The First Lady Who Knew or Met the Most First Ladies

As former First Ladies, Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman agreed to headline a large Democratic Party fundraiser in the 1950s. (Bettman/Corbis)

As former First Ladies, Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman agreed to headline a large Democratic Party fundraiser in the 1950s. (Bettman/Corbis)

She was the first incumbent First Lady to actually take control of a plane briefly and fly it. The first to write a daily column, a months magazine column, multiple books, host a weekly radio show. The list of precedents that Eleanor Roosevelt shattered for First Ladies and those she established are endless. So, in many respects it seems highly appropriate that she might well be dubbed the Dean of First Ladies in the long march of history, meaning the one who knew or met more of her peers than any other.

From both the written and photographic record, it appears that Eleanor Roosevelt interacted with First Ladies stretching from Frances Cleveland to Barbara Bush, for a total of fifteen.

Theodore and Edith Roosevelt and her husband signed the marriage certificate of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. (FDRL)

Theodore and Edith Roosevelt and her husband signed the marriage certificate of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. (FDRL)

Along the timeline of her own life, Eleanor Roosevelt knew Edith Roosevelt, the wife of her uncle Theodore (who was her father’s brother”) from her earliest childhood. Although “Uncle Ted” took an especially tender concern about young Eleanor’s development following her being orphaned by age ten, Edith Roosevelt kept a certain degree of distance in terms of anything resembling an active role in raising her niece, who was living full-time with her maternal grandmother. It was Edith Roosevelt who first saw the internal beauty of the young girl who had been cruelly termed an “ugly duckling” by venturing that someday she would grow into a “beautiful swan.”

When Eleanor Roosevelt’s husband first ran for President, her aunt Edith came out in public opposition to him, but she remained a cordial correspondence with her niece during the tenure of her years as First Lady, commiserating with her on some of the more trying aspects of it.

Eleanor Roosevelt first met Nellie Taft at the time the latter was First Lady, in Canada where both families maintained summer residences. During her time in the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt hosted a reception for Mrs. Taft and other widows and spouses of Supreme Court members. Despite their partisan difference, the two women liked one another and often sat together at other various events in Washington, D.C., where the former First Lady lived.

In her capacity as the wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Eleanor Roosevelt came to know both the first and second wives of Woodrow Wilson.

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

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

Ellen Wilson inspired her own later advocacy for better housing, when she led the young woman and other interested officials on tours of slum areas of Washington to inspect substandard conditions she was working to eradicate.

Eleanor Roosevelt had perhaps the longest relationship among other First Ladies with Edith Wilson. It began in 1919, following the end of World War I, when both women were in Europe during President Wilson’s postwar negotiations with other world leaders and the drafting and signing of the Versailles Treaty. It was not always a smooth alliance, Edith Wilson often refusing to cooperate with Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to enlist her support of Democratic Party campaigns. Still, they were cordial and Mrs. Roosevelt invited Mrs. Wilson to sit beside her during President Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of war message to Congress on December 8, 1941. They last saw one another during the 1961 Kennedy Inauguration and rode together in an open car in the Inaugural Parade. Mrs. Wilson died eleven months later, and Mrs. Roosevelt died elevens months after her.

Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt, Inauguration Day, March 4, 1933. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt, Inauguration Day, March 4, 1933. (carlanthonyonline.com)

It was as both she and Florence Harding, as the wife of a U.S. Senator, volunteered together at the servicemen’s canteen set up in Union Station that Eleanor Roosevelt first met this First Lady. During the 1920 campaign, Mrs. Harding was the wife of the Republican presidential candidate and Mrs. Roosevelt the wife of the Democratic vice presidential candidate, but neither crossed paths at that time. Upon President Harding’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt sent a telegram offering the sympathies of her and FDR.

It was also during World War I that Eleanor Roosevelt came to initially befriend Lou Hoover, her husband then heading up President Wilson’s Food Administration. The two women even picnicked together at the time. Later, there was tension between them when Hoover lost his 1932 re-election bid to FDR, but they convened together at a Girl Scouts leader meeting in Boston.

Grace Coolidge and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1934. (ebay)

Grace Coolidge and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1934. (ebay)

Mrs. Roosevelt went as the representative of FDR, at the time he was president-elect, at the Boston funeral of former President Calvin Coolidge and then first briefly met Grace Coolidge. During World War II, the two women came together when Mrs. Coolidge hosted a reception for Mrs. Roosevelt who came to Northampton, Massachusetts for a meeting involving the WAVES, the¬†Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the US Navy’s Women Reserves corps, members of which Mrs. Coolidge permitted use of her home for housing and gatherings.

On at least two occasions while she was First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt encountered her predecessor Frances Cleveland, by then remarried and known as Mrs. Preston. The first known occasion was when the First Lady gave a speech at Princeton, New Jersey where Frances Preston lived and the second documented time was at a formal dinner in New York, where Sara Roosevelt, the mother-in-law of Eleanor Roosevelt was also in attendance.

There were numerous occasions when Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman were together, the latter first meeting the former at the White House when Harry Truman was serving as a U.S. Senator. Together they presided at the White House reception following the 1945 Inaugural ceremony giving FDR his fourth term and Truman as his vice president. During and after the Truman presidency, the two women were often together at Democratic Party events, and Eleanor Roosevelt also attended the opening festivities of the Truman Presidential Library.

Eleanor Roosevelt greets Mamie Eisenhower in Paris. (columbia.edu)

Eleanor Roosevelt greets Mamie Eisenhower in Paris. (columbia.edu)

As the wife of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War II, Mamie Eisenhower had long admired Eleanor Roosevelt and kept an autographed picture of the First Lady signed for her on her mantlepiece alongside pictures of her family.

Mrs. Eisenhower even once served her when she was volunteering as a waitress at a serviceman’s center, and Mrs. Roosevelt the incumbent First Lady appeared unannounced to join some enlisted men for lunch. Later, when General Eisenhower was heading NATO, his wife and the former First Lady met in Paris at Barnard College’s dormitory for women’s students. They last saw each other at the 1961 Kennedy Inaugural ceremonies.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s first reaction to the 1945 death of President Roosevelt as a high student student was to think of the impact on Eleanor Roosevelt. As the wife of Massachusetts’s junior U.S. Senator and a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, she joined her husband at numerous Democratic Party fundraisers in the 1950s, including one held to honor the former First Lady on her 75th birthday. During the 1960 presidential campaign, the joined together at a rally in Harlem, New York and both addressed the crowds from the podium.

Five women who served as First Lady after her death had also met Mrs. Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman and, at the end of the row, Lady Bird Johnson, at the 1956 National Democratic Convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman and, at the end of the row, Lady Bird Johnson, at the 1956 National Democratic Convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Lady Bird Johnson, as a young congressional spouse always recalled the “long, purposeful strides” of the First Lady as she arrived for an afternoon reception and she even filmed her with her home movie camera. She would also be invited with Congressman Johnson to dinner at the Roosevelt White House. During the 1950s, the two women were often together at Democratic Party events.

An avid admirer of Mrs. Roosevelt, it was while working in New York as an x-ray technician before her marriage that Pat Nixon met the First Lady on a reception line following her address to a hospital workers’ conference attended by the future First Lady.

Betty Ford only briefly met Mrs, Roosevelt when both attended the 1961 Kennedy Inaugural ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. She later named the First Lady along with her mother as her two role models.

Although all four were Republicans, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush each shook hands and briefly met Mrs. Roosevelt and later spoke of their admiration for her., (Nixon Foundation)

First Ladies Nixon Ford, Reagan and Bush each briefly met Mrs. Roosevelt. (Nixon Foundation)

Recalling it was nothing more than a handshake, Nancy Reagan’s one meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt took place backstage at the 1940 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where the former grew up. she and her mother were guests of the mayor Ed Kelly, and he made the introduction.

As a young housewife, Barbara Bush met Eleanor Roosevelt in Texas, at the home of the latter’s granddaughter Chandler, the daughter of Elliott Roosevelt and a friend of Mrs. Roosevelt’s.

in First Ladies Together

First Ladies Together

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