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.

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

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

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

Charlotte Hopkins. (LC)

Charlotte Hopkins. (LC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 1911 kindergarten. www.nwhm.org).

A 1911 kindergarten. www.nwhm.org).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By that time  Lady Bird Johnson had become First Lady.

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

 

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Jacqueline Kennedy’s First Trip to Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackie Kennedy touring the streets of Hydra. (pinterest)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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First Ladies Who Continued The Work of Their Predecessors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alderson Prison (www.oldmagazinearticles.com)

Alderson Prison (www.oldmagazinearticles.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The White House Staff of First Ladies

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

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

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

Mary Catherine Hellen Adams. (New England Historical Society)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Spiers and Alice Blech. (WHHA)

Mary Spiers and Alice Blech. (WHHA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betty Ford at a staff party. (GRFL)

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

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

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

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

Hillary Clinton meeting with her staff. (WJCPL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (FDRL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting at Hyde Park. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting at Hyde Park. (FDRL)

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

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

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

Eleanor Roosevelt with Henry Wallace, 1940. (Getty)

Eleanor Roosevelt with Henry Wallace, 1940. (Getty)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on a plane. (Getty)

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on a plane. (Getty)

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

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

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

Mrs. Roosevelt typing away. (FDRL)

Mrs. Roosevelt typing away. (FDRL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edith Wilsons makes her “speech.” (carlanthonyonline)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From that point on, she never missed one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two First Ladies share a laugh. (Corbis)

The two First Ladies share a laugh. (Life)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new Vice President, of course, complied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New York primary proved to be a hurdle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reagan convention. (ABC)

The Reagan convention. (ABC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The initial handshake between Carter and Kennedy. (AP)

The initial handshake between Carter and Kennedy. (AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The failed balloon drop. (CSpan)

The failed balloon drop. (CSpan)

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

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

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

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

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

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Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic Convention. (Life)

Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic Convention. (Life)

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

The Kennedy wedding. (Pinterest)

The Kennedy wedding. (Pinterest)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHeshire. (ebay)

Cheshire. (ebay)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is some of that press conference:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hillary Clinton and Jacqueline Onassis. (Pinterest)

Hillary Clinton and Jacqueline Onassis. (Pinterest)

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

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

 

 

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Mamie Eisenhower was an immediate pro at the finesse of being a political spouse at the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower was an immediate pro at the finesse of being a political spouse at the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago. (Life)

Few women have found themselves thrust into a world about which they knew nothing as did Mamie Eisenhower when she arrived on July 7, 1952 in Chicago for the National Republican Convention as the wife of the five-star general and hero of World War II and left as the spouse of the presidential nominee.

Discretion, discipline and diligence were all virtues Mamie Eisenhower learned from a military life. (original source unknown)

Discretion, discipline and diligence were all virtues Mamie Eisenhower learned from a military life. (original source unknown)

She was not entirely caught off-guard at her potential new status, for it had been several months since her husband Dwight D. Eisenhower had acquiesced to the draft-Eisenhower movement among Republicans dissatisfied with the leading choice of Senator Bob Taft of Ohio.

Taft was just 75 votes short of the necessary number of delegates to win the nomination but Eisenhower’s convention manager Henry Cabot Lodge began to maneuver passage of an amendment that allowed excluded Ike supporters the change to be seated and have they votes counted.

With Kansas Senator Frank Carlson as her “mentor in political nuance,” Mamie Eisenhower got a crash course in arcane convention rule changes, efforts to block delegates from shifting their allegiances and the brokering of deals that were going on among state delegate leaders.

While she may not have yet absorbed the intricacies of the process, Mamie Eisenhower had a strong perception for authenticity and fraudulence. In later years, she winked that, in politics, the latter was in abundance.

Mamie shook her fist while vowing she would campaign wherever Ike would. (Life)

Mamie shook her fist while vowing she would campaign wherever Ike would. (Life)

She thought it both pathetic and a sign of poor political judgement, for example, that Taft made a desperate, last-minute grasp for support by offering to make minor candidate General Douglas MacArthur his vice presidential choice, especially given that MacArthur delivered so weak a speech that his popular appeal rapidly vanished.

Even her hats earned votes. (life)

Even her hats earned votes. (life)

By the second day, as the Eisenhower movement gained steam, she found herself the center of attention at a crowded Republican women’s reception for 3,000 guests and fully functioning as a political pro.

Although Martha Taft was also there, it was Mamie Eisenhower who had an openness and natural warmth that drew so many women to meet her that a receiving line spontaneously formed. There she stood, cheerily shook hands and making small talk with everyone that approached her, even permitting some curious women to examine her feathered hat. She just as often bought them from Woolworth’s she told one reporter with an elbow to her rib, but this particular one was an original Paris chapeau. And the feathers were fake she readily confessed.

Mamie Eisenhower listened to a speech. Some thought she might cry because of the content. In truth, she had a bad toothache.(Life)

Mamie Eisenhower listened to a speech. Some thought she might cry because of the content. In truth, she had a bad toothache.(Life)

Earlier that day, it looked to observers that she had come close to crying during a heartfelt speech that Ike made to a reunion of the 82nd Airborne that had fought in World War II. Or so reporters presumed that was the reason.

While admittedly sentimental, Mrs. Eisenhower had the wherewithal to keep secret that she had a bad toothache that was rapidly worsening to include a blinding headache. Through it all, she never showed her hand.

And the person everyone perceived as the very embodiment of fortitude was, in fact, coming to her for support in his weakest moment.

Throughout the second and third day of the convention proceedings, General Eisenhower would vanish from public display, provoking speculation he was involved in back room deals. In truth he was slipping into his Blackstone Hotel suite to check in with Mamie and “reporting to her briefly on the proceedings.”

In their hotel suite, Ike and Mamie and his brother Milton pose as if watching TV - even though the set isn't turned on. Ike and Mamie were the first White House TV couple. (TJ O'Halloran/Life)

In their hotel suite, Ike and Mamie and his brother Milton pose as if watching TV – even though the set isn’t turned on. Ike and Mamie were the first White House TV couple. (TJ O’Halloran/Life)

It was in their hotel suite, along with his four brothers who served as practical advisers to him, that Eisenhower watched himself be nominated for the presidency on live television, just after lunchtime on July 11.

Overwhelmed by the honor –  and the potential responsibility, the General was moved to tears, one of the few occasions on record of him doing so. He sought the strength of the one person who could always steady him.

Mamie Eisenhower lay resting in their darkened hotel bedroom when Ike came in. She turned on the side table light and saw his tears. She placed her hand over his.

“By golly Mamie,” he sighed, “this is a terrible big thing we’ve got ourselves into.”

Unknown to many, on the rare occasions that General Eisenhower displayed emotional vulnerability, he could count on Mamie's strength as a foundation. (Getty)

Unknown to many, on the rare occasions that General Eisenhower displayed emotional vulnerability, he could count on Mamie’s strength as a bedrock. (Alamy)

As always, she was able to forge resolve for them both by dismissing the odds as simply a matter of the mind. “Oh, we’ve been through big things before!” she reassured him. “”This one won’t get us down.”

When she wasn’t with Ike or out among the crowds, Mamie Eisenhower was hard at work at answering her correspondence. And his.

While many who flooded her hotel suite with letters and notes, and endless bouquets of flowers would have surely understood if she was delayed in responding, the candidate’s wife made it a top priority to at the very least acknowledge immediately the briefest note from the most remote person.

Mamie Eisenhower dictating to her secretary. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower dictating to her secretary. (Life)

“It’s just respect for those who’ve taken time to not just think of you, but write,” she told her new secretary Mary Jane McCaffree.

And, no rube she – it was more than just polite to answer the mail for the General and herself. It was also good politics. Mamie Eisenhower would insist that she personally signed every single item that went out under her name, thus suggesting that she had at least read the name of the person who had written, since their name and address was on the outgoing response. That sort of personal investment in the voter could not be manufactured.

Contrary to the perception of her as a political spouse who never addressed political issues, Mamie Eisenhower responded to the most serious public concern of the election, the Korean War, with the sort of sensible, straightforward reaction that actually positioned her as highly political asset.

“Of course the Korean War must be settled soon,” she snapped when asked about the American military commitment in the foreign conflict, “but we don’t want peace at any price.”

Mamie Eisenhower with her only child, who served in Korean War combat. (Pinterest)

Mamie Eisenhower with her only child, who served in Korean War combat. (Pinterest)

Asked if she was worried about her son going into Korea having been a “soldier’s wife,” Mamie Eisenhower retorted sharply, “That’s a strange question to ask a mother. Soldier’s wife or not, I’m still very much a mother.” Mrs. Eisenhower’s patriotic yet personal way of taking on the complex matter somehow seemed to mirror the thinking of average Americans rather than the calculatingly crafted type of answer expected of political figures.

Her view on the Korean War resonated because it sprang from genuine concern. Unknown to all but her family circle, an even more emotionally stirring drama than her husband’s nomination for president was taking place behind the scenes.

In her Blackstone Hotel suite, Mamie Eisenhower loved babysitting her granddaughter and grandson. (Life)

In her Blackstone Hotel suite, Mamie Eisenhower loved babysitting her granddaughter and grandson. (Life)

Their only son, John, had been given his combat orders to ship out and fight in the Korean War. John Eisenhower’s being sent to the front lines and potentially captured as a prisoner also now exposed him to being potentially held as a political hostage by the communist Chinese and Koreans. The matter briefly factored into some thinking about delegates who hesitated about supporting Eisenhower.

Not wanting to affect their son’s destiny any more than he had, Ike made no effort to prevent John’s intention of serving. Privately, Eisenhower spoke with him and told him he must do all he could to avoid capture. John Eisenhower made clear that in such a worst case scenario he would use his pistol and shot himself.

Once her husband's name was announced as the vice presidential choice, Pat Nixon was besieged by the media. (Life)

Once her husband’s name was announced as the vice presidential choice, Pat Nixon was besieged by the media. (Life)

Of course, none of the public or press knew this. The media, however, felt it was a legitimate enough of a news story that it intruded on the final moments between the son and his parents, still at the Chicago convention.

At the airport, the emotional farewell was photographed and scrutinized while Mamie Eisenhower steeled herself from giving way to tears.

Pat Nixon joins her husband on the convention floor before they joined the Eisenhowers on the podium. (Life)

Pat Nixon joins her husband on the convention floor before they joined the Eisenhowers on the podium. (Life)

In the Eisenhower hotel suite, however, Mamie still felt a happy sense of her son’s presence. In between the receptions and meetings, she was also babysitting her grandchildren David, Anne and six-month old Susan.

Meanwhile, about two hours after Ike had been nominated, his choice of California’s U.S. Senator Richard Nixon was announced as his vice presidential running mate.

At a nearby sandwich shop, Pat Nixon was having lunch with friends while a television set blared.

Pat Nixon and Mamie Eisenhower were the first spouses who appeared on the public podiums, joining their husbands, the vice-presidential and presidential nominees, at the 1952 National Republican Convention. (AP)

Pat Nixon and Mamie Eisenhower were the first spouses who appeared on the public podiums, joining their husbands, the vice-presidential and presidential nominees, at the 1952 National Republican Convention. (AP)

Suddenly, there came a news flash with the news that Eisenhower had chosen her husband. She dropped the BLT she was eating, and ran back over to the convention hall in her high heels.

Two hours later, his nomination confirmed Nixon was asked to the podium. Mrs. Nixon went from the visitor’s gallery to join her husband on the convention floor and was swept up with him to the podium where Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower were already the center of attention, being cheered and applauded by the delegates.

Startled at how young Mrs. Nixon was, Mamie Eisenhower’s response were blunt yet folksy, “You’re the prettiest thing!”

And then, rather than talk about Taft, MacArthur, or the Korean War, the new Republican nominees wife put up her friendly, apolitical persona again.

And Mamie chatted on endlessly to Pat about her toothache.

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Helen "Nellie" Taft. (LC)

Helen “Nellie” Taft. (LC)

The lithe and nervous figure of the Secretary of War’s wife sailed up the grand marble staircase of the large, Victorian State, War & Navy Building next to the White House and marched right into the inner sanctum of her husband, the Secretary of War William Howard Taft.

Nellie Taft standing beside her husband Will in his office, They were political partners. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Nellie Taft standing beside her husband Will in his office, They were political partners. (carlanthonyonline.com)

He was out at the moment, but as Helen “Nellie” Taft entered the office of Will, as she called him, to find a group of friends gathered around Senator Frank Hitchcock, an ally of her husband, who was shouting out a blow-by-blow description of everything that was going on during this second day of the 1908 Republican National Convention in Chicago.

It was still unconsidered improper for candidates and their spouses to attend the presidential conventions that nominated them, but Taft’s son and brother had gone to the proceedings.

Also there was Nellie Taft’s political and social rival, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt and wife of Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth, who was a close friend and political ally of the Tafts.

Alice Roosevelt with Will Taft on their Asian tour. (LC)

Alice Roosevelt with Will Taft on their Asian tour. (LC)

Then one of the most famous women in the world, “Princess Alice” had  provoked the jealousy of Nellie Taft after the young woman became emotionally close to the War Secretary when they went  together on a junket to several Asian nations.

Despite Will’s friendship and support of Alice and her father, President Theodore Roosevelt, Nellie Taft did not share his trust of them. She recognized in “Teddy” as the popular president was known, a skillful manipulator not only of other political figures but of his public persona.

Beneath his avuncular veneer, she recognized an unquenched political ambition in him and a ruthless loyalty to him above all from others. She was not wrong. As Alice Longworth later admitted, “No one will ever know how much I wished, in the black depths of my heart that ‘something would happen’ and Father would be renominated” at the 1908 convention.

Taft was in touch with his representatives at the 1908 convention when he learned - and informed Nellie - that he had been nominated. (LC)

Taft was in touch with his representatives at the 1908 convention when he learned – and informed Nellie – that he had been nominated. (LC)

That was the very scenario that Nellie Taft feared most.

As Senator Hitchcock continued to blurt out what was going on at the Republican convention that day, Mrs. Taft became quest and anxious. When, in his address to the delegates the chairman made passing reference to President Roosevelt, it provoked a thunderous reaction of roaring cheers, foot-stomping, applause and a hypnotic chant of “Four – four – four more years!” for the absent Teddy.

Believing Roosevelt might well “steal” the nomination from her husband, Nellie Taft had even thought she could do something behind the scenes to prevent it if she was in Chicago, writing several days earlier, “I am almost feeling as if I would go to the convention myself.”

The next day, Nellie Taft was back, this time with her children Charlie and Helene, as Will Taft himself manned the telephone connected directly to the convention. At about 5pm, Taft’s name was placed in nomination and a staged demonstration in support of him broke out, as banners waved and delegates broke out into a campaign song in support of him. Suddenly, he turned from the noise of the phone to the sputtering that Nellie was making.

The 1908 Republican convention that nominated Taft. (LC)

The 1908 Republican convention that nominated Taft. (LC)

“I want it to last more than forty-nine minutes,” she seemed to almost believe she could command with her willpower. “I want to get even for the scare that the Roosevelt cheer of forty-nine minutes gave me yesterday!” Unfortunately for her it only lasted twenty-five minutes.

Then came word that a banner with Roosevelt’s face was carried onto the convention stage with a burst of cheering support for the President.

A witness said that Mrs. Taft’s face literally drained of blood. She began yelling her mistrust of Teddy, that he had somehow staged this and was going to double-cross her and Will.

Finally, the horrified War Secretary shot his wife a horrified look, chiding her, “Oh, my dear! My dear!” Her fear proved unfounded for within minutes, her husband won the nomination.

From almost the moment she had first learned that Theodore Roosevelt and his wife Edith merely existed, Helen “Nellie” Taft developed a compulsive competitiveness towards them. She even kept track of whether she gave birth to her first child before Edith Roosevelt did.

Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft during an unexpected encounter outside the train station. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft during an unexpected encounter outside the train station. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Mrs. Taft never hid her determination to see her husband run for and become elected president instead of – or at least before, he had a chance to fulfill his own lifelong desire to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Theodore Roosevelt was directly drawn into the marital drama in 1905 when he invited the Tafts to a private White House dinner.

He joked that he could see a supernatural silver streak fluttering above Taft’s head but could not make out whether it was the presidency or the chief justiceship. The War Secretary of course piped up that he hoped it indicated the judiciary.

It was Nellie Taft who blurted affirmatively, “Make it the presidency!”

In early 1906, for the third time in just a few years, President Roosevelt alerted Taft that there would be an opening on the Supreme Court and that he was willing to nominate him for the position. And for the third time, it was Nellie Taft who intervened and dead cold stopped her husband from accepting the offer.

Teddy called Nellie for a direct meeting, trying to determine whether Will would truly seek the presidency with enthusiasm.  In this first meeting between the two of them, Roosevelt came away believing Taft would make a willing successor – but also that Nellie had enormous emotional influence over his choices. It seems that during this first meeting, Mrs. Taft came away believing that Roosevelt really wanted to continue in the presidency himself.

Theodore Roosevelt as president. (LC)

Theodore Roosevelt as president. (LC)

Having publicly announced that he would not seek the presidency in 1908, a decision he later regretted, the theory was that by having Taft promote and praise Roosevelt for his presidential policies in a promise to continue them that he, the President, would likely be drafted as the ultimate candidate as a spontaneous choice of the delegates.

Finally, Nellie Taft had worn down her husband’s resistance to her idea of what was the best political path for him. Her strength of conviction seemed to have similarly convinced President Roosevelt.  “He was full of the presidency and wanted to talk about my chances,” Taft reported to his wife. “He wants to talk to you and me together. He thinks I am the one to take his mantle, and that now I would be nominated.”

A political conference took place among Nellie, Teddy and Will. According to their youngest son Charlie Taft, it was his mother who was “influential in persuading” Teddy to make Will his hand-chosen successor.

It was during a third meeting, however, just between President Roosevelt and Mrs. Taft, however, that he seemed to have earned her permanent mistrust. She reported angrily in a letter to her husband:

Teddy Roosevelt accused Nellie Taft to her face of being more ambitious for the presidency than her husband Will was. (LC)

Teddy Roosevelt accused Nellie Taft to her face of being more ambitious for the presidency than her husband Will was. (LC)

“He seems to think that I am consumed with an inordinate ambition to be President and that he must constantly warn me that you may never get there”

Saying that Taft might not prove popular enough to win the crucial endorsements of other party leaders who might grant this on other candidates, like New York Governor Charles Evan Hughes, Roosevelt said that in such a scenario, he would have to support someone other than her husband. “I felt like saying ‘D– you, support who you want for all I care,’ but suffice it to say I did not.”

Even after her Will had won the nomination and was running in the general campaign, Nellie Taft insisted that her husband begin to limit his praise of Roosevelt in his speeches.

Taft campaigning; Nellie advised him to reduce his praise of Roosevelt. (LC)

Taft campaigning; Nellie advised him to reduce his praise of Roosevelt. (LC)

She didn’t want Will leaving a record of how great Teddy was, less he suggest to voters they’d made an error in choosing Taft.

Not even seeing her husband finally elected President released Nellie Taft from her nagging premonition that Teddy would rise again in order to take back the presidency away from Will.

And when, in fact, former President Roosevelt did challenge incumbent President Taft for the Republican nomination, the First Lady seemed to gloat in reminding her husband that she had seen it coming for years. He finally snapped at her that she almost seemed pleased for her prediction.

Neither Taft or Nellie attended the 1912 Republican Convention, again held in Chicago. It was a subdued day compared to 1908, but it was their wedding anniversary so they had friends in for dinner. The primary relief for Will was that, at the least, he defeated Roosevelt.

Nellie Taft, right, arriving at the Democratic National Convention, with her friend, who was the wife of the National Democratic Committee. (LC)

Nellie Taft, right, arriving at the Democratic National Convention, with her friend, who was the wife of the National Democratic Committee. (LC)

With Roosevelt seemingly out of the way, Nellie Taft now focused her attention on the Democratic opposition and decided to do something no presidential candidate’s spouse or incumbent First Lady had done before or since: she decided to attend the convention of the opposition party.

Four days after Will won the Republican nomination, his wife took the train to Baltimore and joined her friend, the wife of the Democratic National Committee, and sailed into the convention, taking a front-row seat in one of the boxes that abutted the platform, becoming the center of attention in enemy territory.

If part of her strategy was to reduce the likely attacks on her husband, it worked. After encountering her in the hallway, William Jennings Bryan, one of the candidates, admitted to reporters that he couldn’t bring himself to take any swipes at Taft while his wife was listening.

Nellie Taft seated right near the podium of the enemy convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Nellie Taft seated right near the podium of the enemy convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

“It’s very interesting, isn’t it?” Nellie Taft quipped to reporters. “”I don’t suppose I could expect them to endorse the administration of a Republican president, could I?”

Still, Nellie Taft feared that Teddy’s ego would somehow not accept his being rejected by the Republican Party.  True to her intuition, Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party to run as a third-party candidate of the Progressive Party, nominated on August 6. From that point on, her hope was not so much that her husband would win but that Roosevelt would not. And when Election Day came, Nellie Taft had her dark victory with the election of Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson.

Nellie Taft ((right, with her daughter attending the 1940 Republican National Convention. (carlanthonyonline)

Nellie Taft ((right, with her daughter attending the 1940 Republican National Convention. (carlanthonyonline)

In her later years, as a widow living in Washington, there was further irony for Nellie Taft in the shifting alliances of political families and partisan loyalties.

When the husband of Teddy’s niece, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for his 1936 re-election, it was leaked that Mrs. Taft supported him, a Democrat.

And when her son Robert Taft ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, Alice Roosevelt Longworth became one of his most ardent supporters.

In support of her son Bob, Nellie Taft travelled to Philadelphia to attend her first Republican National Convention.

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