With the dawn of the 20th century, lines were more sharply drawn between “drys,” who were those who supported the growing movement that called for a national ban on the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, and “wets,” who opposed it.
Edith Roosevelt herself refrained from drinking alcohol, the pain of witnessing her father’s own addiction to it having permanently affected her. However, once Prohibition of alcohol was finally enacted by a constitutional amendment, Edith Roosevelt, by then a former First Lady, resented government determination of what she considered a personal choice and defiantly served cocktails to guests at her home Sagamore Hill.
Nellie Taft had always enjoyed a full range of alcoholic beverages without any negative result, starting with drinking beer in the popular gathering halls near the breweries of her native Cincinnati.
As First Lady, she willfully ignored the lobbying of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union beseeching her to refrain from serving any liquor in the nation’s house. Instead, she let it be known that she took especial pride in her champagne punch, a concoction with ingredients that included cointreau and other flavored alcoholic beverages.
When former President William Howard Taft was appointed Chief Justice of the United States, she quite openly violated the law by enjoying alcohol when she was able to find a home where it was served, despite her husband’s protests.
There is no evidence that either of the two wives of Woodrow Wilson the former Ellen Axson and Edith Bolling Galt favored Prohibition. For many previous decades the new national law had been strongly advocated by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union [WCTU], an organization with a massive membership.
During the 1912 election, when it was reported that Ellen Wilson approved of women being able to smoke cigarettes, she personally handed out copies of her written denial of this inaccuracy to reporters, declaring that she disliked smoking by both genders. Cigarette smoking by both men and women was one of the “sins” against which the WCTU also campaigned.
Although Edith Wilson was the incumbent First Lady at the time the 18th Amendment was passed, it was during this same period that the President was in a state of partial recovery from a devastating stroke. Her focus was entirely on efforts to keep the apparatus of the presidency functioning from his sickroom. The Wilsons did no entertaining at this time, save for a brief welcome to the King and Queen of Belgium at which tea was served. As far as their personal use, there is no indication that they imbibed in alcoholic beverages, Although it was still not uncommon for doctors at the time to prescribe a shot of whiskey as a stimulant in some instances, there is no indication of this as an ongoing treatment in the President’s medical record.
Edith Wilson long outlived her husband who died in 1924, three years after his presidency ended. Although Prohibition remained the law, the widowed Mrs. Wilson openly served alcohol to her guests at her private home in Washington. It is unclear whether her pronounced preference for the Virginia Gentleman brand of whiskey was due to its name conjuring up memories of her late husband, a native of that state, or the quality of the liquor.
Florence Harding upheld Prohibition as the law of the land while entertaining guests at the White House lawn parties, receptions and dinners. When the President gathered with cronies to play poker in the privacy of his oval study, however, they drank scotch and other whiskey drinks taken from his private reserve and, so many suggested, from gifts of bottled alcohol that, perhaps unknown to him, had been confiscated by his Department of Justice enforcers.
During these gatherings, the First Lady was never seen drinking any alcohol herself but rather assumed the role of bartender, mixing whiskey drinks as orders were called out to her by the President, according to the wife of House Speaker Nicholas Longworth who was in attendance with her husband.
Both Grace Coolidge and Lou Hoover strictly adhered to the strictest interpretations of Prohibition, neither imbibing in private themselves nor serving any such beverages to White House guests.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who’s father had suffered from, and died of complications due to severe alcoholism, did not especially celebrate the overturning of Prohibition in the early months of her husband’s Administration. She generally did not partake of alcoholic beverages but permitted these being served to guests.
In contrast, Bess Truman was famous with the staff for enjoying an after-work cocktail with the President in the family quarters, insisting that there be no stinting on the bourbon in her favorite drink, an “old-fashioned.”
The next First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower, was plagued not by alcoholism but the false story that she did.
In the decade preceding her White House tenure, while separated from her husband during his World War II military leadership, she found herself limited to a small circle of other military wives, many of whom did drink heavily.
At one point of particular stress during the war, she may have drank too much for her brother-in-law Milton Eisenhower warned her that onlookers might draw assumptions about her from the company she kept.
Conscious of how anything she said or did could reflect poorly on her husband, she ensured that she did nothing that could lead others to this conclusion. Nevertheless, rumors persisted during her husband’s presidency, finally mitigated when it was disclosed that she suffered from alcoholism.
In the darkest days and nights that followed her husband’s assassination and burial, Jacqueline Kennedy found she was able to numb some of her overwhelming grief by occasionally using alcohol. This is documented by the recorded sound of drinks being imbibed as she was being tape-recorded by historian Arthur Schlesinger for what proved to be her oral history recollections of her late husband. This audio record, made in early 1964, was publicly released in the autumn of 2011.
However, in his own recollections from 1996, Schlesinger recalled the somberness of the process and how Mrs. Kennedy had to rely on several highballs during at least one of their several recording sessions. Others close to the widow, both protective and sympathetic, would also share these recollections. After that period, there is no further evidence or record of the need for such beverages.
During the increasingly anxious weeks of the summer of 1974, as the Watergate scandal grew to the point where President Nixon was forced to resign, the First Lady maintained a grueling schedule of appearances at public events. Despite this, a book chronicling the period and published shortly thereafter printed that reliable sources claimed the First Lady had come to depend on alcohol to endure the severe depression and worry that would have understandably affected members of the presidential family. The former President, as well as many aides and others who saw and worked with Mrs. Nixon during this time completely denied the story as an outright fabrication.
It was her immediate successor, Betty Ford, who helped to revolutionize what came to be known as the “recovery movement.” A year after she had left the White House, when the former First Lady entered a narcotic treatment program at Long Beach Naval Hospital, not far from her new home in Rancho Mirage, California, she also issued a simple statement stating that she had become addicted to both prescription pain medication and alcohol.
In her subsequent memoirs, Mrs. Ford stated that while she did not permit herself to become strongly reliant on either narcotic in the White House because she had enormous responsibility not only as First Lady but during the course of her husband’s 1976 re-election campaign.
Subsequently, she co-founded a drug and alcohol recovery center near her home, in Palm Springs, California which bore her name.”The Betty Ford Center” became world famous as did her activism on the issues of alcoholism, particularly as it related to problems unique to women.
Rosalynn Carter created controversy not because she used alcohol but because she limited the range of drinks that would be served to guests.
Echoing the 19th century decisions of Sarah Polk and Lucy Hayes. She did this not as a morale decision, but rather as a cost-cutting matter. Beer, wine and champagne continued to be served to guests.
Still, she was soon after dubbed with the sobriquet of “Rose Rosalynn” with many columnists critical of her decision.
In more recent times, First Ladies living in an era have benefitted from both a more understanding societal perspective of both the deeper emotional reasons people might abuse alcohol and the physiological impact of overindulgence on alcoholic beverages.
Thus, as far as the public record and other anecdotal sources concur, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama