Alice Hathaway Lee: The First Mrs. TR

alice's mom

One of the few existing photographs of Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt: The first Mrs. TR

Few people know it, but Theodore Roosevelt was married twice. He was married at twenty-two. Three years later, his wife died in childbirth.

Theodore Roosevelt: Suitor

Theodore Roosevelt was home-schooled or privately tutored for most of his youth, partly because of his family wealth and position, and partly because of his delicate health. But his mind was always keen, sharp, and insatiably curious. An easy fit for Harvard. His New York Knickerbocker social status matched easily with the Boston Brahmans. Another easy fit.

Teenaged TR

TR as a young man had overcome a sickly childhood to become the poster child for “the strenuous life”.

as children

Edith Carow (seated on the ground) was a childhood friend of the Roosevelt children. She would become the Second Mrs. TR.

When he was twenty, he met a slim, pretty teenager, considered tall, at 5’6″. Alice Hathaway Lee (1861-1884) was a cousin to Dick Saltonstall, one of TR’s close friends. He was immediately attracted, despite his long-time friendship with Edith Carow, his younger sister’s best friend.

Alice enchanted the young man barely out of his teens. He proceeded to lay siege to her heart, but Alice was only sixteen, full of joi de vivre, eager to explore whatever social opportunities fell in her lap – and there were many. And many suitors as well. Part of TR’s siege efforts focused on winning over her parents. The wealthy Lees couldn’t help but like Theodore. His exuberance was always infectious, and his pedigree and intelligence were never questioned. He was always a welcome visitor. If there was any objection, it was to their obvious youth. But people do get older.

Alice liked Theodore, but she was not head-over-heels in love. He was. And he was enough in love to pursue with his usual ardor and his unusual patience. She finally agreed to marry him. She was nineteen. He had just turned twenty-two.

Alice: The Sweet Wife

Alice Lee was a very wealthy young woman, trained from birth to be lovely, mildly intelligent, and possessed of all the qualities for social acceptance on a high scale of society.

alicehathaway roosevelt l

Pretty Alice Hathaway Lee (notice the hairdo!) enchanted the young Harvard student. He pursued her ardently.

The Boston Brahman slipped effortlessly into the New York Knickerbocker lifestyle. Her pleasant and accommodating personality was a delight to her new mother-in-law, the former Martha Bullock and TR’s discerning sister Anna, always called “Bamie.” They loved her. She loved them. TR loved her. She loved him. Everybody was happy.

For a while they lived with TR’s mother and sister in their West 57th Street townhouse. TR found interesting uses for his time by becoming active in New York City politics, mixing-it-up with assorted riffs and raffs, and getting himself elected to the NY Assembly.

When Albany was in session, TR and Alice took rooms in the capital, but riffs, raffs and mixing-it-up was not an easy adaptation for Mrs. TR. These were new types of people for her, and she was somewhat out of her comfort zone. When she became pregnant, it was an easy excuse for her to return to New York City and the company of her in-laws.

Years later, the former Edith Carow, the childhood friend and second Mrs. TR, remarked that had she lived, she believed that Alice would have bored Theodore to death. It is easy to consider the comment an offhand snipe, which Edith was known to have done on occasion. But in this case, there is a fair amount of truth. Alice was not suited to the rough-and-tumble. She may well have discouraged the husband who loved her dearly to forego active politics.

The Horrible February

All was going well with Alice’s pregnancy – at least on the surface. TR was thrilled at the prospect of becoming a father, and expecting to have a large family, the

baby lee roosevelt

Alice and TR’s daughter (also named Alice) would be called “Baby Lee” for the first four years of her life. She lived with her Aunt Bamie until her father remarried.

young couple had started to build a house on Long Island Sound.

Theodore was in Albany when the telegram came that Alice had begun labor. He was handing out the customary new-father cigars when a second telegram came telling him to come at once – there was trouble. TR took the next train to Manhattan, and was met at the door of the West 57th Street house by his brother Elliott, who sobbed, “This house is cursed. Alice is dying upstairs, and Mother is dying downstairs.”

Alice’s pregnancy had disguised a condition she likely had for some time: Bright’s Disease, a serious kidney ailment, then always fatal. Childbirth shocked her kidneys into acute trauma, and she was dying in a room upstairs.

To compound matters, Theodore’s mother was downstairs in the final throes of typhoid fever. She would succumb in hours.

Theodore Roosevelt barely had time to kiss his wife and hold her hand for a few minutes before he was summoned to his mother’s final moments. She died on February 13.

alice roosevelt

When Alice Roosevelt (the daughter) grew up, she bore a remarkable resemblance to her natural mother.

On February 14, a day after baby Alice was born and named for her mother, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt died. She was only twenty-three. In his diary entry for that date, he wrote simply that “the light had gone out of his life.”

Later, Later and Much Later

Theodore was devastated by the double loss, and went through the motions of funeral arrangements in an understandable daze. He asked his sister Bamie to care for the baby. Then he resigned his Assembly seat, went to the Dakotas, bought a ranch and became a cowboy.

A few weeks after Alice’s death, TR wrote a brief eulogy for his dead young wife, and had it circulated among close family and friends.

He locked Alice’s memory away in a secret compartment of his heart. He never called his daughter “Alice.” Instead, she was “Baby Lee” until she was three or four. Then, after TR remarried and had five more children, she would be forever be called “Sister,” despite the fact that she bore a remarkable resemblance to her natural mother.

He never spoke of Alice Lee again. Not even to his daughter – their daughter. Even when she was grown and asked about the “mother” she never knew, TR refused to comply. It was his memory, and his alone.


Brands, H.W. –  TR: The Last Romantic  – Basic Books, 1997

Caroli, Betty Boyd – The Roosevelt Women – Basic Books, 1999

Dalton, Kathleen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – Borzoi-Knopf, 2002

McCullough, David –  Mornings on Horseback  – Simon & Schuster, 1981



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Grace Coolidge in the Kitchen

When Calvin Coolidge wanted to marry Miss Grace Goodhue, her parents were not happy.


Young Grace Goodhue was definitely what contemporaries would call “a looker!”

The Coolidge Proposal

Some time after Calvin Coolidge began seeing the pretty Miss Goodhue, he took her to meet his family.  They liked her. Everybody did. His grandmother said, “She’s a likely gal, Calvin, you should marry her.” “Think I will,” Coolidge replied.

Sometime afterwards, the prospective bridegroom told the prospective bride’s father that he wanted to marry Grace.

Mr. Goodhue was astounded. “Does Grace know about this?” he asked. Coolidge said simply, “No. But she will.”

She did.

The Goodhue Objection:


Grace Goodhue’s parents were never happy with their personable daughter’s choice of husband.

There was nothing bad about Calvin Coolidge himself-ish. He came from a good family. He had graduated from Amherst College. He was a practicing attorney. Perhaps not an Adonis, but then again… So far, so good.


Calvin Coolidge. Always silent. Even when he was at his funniest.

The Goodhues’ only child, a graduate of the University of Vermont and a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf, was a pretty, personable, outgoing woman with a wall-to-wall smile. She was always popular, and had her pick among all the young men in town. Why would she choose such a silent, pasty fellow? You couldn’t get six words out of him!

The Goodhues dearly loved their daughter and wanted her to be happy, and they could not understand (and never would) how she could be happy with such a cold clam.

Nevertheless, Grace Goodhue and Calvin Coolidge became engaged to be married.
Mrs. Goodhue’s Plan

Elviera Goodhue had a “solution.” Grace knew very little about housewifery, and suggested that her daughter resign her teaching position, move back home for a year, and learn to cook and bake and become a proper New England housewife.

“Why, Mr. Coolidge,” she said, “Grace doesn’t even know how to bake bread.” Coolidge was unmoved, and was said to have replied in his distinctive twang, “I can buy bread. I want Grace.”

But Grace was an obedient young woman and daughter, and she duly moved back home. Her parents were hoping that with time and distance, she might change her mind – or perhaps attract a new beau.

Calvin Coolidge was not pleased. After all, he reasoned, he was thirty-two. Grace was twenty-six. Surely they were both old enough to know their own minds. He visited her regularly. She did not change her mind. Nor did he.

Keeping House Circa 1905

When the Coolidges married, Grace “retired” from teaching. Married women did not work. She was now a housewife, and would become mother of two sons in due time.


The Coolidges rented half-a-house in Northampton, MA, and lived there until they went to the White House.

young coolidges2

The Coolidges became parents of two boys, Calvin, Jr. and John.

The newlyweds moved into half of a two-family house in Northampton, MA, and they would stay there even when they moved to the White House and beyond. They were never more than middle-class. Calvin was a mediocre attorney and public servant: mayor of his small town, moderate state legislator. His leadership was as modest as he was.

Grace Coolidge never had servants, even in a day when they were available and affordable. At most she had an occasional day-girl to help with the heavier work.

Grace knits

Grace could knit, sew and crochet with fair skills…

But Grace was a warm-hearted mother, neighbor, friend, happy to teach her boys to play baseball on the front lawn. She was equally happy to help at their church functions, and during World War I, like many other women in the country, she joined the Red Cross and became active.

But while she became an avid and competent needle-woman, try as she did, she never did master the kitchen.

Biscuits and Pies

The Goodhues could never understand their daughter’s attraction to the “cold clam,” but Grace would write years later, “He made me laugh.”

It was their shared sense of humor that bound the couple together. His was dry, wry and all the funnier since it was delivered with a devastatingly deadpanned expression. Grace’s humor was teasing and mimicking. It is said she could imitate Coolidge’s New England twang to perfection.


…But cooking was never her strong suit!

Grace was contented as a New England housewife, but was never more than mediocre in its skills. Coolidge loved his pretty wife dearly, and would never criticize her – at least not overtly. But he could make his point.

Biscuits, of course, are supposed to be light and fluffy and melt-in-your-mouthable. Grace’s left much to be desired. Coolidge made his point by “accidentally” letting one drop – and simultaneously stomped his foot on the floor. Grace was not insulted. It is said that the entire family howled.

Then there was her apple pie. It seems that she was never able to master the art of a light and flaky crust. Hers was definitely in the soggy and chewable department.

The family had had it for supper, but there was still a half-a-pie leftover. When a couple of Grace’s lady-friends stopped in that evening, Coolidge surprised her and asked them if they might like to have some of her delicious apple pie and coffee. The women graciously accepted.

The story goes that it was Coolidge who made the coffee, laid the table and sliced the pie. Then, as the ladies were sampling “Grace’s delicious”, Coolidge twanged with a slight twinkle in his eye, “Don’t you think the road commissioner would be willing to pay my wife something for her recipe for pie crust?”

Point made. No offense taken.


  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
  • Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981
  • Wikander, Lawrence & Ferrell, Robert (eds) – Grace Coolidge, An Autobiography, 1992, High Plains


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William Howard Taft and the Bathtub(s)


One of the many oversized bathtubs said to have been created for President William Howard Taft.

William Howard Taft was a big baby who became a big boy who became a very big man.

WHT: The Big Guy

William Howard Taft (1857-1930) came from a very prominent Cincinnati, Ohio family. His father had served in Grant’s Cabinet as well as in several diplomatic posts.

young will

Young Will Taft had a stellar pedigree: prestigious Cincinnati family, Yale, attorney, judge. He was a natural!

Following in his father’s footsteps, Will Taft went to Yale, graduated at the top of his class, returned to Ohio, became an attorney, and began a steady rise in public service.

As a full-grown man, the once-big baby became a six-footer, weighing anywhere between a svelte 250 lbs. (on a thin day), to a huge 350 lbs., depending on his level of stress.

Blessed with the proverbial fat-and-jolly disposition, Taft was always popular with all levels: mentors, peers and subordinates. Everybody loved him. When he married the former Helen Herron (1861-1943), her political intelligence and ambition provided a constant impetus for his political rise.


Appointed to the bench early in his career was perfect for the judicious and genial – and sedentary – Taft. He loved being a judge!

Early in his career, Taft was appointed to the “bench.”  The sedentary judicial life suited him perfectly. The all-encompassing one-size-fits-all black robes also suited him perfectly. But Nellie, his ambitious wife, along with the close-knit Taft family, had other plans for their favorite relative.

Taft’s Road to Washington

Appointed Solicitor General by President Benjamin Harrison, the Tafts moved to Washington. The genial young attorney focused his wistful eye on the Supreme Court; Nellie focused her wistful eye on a better address a mile away on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Both Presidents Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley liked and admired Taft. President Theodore Roosevelt was his closest friend.

President Harrison liked the big, personable and extremely competent Taft, and at the end of his single term, appointed him Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Justice. The continual travel of the Circuit Court suited him. Trains, restaurants and hotel living increased his girth.

Finally, at the end of the 19th century, and shortly after the Spanish-American War, President McKinley appointed Judge Taft as Governor-General of the Philippines, the Pacific island nation that had fallen into the American lap, whether we wanted it or not.

Taft In the Philippines

Taft was an ideal choice. He managed to unite (as best as could be united) a half-dozen insurgent factions, and began a road to real progress among the fractious population.  They liked him.

Nellie Taft always considered the Philippines as a “dress rehearsal” for the Presidency. In Manila, she was the First Lady – and Taft was a popular leader. Both Tafts counted that time as among their happiest years.


Not a horse…but you have to feel sorry for the water buffalo!

He also managed to squeeze in some exotic travel, dear to the heart of both Tafts. The big fellow once wrote to Secretary of State Elihu Root, telling him of his trip on horseback through the tropical jungles. Root, a close friend of the 300-pounder, wired back inquiring, “How is the horse?”

During those Philippine years, Taft was offered his “dream job” – a seat on the Supreme Court – twice, no less, by now-President Theodore Roosevelt. Taft sighed and declined, citing his desire to complete ongoing efforts in Manila. Mrs. Taft sighed in relief. Her eye was still on the White House. The Supreme Court was a lifetime position, and Taft, still in his forties, was far too young to make such a commitment.  When a Cabinet position was offered, however, the Taft’s returned home.

Taft Expands in the White House

Taft did not really want to be President, and he hemmed and hawed. The Brothers Taft, ably abetted by Nellie – along with persuasive President Theodore Roosevelt, a close personal friend, managed to twist the big guy’s arm.

Taft easily won the 1908 election.


Taft is said to have gained fifty pounds in the White House.

Helen Herron Taft

First Lady Helen Taft suffered a severe stroke only weeks into the Taft presidency. WHT missed her political savvy!

All began well, but the culmination of dreams was abruptly ended when Mrs. Taft suffered a stroke only a few months into the administration. It was a long recovery that devastated all her dreams. It would equally devastate President Taft, who loved his wife dearly, and relied on her political savvy. Her inability to speak, read and write coherently deprived the President of a keen and prescient advisor. Her inability to “appear in public” deprived him of her regular nudge to keep him awake at the table.

Some people lose their appetites under stress. Some become ravenous.

Will Taft had always battled with weight. He had been placed on various diets by various doctors over the years. He had followed them and had even lost appreciable weight. But it was a yo-yo; it would never stay off permanently. Now, with the stress of the Presidency he never really wanted, the illness of his wife, and a growing rift with his ex-best friend, former-President Theodore Roosevelt, Taft’s weight ballooned to around 350 lbs. – heavier than he had ever been.

“Tubby” and Tubs


Taft and the “tub” incident, whether exactly true or semi-apocryphal, provided cartoonists with a wealth of opportunities!

The legend is (according to long-ago White House Chief Usher Ike Hoover’s recollections) the overweight President literally became stuck in the bathtub and needed to be pried out. This may well be apocryphal, since if there actually was such an undignified and embarrassing personal incident, chances are it might be neatly hushed-up. But the general “public knowledge” is that several Taft-sized bathtubs were built and installed. One such tub was constructed for the battleship North Carolina sometime in 1909, when Taft was expected as a guest. Other appropriate-sized bathing venues were installed in other facilities where the chubby President was expected to stay. That includes the White House. A new tub was created specifically for our largest POTUS in circumference.

One absolutely true “tub story” concerns the Cape May Hotel in New Jersey, where the plus-sized Ex-POTUS was staying and bathing. Seems Taft’s weight “displaced” a ton of water, which overflowed onto the floor, leaked down through the ceiling, raining on guests dining below. The following day, as Taft was gazing at the Atlantic Ocean, he quietly remarked, “One day I’ll get a piece of that fenced in, and when I venture in, there won’t be an overflow.”


Hoover, Irwin Hood – 42 Years in the White House – Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1934

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VP Charlie Curtis and His Data Base

Charles Curtis is one of our most obscure Vice Presidents, known only for being part  Indian, as they used to call it, and he was proud of it.

charles curtis

Charles Curtis, Vice President under Herbert Hoover: 1929-1933

Charlie the Kaw

Charles Curtis (1860-1936) was a Kansan, born as the Civil War was getting under way. He was one-eighth Kaw Indian. His mother died when he was a baby, and he was ping-pong-raised by his two grandmothers until he reached puberty. He personally enjoyed his “Indian” life, and expressed a desire to remain within the tribe. His “Indian” grandmother sided with his “Curtis” grandma, however, and suggested that it would be better for him to get an education “on the outside.”

Even though Charlie was an indifferent student and never graduated high school, he managed to read law while he supported himself as a hack-driver. When business was slow, he drove under a gas-lamp to study. His real diligence made up for his so-so acumen, and he passed the Kansas bar and began a practice.

But the political bug bit him, and in the 1880s, the Republican Party was the party of choice. He began supporting Republican candidates, and in a short time, was elected to the State Legislature.

Charlie the Politician


Charlie Curtis was always proud of his Indian heritage and his inclusion in Kaw Indian tribal membership.

Charles Curtis, by his own admission “one-eighth Kaw and 100% Republican”, was a natural in politics. He was a nice looking fellow with an easy charm and the politician’s glad-hand. He was happy to criss-cross his county for votes and fellowship, and the populace responded.

During the 1890s, a Kansas editor named William Allen White was making a name for himself in journalism, and spent a couple of days traveling with the young legislator as he made rounds in his district. Frequently, White noticed that Curtis seemed to be consulting a little back notebook and mumbling to himself. Upon closer observation, he realized that the notebook was a list of names of everyone Curtis met during his travels, along with salient information that might be useful. Names, spouse names, town, county, what they did for a living, age, children, and distinguishing attributes. And in mumbling, White realized that Curtis was committing this information to memory. Several notebooks would be filled over the years.

If he was going to a certain town, he reviewed all their residents in his book so he could greet them by name, ask after their “ailing mother,” congratulate them on the new baby or whatever else was important in their lives. The voters believed that Curtis remembered them, and he was considered their personal “friend.”

Charlie Curtis went to all the state and county fairs, the political rallies, the local contests and events. This attention to his constituency practically guaranteed that he would continually win his district – even though much of populist-Kansas was leaning heavily toward the party of William Jennings Bryan.

Charlie in Leadership

Few people today realize that Charles Curtis was a viable candidate for high office during the early part of the 20th Century. It was not so much because of his leadership as it was because of his followership. He checked in with the Republic Party power brokers regularly, and voted a straight-as-an-arrow line. The Republicans sent him to Congress. And then to the Senate, where he rose in their ranks, eventually becoming Majority Leader.

The consensus of future politicians wagged that when a new bill was introduced, Charlie Curtis would immediately seek out the moguls and ask, “How do you want me to vote?” And he voted accordingly. He seldom introduced important legislation, never rocked the boat, and was not inclined to disagree – especially when he could charm and disarm.


As Herbert Hoover’s Vice President, his role was largely ceremonial rather than substantive. Hoover did not consider him highly.

During the 1920s, Charlie Curtis was regularly shortlisted as a candidate for President – and wanted the office. He had hoped for the Vice Presidency under Coolidge, but Coolidge wasn’t impressed. Curtis wanted the Presidential nod in 1928, but he had no chance against Herbert Hoover, who had a much more impressive resume. He became Hoover’s running mate and Vice President. Hoover wasn’t impressed either, and gave Curtis virtually nothing to do, and never sought his advice or assistance.

Indeed, when the Gershwins penned their Pulitzer Prize winning musical “Of Thee I Sing,” the persona of the ineffectual and unrecognized fictional Vice President Throttlebottom was based on the public’s impression of Curtis.

Charlie’s Data Base

In the early part of the 20th Century, there were no computers or mechanisms for large-scale date storage. Whatever information was collected would be filed by hand, and retrieved similarly. Politicians with a memory for names and faces were truly blessed. Curtis may have had a memory for names and faces, but it was earned and learned over years of work.

By the 1920s, his little notebooks became a system of index cards of every voter in Kansas – and elsewhere, if they were likely to have an impact on his career. Names, spouses, parents, children, children’s spouses, grandchildren. Residences, occupations, issues of concern – and whatever else might be of importance.


The good people of Kansas never forgot their favorite – and Native son. His bust represents Kansas in Congress’ Statuary Hall.

As time went on, the card file was sub-divided according to “special interests.” Doctors. Farmers. Merchants. School teachers. If specific legislation was on the docket for those interests, Curtis could put a substantive list together quickly and circulate the Republican point of view.

Everywhere he went, business cards were collected and more index cards were filed and cross-filed. Even those politicians who thought of Charles Curtis as little more than a political cipher were impressed.

Today Charlie Curtis may be considered a political hack of little regard, but he was a first-rate data base manager way ahead of his time!


Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974

Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing

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Jefferson Davis at Twilight

For a man with lifelong poor health, Jefferson Davis managed to live till eighty-one.

The Three Careers of Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was a quintessential Southerner of the early nineteenth century: one who easily and capably gravitated into three distinct careers. West Point trained, he was a capable and effective army officer. Had he not been elected President of the Confederate States of America, he no doubt would and could have served as a high ranking general for the southern army. His wife Varina later wrote that she believed her husband would have been much happier with a field command than as President of the CSA.

jeff davis

Following the path of George Washington, young Jefferson Davis was a soldier, a planter and a statesman.

Davis was also a successful planter. Resigning military life in lieu of civilian opportunities for wealth was common. Jefferson Davis’ Brierfield estate, thrived. By the beginning of the Civil War, he was considered one of the wealthiest planters in Mississippi.

Davis easily gravitated to political life, another career common to prosperous Southern gentlemen. His voice was mellifluous in an age where oratory was a career in itself.  Elected to Congress in the mid 1840s, his ability to sway an audience was substantial.  He was in line to become a spokesman and leader of Southern issues.

The Complex Reputation of Jefferson Davis

No question about it, Jefferson Davis was a difficult man with few close friends. Many people disliked him. Most people respected him, however, and his personal integrity would always be above reproach. No one was harder on Jefferson Davis than he, himself.

csa pres

Dozens of photographs were taken of US President Abraham Lincoln. Only one was taken of CSA President Davis.

What he was not, however, was a rabble-rouser. Despite his close attachment to John C. Calhoun (who died in 1850), Davis was a staunch Unionist. He was opposed to secession and said so many times. It was a sad event for him when Mississippi followed South Carolina out of the Union in 1861. Nevertheless, he believed the states had a “right to secede” and it was this core belief that would sustain him.

Those who knew Davis, realized that he was a man who once he made up his mind, could not be induced to change it.  He could never quite understand an “honest difference of opinion.” His unfailing courtesy masqueraded as icy indifference, or perhaps vice versa. This intransigence and cold reserve would prove disastrous both personally and politically. Even though he had been elected CSA President without opposition, by the waning days of the Civil War, half of the South disliked him and/or blamed him for their failures.

Jefferson Davis, Martyr

THe older Davises

The Civil War, followed by his two-year imprisonment aged Davis considerably. This photo was taken sometime around 1868.

It may have been Lincoln who was assassinated, and claimed by the ages as our Martyred President, but it is truly Jefferson Davis who had the soul of the martyr.

Captured a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Davis was imprisoned in Fortress Monroe, and put in chains in a damp cell. He was in his late fifties and had been in poor health for decades. He was obviously no threat to anyone, and the chains, while perhaps symbolic, were unnecessary. True to form, he did not complain. It would fall to his wife Varina to campaign for his “humane” treatment, which included allowing her and their baby “Winnie,” less than a year old, to join him for the better part of two years in the casement prison.

the davis kids

At the end of the Civil War, the Davises had four children under twelve years old.

Davis was not a man to moan and groan, rather to forebear and suffer in silence. Instead he focused what little energies he had left on finding employment and providing for his still-young family. It would not be easy at his age, his health condition, and his past. He had lost everything – except his dignity.

Resurrection and The Lost Cause

The Civil War was a seminal moment in American history, for both the North and South. Parades were held, books were written, songs were sung, speeches were made, banquets and dinners hosted, military reunions, celebrations and memorial services were scheduled with regularity.

In the South, about a decade and a half after the War had ended, and pockets of strife had either begun to heal or fester, The “Lost Cause” was born. Sociologists and historians simplify it by saying it was the Southern way of promoting the valor, the sacrifice, the bravery and gallantry of their soldiers, and the inner resolve and strength on their homefront. It is as good a way to explain it as any. But in the complexities of human nature, the South needed to believe in something positive, or good, or worthwhile about themselves despite their loss, despite their despair and despite their continued economic struggles.

Thus more parades, more celebrations, more occasions to create reason to cheer themselves. For the soldier, any soldier, any age, battle ranks high in the pinnacles of their lifetime.  The bands-of-brotherhood are among the strongest of ties.


Despite his white hair and beard, Jefferson Davis aged gracefully and with mental alertness.

Stonewall Jackson-The-Hero was now dead for two decades; General Lee-the-Revered was dead for one. Other generals of lesser note were trotted out from place to place to wave the Stars and Bars, eat barbecue and sip a julep. Then they re-discovered a legitimate “star”: Jefferson Davis, now well into his seventies, white haired, but still straight as an arrow, with his unfailing courtesy (the ice was forgotten) and his overwhelming dignity which never left him.

He was invited to be a guest and to make some appropriate remarks. His oratory was still powerful, and his focus on the valor, the sacrifice, the bravery and gallantry and inner resolve was exactly what his “countrymen” wanted to hear and needed to believe. Now he was invited everywhere, and as long as his health held out, he was happy to go.

He was finally personally popular.


Davis, William C. – The Lost Cause: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy – University Press of Kansas, 1996

Johnson, Clint – Pursuit – Citadel Press, 2008

Swanson, James – Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis – William Morrow, 2010

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Mary Lincoln’s Big Sister: Elizabeth Edwards

Elizabeth Todd Edwards was the oldest of Mary Lincoln’s siblings.

The Todd Family

Robert and Eliza Todd of Lexington, KY had six children who lived to adulthood. Mary was the fourth. Eliza died when Mary was only seven; eighteen months later, Robert remarried, and the family dynamic was changed forever with the arrival of a new stepmother – followed by eight more little Todd offspring.


Elizabeth Todd Edwards, Mary Lincoln’s eldest sister, as a young Springfield matron.

Elizabeth Todd (1813-1888), the eldest, was the quintessential prototype of the “first-born syndrome.” She took on the responsibility of quasi-mothering her younger siblings, and escaping the strained household at sixteen by marriage to Ninian Edwards, Jr., the son of the first governor of Illinois. She moved to Springfield, its new capital, with a goal of creating a social scene befitting a state capital – practically from scratch. In the early 1830s, it was still a pioneer village.

Elizabeth Rescues Mary The First Time

Elizabeth Edwards, capably hosting social events for her widowed father-in-law, believed that the up-and-coming young men who lived and/or had business in Springfield required intelligent, well-bred young women to help advance their careers and raise distinguished families. And who better than her own sisters to advance that vision? Besides, living in Kentucky with the “wicked stepmother” was becoming difficult for all the “first” sisters.

Mary Todd, five years younger than Elizabeth was duly invited to come to Springfield permanently when she was in her late teens. Staying with the Edwards’ she was immediately introduced to the cream of Springfield.

young mary lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln, as a young Springfield matron, taken shortly after she married Abraham Lincoln.

Mary was delighted to escape from her “desolate  childhood,” (her own phrase).  Living with her sister and brother-in-law for five years, she enjoyed perhaps the most carefree time of her life. She had a little coterie of social friends, attended parties and theatre and lectures and whatever entertainment was available in the growing town. Then she met and married a struggling young attorney named Abraham Lincoln. That marriage, however, was not without serious misgivings by both Elizabeth and Ninian Edwards. While they believed Lincoln was a nice enough fellow and a capable lawyer, he was multi-steps below the society-minded Todds (who required two “d’s” while God only needed one – according to Lincoln).

The Lincolns married anyway, and it would take them more than a decade to achieve middle-class status.

Rescuing Mary in the White House

It was Robert Lincoln, the eldest of the Lincoln sons, who sent for his Aunt Elizabeth in 1862.

more mary

The death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln plummeted Mary into a severe depression.

By that time, Lincoln had been elected President of the United States, and the country was being torn apart by a Civil War which would claim more than a half-million lives before it ended.

The First Family, less than a year in the White House, experienced its own wrenching loss.  Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever. Mary Lincoln was devastated by grief. For weeks she was physically unable to leave her bed. President Lincoln, the equally distraught father, was overburdened by his duties and could spare little time for the emotional care that his wife desperately needed.

Robert asked his aunt to come to Washington. She came, and it was she who firmly prodded Mary to get on with her life…”get up, Mary, get dressed, Mary, you can’ t stay in bed sobbing all day, Mary…” Elizabeth stayed for two weeks, and Mary began to move on.

Rescuing Mary for Real

elizabeth edwards

Elizabeth Edwards invited Mary Lincoln to “recover” in their home, following her “sanity” ordeal.

ninian edwards

Ninian Edwards, Elizabeth’s husband, and the Lincolns brother-in-law.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was more than mere grief to his wife. It was a trauma. She was sitting beside him when the bullet pierced his skull. Mary would never be the same. Six years later, when Tad, the youngest Lincoln son died at only eighteen, Mary was plunged once again into morbid grief, compounded and exacerbated by Robert’s wife, who had taken a distinct dislike to her mother-in-law. Mary became a perpetual “wanderer,” seeking the physical and emotional comfort that would forever be denied to her.

Her many eccentricities finally culminated in a trial for her “sanity.” Many modern historians believe that her increasingly bizarre behavior was the result of drug interaction. She had been taking various medications prescribed by various doctors in various places for various medical symptoms – for several years.

The trial resulted in Mary being sent to a sanitarium – and a permanent estrangement from her son Robert. It would be Mary herself who engineered her release and retrial, which was dependent on having a “suitable” place to go since Mary had been living in hotels for years.


The Edwards’ home in Springfield, IL, where Mary Todd married Abraham Lincoln – and where Mary Lincoln died.

Mary chose Elizabeth Edwards, who came to her sister’s rescue, offering Mary a stable environment. She stayed with her sister for several months. It was a successful “furlough.” Having removed the cause of her erratic behavior, she never again experienced those symptoms that had so distressed her son Robert.

The Final Rescue

last mary

A “doctored” photograph of the Widow Lincoln, with the “spirit”of her husband watching over her.

Once the Widow Lincoln had recovered some semblance of reasonable composure, she decided to go back to Europe, where she had lived for a few years prior to Tad’s death. She remained there for three more years, mostly in semi-seclusion.

Her return to the USA was predicated on two serious health issues, neither connected with her emotional well- or ill-being. First, she was losing her eyesight, possibly due to cataracts, and/or a suspected undiagnosed diabetes. Secondly, she had a bad fall and hurt her back. It is conceivable that a bone or maybe more was broken. It would trouble her for the rest of her life.

Unable to continue living alone, once again Mrs. Lincoln wrote to her eldest sister-mother for help. “Might she come and stay, more or less permanently?”

Elizabeth, first-born to the core, said yes.


Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W.W.Norton & Co. 1999

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, HarperCollins, 2009

Turner, Justin G. & Turner, Linda Levitt (eds.) – Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters – Knopf, New York, 1972


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Julia Grant and the Actress

Marie Dressler, probably forgotten today, was a mega-star character movie actress of the early 20th century. She starred with Charlie Chaplin – and Greta Garbo!

Miss Dressler, Actress

Marie Dressler (1868-1934) was a large woman, plain, and plus-sized. But she had enormous comedic skills, and co-starred in early silent movies with Charlie Chaplin, no small judge of comedic talent. She could also sing and dance just as well as she could mug for Broadway audiences.


Marie Dressler was a featured comedienne on Broadway long before motion pictures were invented.

By the mid-1890s, Marie Dressler was a featured player in the New York theatre, on her way to achieving the stardom that would come in subsequent years. But in the mid-1890s, stage actresses were still disdained by the snooty set (although their menfolk usually thought otherwise). But times were changing, and since Miss Dressler was far from glamorous, her choice of occupation was not considered “threatening.” At least not as threatening as the Floradora girls who danced and cavorted in flesh-colored tights.

Therefore, when Miss D. decided to take a brief vacation at a posh resort in Lake George, she was somewhat unprepared for the cool reception she received from the other guests. Blessed with an outgoing personality and fine sense of humor, she had hoped for some pleasant conversation, and perhaps an invitation to join one of their excursions.

It was not happening. Word obviously got out that a “stage actress” was among them, and the high-society matrons avoided her as if she had a plague.   She was lonely and disappointed.

The Little Old Lady

By the mid-1890s, Julia Grant had been widowed for a decade. Her forty-year marriage to General Ulysses S. Grant had been a particularly loving and happy one. Her eight years as mistress of the White House were the culmination of every dream she could possibly have had.

Julia Grant_2

Julia Grant was a plain woman. Few photographs of her exist, and those that do usually show her in profile, to protect her “crossed” eye from wandering at will.

She had been born to a middle-class St. Louis family some seventy years earlier. It had been a happy and loving childhood, which glowed even brighter in retrospect. One thing that did not glow brighter was the fact that Julia Dent Grant was a plain child with a figure that age and children made stout. She also was born with an eye condition that turned her eye inward. She never would be a beauty; and her eye condition was never repaired. Her doting husband loved her as is.

Nevertheless, and despite her shortcomings, she had a genial disposition and a pleasant personality that won her many friends, male and female, from the start. Naturally, when Prominence (with a capital ‘P’) fell into her lap, the matrons of Society (with a capital ‘S’) were happy to take her under their collective wing. Perhaps realizing that their help might indeed be helpful, she learned to put on the appropriate airs. But whatever “airs” she learned to adopt were those of her position – not of essential Julia. She was never a snob.

And she never permitted her “widowhood” to dictate her life. While she always wore appropriate black

Older Julia

A middle-aged Julia Grant would become “iconic” in her own right.

widow’s-garments, she managed to get out and about enjoying those years that remained to her, surrounded by a close-knit family and friends – and new friends that she would continue to make.

The Private Concert

Marie Dressler was not enjoying her lonely vacation in Lake George. So one afternoon, she spied a piano in an empty public room, and provided her own entertainment and consolation. The soft music and pleasant singing attracted the attention of an elderly lady passing by. She entered the room quietly and took a seat in the back, enjoying a private performance given by someone who obviously had some musical talents and training.

the widow grant

A rare photograph of Julia Grant as an elderly woman.

When Miss Dressler became aware that she had an audience, she naturally invited the woman to come and sit near her, and asked if she had any “requests.” The woman approached the piano and sat nearby, and asked if she knew “Lorena,” which had been popular some thirty or forty years earlier. Miss Dressler said that she did know the song, and proceeded to play and sing for her audience-of-one.

The elderly woman in black engaged her in conversation, and then invited the younger woman to tea the next day. Marie Dressler, who had made no friends at all at the resort, was happy to accept the invitation – even if it was from an elderly woman.

The Reach of Influence

Marie Dressler indeed joined her older companion for tea, and the two of them had a pleasant hour.


As a much older woman, Marie Dressler appeared in “Anna Christie” with Greta Garbo.

The host did not bat an eye when Miss Dressler admitted that she was a stage actress in New York. And Miss Dressler did not bat an eye when her companion said that her name was “Mrs. Grant.”

dressler min and bill

She appeared in “Min and Bill” with Wallace Beery.

“Grant” is not a particularly uncommon or unusual name. It meant nothing to Marie Dressler, who was Canadian, born in 1868, the year that Grant was elected President. The prestige and prominence of General USG of the USA would have been known of course, but may not have had the same impact.

Dressler Oscar

Lionel Barrymore presented Marie Dressler with an Oscar for Best Actress in “Min and Bill” in 1932.

The bottom line, was that all Marie Dressler knew about the elderly woman was that her name was “Mrs. Grant.” It meant little… Until she began to receive pleasant smiles, nods and how-do-you-do’s from the other guests.  Plus invitations to join their table or their excursions. Clearly something had changed their attitudes. It became apparent that her Mrs. Grant was the Mrs. Grant, and if the company of an actress was good enough for Mrs. Grant it was surely good enough for them.

Marie Dressler went on to become a major stage and screen celebrity, and plain and plus-sized notwithstanding, won the Academy Award in 1932 for Best Actress.


Grant, Julia Dent – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant: (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant) – 1975, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Kennedy, Matthew – Marie Dressler : A Biography, With a Listing of Major Stage Performances, a Filmography and a Discography, McFarland & Co. Publishing, 1998


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