a civilian and had no passport. Robert Bliss cut through this little technicality like a snow-plow in mid-winter. He sent me down to get a passport from one of the junior secretaries. The man called up and began asking Bliss questions. I could hear Bliss’s voice over the phone: ‘I didn’t tell you to interrogate this man, I told you to give him a passport. Now give it to him.’”

It was this talent for direct dealing that enabled Bliss to perform the arduous task of counselor to the Embassy after the retirement of the immensely popular ambassador, Robert Herrick [sic:: Myron T. Herrick]. It served him well in all his diplomatic posts.

It was not only as a diplomat, however, that Robert Bliss won both public and private recognition. He was a collector of indigenous American art and a connoisseur of Byzantine art. His collecting had been done over long periods of traveling in South America, Mexico and other parts of Central America, Turkey, and Greece. In 1947, he let the National Gallery of Art in Washington make public his American collection. Meanwhile, in 1940, he and Mrs. Bliss donated their estate, Dumbarton Oaks, in the District of Columbia to Harvard University. This became the scene of the international conference that was involved in the beginnings of the United Nations. Robert Bliss also gave Harvard a research library and art collection from the medieval and Byzantine period.

Robert Woods Bliss was born in St. Louis in 1875. He graduated from Harvard in 1900. His first post was in Puerto Rico, where he was secretary to the governor. He was then consul in Venice and was transferred from there to St. Petersburg as embassy secretary. In 1923, he was named minister to Sweden and served there for four years. During that time he got to know the Crown Prince (who later became King) and was instrumental in bringing the Prince to the attention of Harvard University as a candidate for an honorary degree. In 1927, he went to Argentina as ambassador.

He was a member of the board of overseers of Harvard College, The Council on Foreign Relations, The Foreign Policy Association, and the Metropolitan Museum. His trusteeships included the Carnegie Institution, the National Institute of Public Affairs, the American Museum of Natural History, the American-Scandinavian Foundation, and the American Society of the French Legion of Honor. He was president of the American Foreign Service Association.

Centurion friends describe Bob Bliss as sweet-tempered, considerate and benevolent, simple, friendly, and natural. The hospitality which he and Mrs. Bliss showed Americans who called on them in their various foreign posts was warm and abundant. A Centurion who was in the Senate when they lived in Washington recalls: “He and Mrs. Bliss might be said to have stood at the apex of Washington social life, but they never gave any parties for the sake of giving parties. They never were concerned about whether anyone was ‘important.’”

Bliss lived to be eighty-six. He was a Centurion for nearly half of his life.

Roger Burlingame
1963 Century Association Yearbook