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.

What First Ladies Wore: Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Part 5

Michelle Obama has been confident and dramatic in her clothing choices as First Lady, generating  popular following. (Vogue)

Michelle Obama has been confident and dramatic in her clothing choices as First Lady, generating popular following. (Vogue)

In September 2016, a graduate student from Italy came to the National First Ladies’ Library to conduct in-depth research on the fashions of the last half-century of First Ladies and to determine ways in which the visual impact and their clothing choices had either a political or public impact, as well as to understand their own responsiveness to current trends, and work with American designers in crafting their public image. The NFLL Historian responded both in a lengthy telephone interview and then with written answers to follow-up questions posed to him by the research student.

The responses have been reconfigured and adapted into separate entries of individual First Ladies.

This five-part series is adapted from that material. Part I covers Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson; Part II, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford; Part III, Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan; Part IV, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton; Part V, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.

Laura Bush

Laura Bush in her first inaugural gown. (Vogue)

Laura Bush in a de la Rental gown. (Vogue)

Laura Bush began her tenure as First Lady with a wardrobe that reflected a more subdued and conservative style.

Laura Bush going to a public event in one of her tailored pants suits. (Getty)

Laura Bush going to a public event in one of her tailored pants suits. (Getty)

Within a short time, however, she drew notice by more frequently appearing in slim and tailored pants suits, following a precedent set by Hillary Clinton.

Generally these were in muted colors but they were shaded in greens, pinks and oranges and also included textured tweed wool suits.

Mrs. Bush also wore colorful and lavish form-fitting evening gowns for many state occasions, as well as both inaugural balls in 2001 and 20o5.

During the swearing-in ceremony and parade of both inaugurations, she did not wear a hat.

For the first event, she appeared in a light blue, and for the second she wore white.

Laura Bush in Saudi Arabia. (GWBL)

Laura Bush in Saudi Arabia. (GWBL)

During Mrs. Bush’s numerous trips on her own to African and Middle Eastern nations, Laura Bush respected local custom and often wore headscarves.

When this was not expected during a visit she made to Saudi Arabia to raise awareness of breast cancer detection and treatment, however, she posed entirely at ease with other women who were covered except for their eyes.

While it is not necessarily what she wore as much as what she did not wear that is notable, it is perhaps her most iconic image as First Lady related to clothing.

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama evening gowns. (Pinterest)

Michelle Obama evening gowns. (Pinterest)

Certainly one can say Michelle Obama truly blossomed in her clothing choices from almost the moment she became First Lady, right away wearing bold colors and dramatic styles.

Like her two predecessors, Michelle Obama sported pants suits at public events. (Pinterest)

Like her two predecessors, Michelle Obama sported pants suits at public events. (Pinterest)

Previously, as a young woman from a working-class family, then a law student, working attorney, and city and hospital administrator she had never indulged or displayed a taste for bolder fashions.

Michelle Obama has worn such a wide and dramatic range of colors and styles that it is difficult to identify one indelible iconic image of her.

Mrs. Obama wore brightly-colored floral print dresses evoking a Fifties style popularized by Mamie Eisenhower. (Pinterest)

Mrs. Obama wore brightly-colored floral print dresses evoking a Fifties style popularized by Mamie Eisenhower. (Pinterest)

She has not so much spoken about her interest in fashion during her eight years as First Lady as she has made a statement simply by her appearance.

She has made a conscious effort to mix high-end and affordable clothes (a public gesture she first began by appearing on The Ellen Show in a flowered dress from J.Crew during the 2008 campaign), and wearing the work of minority designers.

Initially, Mrs. Obama frequently showed a marked preference for the color purple which, beginning in the year her husband was first elected president, had become something of a symbolic color symbolic of a mixing of blue and red, a political emblem of bi-partisanship.

Mrs. Obama popularized belts. (Pinterest)

Mrs. Obama popularized belts. (Pinterest)

Mrs. Obama’s years as First Lady has given her a chance to try a wide variety of styles and colors and prints, both for formal wear and also informal.

She has been credited by those who closely scrutinize her clothing style as well as the larger trends, for popularizing the use of wide belts at the waist.

Mrs. Obama's "structured sheath" dresses evoked a style popularized by Jackie Kennedy. (Pinterest)

Mrs. Obama’s “structured sheath” dresses evoked a style popularized by Jackie Kennedy. (Pinterest)

The First Lady has also generated a signature look all her own, of using sweaters with matching colored pants, perhaps a more contemporary and relaxed version of the traditional First Lady suit.

Even when she has worked in the White House garden, digging and stomping through mud she has often wore color-coordinated sweaters and spandex-activewear pants.

Regardless of whether it strikes a popular or unpopular reaction, she has been willing to take risks and wear colors and styles not previously associated with First Ladies.

Mrs. Obama often wore colorful geometric prints. (Pinterest)

Mrs. Obama often wore colorful geometric prints. (Pinterest)

She has even been somewhat daring, appearing in shorts before a mountain climbing vacation that nevertheless raised some criticism from those who were perhaps unaware of the fact that she went directly from the plane  to begin a rigorous hike.

Similarly, the other First Ladies are iconic more by particular color and style rather than any one definitive, dramatic historical event that what they happened to be wearing that day became part of the permanent collective memory of that moment.

Michelle Obama generated a popular style of wearing sweaters with dresses at public events. (Pinterest)

Michelle Obama generated a popular style of wearing sweaters with dresses at public events. (Pinterest)

Like Jackie Kennedy, Michelle Obama as been among the most popular of First Ladies for her clothing and regularly featured in both print and online publication images with a focus on what she wears.

 

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Hillary Clinton began wearing what would become her signature clothing choice - the colored pants suit, as early as 1998 while serving as First Lady. (Alamy)

Hillary Clinton began wearing what would become her signature clothing choice – the colored pants suit, as early as 1998 while serving as First Lady. (Alamy)

In September 2016, a graduate student from Italy came to the National First Ladies’ Library to conduct in-depth research on the fashions of the last half-century of First Ladies and to determine ways in which the visual impact and their clothing choices had either a political or public impact, as well as to understand their own responsiveness to current trends, and work with American designers in crafting their public image. The NFLL Historian responded both in a lengthy telephone interview and then with written answers to follow-up questions posed to him by the research student.

The responses have been reconfigured and adapted into separate entries of individual First Ladies.

This five-part series is adapted from that material. Part I covers Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson; Part II, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford; Part III, Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan; Part IV, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton; Part V, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.

Barbara Bush

Barbara Bush in a "Bush Blue" suit with pearls. (Getty)

Barbara Bush in a “Bush Blue” suit with pearls. (Getty)

The technology of color still photography that came with Kodak’s Kodachrome film in the early 1960 and of color television broadcasts in the latter 1960s influenced the clothing of a wide range of public figures who knew they would be appearing in still or moving images. Many of the First Ladies adopted monochromatic colors for this reason.

Barbara Bush followed this tradition with the choice of her Inaugural ball gown, made in a deep royal blue color.

Mrs. Bush in a blue polka-dot suit. (Getty)

Mrs. Bush in a blue polka-dot suit. (Getty)

Although she later joked about not having fancy clothing like her predecessor Nancy Reagan, and even used self-deprecatory humor to describe herself as “wrinkled,” plump and white-haired, Mrs. Bush paid attention to style as much as any of her fellow First Ladies. Sensitive to the attacks Nancy Reagan received for her appearance, however, even were Barbara Bush personally inclined to emphasize fashion, she sought to avoid anything that drew attention away from the President or reflected poorly on him.

Barbara Bush remained largely the same, in the look of her clothing style through her tenure from beginning to end, but there were certain distinctions that came to be identified as her signature look. She showed a strong preference for a royal blue, lighter in tone than her inaugural gown, and it was dubbed “Bush Blue” but the fashion press.

Barbara Bush wore a variety of red-white-and-blue configurations in different designs. (Pinterest)

Barbara Bush wore a variety of red-white-and-blue configurations in different designs. (Pinterest)

The other unique style she preferred were jacketed suits with square shoulders and large, round cloth-covered button in a wide variety of red-blue-and-blue configurations in polka dots or stripes.

She also helped popularize a large-size white pearl and was almost never seen without it.

Hillary Clinton

The "Hillary Headband." (Vogue)

The “Hillary Headband.” (Vogue)

Without intending to do so, even before her husband was elected president, Hillary Clinton was the subject of women’s fashion reporters for sporting headbands to hold back her long hair, while she made campaign appearances during the 1992 Democratic presidential primaries.

The “Hillary Headband” spoke not only to her relative youth among First Ladies going back to Jacqueline Kennedy but also her representation of a new generation of political spouses who not only fulfilled traditional tasks but also held down full-time professional positions, in her case as an attorney.

Mrs. Clinton in a designer gown worn during a state dinner for Václav Havel, president of Czech Republic. (WJCPL)

Mrs. Clinton in a designer gown worn during a state dinner for Václav Havel, president of Czech Republic. (WJCPL)

Clinton’s early years focused most of her time on work and study, and with limited funds she was prevented the privilege of indulging extravagantly on clothing.

It was not until the 1992 Democratic Convention that she focused on a new wardrobe of suits in bright colors and cloth-covered buttons. It was a practical yet colorful style that continued through into her first years as First Lady.

Hillary Clinton in one of her formal evening pants suits, worn for a Chinese state dinner.May 2000 (AP)

Hillary Clinton in one of her formal evening pants suits, worn for a Chinese state dinner.May 2000 (AP)

It was more her changing hairstyles rather than her clothes that seemed to merit the most attention in the fashion press.

In the second Clinton term, however, she began to enjoy wearing highly stylish clothing, often appearing in evening gowns by the name designer Oscar De La Renta.

In the last few years of her tenure as First Lady, Hillary Clinton first began appearing in what has now become her signature style of pants suits.

Hillary Clinton's "pink press conference." (AP)

Hillary Clinton’s “pink press conference.” (AP)

Tailored and in a wide gamut of colors, she wore these not only for overseas travel and daytime events around the country, but also in satins and with shimmering beads as formalwear for state occasions.

Given her willing and overt role in presidential policy, the clothing that may well have proven to be Hillary Clinton’s most iconic was, appropriately enough, a pink suit she donned while conducting a press conference where she answered questions about investments and other growing controversies early in the Administration that was later dubbed by the press as “the pink press conference.”

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Nancy Reagan in her signature bright "Reagan Red," worn in an evening gown for a state dinner. (RRPL)

Nancy Reagan in her signature bright “Reagan Red,” worn in an evening gown for a state dinner. (RRPL)

In September 2016, a graduate student from Italy came to the National First Ladies’ Library to conduct in-depth research on the fashions of the last half-century of First Ladies and to determine ways in which the visual impact and their clothing choices had either a political or public impact, as well as to understand their own responsiveness to current trends, and work with American designers in crafting their public image. The NFLL Historian responded both in a lengthy telephone interview and then with written answers to follow-up questions posed to him by the research student.

The responses have been reconfigured and adapted into separate entries of individual First Ladies.

This five-part series is adapted from that material. Part I covers Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson; Part II, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford; Part III, Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan; Part IV, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton; Part V, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.

Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter during a state dinner for the Shah of Iran.

Rosalynn Carter during a state dinner for the Shah of Iran.

Mrs. Carter in a "gypsy" dress during a state dinner for the German Chancellor. (JCPL)

Mrs. Carter in a “gypsy” dress during a state dinner for the German Chancellor. (JCPL)

Due to financial constraints and her conservative, religious and rural background, Rosalynn Carter showed little inclination for clothing that diverged too dramatically from the high-neck and long-sleeved day and evening wear that marked her initial White House wardrobe.

As the presidency evolved, so too did her tastes, often blossoming with dramatic formal evening gowns marked by satin sashes and bows, while still essentially conservative. She seemed to favor gowns that consisted of separate dresses and blouses.

A number of these also reflected the “gypsy” style that was an amalgam of folk costumes in looser patterns. Mrs. Carter’s were a more conservative version of this look that was popular in the late 1970s.

There was a brief attempt by the fashion industry to popularize “Rosalynn Green” when Mrs. Carter first entered the White House, perhaps an homage intended to associate her with the unusual green-white color branding of the 1976 Carter campaign.

Mrs. Carter in her trademark green.

Mrs. Carter in her trademark green.

The colors aqua and green did apparently predominate her clothing choices.

If there is no one image of Mrs. Carter that might be considered iconic it is that of her greeting Pope John Paul.

Mrs. Carter greets the Pope. (Getty)

Mrs. Carter greets the Pope. (Getty)

That day, Mrs. Carter appeared at National Airport to welcome him to Washington, wearing in a woman’s business suit of a conservative skirt and matching jacket with a white shirt and small string tie.

She also appeared in a hat, a rare accessory for her but one worn in respect for the religious leader.

As the first First Lady to make her own office in the East Wing with her staff, Rosalynn Carter treated the First Lady role from the perspective of a professional woman, with specific legislative goals.

A number of her most photographed outfits were slight variations on this white shirt-dress suit-woman’s tie uniform.

Nancy Reagan

Mrs. Reagan in an Adolfo suit. (Vogue)

Mrs. Reagan in an Adolfo suit. (Vogue)

Based on her experiences as an actress in Hollywood, personal appearance was of utmost importance to Nancy Reagan as First Lady.

Mrs. Reagan in an evening gown worn for the President of Italy's state dinner. (RRPL)

Mrs. Reagan in an evening gown worn for the President of Italy’s state dinner. (RRPL)

She carefully chose the look she wore and was consistent in conveying a formal, lavish style intended to draw attention. Her evening gowns were invariably in the colors red, white or black. Many of them were sleeveless or shoulderless.

Still, her clothing remained within the confines of a feminized, traditional look. She gave the appearance of a highly-groomed woman in her trademark Adolfo suits, with small, square shoulders and ornate piping often in contrasting red and white, and chunky gold necklace.

Beginning with her husband’s 1981 inaugural ceremony, when Nancy Reagan wore a bright red  coat and hat, her preference for the cherry color at the overwhelming majority of her public appearances as First Lady led to the fashion press and then the general, political media declaring the hue as  “Reagan Red.”

The First Lady in her classic "Reagan Red," 1987. (AP)

The First Lady in her classic “Reagan Red,” 1987. (AP)

By giving emphasis to fashion as First Lady, however, Nancy Reagan was depicted as being pre-occupied with her vanity at the cost of giving attention to those enduring the recession of the early 1980s.

Ignoring the political critics, she soon enough became a rare instance of a First Lady whose fashion style developed into a political liability for the President.

Mrs. Reagan's  knickers, worn at a Paris dinner. (original source of image unknown)

Mrs. Reagan’s knickers, worn at a Paris dinner. (original source of image unknown)

Only on one occasion was Nancy Reagan critiqued poorly for the style of clothing she wore, in that case for donning a pair of black knickers beneath a black dress for a formal dinner with the French president in Paris.

Generally, however, Mrs. Reagan was highly praised by fashion industry leaders who credited her for helping focus public attention on high-end designer clothing for women, even among those who could not themselves afford to purchase it.

 

 

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What First Ladies Wore: Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Part 2

Betty Ford dancing at an October 1975 state dinner in a black gown with white caped collar. (GRFL)

Betty Ford dancing at an October 1975 state dinner in a black gown with white caped collar. (GRFL)

In September 2016, a graduate student from Italy came to the National First Ladies’ Library to conduct in-depth research on the fashions of the last half-century of First Ladies and to determine ways in which the visual impact and their clothing choices had either a political or public impact, as well as to understand their own responsiveness to current trends, and work with American designers in crafting their public image. The NFLL Historian responded both in a lengthy telephone interview and then with written answers to follow-up questions posed to him by the research student.

The responses have been reconfigured and adapted into separate entries of individual First Ladies.

This five-part series is adapted from that material. Part I covers Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson; Part II, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford; Part III, Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan; Part IV, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton; Part V, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.

Pat Nixon

Pat Nixon in her red coat while in China. )Getty)

Pat Nixon in her red coat while in China. )Getty)

Pat Nixon posed in pants, a First Lady first. (NFLL)

Pat Nixon posed in pants, a First Lady first. (NFLL)

Although Pat Nixon would earn a reputation as generally conservative in her clothing choices, there are several contradictory factors that seem to belie this presumption. At her husband’s 1969 Inaugural, for example, Mrs. Nixon wore a fur hat, rather than a cloth one, and a red coat trimmed in fur.

Pat Nixon in her first two years as First Lady wore extremely short dresses, some almost qualifying as the rage of the era, the “mini-skirt.”  She received no criticism for doing so, likely because it mirrored the once-radical style that had become mainstream by the early 1970s.

She was also the first First Lady to publicly pose wearing pants suits, considered a symbolic mark of the women’s movement for equality.

Mrs. Nixon initially appeared in modified versions of the mini-dress. (carlanthonyonline)

Mrs. Nixon initially appeared in modified versions of the mini-dress. (carlanthonyonline)

As her husband approached his re-election campaign, however, Pat Nixon seemed to assume a more conservative and formal style of daywear for ceremonies as First Ladies, lengthening her short hemlines and wearing suit jackets that covered her arms

Certainly, the most iconic clothing that Pat Nixon wore also symbolized an important turning point in her husband’s presidency and the nation’s history. It was the bright red coat she wore upon arriving in China on Air Force One, as she joined the President in his famous 1972 trip to that nation.

She specifically wore it, knowing international television cameras would be following her live as she toured through the streets of Beijing, an exciting visual experience for most of the world, which had been restricted for decades from glimpsing this ancient city.

Betty Ford

Mrs. Ford being fitted by her designer Albert Capraro. (GRFPL)

Mrs. Ford being fitted by her designer Albert Capraro. (GRFPL)

Among First Ladies, the only one who was ever a working professional in the women’s fashion industry was Betty Ford.

While studying and performing with Martha Graham’s modern dance troupe, Betty Bloomer earned an income working as a clothing model of the Powers Agency in New York.

Betty Ford often wore scarves or dressed that incorporated them. (Getty)

Betty Ford often wore scarves or dressed that incorporated them. (Getty)

When she returned home to Grand Rapids, Michigan she obtained a job also modeling in a local department store, and then took one there as the buyer. The job had her commuting to New York, center of the fashion industry and it was an avocation she sustained throughout her life.

Perhaps the most iconic image of Betty Ford was that of her in a pale blue suit with white piping as she held the Bible for her husband when he took the oath of office following the trauma of Nixon’s resignation that same day.

In this suit, Mrs. Ford remained in the camera view as he delivered his healing speech on how the nation had survived and would from that point on have a President who was honest and open. Her  refreshing, open-necked, unadorned simple suit and its cool blue color seemed to reflect the refreshing change her husband was seeking to strike.

Betty Ford in her cool blue suit the day her husband became President. (GRFPL)

Betty Ford in her cool blue suit the day her husband became President. (GRFPL)

As First Lady, Mrs. Ford gave currency to large and colorful neck scarves, many of which were crafted by local designer Frankie Welch.

Although she served for less than three years, within that time as Betty Ford became more comfortable in the public role in which she had been unprepared to be thrust into, she became bolder in terms of appearing in gowns with dramatic necklines, slit hems showing off her trim legs, and a snugness that showed off her figure.

This dress of Betty Ford reflected patterns and colors emblematic of her era. (GRFPL)

This dress of Betty Ford reflected patterns and colors emblematic of her era. (GRFPL)

They were often in rich materials and bright colors. Her marked preference for the “mandarin color” that adapted a Chinese style neck appeared on a number of her evening gowns.

During her daytime events, Mrs. Ford sported many of the checkered, plaid and zigzag patterns that marked the era’s distinctive look, as well as caftans and capes.

In a sense she relaxed and began appearing in a way that reflected her genuine taste, cultivated from her years as a fashion industry professional.

 

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Jacqueline Kennedy is still universally held up as an ideal when it comes to the fashions of First Ladies. (JFKL)

Jacqueline Kennedy is still universally held up as an ideal when it comes to the fashions of First Ladies. (JFKL)

In September 2016, a graduate student from Italy came to the National First Ladies’ Library to conduct in-depth research on the fashions of the last half-century of First Ladies and to determine ways in which the visual impact and their clothing choices had either a political or public impact, as well as to understand their own responsiveness to current trends, and work with American designers in crafting their public image. The NFLL Historian responded both in a lengthy telephone interview and then with written answers to follow-up questions posed to him by the research student.

The responses have been reconfigured and adapted into separate entries of individual First Ladies.

This five-part series is adapted from that material. Part I covers Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson; Part II, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford; Part III, Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan; Part IV, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton; Part V, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.

Jacqueline Kennedy

Mrs. Kennedy's inaugural gala gown; she often sketched her own preliminary designs. (Pinterest)

Mrs. Kennedy’s inaugural gala gown; she often sketched her own preliminary designs. (Pinterest)

From her earliest days, Jackie Kennedy studied, wrote about and sketched original clothing styles as a young woman. You might research her incredible essays on the topic that were part of her submission to Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris contest, which she won in 1951.

Appearing in an orange sweater and pink pants, Jackie Kennedy immediately became a topic covered by fashion reporters. (Getty)

Appearing in an orange sweater and pink pants, Jackie Kennedy immediately became a topic covered by fashion reporters. (Getty)

The prize was a chance to work for six months as a junior editor in Paris and then six months in New York. Her mother forced her to turn down the opportunity because it meant her daughter would be living near her hated former husband in New York, Jackie’s father.

As a young reporter with very little money for clothes, Jackie continued to design her own clothes and had them made by a dressmaker in Washington. So her fashion during her years as First Lady – and then beyond until the end of her life – were by her own design, always working with designers with sketches that she provided them.

Jackie Kennedy had a highly trained eye for every detail of the visual, be it a room, a garden, an office or her clothes. She had studied and practiced photography as an art, and took an early professional interest in clothing design.

From her study books in high school to her handwritten notes at the end of her life, she frequently sketched out the shape and lines of the clothes she wanted for herself, always working closely with designers.

Even her casual appearance in sportswear, pants, bathing suits, and lounging robes was highly conscientious.

Mrs. Kennedy's red wool suit worn during her TV tour of the White House. (JFKL)

Mrs. Kennedy during her TV tour of the White House. (JFKL)

Before the popularity of color television, Jackie Kennedy was still conscious of making herself stand out on color TV so she wore a beige cloth coat for her husband’s swearing-in ceremony, in order to stand out from all the other VIP women who wore, as she predicted, fur coats.

Mrs. Kennedy popularized the pillbox hat; seen here in the same pink suit worn at the time JFK was assassinated. (Corbis)

Mrs. Kennedy popularized the pillbox hat; seen here in the same pink suit worn at the time JFK was assassinated. (Corbis)

As far as iconic appearances, these are undoubtedly Jackie Kennedy’s red suit during her White House tour, and the pink suit worn during the assassination but also the black mourning dress and black veiled hat of the funeral.

Initially more people around the world watched the funeral and thus saw her for a longer sustained period of time.

In some ways, the greater Jacqueline Kennedy raised public attention to what she wore at any given event, the more she was open to critical review. Wishing to avoid criticism for her taste for Parisian designs, Jackie Kennedy had her clothes made to copy Chanel suits but with modifications that were understated.

Mrs. Kennedy earned a permanent cultural identity by casting a distinctive look by which she could be visually identified.

Lady Bird Johnson

Mrs. Johnson in what her husband called a "muley" brown, visiting Wisconsin 1965. (LBJL)

Mrs. Johnson in what LBJ called “muley” brown,  1965. (LBJL)

Through the 60's Mrs. Johnson retained a conservative style (LBJL)

In the 60′s Mrs. Johnson retained a conservative style. (LBJL)

Lady Bird Johnson had a proclivity for what her husband derisively called “muley” colors of grays and browns.

Once she began the full term to which her husband was elected in 1964, however, she brightened her appearance overnight – wearing a range of citrus colors of yellows, oranges and greens.

She consistently wore more conservative styles despite the radical change in women’s clothing by the end of her tenure.

Lady Bird on the LBJ Ranch. (Life)

Lady Bird on the LBJ Ranch. (Life)

The measure against which Lady Bird Johnson was judged as having negligible influence on clothing style was the industry suggestion was that her garments were too plain and that she was unwilling to make an indelible impression with color, cut or any other innovation.

She may well be most remembered in the comfortable and casual style clothing, including pants, western boots and rancher hats, that she naturally wore while relaxing on the LBJ Ranch in Texas.

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Betty Ford in Walter Reed Hospital, where her breast cancer mastectomy was performed, smiling at the President. (GRFPL)

Betty Ford in Walter Reed Hospital, where her breast cancer mastectomy was performed, smiling at the President. (GRFPL)

She was the vision of youth and at 31 years old, Jackie Kennedy was the third youngest First Lady in history. She played tennis, loved speed walking for miles on end, swam like a pro and enjoyed waterskiing to keep her thighs trim.

Jackie Kennedy being wheeled out of the hospital by her husband, the president-elect after giving north to their son by cesarian surgery. (ICP)

Jackie Kennedy being wheeled out of the hospital by her husband, the president-elect after giving north to their son by cesarian surgery. (ICP)

So, on the night of January 20, 1961, when just eight weeks after she had been rushed into Georgetown University Hospital for emergency cesarian surgery to give birth to her son, Jacqueline Kennedy appeared in her white cape and gown at the Inaugural Balls, the world looked upon her as the vision of of beaming health. In truth, she was anything but that.

The press had also begun to depict her as “mysterious” and “elusive” because she failed to appear at many of the large, crowded events held before the Inauguration other than the Inaugural Concert and the Inaugural Gala.

After the Inaugural ceremony and parade, she vanished even from the gathered members of her paternal and maternal family and those of her husband’s, during s White House Reception held before the Inaugural Ball.

When the time came for her to join the new President and exit through the North Portico, still and motion picture cameras were fixated on her serene face, as she seemed to float out the door.

Jackie Kennedy seemed strong on Inaugural night. (AP)

Jackie Kennedy seemed strong on Inaugural night. (AP)

And while she appeared at the first few Inaugural Balls, she just as soon disappeared for the rest of the night, returning to the White House while John F. Kennedy continued on to the other balls.

In fact, she was suffering what she later described as clinical exhaustion. Once she had returned to the executive mansion, she admitted that she entirely “collapsed.” It had only been the administration of a narcotic drug by the president’s doctor, Janet Travell, that she had been able to muster enough strength to appear at the balls.

This fact was something the press would never learn during her time in the White House. It was only after she had left and made casual reference to the fact that she got through Inauguration Day only by using dexedrine, a frequently prescribed amphetamine medication intended to infuse “energy” into the system, that the world learned the truth.

The only occasions when the White House released any information on the First Lady was when she failed to show up at a public appearance. The fact that she did indeed suffer with frequent sinusitis was often given as the reason for her absence. That is, until the day when she showed up instead at a theater performance in New York.

Mrs. Kennedy water-skiing. (AP)

Mrs. Kennedy water-skiing. (AP)

It was only towards the end of her tenure, when Jackie Kennedy again gave birth that the world would learn the medical details about this most private of First Ladies. Every detail was reported because the press corps was closely following, down to the minute the premature birth and sudden death of her baby, Patrick, in August of 1963.

Two months later, as she endured the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, there was no mention of any medication she may have needed or requested or turned down then or in the days that followed. The old sense of propriety about keeping the matter of a woman’s health private, especially given the terrible circumstances, was again employed for the president’s widow.

Pictures showing Mrs. Kennedy smoking were banned from being published. (Tumblr)

Pictures showing Mrs. Kennedy smoking were banned from being published. (Tumblr)

Like millions of women who believed the advertising campaigns that promoted cigarette smoking as a way to stay calm and keep thin, Jackie Kennedy was a heavy cigarette smoker but White House photographers were ordered to never snap her in the act of puffing and if, by accident, they captured her doing so the pictures were banned from public release.

More remarkably, the commercial photographers who regularly captured her on film as she went about her private business adhered to an unwritten rule of not publishing images of the First Lady smoking.

Only as depcited by actress Joan Allen in 1995 was Pat Nixon ever seen smoking; no known images show the First Lady doing so. (thefilmexperience.net)

Only as depcited by actress Joan Allen in 1995 was Pat Nixon ever seen smoking; no known images show the First Lady doing so. (thefilmexperience.net)

A decade later, after the Surgeon General warnings about the dangers of cigarette smoking, this same unwritten rule  the press had applied for Jackie Kennedy continued for Pat Nixon.

Although there were not even any known images showing this First Lady smoking, it was a fact known to several reporters who followed her closely. Yet Mrs. Nixon’s press office steadfastly insisted that she did not smoke cigarettes. Some twenty years after her time in the White House, Mrs. Nixon died of lung cancer.

In the contemporary world of social and digital media, every possible detail is reported about anything pertaining to the President and has come to be considered fair game for public dissemination, including medical information.  Should we also expect that the health of our First Ladies be made public?

Pat Nixon taking yoga lessons in the White House as part of a women's health education program. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Pat Nixon taking yoga lessons in the White House as part of a women’s health education program. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Since the incumbency of Pat Nixon as First Lady in the 1970s, matters of health care, preventative health measures, public awareness about early warning signs of specific illnesses and those physical problems which particularly affect American women have become among primary issues First Ladies since then have sought to address in various forums.

Today, there are good arguments both that the public has a right to know the details about the First Lady’s health or that disclosure of such sensitive matters is a prerogative of the individual in question.

Outside of this one can find no greater example of the dramatically positive affect of full disclosure regarding a First Lady’s health than the 1974 breast cancer and mastectomy of Betty Ford.

First Lady Betty Ford at a breast cancer detection mobile unit in New York City. (GRFL)

First Lady Betty Ford at a breast cancer detection mobile unit in New York City. (GRFL)

Previous to this incident, discomfort in the discussion of breast cancer prevention and detection had kept the matter one that remained largely verboten in the general public discussion and news media.

Quite literally overnight, that societal norm shifted because of Mrs. Ford’s conscious decision to permit full public disclosure; as a result untold hundreds of thousands of lives were likely saved as not only American but non-American women sought out the necessary medical procedures ensuring early detection.

This new sense of freedom about discussing the issue was greatly furthered when Betty Ford decided to assume the role of a national spokesperson about it, doing all she could to help women and their families more comfortable about discussing breast cancer.

Some one dozen years later, another First Lady discovered she had breast cancer and sought immediate treatment of it.

In line with the detailed disclosures made about President Reagan’s health challenges, when Nancy Reagan considered her highly committed schedule in the months ahead, the First Lady opted to have a complete mastectomy, which disfigured the body, rather than a partial mastectomy and the weeks of chemotherapy that would have to follow.

Nancy Reagan greeting her husband after she underwent a mastectomy. (RRPL)

Nancy Reagan greeting her husband after she underwent a mastectomy. (RRPL)

She was lobbied heavily against this by advocates for the latter treatment, but decided against it because the time would have required her to shift focus from her support to the President at a time when she felt he needed her most.

Thus, with a First Lady deciding to fully go public with what was still, ultimately, a personal decision, there inevitably came criticism of her choice.

When her eyes appeared to bulge suddenly, Barbara Bush sought medical care and learned she had a thyroid condition. She chose to make all the details of it public. (Bush Presidential Library)

When her eyes appeared to bulge suddenly, Barbara Bush sought medical care and learned she had a thyroid condition. She chose to make all the details of it public. (Bush Presidential Library)

In 1989, Barbara Bush followed the precedent set by Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan, permitting full public disclosure of her diagnosis of Grave’s Disease, a hyperactive thyroid condition, following her detection that her eyesight was changing and that her eyes appeared to bulge.

Her doing so helped raise public awareness of this condition which often went undetected and led to other complications.

Laura Bush meets with Melinda Gates in the White House Yellow Oval in December 2006, when she disclosed that she had a cancerous tumor removed from her left leg. (W. Bush Presidential Library)

Laura Bush meets with Melinda Gates in the White House Yellow Oval in December 2006, when she disclosed that she had a cancerous tumor removed from her left leg. (W. Bush Presidential Library)

Modernity, interestingly, is not a factor in how fully a First Lady might chose to publicly disclose her health issues.

Nearly twenty years after  Barbara Bush chose to disclose her thyroid condition, however, her daughter-in-law Laura Bush did not permit the news that she had a squamous cell carcinoma tumor, commonly known as “skin cancer,” removed from her right shin in November 2006 until five weeks after the surgery.

“It’s no big deal,” she said, explaining her decision, “and we knew it was no big deal at the time.”

No matter how many examples may have been set before her, history shows that when it comes to disclosing their health issues, First Ladies will do as they usually do on matters involving their public lives: what is right for them and not what was right for those before them.

 

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A newspaper illustration showed First Lady Ida McKinley as an invalid in a wheelchair.

A newspaper illustration showed First Lady Ida McKinley as an invalid in a wheelchair.

In May of 1901, the President and Mrs. McKinley were making an historic transcontinental tour of the United States by train, progressing south from Washington to New Orleans and then to the western states, including the First Lady making a brief dash across the border to attend a breakfast in Mexico in her honor, while her husband attended ceremonies in El Paso, Texas.

William and Ida McKinley arriving in California at Redlands, 1901. (City of San Bernardino, California)

William and Ida McKinley arriving in California at Redlands, 1901. (City of San Bernardino, California)

All along the way, Ida McKinley heartily greeted well-wishing citizens, but in the process the repeated handshake clasping against the diamond rings she wore on her fingers, left small cuts. As the train proceeded through the desert to the west coast, the dust, sand and silt kicked up by the rail cars inevitably blew through the presidential car, covering everything from the furnishings to the cut hand of the First Lady.

By the time a finger infection which was first detected in Los Angeles developed into high fever, blood poisoning and near-death upon their reaching the Monterey Peninsula, a sudden change in the President’s public schedule (permitting him to remain with her) necessitated public disclosure of the reason.

Determining that the First Lady’s grave condition could best be treated in the nearby city of San Francisco, the traveling White House moved with her to that nearby city, issuing two bulletins a day to keep the nation informed of her condition.

A letter from President McKinley at the San Francisco White House reporting on his wife's condition. (LC)

A letter from President McKinley at the San Francisco White House reporting on his wife’s condition. (LC)

A month later, government medical consultants who conducted further blood tests and physical examinations on her provided the media with the startling speculation that her heart function may have been affected; the White House made no effort to deny or censor this.

And yet, pre-dating and simultaneous to all this was the McKinley White House policy of refusing to acknowledge, clarify or elaborate the repeated news reports of her vaguely described “nervous illness,” with symptoms of “fainting.” We know now that this was because the nervous system dysfunction in question was epilepsy.

During the McKinley Administration there were great strides in the expanding professional field of neurology which established seizure disorder to be a brain and nervous system condition and not the result of a mood disorder.

The general public, however, still held fast to the primitive belief that epilepsy was a form of insanity. Fearing the political repercussion of such association with the First Lady, the President was iron-clad in refusing to even acknowledge her seizures when they were occurring.

Ida McKinley received guests while seated. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Ida McKinley received guests while seated. (carlanthonyonline.com)

At the least, the public knew something was wrong with Ida McKinley, simply by the fact that she always sat during receiving lines while her husband stood alongside her.

Might the public understanding of epilepsy have advanced more rapidly had the McKinley Administration disclosed the truth about the First Lady’s condition? Most likely.

Was it the responsibility of the McKinleys to do so?

Despite their public roles and care by federally-salaried physicians the couple exercised their right to make a personal choice on how much they chose to disclose on the matter, determining to do so only when the First Lady’s health had a potential impact on the President’s ability to function.

Of course, there were many situations when it could be argued that, unlike the feared death of McKinley’s wife that a health condition or medical crisis of a presidential spouse did not affect a President and his performance and thus did not qualify as news the public had a right to know.

Astride a horse and wearing her black riding derby, Edith Roosevelt with her husband and sons Quention, Archie and Kermit at the front of their home Sagamore Hill. (NPS)

Astride a horse and wearing her black riding derby, Edith Roosevelt with her husband and sons Quention, Archie and Kermit at the front of their home Sagamore Hill. (NPS)

While it was saddening for President Theodore Roosevelt when his wife Edith Roosevelt suffered a miscarriage while she was First Lady, this information was not learned until her biography was published some four eight decades after the fact.

Sometimes, a halfway measure has also been employed.

In 1909, for example, following her suffering of a stroke, First Lady Nellie Taft lost the ability to speak and thus cancelled all her public appearances. For months she struggled to learn again how to speak, her sisters and daughter aiding in social duties.

By her absence, the press and the public knew something was wrong. The White House released a degree of what was truthful facts about her condition, but did not make all of it publicly-known, including the fact that she had lost but was regaining her power of speech.

At the 1912 opening day game of the Washington Senators, Nellie Taft showed no physical evidence of the stroke she'd suffered in 1909. (Library of Congress)

At the 1912 opening day game of the Washington Senators, Nellie Taft showed no physical evidence of the stroke she’d suffered in 1909. (Library of Congress)

Rather than use the word “stroke” in more abstractly, yet honestly, referred to it as a “nervous condition.”

One is whether the First Lady in question is seeking medical care at the expense of public funds: in almost all instances this is the case, presidential family members being given such care by army and navy surgeons and physicians of high rank and skill.

By the early twentieth century, there seemed to be a precedent set that determined the public’s right to know about the health of a First Lady.

The decision had come to be truly based on that one elusive and subjective question: how is the President’s ability to fulfill his constitutionally-mandated duty being impeded by matters involving the health condition of a spouse?

We know now, for example, that the kidney disease which ultimately killed Ellen Wilson just a year and a half into her tenure as First Lady, deeply distracted President Wilson just as war was breaking out in Europe.

News coverage of Ellen Wilson's death. (LC)

News coverage of Ellen Wilson’s death. (LC)

Following her August 1914 death in the White House, Wilson sunk into such a severe depression that his physician even feared he might become suicidal.

Yet it was not until days before Mrs. Wilson died  that the media and thus the public first learned the full story on her terminal condition.

This could not be blamed on the President or his daughters but rather the First Lady herself. While not concerned about public knowledge of her condition, she asked her physician to not inform her family of just how desperate her condition truly was until the last possible minute, hoping to spare them a prolonged anguish over her.

Of course, it had the effect of also being able to honestly withhold the information from the media and public.

Florence Harding, nearly a year after her near-death experience. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Florence Harding, nearly a year after her near-death experience. (carlanthonyonline.com)

In the Jazz Age, Florence Harding wanted the public to be provided with the full details about the kidney dysfunction – but only when it reached the point of nearly killing her in September of 1922.

For several days, as the First Lady’s life hung in the balance, the entire country was able to follow her condition with the release of detailed medical bulletins, which included explicit physical descriptions.

This sort of policy when it comes to First Ladies and their health might not be the full truth, but it is better than no truth at all.

Grace Coolidge in 1928, when she suffered heart palpitations. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Grace Coolidge in 1928, when she suffered heart palpitations. (carlanthonyonline.com)

As the century progressed along with medical science and the new and emerging forms of technology, from radio to sound newsreels to television, however, there were a number of First Ladies with either chronic health conditions or medical care that was unreported, denied or downplayed by the White House.

Grace Coolidge’s heart palpitations went entirely unreported in the media as she neared the end of her tenure, although there were reports that President Coolidge’s decision not to seek re-election in 1928 may have been out of concern for his wife’s apparently increased tiredness.

Were it not for a passing reference in a private letter to a friend about her doctor ordering her to radically reduce her intake of caffeine from coffee consumption, none outside of the family would have known.

Similarly, when Bess Truman was found to be suffering from high-blood pressure, outside of her family it was only the White House kitchen staff that might have suspected this as the reason for the sudden order of low-sodium meals.

Bess Truman. (Pinterest)

Bess Truman. (Pinterest)

It was never information that reached the public, even by rumor. Then again, Mrs. Truman managed it carefully, living with the condition until her death at age 97 years old and it never affected the President’s ability to perform his duties.

In August of 1957, Mamie Eisenhower made an annual five-day summer visit to her mother  in Denver, Colorado, Unlike previous times, however, she stayed in the city’s Brown Hotel. The big event of her time there was her commitment to speak at the dedication of a local park named in her honor.

The First Lady appeared at the ceremony, but left those gathered disappointed by simply making a few remarks and then taking her leave. Her brief appearance at the park proved to be only one of two times she left her hotel suite, a schedule very much unlike her previous visits home.

Mamie Eisenhower flew to Colorado without the President in August of 1957 - but with the White House physician. (Alamy)

Mamie Eisenhower flew to Colorado without the President in August of 1957 – but with the White House physician. (Alamy)

President Eisenhower had not joined her for the trip, but the White House physician Howard Snyder had. That raised some suspicions among the local press corps.

It was soon learned that shortly before, he had also accompanied Mamie Eisenhower to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. and stood watching as an army gynecologist performed a two-hour hysterectomy on the First Lady.  After the surgery she recovered in the presidential suite, visited by the President eight hours later.

The President and Mrs. Eisenhower some two weeks after her surgery. (Waldorf Astoria Archives)

The President and Mrs. Eisenhower some two weeks after her surgery. (Waldorf Astoria Archives)

It was only under some pressing by the White House press corps that the President’s Press Secretary Jim Hagerty had finally disclosed all this, yet refrained from using the clinical expression “hysterectomy,” by instead making euphemistic reference to it as “similar to those that many women undergo in middle age.”

Pressed if the operation was, in fact, an hysterectomy, he replied that he would “not go beyond” the “original statement.”

It illustrated that, just as the technology of media or the evolution of medical information or the effect on a president’s ability to carry out his duties, the societal perceptions of womanhood was just as powerful a factor in determining what the public is told about the health of First Ladies.

 

 

 

 

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The American public was given a glimpse into the private last moments of First Lady Caroline Harrison on her deathbed in October 1892 with an illustrated newspaper depiction. (Harper's)

The American public was given a glimpse into the private last moments of First Lady Caroline Harrison on her deathbed in October 1892 with an illustrated newspaper depiction. (Harper’s)

 

Three First Ladies died in the White House, Letitia Tyler in 1842, Caroline Harrison in 1892 and Ellen Wilson in 1914. It was not until after the first one had died and just before the second and third died, however, that the public learned of the loss within the presidential household.

Letitia Tyler's portrait. (WHHA)

Letitia Tyler’s portrait. She was the first of three First Ladies to die in the White House. (WHHA)

Throughout most of presidential history, the true state of health of the nation’s leader was often kept hidden from the media of the day, and thus the public, largely for political reasons. The idea of a weak Chief Executive, he and his political circle would fear, would lead to challenges of his political power by the opposition. It could also potentially spread a degree of national fear and hysteria that could destabilize the American economy.

When it came to their wives, however, the issue was largely one of propriety, the idea that public discussion of anything physical about a woman, let alone one who held a position that was imbued with the symbolism of the highest social status of the nation.

It was only when, in the expectations that a presidential spouse would appear in public and endure the physical rigor of performing as hostess in the White House, that there was anything remotely resembling public disclosure about chronic health conditions of First Ladies. In many respects, those First Ladies who had chronic conditions that were not fatal ended up becoming more honest about the true state of their health.

Elizabeth Monroe. (artwork original.com)

Elizabeth Monroe. (artwork original.com)

In some ways, simple confirmation of the health conditions of nineteenth century presidential spouses, without great detail, were more direct and honest than those who followed.

As early as the eight-year tenure of Elizabeth Monroe, from 1817 to 1825, the public were informally informed of the fact that the First Lady was not in robust health simply because of the presence of her adult daughter Eliza Hay at public entertainments either in support of her mother as hostess or substituting for her.

A 19th century woman enduring a seizure. (sciencephoto.com)

A 19th century woman enduring a seizure. (sciencephoto.com)

What not even those close to Mrs. Monroe, outside of a circle of about a dozen family members including her two daughters, sons-in-law, sister, nephews, and nieces, is that she suffered with symptoms associated with what was then called “the falling sickness,” a euphemism for epileptic seizures.

The first death of an incumbent First Lady naturally made the newspapers of the day, but within the news stories were the most specific references made to that point about the facts about the poor health that had impaired her ability to assume a public role.

The Camden Journal printed on September 21, 1842, from an original news story that appeared in the Madisonian newspaper of Washington, D.C. even went into great detail on her funeral and the effect on the family, an early and rare example of media and public intrusion into the private life of a presidential family.

Screen Shot 2016-09-27 at 12.58.27 PMWhen Tyler inherited the presidency, it was widely reported that he was a widower. A subsequent news report in a Pennsylvania newspaper corrected this, pointing out that Mrs. Tyler was “alive” by making another error in reporting she was “in good health.”

Margaret Taylor. (Heritage)

Margaret Taylor. (Heritage)

Some historians later cast doubt on the claim of uncertain health of Peggy Taylor, suggesting that it was a false story put out by the White House because this First Lady did not want to assume a public role.

An October 3, 1848 squib in the Daily Crescent of New Orleans, reprinting the excerpt of a May 1848 letter from a Louisiana woman to the Baton Rouge home of Mrs. Taylor before her husband was elected president, however, confirms the truth of it, the eyewitness describing her as “sociable, polite….a plain, agreeable lady, but apparently of rather delicate health.”

This did not negate the fact that it was true that she did not wish to assume a public role, a condition that her poor health gave further rational. Interestingly, the scant national news coverage of Mrs. Taylor during the year and a half of her husband’s presidency did not make reference to her health or even slightly suggest what was wrong with her, except for mention of the fact that she sought refuge from Washington’s heat at a cool natural spring spa.

Abigail Fillmore. (LC)

Abigail Fillmore. (LC)

The worst that ailed Abigail Fillmore was reported to the public as a poorly healed broken ankle, preventing her from standing for lengthy periods on the reception line at the public receptions. Since the November 25, 1850 New York Herald cast the presence of her daughter Abby Fillmore as a supportive role who “sustained her mother admirably” rather than ever being a substitute for the president’s wife, the First Lady was perceived to have been in robust health.

When, however, just days after her husband’s administration ended and the former First Lady seemed to linger for an unusually longer period of time in her capital hotel room, the press felt free to fully detail her slow demise to pneumonia.

Had this occurred just days before the Fillmore presidency had concluded, it is difficult to judge whether her deteriorating physical condition would have been so aptly chronicled or if the era’s usual propriety about revealing such personal facts about the private life of one with the highest status would have prevented it.

A stroke or pneumonia were common enough among families that many Americans considered vulnerability to either condition to be somehow acceptable, whereas other chronic conditions such as cancer or tuberculosis carried a stigma and thus an especially indelicate fact to publicly state about a President’s wife.

Jane Pierce. (NH Historical Society)

Jane Pierce. (NH Historical Society)

When her husband was first nominated for the presidency in the summer of 1852, any mention of Jane Pierce almost always described her as being ill or in unpredictable condition.

The Portsmouth Inquirer of August 13, 1852 even carried a statement by the family’s physician of seven years making reference to “the delicate health of Mrs. Pierce.”

Media coverage of her over the course of the presidency that showed she was well and then, without warning, not well made clear that she suffered from some type of chronic, rather than fatal illness, but there was no mention of the word tuberculosis or even references to her occasional diffuculty breathing or any lung trouble.

 Eliza Johnson. (North Carolina Museum of History)

Eliza Johnson. (North Carolina Museum of History)

Eliza Johnson’s physical frailty and thus inability to “do the honors” at the White House when she and her children joined President Andrew Johnson on June 19, 1865 proved worthy of public reporting as a way of explaining why her daughter Martha Patterson would substitute for her.

Like Jane Pierce, the fact that Eliza Johnson had tuberculosis, however, was not printed. Instead, Patterson’s assumption of the public First Lady role was justified as “owing to the ill health of Mrs. Johnson.”

Within just a few short weeks of becoming First Lady in 1881, Lucretia Garfield was hit by a bad case of malaria.

Lucretia Garfield. (Ohio History)

Lucretia Garfield. (Ohio History)

From the moment she had to absent herself from public receptions, the White House issued daily reports on her condition.

While it did not go into great details, the press releases issued by the presidential physician on duty, did include her temperature and level of discomfort all the way through her eventual recovery.

It was a turning point in terms of not just media coverage of illness in the White House but of a woman in the public eye.

Yet the Garfield situation proved to be an anomaly, rather than being used as a precedent by either the White House or the reporters who covered it. One may speculate as to why it was that Caroline Harrison’s cancer did not become public knowledge until she was on her death bed in October 1892.

Caroline Harrison. (LC)

Caroline Harrison. (LC)

The fact that it was a fatal condition was surely a consideration, an effort to preserve the privacy of the family for as long as possible as it prepared for her loss. On the other hand, it is unclear how much advance notice the President and his family truly had to realize her death was inevitable.

Nevertheless, when this second First Lady to die in the White House occurred, it rated as front-page news stories. Another turning point in First Lady history was the fact that one of the weekly illustrated newspapers, Leslie’s had even seen fit to depict the sick woman on her deathbed. (see the lead image at top).

Lucretia Garfield was depicted at the sickbed of the President in 1881, but never shown on her own sickbed from that year. (Harper's)

Lucretia Garfield was depicted at the sickbed of the President in 1881, but never shown on her own sickbed from that year. (Harper’s)

It was not something that had been done eleven years earlier when Mrs. Garfield was quarantined to a White House sickroom, although there were numerous images printed of her at the bedside of her husband as he struggled to recover from the bullet wounds that eventually killed him.

As the nation entered the 20th century, there would be more enlightenment about the nature of many perplexing illnesses that affected women.

Yet, just as the role of First Lady is one defined by highly personal criteria, so too would be the policy about releasing information about such a personal issue as their health.

 

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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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