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.

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The Clintons kick off the 1995 Easter Egg Roll.

Bill and Hillary Clinton kick off the 1995 Easter Egg Roll.

By 1975, it had been a remarkable one-third of a century since a First Lady had been seen at a White House Easter Egg Roll.

Betty Ford sampling some circus makeup from a clown who applied the greasepaint to kids at the 1975 Easter Egg Roll.  (carlanthonyonline.com)

Betty Ford sampling some circus makeup from a clown who applied the greasepaint to kids at the 1975 Easter Egg Roll. (carlanthonyonline.com)

And then, Betty Ford showed up, the first presidential spouse to do so since Eleanor Roosevelt had attended the last of the annual events held during her husband’s presidency, in 1941.

Furthermore, Mrs. Ford gamely entered into the festivities of the day by permitting her face to be painted up in clown-makeup along with some of the children in attendance. The following year, she brought along her husband, making Gerald Ford’s appearance at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll the first one by a President since Dwight Eisenhower had done so in 1960.

Making the important decision that all the eggs distributed by the White House would be plastic rather than real, Betty Ford may have disappointed the traditionalists, but she saved the government time and money: it no longer meant that gardeners had to work overtime in cleaning the rotting mess from the massive South Lawn.

A color photo showing Betty Ford permitting a clown to apply some makeup to her face at the 1975 Easter Egg Roll. (Ford Library)

A color photo showing Betty Ford permitting a clown to apply some makeup to her face at the 1975 Easter Egg Roll. (Ford Library)

Building on Pat Nixon’s gesture to have certificates printed for all the children who attended the event to take away as souvenirs of the White House Easter Egg Roll, Betty Ford also wrote welcoming messages and notes about the holiday, which were printed on small pieces of paper and then inserted inside the plastic eggs.

Betty Ford’s more assertive interest in how the White House Easter Egg Roll was conducted marked the beginning of the White House’s efforts to enlarge the Easter Egg Roll into an event which reflected the interests of First Ladies and their methods of accommodating and engaging those of its thousands of young guests each year.

Rosalynn Carter and her family at the 1977 Easter Egg Rool, the President holding his grandson Jason on his shoulders.

Rosalynn Carter and her family at the 1977 Easter Egg Rool, the President holding his grandson Jason on his shoulders. (Washington Post)

Rosalynn Carter continued Betty Ford’s custom of writing messages which were printed and inserted into plastic eggs.

She also appeared at each year’s event, joined not only by the President but their daughter Amy and grandchildren Jason and Sarah.

The stage that had been used for many years from which the Marine Band provided music throughout the day was expanded and used for several children’s entertainment performances.

Amy Carter and nephew Jason.

Amy Carter and nephew Jason.

Rosalynn Carter also had a petting zoo set up for the children, allowing them to enter a gated pen to pet and interact with farm animals.

In 1981, Nancy Reagan initiated a new custom which proved especially popular and remains to this day. Instead of plastic eggs, wooden ones were carved and imprinted with the image of the White House and the date of the event. Each one also bore the carved signature of the President and First Lady.

Among the cut-out figures at the White House Easter Egg Roll was one depicting the First Lady as the Queen of Hearts.

Among the cut-out figures at the 1983 White House Easter Egg Roll was one depicting the First Lady as the Queen of Hearts.

During several of the Reagan years, the wooden eggs also carried the signatures of some celebrities who attended the event. Now, any child under the age of twelve receives one as they leave the grounds.

In 1983, Nancy Reagan also had art exhibits placed on the South Lawn to be enjoyed and appreciated close-up by children and their accompanying adults alike, ranging from eggs painted with landscapes and caricatures by famous American artists placed in glass exhibit cases to large cardboard cut-out figurines made by Corcoran Gallery of Art students of the familiar characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with the faces of famous people at the time.

Reagan Nancy and Smurg Smurg at the 1981 Easter Egg Roll.

Reagan Nancy and Smurg Smurg at the 1981 Easter Egg Roll.

There was even one of the First Lady as the Queen of Hearts.

During the Carter years, costumed cartoon  and other characters from stories familiar to American children at the time began appearing more frequently. While Nancy Reagan was First Lady, however, there seemed to be a far larger contingency of them, delighting children who had a chance to meet the likes of Quick Draw McGraw or Papa Smurf.

George Bush and Barbara Bush preside over an Easter Egg Roll contest.

George Bush and Barbara Bush preside over an Easter Egg Roll contest.

Barbara Bush was a seasoned professional by the time she was presiding over the Easter Egg Rolls, having served as the surrogate hostess one year of the Reagan Administration, when her husband was Vice President.

The President and Mrs. Clinton at their first White House Easter Egg Roll in 1993, as he blows the whistle to start the first race.

The President and Mrs. Clinton at their first White House Easter Egg Roll in 1993, as he blows the whistle to start the first race.

During her tenure, the old and frayed White House Easter Bunny suit was retired for new ones representing both boys and girls, even one with spectacles and these figures began posing with Presidents and First Ladies to be photographed together at the annual event.

A page from the Easter Egg Roll program given to guests at the last of eight events hosted by Hillary Clinton. (WJCPL)

A page from the Easter Egg Roll program given to guests at the last of eight events hosted by Hillary Clinton. (WJCPL)

Under Hillary Clinton, there was finally a White House Easter Egg Roll grandstand built and colorfully painted, serving as the platform where the President and First Lady would officially welcome the crowds and kick off the festivities.

One of the Clinton wood eggs, marked with the notation of 1998, given to guests.

One of the Clinton wood eggs, marked with the notation of 1998, given to guests.

Excerpt scenes from Broadway musicals, magic shows, science demonstrations and other performances were provided on a continuous basis, thus distracting those children who lined up on endless queues for their chance to compete in the now-orderly egg-rolling contests.

Hillary Clinton also proved to share more than just an overt interest in public policy with Eleanor Roosevelt, for like this predecessor who served as something of a mentor to her, she never missed any of the Easter Egg Roll events held during her tenure as First Lady.

Laura and George Bush presiding over an Easter Egg Roll event.

Laura and George Bush presiding over an Easter Egg Roll event.

While the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States closed the White House to its regular flow of tourists and limited the number of visitors, Laura Bush used the annual White House Easter Egg Roll to demonstrate appreciation for the sacrifice endured by children who had parents serving in the active armed forces, thus opening access to the closed mansion that one day as a way of also honoring the U.S. military.

Once the event was again publicly accessible, she further widened the parameters of those children who were welcomed by including families with same-sex parents.

Crowds rush to greet Laura Bush at the White House Easter Egg Roll.

Crowds rush to greet Laura Bush at the White House Easter Egg Roll.

A conscientious interest in the lives of children at the event was continued by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Along with the performances by many well-known singers and actors that was provided for the children, there were also food preparation demonstrations offered as a way of encouraging the children to eat more healthily, a component of her “Let’s Move” program.

The Obama family greeting children to the first Easter Egg Roll they hosted, in 2009.

The Obama family greeting children to the first Easter Egg Roll they hosted, in 2009.

Beginning with Betty Ford’s appearance at the 1975 Easter Egg Roll, the returned presence of First Ladies for the first time since Eleanor Roosevelt also seemed to mark the end of a traditional aspect of the annual event.

From Frances Cleveland appearing with the family dog Hector in 1887 through the years that Eleanor Roosevelt was joined by her police dog Major, children at the event had come to expect the pets of presidential families to make an appearance.

The Obama family brought their dog Bo to the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll.

The Obama family brought their dog Bo to the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll.

Alas, Betty Ford did not show up with Liberty the golden retriever or Shan the Siamese Cat. Rosalynn Carter came but Grits the dog and Misty the cat were no where to be seen. Nancy Reagan was there but without either Lucky or Rex, the two dogs of the Reagan White House. Barbara Bush made Millie the springer spaniel famous by ghostwriting her memoirs but the dog did not come down to delight children at the Easter Egg Rolls of the late 1980s or early 1990s. Neither would  Hillary Clinton’s dog and cat, Buddy and Socks or Laura Bush’s dogs and cat, Spot, Barney, Mrs. Beasley, and India.

It was Michelle Obama, however, who unwittingly restored this nearly-lost custom when she began presiding over the White House Easter Egg Rolls as First Lady.

She was always joined by the President, her daughters Sasha and Malia, her mother Marian Robinson.

And the family dog Bo.

The President and Mrs. Obama read to children as Bo takes attention at the 2011 White House Easter Egg Roll.(Getty)

The President and Mrs. Obama read to children as Bo takes attention at the 2011 White House Easter Egg Roll.(Getty)

 

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Barbara Eisenhower, the President's daughter-in-law, posed during the Easter season with her children David, Anne and Susan in 1953. (AP)

Barbara Eisenhower, the President’s daughter-in-law, posed during the Easter season with her children David, Anne and Susan in 1953. (AP)

After its longest run of seeing seven First Ladies from Nellie Taft to Eleanor Roosevelt appear at the White House Easter Egg Roll, the event entered a dark period during which it was not only suspended but, even when revived, failed to capture enough interest from First Ladies to attend.

The 1953 Easter Egg Roll hosted by Mamie Eisenhower returned to the custom of encouraging all children to attend.

The 1953 Easter Egg Roll hosted by Mamie Eisenhower returned to the custom of encouraging all children to attend.

Despite their increasingly public roles in civic and political activities, the line of mid-century First Ladies Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon were never to appear publicly at the annual event.

Although the Easter Egg Roll was suspended for three years, from 1917 to 1920, due to World War I, food rationing and President Wilson’s stroke, it was a relatively brief hiatus compared to the longest one since the tradition was known to have begun.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, security forced the closing of the White House to the public shortly thereafter and there was no egg roll in 1942 on the property. One did occur in the city, but it was moved to the lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building, a ironic choice given that it having been originally banned there in 1876 is what led to the White House South Lawn becoming the site of the public event.

The U.S. engagement in World War II of the remaining three Roosevelt years, and then the post-war national food conservation, followed by the entire renovation and re-construction of the White House during the six years of the Truman Administration meant it was suspended completely from 1943 to 1951.

Heidi the Weimaraner proved too unpredictable to appear at a White House Easter Egg Roll (seen here being held by Ann Eisenhower) and Mamie Eisenhower was too wary of the crowds to join her husband and do so.

Heidi the Weimaraner proved too unpredictable to appear at a White House Easter Egg Roll (seen here being held by Ann Eisenhower) and Mamie Eisenhower was too wary of the crowds to join her husband and do so.

In April of 1953, the newly-inaugurated President Dwight D. Eisenhower revived the tradition after its twelve-year hiatus. Emerging with him into a massive crowd, far larger than any previous seen, were his grandchildren David, Ann and Susan, along with their mother, daughter-in-law of the President, Barbara Eisenhower.

The  grandchildren of President Eisenhower were the first to appear in the two decades since the early Franklin Roosevelt years when his granddaughter and grandson, then living in the White House temporarily. As a result of both the media frenzy and the public curiosity, young David Eisenhower was swamped by the crowds, his basket of candy and eggs overturned and he had to be whisked away from the engulfing public, along with his sisters.

While Mamie Eisenhower was referenced to that year as the official hostess who invited the public to again return to the White House South Lawn and is credited with wanting the event revived, she was no where to be seen that day. Photographs later photographed seemed to suggest she was there, but they were merely close-ups of her on another spring day on the South Portico.

And even though the White House Easter Egg Roll has returned to Washington, it was still be a very long stretch before another First Lady participated in the carnival-like event.

The Kennedys leaving his parents Palm Beach, Florida home for church on Easter morning 1962.

The Kennedys leaving his parents Palm Beach, Florida home for church on Easter morning 1962.

The following year of 1954, the Eisenhower family began their own personal tradition of spending the Easter weekend at “Mamie’s Cabin,” their home in Augusta, Georgia on the Augusta National Golf Course.

Not until the very last Easter Monday of the Eisenhower Administration did the President again return, for his second appearance. But Mamie Eisenhower was still no where to be seen, avoiding the crowds entirely.

Jackie Kennedy coloring eggs with her son John. Her daughter Caroline and family friend Sally Fay at Eastertime 1963.

Jackie Kennedy coloring eggs with her son John. Her daughter Caroline and family friend Sally Fay at Eastertime 1963.

And Mrs. Eisenhower’s three successors were also away for Easter.

Jacqueline Kennedy was with the President and their children at the Palm Beach, Florida estate of her in-laws, where she worked in the kitchen of the large old house, dying eggs in teacups and trying to prevent her young son John from spilling the color dyes about, much like any other young mother of the era.

Lady Bird Johnson was with the President and their children at their Stonewall, Texas “LBJ Ranch,”where her husband was insistent upon going as often as possible, to take a break from the constricted life in Washington.

Lady Bird Johnson in the rose garden with her grandson Patrick Lyndon Nugent and an Easter Bunny. and her daughter Lynda Bird Robb, 1968. (Corbis)

Lady Bird Johnson in the rose garden with her grandson Patrick Lyndon Nugent and an Easter Bunny. and her daughter Lynda Bird Robb, 1968. (Corbis)

During the Johnson years there were several massive chocolate candy figures donated for display on the South Lawn during the Easter Egg Roll, including a giant bunny.

The LBJs were at their ranch and missed the White House Easter Egg during their tenancy but a Texas-sized chocolate Easter Bunny still drew in the crowds.

The LBJs were at their ranch and missed the White House Easter Egg during their tenancy but a Texas-sized chocolate Easter Bunny still drew in the crowds.

The irresistible giant treat, however, was kept safely far behind a white-picket fence in the center of the lawn, warding off those youngsters unable to resist snapping a piece of candy from it and potentially having it tumble down.

Whether or not it was the LBJ giant chocolate bunnies which inspired her or not, she never said, but it was on Pat Nixon ‘s watch that the Easter Egg Roll finally got its official Easter Bunny.

This involved coaxing an adult White House staff member to dress in a bunny costume with a large, painted paper-mache head. The costumed figure began a regular feature for all the future annual events.

First Lady Pat Nixon tried to return the festivities to its traditional beginnings by having thousands of eggs dyed to ensure that children who had come to the event without any of their own could join in an “egg hunt.”

Tricia Nixon makes an appearance with the first White House Easter Bunny.

Tricia Nixon makes an appearance with the first White House Easter Bunny.

In 1974, the Nixons also suggested that formal egg races be organized to give the children a point of focus to the day, and that the first certificates be printed up for the children to take away as souvenirs making it official that they had rolled Easter eggs at the White House.

The Nixons and Mamie Eisenhower attend Easter Services near Camp David in Thurmont Maryland, April 11, 1971.

The Nixons and Mamie Eisenhower attend Easter Services near Camp David in Thurmont Maryland, April 11, 1971.

Otherwise, without a President or First Lady appearing, the event had become really just a chance to walk about in new Easter clothes. but it also revived the problem of the stench and mess of so many broken eggs on the lawn.

Pat Nixon was away with the President at either their Miami, Florida or San Clemente, California homes, or the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland.

On several occasions, however, their two daughters did appear separately to greet the crowds.

Julie Nixon Eisenhower at the 1974 White House Easter Egg Roll.

Julie Nixon Eisenhower at the 1974 White House Easter Egg Roll.

Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Tricia Nixon Cox did more than just wade through the crowds shaking hands and signing autographs, but also acting as unofficial mistresses of ceremonies at small stage shows set up on the South Lawn and featuring  costumed characters from popular television shows of the era, like The New Zoo Review.

Children meet the Easter Bunny at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 1969.

Children meet the Easter Bunny at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 1969.

Having the two well-known First Daughters mix with the crowds and officiate at the White House Easter Egg Roll was at least the inkling of a new start to perhaps better organizing the event and encouraging more of the public to appear.

The 1961 White House Easter Egg Roll barely drew out a crowd. (JFKL)

The 1961 White House Easter Egg Roll barely drew out a crowd. (JFKL)

The lack of any enthusiasm on the part of recent Presidents and First Ladies about making an appearance at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll seemed to be resulting in dwindling numbers each year.

A 1965 Washington Post article admitted that, “At its best the annual egg rolling seems to have lost its zest in recent years and today’s rain made it far from a gala affair.”

Twin sisters at the 1961 event. (JFKL)

Twin sisters at the 1961 event. (JFKL)

Yet just like the early decades when the White House Easter Egg Roll seemed to be on the verge of distinction, all it took was one woman, one First Lady, who especially enjoyed the event to bring life back to it.

And in following that same inkling that had compelled Lucy Hayes, Ida McKinley, Florence Harding, Grace Coolidge and Eleanor Roosevelt to delight in the eggscades of the say, Betty Ford helped launch the White House Easter Egg Roll onto its strongest upswing in history.

A bunted bandstand provided music for the small crowd at the 1961 event.

A bunted bandstand provided music for the small crowd at the 1961 event.

It would soon reach the point where a First Lady seemed to not even consider missing that great and noisy day when tens of thousands of children screamed with glee all day, in their back yard.

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Grace Coolidge brought her raccoon Rebecca to one of the Easter Egg Roll events she attended.

Grace Coolidge brought her raccoon Rebecca to one of the Easter Egg Roll events she attended. (LC)

Coming along the presidential timeline between the two Cleveland Administrations, the Benjamin Harrison Administration marked the first known time that an entire First Family appeared at the White House Easter Egg Roll.

The entire extended Harrison family watched the Easter Egg Roll festivities from the South Portico.

The entire extended Harrison family watched the Easter Egg Roll festivities from the South Portico.

The first Easter Egg Roll of that Administration, in 1889, was a four-generation affair which included the First Lady’s elderly father, her niece who worked as her social secretary, the President and his wife Caroline, their two adult children Mary and Russell, son-in-law and daughter-in-law, three little grandchildren.

One photograph showed the entire clan from the back, standing on the South Portico balcony overlooking the kiddies and their bright eggs, the President and his father-in-law holding up two of the little children.

Frances Cleveland with two of her three daughters, Marion and Esther.

Frances Cleveland with two of her three daughters, Marion and Esther.

By the turn-of-the-century, the portico balcony was where the children on the lawn could expect to catch a fleeting glimpse of the First Ladies, Presidents and their families, waving to them below, somewhat like an American royal family on a balcony acknowledging the lilliputian citizenry.

There seemed, however, to be a reluctance to let the little children who belonged to First Families go out among the crowds of public children.

Despite her enjoyment in watching the Easter Egg Roll during her first term as First Lady, for example, during her second term, from 1893 to 1897, Frances Cleveland protectively kept her three little daughters from public view during the festivities, keeping them instead at the private home the family lived in, while using the White House for official functions.

A friend gave Ida McKinley a diorama Easter egg showing her long-gone daughters Katie and Little Ida on the White House South Lawn.

A friend gave Ida McKinley a diorama Easter egg showing her long-gone daughters Katie and Little Ida on the White House lawn.

The two daughters of William McKinley and Ida McKinley had died nearly a quarter of a century before they got to the White House; “Little Ida” was only three months old and Katie McKinley had been three and a half. From that time forward, the First Lady especially loved being surrounded by little girls about that age and she spoke often of her two “lost girls,” to all who would listen, as if their spirits were always near her.

Marjorie Morse, great-niece of the McKinleys.

Marjorie Morse, great-niece of the McKinleys.

It made the gift of a simple sugar egg with an inner diorama depicting Katie and Little Ida as young girls on the lawn where the crowds of children the most meaningful and precious one of all given to Mrs. McKinley. She never failed to watch the activity, either from an open bedroom window upstairs or the portico.

In 1900, she was especially delighted that her husband’s niece Ida Morse had come to visit them from San Francisco and brought her little daughter Marjorie Morse along to enjoy the Easter Egg Roll.

With the exuberant clan of four boys and two girls who composed the children of President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt, public expectations were high that they would all be romping with the general public on the lawn.

Theodore Roosevelt Family.

Theodore Roosevelt Family.

“The Roosevelt youngsters will be in their glory today s leaders in the annual egg-rolling contest in the back lot of the White House,” the Omaha Daily Bee promised in its March 31, 1902 news story.

While the President continued to host a reception for the children, his own remained separated from the masses, strictly removed on the portico instead. One senses this was an edict from Edith Roosevelt who was not known to have publicly appeared at the event during her five years in the White House. She decidedly did not approve of the Easter Egg Roll, believing it to be a “needless” wreck of the well-groomed South Lawn.

Nellie Taft. (Library of Congress)

Nellie Taft. (Library of Congress)

In 1909, there were reports of Nellie Taft joining her husband in receiving a delegation at an afternoon reception on Easter Monday but nothing about the egg roll. The following year was simply a notice stating that the President had “given consent” for the annual event.

First Daughter Helene Taft and her poodle Caro attended the Egg Roll with First Lady Nellie Taft in 1912.

First Daughter Helene Taft and her poodle Caro attended the Egg Roll with First Lady Nellie Taft in 1912.

By 1912, however, there were newspaper reports of how delighted Nellie Taft was to be able to go out on the lawn among the crowds and remain virtually unnoticed.

This is the first report of a First Lady leaving the portico post from above and joining the public.

That same year her daughter Helene Taft, a college student, also appeared on the steps of the South Portico with the family dog, a caramel-colored poodle named Caro.

Ellen Wilson got to enjoy one Easter Egg Rolls at the White House, in 1913. The following year, she and the President spent the holiday weekend in Hot Springs, Virginia where the First Lady was already ailing from the the kidney disease which would kill her just months later.

First Lady Ellen Wilson takes in the 1913 Easter Egg Roll from the South Balcony.

First Lady Ellen Wilson takes in the 1913 Easter Egg Roll from the South Balcony.

She is the first to be photographed on her own, overseeing the festivities from the White House South Portico balcony. Margaret Wilson, acting as First Lady for her widowed father, appeared at the 1915 event.

Edith Wilson watched 1916 egg-rollers before the event was cancelled for four years. (LC)

Edith Wilson watched 1916 egg-rollers before the event was cancelled for four years. (LC)

By the following Easter Monday, President Wilson had remarried and his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson presided over the 1916 event, as reported in newspapers. It would prove to be her only one.

With U.S. entry into World War I coming on April 6, just eighteen days before Easter Monday in 1917, the event was cancelled and remained inactive through 1918, 1919 and 1920, following the end of the war and President Wilson’s stroke.

Florence and Warren Harding overlooking the crowds at the 1921 White House Easter Egg Roll.

Florence and Warren Harding overlooking the crowds at the 1921 White House Easter Egg Roll.

The Roaring Twenties began a long period of First Ladies actively participating in the White House Easter Egg Roll, two notably making a point of leaving the higher officials and their young children who now composed the elite circle invited to view the event from the South Portico balcony and joining the crowds of children on the lawn.

Just a month after becoming First Lady in 1921, Florence Harding gleefully revived the custom, along with the tradition of showcasing the presidential pet, in this case Laddie Boy the Airedale dog, as the real star member of a First Family who delighted the children.

Laddie Boy, the Harding Airedale at the 1921 Easter Egg Roll.

Laddie Boy, the Harding Airedale at the 1921 Easter Egg Roll.

While both the President and First Lady waved to the kiddies from the South Portico, Florence Harding permitted the White House dog-keeper Arthur Jackson to take Laddie Boy out on the lawn among the children.

Overlooking crowds from the South Portico on April 21, 1924, Grace Coolidge brought and held one of the family cats, while the President made his only known appearance at an annual Easter Egg Roll.

Overlooking crowds from the South Portico on April 21, 1924, Grace Coolidge brought and held one of the family cats, while the President made his only known appearance at an annual Easter Egg Roll.

Grace Coolidge was beaming a broad smile in all of the images snapped of her during the five Easter Monday parties she hosted as First Lady, from 1924 to 1928. This would appear to give her the record as the first First Lady to attend all of the annual egg-rolling events held during her tenure as First Lady.

Mrs. Coolidge also earns another White House Easter Egg Roll footnote by becoming the first to fully engage with the children of the general public by going down among the crowds with her different pets each year (Mrs. Taft had slipped into the crowds without being recognized, delighting in her anonymity rather than making herself known).

Grace Coolidge with two of her dogs at the Easter Egg Roll. (LC)

Grace Coolidge with two of her dogs at the Easter Egg Roll. (LC)

Perhaps one of the most popular photographic series ever taken of a First Lady is the one depicting Grace Coolidge holding her famous pet raccoon Rebecca at one of the annual Easter Egg-Roll parties and bringing the animal into the crowds for the children to pet. Another year she brought one of the family cats out with her, and more frequently it was her famous white collie Rob Roy alone with accompanied by other family dogs.

By never missing any Easter Egg Roll and mixing it up with the crowds, Grace Coolidge was a key figure in helping to establish the event in the public mind as one where they could expect to see, if not meet a First Lady.

Grace Coolidge brought her racoon Rebecca to one of the Easter Egg Roll events she attended.

Grace Coolidge brought her raccoon Rebecca to one of the Easter Egg Roll events she attended.

Lou Hoover ovberlooking the crowd gathered for the White House Easter Egg Roll. (LC)

Lou Hoover overlooking the crowd gathered for the White House Easter Egg Roll. (LC)

In 1918, when she was working in partnership with her husband as President Wilson’s World War I Food Administrator, Lou Hoover had led a national crusade to “Go Eggless for Easter,” and save an estimated 60 million eggs nationwide for consumption rather than sport.

As First Lady, Lou Hoover still seemed a bit concerned about the “egg problem,” meaning the mess and smell that hundreds of broken hard-boiled eggs on the South Lawn would cause. She decided to provide the first sort of organized activities for children to watch, intending to distract them from needing to roll – and break – too many eggs.

A maypole ceremony organized by Mrs. Hoover for the 1929 Easter Egg Roll. (LC)

A maypole ceremony organized by Mrs. Hoover for the 1929 Easter Egg Roll. (LC)

One of the events she provided was folk dancing, including children performing a traditional maypole ritual with colored ribbons winding around a pole to welcome the spring season.

In 1931, Mrs. Hoover even permitted her two grandchildren Peggy and Peter, then in residence with her and the President, to deliver welcoming remarks on a live radio broadcast from the event bandstand.

Despite all of her commitments to serious endeavors related to public welfare and policy and her constant traveling around the nation, nothing seemed to bring greater pleasure to Eleanor Roosevelt than making sure she appeared at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll and diving into the crowds, meeting as many children and their adult companions as she could.

Eleanor Roosevelt, her police dog Major, daughter Anna and granddaughter Sisty at the 1933 Easter Egg Roll.

Eleanor Roosevelt, her police dog Major, daughter Anna and granddaughter Sisty at the 1933 Easter Egg Roll.

Eleanor Roosevelt with some toddlers at the 193 Easter Egg Roll.

Eleanor Roosevelt with  toddlers at the 193 event.

A magician performs a trick on Sistie and Buzzie Dall, as their grandmother First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt looks on during the 1934 White House Easter Egg Roll.

A magician performs a trick on Sistie and Buzzie Dall, as their grandmother First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt looks on during the 1934 White House Easter Egg Roll. (carlanthonyonline.com)

 

An ad for the book Scamper the White House bunny, by Anna Roosevelt.

An ad for the book Scamper the White House bunny, by Anna Roosevelt. (carlanthonyonline.com)

In 1933, her first year, Eleanor Roosevelt appeared at the White House Easter Egg Roll along with her dog Meg, daughter Anna Dall and grandchildren Sisty and Buzzy.

The event even inspired the First Daughter to write a children’s book called Scamper: The White House Bunny.

Eleanor Roosevelt greets guests at the 1937 Easter Egg Roll.

Eleanor Roosevelt greets guests at the 1937 Easter Egg Roll. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Another year, Mrs. Roosevelt had a magician performing tricks with her grandchildren  as they were popularly known, on the steps of the South Portico, for all the crowd to watch.

During a later Easter Egg Roll event, she broadcasted a live radio greetings to the nation.

Eleanor Roosevelt sits with European refugee children who she invited as her personal guests on the South Portico steps during the Easter Egg Roll.

Eleanor Roosevelt sits with European refugee children who she invited as her personal guests on the South Portico steps during the Easter Egg Roll.

Although this First Lady decided to scale back the traditional White House entertaining schedule, feeling it was unseemly during the Great Depression when so many American families were barely surviving, she refused to cut the Easter Egg Roll.

And, as the Third Reich began its march across Europe, leading to thousands of refugees seeking asylum in the United States and other free nations, Mrs. Roosevelt not only showed her compassion but scored a political point across the world by inviting a group of European refugee children as her personal guests to the 1940 and 1941 Easter Egg Rolls at the Roosevelt White House.

The First Lady made clear her belief that the annual event was likely the one great pleasure of the year for so many poor children in Washington.

As a friend of hers stated, “Of course, she loves children. She had so many of them. And they are all over the world.”

At the April 13, 1936 Easter Egg Roll, Eleanor Roosevelt was surrounded by children and adults alike.

At the April 13, 1936 Easter Egg Roll, Eleanor Roosevelt was surrounded by children and adults alike. (FDRL)

 

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A National Archives photo showing the South Lawn during the Lincoln Administration where the first public Easter Egg Roll took place.

A National Archives photo showing the South Lawn during the Lincoln Administration where the first public Easter Egg Roll took place.

Of the two accounts which recall how young Tad Lincoln hosted a little egg-rolling contest in order for a disabled friend of his named Tommy, who needed crutches to walk.

Mary Lincoln flanked by her sons Willie on the left and Tad on the right, photographed the year Abraham Lincoln was elected President. (Illinois State Historical Library)

Mary Lincoln flanked by her sons Willie on the left and Tad on the right, photographed the year Abraham Lincoln was elected President. (Illinois State Historical Library)

It is recorded that Tommy’s mother worked as a clerk at the Treasury Building and was the widow of a Union Army soldier and these facts, as well as the family’s schedule pinpoint this first known White House Easter Egg Roll as having taken place on either the second or the fourth Easter which the Lincoln family celebrated in the White House, either April 21, 1862 or March 28, 1864.

Neither of the two eyewitness sources mentions Mary Lincoln being present or watching the event.

Documentation does show, however, that a far more obscure First Lady was likely the first to appear at a White House Easter Egg Roll event.

In his memoirs, White House clerk William Crook recorded the fact that, despite her chronic condition of tuberculosis limiting most of her public appearances on the state floor at public social events, First Lady Eliza Johnson came out onto the South Portico to watch her five little grandchildren rolling colored eggs on Easter Monday and taking great delight in watching their games.

In this rarely seen image in the collection of the North Carolina Museum of History,  Eliza Johnson was the first known First Lady to attend a White House Easter Egg Roll.

In this rarely seen image in the collection of the North Carolina Museum of History, Eliza Johnson was the first known First Lady to attend a White House Easter Egg Roll.

There was no mention, however, about whether there were other children present.

What is established as fact is that, formally or informally, sometime before or after the Civil War era, children of Washington were coming to the greensward of the U.S. Capitol Building the Monday after Easter Sunday, where its sweeping lawn provided the perfect place to hold contests to see who could roll their brightly-colored dyed Easter eggs along with a spoon the fastest.

After leaving a litter of paper and straw, and the stench of broken eggs rotting in the sun, however, the children irritated the members of Congress working just inside. It led to passage of the Capitol Building Turf Protection Law, enacted on April 21, 1876.

The reverse of a 2011 gold commemorative coin designed by Barbara Fox, shows Lucy Hayes applauding children participating in the first White House Easter Egg Roll. (US Mint)

The reverse of a 2011 gold commemorative coin designed by Barbara Fox, shows Lucy Hayes applauding children participating in the first White House Easter Egg Roll. (US Mint)

This was the last Easter which Julia Grant marked as First Lady in the White House, but there is no indication that the Grants invited the city children to roll their eggs on the White House lawn or even that they held any sort of festivity for their own young children and their friends.

Rain drowned out any chance of Easter egg-rolling anywhere in Washington in 1877.

Credit for starting the Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn has traditionally been given to First Lady Lucy Hayes in 1878, her second Easter in the White House, but the more precise accounts credit her husband, President Rutherford B. Hayes with granting permission for the White House lawn to be used by the Washington children who had been banned from their annual custom on the U.S. Capitol lawn.

Although Lucretia Garfield was living in the White House on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1881, she was by then beset by malaria and bedridden. Taking place two days before her birthday, it proved to be the only one she marked in the White House due to her husband’s assassination several months later.

Molly McElroy, who served as First Lady for her widowed brother President Chester Arthur was not in residence at the White House for Easter of 1882.

A children's magazine drawing which suggests that 1883 White House Easter Egg Roll guests gave First Daughter Nell Arthur one of their eggs.

A children’s magazine drawing which suggests that 1883 White House Easter Egg Roll guests gave First Daughter Nell Arthur one of their eggs.

The following year, in following the old tradition of ending the White House social season of receptions and dinners on Ash Wednesday, she departed Washington on March 11 for her permanent home in Albany, New York, exactly two weeks before Easter.

She remained longer in the White House in 1884, however, and thus would have been able to attend the Easter Egg Roll held that year, her brother’s final one as President.

Her immediate successor Rose Cleveland was also a presidential sister serving as First Lady and in residence at the White House on Easter Monday April 6, 1885 but there were no reports of her attending the event that year or the next.

Rose Cleveland was also decidedly absent at the side of her brother, bachelor President Grover Cleveland, when he came down from his office to shake hands with exuberant egg-rollers eager to shake his hand or even just glimpse him.

The incident was carefully recorded in local newspapers at the time and it became a custom for him.

Grover Cleveland shakes hands with a child during an East Room reception.

Grover Cleveland shakes hands with a child during an East Room reception.

On April 9, 1887, The Memphis Appeal reported that:

Children of all races were welcomed in the pre-Jim Crow Washington 1890s at the White House Easter Egg Roll. (Library of Congress)

Children of all races were welcomed in the pre-Jim Crow Washington 1890s at the White House Easter Egg Roll. (Library of Congress)

“On Monday morning Mrs. Cleveland will come in from Oakview, where she has been the last few days, to see the egg rolling on the White House grounds.

This will be a novel spectacle to her, and is one of the curious and distinctive of children’s customs in the world.

Egg rolling at Easter is common enongh, but why it was inaugurated children, far longer back than any body can remember, should this day take possession of one particular spot is as queer as anything in the mysterious regions of child myths and customs.

Nobody knows when it originated.

It is required of every President that besides giving up his private grounds on that day, he shall come out at least once that afternoon and show himself on the south portico.

Grover Cleveland and his dog Hector, the first known First Dog to attend the White House Easter Egg Roll.

Grover Cleveland and his dog Hector, the first known First Dog to attend the White House Easter Egg Roll.

No doubt ‘Frankie’ as the children call Mrs. Cleveland will be anxiously expected on Monday, and her arrival will be hailed even more than the President’s.”

In their second term from 1893 to 1897, the Clevelands continued their East Room receiving line for the children after the egg rolling contests.

While Eliza Johnson was the first known First Lady to preside over an egg-rolling contest and Lucy Hayes is dutifully credited with inviting the general public to attend, Frances Cleveland began the first real custom the event: the appearance of the White House animal companion of a President and First Lady, in this case a dog named Hector.

A color-tinted magazine illustration of children being watched by their caretakers at an 1880s White House Easter Egg Roll. (whitehousehistory.org)

A color-tinted magazine illustration of children being watched by their caretakers at an 1880s White House Easter Egg Roll. (whitehousehistory.org)

Grover and Frances Cleveland let Hector roam the lawn among the egg-rollers.

The dog seemed to be the star of the day, the kiddies freely giving him as many eggs as he could gobble up.

Until, as reporter Frank Carpenter noted, Hector had to find a corner and empty his stomach.

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The South Lawn of the White House photographed during the Polk Administration some twenty years before the first authenticated Easter Egg Roll event took place there.

The South Lawn of the White House photographed during the Polk Administration some twenty years before the first authenticated Easter Egg Roll event took place there.

On April 21, 2014 the White House South Lawn will again be the site for a nearly unbroken century-and-a-half annual tradition, a true last vestige of a democracy making its leader and his family accessible to the citizens – even though the primary demographic of the event are not yet of voting age.

Legend alone is what continues to give Dolley Madison credit for stasrting the White House Easter Egg-Roll. (Metropolitan Musuem of Art)

Legend alone is what continues to give Dolley Madison credit for stasrting the White House Easter Egg-Roll. (Metropolitan Musuem of Art)

Legends, particularly those related to the White House, Presidents and First Ladies die hard.

One of the most persistent and popular of White House legends is that Dolley Madison began the Easter Egg Roll, when her son Payne Todd suggested she initiate this festivity for children of the capital city, and that it had been a custom practiced among ancient Egyptians at the base of the pyramids.

Correspondence among the Madison presidential family, however, neither reports nor even suggests such an event occurring on or near Easter Sunday during the six such holidays they occupied the White House, April 2,1809 or April 22, 1810 or April 14, 1811 or March 29, 1812 or April 18 1813 or April 10,1814.

The myth of Dolley Madison starting the Easter Egg-Roll further credits it as an idea suggested by her otherwise self-involved son Payne Todd. (NY Historical Society)

The myth of Dolley Madison starting the Easter Egg-Roll further credits it as an idea suggested by her otherwise self-involved son Payne Todd. (NY Historical Society)

Since the executive mansion was burned by the British during the War of 1812, it was inhabitable for the last two years of the Madison Administration. Easter Egg Roll historian C.L. Arbelbide also speculates that no such festivity was held at the U.S. Capitol Building property, since it was also the site of the horrifying slave trade.

The story of Dolley Madison beginning the Easter Egg Roll seems to have been invented in the Roaring Twenties by one of the several enterprising young women society reporters who regularly covered White House social events and seemed to always be looking for just the right “new story” to give her coverage a slight edge over the competition.

Despite all the young grandchildren, nieces and nephews who visited the Taylor White House, there is no evidence that youthful Betty Taylor Bliss, who assumed the role of public White House hostess while her mother Peggy oversaw private entertaining, ever hosted an Egg-Roll for them during the family's Easter there, in 1849 and 1850. (cyberstamps.com)

Despite all the young relatives visiting the Taylor White House, public hostess Betty Taylor Bliss never held an Egg-Roll for them during the family’s Easter there, in 1849 and 1850. (cyberstamps.com)

One such reporter even went by the nome de plume of “Dolly Madison,” a name which, by the 1920s, had less to do with the real historical figure than a mythic one intended to symbolize the convivial hospitable hostess.

Her successors Elizabeth Monroe, Louisa Adams, Emily Donelson, Sarah Jackson, the four Tyler family women who served as First Ladies, Sarah Polk, Peggy Taylor and Betty Bliss all presided over presidential households which had a plurality of young children, be they grandchildren, nieces, nephews or cousins.

While the public record of social life in these pre-Civil War decades is sparse, not even family lore suggests any of these women organized, hosted, encouraged or attended anything resembling a children’s lawn party or egg-rolling games on Easter Monday.

President Tyler and former First Lady Dolley Madison attending the costume party held for his granddaughter Mary's birthday, a unique event arranged by his daughter-in-law and acting First Lady Priscilla Tyler. (LC)

President Tyler and former First Lady Dolley Madison attending the costume party held for his granddaughter Mary’s birthday, a unique event arranged by his daughter-in-law and acting First Lady Priscilla Tyler. (LC)

There were any number of recorded children’s parties during these years.

During the Jackson Administration, for example, there were Christmas parties held specifically for his many young nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews.

The Tyler family held a costume party in honor of presidential granddaughter Mary Fairlee Tyler, which even the former First Lady Dolley Madison attended.

Documentation suggests that it was the son of a famous First Lady other than Dolley Madison, however, who first prompted the annual event – and that she was reportedly no where to be seen at it.

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Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, in her position as US Secretary of State during her 2012 trip to China. (AP)

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, in her position as US Secretary of State during her 2012 trip to China. (AP)

This week, First Lady Michelle Obama began her first trip to China, which will last until March 26, making her the fifteenth U.S. presidential spouse to visit that nation. Accompanying Mrs. Obama will be her mother Marian Robinson and, as did her predecessors Betty Ford, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush on their trips to China, the First Lady’s daughters.

In making official appearances at a university and two high schools in China, Michelle Obama is continuing her agenda of focusing young people on the crucial role that the pursuit of higher education has on their lives. Through social media and, in conjunction with PBS LearningMedia and Discovery Education, she is encouraging American students to follow her itinerary through China as she visits its historical and cultural sites, and to find commonalities with its students.

The social media technology which will keep American students updated on the First Lady’s trip in real time is a primary factor in the increased globalization which has marked the world in the last quarter of a century and has led to inevitable societal change within both the U.S. and China.

While the First Lady’s press office included mention of “current events and people of China” among the topics she hopes to focus on while there, her trip comes during a period when First Ladies, both present and former, were inevitably drawn into more overtly political issues during their time in China, especially on human rights, democratic change, and economic empowerment.

In this final of a three-part series on American First Ladies in China, the experiences of Barbara Bush, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush are of an entirely different nature than those of  First Ladies Julia Grant, Nellie Taft, Lou Hoover, Edith Roosevelt and Edith Wilson, who first visited.

Barbara Bush, 1974-1975, 1989

Barbara Bush.

Barbara Bush.

When President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford made their official visit to China in 1975, among the small delegation of American officials in the party which welcomed them in Beijing was Barbara Bush. Her husband George Bush had been appointed Chief of the Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China in the fall of 1974 and served until the end of 1975.

In living there with him during that time, Barbara Bush became only the second woman who was an American First Lady to do so, the first being Lou Hoover three-quarters of a century earlier.

Future President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush were part of the welcoming delegaton for the President and Mrs. Ford in China, December 1975.

Future President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush were part of the welcoming delegaton for the President and Mrs. Ford in China, December 1975.

When the Bushes first arrived with their spaniel dog named C. Fred, they were assigned a four-bedroom, two-bath apartment above his office, with a staff of six domestic workers and a driver. Barbara Bush took daily lessons to learn the Chinese language and intensively read up on the centuries of Chinese history.

On the couple’s first full day in their new land they bought bicycles to get around Beijing as the city’s entire native population did. Barbara Bush began to fully explore the ancient city on her bike.

Her official duties were essentially limited to socializing at receptions hosted by her husband for delegations of visiting Americans or Chinese groups that would be soon making visits to the U.S.

Barbara Bush’s perspective of this period in her life captured a closed Chinese society still reflective of the revolutionary era of the 1950s and 1960s.

George and Barbara Bush in China. (GBPL)

George and Barbara Bush in China. (GBPL)

She and her husband went on Sunday to the only church in Beijing which had only three congregants among the scant total of twenty who were Chinese; their daughter was the first person to be baptized in the entire of China since before the Maoist revolution.

George and Barbara Bush before one of the many mammoth images of Mao seen in China at the time they lived there. (GBPL)

George and Barbara Bush before one of the many mammoth images of Mao seen in China at the time they lived there. (GBPL)

Chinese citizens did not smile at or engage her, but did stare at her dog, a rare sight in that land where the species had been largely annihilated on the premise that food they consumed could be better used to feed humans.

On excursions to Canton, Nanking, Wuxi, Shanghai, Beidaihe, Loyang, Sian, Datong, Dalien, Daqing, she was struck by the abject poverty, government sterilization programs to reduce the population, and the hard manual labor shared equally by men and women.

The most startling aspect of her new life in China was the inescapable propaganda campaigns aimed at the Chinese people, both the massive signs (one of which read “Beware of the Imperialist Dogs Who Invaded Vietnam”) and loudspeakers blaring out Communist Party rhetoric. Without prior government approval, she was not permitted to explore China beyond a twenty miles radius of Beijing, as was true even for citizens.

George and Barbara Bush usually rode bicycles around Beijing when they lived there. (GBPL)

George and Barbara Bush usually rode bicycles around Beijing when they lived there. (GBPL)

During trips to cities like Harbin and Tientsin, at factories and commune farms, it was plainly obvious to her that output had been manipulated to suggest the increase was all a result of “the glorious leadership of Chairman Mao.” She also had all types of evidence that she and her husband were being spied upon through their calls, mail and activities.

One month and five days after moving into the White House as First Lady, Barbara Bush returned to China for the first time in fourteen years, joining her husband there on a state visit from February 25 to February 27, 1989.

In Tiananmen Square, Mrs. Bush was stunned by the changes that had occurred in Chinese society since she had last been there: more automobiles, citizens wearing various-colored clothes and not just the requisite drab jumpsuits of the Maoist era, a tremendous number of new buildings.

President Ford, right, and first lady Betty Ford, second from left, visit then-Ambassador George H.W. Bush

President Ford, right, and First Lady Betty Ford, second from left, visit then-Ambassador George Bush and Barbara Bush. (GFPL)

Citizens were more overtly friendly towards Mrs. Bush and her American staff and the tiny congregation of the obscure church she had once attended was now massive and had moved to a far larger gathering place.

During First Lady Barbara Bush’s 1989 trip to China, however, were also the first signs of conflict rising from the communist nation’s move towards a more op

en market economy and concurrent, growing expectations of freedom. At the reciprocal dinner traditionally given by a visiting head of state for the leadership of the host country, among the guests invited to this event hosted by George and Barbara Bush was the Chinese human rights dissident Fang Lizhi.

George and Barbara Bush in China as President and First Lady in 1989. (AP)

George and Barbara Bush in China (AP)

Insulted, the Chinese government leaders to be honored at the dinner threatened to not attend. When they appeared, President Bush tried to diplomatically justify the invitation of the dissident, but the Chinese leadership were elusive in their response. Only the following day did George and Barbara Bush learned that the Chinese police had stopped Fang Lizhi on his way to the dinner, and prevented his attendance.

Mrs. Bush had her own first-hand experience with the hard-line tactics of the Communist Chinese. While following as part of her official media entourage to cover her visit to the Forbidden City, several American journalists found themselves being physically shoved by Chinese security agents in an attempt to distance and separate them from the First Lady.

1989 Pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square erect 33-foot high “Goddess of Democracy” statue. (AP)

1989 Pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square erect 33-foot high “Goddess of Democracy” statue. (AP)

Admitting that the Chinese had become “way too rough” with the reporters, Barbara Bush later reflected, “I should have stopped the tour and told our hosts that unless they lightened up, the tour was over.”

When finally the official White House photographer was “socked so hard that her jaw was dislocated,” the First Lady put a halt to the tour to “lay down a few ground rules” to Chinese officials in the entourage.

It was a menacing incident which seemed to foreshadow those which would take place just four months after Barbara Bush was in China.

In June of that year, in the very same Tiananmen Square where the First Lady had been startled by the radical changes she saw in China, pro-democracy demonstrations symbolized by a large white statue of a woman carrying a torch were crushed by the government.

Through the then-recent technologies of instant replay video, however, the entire world was able to witness much of it as the crisis unfolded.

Hillary Clinton, 1995, 1998

Hillary Clinton. (BCPL)

Hillary Clinton. (BCPL)

While coming to China with an entirely different agenda than Pat Nixon, First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 1995 trip to Beijing left just as indelible a global impression.

Human rights activist Harry Wu was arrested by China when he returned to his native land with a valid visa. (cnn)

Human rights activist Harry Wu was arrested by China when he returned to his native land with a valid visa. (cnn)

She journeyed in what would be the first of her two visits as First Lady to China to address the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women meeting, a gathering of women from around the globe’s different cultures and nations united in their belief that, as Mrs. Clinton famously put it, “women’s rights are human rights.”

There had been considerable pressure before the conference for the First Lady to boycott the conference, due to the fact that China had imprisoned American citizen human rights activist Harry Wu in June when he had returned to his native country with a valid visa. It was officially announced that Hillary Clinton would not enter China unless he was first released. This possibility would prove humiliating to the Chinese government.

The Chinese ended up holding a sham trial which found him guilty of spying, and expelled Wu. Charges were made that China had agreed to freeing him in exchange for a promise that Hillary Clinton would attend the conference and not criticize its policies, to which the U.S. had agreed, but not such deal was made.

The American First Lady delivering her historic speech in Beijing. (Washington Post)

The American First Lady delivering her historic speech in Beijing. (Washington Post)

In fact, no such deal took place and when Hillary Clinton did go to China for the conference, she ended up becoming the first American dignitary to overtly speak out against both China’s human rights violations and media censorship on Chinese soil.

On September 5, 1995, after attending a morning session on “women and health security,” the American First Lady entered the Plenary Hall and made a forceful speech:

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton delivering her speech at the panel on Women and Health at the U.N. Women's Conference in Beijing on September. 5, 1995 (AP)

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton delivering her speech at the panel on Women and Health at the U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing on September. 5, 1995 (AP)

“It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights…It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls…when women and girls are sold into slavery or prostitution for human greed. It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small…when thousands of women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war….If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

Although she did not literally reference “China,” in her speech, she did make reference to that nation’s notorious policy of forcing women to be sterilized or undergo abortions to enforce a “one child per family” policy and the horrific act by many Chinese families of killing infant girls because a son was more prized. She also made reference to the legal practices in some parts of the Middle East of domestic violence and death by stoning of women and the custom in some parts of Africa of genital mutilation.

Mrs. Clinton greeting some of the thousands of foreign representatives, both men and women, who attended the Beijing conference. (New York Times)

Mrs. Clinton greeting some of the thousands of foreign representatives, both men and women, who attended the Beijing conference. (New York Times)

When she finished her remarks, the hall erupted with wild cheering, shouting and foot-stomping in support of her brave remarks.

The people of China, however, were never permitted to see footage on television of the American First Lady speaking, hear it on the radio or even read it in the newspapers. The Chinese government completed blacked out her remarks and filled its airwaves instead with propaganda extolling the strides of equality women were making in China.

The Chinese government’s senior woman official in attendance at the conference refused to answer questions from the international media who pressed her for a reaction, and all Chinese news outlets were ordered to report nothing of the speech. Only those Chinese who had been chosen by the Communist Party were permitted to participate in the conference and heard Mrs. Clinton’s speech; all other citizens who wished to attend were kept a far distance from the event by Chinese police.  Delegates who were Tibetan and Taiwanese exiles were unable to even obtain visas to attend.

Hillary Clinton keeping her cool amid the bedlam caused by Chinese security at Huairou. (foreignpolicy.org

Hillary Clinton keeping her cool amid the bedlam caused by Chinese security at Huairou. (foreignpolicy.org

There had been a larger drama unfolding at the conference. Apart from delegates designated by their governments there were also representatives from a multitude of non-profit, voluntary citizen groups providing humanitarian services and assistance like monitoring policies and disseminating vital information.

These non-governmental organizations (known as NGOs) had been scheduled to hold a forum as part of the U.N. Conference but the Chinese government banned them from the main gathering. Instead, they were forced to meet in a converted movie theater an hour’s drive outside of Beijing in the relatively remote city of Huairou.

Learning of this, Hillary Clinton not only made her way through a downpour in a small caravan past endless rice paddies to what was now being called the “NGO Forum,” but she made her way through the muddy streets and crowd to address the three thousand women’s rights activists had crammed into the space.

Hillary Clinton with Beijing University's women's legal aid society members during her second trip to China in 1998. (AP)

Hillary Clinton with Beijing University’s women’s legal aid society members during her second trip to China in 1998. (AP)

If her Beijing speech had focused specifically on global violations of women’s equal rights, her subsequent commentaries following it were clearly intended to call out the Chinese government for the way it had reacted to not just what she said but the very conference:

“Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize, and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their governments. It means not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions…”

The President and Mrs. Clinton pose with their daughter Chelsea with the famous terra cotta warrior figures on their second of a nine-day state visit to China (Reuter's

The President and Mrs. Clinton pose with their daughter Chelsea with the famous terra cotta warrior figures on their second of a nine-day state visit to China (Reuter’s)

Her first trip to China also became an important turning point not only as an American First Lady but also the long arc of public life that Hillary Clinton would later embark upon.

As she put it, “To me, it was important to express how I felt and to do so as clearly as I could.”Three years later, from June 25 to July 3, 1998, Hillary Clinton returned to China, joining President Clinton on an official state visit there, accompanied by her daughter Chelsea Clinton and mother Dorothy Rodham.

The Clintons on their Li River trip in Guilin, China. (AP)

The Clintons on their Li River trip in Guilin, China. (AP)

While this trip entailed some of the more traditional aspects of trips by American First Ladies to China, such as a walk along the Great Wall, a grand state banquet in the Great Hall of the People, a cruise down the Li River to see its unusual mountain formations, and a quiet summer evening in an old tea house, Hillary Clinton also made public appearances which underlined many of the public issues important to her.

The Clintons walk the Great Wall of China in 1998. (AP)

The Clintons walk the Great Wall of China in 1998. (AP)

At the Shanghai Library, she gave a speech about the status of women and how all of society thrives when the entire population is permitted to contribute to it with their talents. To further emphasize her intrinsic belief in a woman’s right to legal equal treatment, she met with women lawyers working at the Center for the Women’s Law Studies at Beijing University, similar to a legal clinic she had once helped establish while a law professor at the University of Arkansas.

First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tour the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, Shanghai, China.  (BCPL)

First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tour the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, Shanghai, China. (BCPL)

To signal her support of more religious freedom in China, the First Lady toured the recently restored Ohel Rachel Synagogue, where a once-thriving Jewish community had worshiped in Shanghai, and attended Sunday services at the state-sanctioned Protestant Chongwenmen Church.

She also joined the President in politely but unequivocally arguing against the cagey rationale of President Jiang Zemin that China’s oppression of Buddhist Tibet had “liberated” its people.

Despite the aspects of harsh control exercised over its people which China could often demonstrate, Hillary Clinton believed it was important to still visit such a nation for, “deep differences are created by history, geography and culture and those can be bridged only – if at all – through direction experience and relationships.”

Rosalynn Carter, 1981, 1997, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Rosalynn Carter (JCPL)

Rosalynn Carter (JCPL)

To date, no future, incumbent or former First Lady has visited China more frequently than has Rosalynn Carter. Thus far, she has made ten trips there.

As she did during her tenure as First Lady, Rosalynn Carter worked alongside her husband Jimmy Carter in nearly all of his activities as a former President, including traveling with him around the world as they made trips on behalf of the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, advocating on a number of issues including human rights, fair elections, economic development and accessible health care.

In a series of trips to China which she has made for over thirty years now, Rosalynn Carter has accompanied her husband as they both initiated private sector efforts on behalf of a multitude of these issues and then continued to investigate the progress of the endeavors, expand and improve upon them.

Deng Xiaoping and his wife visited the US in 1979, seen here with the President and Mrs. Carter, the only presidential couple since the Nixons who did not visit China during his presidency.

Deng Xiaoping and his wife visited the US in 1979, seen here with the President and Mrs. Carter, the only presidential couple since the Nixons who did not visit China during his presidency. (JCPL)

After Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping and President Carter normalized diplomatic relations in 1979, rapid economic change began in China, starting with families being permitted to farm a percentage of state-owned property and to begin a profitable small business, like animal husbandry or bike repair. He then urged Rosalynn Carter and the President to come to China and see for themselves the resulting changes.

The Carters have made more visits to China than any presidential couple. (princepaulofromania.com)

The Carters have made more visits to China than any First Couple. (princepaulofromania.com)

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter proved to be the only incumbent President and First Lady since the Nixon presidency who did not visit China – yet they would soon enough earn a record by visiting that country more than any other President or First Lady.

In 1981, several months after leaving the White House, however, they did accept the offer of Deng to first visit and see how the nation was beginning to change.

More than any factor, the Carters were startled by the Chinese government’s genuine commitment to free enterprise.

The Carters received a gift of a drawing from a local Chinese village. (whatsonxiamen.com)

The Carters received a gift of a drawing from a local Chinese village. (whatsonxiamen.com)

In 1997, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter returned at the invitation of The Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, to explore possibilities for an expanded relationship for the Carter Center in Chinese town elections, ascertain Chinese attitudes toward Korea, discover as much as possible the true state of affairs about life in China from top political leaders to peasants in villages.

They also raised issues the Chinese would rather ignore, such as its control of Tibet, Taiwan independence, religious and press freedom, persecution of dissidents, and other human rights issues.

An aspect of their trips to China has been the effort by the Carters to encourage religious freedom.(globalministries.org)

An aspect of their trips to China has been the effort by the Carters to encourage religious freedom.(globalministries.org)

Besides Beijing, they also conducted work at Jinan in Shandong province and the rural Zouping County which had not permitted any foreigners to enter until 1984.  Among the promising discoveries, the Carters found that citizens were largely benefiting from a relatively free economic system and able to more freely travel within China.

In 2001, just ten days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter were making their third joint visit to China, joined by Carter Center trustees, to help monitor and improve village elections at the invitation of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Former President Carter introduces Rosalynn to Communist Party leader Xi Jinping during one of their Chinese trips. (ecns.cn)

Former President Carter introduces Rosalynn to Communist Party leader Xi Jinping during one of their Chinese trips. (ecns.cn)

Although there were tense and sharp arguments on the matter of freedom of religion during discussions in Beijing’s Great Hall, which continued over dinner, it resulted in an invitation for the Carter Center to send a delegation for unrestricted assessment of the religious and Tibetan issues.

On this trip, they also went to Shanghai, and Zhouzhuang, in Jiangsu province.

The Carters returned again to China in September of 2003 to further their efforts of political democratization there and begin meeting also with students who represented the next generation of political and business leaders there.

By the time of their next visit, in December of 2007, the Carter Center had established a working office in China. Among the efforts of particular interest to Rosalynn Carter was one to help train grammar school teachers of blind and deaf children.

The Carters at the opening of a photo exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of economic  freedoms initated by him and Deng. (chinaconsulatechicago.org)

The Carters at the opening of a photo exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of economic freedoms initated by him and Deng. (chinaconsulatechicago.org)

At an elaborate sixteen-course banquet in honor of the former President and First Lady, they met with, as the former President put it, “extremely successful entrepreneurs who have emerged from China’s shift to free enterprise and its remarkable economic growth.”

In January of 2009, the Carters returned to China to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of normalized US-Chinese diplomatic relations and to further expand the Carter Center’s working relations with government ministries.

During discussions on sensitive matters between the former President and Premier Wen Jiabao in the Hall of Purple Lights, Rosalynn Carter took notes of the discreet conversation.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter preview an artifact of China's first emperor. (mychinaclub.com)

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter preview an artifact of China’s first emperor. (mychinaclub.com)

After visiting a museum in Hong’an, the Carters were feted by Hubei’s governor at a banquet in Wuhan, overlooking the Yangtze River.

Despite frigid temperatures, the couple had a change to enjoy a quiet walk together along the river’s edge.

Before leaving, they visited the Hubei Provincial Museum, where they enjoyed a concert on enormous 2,400-year-old bells.

Perhaps the most unique trip to China made by Rosalynn Carter was the one she undertook in November of 2009 with her husband, son Chip and his wife, to join some three thousand volunteers from around the world in a project of the annual Habitat for Humanity Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter helping build a home with her husband through Habitat for Humanity. (sfgate.com)

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter helping build a home with her husband through Habitat for Humanity. (sfgate.com)

They flew into Chengdu, and drove to the project site in Qionglai City, Sichuan, where an earthquake had destroyed or damaged many of the residential buildings.

The Chinese building project was one of a five-Asian nation effort in the Mekong River basin.

Once again in September, the Carters were back in China in 2010, for meetings on issues of mutual concern to the Chinese government and the Carter Center, as well as making good on their promise to visit the World Expo in Shanghai.

The Carters at a statue dedication and commemoration ceremony at an historic Nanking hospital. (english.cntv.cn)

The Carters at a statue dedication and commemoration ceremony at an historic Nanking hospital. (english.cntv.cn)

After meetings in Beijing intended to encourage greater public access to government information, they flew to Zhijiang, in Hunan Province.

Here they participated in a statue dedication ceremony honoring American and both nationalist and communist “Flying Tiger” Chinese pilots who fought together to defeat the occupying Japanese.

Rosalynn Carter went on her own to Shanghai to tour the city’s Mental Health Center, and then delivered a speech which reflected her lifelong commitment to overcoming the societal stigma of mental health problems.

Mrs. Carter speaking at a symposium on mental health. (cartercenter.org)

Mrs. Carter speaking at a symposium on mental health. (cartercenter.org)

Before returning to the US, they went to Changsha, where the former President delivered a speech at Hunan University, then observing its 1034th year of teaching.

The following year, in December, the Carters again journeyed to China, seeking underwriting for ongoing Carter Center projects and establishing an office for it in Beijing. They also went to Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen, once a rural region that had become a booming center of free trade.

The most recent trip to China made by Rosalynn Carter and Jimmy Carter was in December of 2012, intended to pursue new projects of the Carter Center there and also to meet with a new generation of rising political leaders.

In Beijing during this trip, Mrs. Carter spoke to the large staff of American Embassy workers, where she and the former President also learned of the surprising increase of Chinese citizens seeking to formalize their faith in church membership.

The Carters overlooking a model of new buildings slated for construction in Nanking. (english.jschina.com.cn)

The Carters overlooking a model of new buildings slated for construction in Nanking. (english.jschina.com.cn)

In Nanking, they visited a memorial to those Chinese massacred by Japanese troops in 1937, unveiled a statue honoring American and Canadian missionaries who helped found the original hospital there and helped dedicate a new one.

The 2012 Carter trip to China ended on Hainan Island, where the former President delivered a keynote address on “China’s Place in the World.”

It was during their first 2009 trip, as the Carters made the brief excursion to the Shanghai Airport that may have left the most indelible impression of the new China. As the former President described it:

“The first time I visited Shanghai, in 1949, there were only pedestrians, bicycles and rickshaws. After lunch with Consul General Beatrice Camp, we rode the magnetic-levitated train to the airport, a trip that takes an hour by automobile. Computer controlled, it left at exactly 3 p.m. and arrived at 3:07 p.m. It is the fastest train in the world, designed to run 310 miles per hour, and reached a speed of 269 mph on this short run of about 16 miles. As we flew past the Old City one centimeter above the tracks, I thought the amazing experience symbolized what is happening in China.”

Laura Bush, 2002, 2005, 2008

Laura Bush entering the Forbidden City during her 2008 visit. (english.sina.com)

Laura Bush entering the Forbidden City during her 2008 visit. (english.sina.com)

First Lady Laura Bush made three trips to China during her tenure as First Lady, not having accompanied her husband on a more official state visit there soon after the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York in September of 2001. Mrs. Bush’s China trips were relatively brief and did not take her extensively through the vast nation.

During her brief, initial visit to China,Laura Bush visited a Chinese food show.

During her brief, initial visit to China,Laura Bush visited a Chinese food show.

On February 21, 2002, she joined her husband President George W. Bush on a thirty-hour visit to China, her first. The date marked the anniversary of the President and Mrs. Nixon’s historic 1972 trip there.

Shortly after her morning arrival in China with the President, Laura Bush toured the Forbidden City’s Palace Museum and three of the most architecturally significant of the historic structures on the grounds, the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian) and Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe Dian), and Juanqinzhai, a palace built for Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799).

Laura Bush fans herself while watching the U.S. men's baseball team play a practice game against the Chinese team  August 11 at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. (GWBL)

Laura Bush fans herself while watching the U.S. men’s baseball team play a practice game against the Chinese team August 11 at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. (GWBL)

She was joined by the wives of both the U.S. and Chinese ambassadors to each country, led by assistant curator Zhu Chengru, an expert on Ming and Qing dynasty histories. Apart from official appearances with President Bush, she had time only alone to visit a Chinese Cuisine Show in a hotel.

In November of 2005, Laura Bush joined her husband on another trip to China. It was a largely ceremonial trip, with the First Lady visiting the famous Ming Dynasty Tombs as well as the Great Wall of China.

Laura Bush and then President George W. Bush took photos with missionary members after a mass in Beijing on November 20, 2005. (english.cri.cn)

Laura Bush and then President George W. Bush took photos with missionary members after a mass in Beijing on November 20, 2005. (english.cri.cn)

With their trip including a Sunday, the Bushes also attended a missionary Christian Church, highlighting the slight but growing trend towards a more lax attitude by the Chinese government towards freedom of religion.

The occasion of her third trip as First Lady to China was markedly celebratory and uniquely international.

From August 8 until August 11, 2008, Laura Bush joined her husband and their daughter Barbara, as well as her father-in-law former President George Bush, to attend the Opening Ceremonies and watch several competitions of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Barbara pause next to a Fu Dog during their August 2008 visit to Beijing's Forbidden City. (GWBPL)

First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Barbara pause next to a Fu Dog during their August 2008 visit to Beijing’s Forbidden City. (GWBPL)

“China was consumed with its global spectacle…We waved flags and cheered, moving from the Olympic swimming pool to the basketball stadium to the imported sand court for beach volleyball. It was a stunning sight to see the Chinese cheering for the American basketball players, chanting “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe!” she wrote, referencing Los Angeles Lakers player Kobe Bryant who was part of the U.S. Men’s Basketball team.

George and Laura Bush arrive in China 2002.

George and Laura Bush arrive in China 2002.

With her family members, she also participated in the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Among the few official events scheduled with the Chinese government leadership, Laura Bush particularly recalled a luncheon hosted by President Hu Jintao in the Forbidden City.

“There were small meandering streams and gardens,” she wrote in her poetic memoir, “but the ancient rooms are now largely bare, leaving their past to our imagination.”

Laura Bush in a Burmese refugee camp schoolroom. (chinapost.com)

Laura Bush in a Burmese refugee camp schoolroom. (chinapost.com)

Although she refrained from chastising the Chinese government when she was in that nation, before her 2008 arrival in Beijing, she visited the Mae La refugee camp on the Tahi-Burma border, the largest of nine which sheltered 35,000 refugees.

Her visit was part of an ongoing campaign she had been focused on for several years, to bring global attention to the harsh regime of Burma and the need for inciting peaceful change within it. She publicly called upon Chinese officials to speak out more definitively on Burma’s human rights violations.

Hillary Clinton, 2009, 2010, 2011, 20012, 2012 (2)

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton in her later position as Secretary of State. (DOS)

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton in her later position as Secretary of State. (DOS)

Apart from her two trips to China as First Lady, Hillary Clinton would make five further visits there during her tenure as Secretary of State during the first term of the Obama Administration. This tallies to a total of seven trips to China by Mrs. Clinton.

In February of 2009, a month after assuming her new role as the U.S. Secretary of State, former First Lady Hillary Clinton made her first trip to Asia, visiting Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China on what she described as a “listening tour” that was “intended to really find a path forward.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao meets with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing, China, Feb. 21, 2009. (Xinhua)

Chinese President Hu Jintao meets with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing, China, Feb. 21, 2009. (Xinhua)

During her three days in China, beginning on February 20, had Secretary Clinton meeting with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and  State Counselor Dai Bingguo. The topics of their discussion were general in nature, covering economic, security and environmental protection issues.

She returned again in May of 2010, to co-lead the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue.

At that event, she pointed with particular pride to being able to sign a student exchange agreement, affirming an intent of President Obama to send some 100,000 American students to China by 2014 to learn the language, culture and business models of the Chinese.

At the same event, the Chinese government announced it would provide scholarships to 10,000 American students.

Senior Chinese official Dai Bingguo and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook hands before their meetings in Shenzhen, China, July 2011. (AP)

Senior Chinese official Dai Bingguo and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook hands before their meetings in Shenzhen, China, July 2011. (AP)

The following year, at the end of July, 2011, she returned to China, this time to meet with Dai Bingguo in Shenzhen just as the U.S. government was on the verge of potential debt default, a matter of anxiety as well for China, its largest foreign creditor. At the time, China owned almost $1.2 trillion of U.S. Treasury debt.

Before she had arrived on the mainland, Mrs. Clinton was in Hong Kong where she expressed a calm confidence about the looming crisis: “I’m confident that Congress will do the right thing and secure a deal on the debt ceiling, and work with President Obama to take the steps necessary to improve our long-term fiscal outlook.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduces U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner  to Chinese President Hu Jintao during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 4, 2012. (Getty)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduces U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Chinese President Hu Jintao during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 4, 2012. (Getty)

Less than a year later, in early May of 2012, Secretary Clinton was joined by her fellow Cabinet member Treasury Secretary Timothy  Geithner for the fourth joint meeting of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue with Bingguo and the Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan. The meetings took place in Beijing’s Great Hall, again with the objective was to strengthen the U.S.-China bond in arenas like culture, education, sports, science and technology, and women’s issues.

That trip, however, put Clinton in the middle of a drama involving blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. He had escaped house arrest and, after finding his way to the Embassy of the United States, requested the Americans to negotiate his safety in continuing to live in China.

Doing this right before Mrs. Clinton arrived for her meetings, however, the situation “exploded into an absolute circus” as one aide put it. Finally, Secretary Clinton personally negotiated to arrange for Chen’s asylum in the U.S.

The blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and Hillary Clinton finally met when both were awarded the 2013 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize on December 6, 2013. (zimbio.com)

The blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and Hillary Clinton finally met when both were awarded the 2013 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize on December 6, 2013. (zimbio.com)

Although Chen begged for a seat on the former First Lady’s plane returning to the U.S. she arranged for him to make the trip on a separate flight, and thereby saved the Chinese government from a sense of humiliation on the matter and move it as an example of human rights violations off the agenda of the imminent meetings.

When Hillary Clinton called Chen to inform him of all this, he burst with gratitude at her over the phone, “‘I want to kiss you!”

Four months before she left her position as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made her fifth and final trip to China in that official role.

When she arrived in early September of 2012 for this final trip, however, she discovered that her scheduled meeting with Vice President Xi Jinping had been abruptly cancelled. The reason given was that he was suffering from an injured back. She did, however, meet with President Hu and other leading officials over the next two days.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister exchange their conflicting views on the South China Sea at a news conference in Beijing Sept. 5. (AP)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister exchanged their conflicting views on the South China Sea at a news conference in Beijing Sept. 5. (AP)

Most of the geopolitical intelligentsia, however, was convinced that it was a result of the U.S. attempting to involve itself in a conflict among China and its Asian nation neighbors over disputed territorial maritime rights in the South and East China seas, which are believed to hold rich lodes of minerals and other natural resources.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a strained statement that  nations not part of the region should “respect the choice of the relevant parties, hold an impartial position on the issue and make more efforts in favor of regional peace and stability.”

The decidedly Communist Chinese newspaper Global Times more harshly and personally declared that “many Chinese” resented Secretary Clinton.

During the course of her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, seen here at the U.N. in September 2011, did not hesitate to explicitly detail the issues which the U.S. sharply disagreed with China. (AP)

During the course of her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, seen here at the U.N. in September 2011, did not hesitate to explicitly detail the issues which the U.S. sharply disagreed with China. (AP)

On September fifth, during this final trip as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton gave a larger context to the smaller conflicts which continued to arise between the United States and China: “Our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history, which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”

Not unlike her 1995 speech in China gently chastising it for ignoring women’s rights and human rights when she made her initial trip there as First Lady, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State had overtly challenged that nation on a variety of issues. She called it “despicable” that both Russia and China were unwilling to take a firm stand against the harsh violence being imposed by Syria’s President Bashar Assad upon his people. She warned African continent nations that the radical changes being wrought in their countries by Chinese development could create a “new colonialism” there if they did not firmly guide their own destiny. She also boldly criticized China for blocking parts of the Internet from being accessed by its citizens.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toasts with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan during a dinner of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C. May 9, 2011. (Getty)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toasts with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan during a dinner of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C. May 9, 2011. (Getty)

On March 18, 2012, to mark the 40th anniversary of the historic first trip to China by an incumbent President and First Lady, Richard and Pat Nixon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke before the United States Institute of Peace on the significance of that first adventure.

In her remarks, Clinton also acknowledged that United States and China had become inextricably linked in so many vital ways, and pondered with a sense of hope about their future together by looking back on how far the relationship had developed in that time:

“In 1972, [the U.S. and China] were connected only through a narrow official channel. Today, the web of connections linking our nations is vast and complex, and reaches into just about every aspect of our societies….

Tricia Cox, daughter of the late President and Mrs. Nixon, welcomed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before her remarks at the United States Institute of Peace, marking the 40th anniversary of Nixon's historic trip to China and discussed the future of U.S.-China relations, March 7, 2012, (AFP/Getty)

Tricia Cox, daughter of the late President and Mrs. Nixon, welcomed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before her remarks, marking the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s historic trip to China and discussed the future of U.S.-China relations, March 7, 2012, (AFP/Getty)

The opportunities before us are also shared, and they define our relationship much more than the threats….We have the chance, if we seize it, to work together to advance prosperity, pursue innovation, and improve the lives of our people and others worldwide…..

We are trying to do this without entering into unhealthy competition, rivalry, or conflict . . . and without falling short on our responsibilities to the international community.

We are, together, building a model in which we strike a stable and mutually acceptable balance between cooperation and competition. This is uncharted territory. And we have to get it right, because so much depends on it….

Interdependence means that one of us cannot succeed unless the other does as well . . . This is, by definition, incredibly difficult.

So let us remember and take inspiration from how far apart our countries were when President Nixon landed in Beijing and how much we have accomplished together since then . . . It is now up to us to make sure that the future is even more promising than the past.”

Three of the fifteen U.S. First Ladies who have been to China: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Rosalynn Carter. (AP)

Three of the fifteen U.S. First Ladies who have been to China: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Rosalynn Carter. (AP)

 

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President and Mrs. Nixon at the Great Wall of China. (RNPL)

President and Mrs. Nixon at the Great Wall of China. (RNPL)

In this second of a three-part series, the National First Ladies Library will offer the first narrative about the experiences of the fourteen First Ladies who have preceded Michelle Obama in visiting China, unfolding chronologically to also provide a sense of developing US-Chinese relations over a century and a half and how what was once an entirely mysterious culture of what was so long referred to by westerners as the “Orient” has evolved into a 21st century society.

As First Lady Michelle Obama prepares to make her first trip to China, she is first visiting the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, a Chinese-immersion, International Baccalaureate, elementary school in Washington, DC. After hearing a report from sixth-grade students about their own trip to China last year, she will make informal remarks encouraging students all across the United States to follow the progress of her visit there, and then listen to the school’s pre-kindergarten students as they make conversation with her in the Chinese language they have thus far learned.

The Washington Yu Ying School was named to remember one by the same name which was created for girls in Beijing 103 years ago by Tzen-Kuei Wang, an aide to the Dowager Empress, the first in that country to reform teaching from a tutorial system to the classroom method. Such a shift towards a more western model, however, was not always welcomed by China’s changing leadership.

In the nearly eighty-year period covered by the first article in this series, as First Ladies from Julia Grant to Edith Wilson went to China, and then Eleanor Roosevelt was prevented from visiting, that nation underwent enormous political and cultural change, shifting from an ancient dynastic rule to one of hard-rule communism, wrought by the 1949 revolution. In 1966, the leader of that revolution, Mao Zedong was then serving as the Communist Party Chairman and imposed harsh edicts intended to purge Chinese society of not merely western capitalist influence but also traditional customs of his own nation. It was known as the Cultural Revolution.

Throughout the two decades which followed, events during the trips to China by three incumbent America First Ladies and two former First Ladies reflected the growing change in Chinese society and its increasingly open relationship with the U.S. And while there was never any change in the way the name of its capital was pronounced in Chinese, in English “Peking” was increasingly spelled as “Beijing,” perhaps as a distinction between the old and new China.

In 1972, just six years after the Cultural Revolution, not just the people of China and the United States but the entire world were stunned as a new era suddenly seemed to be dawning when it was learned that Chairman Mao was welcoming the first visit to his nation by an American President and his wife, Richard and Pat Nixon.

Pat Nixon, 1972, 1976

Pat Nixon warmly engages with a young Chinese schoolgirl. (AP)

Pat Nixon warmly engages with a young Chinese schoolgirl. (AP)

Perhaps no American First Lady is better remembered for her visit to China than is Pat Nixon.

She is the first among the seven most recent First Ladies who have done so, and the first to make the journey as an incumbent President’s spouse and the first to visit it at any point in their lives when it was a communist nation, following its 1949 revolution.

Beyond these facts, however, this First Lady’s visible activities in the People’s Republic of China during the February 21 to February 28, 1972 presidential trip there, were vital to the media and the public realization of the unprecedented visit’s monumental significance.

Too, for a presidential spouse who never encouraged publicity for herself during an Administration embattled by a war and political scandals, Pat Nixon’s seven days in China proved to be a turning point for her personally, a moment when the world focused its attention and then acclaimed her.

The first President and First Lady to set foot in communist China, Pat Nixon made her first appearance in the bright red coat that became her trademark during her week there.(RNPL)

The first President and First Lady to set foot in communist China, Pat Nixon made her first appearance in the bright red coat that became her trademark during her week there.(RNPL)

Long before the historic trip to this communist land by a famously anti-communist was publicly divulged, Mrs. Nixon kept fully apprised of the secret negotiating which occurred before it was finalized. In the last planning stages, Chinese leader Chou En-lai suggested to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “Bring Mrs. Nixon.”

In preparation, Pat Nixon read State Department dossiers on the communist party leadership and studied its hierarchal power structure, so she could remain always aware of who asked her what and tailor what she said in response to them. She learned several key phrases in spoken Chinese.

She also familiarized herself with the ubiquitous “little red book” of China, a collection of remarks entitled Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong, requisite reading for every Chinese citizen intended to rigorously inculcate them on communist principals.

The Nixons welcomed in Beijing. (RNPL)

The Nixons welcomed in Beijing. (RNPL)

With her preparation, Pat Nixon was better able to understand the thinking of those she encountered and who were her constant guides and companions around China. Whenever Maoist rhetoric was spewed at her, the American First Lady smilingly quipped to simultaneously acknowledge but end the lecturing: “Oh yes, I am acquainted with his philosophy.” She cautiously avoided efforts to debate her on the greater virtues of socialism versus democracy without praising her own nation or denigrating theirs.

All she would concede was that Chinese communism seemed to offer “a well-rounded education.” The only hint of her view on communism was a subtle remark that she preferred the historical buildings instead of the monolithic ones constructed since the Cultural Revolution.

Mrs. Nixon walking through the streets of Beijing. (RNPL)

Mrs. Nixon walking through the streets of Beijing. (RNPL)

From the moment the doors to Air Force One swung open upon landing in Beijing, and Pat Nixon stepped out wearing a winter coat in an eye-popping red color that was the same shade as the Chinese flag, there was no missing her presence anywhere on the trip; in that color, she stood out not only from President Nixon and other US state department officials, but also the thousands of everyday Chinese citizens and officials who uniformly wore drab navy unisex clothes.

In making her numerous appearances for all but one day of her week in China, Pat Nixon also made a point of wearing the same red cloth coat. Not only could she not be ignored, but it seemed to emphasize an important subliminal message: here was the wife of the wealthy, capitalist world leader in appearing in the same clothes on numerous consecutive days and, furthermore, in the emblem color of China, a tacit nod of respect.

During her husband's tenure as Vice President, Pat Nixon visited the Soviet Union and joined in traditional folk dancing. (National Geographic)

During her husband’s tenure as Vice President, Pat Nixon visited the Soviet Union and joined in traditional folk dancing. (National Geographic)

For eight years, from 1953 to 1961, Pat Nixon had traveled the world in her role as vice president’s spouse, pioneering what is now the fairly routine pattern of American Presidents’ spouses on foreign trips: she maintained a separate public schedule from her husband, not resting in palaces and cruising on royal yachts but visiting hospitals, schools, markets and other venues where average citizens lived and worked, focusing spontaneously on a few individuals in each place. She called it her “personal diplomacy.”

The US FIrst Lady sampling Chinese food with chopsticks. (RNPL)

The US FIrst Lady sampling Chinese food with chopsticks. (RNPL)

Since President Nixon spent the majority of his time in China behind closed door in meetings, the large international media contingent that was covering the visit ended up following Pat Nixon: she talked with workers at a glass factory, watched physicians perform acupuncture at a free clinic, listened to grade-school children recite their lessons in a schoolroom, and even sampled the delicacy of goldfish in a restaurant kitchen.

Through the media, however, the general public which watched the television coverage of Mrs. Nixon learned as much about her as a person as it did on the communist Chinese as people. Countering the misperceptions of her as a woman who rose from privilege, she delighted peasants at the Evergreen People’s Commune when, as she pet a pig behind the ear, told of how she had labored as a working-class child and teenager on her father’s farm in southern California and managed to find time to raise a prize-winning pig.

Pat Nixon takes to the panda bear at the Peking Zoo. (RNPL)

Pat Nixon takes to the panda bear at the Peking Zoo. (RNPL)

Among her scheduled activities in China, First Lady Michelle Obama will visit the Chinese panda bears in Chengdu, but American interest in the rare species was prompted by Mrs. Nixon’s intense curiosity when she first set eyes on some during her tour of Peking Zoo.

Pat Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai. (Corbis)

Pat Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai. (Corbis)

Later at dinner, she animatedly went on about the pandas to Chou En-lai.

Some sources claim it was either her enthusiasm for the unique Chinese pandas or her pointing to a pack of his cigarettes which had a picture of a panda on it which led him to make an outright gift to Mrs. Nixon of two panda bears, which she promptly accepted and donated to the people of the United States.

A special habitat pen was created for them at the National Zoo in Washington, and Mrs. Nixon presided over the ceremony in which the panda bear habitat was officially opened to the public.

Pat and Richard Nixon attend a ballet with Jiang Jing during their second visit to China in 1976. (Corbis)

Pat and Richard Nixon attend a ballet with Jiang Jing during their second visit to China in 1976. (Corbis)

Surprisingly flirtatious, Chou En-Lai made no secret of his affection for Mrs. Nixon. Less receptive was the notorious “First Lady of China,” the formidable Jiang Jing, Mao’s wife who possessed a growing degree of power during the Cultural Revolution.

Controlling all aspects of national culture so that it aligned with Maoist doctrine, from art to music to theater, she and Mrs. Nixon met only once, when the American President and his wife attended a ballet called The Red Detachment of Women, which she had written, cast, produced and directed.

Pat Nixon in a Chinese classroom. (Life)

Pat Nixon in a Chinese classroom. (Life)

What Pat Nixon could not know at the time was that this humorless doctrinal communist leader was secretly an avid fan of Gone with the Wind.

As the newspaper Chicago Today put it:

…the President talked business and politics with Chinese leaders while his wife did the important work. Mrs. Nixon’s presence in Peking and her unfailingly warm, gracious conduct are accomplishing something that official discussions, important as they are, cannot do.  She is establishing direct and friendly contact with the Chinese people on a normal human level; the level where children and families and food and service and health are the most important things.”

Pat Nixon looking over one of the two panda bears given to the U.S. as a gift from China. (US-China Institute)

Pat Nixon looking over one of the two panda bears given to the U.S. as a gift from China. (US-China Institute)

Another newspaper said that despite President Nixon’s resulting pact with China to not dominate any Asian Pacific nation, the American people had remained “much misunderstood and denounced by enemy countries as being war-minded imperialists,” but that Pat Nixon had singularly helped dispel that notion in China.

Tricia Nixon posed with performers portraying her parents in the modern opera Nixon in China. (Metropolitan Opera).

Tricia Nixon posed with performers portraying her parents in the modern opera Nixon in China. (Metropolitan Opera).

Although Richard Nixon would make numerous return trips to China, as a former President, Pat Nixon only accompanied him back there once, in February 1976.

During that visit, Mao was ailing badly and appointed “the First Lady of China” to this time take the central political role over other leaders to serve as escort.

Pat Nixon's only day in China without her red coat. (RNPL)

Pat Nixon’s only day in China without her red coat. (RNPL)

Pat Nixon would again employ her “personal diplomacy” in a visit to the Soviet Union shortly after the China trip, joining President Nixon. On her own, she would also visit three African nations and two South American countries.

Apart from her having the first Chinese panda bears brought to the United States, the role which Pat Nixon played during her husband’s historic visit to China lives on in perpetuity through the repeated performances of the modern opera, Nixon in China written by John Adams, with music by Philip Glass.

Betty Ford, 1972, 1975

Betty Ford (AP)

Betty Ford (AP)

In a manner entirely different from Pat Nixon, her immediate successor Betty Ford also helped to also instantly forge empathy between the Chinese and Americans when she visited China as an incumbent First Lady in December of 1975.

In June of 1972, six months after Pat Nixon first went to China, congressional spouse Betty Ford followed in her wake, joining her husband, who was then serving as House Minority Leader, on a junket there.

The only real challenge she encountered was having to politely consume the sea slugs that were served to her on more than occasion at dinners.

Betty Ford greets a child outside the Forbidden City. (GFPL)

Betty Ford greets a child outside the Forbidden City. (GFPL)

She found the Chinese people to be “much more cheerful” than Russians, who she encountered on an earlier trip to the Soviet Union. “I’m sure there was just as much surveillance,” she wrote, “but it wasn’t so obvious; you felt more at ease.” She was also startled by the control displayed among young Chinese children, and their disciplined marching to martial music.

Exploring Manchuria in the far north, Betty Ford found herself the object of curiosity, there having been no non-Chinese people to visit the region in a quarter of a century.

She also visited an all-women’s rice commune, bought Thermos bottles imprinted with the ubiquitous panda bear and, like Pat Nixon, watched a full medical operation performed with acupuncture rather than anesthesia.

Mao greets the President and Mrs. Ford and their daughter Susan. (GFPL)

Mao greets the President and Mrs. Ford and their daughter Susan. (GFPL)

While she found the red wine to be of good quality, she was perplexed by the national population’s propensity for orange soda.

During her trip to China as First Lady, where she and President Ford were also joined by their daughter Susan, Betty Ford tried to see sites she had missed on her first trip, mostly museums.

She also had the chance to meet an ailing Chairman Mao, who would die within the year. It was her visit to a ballet class at the Central May 7th College of Art in Beijing that ended up becoming the biggest news of the presidential trip.

Betty Ford learns the hand gestures of Chinese ballet at The Central College of Art ballet class. (GFPL)

Betty Ford learns the hand gestures of Chinese ballet at The Central College of Art ballet class. (GFPL)

Discovering that she had enjoyed a career in modern dance before her marriage, some of the students invited Mrs. Ford to join them in a rehearsal.

Although she found it “quite different from anything I had ever tried, particularly in the hand movements,” this American First Lady who was always game to pose or perform publicly in sometimes delicate or humorous situations her peers usually avoided, “took off my shoes and worked in my stocking feet.”

News photographs showing her in perfect professional form dancing alongside the young communist students became an international sensation.

As she recalled: “My act was hailed as having done more to cement relations between the United States and China than all the talks of diplomats. I told Jerry he could stop talking to diplomats. I’d already made the world safe for détente, but he didn’t listen.”

Betty Ford dancing with Judith Jameison of the Dance Studio of Harlem in her favorite Chinese-style gown. (Corbis)

Betty Ford dancing with Judith Jameison of the Dance Studio of Harlem in her favorite Chinese-style gown. (Corbis)

There was one other legacy resulting from Betty Ford’s two trips to China, albeit more personal to her. During her times there she found herself especially drawn to the embroidered silks she found in the marketplaces.

She had several gowns made for herself in a Chinese style, using the mandarin collar so often that it became something of a signature style for her.

Not only did she often wear these to formal White House functions, but one example of these in a mint green is now the gown which represents her in the Smithsonian Institution’s famous First Lady collection of clothing displayed to the public.

Lady Bird Johnson, 1981

Lady Bird Johnson, 1981. (LBJL)

Mrs. Johnson, 1981. (LBJL)

Although she visited Hong Kong at the time her husband was serving as Vice President of the United States, it was not until June of 1981 Lady Bird Johnson was able to explore China.

Making the visit there in her capacity as a trustee of the National Geographic Society, the former First Lady specifically went to the nation in search of active archeological sites.

Little information is readily available about which specific sites she visited beyond Beijing.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1982

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (AP)

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (AP)

In the immediate years following President Kennedy’s assassination, his widow worked assiduously in planning his presidential library and museum, her strong opinion in support of then-relatively unknown Chinese-born I.M. Pei as the designated architect.

Two years after Pei’s inspiring JFK Presidential Library and Museum was dedicated, he returned a favor to his friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, by inviting her to visit China with him.

Jackie Onassis reviewing architectural plans with I.M. Pei in a Chinese restaurant. (Getty)

Some years before her China trip, Jackie Onassis reviewing architectural plans with I.M. Pei in a Chinese restaurant. (Getty)

The primary event of the October 1982 trip was the opening of the new Fragrant Hill Hotel, north of Beijing, which Pei had been commissioned to design by the communist Chinese government.

Jackie Onassis experienced a China in the midst of change, archaic aspects of life there showing growing pains as element of luxury associated with capitalism were being haltingly introduced.

From Hong Kong, she and the Pei party of guests visited Canton, Kwelin, Soochow, Hangchow, Xian, Shanghai and Beijing.

They would get about on modern trains with massive picture windows dreamily overlooking ancient landscapes to a droning motor bus with a broken toilet, to limousines retooled out of old Soviet Union Zis cars.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis listens to her personal tour guide through Beijing's Forbidden City, October 17, 1982. (Washington Star Collection)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis listens to her personal tour guide through Beijing’s Forbidden City, October 17, 1982. (Argenta)

The former First Lady found herself in some questionable accommodations that ranged from crumbling cottages to unkempt hotel suites.

The legendary politeness of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was, however, most tested when one day she was simply met at the hotel by officials who, as she later joked, “kidnapped” her.

The promise had been that she would be shown “special places” that non-Chinese visitors were never permitted to visit.

No matter how she resisted their offers, they insisted until finally one day a tank-like limousine awaited her at her hotel lobby and Chinese officials essentially ambushed and, as she put it “kidnapped” her for an entire day.

Even though she no longer had the protection of U.S. Secret Service agents as a presidential widow (due to her 1968 remarriage), Jackie Onassis was famous for spontaneously going on adventures.

Hustled into a retooled Zis limousine, she was led on an exhausting all-day tour of sites by a Communist party official bent on didactically inculcating her with visual proof of socialist superiority of citizen services. She soon noticed that the jitney bus of her friends were often arriving at these sites as she was leaving and waved forlornly from behind the window of her car at them, longing to be with them rather than alone.

Ultimately, Jackie Onassis saw no more than her friends had. Once the limo pulled into the entry drive of her hotel and its engine was off, the former First Lady bolted from the “clutches of my kidnappers” as she wrote a friend to join her friends for a cocktail at day’s end.

The trip also held great high points.

Mrs. Onassis was permitted to walk down in the lower exhibition space where Xian’s six-thousand historic life-size terra cotta warrior figures were on display.

It was the calm voyage and astounding views of her trip down the Li River which left the greatest impression on the former First Lady and the other guests of I.M. Pei.

The unusual mountain range Jackie Onassis saw on her Li River cruise and an 8th century painting they inspired. (china.org and chinaodyssestour.com)

The unusual mountain range Jackie Onassis saw on her Li River cruise and an 8th century painting they inspired. (china.org and chinaodyssestour.com)

As they proceeded deeper into the valley, there before their very eyes were the hairpin-shaped mountains familiar to them in ancient Chinese paintings and drawings. To ensure a peaceful experience, the noisy motor of their vessel was turned off and was instead pulled by a tugboat.

Atrium of the Fragrant Hill Hotel, north of Beijing, designed by JFK Library and Museum architect I.M. Pei, who invited former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to make her first trip to China and attend the hotel opening.

Atrium of  Fragrant Hill Hotel.

Until seeing these themselves, they had assumed the old pictures had exaggerated the bulbous mountains. A fellow guest recalled that, with her fantastical imagination, Jackie Onassis felt that she had indeed been transported back in time to the period the paintings had been done, the 8th century.

Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving recalled, “There were other tourists on the boat, and one woman would say to another, ‘That’s Jackie!’ Even in A.D. 800 China on the Li River, they knew Jackie!”

Hawk Moore was posing at the Forbidden City just as Jackie Onassis, in the white coat at right in background, was there. It is one of the few known images of her in China. (cnac.og photo by Hawk Moore)

Hawk Moore posed  at the Forbidden City just as Jackie Onassis ( in white coat over his left shoulder) was there. It is one of the few known images of her in China. (cnac.org photo by Hawk Moore)

In fact, among the very few known images of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in China was snapped inadvertently: as American Hawk Moore posed in front of the Forbidden City entrance, there was the famous former First Lady in the background, the sole figure in a white coat among a sea of curious Chinese citizens in green, black and blue.

The very elegance of Pei’s modern hotel with its one-hundred foot atrium, although commissioned by the communist leadership was resented by party workers employed in constructing the building to completion.

The hotel rooms occupied by the former First Lady and Pei’s other guests had non-functioning restrooms and in the lobby modern abstract canvases commissioned by the architect were deliberately damaged.

Jackie Onassis and Mark Riboud who she later signed up to do a book for her as editor, Capitol of Heaven with photos of the Chinese mountains. (pinterest

Jackie Onassis and Mark Riboud who she later signed up to do a book for her as editor, Capitol of Heaven with photos of the Chinese mountains. (pinterest)

Despite all she had been through, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis refused to believe Hoving who insisted these were acts of sabotage. “She could never understand that people could have that kind of dedicated, blind evil.”

The world’s most famous woman at the time, recognizable by simply her face, Jackie Kennedy Onassis may still have had the last laugh.

While in China, she learned that her friend, French photographer Mark Riboud would be photographing the University of Beijing and asked to join him. He agreed.

“I introduced her as my assistant. She took notes, I took pictures. For an entire day, among students at the cafeteria and in dormitories, with professors and even the rector, she went completely unrecognized. This greatly delighted her,” he recalled.

Nancy Reagan, 1984

Nancy Reagan with Xi'an terra cotta figures.(RRPL)

Nancy Reagan with Xi’an terra cotta figures.(RRPL)

During her six days in China, from April 26 to May 1, 1984, Mrs. Reagan’s public appearances were made with the President.

These included a climb up the Great Wall, watching a Rainbow Bridge Township Kindergarten class performance in Shanghai, a tour of historic sites like the historic terra cotta figures in Xi’an, and meeting with Chairman Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Mrs. Reagan made an especially strong impression on Deng, so much so that before she left, he flirtatiously encouraged her to return to China, “without your husband.”

To honor China's President  Li Xiannian at the July 1985 state dinner honoring him, Nancy Reagan wore the Chinese gown given to her as a gift when she visited China. (RRPL)

To honor China’s President Li Xiannian at the July 1985 state dinner honoring him, Nancy Reagan wore the Chinese gown given to her as a gift when she visited China. (RRPL)

Among the state gifts which the Chinese presented to the President and First Lady of the United States was an unusually personal one.

Created in the color that was both emblematic of the People’s Republic of China and her own well-known favorite shade of “Reagan Red,” was a formal gown designed in a traditional Chinese style, made of embroidered silk.

When Chinese President Xiannian Li and his wife were honored at the White House  a year later, the First Lady wore the gown their government had given her, in a nod of respect.

And President Li told her that Chairman Deng had instructed him to remind Mrs. Reagan that she must return alone to see him in Beijing, “without your husband.”

It was a flattering, if unconventional, sign of just how much closer relations between the two nations had become.

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan looking at the Great Wall in China, April 29, 1984.  (RRPL)

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan looking at the Great Wall in China, April 29, 1984. (RRPL)

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This houseboat at the turn-of-the-20th-century would have been a familiar sight to First Ladies Grant, Taft, Roosevelt, Hoover and Wilson when they visited China.  (Smithsonian Institution)

This houseboat at the turn-of-the-20th-century would have been a familiar sight to Julia Grant, Nellie Taft, Edith Roosevelt, Lou Hoover and Edith Wilson when they visited China. (Smithsonian Institution)

With the White House announcement that First Lady Michelle Obama will be in China on a solo international trip from March 20 to March 26, her first to that nation, numerous media outlets have contacted the National First Ladies Library to place her historic journey within an historical context.

This popular incumbent First Lady’s forthcoming visit to Asia’s largest country will find her in Beijing for four days, Xi’an for one day, and Chengdu for two days.

In the last century and a half, fourteen American First Ladies have visited China. Some went before their husbands became Presidents of the United States, others went there while they were incumbent First Ladies and still others made their first journey to the vast nation only after leaving the White House. Several made numerous trips to China before, during or after their tenure as presidential spouses. It covers a period of tremendous change within China, as it went from a nation ruled by dynastic families, still feudal in nature, to a republic during which conflict immediately arose between those seeking to transform into into a socialist state and those favoring a more democratic one.

In this multi-part series, the National First Ladies Library will offer the first narrative about the experiences of these fourteen women in China. Unfolding chronologically, it  provides a sense of developing US-Chinese relations over a century and a half and how what was once an entirely mysterious culture, so long referred to by westerners as the “Orient”, has evolved into a 21st century society.

Julia Grant, 1879

Former First Lady Julia Grant was the first to go to China. (LC)

Former First Lady Julia Grant was the first to go to China. (LC)

It was while making her unprecedented world tour with her husband, former President Ulysses S. Grant that Julia Grant became the first (former) First Lady to visit China.

The Grants  landed in England on May 28, 1877 and from there traveled the globe, treated as touring American monarchs in the British Isles, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Russia, Austria, and Germany, Burma, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Nearly a year into their travels, they arrived in China on the night of May 5, 1879 when they first landed in Canton. The entire population was said to have been ordered out to greet the “American King and Queen.”

In both closed carriages on land or aboard the U.S. ship Ashuelot by water, the Grants made stops in Hong Kong, Macao, Woosung, Shangkai, Pei-ho and Chefoo.

Julia Grant became the first of numerous other First Ladies to marvel at what she called the “great Chinese wall,” at the base of which she picked up pebbles and shells as souvenirs, as well as having the record of her visit discreetly painted on the wall.

The Grants in Egypt. (LC)

The Grants in Egypt. (LC)

Along the way, they were feted with endless ceremonies, cannon salutes, welcoming banners, flying flags, thousands of swaying, lit paper lanterns, torchlight parades, and overwhelming firework displays.

This fancy American matriarch was a bit of a novelty for the Chinese. While aboard a rustic flatboat, she glanced into her mirror and noticed three members peering into an open porthole window as she was methodically dressing in her many layers of clothing and decorating her extravagant hairstyle.

Never a teetotaler, Julia Grant admitted that her flatboat junket was made all the merrier by bottles of claret wine.

In Canton, there was so much formal ceremony and so many officials she was expected to meet, the former First Lady was “greatly disappointed….as I…did not have an opportunity to see anything of the city.” Still, she proudly recorded, she did “get one afternoon for shopping.” The highly acquisitive Mrs. Grant managed to select, “at first sight,” jade pieces, enamel boxes, embroidered silks and “best of all,” two massive blue cloisonné vases.

Julia Grant’s most interesting exposure to the Chinese culture was in Tientsin. Although permitted to take tea with the legendary Viceroy Li Hung-Chang aboard ship, she was otherwise sequestered with women.

In light of her status, however, the former First Lady was honored at a special luncheon hosted by the Viceroy’s wife, an unprecedented gesture, and it proved to be the first time that she was even seen by the six other women guests.

Former President and First Lady Ulysses and Julia Grant arriving to meet Siam's King Chulalongkorn at his Palace.

Former President and First Lady Ulysses and Julia Grant arriving to meet Siam’s King Chulalongkorn at his Palace.

Perceived as still holding some form of inherent power, Julia Grant was conveyed through the streets of Tientsin as a potentate, seated on a chair which was raised on a platform and carried by four men, veiled from public sight by a yellow silk curtain.

With the grand flourish of trumpets, her chair was placed on the stone vestibule and the curtains drawn, where Lady Li helped her rise and proceed into the court dining room.

There was a mutual fascination between Julia Grant and Lady Li when it came to clothing.

For the first time in her life, Mrs. Grant saw a woman in a pair of pants, the pair worn by Lady Li being made of brown velvet brocade over which she wore a pearl and jade-encrusted tunic. Julia Grant removed her sizable collection of jewelry, a stickpin, earrings, necklace, rings and brooch and handed them over to the Viceroy’s wife who was curious to examine the items closely.

The meal was a mix of eastern and western custom, the food served on French china accompanied by Chinese chopsticks.

When Mrs. Grant and the other American women proved unable to eat much with them, a sterling silver service from England was brought out. Each course alternated between European and Chinese foods but, Mrs. Grant recalled, “out of complement to my hostess, I partook only of the Chinese courses.”

Julia Grant, as a woman, was barred from being received with her husband by Prince Kung, the regent, but she didn't like what he had to say about her granddaughter. (LC)

Julia Grant, as a woman, was barred from being received with her husband by Prince Kung, the regent, but she didn’t like what he had to say about her granddaughter. (LC)

Noticing how the Chinese women ate nuts in between courses, Julia Grant took to the habit and introduced it in the United States at dinners she would thereafter host.

After the meal, Lady Li staged a Chinese pantomime performance for her guests. So curious about how it was all proceeding, the Viceroy himself was spotted peering into the room – until noticed, when he vanished from the sight of the women.

The high and wide walls of the Forbidden City left Julia Grant feeling “safe indeed if on the inside,” unlike the dusty, unpaved streets outside of it. In Peking, she was not invited with her husband to meet the young Prince Kung or the Prince Regent.

When she learned that the Prince Regent had quipped to her son “what a pity” that he had only a daughter and not a son, Mrs. Grant retorted with a bit of American indignation over gender inequality: “[W]e do not agree with Prince Kung; we are very proud of our little girlie.”

Lou Hoover, 1899

Lou Hoover on her wedding day. She sailed for China the next day. (HHPL)

Lou Hoover on her wedding day. She sailed for China the next day. (HHPL)

On February 11, 1899, the day after Lou Henry Hoover was married, the newlyweds set sail from California for China, where her mining engineer groom Herbert Hoover would be working.

Upon settling into a home in Tientsin, she began an intensive study of her imminent life in the new country – the culture, the regional differences, and the history, as well as the language. Even learning several different Chinese dialects, Lou Hoover spoke Chinese more easily than her husband and often translated materials for him.

Porcelain vases purchased by Lou Hoover in China. (HHPL)

Porcelain vases purchased by Lou Hoover in China. (HHPL)

She also began making trips around the country, not only to Peking but some of the interior provinces.

Her interest in Chinese porcelains prompted a lifelong passion for collecting samples of various period porcelains, especially of the Ming and K’ang periods.

One year into their residency in Tientsin, in June of 1900, the Boxer Rebellion broke out.

This was a famous series of violent attacks on and murder of foreigners in a portion of the port city where they predominantly resided by bands of native Chinese who resented the growing foreign influences on Chinese society.

Lou Hoover inspecting one of the cannons at a Chinese fort that shelled the community of Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion, 1900.

Lou Hoover inspecting one of the cannons at a Chinese fort that shelled the community of Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion, 1900. (HHPL)

Throughout the crisis, Lou Hoover displayed a brave calm, helping build protective barricades, caring for those wounded by gunshots, and assuming management of a small local cow herd to ensure fresh dairy products for those living within the protected area.

Eventually troops from the U.S., England, France and Russia arrived and patrolled the foreign-resident region along with civilians, like Lou Hoover who worked guard duty.

Lou Hoover in front of the family home in Tienstin. (HHPL)

Lou Hoover in front of the family home in Tientsin. (HHPL)

Before, during and after the Boxer Rebellion, Lou Hoover made her way around China by bicycle, but during the conflict she also learned to fearlessly use a pistol as a means of self-protection.

Despite their home being riddled with bullets and shells, the Hoovers remained unharmed.

Although Lou Hoover never completed the book she’d begun about living in China, in 1909 she did author a definitive article on Tzu Hsi, the Dowager Empress of China.

Nellie Taft, 1901

A young Nellie Taft. (LC)

A young Nellie Taft. (LC)

With more of a  taste for fearless adventure than most First Ladies, and a wanderlust which never abandoned her, Nellie Taft made it her business to get into China and explore alone, leaving her children with her husband, then in Manila serving as the American governor-general of the recently-colonized Philippine Islands.

The atrocities of guerrilla fighters against U.S. military forces had upset the delicate peace that had begun to settle on the islands and this, along with the intense heat had set her on edge.

“I would have to get out of the Philippine Islands or suffer a nervous breakdown,” she later wrote, “I agreed that it would be well for me to ‘run up to China.’”

The fact that she was simply going to “run up to China” in October of 1901, not long after the Boxer Rebellion had been quelled, was not even to stop her, believing that the “alarums of war” meant she was “likely to see more of China ‘from the inside’” than had she gone “during a period of complete calm.”

A year earlier, upon her initial arrival in Asian waters, Nellie Taft was talked out of her determination to explore Shangkai because the Boxer Rebellion was then raging, and she was able only to stop briefly in Hong Kong, before heading on to Manila.

Nellie Taft with her son Charlie, crossing the Pacific Ocean headed for Asia. (Taft National Historic Site)

Nellie Taft with her son Charlie, crossing the Pacific Ocean headed for Asia. (Taft National Historic Site)

Mrs. Taft sailed into Shanghai and proceeded on to Peking. Aboard the S.S. Hamburg, she delighted in drinking the “best beer on draught that I have tasted since leaving Germany.”

When she arrived at the Temple of Heaven, Nellie Taft witnessed this famous place of meditation for generations of Chinese emperors still being used as barracks for U.S. troops who had landed in China to help protect American citizens during the Boxer Rebellion.

Since Tzu Hsi and her retinue, having retreated from the Forbidden City during the fighting, was about to return to her palace, Mrs. Taft was able to look briefly through some of the royal residences.

Although she found the streets of Peking to be narrow and pungent, and a hotel employee attempted to steal her watch, she wrote of Peking with allure, “This place is very much out of the world.”

An 1898 postcard of the Temple of Heaven. (wikipedia)

An 1898 postcard of the Temple of Heaven. (wikipedia)

For this future First Lady, however, failing to closely inspect ancient historic sites during her “very busy days sightseeing” was more than compensated for by the chance to buy “oriental artifacts” at great prices.

“Then there were wonderful tales of valuable ‘loot,’” she admitted. “Not necessarily illegitimate loot, but curious and art treasures in the hands of Chinese themselves who were selling things at ridiculously low figures and, sometimes, with a fascinating air of great mystery. There is some allurement in the idea of bargaining for priceless porcelains, ivories, silks and Russian sables behind closed and double-locked doors, in the dark depths of some wretched Chinese hovel.”

Nellie Taft's embroidered chinese robe in the Manchu style. (Smithsonian)

Nellie Taft’s embroidered chinese robe in the Manchu style. (Smithsonian)

Besides her purchases of numerous bolts of embroidered silks, Nellie Taft was pleased to be gifted with a three-foot brass Buddha and a blue porcelain dog from American officials.

She returned to Shangkai, continuing to tour and shop. And rarely failing to note the appearance of the opposite sex of nations she visited, Mrs. Taft declared northern Chinese men to be, “by the way, stunning looking men.”

Instead of remaining in Shangkai for the steamer that would return her to the Philippines, Nellie Taft decided to use the time for a houseboat excursion down the Yangtze River. Not only did she find the local residents on the shore hostile in their stares at her, but she learned that the clay mounds which her vessel often shored upon were graves.

Edith Roosevelt, 1924, 1932

Former First Lady Edith Roosevelt in 1932, the year she returned to China. (NFLL)

Former First Lady Edith Roosevelt in 1932, the year she returned to China. (NFLL)

Edith Roosevelt visited China as part of a multi-nation tour she made in February 1924, proceeding there from California to Hawaii, and afterwards visiting Japan.

Accompanied by her adult son Kermit, she entered a nation which was functioning under a new anti-royalist republic.

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt was considerably uncomfortable in a land where a societal fracture was occuring between nationalist forces and those seeking to enforce a communist form of control without any freedom of religious choice over the vast and varied population of China.

Edith Roosevelt during one of her international trips, this time in Easter Europe. (Cleared for Strange Ports, Roosevelt)

Edith Roosevelt during one of her international trips, this time in Easter Europe. (Cleared for Strange Ports, Roosevelt)

In Peking, she made the rounds of the typical western tourists, from the Forbidden City, to the Summer Palace of the legendary Empress H’sui, the latter site prompting her memory of the rich and ornate tapestries, fabrics, scrolls and other gifts the monarch had sent her in the White House.

She was unable to shake a sense of vanishing hope as she looked over ancient but now rarely utilized temples of different Eastern religious sects once so central to Chinese life. “The great spaces of the Temple of Heaven still mark the searching for spiritual light which no longer exists in China.”

Inside the Temple of Heaven. (Temple of Heaven website, China)

Inside the Temple of Heaven. (Temple of Heaven website, China)

Some nine years later, Edith Roosevelt made a second but far briefer visit to China in the last days of December, 1932. President Herbert Hoover had appointed her son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. as Governor of the Philippine Islands.

Nearly two months earlier, however, Hoover had been defeated for re-election by the husband of the former First Lady’s niece-by-marriage, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Determined to visit the Philippines as her late husband had always hoped to do, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt first stopped in Shanghai, China before proceeding on to Manila.

Alice to the Palace. The American Princess was carried in a gold vessel to encounter the Chinese Empress. (LC)

Alice to the Palace. The American Princess was carried in a gold vessel to encounter the Chinese Empress. (LC)

While in Shanghai, the former First Lady turned down many invitations to private dinners and receptions from both Chinese and foreign political figures but at the last minute changed her mind and accepted one from Mr. and Mrs. Sun Fo, the son and daughter-in-law of the late “Father of the Chinese Republic” Sun Yat-sen.

Alice Roosevelt with Manchu. (LC)

Alice Roosevelt with Manchu. (LC)

Of course, Edith Roosevelt’s famous stepdaughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth had been the first in the family to tour through China.

In her heyday as “Princess Alice” this Presidential daughter had not only met the old Dowager Empress during her tour of several Asian nations, but had not at all been  intimidated by her.

When this First Daughter married in the White House in 1906, the Empress sent her crates full of lavish, exquisite gifts, from bolts of embroidered silk cloth to porcelain urns to lacquered black wood chests to enameled boxes to multiple pieces of carved jade and ivory jewelery.

The greatest gift from the Chinese Empress which Miss Roosevelt long after remembered, however, was not an object but a living being. It was a little Pekingese dog which the First Daughter named Manchu.

Edith Wilson, 1929

Edith Wilson with a niece, sailing for Europe two years after she visited China. (UPI)

Edith Wilson with a niece, sailing for Europe two years after she visited China. (UPI)

“Pekin[g] is the most fascinating city I have ever seen,” wrote former First Lady Edith Wilson to her brother Randolph during her stay there in June of 1929. Her visit to China was part of a multi-nation voyage she made with a cousin who was working on the rebuilding of a Japanese hospital he helped establish. Landing at Shanghai, she and her party proceeded to Peking by train.

Ensconced in a large corner hotel suite, she had a breathtaking view of the blue-tiled roofs of the Forbidden City’s buildings which entranced her.

Edith Wilson, late 1920s. (ebay)

Edith Wilson, late 1920s. (ebay)

Much of her time was spent being feted as the widow of the man who had proposed the League of Nations, and she was the center of attention at nearly two dozen feasts of twenty-course meals hosted by diplomats and wealthy Chinese business and social leaders.

While game to try all types of exotic foods, some of it made her ill. Rallying to full strength, she made acute observations in her letters about the radical difference between the squalor of the impoverished majority and the luxuries afforded the elite class.

From Peking, Edith Wilson proceeded to Mukden, Manchuria where her world voyage would continue, her next port-of-call being Toyko.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States and Song Meiling of the Republic of China at the White House. (FDRL)

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States and Song Meiling of the Republic of China at the White House. (FDRL)

If there is any First Lady that might have been expected to visit China, it would be Eleanor Roosevelt. During World War II, she became the first incumbent First Lady to make overseas trips, and do so without the President, travelling by air and sea to the British Isles, the Caribbean and the Pacific, as a representative of the Red Cross. As a former First Lady, both in her official capacity as a representative of the United Nations and as a private citizen, she was at home around the globe, visiting nations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America, Eastern and Western Europe.

With the Chinese Communist Revolution leader Mao Zedong establishing the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, however, and the retreat of nearly 3 million nationalist Chinese with their leader Chiang Kai-shek to the island of Taiwan, however, the United States Department of State placed a firm ban on any travel to China by American citizens.

 

Pearl Buck receiving a check from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for the China Relief Legion. (National Geographic)

Author Pearl Buck receiving a check from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for the China Relief Legion. (National Geographic)

In 1957, her friend, New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff whose newspaper carried Mrs. Roosevelt’s daily column, suggested an enticing assignment to the former First Lady: “How would you like to go to Red China for us?”

Eleanor Roosevelt was eager to make the trip, but the State Department, then under the Republican Eisenhower Administration, refused to change its policy, adding that there was no way for the American government to ensure her safety there.

Mao and his party leaders were also especially hostile to Eleanor Roosevelt. Since her days as First Lady, she had been a consistent supporter of the anti-communist nationalists and in that role, she had not only befriended but welcomed its leader’s wife, the overtly political Madame Chiang Kai-shek as an overnight White House guest with much publicity and fanfare.

Thus, China remained one of the few important nations never visited by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt's newspaper column regarding her unrequited wish to visit China. (FBI)

Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper column regarding her unrequited wish to visit China. (FBI)

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The future First Lady Nancy Davis [Reagan] posing for a Hollywood publicity still. (RRPL)

The future First Lady Nancy Davis [Reagan] posing for a Hollywood publicity still. (RRPL)

The broadcast of the annual Academy Awards for Motion Pictures this coming Sunday, March 2, 2014, offers an opportunity to consider an often neglected period in the career of one of history’s most important First Ladies, Nancy Reagan.

Edie Luckett, Nancy Reagan's mother, during her theatrical career (Make-Believe, Leamer)

Edie Luckett, Nancy Reagan’s mother, during her theatrical career (Make-Believe, Leamer)

Born far from the glamorous hills of Hollywood with which she would come to be so closely associated in the working-class neighborhood of Flushing, Queens in New York City, this First Lady’s legals born as Anne Frances Robbins on July 5, 1921.

Nancy Reagan might well have been born in a theatrical trunk, however, given the nature of her mother’s active professional life as a theatrical actress.

Following her separation from Nancy’s birth father Kenneth Robbins, Edith Luckett returned to the theatrical profession which had gainfully employed many of her own family in the late 19th century in the Washington, D.C. area.

Edie counted many friends who went on to become legendary movie actors like Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert, who then took her daughter under their wings. Even Nancy Reagan’s godmother was the famously exotic actress Alla Nazimova.

Since Edie’s work meant she was not just in New York for a show’s run but often traveling the nation as part of touring companies, Nancy Reagan matured into adolescence in the care of her maternal aunt in Bethesda, Maryland.

Nancy Reagan in her high school production of a play called First Lady. (My Turn, Reagan)

Nancy Davis in her high school production of a play called First Lady. (My Turn, Reagan)

While living apart from her mother created anxiety, being so close to Washington permitted the future First Lady to at least attend the annual Easter Egg Roll contest on the White House lawn during the years that Grace Coolidge hosted the event.

Following Edith’s 1928 divorce from Ken Robbins, marriage a year later to Chicago neurosurgeon Loyal Davis and his 1935 adoption of her daughter, Nancy Davis enrolled at the Girls Latin School in the Windy City. There she performed in many of the school plays, including one called First Lady.

Upon graduation, Nancy Davis went on to attend Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts. While at Smith, Nancy Davis continued her interest in acting, involving herself in the school’s theatrical productions, including a World War II show called The Factory Follies, which referenced the famous Rosie the Riveters of the era.

Nancy Reagan in a World War II theatrical review at Smith College known as the Factory Follies (AP)

Nancy Davis (center)  in a World War II theatrical review at Smith College known as the Factory Follies (AP)

She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts.

The future First Lady was still in college, however, when she made her very first appearance on film, performing in a National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis fundraising short film short shown across the nation’s movie theaters.

In the short, Nancy Davis played a volunteer in the fight against polio, a public service effort with incumbent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt then serving as an honorary chair of the organization which her husband had helped foster.

In 11945, two years after graduating from Smith College, Nancy Davis followed her mother’s footsteps in the limelight, cast in a small role in the touring company of Ramshackle Inn, starring Edith Davis’s friend, the legendary actress Zasu Pitts.

A year later, she won a role in the Broadway musical Lute Song, which starred Mary Martin and Yul Brynner.

Nancy Davis as a stage actress, in emulation of her first theatrical co-star, comedic actress Zasu Pitts, a friend of her mother's. (Make-Believe, Leamer)

Nancy Davis as a stage actress, in emulation of her first theatrical co-star, comedic actress Zasu Pitts, a friend of her mother’s. (Make-Believe, Leamer)

With many theatrical works being filmed for the earliest television show series in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Nancy Davis appeared in another production of Ramshackle Inn for television broadcast, as well as one called Broken Dishes.

It was that latter TV appearance which led to her being flown out to the state she would always love as her home, California, bidden there to make a screen test for Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios.

Mrs. Davis told her friend Spencer Tracey about the exciting prospect and he then phoned legendary director George Cukor who, along with Howard Keel, worked with Nancy Davis in producing a screen test which resulted in a contract.

“Joining Metro,” said Nancy Reagan, “was like walking into a dream world.” On her first day at the MGM studios, she admitted to being “nervous and gullible.”

Nancy Reagan's East Side, West Side scene with Barbara Stanwyck which the young actress filmed in one take and impressed the big star. (greatoldmovies.blogspot.com)

Nancy Davis’s East Side, West Side scene with Barbara Stanwyck which the young actress filmed in one take and impressed the big star. (greatoldmovies.blogspot.com)

The new starlet was struck, recalling how she would report to work some mornings only to find she was seated in the makeup room beside stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner.

In the MGM lunchroom, she ate alongside the likes of big-name stars such as Fred Astaire, Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Gene Kelly, and Esther Williams.

Usually typecast as a youthful mother, she auditioned for many other roles in competition with leading stars of the era. With unnerving frequency, however, Debbie Reynolds got the part.

“I was beside myself with excitement. Not only was Metro the greatest studio in Hollywood,” she wrote, “but I was finally earning a regular paycheck…”

A poster advertising Nancy Reagan's appearance in the Next Voice You Hear.

A poster advertising Nancy Davis’s appearance in The Next Voice You Hear.

Over the years, Nancy Reagan would make a total of eleven feature films, appearing with bold-faced names such as Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Ray Milland, Ann Sothern, James Whitmore, Cyd Charisse, and Glenn Ford.

During her first year on contract, her first two film roles The Doctor and the Girl and East Side, West Side were as a supporting cast member.

A year later, in 1950, she was cast in two films which won her good reviews.

The New York Times called her Shadow on the Wall depiction of a child psychiatrist “beautiful and convincing” and the newspaper declared her co-starring role as an expectant mother to whom God speaks through the radio in The Next Voice You Hear to be “delightful.”

Nancy Reagan with Ray Milland in Night after Morning.

Nancy Davis with Ray Milland in Night after Morning.

Of all her movie roles, Mrs. Reagan’s own favorite was that of a fiancée whose intended husband dies, in the 1951 film Night into Morning.

Both the New York Times and Washington Post film critics detected authenticity in the emotions she conveyed on screen. The Times declared that she “knows the loneliness of grief,” while the Post critiqued that she “is splendid as the understanding widow.”

Nancy Davis outside her Hollywood bungalow apartment. (RRPL)

Nancy Davis outside her Hollywood bungalow apartment. (RRPL)

It was not then publicly known that, in real life, Nancy Davis had been engaged to a young man during her college years who had, in fact, been killed in an accident which thus altered the course of her personal life.

“I loved the work, although it was a lot less glamorous than people think,” Mrs. Reagan later candidly reflected. She also addressed why she made the choices she did during her life at the time: “I was never really a career woman but only because I hadn’t found the man I wanted to marry. I couldn’t sit around and do nothing, so I became an actress.”

The Reagans at the 1960 Screen Actors Guild annual membership meeting. (Corbis

The Reagans at the 1960 Screen Actors Guild annual membership meeting. (Corbis)

Even her initial 1949 press release upon signing with MGM had explicitly stated that a “successful happy marriage” had always been her personal priority.

Once working steadily as a professional actress, however, she had every hope she would eventually receive offers for a wider range of roles. “I think I could have gone on and made a good career for myself,” she later reflected. She was likely less compulsive about “making it big in pictures” than most of her peers at the time because within a year of arriving in Hollywood, she met the president of the Screen Actors Guild, fellow actor Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Reagan with Lew Ayres in Donovan's Brain.

Nancy Reagan with Lew Ayres in Donovan’s Brain.

After they married in March 1952, the new Mrs. Reagan went on to serve on the Screen Actors Guild board of directors for a decade. Released from her MGM contract that year, she went on to make three more feature films at other studios, the first being a science fiction movie called Donovan’s Brain.

The poster advertising Hellcats of the Navy, the feature film which co-starred the Reagans.

The poster for Hellcats of the Navy, the feature film which co-starred the Reagans.

Her role as a nurse in the 1957 film Hellcats of the Navy is perhaps her most famous because her co-star was her husband.

While the script was panned, her performance was not, one critic noting that Mrs. Reagan “does well with what she has to work with.”

Before making her last motion picture, 1958’s Crash Landing, Nancy Reagan had already begun a second phase of her Hollywood career, guest-starring in a number of television theatrical dramas including four episodes of General Electric Theater, which her husband hosted.

In one of those GE Theater episodes Nancy Reagan’s co-star was Ronald Reagan. The name of it?  A Turkey for the President.

The President and Mrs. Reagan enjoyed watching Hollywood classic firms in the White House movie theater. (RRPL)

The President and Mrs. Reagan enjoyed watching Hollywood classic films in the White House movie theater. (RRPL)

The year 1962 marked the last time Mrs. Reagan acted professionally on camera, doing episodes of four series that year, Wagon Train, 87th Precinct, and The Dick Powell Theater.

Five years later she would be serving as the Golden State’s First Lady during Reagan’s two terms as governor and within twenty years, Nancy Reagan was First Lady of the United States from 1981 to 1989.

It was not the end of offers to star in a feature film, however.

Just seven years after she left the White House, director and actor Albert Brooks approached the former First Lady to consider starring as the lead in his 1996 movie Mother.

Nancy Reagan turned down the offer. And Debbie Reynolds got the part.

The Feature Film Roles of Nancy Davis Reagan

1949 The Doctor and the Girl as Mariette Esmond 

1949 East Side, West Side as Helen Lee

1950 Shadow on the Wall as Dr. Caroline Canford

1950 The Next Voice You Hear as Mary Smith

1951 Night Into Morning as Katherine Mead

1951 It’s a Big Country as Miss Coleman

1952 Talk About a Stranger as Marge Fontaine

1952 Shadow in the Sky as Betty Hopke

1953 Donovan’s Brain as Janice Cory

1957 Hellcats of the Navy as Helen Blair

1958 Crash Landing as Helen Williams

 

Television Series Roles of Nancy Davis Reagan

1948 Portrait of Jennie, (uncredited role as girl in art gallery)

1949 The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse

- Ramshackle Inn (1949)

-Broken Dishes (1949)

1953 The Ford Television Theatre
-The First Born (1953) as Laura Glenn

1953-1954 Schlitz Playhouse
- The Pearl Street Incident (1954) …[character name unknown]

- Twenty-two Sycamore Road (1953) as Nan Gage

1955 Climax!
Bailout at 43,000 Feet as Carol Peterson

1961 Zane Grey Theater
The Long Shadow as Amy Lawson

1961 The Tall Man
Shadow of the Past as Sarah Wiley

1956-1961 General Electric Theater
That’s the Man! (1956) as Evelyn Kent

- A Turkey for the President (1958) as Native-American Indian woman

- The Playoff (1960) as Betty Anderson

- Money and the Minister (1961) as Vicky Carlisle

1962 Wagon Train 
The Sam Darland Story as Mrs. Baxter

1962 87th Precinct
King’s Ransom as Diane King

1962 The Dick Powell Theatre
Obituary for Mr. X as Flora Roberts

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By Will Swift 

 


The following is an excerpt from Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage written by Will Swift, a leading presidential biographer. Will Swift’s website is www.willswift.com You can see more about the book on:  https://www.facebook.com/PatAndDickTheNixonsAnIntimatePortraitOfAMarriage

 “All lives have triumphs and tragedies, laughter and tears, and mine has been no different. What really matters is whether, after all of that, you remain strong and a comfort to your loved ones.”

-Pat Nixon in her final interview, June 1992

 

“Pat was always stronger. Without her, I could not have done what I did.” Richard Nixon, In The Arena, 1990.

In a culture that celebrates extroverts, encourages public displays of emotion, and fosters the idea that relationships can be discarded when troubles arise, much of the American public and press still does not understand the private, spacious, and committed nature of the Nixon marriage. The Nixons’ friends saw a tender side to Dick, and a man who depended heavily on his wife. In Pat they witnessed resolve and authentic engagement. Her surprising, deft, and enduring partnership with her husband over nine political campaigns was central to his rise to power and to his enduring impact on the nation. Their union, complex and mysterious, intrigued Americans for half a century. The Nixons’ swift ascent into prominence and power was followed by repeated plunges into public humiliation, and then, each time, a tenacious recovery. Their marriage represented both the fulfillment and the failure of the American dream of self-invention and worldly success.

Twenty years after her death, Pat Nixon has not been fully appreciated for her role in helping her husband make the second half of the twentieth century into what Senator Bob Dole called “the age of Nixon.” She was the loyal and at times resentful wife of a brilliant, sentimental, and sometimes distant man she admired. She proved herself a humane and shrewd team player to a politician who considered her an essential helpmate. A modern, wise and playful woman with a wicked sense of humor, she was also fiercely partisan. Publicly silent but powerful in private, she influenced and tempered her husband, his actions, and his policies.

Pat was also astute in her assessments of people and situations in ways that facilitated her husband’s political career and diplomacy. She had “a good sixth sense about people,” according to her son-in-law Ed Cox. To powerful effect, she studied the subtleties of international politics combining her fascination about foreign cultures with an ability to open her heart to people she met on her travels. Dwight Eisenhower rated her an excellent political spouse, able to converse intelligently with any world leader. Her husband agreed. She believed, with her husband, in the American myth of mission, divinely ordained — that America should serve as an example of justice and freedom, and encourage the people of other nations to believe in their right to liberty and democracy. As a good will ambassador—representing the best of the American spirit—from the 1950s to the 1970s, she significantly advanced her husband’s career at home and elevated the status of the United States abroad, often in countries tottering between democratic and authoritarian forms of government. It is a shame that she did not have a greater opportunity to use her diplomatic gifts; like Jean Kennedy Smith, she might have made an excellent ambassador to Ireland.

When he is viewed through the lens of his marriage and the humanizing portrait of his wife, Richard Nixon, always a conundrum, takes on new dimensions At those times in his life when he was obtaining and wielding power, he could be surprisingly relaxed and engaging, as he revealed in his early married years, his middle age in New York City, and his retirement in New Jersey. His mind worked so quickly that he could often be impatient and awkward in public, but he was far more sensitive and thoughtful in private with his wife, his daughters and his friends. His wife understood the vulnerability that underlay the polarizing and vindictive aspects of his public character.

Dick knew that her positive persona was important to his bid to make his presidency successful, but he genuinely wanted her to feel valued by the American public and the press for her stellar qualities. Even when he was preoccupied with his own career and public agenda, he cared deeply about how his wife was perceived. He valued her as an asset to his administration and sought to safeguard her place in history. While his controlling behavior caused contention between his West Wing and her East Wing, he fought diligently to assist his wife in her first years in the White House and, later, to counter her negative image as a passive first lady, a “Plastic Pat.” The president and First Lady worked together to rectify harsh portrayals of their marriage: when the Nixon union was attacked as lifeless; the couple cooperated on television documentaries and in print interviews to correct portrayals of them that they felt were hurtful and inaccurate.

No one marital style predicts whether a couple will be successful over the long term. Both couples who fight frequently and those who bury their differences can survive the rigors of married life and live contentedly into old age. Pat and Dick often handled problems by avoiding them. They fought by moving apart for brief periods or by communicating through others when tensions peaked. Nonetheless, they always found a way to reconnect before their injuries led to a permanent estrangement. The last year of Watergate, for example, understandably strained the bond between the Nixons, but during their subsequent exile in California they painstakingly renewed their connection to each other, amid life-threatening illnesses, disgrace, and defeat. Many onlookers wondered whether Pat should have stayed with Dick, but her apparent contentment during their last years together suggests it was the right decision for her.

Presidential speechwriter William Safire recognized that Pat shared her husband’s “prejudices and scar tissue.” “Pat and I come from similar backgrounds,” Dick said in a 1982 interview with Good Housekeeping magazine. “We have compatibility and the same general beliefs. I married her because I loved her and admired her intelligence and her great sense of humor.” Their common underlying values allowed them to surmount a vast difference in their enthusiasm for politics, but prevented them from fully acknowledging how their view of themselves as outsiders impeded their public performance.

The Nixons’ well-documented traumas and conflicts led them to discover their strength, courage, and resilience as a couple. Over fifty-three years of marriage each remained a solid comfort to the other. Within the marriage, Pat treaded close to the troublesome line between self-abnegation and healthy love, but in the end she felt that she had received and given enough love to make her life meaningful. Dick had trouble balancing ambition, intimacy, and relaxation in his home life, but he learned from his close brush from death in 1974 to live more fully in the moment, savoring quiet and relaxed times with his wife, and, thus, recalibrating his marriage.

The Nixons haunt and inspire our national psyche. They strove to portray the best of America’s moral character and they succeeded, but they also represented for some Americans the pursuit of achievement and a preoccupation with public image at the expense of self-awareness, personal contentment and integrity. Their marriage—rich with flaws and virtues, constantly reinvented in crisis after crisis, enduring for half a century in the public arena—makes them figures crucial to — and emblematic of — the American story.

Excerpted from Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage.

 

Published by Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster. Copyright (c) Will Swift, 2013.

 

 

 

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