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.

Priscilla Tyler. (University of Alabama)

Priscilla Tyler. (University of Alabama)

In one Administration that was less than one full-term there were four women who served as First Ladies – two of them were married to the President, and two of them were not.

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 President was John Tyler and he was the first to assume the office without being directly elected to it; rather he had been the vice presidential candidate on the winning ticket which William Henry Harrison headed as the presidential candidate. President Harrison, of course, died after thirty days in office and Tyler assumed the position.

When Tyler moved into the White House in late April of 1841 he brought the largest First Family to date to live in the mansion.

His wife Letitia Christian Tyler was confined to a “rolling chair,” unable to walk or to fully express herself verbally, having suffered a stroke two years earlier.

Contrary to persistent and popular myth, however, Letitia Tyler was able to speak and made at least three known appearances in public: her daughter Elizabeth’s East Room wedding, a theater performance and a reception for schoolchildren presided over by her daughter-in-law.

Although limited in public by her stroke, Letitia Tyler did manage social events and receive some guests in her room in the White House family quarters.

Although limited in public by her stroke, Letitia Tyler did manage social events and receive some guests in her room in the White House family quarters.

Although confined to a wheelchair, Letitia Tyler took charge of managing the entire household from her room in the family private quarters.

She also assumed the private roles played by First Ladies, like emotional supporter and personal adviser to the President.

There is also subtle suggestion that she received a few special guests who were not family members in her upstairs suite.

Beside Elizabeth, three other presidential daughters in residence at the beginning of their tenure in the White House were teenager Alice, the married Mary who came with her two young sons and husband for a brief time, and Letty who was married by estranged from her husband.

There was also the President’s teenage son Tazewell, his son John, Jr. who was married but estranged from his wife Rochelle, and married son Robert, who moved in with his toddler daughter Mary and wife Priscilla.

First Daughter Elizabeth Tyler, who married in the White House.

First Daughter Elizabeth Tyler, who married in the White House.

However, Letitia Tyler was unable to assume the public First Lady roles of hostess of social events in the state rooms and escort of the President to ceremonial events in and out of the White House.

President John Tyler. (LC)

President John Tyler. (LC)

To fulfill these tasks, President Tyler specifically asked Priscilla Tyler to help him, rather than ask one of his daughters.

Who he designated as the public First Lady seems to have been one of President Tyler’s first decisions on how his Administration would be conducted and it proved to be an acutely wise one.

It may have been that he asked his daughter-in-law to take on the public role so he could avoid showing favoritism among his three adult daughters, but the reason seems much more likely to be due to the unusual nature of Priscilla Cooper Tyler’s personality,

More so than any of her predecessors since the popular Dolley Madison, the young Mrs. Tyler was animated, sophisticated, empathetic, humorous, articulate and accessible.

Mary Tyler's costume party also included adults, (background, left to right) Dolley Madison, President Tyler and Priscilla Tyler.

Mary Tyler’s costume party also included adults, (background, left to right) Dolley Madison, President Tyler and Priscilla Tyler.

It was certainly no accident that she and the rest of the Tyler family women had embraced Mrs. Madison herself, the aged, former First Lady then living across Lafayette Square from the mansion. Dolley Madison was in attendance even when President Tyler hosted a costume birthday party for Priscilla’s little daughter

Few women of that era had her ease and confidence about having part of her life known to strangers, and  it was this First Lady’s unique training before entering the White House which seemed to uniquely qualify her.

Descriptions of her left by observers all underline her success in crafting a public persona out of her real self as a private person and to then convey it with a strong presence in the male-dominated arena of national politics.

Priscilla Tyler had worked as a professional stage actress before marrying Robert Tyler in 1839 at 23 years old.

She first went on stage at 17 years old, along with her father Tom Cooper, a famous Shakespearean actor and theater co-owner.

Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, painted by Chester Harding in 1822. (Wikipedia)

Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, painted by Chester Harding in 1822. (Wikipedia)

When the family lost their home in Bristol, Pennsylvania during the 1837 economic panic, Priscilla and her father were forced to survive for a time on the minimal fruit and vegetables they grew beside the run-down cottage they rented.

Miss Cooper was playing Desdemona in a stage production of Othello in Richmond, Virginia, a member of the audience later recalled falling in love with her as the performance went on. At the final curtain, he bolted up to lead a standing ovation, and then  rushed backstage to meet her.

His name was Robert Tyler and he was the son of Virginia’s former Governor and U.S. Senator, soon to run as vice presidential candidate on the 1840 Whig Party ticket.

A theatrical poster showing future First Lady, the actress Priscilla Cooper, costumed for one of her Shakespearean performances. (University of Alabama)

A theatrical poster showing future First Lady, the actress Priscilla Cooper, costumed for one of her Shakespearean performances. (University of Alabama)

They married months later, in 1839. Despite being a working woman, and one employed in a professional considered socially unaccepted, Priscilla was warmly embraced and loved by the Tyler clan, particularly her aristocratic mother-in-law Letitia.

Her theatrical training, however, proved especially beneficial to her father-in-law in the White House. Priscilla Cooper Tyler was able to cast herself and literally play out the role of “White House hostess” with the mansion’s public rooms as a theatrical stage.

Despite the tremendous political turmoil endured and generated by President Tyler, and the run-down condition of the old mansion, the female lead of the presidential family was a shining star who attracted the affection and interest of both special guests and the public.

Long before First Ladies assumed leadership of public movements or raised consciousness about societal problems, Priscilla Tyler conveyed a sense of duty to the public and the guests who came to the White House through what was then the primary public role of a First Lady – that of hostess of the White House.

An extrovert, she impressed everyone from Charles Dickens to a French Prince with her conversational skill. She initiated summer musical concerts by the Marine Band for the general public on the South Lawn of the White House.

Intelligent, vivacious and genuine, Priscilla Cooper Tyler left a strong and positive impression as First Lady.

Intelligent, vivacious and genuine, Priscilla Cooper Tyler left a strong and positive impression as First Lady.

Priscilla Tyler earned herself a presidential history footnote when, in the summer of 1843, she became the first First Lady to accompany a President on an official traveling tour through a region of the nation, a summertime custom of the presidency since the early days.

It was the first time that any President traveled the United States with a female member of his family as part of his official party, thus giving a previously unrecognized level of public visibility and status to the role of First Lady.

Along with the President and her husband, Priscilla Tyler was honored at a public banquet and reception in Baltimore, a massive harbor flotilla and then street parade in New York where 40,000 threw flowers on their path, and a naval salute in Boston.

As a result of the unprecedented trip, Priscilla Cooper Tyler received considerable press notice.

Priscilla Tyler is among the earliest known of First Ladies to receive newspaper publicity during her tenure in the White House.

Priscilla Tyler is among the earliest known of First Ladies to receive newspaper publicity during her tenure in the White House.

As one New York newspaper, The True Sun, editorialized, “she has shown all the power of her native strength of mind and without being dazzled by the elevation of her position…”

The newspaper’s offering of an “apology for alluding” to her in print was an early example of the public ambivalence about a First Lady’s “proper” role, raising the issue of whether she was a public figure to be acknowledged in her own right and carrying some public responsibilities, or was she just the hostess of a public institution?

Priscilla Tyler left the First Lady role in March of 1844, moving to Philadelphia with her husband where he finally started his long-delayed legal career as a means of providing for his family.

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

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

Twenty-three year old First Daughter Letty Tyler Semple inherited the First Lady role by default.

Letty and her two eldest sisters had been on hand to help Priscilla as social aides, but both Lizzie Tyler Waller and Mary Tyler Jones were no longer living in the White House with their father when their brother and sister-in-law also moved out.

The only adult female in the household was the President’s married daughter Letty Tyler Semple.

Despite her age and life of privilege, all indications suggest that Letty was already bitter towards the life fate had led her into.

At eighteen years old, she’d married United States naval captain James Semple. Taking great pride in their identity as Virginians was all they emotionally had in common and hardly enough to build a union and family upon.

The burial headstone of James Semple. (csnavy.org)

The burial headstone of James Semple. (csnavy.org)

Semple tended to rise into threatening rages, fueled by alcohol and then became submissive in his eagerness to please Letty. In turn, she treated him with rude silence, refusing to engage in any honest effort at building a strong marriage.

Shortly after his father-in-law had the power to do so as President, Semple was sent away from the U.S. on a three year voyage which kept him constantly at sea, a crucial factor in delaying any potential divorce of the First Daughter, a socially embarrassing reality at the time.

It might be the case that President Tyler asked Letty to serve as White House hostess to keep her active and occupied, but the truth was that she alone remained the only adult woman of the presidential family then in residence at the White House.

She did as her sister-in-law Priscilla had done and sought the advice of aged former First Lady Dolley Madison, by then living in a townhouse across the park from the White House.

Following her predecessor’s advice, Letty Semple spent three afternoons each week making social calls to the women family members of prominent political figures. During the post-Easter spring “little social season,” from March until early June, 1844, Letty Semple joined her father as host of two weekly formal dinners and one weekly public reception.

Julia Gardiner Tyler.

Julia Gardiner Tyler.

For someone so embittered by a bad marriage so early on in life, her sojourn as First Lady was likely the most pleasant period of Letty Tyler Semple’s life.

She was not only living in great emotional closeness to her beloved father and seeing to his every need but also began to take some personal pride in being able to help him as President.

It all came to a abrupt, traumatic and unexpected end, when President Tyler eloped with New York socialite Julia Gardiner who was actually three years younger than her.

The dining room of President Tyler's Virginia home. (Sherwood Forest)

The dining room of President Tyler’s Virginia home. (Sherwood Forest)

One by one, the other Tyler children came to accept Julia Tyler as their stepmother, grateful for her intense devotion to their father – but not Letty Semple.

She refused to even show courtesy to the woman who had so unwittingly altered the course of her own life.

Letty Semple apparently continued to live alone in the White House during the suffocatingly humid summer of 1844, at least for some weeks.

She put herself through the unpleasant period not because she enjoyed it but because her new stepmother was spending a good portion of the summer with her father in the Tyler family’s Virginia home.

Letitia Tyler Semple after the Civil War. (VA Historical Society)

Letitia Tyler Semple after the Civil War. (VA Historical Society)

Somehow, John Tyler managed never to show favoritism between his daughter and second wife, but once he died, Letty Semple was overtly rude and dismissive towards Julia Tyler.

After enduring some two decades of rudeness from her stepdaughter, the widowed Julia Tyler managed to finally give as good as she got from Letty – all the while earning points for the compassionate wartime care she showed the neglected and impoverished husband of her hateful stepdaughter, James Semple.

Widowed Julia Tyler. (VA Historical Society)

Widowed Julia Tyler. (VA Historical Society)

This so enraged the estranged Letty that she never again even acknowledged either her stepmother or husband.

The Civil War proved especially devastating to the remaining Tyler First Family members.

Like Julia Tyler, the second wife and fourth First Lady of John Tyler, Priscilla Cooper Tyler had been born in New York but also like her, she transferred her loyalties to the South when the Civil War broke out.

The family relocated to Richmond, Virginia and then, after the war, to Montgomery, Alabama.

It was there that Priscilla Tyler died two days before the year 1890 began, having survived her husband by a dozen years.

The old kitchen log cabin behind a Virginia plantation home where Letty Semple was forced to live during the Civil War. (victorianvilla.com)

The old kitchen log cabin behind a Virginia plantation home where Letty Semple was forced to live during the Civil War. (victorianvilla.com)

Letty Semple’s life only appears to have become even unhappier. She remained estranged from her husband, but forced to survive on little to no income other than that shared with her by siblings.

During the Civil War, she lived in a tiny log hut that was originally a kitchen house on the back property of a Chatham, Virginia plantation.

After the war, she moved to Baltimore and found work teaching at a girl’s school, but the endeavor proved unsuccessful.

Letty Semple in her final years.

Letty Semple in her final years.

Broken financially, emotionally and professionally, this former First Lady was finally placed in Washington, D.C.’s Louise Home in 1877, a permanent housing shelter created for impoverished white women.

Although she became completely blind, Letty Semple had some dignity restored to her life, being made an honored guest at the White House social events of the McKinley Administration.

She refused, however, to return to the presidential mansion after it had been renovated and modernized in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt, railing against what she called “the atrocious butchery” of the its modernization. She died five years later.

 

{ 0 comments }

The poster for the film Kisses for My President (1964), a comedy about the first woman President and her husband the first First Gent.

The poster for the film Kisses for My President (1964), a comedy about the first woman President and her husband the first First Gent.

The question arises more frequently than one might imagine.

A fictional first woman President takes the oath of office as a fictional First Gent looks on.

A fictional first woman President takes the oath of office as a fictional First Gent looks on.

If the first woman elected President of the United States and is not widowed, divorced or single, will it be her or her spouse that the National First Ladies Library focuses on, in keeping with the mission of the institution?

Obviously, that elected official will not be a First Lady – but rather a President. And if she has a husband, then he he won’t be a First Lady – but rather a “First Gent.”

The subject came to public attention again, in passing and in a lighter vein,  with the recent death of the actress Polly Bergen.

One half-century ago, as President Lyndon B. Johnson was running for his own full term in 1964, Polly Bergen starred in the comedy Kisses for My President, the first feature film to feature the first woman President.

The book often considered the launch in the popular culture of the “Women’s Lib” movement, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, had only been published months before Kisses for My President was released. It was an era when the film’s premise of a woman actually being elected and then serving as an American President seemed so absurd that the movie couldn’t be produced as anything but a comedy.

A President who looked exactly like a First Lady.

A President who looked exactly like a First Lady.

Even though Bergen’s Leslie McCloud carries out her duties as the chief executive, her appearance is decidedly that of a First Lady of that era in the immediate aftermath of Mamie Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy: white gloves, matching pillbox, monochromatic day suits.

The focus, however, is less about Madame President Leslie Harrison McCloud and more about that man she married.

Bergen’s co-star Fred MacMurray depicted another “first” in political film history, the “First Male First Lady,” as the movie poster declared.

His character of Thad McCloud was a rather hapless presidential spouse, wandering around the White House uncertain about his what his public role should be.

When he stumbles into the East Wing, he discovers his staff of a Social Secretary and Personal Secretary, who cluck and coo to him that his life could be “one mad social whirl” if he was willing to preside over ribbon-cutting ceremonies and attend fashion show luncheons fundraisers.

Lillian Bronson as Miss Currier and Norma Varden as Miss Dinsendorff depicted the two heads of the First Lady's staff, inherited by the First Gent, who instruct him on his social calendar.

Lillian Bronson as Miss Currier and Norma Varden as Miss Dinsendorff depicted the two heads of the First Lady’s staff, inherited by the First Gent, who instruct him on his social calendar.

MacMurray’s character is too polite to challenge this presumption of public expectations, responding only with a politely quizzical raising of his eyebrows.

At the time of the film’s public release it was still a year away from the nation watching as new kind of First Lady was evolving under the months-old tenure of Lady Bird Johnson.

With her commitment to  civil rights and environmental protection legislation, Mrs. Johnson soon introduced a more publicly overt level of political activity and policy advocacy.

As always, a presidential spouse had unaccountable influence and access to the most powerful person in the world - even in the movies.

As always, a presidential spouse had unaccountable influence and access to the most powerful person in the world – even in the movies.

In contrast, while Thad McCloud exercises his marital prerogative of advising his spouse on her work, just like all First Ladies had done in real life, he only does so privately.

Had Kisses For My President been made a decade after it was, the shift in public perception of gender roles might have made for a more comfortable film version of the first First Gent.

Here is a short video considering the former President becoming the future First Gent and some moments from Kisses for My President:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIBWkrJEJi4&feature=youtu.be

The movie is of the “fish out of water” genre, placing a humble and reserved white American male in a business suit in the position of what is expected to be a middle-aged matron of leisure who’s world is dominated by fashion, flowers and parties.

Kisses for My President was certainly not fine drama nor laugh-riot comedy, but it actually serves a more interesting purpose now, as a window into the general public perceptions of proper gender roles of married American men and women, as exemplified by the couple in the White House.

The ABC-TV series Commander in Chief was only the second mainstream media fictional depiction of a woman US President, ran from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2006.

The ABC-TV series Commander in Chief was only the second mainstream media fictional depiction of a woman US President, ran from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2006.

 

First Gent has a private moment with Madame President.

First Gent has a private moment with Madame President.

Certainly closer to what is likely to be the reality was the depiction of First Gentleman Rod Calloway, played by actor Kyle Secor, in the first television drama series about the first woman US President, entitled Commander in Chief. With actress Geena Davis in the lead role, the series ran just eighteen episodes, from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2006.

This TV First Gent is certainly more substantively engaged than the caricature type MacMurray intended. The Rod Calloway First Gent is a political player himself, having served as Connecticut state attorney general and with rank in the U.S. Army.

The First Gent holds the Bible for the first woman President.

The First Gent holds the Bible for the first woman President.

Much as First Ladies like Florence Harding, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Nellie Taft did, this First Gent has had a role in his spouse’s rise to power, only his was made official.

In the script’s backstory, it is learned that Calloway had served as Chief of Staff to his wife when she was serving as Vice President of the United States, the venue through which she inherits the presidency due to the Chief Executive’s death.

The First Gent scolds a teenage son.

The First Gent scolds a teenage son.

Nevertheless, like Thad McCloud, Rod Calloway is unsettled by having to assume a ceremonial role in public, and he gives serious consideration to accepting the offer of baseball commissioner in nearby Baltimore until his wife convinces him that his role as presidential counselor is vital to her success.

Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen and Kyle Secor as First Gent.

Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen and Kyle Secor as First Gent.

IAlthough her appointing him Presidential Strategic Planning Adviser would be a difficult move in reality (putting a presidential spouse on the federal payroll), this fictional presidential spouse’s run-ins and power-plays with Madame President’s Chief of Staff certainly ring true to the history of conflicts between First Ladies and male Chiefs of Staff.

It was only two years after the series was pulled by the network that reality finally trumped fantasy – or nearly it.

Hillary Clinton delivering a speech at the White House

Hillary Clinton delivering a speech at the White House

With the candidacy for her party’s presidential nomination, the former First Lady and then-US Senator Hillary Clinton grasped the closest of the various women who have tried before, in either serious or symbolic efforts, to win the American presidency.

Through it all, the media was just as equally fixated on her husband – himself, of course, being a former President of the United States – Bill Clinton.

There was no hiding his overt commitment to his wife’s victory or that his experienced political advice was a factor she relied upon.

Bill Clinton has already assumed on numerous occasions the sort of role one might expect a First Gent to take.

Bill Clinton has already assumed on numerous occasions the sort of role one might expect a First Gent to take.

The potential role that Bill Clinton might have played had Hillary Clinton won her party’s nomination and then the general election can only be a matter of speculation as it will be again, perhaps, if she determines to run again for the 2016 nomination.

And while the potential of his assuming such a role would be utterly unique in American popular culture and certainly interesting from the perspective of what it may reflect on evolving gender roles, let alone marital politics, Bill Clinton’s potential First Gent role must really remain in a category by itself for, after all, he is no mere man, or husband but rather a former President of the United States.

That represents such an absolutely, utterly unique condition that resists being quantified into any neat, little category.

As she did for him during his presidency, Bill Clinton has been a supportive spouse at public ceremonies to his wife in her jobs as US Senator and Secretary of State. (Getty)

As she did for him during his presidency, Bill Clinton has been a supportive spouse at public ceremonies to his wife in her jobs as US Senator and Secretary of State. (Getty)

Yet for the very facts that Bill Clinton is long familiar to the world as a President with a spouse who was an overt political partner and as a former President who has appeared at numerous public ceremonies and political events in a secondary, supportive but subordinate role behind his wife in her roles as Senator and then Secretary of State, he has already cast a conception of just what a 21st century first First Gent would do.

A flip of the familiar campaign button slogan often using the name and face of a candidate's wife to endorse her husband's presidential ambition.

A flip of the familiar campaign button slogan often using the name and face of a candidate’s wife to endorse her husband’s presidential ambition.

Add to this his long history of non-partisan domestic projects and global initiatives through his foundation and one finds he has conducted charitable efforts in a manner not too differently than a 21st First Lady would.

Until the United States has the real experience of a woman President and the likely simultaneous scenario of its first First Gent, the question has everyone from political scientists to satirists speculating on just what he would, could and should do.

A bumper sticker offers one possible title.

A bumper sticker offers one possible title.

A sarcastic take on what a woman president's husband might be called.

A sarcastic take on what a woman president’s husband might be called.

There is even debate about what to call him, ranging from the reasonable one of “First Gentleman” most often seen on tee-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers to the sarcastic one of “Mr. First Lady.”

And just in case Hillary Clinton does become the second President Clinton, Bill Clinton had already weighed in on the matter as well, musing that, in a nod to the traditional title given women presidential spouses as well as his own Scottish heritage.

A 2008 presidential campaign button referencing former President Clinton's choice of the ideal title for a woman president's husband,

A 2008 presidential campaign button referencing former President Clinton’s choice of the ideal title for a woman president’s husband,

He’d like to simply be called “First Laddie.”

{ 2 comments }

Jane Irwin Harrison, presidential daughter-in-law and First Lady for the briefest Administration. (Grouselands)

Jane Irwin Harrison, presidential daughter-in-law and First Lady for the briefest Administration. (Grouselands)

Of the two dozen women relatives in presidential families other than wives who served in one capacity or another of the First Lady role, none had as little influence or played a less significant role than did Jane Harrison, the ninth President’s daughter-in-law and her aunt Jane Findlay, and Anna Tuthill Taylor, his daughter and youngest child.

A later depiction of William Henry Hrrison's Inaugural Ball figured both Anna Taylor, at far left,and Jane Harrison, at right, in the background as part of his entourage.

A later depiction of William Henry Harrison’s Inaugural Ball figured both Anna Taylor, at far left,and Jane Harrison, at right, in the background as part of his entourage.

This was in no way a reflection on their intellectual, political or social capabilities but the fact that the Administration under which they served was the shortest in history: the ninth President, William Henry Harrison, only served for thirty days, dying on April 4, 1841, exactly one month after being inaugurated.

What makes the oddity of this shortest presidency all the more peculiar is determining not just which of the Harrison family women members were part of his presidential entourage but who among them, if any, was designated by the President or considered by the public to be his official hostess.

An aerial view of Berkeley Plantation in Virginia where William Henry Harrison was born and where his daughter and White House hostess Anna Taylor later lived. (Berkeley)

An aerial view of Berkeley Plantation in Virginia where William Henry Harrison was born and where his daughter and White House hostess Anna Taylor later lived. (Berkeley)

As president-elect, William Henry Harrison is documented as having visited his married daughter Anna Tuthill Taylor in the area of Williamsburg, Virginia during the period immediately preceding his inauguration.

Harrison’s daughter had married his sister’s grandson and was then living in the same plantation house, Berkeley, where he had been born; after their parents had left, the house had been inhabited by President Harrison’s sister and inherited through her family.

Anna Taylor accompanied him back to Washington for his March 4, 1841 inauguration and was in residence at the White House for part, if not all of his thirty days in residence there.

Members of the Harrison family who came to Washington, son John, grandson Benjamin, daughter Anna Taylor, the President and Jane Harrison. Indiana Historical Society)

Members of the Harrison family who came to Washington, son John, grandson Benjamin, daughter Anna Taylor, the President and Jane Harrison. (Indiana Historical Society)

Her name as “Mrs. Taylor” also appears in the roster of family members listed as being in attendance at his public funeral services in the East Room of the White House.

How it is that history came to designate Jane Harrison and not Anna Taylor as presidential hostess is unknown.

To date, no facial depiction of Anna Taylor has been discovered; the only known representation of her is in silhouette form, along with her father and her sister-in-law Jane Harrison.

The new President is not documented as having given any thought to the protocol ranking or social status of the women of his presidential family.

Jane Harrison in what is believed to be the only photograph made of her.

Jane Harrison in what is believed to be the only photograph made of her.

This may suggest that, passively, he expected both women would work together to oversee social events until the intended arrival in Washington of his wife Anna, an infirm but orderly person who would assume management of the presidential household.

Until then, it may be that Jane Harrison and Anna Taylor together served as hostesses simultaneously, as did Jackson’s niece and daughter-law Emily Donelson and Sarah Jackson, who overlapped for a time.

An earlier Smithsonian mannequin depicting Jane Harrison in the Inaugural gown she wore to her father-in-law's 1841 Whig Ball. (Smithsonian)

An earlier Smithsonian mannequin depicting Jane Harrison in the Inaugural gown she wore to her father-in-law’s 1841 Whig Ball. (Smithsonian)

One might speculate that Jane Harrison was asked to come with the President-elect to Washington as some sort of compensation for the traumatic fourteen-year marriage she endured with his late son and namesake.

William Henry Harrison, Jr. had been a promising young attorney but he gambled and speculated so wildly that he rapidly amassed a crushing load of debt which proved humiliating to his father, who spent his own money and sold property to help bail him out.

He also struggled with an addiction to alcohol and though he often went for long periods without drinking, he ultimately died of his disease. Jane Irwin had been visiting her paternal aunt Nancy in Ohio when she met and married Will Harrison in 1824.

Born in 1804, in the Mercersburg, Pennsylvania limestone mansion, inherited by her father Archibald Irwin from his father, who owned and ran a lucrative flour mill, she was widowed in 1838, left with two small sons. Her mother-in-law and father-in-law took them into their household.

Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, mother of Benjamin Harrison, sister of Jane Harrison - or, daughter-in-law to one President, mother to another.

Elizabeth Irwin Harrison, mother of Benjamin Harrison, sister of Jane Harrison – or, daughter-in-law to one President, mother to another.

Jane Harrison holds a rather peculiar and rare status for presidential trivia: she was both a maternal and paternal aunt to another President, Benjamin Harrison. Of course, her husband was the future President’s uncle (and thus she was his aunt-by-marriage) but she was also his maternal aunt.

Jane’s sister Elizabeth Irwin also married one of President William Henry Harrison’s sons, in this case John Harrison – and was the mother of the future President. Furthermore, Jane Harrison’s first cousin Mary Anne Sutherland married Carter Harrison, a third son of the ninth President.

Thirty-seven years old at the time she moved into the White House, Jane Harrison brought along not only her sons James and William, but her paternal aunt, after whom she had been named.

Jane Findlay. (Smithsonian)

Jane Findlay. (Smithsonian)

Jane Irwin Findlay had no children of her own but had helped to raise her namesake.

The widowed Mrs. Findlay was seventy years old when she joined the Harrison entourage by stagecoach and flatboat from Ohio but she already had social experience as a political figure in Washington, her wealthy husband having served as a Congressman during the Quincy Adams and Jackson Administrations.

A locket containing the only known photo of Jane Findlay, now in the Smithsonian collection.

A locket containing the only known photo of Jane Findlay. (Smithsonian)

He’d also been a founder, developer and the mayor of Cincinnati, a role which introduced him into the circle of the Harrisons.

Misinterpretations of the scant descriptions of the Harrison White House sometimes ascribe the hostess role solely to Jane Findlay, but while a seat of honor was granted to her at formal dinners hosted by the President it was likely due to her rank as a former congressional spouse or respect for her age rather than her importance in the presidential household.

Two different deathbed scenes of President Harrison both incorrectly identified a Niece as being present.

Two different deathbed scenes of President Harrison both incorrectly identified a “Niece” as being present.

 

Lingering questions about the brief Harrison Administration would remain largely unanswered. One speculative matter is whether enslaved people might have been used for the family’s domestic servants or not: Anna Taylor lived in a slave-holding state while Jane Harrison was a resident of an abolitionist one.

Neither woman left any written or oral history of their brief thirty days as joint White House hostesses.

Despite being relatively young at age 41 years old, both Jane Harrison and Anna Taylor died in 1845, just four years after the President. Mrs. Findlay outlived her, surviving the President by a decade and dying at 81 years old.

The only Harrison deathbed illustration correctly depicting two women, one rightly identified as his daughter Mrs. Taylor.

The only Harrison deathbed illustration correctly depicting two women, one rightly identified as his daughter Mrs. Taylor.

Illustrations depicting the death scene of the first incumbent President’s show a weeping woman relative at the side of Harrison’s bed are of no help in determining which of the two young women might have held more sway.

In two Harrison deathbed scene illustrations a single female relative figure is identified as neither the dying President’s “Daughter-in-law,” nor “Daughter,” but rather, incorrectly, as “Niece.”

In the only known Harrison deathbed illustration where two women relatives are depicted, one of the women is identified correctly as the President’s daughter, so at least it is half-right.

{ 0 comments }

First Ladies Never Married to Presidents: Angelica Van Buren

Angelica Van Buren while White House hostess for her father-in-law, whose bust is seen in the background. (White House)

Angelica Van Buren while White House hostess for her father-in-law, whose bust is seen in the background. (White House)

She had it all, wealth, intelligence, education, inheritance, beauty, social status and every possible privilege that a South Carolina plantation background could afford her, and yet Angelica Van Buren with her signature corkscrew curls and swanlike neck, likely harmed more the presidential re-election campaign of her father-in-law than she did help it.

A Smithsonian mannequin on which a gown of Angelica Van Buren was once displayed.

A Smithsonian mannequin on which a gown of Angelica Van Buren was once displayed.

Born the day before Valentine’s Day in 1816, it’s easy to perceive her as a character out of a romantic novel, but she would fulfill the literary requirements of a tragedy as well: her father plunged to his death with her nephew when their train crossed a bridge that collapsed. Her sister endured spousal abuse.

Deborah Grelaud. (askart.com)

Deborah Grelaud. (askart.com)

During her five years as a boarding student at Philadelphia’s Madame Grelaud’s Seminary for Young Ladies (1831-1836), the future First Lady adopted the nickname of “Angelique,” a choice which provides a significant clue to her growing obsession with all things refined and French, a quality inculcated by the school founder Deborah Grelaud, a French native of Haiti who fled there during its 1793 revolution.

Students were rigorously trained entirely in French and educated on European art, literature and culture.

The exorbitant tuition ensured it would be an institution only for the daughters of the elite class, including of presidential families, like Martha Washington’s great-granddaughters, James Monroe’s daughter Maria and the future wife of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Angelica Singelton as a student.

Angelica Singelton as a student.

Letters from this period reveal Angelica with a balance of style and substance, as devoted to the art of writing as she was to the design of fashionable clothing in luxurious materials.

The elderly Dolley Madison. (Heritage Auctions)

The elderly Dolley Madison. (Heritage Auctions)

After graduation, Miss Singleton came to Washington with her sister Marion in December of 1837, with familial ties. Her mother’s brother had served as President Jefferson’s private secretary and lived with him in the Executive Mansion, and her first cousins included former First Lady Dolley Madison, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Congressman.

In March of 1838, Mrs. Madison brought the Singleton sisters to a private White House dinner hosted by widower President Martin Van Buren, with his four unmarried adult sons also in attendance.

Abraham Van Buren. (LC)

Abraham Van Buren. (LC)

The draw between the southern belle and the president’s eldest son Abraham, a swashbuckling West Point graduate and brevet major of the Seminole Indian War, who wore a sash and sword, was likely intense for it was only a matter of eight months before they were married at the family plantation of the 22 year old in South Carolina.

Right after the wedding, the newlyweds went home to the White House where the bride was escorted by the President at formal private dinners and he asserted her assumption of the highest rank of women from other political families in attendance.

The press and the general public got to meet the new Mrs. Van Buren at the 1839 New Year’s Day.

President Van Buren. (randomologyofmoi.tumblr.com)

President Van Buren. (randomologyofmoi.tumblr.com)

That day, she received guests alone in the oval reception room (not yet designated the Blue Room). Her physical beauty and conversational skills made her instantly popular.

Despite the fact that no evidence suggests she influenced the President on domestic agricultural or abolition policy, the new First Lady symbolized the southern states rights demographic of the Democratic Party which was growing hostile to the potential threat of abolition while the President continued to placate abolitionists of his powerful New York base. Van Buren found his daughter-in-law served the political advantage of abating his increasingly tenuous hold on factions of his party.

Angelica Van Buren's aunt Sally Stevenson, US Minister to England's wife. (Social Life in the Early Republic, 1902)

Angelica Van Buren’s aunt Sally Stevenson, US Minister to England’s wife. (Social Life in the Early Republic, 1902)

It was the following autumn, when she and the president’s son made their delayed European honeymoon that her more politically inexpedient behavior emerged. Inspired by her heavy reading on European court life, Angelica Van Buren naively delighted in being received as the Queen of the United States in the royal houses of England and France.

There being no criticism in American newspapers of Angelica Van Buren’s gallivant with the royals at the time, she was inspired to create a similar court life the next year at the White House. Still, her aunt Sally, married to U.S. Minister to Great Britain Andrew Stevenson, was disturbed by how enamored her niece had become with royal life.

During her time in England, her uncle Stevenson drew her into an international scandal after being denounced by Irish patriot Daniel O’Connor as not merely an owner of enslaved people but a “slave breeder.” Although O’Connor ignored Stevenson’s challenge to duel, it reflected poorly on the U.S., fueled by the President’s refusal to recall him because he was the First Lady’s uncle.

The controversy prompted the abolitionist U.S. Whig Party to attach a negative association to Angelica Van Buren as they geared up for their 1840 challenge to defeat Van Buren for a second term in the 1840 presidential election.

An illustrated British journal deppicted President Van Buren, his son Prince John and dauighter-in-law Angelica at a family gathering.

An illustrated British journal deppicted President Van Buren, his son “Prince John” and daughter-in-law Angelica at a family gathering.

When the general public next interacted with Angelica Van Buren again, at the 1840 New Year’s Day Reception, she received them in the formal and stiffly-held poses of the “tableaux,” a technique used in the European palaces by royal family members who held large bouquets of flowers in their lap and refused to any longer shake their hands in the expected democratic custom.

The French Minister withheld his customary criticism of the commonness of American behavior to instead praise Angelica’s “distinguished manners” and claim she would be popular “in any country.”

A depiction of Angelica Van Buren on the White House South Lawn. (ebay)

A depiction of Angelica Van Buren on the White House South Lawn. (ebay)

Mrs. Van Buren missed being hit by any direct criticism, soon enough vanishing from public sight for the expected “confinement” of her first pregnancy. Her first child was born in the White House on March 27, 1840 but died five days later.

Pregnant a second time that fall, during the President’s re-election campaign, she nevertheless proved to be a contributing factor to his loss.

As the nation endured a deep economic depression, newspaper coverage of Mrs. Van Buren’s receiving style at the New Year’s Day reception, as well as the anecdotal claim that she intended to re-landscape the White House grounds to resemble the royal gardens of Europe were used in a political attack on her father-in-law by a Pennsylvania Whig Congressman Charles Ogle.

He referred obliquely to her as part of the presidential “household” in his famous “Gold Spoon” speech. The attack was delivered in Congress and the depiction of the President as living a royal lifestyle was a primary factor in his defeat for re-election.

Melrose House, Angelica Singleton Van Buren's family plantation home in Sumter County, South Carolina.

Melrose House, Angelica Singleton Van Buren’s family plantation home in Sumter County, South Carolina.

There was also a growing feel among some in the country at the time, however, that those like Angelica Singleton Van Buren, who’d been educated at institutions like Grelaud Seminary or lived in among Philadelphia’s elite class, were part of a new concept of “American upper class,” and antithetical to the ideal of democracy. Southern families settling there were blending with the city’s wealthy merchant class base who tended to be traditional, conservative Anglophiles. This coalescing defied regionalism and was a reaction to the growing movement empowering the working-class. Part of this emerging “upper-class” identity was the “French-centered” education, a status symbol restricted to all but the wealthy. Those seeking to establish access to education for all classes of women charged that the emphasis on European culture of institutions such as the Grelaud Seminary demeaned the new nation’s majority of more common citizens.

Bedroom of Angelica and Abraham Van Buren.

Bedroom of Angelica and Abraham Van Buren.

After leaving the White House with her husband, brothers-in-law and father-in-law, Angelica Van Buren assumed management of the former President’s home in the Hudson River Valley, which he used as headquarters for his intended return to elective national political office. Angelica and Abraham Van Buren and their three sons moved to their own home in New York City in 1848, along with her niece Mary who she raised as a daughter.

During a lengthy trip to Europe, she became exposed to various reform movements to help the laboring classes, inspiring her to undertake charity work upon her return.

Angelica Van Buren in later years. (LC)

Angelica Van Buren in later years. (LC)

Her new conscientiousness about the powerless of society was bolstered by the shocking realization of how her beloved sister, physically abused and financially exploited by her husband, had no legal recourse based solely on her gender.

Angelica Van Buren survived most of her family, including all of her siblings, and nearly every niece and nephew and her husband.

None of her three adult sons had any children and thus she leaves no descendants. She died in 1878, choosing to be buried not in South Carolina but beside her husband in the New York borough of the Bronx.

{ 0 comments }

First Ladies Never Married to Presidents: Sarah Jackson

Sarah Yorke Jackson, daughter-in-law of President Andrew Jackson and, briefly, his White House hostess. (The Hermitage)

Sarah Yorke Jackson, daughter-in-law of President Andrew Jackson and, briefly, his White House hostess. (The Hermitage)

Andrew Jackson actually had two First Ladies and never married either of them.

One was his wife’s niece, Emily Donelson, who did as planned and assumed the role of hostess in the presidential mansion at Washington.

Sarah Yorke Jackson in younger years, during her tenure as White House hostess. (The White House)

Sarah Yorke Jackson in younger years, during her tenure as White House hostess. (The White House)

The other was his daughter-in-law, Sarah Jackson, who it was planned would assume the role of hostess in the president’s plantation in Nashville, but a sudden fire there had her also coming to live in the presidential mansion.

For the first time in history, there were two women serving simultaneously with equal status as White House hostesses, neither of whom were presidential spouses.

Sarah Jackson’s story is one that has never been widely disseminated, but it is unusual.

Orphaned at 15 years old, raised by two maiden aunts in Philadelphia, Sarah Yorke and her two sisters Jane and Marian were heiresses to great mercantile fortune, established by their father, like his own father, was a sea captain who travelled the globe and were familiar with the cultures of Africa and Asia.

Her grandfather’s grandfather had been a Quaker in England, a follower of William Penn who immigrated to the American colony of Pennsylvania when he learned of the religious freedom it offered those of his sect.

Andrew Jackson, Jr. (The Hermitage)

Andrew Jackson, Jr. (The Hermitage)

She was born in July of 1805 but practically nothing his known of her childhood.

Sarah’s narrative becomes more definitive after her wedding to the President’s adopted son and namesake, two years after his presidency began. Jackson was unable to attend the ceremony in Philadelphia but greeted her with literally open arms on the North Portico of the White House, commencing a series of dinners and receptions to honor her, at which she wore her wedding gown.

She and Andrew, Jr. spent the winter of 1832 in the White House.

In the late spring of 1832, a pregnant Sarah and her husband headed down to the President’s Nashville plantation.

That November, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter named after her late mother-in-law.

She was fully recovered and in a joyous mood when she returned to the White House for her father-in-law’s second Inauguration on March 4, 1833.

She stayed through summer and accompanied the President on his summer vacation in Virginia, after which she proceeded home to Tennessee.

Sarah Jackson gave birth to her second child in the spring of 1834 at the Hermitage plantation, after which a fire broke out and destroyed part of the plantation house. This prompted the return of Andrew, Jr., Sarah and their two-year daughter and seven-month old son.

An old postcard depicting the Hermitage.

An old postcard depicting the Hermitage.

Interestingly, she made the northern trip by stagecoach along with Emily Donelson so that there would be no rumors of one or the other being the “official” or primary hostess of the White House.

Nevertheless, the President did declare that Sarah was “mistress of the Hermitage,” a home he considered more important to him personally than the White House.

Even if they were intended to be treated with the same status in relation to the President, Emily Donelson did dominate the White House simply by the nature of her tenure there since the beginning and her wide circle of Washington social contacts.

There was never any known rivalry between the two of them and they even co-hosted a children’s Christmas party at the end of 1835.

Sarah Jackson's pearl-encrusted guitar which she likely used to entertain friends and family in the White House. (The Hermitage)

Sarah Jackson’s pearl-encrusted guitar which she likely used to entertain friends and family in the White House. (The Hermitage)

Sarah Jackson again returned to the Hermitage in the spring of 1836.

That summer Emily Donelson also returned to her adjoining plantation but was terminally ill.

It’s unclear if Sarah Jackson visited with her fellow First Lady in the fall of 1836 before she returned to Washington and Emily died at home, but it is highly likely.

With the end of the Administration nearing, Sarah Jackson was now back at the White House as the sole hostess there for President Jackson and she oversaw the packing of his personal possessions for shipment home to the Hermitage.

Sarah Jackson ran the household at the Hermitage for the former President until his death in 1845, giving birth to three more sons there. Pressed by the debts he left, she and her husband relocated to Mississippi just before the Civil War.

The bedroom of Sarah York Jackson, one of two First Ladies during her father-in-law's presidency.

The Hermitage bedroom of Sarah York Jackson, one of two First Ladies during her father-in-law’s presidency.

After the war, the state of Tennessee bought the Hermitage to preserve as an historic site but permitted this relatively obscure First Lady to continue living there until her death in 1887.

Although Sarah Jackson did not play an important role in the White House, she did ensure the physical and emotional comfort of her legendary father-in-law during his increasingly infirm and disabled retirement, playing a vital role that was entirely private and personal rather than political and public.

{ 0 comments }

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Simply by making an entirely social decision and sticking to it, Andrew Jackson’s First Lady Emily Donelson, niece of his late wife, managed to impact the political climate of his presidency and come into open conflict with him.

In fact, were it not for Emily Donelson’s status in the presidential household and the rigid obstinacy of her decision, the famous “Peggy Eaton Affair” would have never occurred.

Rachel Jackson, one of her portraits in the collection of the Hermitage.

Rachel Jackson, one of her portraits in the collection of the Hermitage.

Although the President’s wife Rachel Jackson had died less than three months before her husband’s presidency began, she had made definitive plans about how she would carry out her role in the White House.

Anticipating the arrangements later made by Letitia Tyler, Peggy Taylor and Eliza Johnson, all presidential spouses from the southern states, Mrs. Jackson intended to have her young, well-educated and socially sophisticated relative – in her case, niece Emily Donelson – appear in public and assume the visibility of hostess at social events where guests were strangers to her.

Many people know the details of the tragic romance between Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel, who had believed that she was legitimately divorced from her first husband Lewis Robards at the time she married Jackson, her second husband.

Not until she and Jackson had established a household together did they discover she was technically a bigamist, her divorce papers never having been processed.

A.J. Donelson. (The Hermitage)

A.J. Donelson. (The Hermitage)

This error, be it a matter of innocence or negligence, was nevertheless judged with harsh morality and Rachel was labeled a “wanton woman” and her bigamy used by Andrew Jackson’s political opponents as a poor reflection on his own character.

So emotionally pained was Mrs. Jackson that she seems to have intended to limit her public interactions which might expose her to the keener ridicule by which Washington society has always been known, and which she declared to be vain and irreligious. Her heart condition also made long receiving lines difficult for her to breath.

The new President formally designated Emily Donelson as his White House hostess, something no previous chief executive had done. At only twenty-one years old, Emily Donelson was one of the youngest women to serve as First Lady.

A sampler stitched by Emily Donelson. (Tulip Grove Plantation)

A sampler stitched by Emily Donelson. (Tulip Grove Plantation)

The daughter of Rachel Jackson’s brother John and born in a town which was named with her own family name, Emily Donelson had the opportunity to pursue a sophisticated education, graduating from the Nashville Female Academy.

Unlike that of her aunt, she became an expert in grammar and had an elegant handwriting.

When she was seventeen years old, Emily married her first cousin “A.J.” (named for Andrew Jackson), the son of Rachel Jackson’s brother William. Since A.J. was raised as a son by Andrew and Rachel Jackson (but never formally adopted) Emily was truly like a daughter to the President-elect and his wife.

A West Point graduate and lawyer, A.J. Donelson would come to work in the White House as the President’s Private Secretary.

Teenager Emily Donelson attended the January 8, 1825 ball given for Andrew and Rachel Jackson by John Quincy and Louisa Adams, depicted 47 years after the event. (Harper's)

Teenager Emily Donelson attended the January 8, 1825 ball given for Andrew and Rachel Jackson by John Quincy and Louisa Adams, depicted 47 years after the event. (Harper’s)

Despite her youth, however, Emily Donelson was already familiar with the White House, having been entertained there by the President and Mrs. Monroe in the winter of 1924-1825, and had also been a guest of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa in their home.

Managing her loyalty to Andrew Jackson while befriending his hated political rival John Quincy Adams would prove to be a remarkable feat for the then-eighteen year old woman. It was a trait that served her well in the White House.

The mob scene outside the White House on Jackson's 1829 Inauguration Day.

The mob scene outside the White House on Jackson’s 1829 Inauguration Day.

In fact, this young First Lady, who dazzled crowds by appearing in an amber-colored gown at her uncle’s inauguration would befriend both past and future White House residents.

She came to know Martha Jefferson Randolph, Martin Van Buren and James Polk, the latter two serving as godfathers to two of her four children born in the White House.

Emily Donelson named her first child, born in the White House, after her late aunt, the widowed President's wife. (Tennessee State Museum)

Emily Donelson named her first child, born in the White House, after her late aunt, the widowed President’s wife. (Tennessee State Museum)

Initially, due to a period of mourning for her late aunt, there was no great entertaining in the Jackson White House but from the moment the social events began there was trouble with Peggy Eaton, wife of the President’s Secretary of War and a close friend to Jackson.

Mrs. Eaton had first met a young Emily Donelson during the 1824-1825 social season in Washington, when the former joined the Jacksons and stayed as guests in the boardinghouse run by Peggy’s father. At the time, Peggy was married to a captain who was then away at sea and his absence apparently gave her license to behave flirtatiously with many other men.

Peggy Eaton. (geni.com)

Peggy Eaton. (geni.com)

Despite this both Andrew and Rachel Jackson approved of Peggy and were happy when she, later widowed, married John Eaton.

Emily Donelson, however, refused to consider the Cabinet wife deserving of social respect. She joined the other socially prominent women who were married to Cabinet members and refused to accept invitations from Mrs. Eaton or to acknowledge her at parties or even treat her with any politeness.

A political cartoon suggesting President Jackson's approval of Peggy Eaton, scandalously dancing and showing her ankles, at a Cabinet meeting. (New York Historical Society)

A political cartoon suggesting President Jackson’s approval of Peggy Eaton, scandalously dancing and showing her ankles, at a Cabinet meeting. (New York Historical Society)

Emily received an angry letter of rebuke from the War Secretary.

He correctly pointed out that the social ostracizing his wife was experiencing was how Rachel Jackson had been treated, due to her previously being a bigamist.

Emily responded by defending her aunt and never mentioning Peggy.

Then Secretary of State Martin Van Buren tried, telling Emily she was being influenced by the older Cabinet wives.

In response, when Van Buren held a dinner for the Cabinet and their spouses, Emily and the other women refused to attend. Only Peggy came.

Peggy Eaton in later years. (LC)

Peggy Eaton in later years. (LC)

It was no insignificant social matter by 1830, when President Jackson learned that the wives of diplomatic representatives of foreign countries were now considering a boycott of the American Cabinet wife. President Jackson was furious with his niece.

When she returned with her husband to Tennessee that summer, the President did not want encourage her to return to the White House unless she relented. She refused to.

The main hall at Tulip Grove, home of A.J. and Emily Donelson. (The Hermitage)

The main hall at Tulip Grove, home of A.J. and Emily Donelson. (The Hermitage)

Furthermore, she also refused to stay at his Nashville estate, retreating to her Tulip Grove plantation instead.

Jackson wrote that “there being no lady of the House, there was something wanting,” but Emily refused to apologize or acquiesce to his wishes.

He took the actions of Emily Donelson and also the wives of his Cabinet members as an act of political insubordination.

President Jackson meeting with his Cabinet.

President Jackson meeting with his Cabinet.

The “Peggy Eaton Affair” ultimately was a factor in his firing his entire Cabinet and replacing them with more loyal members.

Not until a year later, when John and Peggy Eaton moved to Spain where he served as U.S. Ambassador there did the matter resolve.

In the fall of 1831, Emily Donelson returned to the White House as First Lady but weakened by tuberculosis she returned home and died there four months before the end of the Jackson Administration in 1837.

{ 2 comments }

by Patricia Krider

The bronze medal for biography awarded by the Independent Publishers Book Award for the biography of First Lady Ida McKinley.

The Independent Publishers Book Award bronze medal for biography was awarded to the biography of First Lady Ida McKinley.

Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the-Century First Lady Through War, Assassination, and Secret Disability, by Carl Sferrazza Anthony (The Kent State University Press/Published in cooperation with The National First Ladies Ladies’ Library), was recently awarded a bronze medal in the Biography category of the 2014 IPPY Awards, during the annual American Booksellers Association convention.

I was honored to attend the award ceremony on May 28th in New York City and to accept this prestigious award on behalf of Carl, the National First Ladies’ Library and Kent State University Press.

NFLL Executive Director Pat Krider at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, June 2014.

NFLL Executive Director Pat Krider at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, June 2014.

The Independent Publisher Book Awards, also known as the IPPY Awards, is an annual book awards contest conducted to honor the year’s best independently published titles. The awards are open to independent authors and publishers worldwide who produce intended for an English-speaking market. The Independent Publisher Book Awards are intended to bring increased recognition to the thousands of exemplary independent, university and self-published each year. Since the inaugural contest in 1996, over 5,000 books have received IPPY Awards. The Independent Publisher Book Award is considered one of the highest honors for books published by independent publishers.

Mary Regula, founder and president of the NFLL at a  Congressional Club event.

Mary Regula, founder and president of the NFLL at a Congressional Club event.

Ida McKinley, the first full-length biography of the wife of William McKinley who served as U.S. President from 1897 to 1901, was an original idea by the NFLL Founder and President Mary Regula.

In 2006, the organization commissioned NFLL Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony to execute the project, and underwrote the costs of the research, writing and editing of the book. It was published in November of 2013.

The Saxton-McKinley House (NFLL)

The Saxton-McKinley House (NFLL)

The Saxton-McKinley House, a property of the National First Ladies Historic Site, is now fully restored and was the home of Ida McKinley and her family, perhaps the only residence inherited through four generations of women. It also served as the longest place of residence to William McKinley.

{ 0 comments }

A posthumous portrait of Martha Jefferson Randolph

A posthumous portrait of Martha Jefferson Randolph

One consistent factor among those adult and married “First Daughters” who assumed all or several of the different roles carried out by a “First Lady,” when their mother was either unable or unwilling to do so or had died before the presidency, is how exceedingly close to the President they are in terms of both private, emotional support in private and public, political defense.

Jefferson.

Jefferson.

In the case of Martha Jefferson Randolph, she played a central role not only in her father’s presidency but throughout his entire life from the moment her mother died in 1782, when she was 33 years old.  Among “First Daughters,” she may well have been the most important one.

Martha Jefferson Randolph, a portrait owned by the Monticello Foundation.

Martha Jefferson Randolph, a portrait owned by the Monticello Foundation.

History has both overestimated and underestimated the importance of the daughter whom third President Thomas Jefferson always called “Patsy.”

Of the eight social seasons which ran from approximately October to May that her father spent in the White House, Patsy Randolph lived with him there for a period of only two social seasons.

It was through the letters they exchanged and the conversations they had during their time together at home in Virginia, however, which permitted Patsy Randolph to provide the President with emotional support and personal encouragement during his trials as President.

At the time of his inauguration on March 4, 1801 Jefferson had been a widower for two decades, his beloved wife, the former Martha Wayles, having died after the birth of their sixth child. Two of their children lived to adulthood but only one of these would outlive her father, the eldest of them all, Patsy, who was born on September 27, 1772.

A late 19th century drawing depicted young Martha Randolph serving as her father's hostess at a dinner for George Washington.

A late 19th century drawing depicted young Martha Randolph serving as her father’s hostess at a dinner for George Washington.

The other daughter who lived to see him become President was Maria Eppes, who he always called Polly. She died at age 26, seven months before he was re-elected to a second term in 1804.

During Jefferson’s presidency, his adult daughters continued to live their lives as mothers and managers of Virginia plantations located near his estate Monticello, where they had both been born and raised.

Their husbands Thomas Mann Randolph and John Eppes did live in the White House with their father-in-law during the periods they represented Virginia, serving as members of Congress.

Jefferson never perceived the absence of a woman fulfilling an official capacity in his household as a deficit.

He had long been accustomed to serving as the lone host of private dinner parties during his diplomatic service in France, as Secretary of State under George Washington in New York and Philadelphia and as Vice President to John Adams in Philadelphia.

Martha Wayles Jefferson.

Martha Wayles Jefferson.

As President, he assumed full control of his public and private entertaining, tailoring the rules and protocol, the menus and wines, the guest lists and the ceremonial formalities to his specific ideals of democracy. When there were women guests in attendance at his dinners, President Jefferson did determine that a woman representing the Administration with some official rank should be present.

Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.

Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.

Since his Vice President Aaron Burr was also a widower, it was Dolley Madison, the wife of his close friend and highest-ranking Cabinet member Secretary of State James Madison, on whom he depended. Intermittently, she fulfilled two official roles in the Jefferson Administration: she was given the highest rank bestowed on an unelected figure and woman simply by the status of being the official escort of the President at formal dinners and she appeared to welcome women at the large, open-house events like New Year’s Day and Independence Day, where the public citizens were invited to meet the President.

Dolley Madison also served as a guide to life in the new and still developing capital city for Patsy Randolph when she made her first visit there, a year after her father’s 1801 Inauguration, which she did not attend. During her 1902 stay, she was accompanied by her sister Polly Eppes.

She also was absent from his second Inauguration, in March of 1805 but followed her pattern of coming to live with him in the White House a year later, during the 1806 social season.

Jefferson, Martha, his grandchildren and a woman slave depicted at Monticello by artist G B McIntosh on the Monticello website.

Jefferson, Martha, his grandchildren and a woman slave depicted at Monticello by artist G B McIntosh on the Monticello website.

During that second visit, she gave birth on January 17, 1806 to her eight child, James Madison Randolph; thus he became the first child born in the White House.

Four of her children were born during the time her father served as President, from 1801 to 1809: Virginia, Mary, James and and Benjamin.

As a testament to the intensity of the bond between them, it was her father and not her husband who Martha Jefferson Randolph asked to name each of her one dozen children.

In fact, the one attribute which seemed to mark her otherwise uneventful time in the White House was the presence of her many children.

Superficially, the absence of women in the Jefferson White House might make as good an argument as any that a presidency can be entirely successful without the presence of a First Lady.

Anne Randolph, Patsy Randolph's eldest child, born in 1791. (Monticello)

Anne Randolph, Patsy Randolph’s eldest child, born in 1791. (Monticello)

Such an argument, however, would fail to consider the more important role which Patsy Randolph played for the President in private, through personal correspondence.

Patsy Randolph spent almost his entire time in the White House at either Monticello or the Virginia plantation, “Edgehill” of her husband. Largely through their correspondence, but also during his lengthy visits home, Patsy Randolph became her father’s comfort and close adviser, perhaps the single most important personal factor that stabilized him during his presidency.

A colorized engraving of Martha Randolph.

A colorized engraving of Martha Randolph.

When the newspaper story that Jefferson and his half-sister-in-law and Monticello slave Sally Hemings had children out of wedlock was first widely reprinted in the first weeks of 1802, Patsy Randolph may have served a political purpose: she immediately joined her troubled father in Washington, along with her children Ellen and Jeff, and her sister Polly, as a sign of family unity. The usually non-church going Jefferson also suddenly began publicly appearing at the Sunday religious services then held in the hall of Congress, always politically shielded by the presence of his two daughters and two grandchildren.

A minature of Martha Jefferson Randolph before her marriage, painted in France. (US State Department

A minature of Martha Jefferson Randolph before her marriage, painted in France. (US State Department

During her father’s long stays home at his Monticello plantation, Patsy Randolph received his guests, both public and private, as his official hostess and helped to manage the family tableaux which she and her children provided for the President as a form of political appeal.

The intensity of the bond between Jefferson and his daughter had begun in the days following his wife’s death when young Patsy was the only family member with whom he would initially speak and spend time with alone.

Becoming constant companions, her emotional support to him continued when she went to live with him in France for his first diplomatic mission.

Patsy's husband, Thomas Mann Randolph.

Patsy’s husband, Thomas Mann Randolph.

Although she was placed in the Abbye Royale de Panthemont Catholic convent school and taught by French nuns, he continued to focus on her development with exacting instructions by letter. When she considered converting to Catholicism, however, he moved her to his residence where she presided as a young hostess.

Upon returning to the United States, she wed Thomas Mann Randolph on February 23, 1790 and began a tumultuous marriage with a husband often given to irrational rages, heavy drinking and mental illness.

Martha Randolph depicted in a full-length portrait which appeared in work by collector Stephan Lorant.

Martha Randolph depicted in a full-length portrait which appeared in work by collector Stephan Lorant.

Part of the problem may have been Patsy’s greater loyalty to her father. Her life at Monticello and admiration for her father, however, also had its complications.

As mistress of Monticello, she also directed the domestic staff of enslaved people which included Sally Hemings, who was the half-sister of Patsy’s mother.

While she never remarked openly on the claim that she had several half-siblings who were the children of Jefferson and Hemings, Patsy Randolph viewed slavery as evil for its horrific effect of breaking up families, but when her own family finances began to falter she felt she had no choice but to sell humans held as slaves.

Martha Randolph in later life. (Monticello)

Martha Randolph in later life. (Monticello)

Following the death of her father in 1826, Patsy Randolph had to sell Monticello to pay off his heavy debts.

Her husband died two years later and she went to initially live with her married daughter Ellen in Boston.

She later lived with another daughter in Washington, D.C. and was a frequent and honored guest of President Andrew Jackson at the White House. As a tribute to her father, the state legislatures of both South Carolina and Louisiana eventually awarded her gifts totaling $2,000, which she needed  to live on.

Two years before her 1836 death, Martha Randolph added a special codicil to her will, ensuring that Sally Hemings be given her freedom from slavery, but she would remain a slave, dying a year before Jefferson’s daughter.

{ 0 comments }

Eliza Monroe Hay. (Monroe Presidential Library and Museum)

Eliza Monroe Hay. (Monroe Presidential Library and Museum)

Dominant by nature, Eliza Monroe Hay’s social edicts shaped the very nature of her father’s Administration.

James and Elizabeth Monroe, parents of Eliza Hay. (both The White House)

James and Elizabeth Monroe, parents of Eliza Hay. (both The White House)

This wife and mother, thirty-year old at the time her father James Monroe began his eight-year, two-term presidency in 1817, managed to help worsen an acrimonious situation between the Administration and the representatives of foreign countries into a serious diplomatic crisis.

Like other Presidents before the Civil War such as the two Adamses, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, James Monroe invited extended family members to live with him in the White House and named one, his wife’s nephew, to collect the federal salary for the post of land officer while performing the duty of private presidential secretary.

The nephew, Samuel Gouverneur would go on to marry his first cousin Maria and then become the presidential son-in-law.

Eliza Monroe Hay. (James Monroe Presidential Museum and Library)

Eliza Monroe Hay. (James Monroe Presidential Museum and Library)

The First Family also included the President’s eldest daughter Eliza Hay, married to the prominent Virginia attorney George Hay who had also served as prosecutor in the trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr, and their only child, a daughter Hortensia.

During the first six years of her father’s presidency, Eliza Hay’s husband served in the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond, until moving to Washington in 1822 and going into private law practice.

While Hortensia Hay would come to help her grandfather in organizing his papers before the family vacated the White House before the end of his presidency, her mother was playing a far more public role on behalf of the First Lady, specifically, and the First Family, generally.

Eliza Hay's Irish harp. (Mone Presidential Library)

Eliza Hay’s Irish harp. (Monroe Presidential Library)

The precise nature of the debilitating ailment afflicting Elizabeth Monroe during her husband’s presidency is indeterminable but there are references to her suffering from both severe arthritis and a condition which led to her “falling.” The latter matched certain symptoms of epilepsy. At public events she was described as youthful but always with an entourage of other women relatives, like her daughters, sisters and nieces.

The bed used by Eliza Monroe Hay in the White House, now at the Decatur House in Washington. (andrewhopkinsart.blogspot.com)

The bed used by Eliza Monroe Hay in the White House, now at the Decatur House in Washington. (andrewhopkinsart.blogspot.com)

Among these Eliza Hay was the most prominent, an outspoken woman with none of the grace of her mother nor submissiveness with which women of her class and era were often expected to behave. There are scant claims that she substituted for her mother on occasion but most accounts pinpoint her as receiving guests along with her mother yet assuming a role more dominant than the First Lady at social figure.

Although it was an era when the details of a President’s family life were largely considered to be private, his daughter assumed the most overt role among them, acting as a sort of modern equivalence of a spokesperson. She never held press conferences or made formal announcements, but she did make distinct verbal declarations during her interactions with members of Congress, the diplomatic corps and other officials in Washington.

The young Eliza Hay, at the time she first lived in Europe. (Monroe Presidential Library and Museum)

The young Eliza Hay, at the time she first lived in Europe. (Monroe Presidential Library and Museum)

Whereas the President and First Lady had only first gone to Europe as adults to fulfill two assignments of his diplomatic career, most importantly as Minister to France, their eldest child, Eliza, was only eight years old in 1794, when they first lived on the Continent. In 1803, they returned, bringing with them their infant daughter Maria who was sixteen years younger than her sister.

Eliza Hay’s entire outlook was heavily influenced by her French education and friends. She was enrolled at the elite Parisian private school of Madame Campan, the former lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Antoinette. She also befriended many women of European royal families and would later count Queen of Holland Hortense de Beauharnois and Queen of Naples Caroline Bonaparte.

Hortensia di Beauharnais, friend of Eliza Hay, who named her daughter after the future Queen of Holland. (wikipedia)

Hortensia di Beauharnais, friend of Eliza Hay, who named her daughter after the future Queen of Holland. (wikipedia)

To what degree Eliza Hay coordinated the protocol established during the Monroe Administration with her father is unclear. Certainly the presidential social life which Mrs. Hay dominated suggested the same sense of American autonomy in its own hemisphere and an effort to protect the contiguous United States from being colonized by foreign countries.

Mrs. Hay and Mrs. Monroe refused to make the first social call on foreign diplomats, a snub which symbolized the prerogative of the United States government to determine its own rules in its own land.

Eliza Hay was also the Monroe presidential family member who decided that the guests at her sister Maria’s March 9, 1820 White House wedding would be limited to some four dozen relatives and close friends and that invitations would not be made to the diplomatic corps, nor would their gifts be acknowledged. Further, she agreed to attend a charity ball as a guest on the peculiar condition that her presence as the First Daughter not be acknowledged.

Maria Monroe, White House bride and sister of Eliza Hay. (Monroe Presidential Library)

Maria Monroe, White House bride and sister of Eliza Hay. (Monroe Presidential Library)

She could often be dismissive towards those who made polite inquiries about her husband and his well-being.

The foreign representatives were so taken aback by Mrs. Hay’s rudeness that they formally protested the President’s protocol shift from the less exclusive Jefferson and Madison Administrations. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams made it the subject of discussion at two Cabinet meetings but the Monroes insisted on adherence to their new regulations.

Secretary of State Adams.

Secretary of State Adams.

Margaret Bayard Smith, wife of the of the newspaper National Intelligencer editor, who often provided brief items about Presidents and their families for the paper, nevertheless also chronicled how Eliza Hay ignored threats to her own health by serving as a volunteer nurse to local residents who were suffering during a malaria outbreak.

After the presidency, Eliza Hay remained a central figure in the Monroe family, sometimes at odds with her brother-in-law on how to best seek government restitution for the large sums of personal spending which her parents had outlaid during their years of foreign public service.

Monroe laying out his famous doctrine to his Cabinet.

Monroe laying out his famous doctrine to his Cabinet.

Eliza Hay’s mother and husband both died in 1830, her father a year later.

Although she still had a married daughter living in the United States, this widowed White House hostess returned to France, where she seemed to have most naturally felt at home, converting to Catholicism and living in a convent.

She is buried not with her family members in Virginia, but in Paris.

{ 0 comments }

First Ladies who never married Presidents. Left to right, top row: Martha Randolph, Anna Roosevelt, Jane Harrison, Harriet Lane, Priscilla Tyler, Chelsea Clinton; second row: Helene Taft, Jane Findlay, Martha Patterson, Mary Stover, Angelica Van Buren, Letitia Semple; third row: Abby Fillmore, Rose Cleveland, Sarah Jackson; bottom row: Margaret Wilson, Helen Bones, Susan Ford, Emily Donelson, Abigail Means, Molly McElroy, Mary McKee, Eliza Hay.

First Ladies who never married Presidents. Left to right, top row: Martha Randolph, Anna Roosevelt, Jane Harrison, Harriet Lane, Priscilla Tyler, Chelsea Clinton; second row: Helene Taft, Jane Findlay, Martha Patterson, Mary Stover, Angelica Van Buren, Letitia Semple; third row: Mary Fillmore, Rose Cleveland, Sarah Jackson; bottom row: Margaret Wilson, Helen Bones, Susan Ford, Emily Donelson, Abigail Means, Molly McElroy, Mary McKee, Eliza Hay.

This is an introductory essay to a forthcoming series on the National First Ladies Library Blog about some of the most obscure yet often most important “other women” of the White House, with individual articles coming in the weeks and months ahead.

With a series of presidential spouses in the White House who have, for over a half a century now, been healthy and vital as well as interested in assuming public responsibilities, it is hard to conceive of the role of First Lady being assumed by anyone other than the person who happens to be married to the President.

President Harrison, daughter Mary McKee and grandson Baby McKee. (Benjamin Harrison Home website)

President Harrison, daughter Mary McKee and grandson Baby McKee. (Benjamin Harrison Home website)

Yet there have been some two dozen First Ladies who had a variety of family relationships with Presidents other than that of spouse, being daughters, daughters-in-law, niece, sisters, cousin, and aunts.

Even when these “other women” are acknowledged as “surrogate First Ladies” or “White House hostesses,” the titles by which they are often designated, little to no consideration is given to the value their presence provided a President in private or what the nature of their uncertain status revealed about the nation’s evolving perceptions of the presidency.

It’s been a century since there was an incumbent President who was either widowed or had a wife unable or unwilling to assume any public duties or fulfill the traditional expectations placed on them as the spouse of the nation’s chief executive.

Yet even in the intervening years, the nation has seen some brief moments when schedule or health prevented a presidential wife from being able to make public appearances with her husband and a daughter has substituted on her behalf to both fulfill traditional expectations for the public and press and to serve as a companion of familial support for the President.

Helene Taft aided her mother as hostess during the First Lady’s last social season, when her poor health required assistance.

Chelsea Clinton was her father’s companion during a state visit to Australia, while her mother was campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

Anna Roosevelt was her father’s companion during his World War II conference at Yalta.

Susan Ford served presided as hostess over a state dinner when her mother was recovering from breast cancer surgery.

Susan Ford with her father and the family dog Liberty on the White House South Lawn. (GRFL)

Susan Ford with her father and the family dog Liberty on the White House South Lawn. (GRFL)

Like that modern trio, most of the other “surrogate” First Ladies were presidential daughters.

Three daughters assumed the First Lady role upon their mothers dying in the White House: Letty Tyler Semple, Mary Harrison McKee and Margaret Wilson. Margaret Wilson shared the duties with the President’s cousin Helen Bones, who had worked for the first Mrs. Wilson as personal secretary.

Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Chester Arthur were the four Presidents who assumed office as widowers. Jefferson’s daughter Martha Randolph, Jackson’s niece and daughter-in-law Emily Donelson and Sarah Jackson, Van Buren’s daughter Angelica Van Buren, and Arthur’s sister Molly McElroy served for varying lengths for them.

James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland were both bachelors when they assumed the presidency.

Cleveland’s sister Rose Elizabeth served as his First Lady until he married fifteen months into his administration.

Harriet Lane. (Picture History)

Harriet Lane. (Picture History)

Buchanan’s niece Harriet Lane acted as his hostess and was a highly visible public figure, assuming all of the roles a presidential wife of that era would have. By her prominence yet lacking the marital status of presidential wife, the press bestowed on her the term “First Lady,” making her the first woman who was publicly referenced by that unofficial title. Among all the “other women” of the White House, Harriet Lane served for the longest period of time, the full four years of the Buchanan presidency.

Andrew and Eliza Johnson with their daughters Martha and Mary.  Tennessee State Museum Collection

Andrew and Eliza Johnson with their daughters Martha and Mary as children. (Tennessee State Museum Collection)

Five daughters and one daughter-in-law assumed the leading public role of hostess at Administration social events while their mothers or mother-in-law, with either chronic health problems or disinterest, assumed control of presidential private life and entertaining: Eliza Hay (James Monroe’s daughter), Priscilla Tyler (John Tyler’s daughter-in-law), Betty Bliss (Zachary Taylor’s daughter), Mary Fillmore (Millard Fillmore’s daughter) and Martha Patterson and Mary Stover (Andrew Johnson’s daughters).

Presidential wife Anna Harrison had every intention of coming in the warmer spring weather from her Ohio farm to join her husband in the White House after his 1841 inauguration but in her absence daughter-in-law Jane Harrison and Jane’s aunt, the former congressional wife Jane Findlay, acted as hostesses for the brief one-month administration.

Anna Roosevelt talks with the British Ambassador during the 1945 Yalta Conference, to which she accompanied her father as aide. (FDRL)

Anna Roosevelt talks with the British Ambassador during the 1945 Yalta Conference, to which she accompanied her father as aide. (FDRL)

Struggling with depression and keeping herself from public view during a mourning period for her son, Jane Pierce relied on her aunt-by-marriage Abby Kent Means to assume household management and the fulfillment of the public duties of hostess.

Who these figures were as real human beings, how they came to assume the public role of First Lady, what their presence meant to a President and how the rest of their post-White House lives played out will be explored in this forthcoming NFLL Blog series.

{ 0 comments }