Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Having married a planter, Martha Dandridge Custis was mother to four children, two of whom died in infancy. Widowed at age twenty-five, Martha ran the plantation and eventually caught men's eyes, including George Washingon's. Though they had no children together, Colonel Washington helped raise John Parke and Martha Parke Custis. During the harsh winter at Valley Forge, Martha Washington patched soldiers' clothing and knitted socks. The Revolution won, she recognized their responsibility to the nation, and though she disliked New York and Philadelphia, she graciously relocated to assume official duties as the nation's first lady. The couple retired to Mount Vernon for only a few short years before Washington succumbed to a fatal infection, and his wife passed away a few years later. They're buried next to each other at the Virginia estate.
Abigail Smith Adams
As her husband John joined the American resistance, Abigail tended to their four children, Abigail, John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas, having lost another child in infancy. Mrs. Adams also ran their farm in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts. She wrote to John when he served in both Continental Congresses. Her ideas were well ahead of their time: she urged women's property rights and the rights of slaves. (As wives throughout history can attest, however, Abigail's husband didn't take her advice, either!)John Adams was elected president in 1796, and they became the first couple to inhabit the White House. President Adams asked for her advice on speeches, and she promoted his administration with newspaper editors. When Adams lost re-election, they retired to their farm. They are buried next to each other in Massachusetts. She never lived to see her son assume the presidency himself.
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
When she married Thomas Jefferson on New Year's Day 1772, Martha Wayles had an estate of her own near Williamsburg, Virginia. She was said to be beautiful, but no pictures of her have survived. Life together with her husband at Monticello, their mountaintop estate near Charlottesville, was happy, but giving birth to six children strained her health as much as living through six years of the Revolution, during which she and the children twice had to flee. Martha died following a lingering illness in 1782, and the bereaved Jefferson never remarried. By the time he ascended to the presidency, he'd been a widower for nineteen years. Needing a hostess, he often asked Dolley Madison, wife of his secretary of state, to preside at dinners, and his daughter Martha Randolph also filled in. Martha's son James Madison Randolph was the first child born in the White House.
Dolley Payne Todd Madison
Congressman James Madison married the young widow, who had one surviving child from her previous marriage. In 1801, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., the new capital, where James became secretary of state, and Dolley threw stylish parties at the White House for the widowed president Thomas Jefferson. She never took much interest in politics, but campaigned for her husband and became fiercely patriotic during the War of 1812. When forced to evacuate, she took time to assemble her husband's papers and historic valuables (including the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that today hangs in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian). She barely made it out ahead of the British troops, who burned the city. After Madison's death during retirement, she had to sell their Virginia estate to pay off her son's debts. Though poor, Dolley Madison was well respected, and she was awarded a small pension that enabled her to live in Washington, D.C., until her death at age eighty-one.
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe
A bride to James Monroe when she was not quite eighteen years old, Elizabeth had two daughters and a son who died as a baby. She accompanied her husband to France where the French style suited her polished tastes. Our country remained quite popular there, and Mrs. Monroe was dubbed “la belle Américaine.” During the French Revolution, she became a heroine for saving the life of Madame de Lafayette, wife of the marquis who had aided the United States during the American Revolution. Her simple visit to the prison on execution day spared the madame's life. In her White House years, Elizabeth imported elegant French furnishings and ended the custom of riding around Washington, D.C., in her carriage to leave a calling card, something congressional wives expected. The nation had grown and so, too, had the first lady's responsibilities. Some snubbed her invitations to the White House as a result. Elizabeth Monroe died in retirement at the couple's Oak Hill, Virginia, estate.
Louisa Johnson Adams
Louisa Johnson met the young diplomat John Quincy Adams in London in 1795, and they were married two years later. Between her living abroad with her parents, then her husband's appointment as the U.S. minister to Berlin, Louisa was well traveled and well educated. After moving to the United States, the couple took another appointment in Russia, where Louisa lived unhappily. It's said that John Adams was a bit cold to his wife, and they quarreled frequently. As the tensions eased, their marriage improved, and in 1824 she helped in her husband's presidential race.
Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson
Having survived a bad first marriage and weathered a divorce, Rachel Robards married Andrew Jackson, who had rented a room in her mother's boardinghouse when they first met. Apparently there was some confusion regarding her divorce decree, because two years later, the Jacksons realized Rachel's divorce had just become final. The couple exchanged vows again. They had no children of their own, but they adopted a nephew, naming him Andrew Jackson Jr. While Andrew Sr. traveled, the couple exchanged passionate letters in which Rachel urged him to leave public service. It was devastating when, in the midst of his presidential campaign, his detractors dug up the scandal of her divorce and their marriage, dubbing Rachel an adulteress. (No doubt these were the early roots of tabloid journalism affecting the political scene!) Fortunately, Rachel didn't realize the full extent of the barbs until after the election. Shortly after learning of them, however, she fell ill. She died just days before Christmas 1828. The weeping widower, Andrew Jackson, greeted thousands of mourners at her funeral that Christmas Eve. He long believed that his political enemies killed his wife with their slander.
Hannah Hoes Van Buren
Hannah Hoes and Martin Van Buren grew up as distant cousins in the tiny Dutch village of Kinderhook, New York. They married when she was twenty-three and he twenty-four, and spoke Dutch as well as English in their home. The Van Burens had five sons, one of whom passed away as a baby. Hannah taught street people to read, and before she died of tuberculosis in February 1819, she asked that the money that would ordinarily be spent for her funeral be given to the poor instead. Martin Van Buren never remarried, and when he moved into the White House in 1837, his four grown sons moved in with him. Dolley Madison soon introduced her cousin Angelica to Abraham, the eldest son, who was smitten. They married in 1838, and Angelica served as the president's elegant hostess.
Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison
Born the year the American Revolution broke out, Anna's mother died shortly after she was born. Years later, disguised as a redcoat, her father smuggled Anna across British lines to live with her well-to-do grandparents on Long Island. She received an excellent education in New York schools, but left the more refined life for frontier country in North Bend, along the Ohio River, to be with her father. While visiting her older sister in Kentucky, Anna met Lieutenant William Henry Harrison, whom she secretly married in 1795. The Harrisons had ten children, one of whom didn't survive. Five were born during Harrison's tenure as governor of the Indiana territory. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Anna and the children moved back to North Bend, where they remained until her husband was elected president in 1840. She'd fallen ill that winter and didn't accompany him to his inauguration the next spring. As she prepared to join him, Anna received the dreadful news of her husband's death from pneumonia. She lived until 1864 as a devoted mother and grandmother, and was buried next to her husband at North Bend.
Letitia Christian Tyler
Born at her family's plantation near Richmond, Virginia, she grew up a devout Episcopalian. Her engagement to John Tyler lasted five years, during which he wrote her elaborate love letters while he was in law school. The couple had seven children survive to adulthood. Though her wealthy background of social privilege served her husband's political career well, she avoided the public spotlight. She became increasingly religious, shunned the nation's capital for all but one visit (while Tyler was a senator from Virginia), and in 1838 suffered a paralyzing stroke. From then on, her health confined her to home. After John Tyler was sworn in following Harrison's short-lived presidency and death, Mrs. Tyler finally came to Washington, D.C., but never took on the White House hostess duties. Instead her daughter-in-law Priscilla handled the task with poise. Letitia managed the home from the family quarters, but only for a daughter's wedding did she venture downstairs. Letitia Tyler died of another stroke in 1842.
Julia Gardiner Tyler
John Tyler, having mourned the loss of Letitia, fell in love with Julia Gardiner when he met her in Washington, D.C. It wasn't exactly love at first sight for her, however. But when he comforted her upon her father's death in 1844, she too fell in love, and the couple was married that year in New York City. This was the first president to be married while in office, so public excitement ran high. Tyler's sons readily accepted their new stepmother, but his daughters weren't nearly as understanding. Perhaps it was because the new Mrs. Tyler was thirty years younger than her husband. Still, Julia managed to dazzle others with her social grace. In 1845, the Tylers retired to Sherwood Forest, their Virginia plantation. In 1862, Tyler went to Richmond to serve in the Confederate Congress, but soon after that, he died of a stroke. Because of her Southern sympathies, Julia Tyler was estranged from her relatives, though she moved back to New York. Impoverished by the depression of the 1870s, Mrs. Tyler applied for a pension as widow of a president, but it wasn't granted until 1880. After living in Virginia for the remainder of her life, she died in 1889 and is buried next to her husband.
Sarah Childress Polk
Always fascinated by politics, Sarah met James Knox Polk, an ambitious young lawyer, in 1821. He proposed to her two years later at the urging of Andrew Jackson, who thought her perfect for him. They married on New Year's Day in 1824. She encouraged him to run for Congress, and moved with excitement to Washington, D.C. Since they had no children, Sarah devoted herself to her husband's political rise by serving as his secretary, campaign manager, and ultimately first lady. On what was supposed to be a trip for rest, Polk caught cholera and died in 1849. Sarah turned their Nashville, Tennessee, mansion into a museum for her late husband. When she died at age eighty-seven, she was buried next to him.
Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor
Margaret met Zachary Taylor when he was a lieutenant home on leave in Tennessee, and they married one year later. The irony of her married life was that having been brought up to be refined and proper, she followed Zachary without complaint from fort to frontier, living in tents and log cabins, encouraging other soldier's wives. She had six children (though two daughters died), and her health suffered. In another irony, the couple's daughter Sarah eloped with Lieutenant Jefferson Davis (future president of the Confederacy), who served under her father. Zachary Taylor was a hero of the Mexican War, and he won the White House, which haunted Margaret. She dreaded the public nature of her new role, and so she asked others to perform hostess duties. After laying the cornerstone of the Washington Monument on July 4, 1850, President Taylor fell seriously ill, passing away in office days later. Distraught, Margaret left Washington for her daughter's home in Mississippi and died two years later.
Abigail Powers Fillmore
Left without a father (who died soon after her birth), Abigail was homeschooled. When she became a teacher herself, she met Millard Fillmore, who was two years younger than Abigail. They respected each other tremendously and were engaged for eight years, through his law education and bar exams. She taught until their son Millard Powers Fillmore was born, making her the first first lady who had held a job before marriage. A daughter, Mary Abigail, was born, and soon Fillmore went to serve in Congress. He was elected vice president, then sworn in upon Taylor's death. Abigail also disdained the social responsibilities and gladly handed this role over to her daughter, nicknamed “Abby.” Loving books as she did, Abigail petitioned her husband and Congress for a library in the Oval Room of the White House. Had Millard Fillmore taken his wife's advice not to sign the Fugitive Slave Act, he might have had a shot at re-election. That cold March day when she watched Franklin Pierce at his inauguration, Abigail caught pneumonia. She died a few weeks later.
Jane Means Appleton Pierce
At age thirteen, Jane lost her father, and her mother took her to live with her wealthy grandparents in New Hampshire. She met Franklin Pierce in 1826 while he was a law student with political ambitions. They were engaged for eight years, and with his subsequent role in Congress, the couple spent much time apart. Their first two children died, and Jane dedicated herself to raising their son Benjamin. When Pierce ran for president, both his wife and his son lacked enthusiasm for his campaign. In a tragic accident, eleven-year-old Bennie was killed in train accident. Mrs. Pierce never quite recovered emotionally from the loss, and she died of tuberculosis in 1863. Jane was buried near Bennie's grave in Concord, New Hampshire.
Harriet Lane Johnston
Born to a prosperous merchant and his wife, Harriet Lane was orphaned at age eleven, and her favorite uncle, James Buchanan, became her guardian, overseeing her education in Georgetown. He became James Polk's secretary of state and proudly introduced Harriet to Washington society. When James Buchanan traveled to London, Queen Victoria took a liking to his charming niece. With many male eyes cast on her, Harriet remained a levelheaded young lady. When her uncle became president in 1857, the only president never to marry, the twenty-six-year-old Harriet moved to the White House to take on the role of official hostess. With sentiment running strong between Northern and Southern factions, it took all the social aplomb she could muster. She often had to seat enemies apart at important dinners. But as his term ended, James Buchanan retired thankfully to his estate near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As she approached age thirty-six, Harriet married Baltimore banker Henry Elliott Johnston.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd's mother passed away when Mary was six. Mary was raised by her father and stepmother in Kentucky, where she attended fine schools. She lived for a while with her married sister in Springfield, Illinois. There, at a dance, Mary met the tall, gangly-looking Abraham Lincoln. Though her family didn't deem Lincoln worthy of their daughter, the couple was powerfully attracted to one another. Even then, the idea that opposites attracted proved to be very real. The two dated for several years before tying the knot in 1842. They settled in Springfield for Abe to practice law, and they had four sons. Mary was always lively but sometimes prone to irrational fears and bursts of anger.
She encouraged her husband to run for Congress and weathered his unsuccessful bids for the Senate. Finally, in 1860, with the country on the verge of civil war, Lincoln won the presidency. Mary was ridiculed for refurbishing the mansion and because her half brothers fought for the Confederacy. When her eleven-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862, an inconsolable Mary went insane. She feared son Robert would die in the war, but he was given a secure post. Just when the war was won and the family's luck seemed to improve, Mary watched as her husband was felled by an assassin's bullet. He was carried out of Ford's Theatre to a nearby home, where he died the next day. Too distraught to attend his funeral, she lay in bed for weeks. She feared poverty, as her debts were substantial. When son Tad died at eighteen of tuberculosis, her mental health faltered further, to the point that her remaining son Robert committed her to a hospital in 1875 (though she managed to get herself released). In 1882, she died at her sister's house in Springfield, Illinois, and is buried next to Lincoln in the Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Eliza McCardle Johnson
An only child brought up by her mother after her father's passing, Eliza met Andrew Johnson when he first came to Greeneville, Tennessee, as a struggling tailor's apprentice. They must have each been smitten, as they married in no time at all. Interestingly enough, Eliza taught Andrew how to read and tutored the future president in math as well. They had five children. With her encouragement, Andrew ran for mayor, then a U.S. Senate seat. When Jefferson Davis ordered Union supporters out of Confederate Green-eville, Eliza, already sick with tuberculosis, worsened. Her husband assumed the presidency upon Lincoln's death. She quietly lived at the White House, but her daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson, served as hostess. Having stood by her husband during his Senate impeachment trial, she reportedly exclaimed, “I knew it!” upon hearing of his acquittal. The Johnsons moved to Greeneville following his presidency, but retirement was short-lived, as Andrew Johnson was elected to the Senate and returned to Washington, overcoming the disgrace of impeachment. Sadly, he died of a stroke the following year, and Eliza survived him by about six months, finally succumbing to tuberculosis.
Julia Dent Grant
Born in Saint Louis, the fun-loving Julia attended boarding school, where her personality attracted the attention of her brother's West Point classmate, Ulysses S. Grant. Neither the Dent family nor the Grants approved of the marriage; her parents thought he was too poor, and her family owned slaves. Despite these objections, the couple married in 1848 after a four-year engagement. The Grants didn't attend the wedding but grew to accept their daughter-in-law, whose position on slavery differed from her father's. Julia followed her new husband to military posts and lived with her family while he served out West. They had four children, survived business failures, and made it through his tenure commanding the Union army. She was much praised as first lady, even hosting a White House wedding for their daughter, Nellie. Mrs. Grant was disappointed when Ulysses opted not to seek a third term, but a world tour mended that in 1877. They lived quietly until financial problems worsened and her husband was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died in July 1885, and Julia was overcome with sorrow. Ironically, though, the former general and Civil War hero had penned a bestselling book, which left her financially secure. Julia settled in Washington, D.C., with her children and grandchildren, writing her own memoirs until her death in 1902. The Grants are buried together in an imposing mausoleum in New York City's Upper West Side.
Lucy Ware Webb Hayes
Though her father died when she was two, Lucy received a fine education and graduated from the Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati, Ohio. While a student, she met Rutherford B. Hayes, and when he moved to Cincinnati, they spent more time together. On December 30, 1852, they married. Prior to becoming a bride, Lucy was all for women's rights, but after their nuptials, marriage moderated her view to suit his, that hearth and home were the correct responsibilities for a wife. However, her determined antislavery sentiment was strong enough to sway her husband's position. Lucy bore eight children, though three died in infancy. During the Civil War, she visited her husband and the soldiers in his command to tend the sick and dying. When she was White House hostess, some complained about the lack of alcohol, but her stance made her a heroine of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. However, she disappointed Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton by not supporting a bill allowing female attorneys to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court. This surprised them because she was the first college graduate to serve as first lady. In 1881, the Hayeses retired to Ohio for church activities, travel, and grandchildren. Eight years later, Lucy died of a stroke.
Lucretia Rudolph Garfield
James Garfield attended school with Lucretia, and as they recognized their different traits early, they weren't as sure as some couples that opposites attracted. He was social while she more reserved. They were both members of the Disciples of Christ Church, and they shared an enjoyment of lectures and concerts. In 1858 they married, symbolically committing to their love, though during his years of military service away from home they might have doubted each other's devotion. At times their relationship seemed tested and uncertain. Once their separation ended, Garfield was elected to Congress, and they were busy with five children (three others did not survive). Like Mrs. Hayes, she changed her views on women's equality after marriage, no longer favoring a woman's right to vote. She was elated to see her husband achieve high office, but a few weeks after his inauguration, she fell ill with malaria. As she recuperated at a resort in July 1881, she learned that an assassin (Charles Guiteau) had shot her husband. Rushing home, she tried to nurse him back to health, but President Garfield died that September. Lucretia retired to preserve the president's records and watch her grandchildren. In 1918, she passed away in California, but is buried with her husband in Cleveland, Ohio.
Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur
Ellen Herndon was born into a Southern family where her father was a naval officer. “Nell,” as they called her, moved with them to Washington, D.C., where her father helped to establish the Naval Observatory. When she was in New York in 1856, Nell met a tall lawyer named Chester Arthur, after an introduction from her cousin. They fell in love, and when Nell's father passed away in 1857, Chester Arthur helped the family through their crisis and in particular with her mother's financial affairs. In October 1859, the couple was married in Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City. As in many families, relations were strained during the Civil War: the Herndons supported the Confederate cause, while Arthur sympathized with the Union and served in the New York militia. But he helped his wife's family whenever possible. After the war, Arthur's law practice thrived, and in President Grant's administration, he was the collector of the port of New York. With their two children, they lived lavishly. But during the Hayes administration, Arthur was accused of corruption and relieved of his post, though he soon recovered politically. Ten months before Chester Arthur was elected vice president in November 1880, his wife caught pneumonia, and she died in January 1881 at the age of forty-two. It's said he missed her so much that he had flowers placed daily next to her photograph. He assumed the presidency upon Garfield's death, and despite his mourning for Nell, he entertained with elegance, with his youngest sister Mary McElroy serving as his hostess during his White House tenure. By the time he left office, he, too, was seriously ill (with a kidney ailment). Chester Arthur died in November 1886 in New York City and is buried next to his beloved wife in Albany, New York.
Frances Folsom Cleveland
Frances Folsom had known Grover Cleveland, her father's law partner, since her childhood. When Frances was only eleven, her father died, leaving Cleveland the administrator of his estate and the unofficial guardian to Frances. As she went off to college, Cleveland wrote to her and sent her flowers, and they fell in love. However, he waited to propose until after she finished her schooling and he was president. Many suspected that the president was planning to be married, but most figured that the bride-to-be was his partner's widow, not the daughter! Cleveland has the distinction of being the only president to be married in the White House. Only a few guests, mostly his cabinet members, were in attendance.
Frances Cleveland, at twenty-one, was the youngest first lady. The couple had five children, including the first child born to a president in the White House (Thomas Jefferson's grandson was the first born in the mansion). The Baby Ruth candy bar is reportedly named after one of the Cleveland daughters. In 1897, when Cleveland's second term in office was up, the couple retired to Princeton, New Jersey, where he became a trustee at the university. But then his health failed him, landing him in bed for weeks at a time with rheumatism. In 1904, their twelve-year-old daughter Ruth died of diphtheria, and then, four years later, the former president died of a heart attack. Having stayed on in Princeton, Mrs. Cleveland married Thomas J. Preston Jr., a professor of archeology, five years later. At the age of eighty-three, she passed away in her sleep and is buried next to President Cleveland in Princeton.
Caroline Scott Harrison
A well-educated, very talented young lady, Caroline (Carrie) Lavinia Scott met Ben Harrison when she was seventeen. Harrison was a student of her father, a Presbyterian minister. Secretly engaged at first, they married in October 1853, sooner than each had anticipated. To save money, they lived on her father's farm while Ben finished his law studies in Oxford, Ohio. Moving on to Indianapolis, Indiana, Ben Harrison built a law practice while Carrie tended to their two children. During the Civil War, the couple was separated while he served in the Union army. In 1881, Harrison began serving as a U.S. senator. When her husband was inaugurated as president in 1889, Mrs. Harrison was excited about her new role. She wanted to enlarge the White House a bit, but settled for some improvements authorized by Congress. Still, the Harrisons shunned electric lights, a little wary of the new invention. Carrie helped found the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), established the White House china collection, and put up the first White House Christmas tree. During her husband's re-election campaign in 1892, she fell ill with tuberculosis. Caroline Harrison died in October 1892 at sixty years of age.
Ida Saxton McKinley Born into a well-to-do banking family, Ida Saxton went to fine schools and toured Europe when finished with her formal education. She began working as a cashier at her father's bank, and then met William McKinley, a young lawyer. It didn't take long for them to fall in love, and when she was twenty-three (and he twenty-seven), they were married in Canton, Ohio, in January 1871. Ida's father had purchased a home for them, and on Christmas Day that year, their first daughter, Katie, was born. The couple lived quite happily until they lost Ida's mother in 1873. Their second child was born in April 1873. A few months later, they mourned the passing of their new baby. From this point on, Ida's health went downhill, with headaches, epileptic seizures, and phlebitis that partially crippled her. Daughter Katie died of typhoid fever in 1876 when she was only four years old. With all the personal tragedy and turmoil, McKinley's election to Congress that same year was probably a blessing, for he moved Ida to Washington, where he spent considerable time with her, taking carriage drives and attending the theater and dinners. When he was elected governor of Ohio in 1892, they moved once more, often waving to one another during the day — she from the governor's residence and he from the office across the street. Ida was happy to see William sworn in as president in 1897 and determined, despite her frail health, to contribute something as first lady, even if that meant greeting guests seated on a chair.
Following McKinley's re-election, they had traveled to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. While there, on September 6, 1901, an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz shot and mortally wounded President McKinley. He lingered for several days, succumbing to an infection on September 14. After his death, Ida returned to Canton, where her own health steadily worsened. Yet she visited her husband's grave every day. At the age of fifty-nine, Ida passed on. She is buried next to William and their daughters.
Edith Carow Roosevelt
Edith Carow grew up in high society. Her family's home in New York City was next to the Roosevelts' home, where Edith got to know Theodore and his sisters. She spent time with him at the Roosevelt summer home on Long Island, and the two shared similar interests in nature and reading. When he left for Harvard in 1876, they were sweethearts, but then broke up. In 1880, Theodore married a Boston girl named Alice Hathaway Lee. Alice, however, died in 1884, shortly after their daughter Alice was born. That next year, Theodore and Edith met again and fell back in love. They were married in December 1886 in London, where her family was then living, and set up residence on Long Island. Besides his daughter Alice, they had five children together. In 1900, Theodore was governor of New York. Edith urged him not to run for vice president with William McKinley, but he did so. The president's untimely death made Roosevelt president. As first lady, Edith managed a hectic schedule of teas, receptions, and dinners, along with Alice's wedding and their daughter Ethel's social debut. She also supervised the addition of the East and West Wings. The couple was happy to retire to Long Island, and they enjoyed life until their son Quentin was killed during World War I in 1918. Her husband's health failed, leading to his death that next year. Edith kept busy in retirement supporting conservative causes, and when her husband's cousin Franklin ran for president, she did not lend her support. Edith passed away in 1948 at the age of eighty-seven and is buried next to her late husband.
Helen Herron Taft
Helen Herron's father, Judge John W. Herron, was a law partner of Rutherford B. Hayes. With these connections, Helen was fascinated by politics from an early age, visiting the White House as a teenager and deciding she'd like to live there herself some day. Nellie, as she was called, graduated from the Cincinnati College of Music, attended Miami University, and later taught school. It was at a bobsledding party that Nellie met Will Taft, a young lawyer. He liked her intelligence and her driven nature. Following a lengthy courtship, they became engaged, and they married in June 1886. They settled in Cincinnati, where Taft set up a law practice, and they had three children.
In January 1900, President McKinley appointed William Taft governor-general of the Philippine Islands. Clearly, Mrs. Taft viewed this as a tremendous opportunity to advance her husband's political career. When Theodore Roosevelt succeeded McKinley, he offered Taft a Supreme Court appointment, a lifetime commitment. This had been Taft's dream, but his wife urged him to hold out for another appointment. Thus, in 1904, Taft became secretary of war. In Washington, she cultivated numerous contacts in hopes of winning her husband the Republican nomination for president in 1908. It would appear that her driven nature led to success. As William Howard Taft was inaugurated president, Helen basked in the glory of the moment. However, she suffered a stroke in May, which left her unable to walk normally for nearly a year. Driven again, she recovered. As first lady, she organized the planting of 3,000 cherry trees in Washington, a famous landmark to this day. Helen is also the author of the book,
Taft's lifelong dream eventually came to pass, when President Warren Harding appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1921. Mrs. Taft was now thrilled with the prospect, for it took her back to Washington. In 1930, William Taft died of heart disease, and his widow continued to live in the city she loved. Their son Robert had become a U.S. senator, their daughter Helen the dean of Bryn Mawr College, and their son Charles a Cincinnati civic leader. Helen died in May 1943 at age eighty-one. She's buried beside her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.
Ellen Axson Wilson
Born into the family of a Presbyterian minister, Ellen was well studied in the arts — music, literature, and painting. While studying in Rome in the spring of 1883, she met Woodrow Wilson, a lawyer who was there visiting relatives. By September, they were engaged. They married two years later, following his graduate schooling and her study of painting in New York City. The newlyweds moved to Pennsylvania, where Woodrow taught at Bryn Mawr College. Then the family moved to other universities, including Wesleyan in Connecticut and Princeton in New Jersey. Ellen proofread her husband's articles and books, lending her intelligent insights whenever possible. She made do on a professor's paltry salary and raised their three daughters. After Wilson became governor of New Jersey in 1911, he contemplated a run for president in 1912. Again, Ellen threw her support behind him, and he won, representing the Democratic Party. Although she didn't care for the trappings of being first lady, she entertained with grace and style. She supported improved working conditions for federal government workers and the installation of restrooms for women. In 1914, Mrs. Wilson fell ill with Bright's disease, then a fatal kidney ailment. She died later that year and was buried with her parents in Georgia.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
While still mourning Ellen's passing, President Woodrow Wilson quite surprisingly met Edith Galt, a widow, who was visiting the White House to see her friend, Wilson's cousin Helen Woodrow Bones. They were immediately drawn to each other, and within a few months they were engaged. It had been only one year since his first wife's death, and Wilson's advisors cautioned him about the damage romantic involvement so soon could cause to his political career. In spite of these deterrents, the couple was married in December 1915 in a small, private ceremony. She was forty-three years; he was fifty-eight. Like Ellen, she supported Woodrow in everything, even running their financial affairs. As World War I was ending in a peace treaty, Edith Wilson accompanied the president to Paris to work out the details, but she feared he was pushing himself far too hard. Back in the United States in the summer of 1919, he worked tirelessly to establish the League of Nations, but in October, he suffered a stroke that partly paralyzed him. Many, including Mrs. Wil-appendix son, felt the president should resign, but the doctors persuaded Edith to allow no one other than herself to see the president. She reviewed all official papers and conveyed his decisions to others. She adamantly denied that she made any government decisions herself (an allegation that had given rise to the term “petticoat government”).
When the president finally recovered enough to appear in public, he still wasn't functioning fully. In March 1921, the couple retired to their Washington residence, where he died in February 1924. Living in Washington, Edith remained active in the Democratic Party, supported Franklin Roosevelt's campaign, and published her own account of the Wilson administration with
Florence Kling De Wolfe Harding
Born in Marion, Ohio, Florence Kling studied music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Though strong-willed and very intelligent, she eloped at nineteen with Henry De Wolfe, a coal dealer's son. The marriage didn't last. Henry deserted her and their baby. She returned to Marion, where she supported herself and her son Marshall by giving piano lessons. She divorced De Wolfe and decided that her parents could better raise Marshall. In 1890, Florence met Warren Harding, then owner of the Marion newspaper. Though her father was against the match, they married in July 1891, when she was thirty and he twenty-five. She began to help with the newspaper and traveled often with her husband. When he began to rise in politics, Florence supported him and was delighted at his move from state senator to U.S. senator in 1914. Her Washington life was fun, and when the Republicans wanted to nominate her husband in 1920, she gave him the final push to say yes. Harding won the election, and Florence stepped into her role as first lady determined to make an impression, despite some health concerns that might have otherwise slowed her down. She particularly enjoyed throwing garden parties for World War I veterans, and it's said she poured her husband's drinks at his private poker parties for years (even in the era of Prohibition). But when the Teapot Dome scandal took hold, the president became depressed and his first lady rightfully anxious. To give themselves a change of scenery and much-needed rest, the Hardings set off on a West Coast and Alaska trip, but en route the president suffered a heart attack. On August 2, 1923, he died in San Francisco of a stroke. Without her husband, Florence found life difficult. She returned to Marion, Ohio, and in November 1924, she succumbed to the kidney ailments that had plagued her.
Grace Goodhue Coolidge
Burlington, Vermont, was Grace Goodhue's first home. Educated at the University of Vermont, she moved in 1902 to Northampton, Massachusetts, to teach at a school for the deaf. Her first glimpse of the man who would become her husband — Calvin Coolidge — was through a window as she caught him shaving. Hearing her laugh, he was determined to meet her. Once again, the opposites theory held, as Grace was perky and very sociable while Calvin remained somewhat stern and silent. Still, they hit it off, and they married in October 1905 at her parents' Burlington home. They made their first home in Northampton, where Calvin was elected mayor in 1910. Grace raised their two boys, and she weathered Calvin's work in Boston fairly well, since he served both as lieutenant governor and governor of Massachusetts. Home on weekends, Coolidge used his position as head of household to tell Grace what to do and to complain a lot. He was just plain picky at times. When Calvin became vice president in 1921, the family moved to Washington, where she immediately fit in. Upon Harding's death in 1923, Coolidge was sworn in as president. Grace wasn't initially enthusiastic about being thrust into the very public role of first lady, but she entertained with genuine friendliness. Her darkest moment had to have been the death in 1924 of their son Calvin Jr. from blood poisoning. In 1928, President Coolidge opted not to run for re-election, and they returned to Northampton, where she worked for the Red Cross and he served as a trustee at the school for the deaf (where Mrs. Coolidge had taught many years before). In January 1933, he died suddenly of a blood clot in his heart. Grace continued with life, traveling and spending time with her surviving son, John, and his family. During World War II, she helped to bring refugee children to the United States. A heart attack finally claimed her in July 1957, and she's buried next to her husband in Plymouth, Vermont.
Lou Henry Hoover Born in Iowa, Lou Henry and her family moved to California when she was ten years old. At Stanford University in Palo Alto, Lou was the only female geology major, and while there she met Herbert Hoover in the lab. They had much in common, including their Iowa roots and their moves to the West Coast. Determined to finish her studies, Lou postponed getting married while Herbert worked as a mining engineer in Australia. In February 1899, they married at her parents' home in Monterey. They honeymooned on a boat headed to China, where Herbert was to begin a new mining job. Lou quickly learned to speak and understand Chinese. She even trekked to remote mining sites with her husband when necessary. But in June 1900, the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China against foreigners. The next year, Hoover joined a British mining firm, and for the next several years, the Hoovers and their two sons traveled all over the world. Through his business successes, Hoover became a millionaire.
During World War I, President Wilson appointed Hoover as food administrator, and they returned to the United States. After her husband won the presidency by a wide margin in 1928, Lou moved proudly into the White House. Any happiness over their achievements was short-lived, however: the stock market crash signaled the onset of the Great Depression. Although the Hoovers cut back on their lavish lifestyle, many blamed Hoover for the economic woes. It was a bittersweet moment when they left the White House after the 1932 election, but they enjoyed their retirement in California. When World War II erupted, the couple became active in humanitarian projects, but in January 1944, Mrs. Hoover died suddenly of a heart attack.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt
Born to Anna Hall and Elliott Roosevelt in New York City, Eleanor had a society-conscious mother who, it's said, was disappointed in her daughter's rather homely appearance. Eleanor adored her father, though he was an alcoholic who spent much time away from home. By the time Eleanor turned ten, both her parents had died, and she lived with her strict grandmother. At fifteen, Eleanor left the States for London to attend school. There she gained much confidence. Though she dreaded her social debut at age eighteen, she caught the attention of her charming distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor gave him a tour of the tenements where she taught on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Much to their surprise, they fell in love, and they married in New York in March 1905. The young bride had mother-in-law woes that surpassed what many couples endure. Sara Delano decided where they would live and influenced how their six children would be raised. Eleanor was unhappy with this, but good luck came their way when Franklin won a seat in the state senate and introduced Eleanor to politics.
President Wilson appointed Franklin as his assistant secretary of the navy in 1913, and the family moved to Washington, D.C. This began Franklin's serious political ambitions. When he was stricken with polio in 1921 and paralyzed, Eleanor not only cared for Franklin, but also encouraged him to continue his political aspirations. In 1928, she helped him campaign for governor of New York. Once he was elected, Eleanor became essential as his eyes and ears, since the governor was restricted in terms of travel. Eleanor's conviction that he could lead the country out of the Great Depression convinced him to run for president in 1932. He won. As first lady, Eleanor traveled to some of the country's most impoverished areas, held weekly press conferences, and wrote magazine and newspaper columns as well as books. Mrs. Roosevelt also worked for the rights of African-Americans and raised morale with her visits to the troops in World War II.
In 1945, having won his four contests for high office, Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. President Truman sent Eleanor to the newly created United Nations, and she kept speaking out for Democratic ideals. In November 1962, at seventy-eight, Eleanor Roosevelt died of aplastic anemia. She's buried in Hyde Park, New York, beside her husband. History would record that people either fervently admired or publicly chided Eleanor as first lady.
Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman
Although her name at birth was Elizabeth Virginia Wallace, folks knew her best as Bess, an athletic girl fond of playing baseball and tennis. Tragedy struck fairly early, as Bess's father, heavily in debt and fond of alcohol, killed himself. It was a loss whose echoes would linger. Bess, her mother, and three brothers lived with her well-off grandparents, the Gateses, in Independence, Missouri. Bess met Harry Truman in Sunday school, and they continued as classmates throughout high school. While Bess left to finish her education in Kansas City, Harry was too poor to attend college, so he left Independence to help on his family's farm. When he returned to visit in 1910, he met up with Bess, and courtship began. In no rush to marry, Bess kept in touch with Harry, and after he returned from fighting in World War I, they finally married in June 1919. After their honeymoon, they moved into the Gateses' mansion with Bess's mother.
As Harry began his political rise, Bess was moderate in her moves to support his efforts. She'd appear publicly, but decided against granting interviews or giving speeches herself, and generally chose to cast off the public spotlight. In private, however, she was never shy about offering her thoughts to Harry.
The Trumans, along with their daughter Margaret (born in 1924), moved to Washington, D.C., after Harry's election to the U.S. Senate. Bess worked in Harry's office helping with a variety of tasks. When in 1944 FDR asked Harry to become his running mate, he at first refused. Bess was afraid that the campaign would force her to relive her father's suicide, if that was uncovered. But the more Harry thought about the decision, the more he leaned toward running. And he did.
Roosevelt's health declined shortly after his fourth-term re-election, and when he died in office, Truman was sworn in on April 12, 1945, with Bess beside him. She began to offer her opinions to her husband, sometimes sitting in on sessions with his advisors. The Truman presidency tackled the end of World War II, the Korean War, McCarthyism, and more. Bess talked Harry out of running for a third term. The thought of returning to Independence was indeed tempting. After Harry's death in 1972, Bess lived quietly, following her passions of baseball, reading, and keeping in close contact with her daughter Margaret. In 1982, she died of heart failure and was buried beside her beloved husband in Independence, Missouri, in the courtyard of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Mamie Geneva Doud Eisenhower
Mamie was born in Iowa, where her father was successful in business. He moved the family to Denver, Colorado, where she grew up with servants, finishing school, and vacations in other states. In October 1915 at Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas, Mamie met the young Second Lieutenant Dwight Eisenhower, nicknamed Ike. They began courting steadily and were married at her Denver home in July 1916. After honeymooning, they moved to military housing at Fort Sam Houston. Weeks later, Mamie would learn an enduring dictate in their marriage. “My country comes first and always will,” Ike explained. Though the message fell on her as something of a shock, Mamie had little choice but to accept it. She believed in her heart that Ike was destined to rise within the military. So they moved from one post to another — twenty-seven times in thirty-seven years. She handled their finances, coached her husband on social matters, threw parties, and raised their children. Their son Doud died at the age of three from scarlet fever, and his death devastated them. After they learned to live with the loss, son John Sheldon Doud was born at the base in the Panama Canal Zone.
The Eisenhowers served in the Philippines, and on December 7, back in Texas, they learned the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Her husband's tenure overseas left the couple writing letters. Mamie volunteered while he commanded the Allied Forces. She even endured the ridicule of being dubbed drunk, when in reality she suffered from an inner ear disorder.
Now a war hero of international fame, Eisenhower looked to the future, and in 1952 he was perfectly poised to run for the presidency. As first lady, Mamie enjoyed her hostess duties, although years as a military wife must have rubbed off on her. The White House staff reported that she ran a pretty tight regime. In spite of his 1955 heart attack, the president ran for re-election and won easily. But when he suffered a stroke in 1957, Mrs. Eisenhower worried further. Good health returned, and the couple retired to their estate in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — their first permanent home after all the years living with the military. Three years after they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, the former president had another heart attack. He died in March 1969, with Mamie by his side. She busied herself attending memorials to honor her late husband until her death from a stroke in 1979.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis
Wealthy, sophisticated, and born with strikingly good looks, Jacqueline Bouvier still had her struggles. When she was eight, her parents — John “Black Jack” Bouvier and Janet Lee — separated, and in 1942, her mother married Hugh D. Auchincloss, another wealthy stockbroker like her father. Jackie attended the very finest of schools, from Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, to Vassar College, studying art history at the Sorbonne in Paris, then finally finishing her degree at George Washington University. In 1952, she began working for the
The couple dated, fell in love, and married in September 1953. Kennedy's family gave their blessing to the union, as Jackie's sense of style, culture, and good looks were certain assets for Jack's future political aspirations. Their reception in Newport, Rhode Island, attracted great press coverage and more than 1,700 guests. After a honeymoon to Acapulco, Mexico, the Kennedys settled in Georgetown.
From the start, health concerns plagued the young couple. His war injury caused back problems. In 1954, he barely made it through spinal surgery, and Jackie helped to nurse him back to health. She suffered a miscarriage, but in 1956, gave birth to daughter Caroline. Jack's father had groomed first son Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. for a presidential run, but those hopes were dashed when he was killed during World War II. Thus, the family torch was passed to Jack, who was elected in 1960 as the first Roman Catholic president. Just weeks after his election, the couple's son, John F. Kennedy Jr., was born.
Mrs. Kennedy brought a sense of style to the presidential mansion. Not only did she supervise the restoration of the White House interior, but she also invited talented musicians and artists to attend official functions. As first lady, she conceived the idea of an official illustrated guidebook for visitors to the White House. Since its debut in 1962, the guidebook has been revised approximately twenty times.
The Kennedy marriage had its problems — her extravagant and expensive taste and his dallying with other women. In August 1963, the death of their newborn son Patrick brought the couple closer. In an effort to help with re-election, she accompanied him to Dallas, Texas, where she was sitting beside her husband when he was struck by an assassin's bullets. Stoic throughout the horrendous weekend of national mourning, she orchestrated his state funeral and saw to the birthday celebrations of her children, held on the heels of their father's death. Mrs. Kennedy granted few interviews, but in one, she suggested that the Kennedy era resembled Camelot. The name stuck.
After leaving the White House, Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline, and John were pursued relentlessly by photographers. It was in her quest for greater privacy and anonymity that she left Georgetown for the urban oasis of Manhattan. When her brother-in-law Robert was assassinated, it awakened fears that her children might be targets. That year, she married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. She was ridiculed for her decision, but this provided her a bit of refuge, and some happiness in which to escape with John and Caroline, whom she was determined to raise out of the spotlight and to give as normal a childhood as possible. She's quoted as saying, “If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much.”
In the 1970s, still doggedly pursued, she was dubbed Jackie O. Following her second husband's death, Jackie chose to work part-time as a book editor to make a contribution and set an example for her children. It was doubtful that she needed the income. Her work in publishing was highly regarded, and she was also instrumental in the creation of the late president's library in Boston. As she became grandmother to Caroline's three children (who called her Grand Jackie), she'd take them to Central Park or Martha's Vineyard, sometimes with her devoted companion, whom she never married. But in early 1994, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and her health deteriorated. Jackie died months later in her New York apartment, with her children by her side. After a private memorial service in Manhattan, her body was flown to Washington for interment. She is buried beside the late president at Arlington National Cemetery, where the couple's two deceased infants rest in peace with them. Sadly, her son John was killed flying his airplane in 1999, leaving daughter Caroline the sole survivor of Camelot.
Claudia Taylor Johnson
Claudia Alta Taylor was nicknamed “Lady Bird” at a young age. She lived in Texas, and sadly lost her mother, who died of a bad fall when Lady Bird was five. With the help of an aunt, her father raised her and taught his daughter the business aspects of his general store. In 1934, she met Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was working in the office of a congressman. Lyndon must have been smitten, as he asked Lady Bird to marry him the day after their first date! She didn't say yes immediately, but on November 17 of that year, they tied the knot in San Antonio. It's said Johnson was a bit demanding, but nonetheless, his wife was excited about politics. With her sharp business sense, she handled the finances. She invested her inheritance in his bid for Congress (which proved to be a successful investment!), and during his absence in World War II, she purchased an Austin radio station, developing it into a thriving business — all this while raising their two daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines.
In 1948, Lyndon ran for the U.S. Senate and went on to become the majority leader, the youngest in the Senate's history. When John F. Kennedy went after the presidency in 1960, he and his advisors thought Lyndon Johnson might secure Southern votes, and Johnson was chosen as the vice-presidential running mate. On November 22, 1963, the Johnsons rode in the fateful Dallas motorcade when Kennedy was shot and killed. A Texas judge swore in the new president aboard
As first lady, Mrs. Johnson entertained with ease and urged the president to appoint more women to higher governmental posts. After he won re-election on his own, she persuaded Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act and encouraged conservation groups in addition to promoting Head Start, a federal program for disadvantaged young children.
When the Vietnam War took hold of the Johnson administration, Mrs. Johnson advised the president, with others, against running again. In 1969, they retired to the LBJ Ranch in Texas to enjoy their daughters and grandchildren. Lyndon Johnson died of a heart attack in January 1973. Lady Bird has served on many advisory boards, and she campaigned for her son-in-law Charles S. Robb (Lynda's husband) for the post of lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1976. She also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, founded the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982, and attended the 200-year anniversary celebration of the White House, along with other former first ladies, in 2000.
Patricia Ryan Nixon
Thelma Catherine Ryan changed her legal name to Patricia, perhaps because her father used to call her his “Saint Patrick's Day babe.” Soon after her birth, the family had moved from Nevada to California. When Pat was thirteen, her mother died, and for several years she kept house for her father and brothers. Then at seventeen, she lost her father, who died of miner's lung disease. A hard worker, Pat worked her way through the University of Southern California cleaning offices and playing bit parts in movies. Upon graduating with honors in 1938, she taught typing at Whittier High School. That same year, she met Richard Nixon, a young lawyer. Two years later, they were married in a Quaker service in Riverside, California.
The Nixons settled in Whittier, and she continued to teach until World War II, when she worked for the Office of Price Administration (while her husband served in the navy). Upon his return, he ran for a seat in Congress in 1946, the same year that their first daughter Patricia (Tricia) was born. Upon election, they moved to Washington, D.C., where their second daughter Julie was born in 1948.
In 1952, Senator Richard Nixon ran for vice president with Dwight Eisenhower. Pat traveled with Nixon on trips abroad. Although she was disappointed that he lost the 1960 election against Kennedy, she returned to private life quite happily. When Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962, she was not thrilled at the prospect. Nonetheless, she helped him. Nixon lost that election as well, and had a reprieve from politics until his comeback in the 1968 presidential race. As first lady, Mrs. Nixon continued with White House restoration, and in June 1971, she orchestrated Tricia's wedding to Edward Cox in the White House Rose Garden (daughter Julie married David Eisenhower, Ike's grandson, in 1968).
Soon the Watergate scandal erupted, and the House Judiciary Committee recommended articles of impeachment against her husband. Pat, along with her daughters, believed in his innocence and wanted him to fight the charges. Stoically, she stood on the dais the morning he spoke to White House staff and a television audience before departing for California. He'd announced his resignation the night before. The couple lived in seclusion in San Clemente, where her husband wrote books. Pat suffered a stroke, which partly paralyzed her, and soon the Nixons moved to New Jersey to be closer to their grandchildren. In June 1993, Pat Nixon died of lung cancer, and with his daughters, the tearful former president laid his wife to rest at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. The next year, he passed away and was buried there as well.
Elizabeth Bloomer Warren Ford
Although born in Chicago, Elizabeth (Betty) grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She took ballet lessons and dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. Her father passed away when Betty was sixteen, and she helped to support the family, taking modeling jobs and teaching dance. After high school, she studied dance in Vermont and again in New York with the famous dancer Martha Graham.
Returning to Grand Rapids, Betty taught dance lessons and dance therapy while serving as a fashion coordinator for a department store. In 1942, she married William Warren, an insurance salesman, but they divorced five years later. That same year, she met Gerald (Jerry) Ford, a former college football star turned lawyer in Grand Rapids. Not even a year later, they were engaged, and she soon began work for his first congressional campaign. In October 1948, they married, and after his election to Congress they took up residence in Washington.
Ford served many terms in Congress and worked his way to minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. But that left Betty alone to raise their four children — Michael, John, Steven, and Susan. Betty suffered from chronic pain because of a pinched nerve as well as arthritis, and she became dependent on medication. In October 1973, President Nixon appointed Ford as his vice president after scandal forced Spiro Agnew out of office. Then when Watergate forced Nixon to resign, Ford was sworn in at noon on August 9, 1974. Suddenly thrust into roles they had never campaigned for, the Fords helped heal the nation. Mrs. Ford favored the Equal Rights Amendment, and when she battled breast cancer, the country rallied around. Most appreciated her talking about her trauma. No doubt she saved countless lives as millions of other women learned about the disease.
Betty was thoroughly disappointed when her husband lost re-election, although the pardon he'd given his predecessor, a weak economy, and other factors contributed to his defeat. They retired to Palm Springs, California, and Betty sank into depression, complicated by her addiction to prescription painkillers and dependence on alcohol. Her family bravely confronted her, and she sought rehabilitation. Following her recovery, Betty Ford spoke out as openly about this as she had about her cancer, and she went on to create the Betty Ford Center for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation in Rancho Mirage, California. Today, the center treats many others, including notables and celebrities. In 1987, she published
Rosalynn Smith Carter
Brought up by loving but strict parents, Rosalynn Smith dreamed of seeing the world beyond Georgia. Little did she know the opportunities she'd have in store for her! But first came some struggle, as her father passed on when Rosalynn was thirteen, and the family went through financially tough times. She helped her widowed mother in her dressmaking business.
Valedictorian at her high school, Rosalynn and her mother found enough money for her to attend Georgia Southwestern, a junior college in Americus. In 1945, she met and began dating Jimmy Carter, who lived in Plains. Rosalynn already knew his sister Ruth, and seemed slightly awed by this student at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. They wrote to each other every day while they finished their education, and they were married in July 1946 in the Plains Methodist Church, when she was eighteen.
Jimmy served in the navy for the next seven years, and their moves from one naval base to another helped fulfill Rosalynn's earlier yen for travel. During this time their three sons — John William (Jack), James Earl (Chip), and Jeffrey — were born in different cities. In 1953, Carter left the navy, returning to Plains to run the family peanut business. When Jimmy ran for the state Senate in 1962, Rosalynn managed the business while he was away. Their daughter Amy was born in 1967, and three years later, Jimmy was elected governor. Rosalynn learned to speak before large crowds and worked diligently to improve conditions for mentally retarded children. When Jimmy decided to run for president as a Washington outsider, she toured the country campaigning for him.
After watching Jimmy take the oath of office, Rosalynn walked hand in hand with him down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Rosalynn sat in on cabinet meetings and traveled even farther as his representative. The first first lady since Eleanor Roosappendix evelt to testify before Congress, Rosalynn spoke on behalf of mental health programs. She also gave a voice to the concerns of women and the elderly. In the 1980 election campaign, her husband chose to stay behind in Washington because the Iranian hostages were held captive. Rosalynn did most of his campaigning for a re-election he ultimately lost.
Back in Plains, the Carters found a new focus building houses for the needy with Habitat for Humanity, and they each wrote bestselling books. Mrs. Carter continues to support mental health programs and awareness.
Nancy Davis Reagan
First named Anne Frances as a baby, she was always called Nancy. Her parents separated when she was two years old, and her mother returned to the stage as an actress while Nancy lived with an aunt and uncle. When she was seven, her mother married a neurosurgeon, Dr. Loyal Davis of Chicago, and to Nancy's delight, they moved her to be with them. From that point on, she looked on Dr. Davis as her father.
Nancy had an active youth, meeting celebrities who were acquaintances of her parents, attending parties and dance classes, and making her social debut in December 1939. She graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in drama, and she worked in theater in New York. By the spring of 1949, she made it to Hollywood for a screen test and began a career in films.
That fall, she asked friends to introduce her to Ronald Reagan, also an actor. Nancy thought he was rather handsome, and he had just separated from his wife. In March 1952, they were married in the San Fernando Valley. She made several movies, including
Reagan talked about old-fashioned ideals, and his message appealed to voters after years of scandal and problems in the country. Thus, he was tapped as the Republican nominee in 1980 after losing the party's nomination to Ford in 1976, and he was sworn in on January 1981. Just two months into his presidency, it nearly came to a tragic end. An assailant shot Ronald Reagan outside a Washington hotel. A terrified Nancy Reagan rushed to the president's side and monitored his medical care.
Although Ronnie (as she playfully called him) was well liked, Nancy was criticized for her lavish lifestyle and spending. While Reagan cut programs for the poor, Nancy ordered new White House china at a cost of $200,000. To improve her image, she began working again with the Foster Grandparent Program, where she'd once been active as California's first lady. On a national level, she also instituted an antidrug program called “Just Say No.”
After two terms in office, the Reagans retired to their Santa Barbara ranch and she penned her memoirs,
Barbara Pierce Bush
Barbara was born in New York City, where her father Marvin was president of the McCall Corporation. She lived in the suburb of Rye, New York, but attended high school in Charleston, South Carolina. During her Christmas vacation in 1941, Barbara went to a dance and met George Bush, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Two years later, before she entered Smith College, they became engaged. Her concerns were obviously with him as he fought in the navy during World War II. Thinking of nothing else but George, she dropped out of Smith during her sophomore year and married him during his leave in January 1945. Barbara was nineteen.
After the war, George finished his education at Yale, and they moved to Texas so that he could work in the oil business. The couple had six children — George W., Robin, John (Jeb), Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy. In 1953, their daughter Robin died of leukemia. Within the next ten years, George would become active in the Texas Republican Party, and in 1966, he won a seat in Congress. His rise in politics continued throughout the 1970s with various appointments, including U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, national chairman of his party, then U.S. envoy to China in 1974. The next year, he returned to the States to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1980, Ronald Reagan tapped Bush to become his running mate, and the next eight years were also spent in Washington.
Barbara appeared grandmotherly and would always be remembered for her signature white pearls. As first lady, she spoke out in favor of literacy campaigns, and although she never disagreed in public with her husband's political positions, she is said to have privately expressed her opinions that were sometimes much more liberal than his. During her White House years, she also penned a book about their dog Millie.
In 1994, in retirement, Barbara Bush wrote her autobiography,
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Diane Rodham was born in October 1947 in Chicago, Illinois. She and her two younger brothers grew up in the middle-class suburb of Park Ridge, and Hillary excelled in school as well as in student leadership. She was active with her Methodist youth group, where she took an interest in migrant workers and inner-city struggles. When Hillary heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Chicago in 1962, she was deeply moved. Graduating with honors from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1969, she set her sights on a legal career, and despite the male-dominated profession at the time, she enrolled in Yale University.
While at the law library, she met another student, Bill Clinton from Arkansas. Bill was bright, energetic, and devoted to public service. He was attracted to her mind and her unusual confidence. Hillary worked following her graduation as an attorney for the Children's Defense Fund, and from the end of 1973 to August 1974, she worked for the House Judiciary Committee, evaluating impeachment evidence against then-president Richard M. Nixon. Following Nixon's resignation, Hillary Rodham had her pick of any number of high-paying positions in law firms. Instead, she moved with Bill Clinton to Arkansas. They were married in October 1975 near the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where she taught law. She kept her maiden name. In 1976, when he was elected attorney general for the state, they moved to Little Rock, where she joined the Rose Law Firm.
Two years later, Bill Clinton was elected governor, and their daughter Chelsea was born two years after that in February 1980. In November, Bill lost his re-election bid. Hillary attributed the loss to her role as an independent, career-minded governor's wife. So, she took a leave of absence from the law firm and announced that she was changing her name to Clinton. Whether these measures helped him win re-election in 1982 is uncertain, but they were back in the Arkansas governor's mansion, where Bill governed for ten years. She resumed her law career and always took on the causes of children and families.
In 1991, the Clintons decided that Bill should run for the presidency. However, during his campaign, when she alluded to her future involvement in the administration, some felt she was too assertive and had her own agenda. She was indeed a striking contrast to the grandmotherly Barbara Bush.
Working as a team, the couple achieved their political goals, and Hillary planned to take on a somewhat dual role as first lady and policy worker. When the president appointed her to head his Task Force on National Health Care Reform, she took on the challenge with gusto, but her detractors ridiculed her. Many special-interest groups resisted change in health care, and the massive initiatives the Clintons would have liked to achieve failed.
Hillary Clinton next opted for a lower profile as first lady, writing the bestselling
Laura Welch Bush
Growing up in the small oil town of Midland, Texas, during the 1950s, Laura had a fairly calm adolescence, spending time with friends, and always loving to read. In 1964, she went off to Southern Methodist University to study education, and it was during her first teaching job at a predominantly black elementary school in Houston that the country's racial divide struck her. Determined to help the cause of literacy, she headed back to the classroom to obtain her graduate degree in library science from the University of Texas. While a graduate student, her longtime friend Jan tried desperately to fix her up with the young George W. Bush, but Laura hesitated. Finally, three years later on a trip back home to Midland, she relented and met him at her friend's house. To everyone's surprise, perhaps even their own, the two married three months later.
After they spent their honeymoon canvassing parts of west Texas for George W.'s unsuccessful congressional bid, they settled down to have a family. After years of trying to conceive, they had decided to adopt when Laura discovered that she was carrying twins — their daughters Jenna and Barbara.
As George's father's career led to the White House, George W. got out of the oil business and became a managing partner in the Texas Rangers baseball team. Although her husband reportedly overindulged in alcohol over the years, she encouraged him to kick the habit. And when he decided to challenge incumbent governor Ann Richards in 1994, Laura was less than enthusiastic. Over the years as the first lady of Texas, however, she learned to campaign and to address the crowds. Of course, she used her position to champion her favorite cause (and every other librarian's) — literacy and the love of reading. This has been a primary focus for her during her White House years, as it was for her mother-in-law Barbara years ago.