Katherine Garrison Chapin Biddle was born on September 4, 1890, in Waterford, Connecticut. She was the daughter of Lindley Hoffman Chapin and Cornelia Garrison Van Auken, whose daughter from a previous marriage was Marguerite Caetani, wife of Roffredo Prince Di Bassiano, Duke of Sermoneta. Katherine Biddle's other siblings include Lindley Hoffman Paul Chapin and the sculptor Cornelia Chapin. On April 27, 1918, Katherine Biddle married Francis Biddle (U.S. attorney general, 1942-45). They had two sons, Edmund Randolph and Garrison Chapin (1923-30).
Katherine Biddle was educated in private schools. She studied music with Kurt Schindler, founder of the Schola Cantorum; acting with playwright Rachel Crothers; and philosophy under the tutelage of Max Eastman. She was a prolific writer, particularly on poetry, with essays and reviews appearing in the American Scholar, Botteghe Oscure (Rome), Contemporary Poetry, Harper's, Ladies Home Journal, the Nation, New Republic, Poetry magazine, Prairie Schooner, Saturday Review of Literature, Sewanee Review, and Voices, among others. A published poet, herself, her well-received works include: “Outside of the World” (Duffield, 1930); “Bright Mariner,” written in memory of her son Garrison Chapin Biddle (1933); “Time Has No Shadow” (Dodd, 1936); “Lament for the Stolen,” written in response to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby (Centaur, 1938); “Plain Chant for America” (Harper, 1942); “The Other Journey” (University of Minnesota Press, 1959); and “The Chinese Deer” (Oliphant Press, 1975). Translations of Katherine Biddle's poems in French and Spanish have been published in Paris and Buenos Aires. She also translated the poetry of Gabriela Mistral, Nobel prize winner of Chile; Raphael Alberti; and Paul Claudel. Plays include, “The Tapestry for the Duchess,” performed at the Heckscher Theatre, New York (1925); and “Sojourner Truth,” performed by the American Negro Theatre (1948). Some of Biddle's poems were set to music and performed by world-renowned composers and conductors: “Lament for the Stolen” was first performed in 1938 by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy with music by Harl McDonald; “And They Lynched Him from a Tree” was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1940, conducted by Artur Rodzinski with music by William Grant Still; and “Plain Chant for America,” in 1941, was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, conducted by John Barbirolli with a score by William Grant Still.
Throughout her life, Katherine Biddle maintained a tireless and enthusiastic lecture circuit on contemporary poetry at schools, colleges, and clubs. Her talks were also broadcast by WFIL radio (Philadelphia), WGMS (Washington, D.C.), and by Voice of America, in French. Recordings of Katherine Biddle's poems were made by and are on file at the Library of Congress and the Lamont Poetry Library of Harvard University. In 1944, Archibald MacLeish appointed Katherine Biddle as one of the original Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress, a title she held for ten years, thereafter becoming an honorary consultant for American Letters. She was also a member of numerous literary associations including the Poetry Society of America, Poetry Society of Virginia, Sulgrave Club (Washington), Cosmopolitan clubs of New York and Philadelphia, and Acorn Club (Philadelphia). From 1949 to 1956 and again in 1957, Katherine Biddle was a judge for the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry of Yale University. She also served as judge for the National Book Award in Poetry (1953); and for the Shelley Memorial Award (1959).
Although she was never measured against the luminaries whose company she shared, her "quiet, unpretentious verse...openly concerned with universal experience and emotions," in the words of critic B.A. Robie (Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 5), made Katherine Biddle both an accomplished poet in her own right and greatly admired by many of the famous writers and poets of the day as testified in the ample correspondence she received from them. They included: Conrad Aiken, W.H. Auden, Roy Basler, William Rose Benet, Bernard Berenson, Elizabeth Bishop, Alain Bosquet, Anna Hempstead Branch; Cleanth Brooks, Struthers Burt, Witter Bynner, Paul and Nina Chachavadze, Padraic Colum, Rachel Crothers, Walter de la Mare, Max Eastman, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Robert Frost, Isabella Gardner, Robert Graves, Barbara Guest, Emmet Lavery, Alexis and Dorothy Leger, Robert Lowell, Archibald Macleish, Marion Merrell (a.k.a., Clinch Calkins), Mary Owings Miller, Marianne Moore, Gabriela Mistral, Victoria Ocampo, Iris Origo, Katherine Anne Porter, Kathleen Raine, Isidore Lawrence Salomon, Delmore Schwartz, William Jay Smith, Stephen Spender, Herbert Steiner, Genevieve Taggard, Allen Tate, Mark Van Doren, Harold Vinal, Robert Penn Warren, John Hall Wheelock, Reed Whittemore, Thornton Wilder, Oscar Williams, William Carlos Williams, Edmund Wilson, Anne Winslow, Owen Wister, and William Zorach.
Katherine Biddle's great love and patronage of the performing and visual arts engendered lifelong friendships and correspondence with notables in both fields. In the music world these included: Samuel Barber; John Barbirolli; Nadia Boulanger; the Fischer brothers Eugene, George and Joseph; Harl McDonald, Gian Carlo Menotti, Paul Nordoff, Eugene Ormandy, Artur Rodzinski, Elmo Russ, William Grant Still, and Leopold Stokowski. Others included dancer and choreographer Agnes DeMille; actor Burgess Meredith; and artists Henry McCarter; her sister-in-law Helene Sardeau (married to Francis Biddle's brother, artist George Biddle); and Franklin C. Watkins. There are also letters from Eleanor Roosevelt to whom was dedicated the music score for Biddle's poem, “Plain Chant for America,” by William Grant Still.
A staunch advocate of civil rights, Katherine Biddle's circle included eminent African American writers such as Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. Her best-known poems on the issue, "And They Lynched Him from a Tree," and "Plain Chant for America," as well as her play about Sojourner Truth, particularly brought her into contact with notable African Americans in music. Besides composer William Grant Still, acquaintances included singers Louise Burge (who sang in the premier performance of "And They Lynched Him from a Tree," in 1940), and Paul Robeson.
Katherine Biddle died on December 30, 1977, in Devon, Pennsylvania.