First Ladies Library Blog

Welcome to the National First Ladies Library blog. This replaces the “asked/answered” page and all information from it has been transferred to the blog. Here will be an ongoing public forum on the work of the NFLL and its collections, discussion on new and emerging scholarship and popular publications, news stories, and any other information or discoveries related to directly to the subject of First Ladies. The public is invited to engage here with questions on the subject.

Research, reading and writing on the subject of American First Ladies opens windows into so many fascinating aspects of not just national and international history and culture but contemporary issues as well.

Enjoy our blog and feel free to post your comments.

 

A composite image of Robert, John, Alice, Letty and Lizzie Tyler during their White House tenure. (www.carlanthonyonline.com)

A composite image of Robert, John, Alice, Letty and Lizzie Tyler during their White House tenure. (www.carlanthonyonline.com)

She is one of the most obscure of First Ladies, her tenure as a presidential spouse among the briefest, lasting from the time her husband became the first Vice President to assume the presidency upon the death of his predecessor in April of 1841 until her own death just seventeen months later, in September of 1842.

A present but publicly inactive First Lady Letitia Tyler, painted by Lyle Tayson in 1979. (artworkoriginals)

A present but publicly inactive First Lady Letitia Tyler, painted by Lyle Tayson in 1979. (artworkoriginals)

The fact that she was unable to, in any way, perform the public aspects of the First Lady role and, in fact, was only seen in public on two known occasions, stemmed from the reality that she had suffered a stroke that left her physically disabled with paralysis, though her cognitive functions of speaking, seeing and hearing were unharmed.

Letitia Tyler, however, holds an unusual record among First Ladies, one involving the most important role of all to her, that of mother. She gave birth to eight children, the greatest number of  any presidential spouse, a record she shares with Lucy Hayes.

Only five of the Hayes children lived to adulthood but Mrs. Tyler, enjoyed seeing seven of her eight children live to adulthood, making her mother to more children while she was First Lady than any other.

The only one of her eight children who died as a child was the fifth one she gave birth to, Anne Contesse Tyler, born in April of 1825 and living only three months, into July of that year.

During the time she was First Lady, all seven of her children lived with her and the President in the White House, some for the entire duration of the presidency, others for periods of time.

Mary Tyler Jones's obituary. (findagrave.com)

Mary Tyler Jones’s obituary. (findagrave.com)

Letitita’s first child Mary, born in 1815, was already married and living in Williamsburg, Virginia with her husband Henry Lightfoot Jones.  Less than two weeks after her father became president, Mary Jones turned 26 years old.

Records show that Mary Jones and her two sons John and Henry lived in the White House. Her third son was born a year after her mother died. Mary Jones was 32 years old when she died suddenly in 1847, surviving her mother by only five years.

Letitia’s second child, Robert, born in 1816, lived for a long period in the White House, serving as the President’s private secretary and drawing a federal salary for a position that was federally appropriated.

Robert Tyler. (NFLL)

Robert Tyler. (NFLL)

Robert Tyler played an important role for his father, becoming a political liaison for him to many national Democratic Party leaders in Congress as well as state representatives of the party from the northeastern states.

His presence, however, served an especially important part in the life of the First Lady for it was his wife Priscilla Tyler who served as the public hostess from April of 1841 until April of 1844.

Priscilla Cooper Tyler. (NFLL)

Priscilla Cooper Tyler. (NFLL)

A former stage actress who had performed with her father, a famous tragedian Thomas Cooper, she had been born and raised in Pennsylvania but adapted quickly to the household customs of the Virginia plantation, acculturated by her mother-in-law. They came to the White House with their one year old daughter Mary and when Priscilla gave birth to a second daughter in the the White House, the child was named for her grandmother, the First Lady.

Robert Tyler's daughter Mary was honored with a children's costume party in the White House, attended by Dolley Madison, President Tyler and Priscilla Cooper Tyler, her mother. (NFLL)

Robert Tyler’s daughter Mary was honored with a children’s costume party in the White House, attended by Dolley Madison, President Tyler and Priscilla Cooper Tyler, her mother. (NFLL)

Although two adult daughters moved into the White House with their mother, Letitia Tyler designated daughter-in-law Priscilla Tyler to act as the public presidential hostess, while she herself directed the purchasing and preparation of food as well as entertaining in conjunction with the President’s approval.

Robert and Priscilla Tyler decided to strike out on their own so he could begin developing his own political career. They relocated to Philadelphia in April of 1844.

Once the Civil War began, they placed their loyalties with the Confederacy, as did his father, and moved in Alabama. Although their first daughter Mary died at only four years old, just two months after her grandfather’s presidency ended, Robert and Priscilla went on to have six more children. Robert Tyler died in 1877, Priscilla in 1889.

Her third child, son John Tyler, Jr. (he was technically the fifth John in the male family line), had a less stable marriage.

John Tyler, Jr. (findafgrave.com)

John Tyler, Jr. (findafgrave.com)

At the time his father was president, John, Jr. was estranged from his first and only wife Martha Rochelle. There is no documentation indicating that Rochelle Tyler ever lived with her in-laws in Washington. John, Jr. made the White House his home base but was often traveling the country for long stretches of time and seems to have been his father’s personal representative on his Virginia property and business matters, frequently in Richmond.

John Tyler, Jr. never formally divorced Martha Rochelle Tyler. They had three children, one of whom was named for the First Lady. This presidential son lived into his 75th year, dying in 1896.

Also enduring a bad and estranged marriage was Letitia Tyler’s fourth child, who was named for her but always known by the name of “Letty.”

Born in 1821, Letty Tyler was married to seaman James Allen Semple. Blessedly, the president’s son-in-law was away at sea for most of the presidency and thus spared the household the apparently frequent and bitter arguments between the mismatched couple.

Letitia Tyler Semple at the time she served as First Lady, (NFLL)

Letitia Tyler Semple at the time she served as First Lady, (NFLL)

Letty Tyler Semple had moved into the White House with her father when he first took possession of it, but evacuated in anger before his presidency ended when, as a widower, he eloped in June of 1844 with his second wife, the New York socialite Julia Gardiner.

Just one year older than her new stepmother, Letty Tyler Semple never reconciled herself to her father replacing her beloved mother. She vacated the Executive Mansion before August of 1844, when the new First Lady took, as she put it “quiet possession” of it.

Two years the junior of Letty Tyler was her sister Lizzie Tyler. On several known occasions, both Letty and Lizzie served as social aides to Priscilla Tyler in welcoming guests at public social events in the White House.

William Waller, White House bridegroom. (Museum of Spain)

William Waller, White House bridegroom. (University of Alcala)

After the wedding, she moved with her husband William Nevilson Waller to a home in Williamsburg, Virginia but was living in the White House when her first child, William, was born in 1843.

Six years after her mother died, Lizzie Tyler Waller had a second child, a daughter, who she named in her honor of the First Lady. Lizzie only lived seven years longer than her mother, dying suddenly in 1850.

Elizabeth "Lizzie" Tyler Waller. (Museum of Spain)

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Tyler Waller. (University of Alcala)

Thus, the First Lady Letitia Tyler had three granddaughters all named for her.

Interestingly, while Letitia Tyler’s grandson William Waller was born in the White House, he was married in the Confederate White House, in Richmond, Virginia and he married Jeanne Howell, the sister of the Confederate First Lady.

There was then a four year gap between Letitia Tyler’s children. After her baby Anne had died, Mrs. Tyler gave birth to another daughter, Alice, in 1827.

The last child, her third son, was named Tazewell Tyler and was born in 1830.

Alice Tyler. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Alice Tyler. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Little is known about the White House life of these two youngest of Letitia Tyler’s children, both of whom lived there from the first to the last day of their father’s occupancy of it.

Alice Tyler was fourteen years old and Tazewell Tyler was only eleven years old when their father became president and thus fifteen years old and twelve years old, respectively, when their mother died.

Tazewell Tyler some years after he was a teenage boy in the White House. (private collection)

Tazewell Tyler some years after he was a teenage boy in the White House. (private collection)

Alice would go on to marry Henry Mandeville Denison, but two years after giving birth to her only child, a daughter, she died young, at age 27 years old, in 1854.

Tazewell also married, to the former Nannie Bridges, living some thirty years after leaving the White House, divorced and dying  of alcoholism in California, in 1874. He had two children named Martha and James.

Letty Tyler Semple. (Virginia Historical Society)

Letty Tyler Semple. (Virginia Historical Society)

For the four Tyler children who lived to see the Civil War, life changed radically. Their father the former President died, family property was seized by Union troops,  the siblings dispersed and new, sometimes uncertain relationships with their seven much younger half-siblings, the children of John and Jullia Tyler.

Nevertheless, as family letters now largely preserved at the Swem Library at the College of William and Mary show, Letitia Tyler’s children kept in close touch through correspondence, looking after each other’s emotional if not always financial well-being until the number dwindled down to just the one who lived into the 20th century.

In one of Letty Semple’s last letters, the sole surviving of Letitia Tyler’s children bemoaned being alone without them. (private collection).

Broken by her failed marriage, her bitter relationship with her stepmother who had rightfully carried the President’s legacy past his death, her financial and professional struggles, Letty Tyler Semple found herself returning to Washington, D.C. at the end of her life.

She lived there in what was called The Louise Home, an “old folks home” for indignant southern women funded by the millionaire W.W. Corcoran.

As a former First Lady herself, albeit for a brief time, she was an honored guest on many occasions at the White House, invited by several of her successors, most especially Ida McKinley who often sent the presidential carriage for Mrs. Semple to use.

Letitia Tyler's portrait. (WHHA)

Letitia Tyler’s portrait. (WHHA)

She refused, however, to visit the Roosevelts because of the renovation of the executive mansion, which she described as a “atrocious butchery” of the old house she had loved living in with her family.

In Mrs. Semple’s small room at the Louisa Home, reporter Daisy Ayres noted an oil portrait hanging above the mantle.

It was of a First Lady long gone and long forgotten, but for the elderly woman the figure in the painting that she looked at daily remained beloved and important in the most personal way possible, as her mother.

Letitia Tyler Semple died three days before the new year of 1908.

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Edith Wilson. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Edith Wilson. (carlanthonyonline.com)

This article is adapted from research for a written response to an inquiry from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian related to Edith Wilson, the second wife of Woodrow Wilson and activities related to her distant descent from the famous Native American Indian princess Pocahontas of the Powhatan tribe of Virginia.

The Shipping Board members, its director Edward Hurley depicted at the center. (gwpda.org)

The Shipping Board members, its director Edward Hurley depicted at the center. (gwpda.org)

When her husband declared American entry into the European conflict first known as “The Great War,” soon to be known as World War I, Edith Wilson was asked to name naval vessels. She used Native American Indian names, almost certainly including that of the U.S.S. Pocahontas. 

It was she who had initially “proposed a sequence of Indian names,” but her idea was, at first, “rejected at first on the ground that they would be unfamiliar and difficult to spell.”

Later, in Edith Wilson’s My Memoirs, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1938) she made references to the ship-naming process:

“…Edward N. Hurley, Chairman of the Shipping Board asked me if I would rename the eighty-eight German ships in our ports which the Government had taken over. I requested a list of the original names and the tonnage of each vessel I was in the study, where my husband was working under the old green-shaded lamp, when the list came. When I saw the tonnage of the Vaterland I exclaimed, and read it aloud. He looked up: ‘Well, that one is easy, for it would have to be the Leviathan!” He also named the smallest one, which became the Minnow. The original names of the President Lincoln, President Grant, George Washington and Amerika were retained, with the ‘k’ changed to ‘c’ in the last.

Edith Wilson christening the first World War I ship made by US contractors. (gwpda.org)

Edith Wilson christening the first World War I ship made by US contractors. (gwpda.org)

That left eighty-two to work on. The task did not seem so hard. But when I found that five Lloyd’s registers must be consulted to avoid duplications, I ran into complications, never dreaming that there were so many ships in the world. I started to use the names of American cities, rivers, lakes, mountains, and so one, and was surprisued to find that most of them had been previously used.

So I returned to the Indian names, which had really been my first idea, but discarded because most of them were long and hard to spell. There seemed, however, no recourse. This, rather than the fact that I myself am of Indian descent, explains the use of Indian names. “

Later, Mrs. Wilson recounted her role in christening an Indian-named ship:

“On August 5th [1917] I christened one of the hundreds of ships for which I had the honor to select names during the War. It was the first ship to leave the ways at Hog Island, a war-built shipyard. Following the Indian nomenclature this one was named Quistconck, which in the Indian tongue means ‘Hog Island.’”

When Edith Wilson first married the president, eager journalists claimed to detect Native American facial traits in her. (LC)

When Edith Wilson first married the president, eager journalists claimed to detect Native American facial traits in her. (LC)

One source details that Mrs. Wilson found the Native American names by “looking them up in dictionaries loaned by the Library of Congress.” By coincidence, as she was choosing the Indian names, she also began using the Choctaw tribe word of “okeh” instead of “okay,” a custom she acquired from the President who claimed the native word was “more correct.”

Apart from the eighty-eight seized German vessels that she was also responsible for the naming of some “fifty” newly constructed ones by the U.S. government. This would partially compensate for Mrs. Wilson stating that she ultimately named “hundreds” of ships.

Upon completion of what proved t be a more challenging task than she initially believed it would be, she received a letter from the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels acknowledging her “fine Virginia hand” being “seen in [renaming] many of the ships we took over from Germany….”

Considering her strong affinity for being associated with Pocahontas and the fact that she was the only person naming the ships and was using Native American Indian names, it seems almost positively that she was the one who did, in fact, chose the name of Pocahontas for a naval vessel.

Newspaper story of Edith Wilson being given a Pocahontas statue. (Pinterest)

Newspaper story of Edith Wilson being given a Pocahontas statue. (Pinterest)

Much was made of Edith Wilson’s pride in her Native American Indian ancestry in a direct line from the legendary Powhatan tribe princess Pocahontas.

At the time of the October 1915 announcement that Edith Bolling Galt [the last name being that of her first, late husband Norman Galt] was engaged to President Woodrow Wilson, there was an enormous amount of press coverage about this connection.

There was even at least one newspaper article that sought to describe her face as representational of Native American Indian facial attributes, as the Hatch biography does in reference to the physicality of her brothers.

In honor of her marriage, she was soon sent several gifts from various Native American Indian tribes, including beaded handiwork, and numerous pictorial and statuary representations of Pocahontas, some of which is now in the collection of the Woodrow Wilson House, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Popular depictions of Pocahontas. (Pinterest)

Popular depictions of Pocahontas. (Pinterest)

In truth, Pocahontas was merely one ancestor among a total of Edith Wilson’s 512 direct ninth-generation ancestors.

To those among Virginia’s most powerful and prominent families, legitimate claim of direct descent from Pocahontas was not about pride of Native American Indian blood but rather proof of relation to the British aristocracy, since the granddaughter of the princess had married the wealthy and powerful English aristocrat Robert Bolling, one of the earliest settlers of the Virginia colony.

While often described as being “proud” of her native heritage, anecdotal evidence suggests that she found the fact to be more of an amusing incident not in any way important to her personal identity or life.

Before her visit with British royalty American newspapers were depicting the First Lady as American royalty. (Pinterest)

Before her visit with British royalty American newspapers were depicting the First Lady as American royalty. (Pinterest)

As she recalled, when she accompanied President Wilson to post-World War I Europe and engaged with members of royal families, she advanced the false impression that she was somehow of equal social status in her country, a figure of American royalty by virtue of her descent from the famous Indian princess.

Drawing on the fact that her mother lived in a lower-income residential hotel named “The Powhatan,” the First Lady mentioned this in a way that suggested it was actually a castle akin to those lived in by Europe’s titled class.

Another incident suggesting she did not take it as seriously as the press did is revealed in a letter from Wilson Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane to Mrs. Wilson. He forwarded to her a serious letter penned by a person who identifies in the body of the letter as “a descendant of Pocahontas” and as “an educated Indian.”

Edith Wilson with the President at the May 15, 1918 ceremony inaugurating air mail service. (LC)

Edith Wilson with the President at the May 15, 1918 ceremony inaugurating air mail service. (LC)

The writer points out that by having “served wine and liquor to Mrs. Wilson” the President had violated “the law [that] says no one shall give or treat or bootleg or sell or blind tag liquor to an Indian….” and should be arrested.

In his cover note, Lane jokingly tells the First Lady that “If at any time you wish this power exercised I shall not hesitate to do my duty. Yours for the enforcement of law.”

She responded to Lane with equally sarcastic humor that she would, for the time being, refrain from asking him to do so but wanted to retain the right to do so in the future if she felt circumstances warranted this.

An engraving of Pocahontas among Mrs. Wilson's memorabilia now in the Woodrow Wilson House collection.

An engraving of Pocahontas among Mrs. Wilson’s memorabilia now in the Woodrow Wilson House collection.

There is no evidence that before, during or after her tenure as First Lady that Edith Wilson ever took an interest in the welfare of Native American Indian tribes or visited tribal lands.

The only time that it is believed she may have expressed concern about her negligible Native American Indian ancestry occurred in 1924 when a state official sought to redefine Virginia’s racial classifications.

Based on the belief that most of those who identified as Native American Indians in Virginia by the mid-twentieth century almost certainly also had traces of African-American ancestry through former slaves who had inter-married with native people, the “Racial Integrity Act” proposed that any native Virginians who were known to have anything other than entirely European ancestry be redefined entirely as “non-white” and would be subject to the strict racial segregation and institutionalized bigotry that was then state law.

As a result of a racist re-classification proposal Mrs. Wilson's remote Indian ancestry almost had her declared "non-white" a year after this May 1923 picture of her. (LC)

As a result of a racist re-classification proposal Mrs. Wilson’s remote Indian ancestry almost had her declared “non-white” a year after this May 1923 picture of her. (LC)

In theory this would have meant that the former First Lady would no longer be able to stay in any hotel or dine in any restaurant or be seated in any public venue where she wished but rather be either denied entrance or forced to use separate facilities.

Since there were many among Virginia’s elite that had also claimed an ancestral link to Pocahontas a special clause was devised declaring that they and any other Virginians “who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasian blood shall be deemed to be white persons.”

Thus, it spared Virginians descended from some of the state’s earliest white settlers from having to suddenly live by the discriminatory laws of the then-segregated state. It became known as “the Pocahontas Clause.”

According to a comment left in response to a 2010 Discovery magazine article, “A strong supporter of the legislation was Mrs. Woodrow Wilson…”

 

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Nellie Taft and Ellen Wilson. (composite, Library of Congress/ Princeton University)

Nellie Taft and Ellen Wilson. (composite, Library of Congress/ Princeton University)

The earliest known example of successive First Ladies working to specifically support the same social work agenda goes back to November 1908.

Charlotte Hopkins. (LC)

Charlotte Hopkins. (LC)

Following the election of her husband, Nellie Taft became so committed to the mission of the National Civic Federation to improve the lives of working-class families in their homes, schools and places of employment.

In the weeks after her husband’s election, Mrs. Taft gave one of her only known speeches to the NCF during their conference in New York City, and toured a North Carolina cotton mill to personally investigate reports of the dangerous working conditions there.

Upon settling into the White House, she held meetings with Charlotte Everett Wise Hopkins,  the chairperson of the Women’s Committee of the National Civic Foundation’s Washington branch.

Charlotte Hopkins had been a civic activist for reform on behalf of the working-class population of the national capital area going back to the 1890s.

Frances Cleveland supported the Christmas Club for indigent African-American girls. (NFLL)

Frances Cleveland supported the Christmas Club for indigent African-American girls. (NFLL)

Early on, she wisely sought the patronage of First Ladies, although her rather strident insistence on their active participation sometimes met with polite pushback from First Ladies who patiently explained that their public schedules and other obligations prevented them from always granting her request.

Still, in the case of Frances Cleveland, for example, she became enthusiastically committed to the Colored Girls Christmas Club, which sponsored an annual holiday celebration including a party, dinner, gifts and entertainment for poor young African-American girls.

An urban playground at the turn-of-the-century. (LC)

An urban playground at the turn-of-the-century. (LC)

Nellie Taft was especially receptive to eradicating the deplorable living and work conditions of many Washington, D.C. families struggling to exist on small salaries and in cramped and dangerous homes, as well as the grim realties of child life in the capital city.

She decided to give her immediate support of the NCF effort to create playgrounds for local poor children, giving them the change to physically exercise and play in the fresh outdoor air.

As a young woman, Mrs. Taft has also been an advocate of the movement to create kindergartens.

A new concept in the 1880s, it promised to provide very young children, during a period of early brain development, with learning, spacial, social and other skills before they began formal education in grammar school. First Lady Frances Cleveland had even created a White House kindergarten for her young daughters and other children of Administration officials.

A 1911 kindergarten. www.nwhm.org).

A 1911 kindergarten. www.nwhm.org).

At the time, it was a privilege available largely to the upper- and middle-class. Mrs. Taft sought to provide the same opportunity for those from less fortune families.

Among her most famous efforts was hosting a Shakespearean performance on the White House South Lawn as a fundraiser to create local kindergartens.

She also took an especial interest in supporting an African-American teacher attempting to create kindergartens for black children in the segregated south.

Nellie Taft was an engaged political partner to her husband, William Howard Taft. (LC)

Nellie Taft was an engaged political partner to her husband, William Howard Taft. (LC)

At the urging of Charlotte Hopkins, Nellie Taft also made an unannounced visit the nearby clerical and printing offices of federal government agencies. She was shocked to see hundreds of federal government employees working daily with poor lighting, no circulating fresh air, inadequate restroom facilities and no lunchrooms or even water fountains.

Unlike the local playground and kindergarten effort, however, making necessary improvements and, in some cases, radical structural changes to the federal office buildings would require the cooperation of not just the executive department leaders but federal appropriations from Congress.

Nellie Taft’s stroke just two months after she became First Lady brought the progress on many of the changes she envisioned for Washington, D.C to a halt.  Ultimately, however, she proved successful not by going through the laborious process of congressional approval but exercising her considerable power over the President.

The March 15 1912 executive order initiated by Nellie Taft, the first documented instance of a First Lady directly influencing a official directive of the federal government

It would take three years, but Nellie Taft’s effort would result in the first official federal act initiated by a First Lady to affect a large portion of the Washington working-class.

Under the headline “Aided by Mrs. Taft” the March 17, 1912 Washington Post reported that executive order number 1498 provided for Bureau of Public Health inspection of all executive branch government buildings and offices, and to standardize and maintain sanitary and safe conditions. Lighting, plumbing, ventilation, heating, running water were all ordered, even if requiring substantial structural changes to the buildings.

Ellen Wilson was as engaged a political partner to her husband Woodrow Wilson as had  been her predecessor Mrs. Taft. (WWPL)

Ellen Wilson was as engaged a political partner to her husband Woodrow Wilson as had been her predecessor Mrs. Taft. (WWPL)

There is no evidence that Nellie Taft implored or in any way spoke with her immediate successor Ellen Wilson about continuing the progressive social reforms she had begun.

The forceful Charlotte Hopkins, however, carried on with this new First Lady eighteen days after the Inauguration, on March 22, 1913.

Rather than simply hear about the problem that these residents who lived in crowded shacks and shanties, cramped into dirty and dark alleys in dwellings that often had no plumbing, the First Lady went to visit them herself on 25 March 1913, following a visit to a hospital for the terminally ill.

Led by Hopkins, Ellen Wilson then visited four of the slum alley areas; shortly thereafter, she toured new models of low-income housing built by the private Sanitary Housing Company and even personally invested in it.

One of the Washington, D.C. alleys where sub-standard dwellings were built to serve as overcrowded homes for some of the city’s poorest population. (Library of Congress)

One of the Washington, D.C. alleys where sub-standard dwellings were built to serve as overcrowded homes for some of the city’s poorest population. (Library of Congress)

Mrs. Wilson’s work led to congressional legislation that both intended to demolish the sub-standard housing and provide new housing for those displaced. The latter effort was halted with the U.S. entry into World War I.

Ellen Wilson has, however, been incorrectly credited for an effort actually initiated by her immediate predecessor Nellie Taft; although the Taft Administration initiative for health and safety regulations in the federal workplace had been ordered into effect before the Taft Administration ended in March of 1913, the new regulations were not put into place as the new Wilson Administration ensued.

Among those spouses of Wilson Administration officials who made the slum-dwelling tours with Ellen Wilson was the young wife of the Assistant Navy Secretary, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Although Mrs. Roosevelt was not an immediate successor to the First Lady and would not herself become a presidential spouse until nineteen years after the death of Mrs Wilson, she never forgot the unfulfilled intention to build new subsidized housing the families displaced by the destruction of the alley dwellings.

Eleanor Roosevelt joins her husband, then Assistant Navy Secretary, in an inspection tour of the Washington navy yard. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt joins her husband, then Assistant Navy Secretary, in an inspection tour of the Washington navy yard. (FDRL)

Purposefully taking in Mrs, Roosevelt’s tours of sub0standard housing and support of new, improved facilities was a young congressional spouse, Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In her April 22, 1949 “My Day” daily newspaper column, Eleanor Roosevelt, by then a former First Lady, recalled her work with Charlotte Hopkins and the work previously undertaken by past First Ladies:

“I hope that the recent excursion of a few Senators into the old and ancient alleys near the Capitol in Washington will have a more lasting effect than previous excursions have had.

When I first went to Washington in 1933, Mrs. Archibald Hopkins, who had worked to remove these alleys from the Washington scene ever since Woodrow Wilson was President, came to get me one day and insisted that we drive through many of them. Being a New Yorker, I was impressed at first by the fact that at least here the buildings were not so high and there was a chance for a little sun and air to permeate the filth and squalor. But I soon learned just how bad these alleys were. What crime was bred there, what disease spread from there and what seeds of delinquency were sown in those alley slums.

The question has never been decided whether a human being acquires more characteristics through heredity or through environment. Nevertheless I am quite sure that human beings who live in the Washington slums are conditioned to a great extent by their environment.

The greater number of people living in the slums of Washington are Negroes. There is always a housing shortage for them; they are always being crowded into houses which have been condemned and should be torn down. It is hard to believe, but most of Washington’s slums has only outdoor sanitation and sometimes the only running water available is a faucet in the yard.

From these overcrowded rooms servants go out to work in comfortable houses. Children are cared for by women whose children go to segregated schools. Poor food and poor housing make these children a prey to many diseases and as they pass through the streets, or as their elders care for them at home and then go into other homes to work, the diseases may spread.

Lady Bird Johnson overlooks a model of proposed urban renewal plans in Washington, with a National Park Service official. (UPI)

Lady Bird Johnson overlooks a model of proposed urban renewal plans in Washington, with a National Park Service official. (UPI)

I only hope that the things the Senators saw will stay more lastingly in their minds than the impressions which I have seen Congressional groups gather before.

I remember a trip taken by a group of this kind to some of the Washington institutions. The members of Congress were horrified, but there are no votes in the District of Columbia and it is easy to forget people who are not voting constituents.”

World war again put the housing project on hold in the 1940s. It was not until the 1960s that the final pieces of what Ellen Wilson envisioned were put into place.

By that time  Lady Bird Johnson had become First Lady.

Remembering the Wilson-Roosevelt endeavor, she supported a full integration of a similar urban renewal housing proposal for the Southwest section of Washington, D.C., into the overall agenda of her Committee for a More Beautiful National Capital.

 

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Jacqueline Kennedy’s First Trip to Greece

Jacqueline Kennedy tours ancient Greek temples during her first visit to that nation in June of 1961. (AP)

Jacqueline Kennedy tours ancient Greek temples during her first visit to that nation in June of 1961. (AP)

Although she would later become closely associated with the nation of Greece, following her second marriage on October 20, 1968 to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, the then-widowed former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was already familiar with the island nation that was to become her second home until after his 1975 death.

In the 1970s, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis continued her interest in Greek history, begun in 1961.(Alamy)

In the 1970s, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis continued her interest in Greek history, begun in 1961.(Alamy)

Throughout her life there in the 1970s, she avidly pursued her fascination with archeological digs, ancient ruins and other aspects of the Greek history, architecture, art, poetry, landscape terrain, and traditions.

What has always garnered attention was her controversial visit to Greece as the yacht guest of Onassis in the fall of 1963, two months after the death of her infant son Patrick and one month before the assassination of President Kennedy. Ii had actually been her first trip there, however, in 1961, that had begun her lifelong love of it.

In her first months as First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy found herself overwhelmed with the global fame thrusted upon her, in addition to the public expectations placed upon presidential spouses, ceremonial commitments and guarding what she declared to be her priority role as a mother to an infant son and three and a half year old daughter.

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with Prime Minister of Greece Konstantine Karamanlis and Amalia Karamanlis. (JFKL)

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with Prime Minister of Greece Konstantine Karamanlis and Amalia Karamanlis. (JFKL)

Detecting this during their state visit to the White House on April 17, the President and First Lady of Greece, Konstantine and Alamia Karamanlis extended an invitation for her to take an entirely private and rejuvenating vacation trip to their country, following her official schedule joining President Kennedy on his first state visit to Europe, to France, Austria and England.

Joined by her favorite traveling companion, her sister Lee Radziwill who then lived in London, Mrs. Kennedy arrived in Athens, Greece on June 7, 1961,

Although US Embassy staff would be helping in ensuring that her trip went smoothy, she was accompanied by only one staff member, there to essentially keep track of incoming gifts and acknowledging them, as well as handle press inquiries.

 Jacqueline Kennedy takes in the Greece National Theater on Epidaurus. (UPI)

Jacqueline Kennedy takes in the Greece National Theater on Epidaurus. (UPI)

Under heavy police guard to ensure that it was as private a visit as possible, Mrs. Kennedy would make a tour of several important Greek islands.

Given use of the villa and yacht of Markos Nomikus, a Greek businessman, she had never visited Greece but, in anticipation of her trip there, studied up on some of the historical sites she hoped to see.

She also developed a strong sense of the Greek philosophy on life, coming to feel that her husband, President Kennedy, resembled the early Greeks with what she called his constant “defying [of] the fates.”

The island cruise stopped first at the island of Epidaurus where the First Lady was able to watch a Greek National Theater rehearsal production of Sophocles’ Electra, in the ancient stone open-air space.

On June 9, the First Lady arrived on the island of Hydra where she walked the cobblestone streets among the local villagers, marveling at the white-washed terra-cotta homes.

Jackie Kennedy touring the streets of Hydra. (pinterest)

A festival was even organized there for her, and she delayed her planned schedule to sample food and joined in dancing with locals dressed in native costumes, accompanied by the local mayor.

The following day she visited Delos island, taking in all of its ruins – while also getting in some time to waterski in the blue Aegean waters.

Later, she set foot on the famous Mykonos island, where she was delighted to be greeted by the island’s famous mascot, a pelican named Peter.

She climbed a steep hill, through the township, stopping in local shops to buy gifts for friends and family back home. She lunched that day beneath plentiful fruit trees in the walled garden of  the villa of Helen Viachos, Greece’s only woman newspaper publisher.

Jackie Kennedy with the Mykonos mascot Peter the Pelican..(pinterest)

Jackie Kennedy with the Mykonos mascot Peter the Pelican..(pinterest)

Taking it all in, and genuinely relaxing, the First Lady quipped that, “this is the greatest trip in the world. I couldn’t be happier.”

”“I want to have a home here someday,” she later remarked to Greek reporters at one point. “I want to return and bring my children here.”

On June 11, 1961 the Namakos yacht docked back in Athens, and there the Greek Prime Minister and his wife welcomed her back to shore.

From there, the Karamanlises guided her to the 5th century B.C. Doric temple of Poseidon. At Cape Sounion, she also had a chance to watch several archeological digs in progress.

On June 12, 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy had a chance to make her first inspections of the most legendary Greek temples, the Parthenon and the Acropolis. It was while visiting the latter site that she expressed a personal view that became politically controversial for a time.

Over a century earlier, in 1815, the Scottish Lord Elgin had been touring through Greece when he encountered the Elgin Marbles. Sensing the value of the ancient carvings, he had the marbles crated and sent to England, where eventually they would become part of the permanent collection of the British Museum. It had long been a sore point between Greece and England, many Greeks feeling that part of their material heritage had been stolen.

At the Acropolis with the Prime Minster of Greece and his wife. (pinterest)

At the Acropolis with the Prime Minster of Greece and his wife. (pinterest)

The American First Lady, in a seemingly off-handed remarked, agreed, adding that she would “like to see the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece.”

Her remarks made global headlines and were believed to be a factor in the case being reviewed for consideration by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, although the antiquities were ultimately not returned.

On the night of June 13, she’d attended a formal dinner hosted in her honor by the Prime Minister.

The next day,  she travelled outside the city to the hillside estate of the Tatoi summer palace of Greece’s royal family, King Paul, Queen Frederika, Princess Sophia, Princess Irene and Prince Constantine. After posing on the lawn for press photographs, an exchange of gifts, they joined together for a formal luncheon.

Mrs. Kennedy with the Greek royal family. (ebay)

Mrs. Kennedy with the Greek royal family. (ebay)

She would have one more carefree moment, however. Spontaneously, she decided to join the young Greek Prince and see his boat, berthed far below the hillside palace, down at the Port of Piraeus. She jumped into his blue convertible sports car as they sped down the narrow, curving roads, letting her coiffed hair blow free in the wind.

Since she was had not been traveling with the President, Mrs. Kennedy’s one-week 1961 received far less press coverage than her visit with him to France, Austria and England, but it was an important one in signaling Mrs. Kennedy’s intention to represent Americans as a people interested in other cultures.
On the day she had first arrived in Greece, Mrs. Kennedy appeared wearing a small gold pin. Except for when she went swimming, she would wear it wherever she went in that nation. It had not gone unnoticed by those she encountered, and while this gesture of wearing an ancient Greek coin as jewelry was small, the impact was great.

 

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First Ladies Who Continued The Work of Their Predecessors

Both former First Ladies at the time, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton joined together for a Georgetown University conference on Afghani women, on November 15, 2013. (AP)

Both former First Ladies at the time, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton joined together for a Georgetown University conference on Afghani women, on November 15, 2013. (AP)

This NFLL Blog article is adapted from a written response to a public inquiry.

In recent decades, individual First Ladies have come to be identified, in part, by the specific constituency they seek to help, or area of American life they give focus to with the intention of raising national awareness. Rosalynn Carter is associated with mental health, for example; Barbara Bush with eradicating adult illiteracy, Nancy Reagan with educating pre-teen children on the dangers of drug use.

In a number of cases, however, one succeeding First Lady has taken on the interest of her predecessor and committed herself to that particular issue. While, in fact, each woman has been closely associated with one “cause” or “project” in reality they often take on a number of them over the course of their incumbency.

At an October 31, 2007 event, incumbent First Lady Laura Bush and former First Lady, and then U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, announced the extension of the Preserve America and Save America's Treasures legislation (preserveamerica.gov)

At an October 31, 2007 event, incumbent First Lady Laura Bush and former First Lady, and then U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, announced the extension of the Preserve America and Save America’s Treasures legislation (preserveamerica.gov)

The most recent example of this occurred during the 2001 transition from Hillary Clinton to Laura Bush. Under Mrs Clinton’s tenure, she gave especial focus in the second Clinton presidential term to a project called “Save America’s Treasures,” which sought private funds to match federal funds that helped preserve deteriorating or endangered objects and historic sites. The National First Ladies Library was one of the program’s recipients.

Mrs. Clinton discussed it with Mrs, Bush during the 2000-2001 transition and, as luck would have it, American history proved to be a personal passion she shared with her predecessor. She eagerly sought to continue the effort.

Another such effort begun by Hillary Clinton that was of natural interest to Laura Bush was the education of and pursuit of professional careers by Afghani women.

Rosalynn Carter continued the lobbying efforts of her immediate predecessor Betty Ford towards passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. They are joined here by Liz Carpenter (far left) former White Hosue press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson. (Pinterest)

Rosalynn Carter continued the lobbying efforts of her immediate predecessor Betty Ford towards passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. They are joined here by Liz Carpenter (far left) former White Hosue press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson. (Pinterest)

The issue took on especially relevancy over the course of her eight years as First Lady, following the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States and US military presence in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban terrorist group based there, which employs often deadly measures against women pursuing education and professional work.

Even though their husbands faced off as rival presidential candidates in the 1976 election, the outgoing First Lady Betty Ford and the incoming First Lady Rosalynn Carter shared a commitment to a number of issues, most especially the effort to have the Equal Rights Amendment ratified to the US Constitution.

The ERA battle had been a defining benchmark of Mrs. Ford’s tenure, yet it was a strong belief of Mrs. Carter as well.

Incumbent First Lady Rosalynn Carter was joined by her predecessors Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson at the 1977 Houston Women's Conference. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Incumbent First Lady Rosalynn Carter was joined by her predecessors Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson at the 1977 Houston Women’s Conference. (carlanthonyonline.com)

The two First Ladies joined together in advocating passage of the ERA at the Houston Women’s Conference in 1977, joined there by former presidential spouse Lady Bird Johnson, who came to the issue after her time as First Lady.

Every First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy has strongly supported her pioneering effort to preserve the historical character of the White House state rooms by acquiring and preserving important American furniture, especially with presidential provenance.

Her two immediate successors, however, made a conscious effort to continue the pursuit of some of her specific but unfulfilled intentions following her sudden departure from the role in the wake of her husband’s 1963 assassination.

Jacqueline Kennedy with her Special Committee on White House Paintings, December 1961. (JFKL)

Jacqueline Kennedy with her Special Committee on White House Paintings, December 1961. (JFKL)

In one of her last acts before departing the executive mansion, Mrs. Kennedy asked Lady Bird Johnson as a personal favor to support and continue the meetings of the Committee to Preserve the White House.

Mrs. Johnson agreed, and with her own especial interest in landscape paintings and portraits gave her personal focus to the subcommittee tasked with collecting these items for the permanent collection.

In turn, her successor Pat Nixon accelerated the acquisition process, managing to not only obtain for the permanent collection either donations or permanent loans of important portraits of James and Dolley Madison, James Monroe and Louisa Adams, but also a wider and higher quality number of early American furniture.

One must go back a half century before the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon effort to find an earlier example of this type of cooperative effort by sequential First Ladies.

Incumbent First Lady Pat Nixon invited her predecessor Lady Bird Johnson to the unveiling of a donated life portrait of James Madison at the White House. (White House History)

Incumbent First Lady Pat Nixon invited her predecessor Lady Bird Johnson to the unveiling of a donated life portrait of James Madison at the White House. (White House History)

An avowed feminist, Florence Harding shared a vision for a “community of women working together under the guidance of other women,” and supported a prison reform movement that grew from the harsh experiences of women suffragists in prison.

A diverse consortium of women’s groups that Florence Harding supported, including the American Association of University Women, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the American Federation of Teachers, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the League of Women Voters, and the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union sought to protect women inmates from the exploitation of male inmates and staff.

Further, the consortium of women’s groups and the First Lady hoped to provide a communal setting with provisions for nurseries and childcare to imprisoned women.

First Lady Florence Harding, at far left, with a group of political spouses, and then-Second Lady, her eventual successor Grace Coolidge at far right. (LC)

First Lady Florence Harding, at far left, with a group of political spouses, and then-Second Lady, her eventual successor Grace Coolidge at far right. (LC)

In February of 1923, Florence Harding disclosed to women reporters that she was then lobbying Republican House Majority Leader Franklin Wheeler Mondell of Wyoming, over whom she had considerable influence, for a bill to fund Alderson. Seven months later, however, she was widowed upon the sudden death of President Harding in San Francisco.

It is unclear to what extent the widowed Mrs. Harding discussed the First Lady role with her successor Grace Coolidge, but it is known that the latter did endorse the women’s reformatory prison legislation as well.

It is unlikely that she assumed as politically overt a role in her support as had Mrs. Harding.

The legislation funding the facility was approved by Congress on June 7, 1924.

Alderson Prison (www.oldmagazinearticles.com)

Alderson Prison (www.oldmagazinearticles.com)

Still, it would result in Alderson Reformatory Prison, the first federal correctional institution exclusively for women prisoners, located in West Virginia. It emphasized rehabilatation to give skills to women to earn their own living “without dependence on a man or the community.”

The Alderson Federal Prison Camp for Women took its first inmates in 1927, and formally opened on November 14, 1928 in the last six months of the Coolidge Administration.

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Ida McKinley. (First Ladies Cookbook, Parent's Press, 1965)

Ida McKinley. (First Ladies Cookbook, Parent’s Press, 1965)

Among those wives who served as First Ladies during their husbands’ presidencies, Ida McKinley is perhaps the most interesting example in terms of signatures and handwriting.

Ida McKinley's silver inkwell set atop desk in the Saxton-McKinley House, NFLL. (aboutstark.com)

Ida McKinley’s silver inkwell set atop desk in the Saxton-McKinley House, NFLL. (aboutstark.com)

As discovered from the process of researching and writing her only full-length biography, Ida McKinley: Turn-of-the-Century First Lady Through War, Assassination & Secret Disability (2013), over the course of her life she left few yet greatly varied examples of writing in her own hand.

As a young woman, Ida Saxton wrote often and at great length but in one 1869 letter admitted to her brother that she hated writing letters, not only because of the tediousness but because she was reluctant to set down her feelings and thoughts permanently for others to read, apart from those initially intended to read her letter.
The great bulk of her extant handwritten material are her letters to her parents and brother written during her six month tour of Europe in the second half of 1869.
The opening of a rare fully handwritten letter from Ida Saxton [McKinley] to her parents, 1869. (McKinley Presidential Museaum)

The opening of a rare fully handwritten letter from Ida Saxton [McKinley] to her parents, 1869. (McKinley Presidential Museaum)

The conclusion and signature of a letter Ida Saxton [McKinley] wrote to her parents in 1869. (McKinley Presidential Museum)

The conclusion and signature of a letter Ida Saxton [McKinley] wrote to her parents in 1869. (McKinley Presidential Museum)

A legal document relating to Saxton family property signed by both William and Ida McKinley. (NFLL)

A legal document relating to Saxton family property signed by both William and Ida McKinley. (NFLL)

From this same general period, however, there are no known handwriting samples known to remain from the nearly two years she worked full-time as first a clerk, and then as an occasional manager of her father’s bank in their hometown of Canton, Ohio.

There are, however, some legal documents pertaining to ownership and transfer of property she inherited from her father. Even on one deed where her husband also signed as a co-owner, Ida McKinley was scrupulous in affixing her own signature.
Following the death of her second child, “Little Ida,” in August of 1873, Ida McKinley was beset by a series of debilitating but inconsistent chronic health conditions, including late-onset epilepsy, compromised immune system and chronic immobility. From this point on, she wrote practically no full-length letters.
With a rising public profile as first the spouse of a U.S. Congressman and then Governor of Ohio, Ida McKinley received a large amount of incoming mail from merchants, journalists, social contacts and her husband’s constituents.
Often a clerk in McKinley’s congressional, then gubernatorial offices, or her personal maid, would respond by writing out the content of her dictated response, which she then signed.
One of William McKinley's forged signatures of his wife. (historyinink.com)

One of William McKinley’s forged signatures of his wife. (historyinink.com)

In the early part of the McKinley presidency, her husband’s private secretary George Cortelyou wrote the body of some of her responses to the public, which she then signed herself.

Ida McKinley photo signed by her husband using her name. (collector.com)

Ida McKinley photo signed by her husband using her name. (collector.com)

As one who kept close ties to relatives and friends, Ida McKinley dictated personal responses to her husband; it was in his handwriting that these letters were written.

At one point during his congressional career, William McKinley actually began “forging” her signature.
When she attained national recognition during his 1896 presidential campaign, Ida McKinley posed for formal photographs that were sent to the public who wrote requesting her signed picture.
An autograph album clipping showing President McKinley's autograph and his forged one of the First Lady's. (amazon.com)

An autograph album clipping showing President McKinley’s autograph and his forged one of the First Lady’s. (amazon.com)

A large percentage of examples that remain of these indicate that they were signed more often by her husband on her behalf.

He continued this custom during his presidency, often signing her name to White House cards and even in autograph albums.

The presumption that President McKinley forged everything in his wife’s name, however, is misleading.
Over the course of her four and a half years in the White House, her health often went from excellent to extremely poor – and back again.
An authentic signature of Ida McKinley. (historyinink.com)

An authentic signature of Ida McKinley. (historyinink.com)

Examples of her authentic signature range in appearance. This seems reflected in the relatively small number examples of her signatures.

To date, there appears to remain only two extant letters she wrote entirely in her own hand during her incumbency as First Lady.
Both of these Mrs. McKinley wrote during the late summers of 1897 and 1898 to her beloved niece Mary Barber, the daughter of her sister Pina Saxton Barber.
A letter entirely written by Maud Healy who signed Ida McKinley's name - and mistakenly sold as being written by the former First Lady. (Heritage Auctions)

A letter entirely written by Maud Healy who signed Ida McKinley’s name – and mistakenly sold as being written by the former First Lady. (Heritage Auctions)

In them, she reported on the summer activities, the weather, her travel plans and her hopes that Mary might possibly join her for at least part of the respite.

Ida McKinley’s routine of dictating her correspondence continued after the President’s death to assassination n September of 1901. Returning to live in her Canton, Ohio home, Maud Healy, one of her maids transcribed the former First Lady’s responses.

Sometimes Maud Healy identified herself as having written a letter for Mrs. McKinley. (pbgalleries.com)

Sometimes Maud Healy identified herself as having written a letter for Mrs. McKinley. (pbgalleries.com)

On occasion, in the body of the letter she stated that “Mrs. McKinley wishes to say….,” while in many others she did not make this clarification.

In every known example Healy signed the letters as Ida McKinley.

On some occasions, she identified herself as “maid” or “assistant” beneath the Ida McKinley signature, or used the term “per MH,” indicating her initials.
She did not, however, do so consistently and many unwitting winners of auctions have bought what they thought were letters written and signed by Mrs. McKinley as a widow that were not.
A close-up of Ida McKinley's genuine signature on a free franked envelope. (historyinink.com)jpg

A close-up of Ida McKinley’s genuine signature on a free franked envelope. (historyinink.com)jpg

One absolutely certain form of her authentic signature is found on the envelopes of letters she had sent during her years as a widow, up until her death in May of 1906.

Whether the envelope was addressed to an organization, a member of the public or one of her family members or friends, the name and address was written out by Maude Healy or one of two other maids who worked for her from 1901 to 1906.
An Ida McKinley free-franked envelope - although she did not writing the name and address of the recipient. (bennetstamps.com)

An Ida McKinley free-franked envelope – although she did not writing the name and address of the recipient. (bennetstamps.com)

However, in the upper-left corner of the envelopes, usually in very small, cramped handwriting style there always appeared the name “Ida McKinley” or sometimes “Ida S. McKinley.”

The oddity here is that most other presidential widows placed their signatures in the upper-right hand corner of the envelope.
Having been granted by Congress the privilege of the “free frank,” meaning that as a presidential widow she did not need to use any postage on her outgoing mail, Mrs. McKinley felt it would be improper, perhaps illegal, if she permitted anyone else to sign her name or if she used a rubber stamp of her signature.

 

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The White House Staff of First Ladies

Eleanor Roosevelt with staff members Malvina Thompson and Edith Helm. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt with staff members Malvina Thompson and Edith Helm. (FDRL)

This article is adapted from a public inquiry response about a Canadian email claiming that Michelle Obama has maintained a larger staff than any of her successors.
Mary Catherine Hellen Adams. (New England Historical Society)

Mary Catherine Hellen Adams. (New England Historical Society)

Documentation suggests that during the presidencies from 1789 until 1877, family members who were hired as federal clerks to serve the President also responded to incoming correspondence to First Ladies from those unknown to the presidential wives. Housekeepers and ushers aided in carrying out formal dinners, invitations for those related to foreign nations being coordinated with the Secretary of State. Press inquiries were rare, but were usually processed by the federal clerks working for the President.

Often, friends or relatives making lengthy visits during the winter social season assisted First Ladies in planning and executing social events. For example, Polly Lear, the wife George Washington’s private secretary Tobias Lear, worked with Martha Washington. Louisa Adams’  niece (and later daughter-in-law) Mary Catherine Hellen worked as her social aide. Julia Tyler’s sister Margaret Gardiner aided her during the 1844-1845 social season.
George Cortelyou aided Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley. (Commerce Dept)

George Cortelyou aided Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley. (Commerce Dept)

By the latter 19th century, the Personal or Private Secretary of the President or a clerk began to answer public mail for First Ladies, as seen in the examples of Orville Babcock doing so or Julia Grant, Stanley Brown for Lucretia Garfield, George Cortelyou for Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley. Mail clerk Ira Smith also answered mail for Mrs. McKinley.

Since the turn of the 20th century, First Ladies have relied on a growing number of regular clerical staff that is assigned to work in the Executive Offices to carry out the growing responsibilities of true expanding public role.
Belle Hagner (right), at a White House social event. (WHHA)

Belle Hagner (right), at a White House social event. (WHHA)

As First Ladies took a more direct role in planning social events, they relied upon and worked more closely with the chief usher, housekeeper, cooks, florists, and others on the permanent domestic staff.

Mary Spiers and Alice Blech. (WHHA)

Mary Spiers and Alice Blech. (WHHA)

Edith Roosevelt was the first to have a Social Secretary who was a salaried federal employee – Isabelle Hagner.

Nellie Taft was given the same congressional appropriation within the executive branch government and had a series of three different women fulfilling that job including Alice Bech and Mary Spiers.
Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson both rehired Belle Hagner. Florence Harding hired Laura Harlan and Grace Coolidge’s Social Secretary was Polly Randolph.
Laura Harlan looks at audience as Florence Harding addresses them. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Laura Harlan looks at audience as Florence Harding addresses them. (carlanthonyonline.com)

In 1929, Lou Hoover became the first to have multiple secretaries – a total of four by the time she left the White House. One or two of these “private secretaries” were paid a salary by the Hoovers.

Eleanor Roosevelt had two staff members Social Secretary and Personal Secretary, as did Bess Truman.
Mamie Eisenhower dictates to secretary Mary Jane McCaffree. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower dictates to secretary Mary Jane McCaffree. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower had only one Social Secretary but by this time, her responsibilities were far greater than planning social functions.

She acted also as correspondence and press secretary, and had a staff of typists and clerks working for her.
Jackie Kennedy with Pamela Turnure, prior to a press event. (JFKL)

Jackie Kennedy with Pamela Turnure, prior to a press event. (JFKL)

Jacqueline Kennedy hired the first Press Secretary, Pamela Turnure. In the press office was also an assistant.

There was also a head of correspondence.Letitia Baldrige was given the ostensible title of “Social Secretary” but was already functioning as a de facto Chief of Staff. Mrs. Kennedy also hired the first White House Curator, who worked under her direction, as did the Housekeeper and Chief Usher.
There were many clerks answering her mail.
Betty Ford at a staff party. (GRFL)

Betty Ford at a staff party. (GRFL)

Lady Bird Johnson’s Press Secretary Liz Carpenter was functioning as Chief of Staff. In addition to Social Secretary there was also added to the First Lady’s staff the position of Project Director.
Under Pat Nixon, the position of Advance woman was added. Under Betty Ford, the position of speechwriter was added.
Mrs. Reagan with the first of several of her Social Secretaries and Chiefs of Staff, Mabel Brandon and Peter McCoy. (RRPL)

Mrs. Reagan with the first of several of her Social Secretaries and Chiefs of Staff, Mabel Brandon and Peter McCoy. (RRPL)

Rosalynn Carter was the first to have a single designated figure serve as Chief of Staff.

Barbara Bush employed the first African-American press secretary and Michelle Obama hired the first male Social Secretary.
Under the department heads of East Wing directors (Press Secretary, Social Secretary, Personal Aide, Project Director, Correspondence, Speechwriting, Advance) there are often deputies and assistants who carry the title.
Hillary Clinton meeting with her staff. (WJCPL)

Hillary Clinton meeting with her staff. (WJCPL)

Under a more general “staff” designation there are typists, and researchers working for First Ladies.

On many occasions, it may be hard to trace what specific federal positions work for a First Lady because often they are hired through the West Wing or a Cabinet department and are requisitioned due to their expertise, either for the full term of the administration or part of the time, depending on the endeavor.

For example, at the time of the weddings of LBJ’s daughters, Press Secretary Liz Carpenter requisitioned the temporary services of one of the President’s press aides, Tom Johnson.

Michelle Obama with members of her staff in 2010. (WH)

Michelle Obama with members of her staff in 2010. (WH)

Or, during her initial drug abuse education program planning, Nancy Reagan had the president’s advisor on illicit drug use work with her staff.

The claim about Mrs. Obama having the biggest staff in history may be due to the greater transparency of the Obama Administration in delineating the names, titles and salaries of those who have or are working for her.

While this has always been a matter of public information, the Obama Administration is the first to publicly disclose it.

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Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (FDRL)

She was taking an incredibly rare moment of rest at her Val-Kill retreat in Hyde Park, New York on the Hudson, simply relaxing as she listened to the radio and knitting.

Eleanor Roosevelt learning how to dive, in the pool at her Val-Kill home in Hyde Park. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Eleanor Roosevelt learning how to dive, in the pool at her Val-Kill home in Hyde Park. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Resting for Eleanor Roosevelt in July of 1940 also meant that she was dictating rapid-fire responses to her secretary Malvina “Tommy” Thompson and stenographer Dorothy Dow, keeping on top of the hundreds of letters she received each week. She was also finally taking diving lessons in her pool.

Nearby, an ill friend who needed help found that none other than the First Lady of the United States was barging into her home, cleaning the rooms and cooking the woman’s lunch and dinner.

Days earlier, there had also been a summer afternoon tea she hosted for a few friends who dropped by – some eight hundred of them.

The radio was tuned to a live broadcast of the National Democratic Convention in its opening day, being held in Chicago.

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting at Hyde Park. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting at Hyde Park. (FDRL)

If Eleanor Roosevelt was known as the First Lady who had a habit of shattering precedents, now it was the turn of her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Elected in the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, and then to a traditional second term in 1936, he was now mortifying political traditionalists by seeking a third presidential term.

“Washington Wouldn’t, Lincoln Couldn’t, Roosevelt Shouldn’t!” declared one of the plethora of anti-third term buttons hitting the marketplace that year.

Eleanor Roosevelt with Henry Wallace, 1940. (Getty)

Eleanor Roosevelt with Henry Wallace, 1940. (Getty)

As she listened in, Mrs. Roosevelt got her first inkling of serious trouble. The majority of delegates were protesting the President’s choice of a running mate, a new vice presidential candidate Henry Wallace.

With his socialist sympathies, the new potential nominee was a radical departure from James Garner, the conservative Texas Democrat who had served with FDR during his first two terms.

The delegate revolt could not only create chaos where the Roosevelts and the Democratic National Committee chairman had planned for a smooth re-nomination but it could split and throw the party into disarray at a particularly delicate time in American life.

Mrs. Roosevelt in her Office of Civilian Defense office, (LC)

Mrs. Roosevelt in her Office of Civilian Defense office, (LC)

As Hitler began exercising his reign of tyranny and the rise of the Third Reich began to shadow the stability of Europe, the United States was slowly converting to a pre-war economy as a means of extending the economic recovery that FDR’s “New Deal” government programs had begun in the effort to reverse the depression.

Ostensibly, the wartime buildup was in support of the closest American ally, Great Britain, the primary target of Germany, but the First Lady had also led up the Civilian Defense Corps, an effort to begin getting the American people prepared for the changes that the world war would bring.

As she knitted away, the phone rang. It was the President. Eleanor Roosevelt’s  rest would prove not only rare but brief. The delegates needed unification. He wanted her to do the unifying.

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on a plane. (Getty)

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on a plane. (Getty)

Soon a second call came in, this one directly from the convention floor, It was her friend, the Labor Secretary Frances Perkins practically begging her to save the day.

In a flash, Mrs. Roosevelt jumped up to dress, dashed out of the house, into a waiting car. She was  joined by her son Franklin, Jr.

She also, apparently, brought the banged-up but trusty typewriter that the ever-reliable Tommy usually pecked out letters and memos on. Without Tommy, Mrs. Roosevelt was capable of doing her own typing, however. They boarded a small private plane, and were soon headed for Chicago.

Mrs. Roosevelt typing away. (FDRL)

Mrs. Roosevelt typing away. (FDRL)

It was, apparently, during the flight that Mrs. Roosevelt formed a general idea of what needed to be said, and a single page of loose notes were typed out.

Before landing, the First Lady was given a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of taking control of an airplane. Her hand on the

Eleanor Roosevelt had been to a Democratic National Convention before. She had joined Franklin at the one held in New York in 1924, when he placed the name of his friend, New York Governor Al Smith up for the presidential nomination.

FDR, Eleanor and their son  on the wings of the plane they took to the 1932 Democratic Convention. (AP)

FDR, Eleanor and two of their sons before boarding the plane they took to the 1932 Democratic Convention. (AP)

It was FDR’s very first political appearance since he had contracted infantile paralysis and he appeared on crutches.

Eleanor had accompanied him to ensure he was able to carry off the new ritual he had developed that gave the appearance of briefly walking when, in fact, it was a system whereby he swung his lifeless legs, encased in iron braces.

When FDR had broken precedent by flying to Chicago in 1932 to accept his nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, Mrs. Roosevelt had also been with him.

It may well have inspired her to become the first spouse of a presidential candidate to address a national convention, but also the first incumbent First Lady to do so.

A heated Edith Wilson fanning herself at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (Historical Images)

A heated Edith Wilson fanning herself at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (Historical Images)

However, while Eleanor Roosevelt would become the first incumbent First Lady to address a national convention, she was not the first among First Ladies to do so.

Already seated in her front-row box seat in the Chicago Stadium was one of her predecessors and a friend dating back to World War I, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson.

Mrs. Wilson was a living legend, famous for the whisper that she had in fact served as the nation’s “first woman president” because she managed the presidency following the stroke of her husband Woodrow Wilson while he was the incumbent president

Edith Wilson escorted into the 1928 Democratic Convention. (Historical Images)

Edith Wilson escorted into the 1928 Democratic Convention. (Historical Images)

Following the former president’s death in February of 1924, Edith Wilson began a career as “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson,” traveling the world to represent his legacy, be it at a statue dedication, an international conference upholding his vision of a League of Nations, or an important Democratic Party function.

Mrs. Wilson kept her distance from Mrs. Smith. (Historical Images)

Mrs. Wilson kept her distance from Mrs. Smith. (Historical Images)

Although still in mourning at the time of the 1924 Democratic Convention, Mrs. Wilson went to the one held in Houston, Texas four years later as the guest of wealthy businessman Jesse H. Jones, who

While Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had been wildly adamant supporters of their friend, Bronx native and New York Governor Al Smith, the aristocratic segregationist Edith Wilson held him and his working-class wife Mary Smith in genteel contempt.

Edith Wilsons makes her "speech." (carlanthonyonline.com)

Edith Wilsons makes her “speech.” (carlanthonyonline)

Conscious of her status as a party symbol, she finally acquiesced to pressure to pose stiffly alongside the would-be First Lady Mrs. Smith in front of an outside chain-link fencing where news photographers finally cornered her. “Poor Mrs. Smith,” mused author Gore Vidal many decades later. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs. Wilson voted for Hoover that year, on class alone.”

She paused, shifting away slightly to leave a decided space between them.

Edith Wilson stayed long into the night at the 1932 Democratic Convention sessions and watched FDR cinch the nomination. (ebay)

Edith Wilson stayed long into the night at the 1932 Democratic Convention sessions and watched FDR cinch the nomination. (ebay)

Generous in praise of his fellow southerner, the late President Wilson, whose administration he’d served, Jesse Jones won the effusive support of his widow in the long-shot effort to draft him instead of Smith.

It was thus with appreciative enthusiasm that, at the opening session of the 1928 convention, Jesse Jones called Mrs. Wilson to the podium to be acknowledged by the delegates – and then gently pushed her towards the microphone, announcing to the convention that she would now address them.

Never having given a public speech and never having wishing to do so, Edith Wilson uttered a few sentences of thanks for their warm welcome, which she registered as a respectful tribute to “dear Mr. Wilson.”

Kisses for Mrs. Wilson at the 1940 Convention. (Historical Image)

Kisses for Mrs. Wilson at the 1940 Convention. (Historical Image)

Thus, however unwittingly, Edith Wilson technically became the first First Lady to address a national convention, albeit with the distinction of former First Lady. Her remarks nor any other voice recordings have thus far been located.

While she never again allowed herself to be brought to the podium, Mrs. Wilson found that she rather liked the fawning she got at conventions where she quite willingly assumed the role of a Queen Mother, as much as a democracy permitted.

Mrs. Wilson arrives at the 1936 convention with Jesse Jones and his wife. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Mrs. Wilson arrives at the 1936 convention with Jesse Jones and his wife. (carlanthonyonline.com)

From that point on, she never missed one.

Ritualistically, on the opening day of the conventions, the chairmen at the podium would beseech the entire auditorium to join him in welcoming “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson” as she insisted on being called.

Seated in a front-row VIP box seat, her face framed in the changing parade of hat fashions of the Thirties and Forties, Edith would elegantly rise and gently wave to the cheering crowds, giggling a bit.

Mrs. Wilson holds court, 1936 convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Mrs. Wilson holds court, 1936 convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Throughout the course of each convention, she held court daily from her viewing box, accepting gifts of candy, flowers, signing autographs and accepting kisses.

Reporters noted that she always came early and stayed to the bitter end, enduring the insufferable heat, candidate chantings and picketed demonstrations.

Mrs. Wilson always cultivated a relationship with each one of her successors regardless of political affiliation, but her friendship with Mrs. Roosevelt was the longest and most complex.

The two First Ladies share a laugh. (Corbis)

The two First Ladies share a laugh. (Life)

They had been together in Europe immediately after World War I and shared the experience of visiting a hospital ward to visit American doughboys had been permanently disfigured by war. It was a haunting experience neither woman forgot.

Mrs. Wilson often called on Mrs. Roosevelt to help her on projects involving the Wilsonian vision of a League of Nations; sharing the same vision, the latter almost always complied. When Mrs. Roosevelt asked Mrs. Wilson to simply loan her name to National Democratic Women’s Committee fundraising letters, the latter almost never complied.

When it came to gender and racial equality, they were utterly oppositional. In the 1940′s, for example, Mrs. Wilson sent around some witty but rather mean bits of anti-Roosevelt poetry.

The two First Ladies got on well personally, sharing the same sense of the ridiculous. On occasion, they could be even be spied enjoying an earthy laugh together. The patient Mrs. Roosevelt seemed to bring the best out in  the prickly Mrs. Wilson.

Mrs Wilson and Wallace at the 1941 Inaugural. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Now, at the 1940 Democratic Convention, she was not at all welcoming to the Roosevelt choice of Wallace as vice president, staunch in her support of getting her friend Jones (then serving as FDR’s Commerce Secretary) on the ticket as FDR’s running mate.

Edith Wilson stands to acknowledge the convention cheers. (ebay)

Edith Wilson stands to acknowledge the convention cheers. (ebay)

One reporter noted that even the usually sedate former First Lady joined in the foot-stomping protest against the choice of Wallace as the party’s vice presidential choice.

By the time Eleanor Roosevelt finished her speech, however, even Edith Wilson joined in party unity to support the FDR-Wallace ticket.

By the time Inauguration Day came around, the reactionary Democrat had gotten so downright chummy with the leftist one that she requested he escort her to some of the festivities. She would accept nobody of lesser a status.

The new Vice President, of course, complied.

Simply upon entering the arena, Eleanor Roosevelt commanded the entire 1940 Democratic convention's attention. (Corbis)

Simply upon entering the arena, Eleanor Roosevelt commanded the entire 1940 Democratic convention’s attention. (Corbis)

The very first glimpse of the distinctively tall and looming Eleanor purposefully striding into the coliseum and beelining straight up to the podium set off a deafening cheer and stampede of foot-stomping. The Democratic delegates might squawk and scream about who should be Vice President, but everyone loved Mrs. Roosevelt.

Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly was doggedly loyal to the Roosevelts. (Getty)

Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly was doggedly loyal to the Roosevelts. (Getty)

At the foot of the podium, she was greeted there by Chicago mayor Ed Kelly, eagerly waiting to greet her with a few words.

Mayor Kelly was as loyal an apostle of FDR as they came. In fact, to ensure that there wasn’t any trouble in seeing that the Roosevelt choice for vice president got the biggest and loudest demonstration, he ordered the police to block re-entrance into the hall of those delegates known to oppose him.

Always the courteous gent, Kelly was devoted to Mrs. Roosevelt and made his apologies to his special guest that day in his V.I.P. viewing box, local radio show actress Edie Davis.

Chicago radio actress and Democrat Edie Davis at a luncheon. (ebay)

Chicago radio actress and Democrat Edie Davis at a luncheon. (Historical Image)

Always beaming her sunny smile and instantly recognizable by her snow-white hair and suntan, Mrs. Davis also worked for the mayor as a vice-squad matron. She knew what was up in the Windy City.

Despite being married to an archly conservative Republican neurosurgeon, Edie was a rabid Democrat.

For this historic moment, she had brought along her teenage daughter, home on summer vacation from Smith College, where she had completed her first year of study, majoring in drama.

As a Smith College freshman Miss Anne Frances Davis in 1939. (Historical Images)

As a Smith College freshman Miss Anne Frances Davis in 1939. (Historical Images)

The young woman, who had only just turned nineteen years old two weeks earlier, later recalled with some embarrassment her singular lack of curiosity about politics at the time.

Especially close to her mother, however, Miss Ann Frances Davis was noted in a newspaper clipping about Chicago society folks at the convention, as practically sitting on Mrs. Davis’s lap as they anticipated the arrival of the First Lady.

Eleanor Roosevelt, first incumbent First Lady to address a political convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Eleanor Roosevelt, first incumbent First Lady to address a political convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Without fanfare, on that steamy July eighteenth, the First Lady spoke with conviction to the delegates, in a tone some thought scoldingly but all thought convincingly.

She did not mention Wallace by name but rather focused on why the President must have the right to break with the tradition of delegates choosing a vice president and hold that prerogative himself with the expectation of their unanimous support.

Topped in a flowered hat and wearing a pinned corsage as large as the hat, Mrs. Roosevelt only had her single sheet of paper with typed notes.

The single page of typed notes Eleanor Roosevelt glanced at as she extemporaneously  delivered her speech. (FDRL)

The single page of typed notes Eleanor Roosevelt glanced at as she extemporaneously delivered her speech. (FDRL)

From this, as the transcript below illustrates, the First Lady spoke with extemporaneously eloquence:

Delegates to the convention, visitors, friends: It is a great pleasure for me to be here and to have an opportunity to say a word to you.

First of all, I think I want to say a word to our National Chairman, James A. Farley. For many years I have worked under Jim Farley and with Jim Farley, and I think nobody could appreciate more what he has done for the party, what he has given in work and loyalty. And I want to give him here my thanks and devotion.

And now, I think that I should say to you that I cannot possibly bring you a message from the President because he will give you his own message. But, as I am here, I want you to know that no one could not be conscious of the confidence which you have expressed in him.

Mrs. Roosevelt quiets the cheers to begin her speech. (Corbis)

Mrs. Roosevelt quiets the cheers to begin her speech. (Corbis)

You cannot treat it as you would treat an ordinary nomination in an ordinary time. We people in the United States have got to realize today that we face a grave and serious situation.

Therefore, this year the candidate who is the President of the United States cannot make a campaign in the usual sense of the word. He must be on his job.

So each and every one of you who give him this responsibility, in giving it to him assume for yourselves a very grave responsibility because you will make the campaign. You will have to rise above considerations which are narrow and partisan.

You must know that this is the time when all good men and women give every bit of service and strength to their country that they have to give. This is the time when it is the United States that we fight for, the domestic policies that we have established as a party that we must believe in, that we must carry forward, and in the world we have a position of great responsibility.

We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals.

No man who is a candidate or who is President can carry this situation alone. This is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it to the fullest of their ability, with the highest ideals, with a determination that their party shall be absolutley devoted to the good of the nation as a whole and to doing what this country can to bring the world to a safer and happier condition.

Whether it was the shock of a First Lady speaking at a convention or the power of her words, the entire convention fell into awed silence. The solemnity of imminent world war and its full impact seemed to have struck them all. There were no more floor fights or screaming or protests.

Finishing her speech in victory, Eleanor Roosevelt threw up her entire right arm with gusto.(FDRL)

Finishing her speech in victory, Eleanor Roosevelt threw up her entire right arm with gusto.(FDRL)

As one newspaper headline put it, “Mrs. Roosevelt Stills the Tumult of 50,000.”

Finally, after the silence, the convention hall erupted in deafening cheers and whistles. The First Lady couldn’t repress her famous toothy grin. Not unlike her “Uncle Ted,” the late President Theodore Roosevelt, she threw up her right arm in triumphant acknowledgement.

Then, she simply turned around and walked out, nodding her head and shaking hands in acknowledgement of those lining her exit path to glimpse her. Her waiting care drove her back to the airport. She flew home directly, to summertime at Hyde Park.

Within eighteen hours of having been interrupted by the call from her husband, Mrs. Roosevelt was back in the country, knitting away.

Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt proceed to the U.S. Capitol to hear President FDR declare war on December 7, 1941. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt proceed to the U.S. Capitol to hear President FDR declare war on December 7, 1941. (carlanthonyonline.com)

For Mrs. Wilson, the words of her successor that day must have echoed a sad, distant memory of another time, before another war. Despite her late husband’s 1916 re-election to a  second term on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War,” she was more aware than most of the inevitability he would have to lead the United States into the bloody conflict known then as “The Great War.”

Just seventeen months after the hot summer of the Chicago convention, at the start of the 1941 Christmas season, Edith Wilson would be seated in unity beside Eleanor Roosevelt, as they together listened to and fully absorbed the implication of the President’s declaration of war against the empire of Japan. From that point on, “The Great War” would be known as World War I, giving grave context to the new one, World War II.

The power of a First Lady’s symbolism at the Chicago convention long lingered in the memory of one witness to it that day.

A late 1940s Hollywood headshot of Miss Davis. (RRPL)

A late 1940s Hollywood headshot of Miss Davis. (RRPL)

Edie Davis’s daughter would pursue a professional acting career briefly on Broadway, then headed west to Hollywood. There, Miss Davis worked diligently at her craft for nearly a decade, building a credible record of a dozen films. Never able to break typecasting, she would then marry the Screen Actor’s Union president, managing to raise two children while taking television and commercial jobs. When he ran for governor and won, she adjusted her life to that of a political spouse.

Nancy Reagan acknowledges cheers after her 1984 convention remarks. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Nancy Reagan acknowledges cheers after her 1984 convention remarks. (carlanthonyonline.com)

By the time he won the presidency in 1980, she became a First Lady as influential as Eleanor Roosevelt, not through policy but personal influence.

And, in 1984, when her husband was nominated for a second term at the National Republican Convention, Nancy Reagan would address the delegates and the nation, just as did Eleanor Roosevelt.

A year later, shown a yellowed clipping that noted her presence at the 1940 Convention and asked if she remembered watching her predecessor’s historical speech, the eyes of the woman formally known as Ann Frances Davis widened excitedly as she piped up.

“How could anyone forget Mrs. Roosevelt?! There was nobody like her. Nobody.

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Rosalynn Carter at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. (Pinterest)

Rosalynn Carter at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. (Pinterest)

Never before had a First Lady assumed such a presidential role as did Rosalynn Carter in the months leading up to the August 1980 Democratic National Convention that saw the nomination of her husband, incumbent President Jimmy Carter, for a second term.

n 1980 Rosalynn Carter assumed all of the responsibilities of the incumbent President running for revelation. (Getty)

n 1980 Rosalynn Carter assumed all of the responsibilities of the incumbent President running for revelation. (Getty)

The problem was that the President was “in the Rose Garden,” a euphemism for the fact that ongoing national crises were keeping him in Situation Room meetings and conferences that were too important to miss.

At that point, Iranian militants had stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and taken the US citizens there as hostages. On top of this, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

An the greater political challenge was the candidacy of U.S. Senator Edward “Teddy” Kennedy against her husband for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Rosalynn Carter went to register her husband's name as a presidential candidate in the New Hampshire primary. (Getty)

Rosalynn Carter went to register her husband’s name as a presidential candidate in the New Hampshire primary. (Getty)

So, the First Lady did not merely go to register his name as a candidate in the New Hampshire primary but delivered complex policy speeches. She went to campaign in Iowa for its caucuses and faced farmers angry over President Carter’s grain embargo.

Mrs. Carter took all hard policy questions during the 1980 campaign as if she were the presidential candidate.(Getty)

Mrs. Carter took all hard policy questions during the 1980 campaign as if she were the presidential candidate.(Getty)

Twice a week, she spent on the campaign trail, developing a standard stump speech but always writing a new lead that reflected her daily phone contact with the White House to keep abreast of changing international developments that she could include in her public remarks.

Relieved at the win in Iowa, Rosalynn Carter assumed Teddy Kennedy would soon drop out. But he refused to.

As the ultimate surrogate of the President, it was the First Lady who now took him on directly on the campaign trail, countering his claims and charges against Carter.

Twenty years after addressing a Harlem rally in Spanish on behalf of her husband's candidacy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis returned there with her brother-in-law Teddy Kennedy on behalf of his race in the 1980 New York primary. (Getty)

Twenty years after addressing a Harlem rally in Spanish on behalf of her husband’s candidacy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis returned there with her brother-in-law Teddy Kennedy on behalf of his race in the 1980 New York primary. (Getty)

She was elated when Carter won Illinois, despite the last-minute shift in allegiance by Chicago major Jane Byrne who came out for Kennedy.

The New York primary proved to be a hurdle.

As he campaigned through the Empire State, Teddy Kennedy called on his famous sister-in-law, the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and she headlined fundraisers in the New York City boroughs, targeting Greek and Puerto Rican constituencies.

It proved to have a positive effect, and Kennedy won New York.

Despite Jackie’s efforts to coax him into withdrawing after the victory against what she foresaw as an impossible challenge which she detected he did not really have the heart to pursue, Teddy Kennedy kept on hitting hard against Carter and onto the late spring primaries.

Mrs. Carter campaigning during the New York primary at the St. Patrick's Day parade with Mayor Ed Koch. (UPI)

Mrs. Carter campaigning during the New York primary at the St. Patrick’s Day parade with Mayor Ed Koch. (UPI)

On the campaign trail, Mrs. Carter forged ahead – through allergic reactions, a hotel fire, a mouth sore from constant speeches and press conferences.

She was admittedly “tense and nervous” during a day trip that included campaign stops in Tennessee, Texas and Michigan, all the while knowing that the President was managing a secret rescue mission attempt of the hostages.

In addition to her tight schedule as First Lady, Rosalynn Carter spent two days each week campaigning during the primaries. (Getty)

Rosalynn Carter spent two days each week campaigning during the  1980 primaries. (Getty)

When she returned to the White House, the President told her she would not be able to campaign the next day. The mission failed with an air crash, killing eight. As if things could not get worse,  there came a flood of Cuban refugees.

Rosalynn Carter was still concerned about the fact that Teddy Kennedy would not drop is challenge, a situation that deepened when he petitioned for a change in the National Democratic Convention rules, hoping to have it turned into an “open” one where delegates were released from the pledge commitments they made during the state primaries.

The Reagan convention. (ABC)

The Reagan convention. (ABC)

Taking a much-needed break at Sapelo Island in Georgia with her husband, Mrs. Carter began the week of Monday, July 15 watching the Republican National Convention and its nomination of Ronald Reagan as the presidential candidate.

On occasion, she recalled, she had to leave the room when attacks on her husband and his policies became too strident. Still, she felt an odd comfort that he would be the general election challenger to Jimmy, for she didn’t agree with any of his espoused policies and couldn’t see how he might be elected.

Other members of the First Family attended at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, including the president's mother and son, Lillian and Jeff, but his brother Billy Carter did not appear. (Getty)

Other members of the First Family attended at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, including the president’s mother and son, Lillian and Jeff, but his brother Billy Carter did not appear. (Getty)

On the third day of the Republican Convention, came word of her brother-in-law Billy Carter having been discovered to be an unregistered lobbyist for the nation of Libya. While the Carters were intending to now focus more intently on the convention, they had to stop and, at the request of attorneys, begins searching their own records for any potential contact with Billy Carter on the matter of Libya.

Despite the closeness of the Carter family, it was considered unwise for the president’s brother to appear at the convention held from August 11 to 14, again in New York where Carter had won his first presidential nomination four years earlier.

On the first two days of the Democratic National Convention, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter holed away in preparation at Camp David.

The issue of Kennedy’s push for an open convention had still not yet been resolved. So the First Lady, along with her husband, spent the entire forty-eight hours, intended to de-compress and prepare, with the endless lists of names and phone numbers of individual delegates who had declared for Carter during the primaries. They called and spoke to each one, seeking assurance that they would remain loyal to their commitment. It gave Mrs. Carter a sense of relief.

Joan Kennedy comforts her husband Teddy after his convention speech. (Getty)

Joan Kennedy comforts her husband Teddy after his convention speech. (Getty)

Rosalynn Carter arrived at the convention for its third day, when Kennedy’s open convention  challenge was finally denied. The First Lady began to feel that her days at the convention were “successful and relatively happy days.”

Teddy Kennedy delivered what was technically a concession speech, but in declaring that “the dream never dies,” he stirred up great visions of a future nation among the delegates in Madison Square Garden, as well as the television viewing audience, evoking memories of his two assassinated brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Despite the resentment that Rosalynn Carter naturally felt to the impediment Senator Kennedy had created to a smoother primary campaign leading up to the convention, she declared that his speech was “stirring and emotional.” Still, it was also observed at the time that he may have better represented the past Democratic Party. As Mrs. Carter reflected, “his call for massive government spending programs roused a spirit that appealed to the more liberal delegates.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attended a Kennedy fundraiser breakfast at the 21 Club but then went to work, unwilling to serve as a symbol of an earlier era. (Getty)

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attended a Kennedy fundraiser breakfast at the 21 Club but then went to work, unwilling to serve as a symbol of an earlier era. (Getty)

Even his sister-in-law Jackie Kennedy Onassis felt that he was never fated for the presidency, but to be a leader in the Senate.

Although she attended a fundraiser breakfast  to relieve the Kennedy campaign of it deb, ton the morning of the first day of the convention, she did not wish to be used as an icon of a bygone era and turned down requests to appear in the convention hall as a way of bolstering Teddy Kennedy’s fight for an open convention. Instead, she went to work.

Rosalynn Carter was satirized on Saturday Night Live as the de facto President, (Pinterest)

Rosalynn Carter was satirized on Saturday Night Live as the de facto President, (Pinterest)

Although her highly visible political role that year had earned Mrs. Carter the dubious distinction of being depicted in a Saturday Night Live skit that cast her as taking over the Oval Office, she was neither sought nor was given any moment of glory at the convention.

Even though she had conducted the primary campaign as the substitute for the candidate himself, in addition to maintaining her own schedule as First Lady, there was no suggestion by the convention or campaign managers, media consultants, the White House staff or even the President himself, that Rosalynn Carter had earned the right to address the convention.

She would be the last incumbent First Lady never to address a national presidential convention.

Senator Kennedy and First Lady Carter together on the podium. (Getty)

Senator Kennedy and First Lady Carter together on the podium. (Getty)

Rosalynn Carter only finally made an appearance before the delegates at the podium on the last night of the convention, joining her husband and the Vice President Walter Mondale and Joan Mondale, following President Carter’s acceptance speech.  There was a call for Teddy Kennedy to also come up on the platform to join them in a sign of party unity.

Instead, one by one, different Democratic leaders largely unrecognizable to the public ascended to join the increasingly crowded podium. “I soon realized we were biding our time,” Mrs. Carter recalled.

The initial handshake between Carter and Kennedy. (AP)

The initial handshake between Carter and Kennedy. (AP)

Meanwhile, instead of analysis on Carter’s speech, the national media coverage focused on Kennedy’s reluctance to appear with Carter. When he finally did appear, he received enormous applause.

At one point, Kennedy and the First Lady together waved to the crowds, seemingly in unison but the Senator did not open his hand. After he initially shook hands with President Carter, however, Kennedy “stood awkwardly to one side.”

On the podium, Mrs. Carter kept her eye on Kennedy. (Getty)

On the podium, Mrs. Carter kept her eye on Kennedy. (Getty)

“At that moment,” Rosalynn Carter recalled, “I felt truly sorry for him. He had waged a vigorous campaign and been defeated by an incumbent President at the lowest ebb of his popularity. It must have been a terrible blow to him, and it was obviously very difficult to take.”

In line with the old saying that “no good deed goes unpunished in Washington,” the First Lady acted on her charitable impulse and it, she said, “got us into more trouble.”

Observing the second handshake between Kennedy and her husband that she prompted, Rosalynn Carter's gesture was cast by the media as her husband having to insist Kennedy show his support. (AP)

Observing the second handshake between Kennedy and her husband that she prompted, Rosalynn Carter’s gesture was cast by the media as her husband having to insist Kennedy show his support. (AP)

She walked over to the President and told him to engage Kennedy.

Carter then walked several steps through the thickly crowded stage to again shake his former rival’s hand. Just at that moment, House Speaker Tip O’Neill placed his hand under Kennedy’s arm, giving the impression that he was pulling the two men together.

Mrs. Carter carefully watched the brief and seemingly unimportant little gesture that she had prompted.

As it appeared to television news reporters, however, Carter was thought to be “chasing him around on the platform,” as if he were pathetically begging for Kennedy’s support.”

It had been long and hard and unpleasant,, and in the end we had been scarred,” Rosalynn Carter said as the 1980 Democratic National Convention  came to an end, “though how much we were yet to know.”

The failed balloon drop. (CSpan)

The failed balloon drop. (CSpan)

While waving, Mrs. Carter found it ominous that the balloons did not drop. (Pinterest)

While waving, Mrs. Carter noticed the balloon failure. (Pinterest)

There had been one ominous moment that Rosalynn Carter noticed while on stage.

Thousands of balloons held in nets above the convention floor failed to release in the intended moment of victory, coming almost too late in the process. When the balloons did drop, it was merely a trickle, the rest held at bay on the ceiling.

Less than three months later, Jimmy Carter was defeated in his bid for re-election. Two and a half months later, they moved out of the White House and returned to their small hometown of Plains, Georgia.

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Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic Convention. (Life)

Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic Convention. (Life)

“You have to have been a Republican,” quipped Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic Convention in Chicago, “to know how good it feels to be a Democrat.”

The Kennedy wedding. (Pinterest)

The Kennedy wedding. (Pinterest)

While she was not entirely unfamiliar with the general policy differences between the Democratic and Republican party, having covered the 1952 presidential campaign while she was a newspaper columnist, it was not until she married U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy in September of 1953 that Jacqueline Bouvier began to grasp the nuances of the political game.

It was only as the wife of the new Democratic Senator that the writer who had been raised as a Republican realized that the reason then-Congressman Jack Kennedy had not furthered their romance to the point of engagement before his election to the Senate was to play on his appeal as a bachelor to the thousands of young, single women voters in his state of Massachusetts – and their ambitious, older mothers.

And it was not until the lengthiest period of time alone together, on their honeymoon, that she realized his ambition to become President was a serious one, driving his career.

Kennedy speaks with his wife Jackie and sister Eunice at the convention. (Pinterest)

Kennedy speaks with his wife Jackie and sister Eunice at the convention. (Pinterest)

Another lesson was to come two years and ten months after her wedding when, in the final months of her first pregnancy, Mrs. Kennedy flew to Chicago with her husband to attend the 1956 Democratic National Convention.

Staying with her sister-in-law Eunice Shriver in her apartment while her husband stayed in a hotel room near the convention hall, Mrs. Kennedy showed enthusiastic support for the nomination of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, waving a picket with his name and conferring when she could with her husband who was angling to be chosen as Stevenson’s running mate.

Jackie Kennedy avidly waving a Stevenson picket at the 1956 convention. (AP)

Jackie Kennedy avidly waving a Stevenson picket at the 1956 convention. (AP)

Surrounded by her sisters-in-law Eunice Shriver, Jean Kennedy Smith and Ethel Kennedy, Jackie was crushed when her husband was not chosen as the vice-presidential candidate but became admittedly disillusioned about when she discovered that the primary objective of making her husband a national name familiar to most of the country as potential presidential material had been achieved.

In light of the overwhelming odds of defeating the popular incumbent Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and, thus, Stevenson’s likely defeat, the fact that JFK was not chosen ended up being a relief to him, his father and political advisers.

CHeshire. (ebay)

Cheshire. (ebay)

Apart from experiencing a sudden cynicism about politics, as well as the stress of the crowded, hot convention, Mrs. Kennedy found herself being stalked by gossip columnist Maxine Cheshire, with an unrelenting persistence in the convention hall.

Refusing to leave her alone after she refused to speak with her, Cheshire chased Mrs. Kennedy, who then fled on foot out of the hall and into the parking garage. It was after such an experience that, within a week, Jacqueline Kennedy lost her child, a daughter delivered prematurely as a stillborn.

The morning after her husband was nominated at the 1960 convention, Jackie Kennedy displayed a newspaper with the headline announcing the news. (Pinterest)

The morning after her husband was nominated at the 1960 convention, Jackie Kennedy displayed a newspaper with the headline announcing the news. (Pinterest)

Although she had campaigned on her own and with her husband all through 1958 in his Senate re-election bid, and then 1959 and the first months of 1960 during JFK’s candidacy for his party’s presidential nomination, Jackie Kennedy did not go with him to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in 1960, held in Los Angeles.

From the front porch of her in-law's home in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jackie Kennedy waves to crowds the day after her husband won the nomination at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. (Tumblr)

From the front porch of her in-law’s home in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jackie Kennedy waves to crowds the day after her husband won the nomination at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. (Tumblr)

Although she was only four months pregnant at that point, given the loss of her child immediately following the stress of attending the 1956 convention, Mrs. Kennedy abided by the admonishing of her pediatrician to remain at home in Hyannis, Massachusetts and minimize her excitement.

Every night of the convention, she spoke by phone with her husband, following the machinations that would lead to his winning the nomination.

The morning after Kennedy won the nomination but before he returned from the convention, Jackie Kennedy held her own in a press conference on the front porch of her in-laws house, engaging reporters in a witty banter reflecting not just her excitement but also caution in what she said for the record.

Here is some of that press conference:

Held just nine months after President Kennedy’s assassination, the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey would nominate his successor Lyndon B. Johnson for own his full term.

Jackie Kennedy greets the 1964 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey at a convention reception. (Pinterest)

Jackie Kennedy greets the 1964 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey at a convention reception. (Pinterest)

At this point, Jackie Kennedy was a powerful political symbol and the strong emotional support still felt for her late husband was considered a potent factor at the convention, especially in light of the Johnson campaign’s concern that her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy might subvert LBJ’s nomination.

Accustomed to having his persuasive tactics work in his favor, LBJ did all he could to get his successor’s widow into making a public appearance in the convention hall, and thereby signal her tacit endorsement of his candidacy. Jacqueline Kennedy, however, resisted with as much force and refused to do so.

What further proved to be a brief scare for the LBJ campaign was the suggestion, not proven until after the fact, that Jackie Kennedy had helped Robert Kennedy draft his speech to the convention and provided an especially moving quote from Shakespeare about the “garish sun,” a reference that many considered a negative metaphor for LBJ.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Kennedy did stop in at Atlantic City for a brief, few hours, on her way back from a vacation at the Adriatic Ocean, then on her way to her stepfather’s Newport summer estate.

Averell Harriman, Lady Bird Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy joined the widowed Mrs, John F. Kennedy at a reception for delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Pinterest)

Averell Harriman, Lady Bird Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy joined the widowed Mrs, John F. Kennedy at a reception for delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Pinterest)

It was a special reception held to thank those Democrats who had supported her late husband four years earlier and she was drawn there with the reassuring presence of senior party leader Averell Harriman and her brother-in-law Bobby.  However, Jackie Kennedy also stood alongside Lady Bird Johnson, with whom she always maintained a warm friendship. The visual impact of the two First Ladies went a long way in mitigating any suggestion of an intra-party schism.

With the 1968 Democratic Convention taking place just weeks after the assassination of her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy and the 1972 one occurring while she was spending the summer with her second husband Aristotle Onassis, it would not be until 1976 that Jackie Kennedy Onassis would again attend one of her party’s presidential nominating conventions.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis greets Hubert Humphrey again, this time at the 1976 new York Democratic National Convention. (AP)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis greets Hubert Humphrey again, this time at the 1976 new York Democratic National Convention, attorney Peter Tufo stands between them. (AP)

Mrs. Onassis had an especial motive for appearing at the event. She came not as the widow of the late, popular president from an earlier time, but as the working editor of publishing house. She was then working with an author on a biography of Chicago mayor Daley, who had refused to grant an interview and came intending to convince him to do so.

When she appeared in a viewing box, however, the delegates and officials could not help but see her only in the context of her having been First Lady and, to her mortification, the band even briefly played the theme song Camelot, from the Broadway musical about a mythic kingdom which she had compared to her husband’s brief presidency.

Mrs. Onassis repeatedly acknowledged the convention cheers for her, and greeted party leaders who came to call on her in her seat, alongside her sister Lee Radziwill, nephew Tony Radziwill and her sister’s date, lawyer Peter Tufo.

With her sister and nephew, former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis joins the convention cheering at the 1976 National Democratic Convention. (Getty)

With her sister and nephew, former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis joins the convention cheering at the 1976 National Democratic Convention. (Getty)

Although she appeared at a Democratic Party fundraiser breakfast at the 21 Club and a cocktail party in Brooklyn during the 1980 Democratic Convention during which her brother-in-law Senator Edward Kennedy was attempting to have the rules changed for an open convention in his challenge to incumbent President Carter, Mrs. Onassis didn’t attend any sessions of the convention.

It was not until a dozen years later, when the party’s convention was again held in New York City that Jackie Kennedy Onassis appeared at a Democratic Convention.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis in New York, July 1992 during the Democratic National Convention held there. (Tumblr)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis in New York, July 1992 during the Democratic National Convention held there. (Tumblr)

In 1992, on the last night of the week when Bill Clinton was nominated, she slipped in surreptitiously to hear the nominee deliver his acceptance speech, seated with her companion Maurice Templseman, and two adult children.

In fact, she and her son John had been among the earliest supporters of Clinton’s bid for their party’s nomination, contributing to his campaign a year before the election began.

During the convention week, Jackie had invited Hillary Clinton to her apartment for lunch and came away impressed with the academic and professional credentials with the candidate’s spouse.

Hillary Clinton and Jacqueline Onassis. (Pinterest)

Hillary Clinton and Jacqueline Onassis. (Pinterest)

When she learned that she was receiving VIP seats to watch Clinton’s acceptance speech, she seemed floor, telling a colleague about it as if she were just the private citizen she always insisted she had become by then – but which the public could never perceive her as being. Still, there was one small victory for her at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

She slipped in and out of Madison Square Garden so quietly, that no known photographs were taken that showed her in the auditorium.

 

 

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