As Michelle Obama goes through the final year of her tenure are First Lady, there has been a renewed interest in both her personal story leading up to her husband’s presidency and reflection on how much she has accomplished. All of this has inevitably begun speculation about when she might sign a book publishing contract to write her memoirs. She has also authored a 2012 book on the White House vegetable garden, American Grown.
Certainly there is good reason for her to do so. The memoirs of former presidential spouses have a history of outselling those penned by their husbands and, if Mrs. Obama does write the story of her life and include her White House years, she would become the seventh consecutive First Lady to do so. Each one since Betty Ford has published a post-White House memoir.
There is also a rich and long history of First Ladies as authors of works other than their memoirs.
The first presidents’ wife to write a book that was published in her lifetime was Helen “Nellie” Taft. In 1914, two years after leaving the White House she wrote her memoirs, Recollections of Full Years.
The other First Ladies who wrote and published their memoirs after leaving the White House were: Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson (based on excerpts of her daily taped recordings of a White House diary), Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush. However, there are several interesting footnotes to this:
Julia Grant actually wrote her memoirs in the 1890’s but was advised not to publish them because she was too harsh in her assessment of her husband’s political and military colleagues. They were posthumously published in 1975.
Grace Coolidge wrote a series of articles in American Magazine in the early 1930’s that consisted of her White House memoirs, treated topically, but did not choose to have the articles published as a book.
Lou Hoover co-translated with her husband an ancient Latin text on mineralogy before she was First Lady – but not her memoirs.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the first volume of her memoirs, covering her early years, while still First Lady.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote numerous articles and contributed to different books before she became First Lady. Following her husband’s election as President, she published a small booklet-magazine called Babies, Just Babies about maternal care. She also wrote numerous books – besides her memoirs – as a former First Lady, including her last one, published posthumously, called Tomorrow is Now.
Nancy Reagan wrote and published an early, first version of her life called Nancy in time for the 1980 presidential race of her husband. She then wrote the introduction for To Love a Child, a book about the Foster Grandparent program in 1981, while First Lady.
Barbara Bush “ghostwrote” two books by her dogs, one while she was the vice-president’s wife, C. Fred’s Story, and the other, Millie’s Book, while First Lady.
Hillary Clinton wrote It Takes a Village to Raise a Child in 1995 – and also read portions of it for a books-on-tape version which won a Grammy for the Spoken-Word Category.
Betty Ford wrote a second volume of her autobiography that actually returned to her earlier life covered in her first book – but in her second book, Glad Awakening, written once she had been in recovery.
Although Jacqueline Kennedy never wrote her own White House memoirs, she did quietly aid in the publishing of her White House “story” from her perspective by drafting and editing discreetly two books written by a trusted friend of her family, journalist Mary “Molly” Thayer. The first was Jacqueline Kennedy, a biographical overview of her life up to the point of her husband’s inauguration and appeared in bookstores to coincide with that January 20, 1961 event.
The new First Lady’s mother provided the author with previously unpublished family photographs and some drawings and poetry by the young Jackie. She also told her some tales and handed over some private letters that Mrs. Kennedy had written to her family as a student – a fact that the exasperated First Lady wished she hadn’t done. Four years after President Kennedy’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy again worked with Molly Thayer in authoring Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years.
First Ladies who published books in addition to their memoirs were Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan.
The earliest book written and published by an incumbent “First Lady” who was not a president’s wife but a president’s sister, was the unmarried Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, whose brother was bachelor President Grover Cleveland (before he married his wife Frances in the White House in June of 1886.
In fact, “Miss Rose,” as the nation’s newspapers dubbed her, “Libbie” to her family – published several books while in the White House and it launched her career. She wrote literary criticism and even works on proper social roles and behavior – not quite etiquette, not quite sociology, but a bit of both.
Written works by earlier First Ladies have also been published.
The earliest book ever “written” by a First Lady was unintended and dreaded by her as a possibility after her death – these were the published letters of Abigail Adams in 1848, Letters of Mrs. Adams – Wife of John Adams.
The book, Memoirs and Letters of Dolley Madison, Wife of James Madison, President of the United States, appeared posthumously but was not actually written by the former First Lady, but rather by her niece Lucia Cutts in 1886.
It was published thirty-seven years after the legendary Mrs. Madison’s death but it contained many of the anecdotes she told her niece that she felt were important enough to be recorded for the public, and drew on the rich resource of her personal letters.
Surprisingly, no other First Ladies wrote what would be considered strictly a “children’s book” but Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a Christmas book intended for a children’s reading audience, and Laura Bush co-wrote one with her daughter Jenna in the last year of her incumbency.
The two “as-told-to” books that Barbara Bush wrote as memoirs of her dogs, were largely picture books with her commentary and could be read by and understood by children, but they weren’t “children’s books” in terms of publishing industry classification.
Edith Roosevelt contributed a chapter to a book that included chapters written by her son, Cleared for Strange Ports, published in 1925.