Last month, when United States Senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham announced that he was joining the range of candidates seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, he addressed a question about what he would do, as a lifelong bachelor, about the matter of not having a spouse who could serve as First Lady.
Joining him at his June 8, 2015 announcement was his younger sister Darline Graham Nordone.
The siblings are unusually close. When their parents died suddenly within a year of each other, the Senator, then serving in the U.S. military, adopted his younger sister to ensure that if anything happened to him she would at least inherit his estate.
Now, he has suggested she could play a role if he became President. “I’ve got a sister. She could play that role if necessary.”
There is great historical precedence for this, although some media reports have included numerous errors in their coverage of past incidents that are analogous. Some clarification of fact:
Only two single Presidents have depended on a sister to serve as First Lady, both of them contiguous in the presidential timeline: Chester Arthur, who inherited the presidency upon the death of President Garfield in 1881, a widower who eventually asked his married sister Mary “Molly” Arthur McElroy, and Grover Cleveland, elected as a bachelor in 1884, who had his single sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland serve as his feminine counterpart at social events and ceremonies until he married in 1886.
Since the youngest of his sister’s two children, a daughter, still requires her supervision as a parent, however, there was also the suggestion that Darline Nordone might not be able to fill social duties full-time. To this, Graham remarked, “I’ve got a lot of friends. We’ll have a rotating first lady.”
There are several examples of Administrations where there were multiple women relatives who worked together or consecutively to serve as hostess of the White House.
Under widower Jefferson, his two daughters Martha Randolph and Maria Eppes visited one social season together, with Randolph returning for a second of her father’s eight years as president.
The primary hostess for nearly all of the eight years of widower Andrew Jackson was his wife’s niece Emily Donelson. His adoptive daughter-in-law Sarah Yorke Jackson also came to serve as an adjunct to Donelson.
The most recent example occurred after the death of presidential spouse Ellen Wilson in 1914; before her husband remarried to his second wife Edith during his presidency, his daughter Margaret Wilson and his cousin Helen Bones worked together as hostesses of the White House.
During John Tyler’s presidency his first wife Letitia Tyler was unable to appear as the public hostess so their daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler assumed the lead role. She was often assisted by the First Daughter, Letty Tyler Semple.
After Priscillia Tyler and her husband, the president’s son Robert, left Washington but before the President remarried to his second wife during his incumbency, Letty Semple served as the only hostess.
Similarly, Andrew Johnson’s wife Eliza was alive during his presidency but only occasionally made public appearances.
The leading hostess of that Administration was their daughter Martha Patterson, wife of a U.S. Senator, always aided by her widowed sister Mary Stover.
Two First Ladies who were presidential wives assumed the lead role as public hostess were aided by their daughters: Elizabeth Monroe and Eliza Monroe Hay, Abigail Fillmore and Abby Fillmore.
What of Senator Graham’s specific suggestion of “rotating First Ladies” – is there historic precedence for this? There is.
Two weeks after Chester Arthur became president, renovation work was begun on the private residential rooms of the White House, thus precluding any immediate occupancy by a presidential family.
A period of some ninety days of official mourning for the late President Garfield was to then be observed by the federal government, precluding any presidential entertaining.
During this period, Arthur lived and worked out of the Capitol Hill home of Interior Secretary Samuel J. Kirkwood during the week.
He returned as often as possible to New York, having his home renovated and prepared to rent to his married nephew and his family, establishing temporary office space in that city in rented rooms at the New York Hotel.
The press and the public, however, pressed the issue of a First Lady, as expressed in the 10 November 1881 Washington Post:
“The question which now concerns society circles in this city, as well as interests those circles where purely political subjects are discussed is – What lady is President Arthur to install as mistress of the White House during the Administration? “
The paper named several potential candidates.
One person high on the list was Sarah Haughwout Howe Roosa, a childhood friend and bridesmaid of Ellen Arthur’s. Highly social, a brilliant conversationalist, intellectual and beautiful, Mrs. Roosa was nevertheless tainted by scandal as a former paramour of Roscoe Conkling’s, the reason for her divorce from her first husband.
A second name mentioned was Ellen Arthur’s first cousin Elizabeth Herndon Botts, who married into a pro-Union southern family was thought by many to be her ideal substitute as First Lady. Ellen Arthur had been especially close to her and Mrs. Botts named a daughter after her.
Also speculated about were two of the president’s three married sister, Malvina Haynesworth or Mary “Molly” McElroy.
On 20 November, 1881 the Washington Post finally reported what Senator Graham has suggested in 2015:
“President Arthur’s plan regarding assistance at his receptions is now said to be not to have any lady remain permanently and preside at the White House. He will, it is said, invite the wives and daughters of the members of his Cabinet to assist him. This plan he has communicated to several ladies, telling them that he confidently counts on their help during the winter.”
The first sign of his decision would be evident at the New Year’s Day Reception on the first day of 1882; however, Arthur received officials and the public that day with a host of other men’s wives: Harriet Blaine, married to the outgoing Secretary of State. Union general’s wife Mary Logan, and spouses of Senators and Congressmen Elizabeth Cameron, Hannah Jones, Mary Miller, Alice Pendleton, and Maria Robeson.
Several weeks later, there was a glowing report of Arthur’s first state dinner, and “the absence of a mistress took nothing away from the enjoyableness of the occasion.”
However, desiring the presence of his young daughter with him in the White House,
Arthur settled on his sister Molly McElroy, then serving as the motherless girl’s caretaker. With her move into the executive mansion, she assumed by default the leading hostess role.
One other more recent example, however, has been consistently and entirely overlooked by historians and journalists.
It occurred during the Kennedy Administration over which the legendary Jackie Kennedy served as the primary First Lady.
However, she was often away from the White House and absent during many social events and ceremonies.
On a regular basis there were a number of regular “substitute First Ladies,” consisting of Vice President’s wife Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady’s mother Janet Auchincloss, the President’s mother Rose Kennedy, the President’s sister-in-law Ethel Kennedy.
However, an informal tabulation of both formal and informal social events of the Kennedy Administration suggest that the “substitute First Lady” role was most frequently rotated among the President’s three sisters, Jean Kennedy Smith, Pat Kennedy Lawford and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the last of these three appearing more often than any of the other surrogates.