First Ladies of the United States
1. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802)
Martha Dandridge grew up on a large plantation in Virginia. She had no formal education, for girls in those days were rarely taught outside their own homes. Private tutors taught Martha reading and writing. She also had lessons in sewing, housekeeping, cooking, dancing, and music.
At 17 she was one of the most popular young ladies in Williamsburg, and at 18 she married a prosperous planter named Daniel Parke Custis. Seven years after their marriage Custis died, leaving Martha a wealthy young widow with two small children.
Martha Custis first met Colonel George Washington a year after her husband’s death. They were married in 1759 and settled down at Mount Vernon, Washington’s plantation. Their gracious, comfortable life was interrupted when Washington was called to head the Continental Army in the American Revolution.
During the war years Lady Washington, as she was called, did not spare herself. She joined her husband at winter headquarters every year for eight winters. She did everything she could to encourage and help the tattered soldiers.
As the wife of the first president, Mrs. Washington had no traditions to follow. With only her common sense and sound social training to guide her, she proved to be a fine model for the first ladies who followed her. With the President at her side, she greeted the guests who attended their weekly levees (receptions) with dignity and charm.
Although she always remained cheerful and happy, Mrs. Washington felt she led an extremely dull life in New York City. She was more content when the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790. They spent the balance of the President’s first term and his second term in Philadelphia. There were no regrets, however, when they returned to their beloved Mount Vernon in 1797. This famous couple spent their final years happily surrounded by their grandchildren, friends, and visitors.
2. Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818)
Abigail Adams, wife of one United States president and mother of another, was a remarkable woman who served her country well. Too often she is remembered only as the president’s wife who solved her laundry problem by drying her clothes in the East Room of the executive mansion.
Mrs. Adams had made it possible for her husband, John Adams, to work in Philadelphia for the freedom of the colonies. Almost single-handed, she ran the family farm at Braintree, Massachusetts, and supported and raised the children. She wrote her husband constantly during his many long absences from home on government business.
No woman could have been better prepared for the position of first lady than Mrs. Adams. The years she had spent with her husband during his government missions in Paris and London had taught her a great deal about social and political life. She was the first American woman to be presented at the British Court.
In 1800 the capital was moved to Washington, then a town in the wilderness. Mrs. Adams was the first president’s wife to live in the new executive mansion. This was not a pleasure, for the building that would be called the White House was unfinished, damp, and uncomfortable. Although she complained privately, Mrs. Adams made the best of the situation. Abigail Adams was happy to leave public life in 1801, although her husband bitterly resented it. They returned to their home in Braintree, Massachusetts, where they enjoyed 17 years of peace and companionship.
3. Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (1748-1782)
Thomas Jefferson had no official hostess. Duties were shared by his daughters, Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836), the wife of Thomas Mann Randolph, and Maria Jefferson Eppes (1778-1804), known as Polly, who was married to John Wayles Eppes. Dolley Madison, wife of Jefferson’s secretary of state, and other wives of his cabinet members also helped run the White House social affairs.
Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, a noted Virginia beauty, had died 19 years before her husband became president. Of their six children, only two daughters lived.
Jefferson was a good father. He carefully supervised his daughters’ schooling, manners, and dress. Mrs. Randolph took a more active part in the social life of the White House than her sister. Her extensive travels and years of education abroad, and her association with her father and his friends had prepared her to be mistress of the White House. Mrs. Eppes, the beauty of the family, was very frail.
After Maria Eppes’ death, Mrs. Randolph and her family moved into the White House to help ease Jefferson’s grief. They all accompanied President Jefferson to Monticello, his beautiful house in Virginia, on his retirement. There Mrs. Randolph acted as her father’s companion and hostess.
4. Dorothea “Dolley” Payne Todd Madison (1768-1849)
Of all first ladies, none has had a greater reputation for grace and charm than Dolley Madison. These qualities made her one of the best-known American women.
Dolley Madison was brought up in the Quaker faith. Her first husband died in the yellow-fever epidemic in 1793. The blue-eyed, black-haired young widow had many suitors, but the “great little Madison,” 17 years older than she, won her. She supplied all the social graces that her brilliant but quiet husband lacked.
The 8 years of Madison’s presidency were filled with colorful parties and receptions. Mrs. Madison seemed able to make everyone feel at home. She remembered the names and faces of everyone she met. Madison’s second term in office saw the troubled years of the War of 1812. When the British attacked Washington, Mrs. Madison was one of the last people to leave the White House. Before she fled to safety, she packed trunks of important state papers and rescued the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington, which hung in the White House.
Unlike Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison thoroughly enjoyed being first lady. She loved Washington and never wanted to be any other place. She was always well dressed. Her costumes were topped by jewels and plumed turbans.
In her later years, when Mrs. Madison was a widow with little money, she remained “Queen Dolley” to her many friends. The most important men in Washington came to her home to pay their respects.
5. Elizabeth Kortright Monroe (1768-1830)
Beautiful Elizabeth Kortright of New York City was 17 when she married James Monroe, a Virginia lawyer. She spent much of her early married life in various capitals in Europe, where her husband served as United States representative. The Monroes were very popular in France, where the graceful, blue-eyed Mrs. Monroe was known as la belle Américaine (“the beautiful American”). She played a dramatic part in saving Madame Lafayette, the wife of America’s great friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, from the guillotine during the French Revolution. Riding in the official carriage of the United States legation, she went to the Paris prison in which Madame Lafayette was awaiting execution. Mrs. Monroe demanded to see the prisoner. This action demonstrated the interest of the United States in the case. Madame Lafayette was released soon after.
Although she was a good hostess, Mrs. Monroe’s years as first lady were not completely successful. A combination of poor health and a desire for privacy caused her to limit her social activities. Washington society, accustomed to Dolley Madison’s lavish hospitality, was critical of Mrs. Monroe. In time the unpleasantness passed, but the Monroes were pleased to return to their lovely home in Virginia after 8 years in the White House.
Their younger child, Maria, was the first president’s daughter to be married in the White House.
6. Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams (1775-1852)
London-born Louisa Adams and her New England husband, John Quincy Adams had many things in common. They had both lived in Europe. They shared a love for books, plays, and music, and they both came from families that were active in politics. Their personalities, however, were very different. Mrs. Adams was gentle, graceful, and enjoyed company. Her husband had a quick temper, was a fine scholar, and had no talent whatever for small talk. In spite of these differences, they were a devoted couple.
Adams served as United States minister at Berlin, St. Petersburg, and London. The period at St. Petersburg–then the capital of Russia–was particularly difficult for young Mrs. Adams. The weather was bitterly cold, and Adams’ meager salary was not enough for them to keep up with the formal standards of the Russian court. When Adams returned to Washington as Monroe’s secretary of state, Mrs. Adams came into her own. She became a leader in Washington society, rivaling any of the former first ladies.
After her husband became president, Mrs. Adams’ failing health kept her from doing as much as she had earlier, but she appeared at every public reception. She also completed furnishing some of the rooms in the White House, which had been so uncomfortable for her mother-in-law years before. Her hobby was raising silkworms and winding the silk from the cocoons. Mrs. Adams’ last years were quiet ones, with time for books and painting, music, and her garden.
7. Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson (1767-1828)
Rachel Jackson died shortly before Andrew Jackson’s inauguration as president. She had been his close companion during their 37 years of marriage. Her earlier marriage to Captain Lewis Robards had ended in divorce.
As a young girl, she accompanied her family on an expedition into the Tennessee wilderness, where they established their home. Her father, John Donelson, was a well-known woodsman and explorer. She was a typical pioneer woman of an era in which such women smoked clay pipes or took snuff, and dressed in homespun and sunbonnets. She is described as being a small, lively brunette. In her later years she became very stout. The Jacksons had no children of their own. They legally adopted the baby of a relative and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr.
Mrs. Jackson was upset when she heard of her husband’s election to the presidency. She had hoped that he would settle down and live quietly at home. Although she had been able to accept the hardships of frontier living, she feared the social life of a president’s wife. Her niece, Emily Donelson (1807-1836), and later, Sarah Yorke Jackson, her adopted son’s wife, took her place as the President’s official hostess.
Emily Donelson was married to her first cousin, Andrew Jackson Donelson, President Jackson’s private secretary. Emily was only 21 when she acted as White House hostess. She was described as strikingly beautiful, with auburn hair and brown eyes. When Mrs. Donelson became too ill to return to the White House, Sarah Yorke Jackson, wife of the President’s adopted son, acted as first lady. Previously, she had been hostess for her father-in-law at the Hermitage, his house in Tennessee.
Sarah was the most beautiful of three orphaned daughters of a wealthy family. Her father-in-law, Andrew Jackson, loved her deeply. When he retired to the Hermitage after his terms as president, she again took charge of his household. All her children were born at the Hermitage.
8. Hannah Van Buren (1783-1819)
At the beginning of Martin Van Buren’s presidency he stood alone to receive his guests at the White House. His wife, Hannah Hoes Van Buren, had died 18 years before.
The White House was without an official hostess until the President’s eldest son, Abraham, a West Point graduate, married. His bride was beautiful Angelica Singleton (1820-1877), daughter of one of the leading families of South Carolina. Angelica was a cousin of Dolley Madison. The painting of Angelica Van Buren by Henry Inman is one of the loveliest pictures in the White House collection.
9. Anna Symmes Harrison (1775-1864)
Judge John Cleves Symmes did not at first approve of the young army officer named William Henry Harrison who courted his daughter Anna. He probably felt that his well-educated and carefully raised child was not meant to be a frontier wife in Indian territory. He had also heard false rumors about young Harrison’s character. However, Judge Symmes changed his mind and consented to the marriage. Anna went with her husband to his primitive army post in the new Northwest.
Hardships and danger did not spoil their happy life together. Mrs. Harrison would have preferred that her husband stay in retirement after his long years of Indian fighting. But she understood his ambition to become president and knew that he had waited a long time for the honor.
She was too ill to go with him to Washington for his inauguration but planned to join him in the spring. Word of President Harrison’s death reached her as she was finally preparing to start the long journey to Washington from her Ohio home.
10. Letitia Christian Tyler (1790-1842) & Julia Gardiner Tyler (1820-1889)
The daughter of a Virginia planter, Letitia Christian Tyler was a quiet Southern lady whose only aim in life was to be a good wife and mother. She always remained in the background of her husband’s life. She had had a stroke and was an invalid at the time her husband became president. Her only public appearance was at her daughter Elizabeth’s marriage. A daughter, Letitia Semple (1821-1907), and a daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler(1819-1896), performed the official duties of the first lady.
The final 8 months of President Tyler’s term were made glamorous by his young and beautiful bride, Julia Gardiner Tyler. She came from an old, distinguished, and wealthy New York family. Gay and lovely to look at, with large gray eyes, black hair, and clear, olive complexion, she had been courted by many important men. Her surprise marriage to President Tyler, the first president to be married while in office, was held in the Church of the Ascension in New York City.
The new Mrs. Tyler gave the sober White House the liveliest whirl it had witnessed since Dolley Madison’s time. She plunged into national politics, always supporting her husband’s views. At the end of his administration they retired to the Tyler plantation in Virginia, where six of their seven children were born. Mrs. Tyler lived to see one of their sons, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, become president of William and Mary College–the college his father and grandfather had attended.
11. Sarah Childress Polk (1803-1891)
Dignified Sarah Childress Polk was as ambitious and interested in politics as her husband, James Polk. She had worked hard to help him get ahead in his political career.
Mrs. Polk was educated at the Moravian Institute in Salem, North Carolina. She was considered very good-looking, with dark hair, eyes, and complexion. She was always fashionably but simply dressed.
Mrs. Polk was a popular hostess despite the fact that she did not, because of her religious beliefs, allow liquor, dancing, and card-playing in the White House. She was a fine conversationalist. Although she served no refreshments at the twice-weekly White House receptions, it seems that she made the guests quite happy by talking to them. President Polk died soon after his term expired. Mrs. Polk spent her remaining 40 years at their home in Nashville, which she preserved as a memorial to her husband.
12. Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor (1788-1852)
Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor was a tired, sick woman of 61 when her hero-husband Zachary Taylor became a candidate for the presidency. She considered the nomination a plot to deprive her of her husband’s company and to shorten his life with hard work. She pleaded with General Taylor to turn down the nomination. When he accepted, she prayed that he would not be elected.
Mrs. Taylor had endured the life of a soldier’s wife in the wilderness. She had made a home out of a tent or cottage in nearly every army post from the Great Lakes to Baton Rouge. She had suffered through long separations from her children. However, she did not feel equal to presiding over the executive mansion. She made her White House existence as simple as her life at army posts, spending much time in her private quarters upstairs. After the unexpected death of President Taylor 15 months after taking office, Mrs. Taylor went home to her relatives in Kentucky. She died at her son’s home in Louisiana 2 years later.
President Taylor’s official hostess was his youngest daughter, Mary Elizabeth Taylor Bliss (1824-1909), or Miss Betty, as everyone called her. She married Major William Bliss in 1848, the year her father was elected president. She was a charming and popular young lady. In spite of her youth she performed her White House duties well.
13. Abigail Powers Fillmore (1798-1853)
President Taylor’s sudden death brought a fairy-tale quality to the lives of a red-haired young schoolteacher and her pupil, a cloth-maker’s apprentice. From this most humble background, Vice-President Millard Fillmore and his wife became the nation’s first family.
Abigail Powers had started teaching when she was 16 to pay for her education and help support her widowed mother. She became interested in young Millard Fillmore when he came to her little school in upstate New York. She devoted all her free time to helping him with his books. For 7 years she worked and waited while he struggled to become a lawyer. After their marriage she continued teaching while he became established in his profession. He consulted her on important matters throughout his life.
When the Fillmores went to the White House, Mrs. Fillmore’s poor health kept her from doing as much, as first lady, as she would have wished. However, she was present at all official dinners and receptions. Her daughter, Mary Abigail (1832-1854) helped with her other duties. Mrs. Fillmore created the first White House library in a large room on the second floor. In spite of stormy weather and her poor health Mrs. Fillmore took part in the outdoor ceremonies of President Pierce’s inauguration. She caught a severe cold and died a few weeks later.
14. Jane Means Appleton Pierce (1806-1863)
Mrs. Pierce was probably the saddest lady who ever lived in the White House. She was gentle and shy, and had always led a sheltered life. She was greatly opposed to Franklin Pierce’s political career.
Mrs. Pierce never recovered from the shock of seeing their only son killed in a train accident a few months before her husband’s inauguration. She did her best as first lady. The White House staff and her friends helped her as much as possible with her duties.
15. Harriet Lane Johnson (1830-1903)
Harriet Lane, the official hostess for her bachelor uncle, President James Buchanan, filled the White House once more with youth and gaiety. She was one of the most popular White House hostesses. Babies and ships were named in her honor.
Orphaned as a little girl, she was brought up and educated by Buchanan, her mother’s brother. She grew into a charming and remarkable young woman, equally at home among royalty, statesmen, and society leaders. She had the distinction of entertaining the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII of England.
Miss Lane was very beautiful, tall, graceful, and had masses of golden-blond hair and deep-blue eyes. Her clothes set fashion trends in the United States. Miss Lane later married Henry Elliot Johnson of Baltimore. At her death she left her fine art collection to the nation. It later became the nucleus of the National Collection of Fine Arts. The bulk of her fortune established a children’s wing at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
16. Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)
As a young woman, Mary Todd had all the advantages of a pleasant home, good education, and a busy social life. Her father, Robert Smith Todd, was a pioneer and one of the leading citizens of Lexington, Kentucky, where Mary was born.
She met Abraham Lincoln at the home of her sister in Springfield, Illinois. After a stormy courtship and a broken wedding date they were finally married. She and Lincoln were quite different in disposition, but they shared a driving ambition for success. The early years of marriage were difficult for Mrs. Lincoln. The strain of hard work and too little money to meet the needs of their growing family of boys made her moody and sometimes ill-tempered.
Although Mrs. Lincoln fulfilled her high ambitions when she reached the White House, her years there were not happy. She was regarded with suspicion. Many people thought she was a Southern sympathizer because of her love for Kentucky. Her actions were misunderstood and gossiped about.
She always had a passion for pretty clothes and jewelry. After her husband became president and received what seemed to her a large salary, she plunged into a frenzy of buying. Perhaps she was trying to make up for her personal disappointments. She was widely criticized for her extravagance. The money she owed gave her great concern later.
After President Lincoln’s assassination, Mrs. Lincoln was shattered both in mind and body. The next 17 years held nothing but pain and sorrow for her. She died at her sister’s home in Springfield, in the same house from which she had been married 40 years before.
17. Eliza McCardle Johnson (1810-1876)
Eliza McCardle Johnson had played a most important part in Andrew Johnson’s career. She continued to be a valued advisor to him during his presidency, even though she was not well enough to leave her room in the White House.
She had been a schoolteacher in a mountain village in Tennessee when Johnson met and married her. He was a tailor who had never been to school. He had taught himself to spell and read. She taught him arithmetic and writing, and encouraged him in his interest in politics. However, illness kept her from taking part in the White House social life.
Martha Johnson Patterson (1828-1901) acted as official hostess for her father. She lived at the White House with her two children and her husband, Judge David T. Patterson, United States Senator from Tennessee. “We are plain people from the mountains of Tennessee called here for a short time by a national calamity. I trust too much will not be expected of us,” she said. With this simple statement she won the respect of Washington society.
The White House had been neglected and abused during the war years and Mrs. Lincoln’s illness. Mrs. Patterson organized the servants into scrubbing and scouring teams with herself at the head. She had the mansion polished and shining for the opening of the social season the following winter. Through the difficult months of the impeachment proceedings against President Johnson, Mrs. Patterson was with her father constantly.
18. Julia Dent Grant (1826-1902)
The White House was a pleasant place during President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration largely because of its gracious mistress, Julia Dent Grant. Julia Dent had been one of St. Louis’ most popular young ladies when Grant met and won her. As a loyal army wife, she spent uneventful days at uninteresting army posts. Later she braved the hardships of army life on Civil War battlefields.
Mrs. Grant enjoyed her years as first lady and was most generous in welcoming the public to the White House. The Grants’ beautiful daughter, Nellie, was married in an elaborate wedding at the White House. At the end of her husband’s administration, the Grants made a round-the-world trip. They were warmly received and entertained throughout Europe and the Orient. Mrs. Grant is buried at the General’s side in the famous tomb on Riverside Drive in New York City.
19. Lucy Webb Hayes (1831-1889)
Long after she left the White House, Lucy Webb Hayes remained a legend in Washington. She was known for her kindness and intelligence, and her concern for the well-being of all people. During her happy 37 years of marriage to Rutherford B. Hayes, she developed a keen understanding of politics.
Mrs. Hayes was a great success as a hostess, even though she did not serve liquor or wine at the White House. She enjoyed her position as first lady and did everything she could to bring pleasure to others. She was responsible for preserving the annual egg rolling for children on Easter Monday. This game had usually been played on the Capitol grounds. However, Congress had passed a law closing the Capitol grounds for the event because the children were ruining the grass. Mrs. Hayes then saved the day by transferring it to the White House lawns. It is still held there today.
At her death flags were lowered to half-mast in many American towns and cities, to honor the first lady who was called “the most idolized woman in America.”
20. Lucretia Rudolph Garfield (1832-1918)
Lucretia Garfield, like Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Hayes, was the wife of a Civil War general. Like them she had shared in her husband’s rise from a modest beginning to the highest position in the land.
The Garfields were a devoted couple. They were both intelligent and enjoyed books. Crete, as her husband called her, was deeply concerned with her husband’s career. She was not socially ambitious, but she understood the importance of a president’s wife’s meeting the public graciously. Her warm hospitality made her parties and receptions enjoyable, and she met every emergency tactfully.
Only 4 months after he had entered the White House James Garfield was shot. For 80 days the President fought a losing battle for his life. Mrs. Garfield won the admiration of the nation for the courage and devotion she displayed during that time. She lived to see her son James R. Garfield become secretary of the interior under President Theodore Roosevelt.
21. Ellen Herndon Arthur (1837-1880)
Mary Arthur McElroy (1841-1917) was President Chester Arthur’s youngest sister, wife of an Albany, New York businessman, John E. McElroy. The President’s wife, Ellen Herndon Arthur, had died in 1880, 5 months before he was nominated for the vice-presidency. Mrs. McElroy took charge of her motherless niece, Nellie. At her brother’s request to serve as his hostess, she moved into the White House with her two daughters.
President Arthur entertained elaborately. His sister assisted with great charm. She was extremely popular in Washington.
22 & 24. Frances Folsom Cleveland (1864-1947)
Frances Folsom Cleveland became a symbol of romance to the American people when she was married to President Grover Cleveland at the White House. The young Mrs. Cleveland, only 21, was described as a tall, graceful girl with pretty blue eyes, heavy dark brows and eyelashes, and wavy chestnut hair. She was the daughter of Cleveland’s close friend and law partner in Buffalo, New York. Cleveland had given the infant Frances her first baby carriage. He had watched her grow up and was administrator of her estate after her father’s death. He remained her counselor and friend. A few months after his inauguration and her graduation from Wells College they became engaged.
Mrs. Cleveland’s youth was no handicap to her in her first lady role. She won great popularity by her charm and generous hospitality. She was tireless at greeting the public at the White House receptions, when thousands of people streamed through the mansion.
Cleveland was defeated for re-election by Benjamin Harrison but was again elected 4 years later. His second administration was a troubled one, and some of the unpleasantness touched Mrs. Cleveland. Still, she managed to carry on with good grace. Gradually, she overcame the unfriendliness directed at her.
The second of the Clevelands’ two daughters was the first child to be born to a president during his term of office. At the end of Cleveland’s term the family retired to Princeton, New Jersey. President Cleveland devoted his remaining years to his family and his business.
23. Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison (1832-1892)
Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison came to the Benjamin Harrison White House with a sturdy mixture of culture, graciousness, and long experience in dealing with the public.
Her father was the president of the Oxford Female Seminary in Oxford, Ohio. While a student there, she met Benjamin Harrison, who was attending nearby Miami University.
Mrs. Harrison presided over the large Harrison clan–children, grandchildren, and other relatives–who filled the White House. She entertained brilliantly at receptions and state dinners, and still found time for her charitable work with a hospital and an orphan asylum.
For relaxation she enjoyed fine needlework and watercolor painting. She loved flowers and took pleasure from the White House conservatories. It was through her efforts that the famous White House collection of china and relics of past presidents was begun.
Mrs. Harrison died toward the end of her husband’s term. Mary Harrison McKee (1858-1930) spent much time in the White House with her children and husband, James R. McKee, during her father’s presidency. Her children were great favorites of their grandparents and of the whole nation. During the illness and after the death of her mother, Mrs. McKee served as her father’s hostess.
25. Ida Saxton McKinley (1847-1907)
The social life of the McKinely administration was quiet because of Mrs. McKinley’s poor health. As a girl, Ida Saxton was lively and beautiful, a leader in the friendly social life of Canton, Ohio. Her father, a banker, had given her all the advantages of a fine education and travel.
After the death of her two small daughters Mrs. McKinley collapsed. She was an invalid for the rest of her life. Mr. McKinley was a devoted husband and took her with him wherever he went. In spite of her physical difficulties Mrs. McKinley was a charming hostess. Both the McKinleys loved music and entertained at many fine musical evenings.
Mrs. McKinley was with her husband in Buffalo, New York, when he was assassinated. She was waiting at the home of a friend for his return from the Pan-American Exposition when the shooting took place.
26. Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt (1861-1948)
The happy, noisy, high-spirited Theodore Roosevelt family transferred their headquarters to the White House from their home on Long Island 10 days after President McKinley’s death. There they continued the close, delightful family life they had always enjoyed. This was due in large part to Mrs. Roosevelt’s capable management and her determination to guard the children from too much public attention.
Edith Kermit Carow had known her husband from early childhood. Their paths divided and then crossed again when Theodore Roosevelt was a young widower with an infant daughter, Alice. They were married in London. Mrs. Roosevelt was a charming mistress of the executive mansion and the leader of Washington social life. She was the first president’s wife to use a social secretary in the White House.
The marriage of President Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, to Nicholas Longworth was one of the most important social events of the administration. The noon wedding was attended by hundreds of guests. The whole nation followed eagerly the accounts of the wedding that appeared in newspapers and magazines. Princess Alice, as she was called, and her groom, were showered with gifts by rulers, royalty, and other distinguished people from all parts of the world.
27. Helen Herron Taft (1861-1943)
Helen Herron Taft was greatly pleased at being first lady, although it was not a new experience for her. She had enjoyed this honor in the Philippine Islands when her husband, who had been president of the United States Philippine Commission, became governor-general of the Philippines in 1901. She loved to travel and always accompanied her husband on the trips he made throughout the world on government missions.
Mrs. Taft was interested in music. She arranged for the building of a bandstand in Potomac Park in Washington that was copied from the one in Manila. Swarms of music lovers attended the Marine Band concerts held there.
The fairyland of cherry blossoms, which bloom each spring in Washington, is a lasting remembrance from Mrs. Taft. She was responsible for this gift from the Japanese government.
28. Ellen Louise Axson Wilson (1860-1914) & Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (1872-1961)
Ellen Louise Axson Wilson abandoned her ambition to be an artist when she married Woodrow Wilson, a professor at Bryn Mawr College. Mrs. Wilson was a gentle, kindly woman, whose speech always retained its soft southern drawl. She felt that her career was to keep her husband fit for his. She tried to make his life in the White House as quiet, homey, and free from annoyances as possible. She had tried to do this during his days at Bryn Mawr and Princeton, and while he was governor of New Jersey, too.
She would have preferred a life that was not in public view. Nevertheless, she performed her official duties most graciously. She was assisted by her three daughters, two of whom married in the White House. Mrs. Wilson was concerned with slum areas in Washington and succeeded in having legislation passed to improve them. She died during her husband’s first term.
With their common dislike for publicity, President Wilson and Mrs. Edith Bolling Galt, widow of a Washington jeweler, were married quietly in Mrs. Galt’s home. The new Mrs. Wilson was described as being an unusually pretty woman with soft dark hair and dark eyes. She was a descendant of Pocahontas, the Indian princess. Mrs. Wilson was a loyal and devoted wife, who placed the President’s welfare above her own.
Her first social season at the White House was a gay one, but after the United States entered World War I in 1917, little official entertaining was done. Mrs. Wilson’s days were given over to war relief work and became as full as her husband’s. When President Wilson became ill after the war, she acted as his nurse, companion, and executive secretary. At this time she played probably a more active part in government affairs than any President’s wife in history.
29. Florence Kling Harding (1860-1924)
The White House had been a quiet place during World War I and President Wilson’s illness. It came alive again with Florence Kling Harding as its hostess. She reopened the mansion to the public and began entertaining. Florence Kling’s father was the leading banker of Marion, Ohio. He had trained his daughter to develop a spirit of self-reliance and independence. She always took an active part in her husband’s career. She had worked with him to make a success of the newspaper he ran. She continued to use all her energy and ability to help him in his political life. Mrs. Harding accompanied President Hardingon all his official duties. She was with him on a trip to Alaska and the West when he died.
30. Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957)
Few first ladies have left the White House with more of the public’s affection than Grace Coolidge. Gracious Mrs. Coolidge more than made up for Calvin Coolidge’s lack of conversation at social gatherings.
Grace Anna Goodhue graduated from the University of Vermont. She was teaching at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, when she married Calvin Coolidge, a struggling young attorney. In spite of a limited income, Mrs. Coolidge managed to maintain a dignified background for her husband during his rise in politics.
The Coolidges’ stay at the White House was saddened by the death of their 16-year-old son, Calvin, Jr. In 1931 Mrs. Coolidge was voted one of America’s greatest living women. She was awarded a gold medal for her distinguished service to the Clarke School and her fine influence as first lady.
31. Lou Henry Hoover (1875-1944)
Lou Henry Hoover went to the White House with a fine background for the position of first lady. As the energetic wife of Herbert Hoover, she had lived in all parts of the world with her globe-trotting husband. She had had to deal with all kinds of situations, from a rebellion in China to a diplomatic dinner in England.
The Hoovers first met in the geology department of Stanford University in California. She was a freshman and Herbert Hoover a senior. She was the first woman geology major to graduate from the university. The Hoovers together translated a rare and important book on metallurgy, Agricola’s De Re Metallica, from Latin to English. They worked on this project in their spare time for over 5 years.
Mrs. Hoover was described as a handsome woman–tall and graceful, with beautiful silver hair, pale, clear skin, and gray-blue eyes. Both Mrs. Hoover and the President were formal, proper, and punctual in their way of life at the White House. Mrs. Hoover participated actively in the national Girl Scout movement and served as its national president.
32. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
No other president’s wife in history has received as many awards and honors as Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She supported more causes, wrote more books and articles, traveled more, and made more speeches than any other first lady. She was the object of worldwide admiration and affection. Mrs. Roosevelt was often called the first lady of the world.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother, Elliot. She was distantly related to her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
She received her elementary education at home and later attended schools in France and England. She was orphaned by the age of 10 and brought up by her grandmother. She was a shy, lonely, awkward child who felt handicapped by her lack of beauty.
Mrs. Roosevelt met her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when he was a senior at Harvard College, and they became engaged. Their wedding took place on March 17, 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor’s uncle, gave her away in marriage.
Throughout her years as first lady (1933-45), Mrs. Roosevelt worked hard in support of her husband’s social reforms and visited the troops overseas during World War II. At first her activities were viewed with mistrust and suspicion. As the American people grew to know her better, they began to appreciate her ability, wisdom, and sincerity. Much of the criticism changed to respect.
Mrs. Roosevelt probably had a greater first-hand knowledge of conditions throughout the nation than any former first lady. She had always been an active companion to her husband. She had become more so after he was stricken with poliomyelitis in 1921.
After her husband’s death in 1945 she was appointed United States representative to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Later she was elected chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Mrs. Roosevelt remained active in politics and social welfare work until her death in 1962. At her death, President John F. Kennedy ordered that all American flags be flown at half-staff.
33. Bess Wallace Truman (1885-1982)
Less than three months after Harry S. Truman was sworn in as vice president, President Roosevelt died, and the Trumans entered the White House. Bess Truman, a quiet woman from Independence, Missouri, was chiefly interested in being a wife and mother and did not welcome the position of first lady. Even so, she performed her duties gracefully, shaking hands with thousands of visitors and presiding over many teas, dinners, and other social functions.
Mrs. Truman’s shyness with strangers made her appear stern, although her close friends knew her as a witty, warmhearted companion. The Trumans were a devoted family, sharing a common interest in music. Their daughter, Margaret, a singer, was studying for the concert stage while the Trumans lived in the White House. Her father often accompanied her on the piano.
Mrs. Truman had served as her husband’s secretary while he was United States senator from Missouri but she took no open part in politics during his presidency. She was pleased when President Truman decided not to run for re-election in 1952 and the Trumans were able to return to Independence.
34. Mamie Doud Eisenhower (1896-1979)
As the wife of an Army general, Mamie Eisenhower had lived in many parts of the world before she became first lady. She accepted the hardships of constant moving and the loneliness of long separations from her husband. To each of the numerous homes they occupied at army posts throughout the world she brought touches of her favorite colors, pink and green. These colors, along with her hair style, the famous “Mamie bangs,” became Mrs. Eisenhower’s trademarks.
In the White House, Mrs. Eisenhower planned formal state dinners for government executives, the diplomatic corps, and distinguished visitors. She often attended receptions, teas, and dedication ceremonies, visited charitable institutions, and conducted public tours.
The white farmhouse at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which President Eisenhower bought while he was President of Columbia University, was the first home the Eisenhowers had ever owned. They returned to the farm in 1961 after the President completed his second term in the White House.
35. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy (1929-1994)
Jacqueline Kennedy was one of the youngest and most admired of all the first ladies. She won the respect of the entire world for her dignity and courage at the time of her husband’s assassination in 1963.
Mrs. Kennedy was born in Southampton, Long Island. She attended Vassar College and the Sorbonne in Paris. She graduated from George Washington University in 1951 and was working as an inquiring photographer for a Washington, D.C. newspaper, when she met Senator John F. Kennedy. They married in 1953. The Kennedys had a daughter named Caroline in 1957, followed by John, Jr., in 1960. Another child, Patrick, was born in 1963 but lived only a few days.
Mrs. Kennedy’s many interests and talents, including her ability to speak French, Spanish, and Italian, were of great help in entertaining visitors from other countries. Her distinctive clothes and hairstyle set a fashion trend for women all over the world. She also left the mark of her fine taste on the White House. Through her efforts, most of the public and family rooms in the White House were redone with period furnishings and decorations.
In 1968, five years after the death of the president, Mrs. Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, a Greek-Argentine businessman, who died in 1975. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis then settled in New York City, where she worked as an editor for a publishing company. She died of cancer on May 19, 1994, at the age of 64.
36. Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson (1912- )
“Lady Bird” Johnson was no stranger to politics when she entered the White House in 1963. She had started campaigning with her husband when he first ran for Congress more than 25 years earlier.
Mrs. Johnson was born on December 22, 1912 and was known as “Lady Bird” or “Bird” to her closest friends. The name was given to her by the family cook when she was a baby. When she married Lyndon B. Johnson and their initials matched, the family trademark was born. Their two daughters were named Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. Like everything else in the family, the Johnsons’ Texas ranch and other businesses bore the LBJ trademark.
Soon after graduating from the University of Texas with a master’s degree in journalism, Lady Bird married Lyndon Johnson. In addition to sharing her husband’s political life, she was a devoted mother, capable homemaker, and highly successful businesswoman. While first lady, she waged a personal campaign to beautify the nation’s cities and highways.
37. Patricia Ryan Nixon (1912-1993)
Patricia (Pat) Nixon assumed the duties of first lady after many years of experience in political life. She had served as the nation’s ” second lady” during Richard Nixon’s vice presidency (1953-61).
As first lady, Mrs. Nixon involved herself in educational and community self-help programs and volunteer work. She also took an interest in national women’s associations.
Mrs. Nixon was born in Ely, Nevada. She was named Thelma Catherine Ryan, but her father always called her Pat because she was born on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, March 16, 1912. Pat’s mother died when she was 12. Five years later her father died also. A variety of jobs, from part-time salesperson to movie extra, helped her earn her way through the University of Southern California. An honor student, she graduated in 1937, the year Richard Nixon graduated from law school. After graduation she taught in a high school in Whittier, California. She married Richard Nixon in 1940. They had two daughters, Patricia and Julie. Mrs. Nixon died of cancer on June 22, 1993.
38. Elizabeth Bloomer Ford (1918-)
For 25 years, Elizabeth (Betty) Ford was the wife of a congressman from Michigan named Gerald R. Ford. In 1973 he became vice president. Eight months later, the resignation of President Nixon swept the Fords into the White House.
She was born Elizabeth Bloomer on April 8, 1918, in Chicago, Illinois. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham and worked in fashion as a model and coordinator. She married Gerald Ford in 1948. The Fords had three sons and one daughter.
Mrs. Ford was greatly admired for her openness and honesty. During her years as first lady (1974-77), she spoke her mind on controversial issues. She actively campaigned for the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and received many awards for her work in support of the arts and for her interest in helping handicapped and retarded children.
After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford was successfully treated for dependency on prescription drugs and alcohol. Resolving to help others with similar addictions, she founded the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. She also coauthored two books, The Times of My Life (1979) and Betty: A Glad Awakening (1987).
39. Rosalynn Smith Carter (1927- )
Rosalynn Smith Carter was born in Plains, Georgia, on August 18, 1927. Her father was a mechanic and died of leukemia when she was thirteen. Rosalynn went to work part-time to help support the family. She attended high school in Plains and went to Georgia Southwestern College in Americus. Rosalynn Smith and Jimmy Carter were married in 1946, immediately after Carter’s graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. During their years of marriage, they had three sons and a daughter.
Perhaps her most significant role as first lady was that of adviser to her husband. After he was elected president, she took part in the discussions held to select presidential appointees. She also served as honorary head of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.
When the Carters retired to Plains in 1981, Mrs. Carter began writing her best-selling autobiography, First Lady From Plains (1984). She and her husband later coauthored Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life (1987).
40. Nancy Davis Reagan (1923- )
Nancy Davis Reagan was born Anne Francis Robbins on July 6, 1923, in New York City. Her parents were divorced when she was quite young. When she was nearly seven, she was adopted by her stepfather, Loyal Davis. Nancy studied drama at Smith College in Massachusetts and, in the late 1940′s, acted in several Broadway plays. She then went to Hollywood, where she made eleven films. There she met Ronald Reagan. They were married in 1952. Two children, Patricia and Ronald, were born to them.
Mrs. Reagan campaigned tirelessly for her husband’s presidential elections in 1980 and 1984. As first lady, she fought against drug abuse, making popular the slogan, “Just Say No.” She also displayed courage during personal crises, such as the assassination attempt on her husband in 1981 and her own surgery for breast cancer in 1987. In 1989, after leaving the White House, she published My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan.
41. Barbara Pierce Bush (1925- )
When Barbara Bush entered the White House in 1989, she was well prepared to take on the role of first lady. As the wife of the vice president during the Reagan administration (1981-89), she had already served eight years as the nation’s “second lady”.
Barbara Pierce, born on June 8, 1925, grew up in Rye, New York, outside New York City. In 1945, Barbara left Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, after two years of study, to marry George Bush. In 1948 the couple moved to Texas, where he went into the oil business and she raised their five children–George, John (Jeb), Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy. In 1953, their daughter Robin died of leukemia at the age of three. Due to her husband’s demanding career, Mrs. Bush settled in 17 different cities before she became first lady.
Barbara Bush, a sensible, down-to-earth person, was an enormously popular first lady. In addition to her many duties, she crusaded against illiteracy and supported programs to help the homeless and fight drug abuse.
42. Hillary Rodham Clinton (1947- )
Hillary Diane Rodham was born in Chicago, Illinois, on October 26, 1947, and grew up in the suburb of Park Ridge. In 1969 she graduated from Wellesley College and in 1973 received a law degree from Yale University, where she met Bill Clinton. The couple married in 1975 and had one daughter, Chelsea Victoria.
A former partner with Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, she was an extremely accomplished and high-powered attorney, who had been cited in 1991 by the National Law Journal as “One of the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America.” She was also a social activist, who for many years had worked strenuously on behalf of children’s rights. From 1986 to 1992 she served as national chairman of the Children’s Defense Fund.
Early in 1993, shortly after entering the White House, President Clinton appointed his wife to lead the National Task Force on National Health Care. Although the plan was rejected by Congress, Mrs. Clinton was praised for her dedication. In 1996 she won further acclaim for It Takes a Village, a book about the community’s role in raising children.
In 1998 she launched a tour to help promote the restoration of the nation’s historic sites. Despite ongoing investigations into the Clintons’ personal lives and finances, Hillary Clinton’s popularity continued to grow. She is widely regarded as one of the world’s most accomplished women. In 1999 she declared herself a candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York State.
43. Laura Welch Bush (1946- )
Laura Welch was born on November 4, 1946, in Midland, Texas. She graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in education and from the University of Texas with a master’s in library science. She worked as both a teacher and a librarian before she and George W. Bush were married in 1977. They have twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna.
Mrs. Bush had her first tastes of politics when her husband served as senior adviser to his father during the elder Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. When her husband ran for governor of Texas in 1994, she campaigned for him, despite her shyness. After George W. Bush’s election, she became more active in public life, as an advocate of early education, reading, and literacy.
George W. Bush’s reelection as governor of Texas in 1998 made him a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Laura campaigned vigorously for her husband. And at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, where he won the nomination, she gave the opening speech. As first lady, she said, she would make early childhood education and development one of her highest priorities.
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