Dolley Madison’s Wednesday Squeezes

It did not start out to be a major event – but it became the benchmark of Washington society for nearly two decades.

Washington 1801:

Portrait of First Lady Martha Washington

Martha Washington, the “first” First Lady.

Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, were both in their late fifties when they became First Ladies. They had entertained graciously, albeit very formally, in New York and Philadelphia, as befitting what they believed was their age and position.  Neither had sought, wanted or particularly enjoyed their tenures.

abigail adams-2

Abigail Adams, the “second” First Lady, took her entertainment style from Lady Washington.

But when Thomas Jefferson became President in March, 1801, the capital moved to Washington, DC.  It was a tiny village, muddy, damp, unpaved, unfinished, with houses and businesses far-flung. Along with the new President came James and Dolley Madison. Jefferson and Madison had enjoyed a 25-year close friendship, and Jefferson insisted that his friend and political ally become Secretary of State.

There were sixteen states in the union when Jefferson became President. Senators and Congressmen came to the new capital as part-timers. A few weeks in the spring session, a few in the fall, and then back to their respective homes. Very few remained in town, although that would change in the decades ahead.

Most of the legislators, the judges, the military hierarchy and department heads lived in boarding houses or hotels. Few could manage the expense of bringing their families. Thus, there were few places for the movers and shakers to “move and shake” in an informal setting.

Dolley Opens the Door


James and Dolley Madison.

Secretary of State James Madison (1751-1836) was a quiet man like Jefferson, and preferred the “small” table: a few select guests. No large crowds.

Not so Mrs. Madison. She was in her early thirties, with youthful good looks and energy.  She also had a rare gift for friendship and for making people feel welcome. She was easy in company, and began opening the Madison’s house for luncheons and teas and dinners on a regular basis.

“Salons” had been popular in Europe for decades. Well-born ladies of fashion would open their homes to provide a comfortable venue for prominent people to engage in lively and informal conversation and refreshments. Madison’s Virginia plantation was prosperous; wagons of supplies were sent regularly.

Dolley Madison (1768-1849) had never been to Europe, but she did know, likely through Jefferson, the concept and purpose of the salon. It also suited her personality – and Madison’s political interests.

Space is finite, of course, and dinner invitations can only accommodate what a table can accommodate. But a “salon,” with its open house come-and-go concept, can attract large numbers of guests.

The house, the bountiful refreshments, the prominent guest list and most importantly, the gracious hostess were like a conjunction of planets. It was perfect.

Wednesday Evenings Chez Madison


An early impression of Washington, DC about the time that the Madisons took up residence.

It was a simple enough concept. Wednesday evening was “open house” at the Madisons. No invitations were necessary. Everyone knew about it.  Everyone was invited: men and women, young and old.  They came to meet and greet, to be introduced, to matchmake, to find employment opportunities, and even hold casual political discussions in a remarkably neutral setting. No arguments; no controversial subjects. Just good informal fellowship wherein political colleagues and political adversaries could become better acquainted.

Those who attended instinctively knew the expected behavior, and none wished to offend their delightful hostess.

For the better part of eight years, Wednesday evenings in Washington were spent at the home of the Secretary of State. Mrs. Madison became the unquestioned leader of the growing Washington society.

Wednesday Evenings at the White House

Madison became President in 1809, and the White House was now poised to become the social mecca of Washington. The country had grown and was continuing to grow rapidly, thanks to the Louisiana Purchase which added millions of habitable acres.

Dolley Madison’s reputation had also grown, and at forty, she was arguably the most famous woman in the country. Visitors to Washington insisted on shaking her hand.

Dolley by Gilbert Stuart

Dolley Madison was forty when she became First Lady. She was in her absolute prime.

Access to the White House in those years was very simple. Knock at the door. The doorman would ask if you had an appointment with the President or First Lady. If you did not, you would be invited to “leave your card” (which everyone had), and advise where you could be reached.

white house 1807

One of the oldest impressions of the White House – said to be around 1807.

Within a day or so, a White House messenger arrived at your hotel or boarding house with an invitation to Mrs. Madison’s next Wednesday soirée. If you were properly dressed and mannered, you were welcome.  Rich or poor, farmer or preacher, hoi polloi or upper crust, it did not matter.

Few chairs were provided, usually for the elderly or frail. The rooms had been generally emptied of furniture to accommodate upwards of three hundred men and women who crowded in, thus giving rise to the expression “a squeeze.”  Mrs. Madison, elegantly gowned and sporting one of her trademark turban hats, perhaps adorned with an egret plume, would be at the door to greet her guests personally. Historian Catherine Allgor suggests that the turban cum plume added several inches to Dolley’s height making the hostess visible in a crowd.

And when a visitor to the capital showed up at her “squeeze,” she made it a point to greet them herself, inquire about their home or their business, and then introduce them to someone with similar interests.

Light refreshments would generously be provided by servants with trays. Coffee, tea, cold drinks in warm weather, “punch” and cakes, including her well-known seed-cake. There is no record that anyone was turned away. Everyone came, and they came every Wednesday evening.

Other Washington ladies opened their homes to guests on a regular basis, but Wednesday nights belonged to Mrs. Madison. And from that time on, the social center of Washington, DC was firmly fixed at the White House.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow

Allgor, Catherine, – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, 2000, University of Virginia Press

Allgor, Catherine – A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation – 2006 Henry Holt and Company

Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies: An Intimate Portrait of the Women Who Shaped America – Sourcebooks, 2011

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FIRST DADS: A Book Review

Product Details

FIRST DADS, by Joshua Kendall. How do these guys stack up in the fathering department?

Author Joshua Kendall has whipped up a dandy light-history read! FIRST DADS is filled with stories, tidbits and gossip about our Presidents – and how they stacked up as fathers. Or not.

The author begins with an important premise (not stressed enough, IMHO), that the concepts of fatherhood have undergone major changes over the past half-century, and our über child-centered generation uses an arrogant yardstick to measure our “betters.” Or at least our used-to-be betters.

Most of our pre-1960 (an arbitrary date) POTUS-pops followed the paterfamilias role: Head of the family. Bread winner. Giver of guidance. Provider of examples, character and morals. And supreme (and final) authority in the household.

In Kendall’s hands, probably to keep the old guys from redundancy, the chapters are neatly divided into “character trait” chapters, such as “playful dads,” or “nurturing dads” or “distracted dads.”

The easy-read is filled with dozens of stories, sometimes dishy, sometimes poignant, sometimes plain fun and sometimes “tsk-tsk”-able. All are meant to be enjoyed.

But it appears (again IMHO) that author Kendall must have struggled to find the politically correct way of presenting a simple un-PC concept: Let us be honest: not all of our Presidents enjoyed children – or at least the company of children.

No doubt every one of them would fight to be first in line to condemn anyone who abused, mistreated or harmed a child, as is all too common today. But actual enjoyment of children and child-play was (and is) not always as appealing as we are supposed to believe. Given the choice after a hard day’s work, POTUS or not, tired Pop would probably opt for an easy chair, scotch, slippers and newspaper rather than disheveled offspring clamoring for his attention. But you cannot come right out and say it – at least not now, perish the thought.

There were of course notable exceptions. Theodore Roosevelt, whose wife considered him her “seventh” child. He not only loved, nurtured and guided his children, but was leader of the pack. He made time, even as President, to play with Archie and Quentin and their pals.  On the flip side of TR, (and the man was a prism of sides!) he also took an annual 4-6 week vacation – sans wife and kids. He preferred hunting and camping and “naturing” with adult companions. And despite all his efforts at daddydom, none of his offspring (including daughters) were particularly successful – or happy.

Ditto, U.S. Grant, who adored his family, and was perhaps the most lenient of all POTUS fathers.

Then there were the Presidents whose spousal relationships far surpassed their relationships with their children, notably John and Abigail Adams, the Madisons and centuries later, the Reagans.  And as dads, they were far from stellar.  The Papa Johns (Adams & son Quincy) were unquestionably fine men who tried to instill fine qualities in their offspring.  But they were dispositionally unsuited and generally failed miserably.  Interestingly enough, in their old age, they mellowed considerably, and were much better grandpas!

POTUS-pops also have as much in common with each other as differences. Educating one’s children is a constant – 250 years notwithstanding. President Obama is deeply concerned with his daughters’ education. George Washington’s voluminous correspondence includes numerous letters between him and his stepson’s teachers. President O. has bright girls who like to learn. Poor President W. alas, was pulling teeth trying to make a scholar out of Jack Custis!  And the delightful tales of a kindly Rutherford B. Hayes (who knew?) personally accompanying his college-bound sons to settle them into school is one of those deliciously heart-warming stories that fill Kendall’s book.

But the author sidesteps the conjectureable situations, and doesn’t even raise the obvious questions: would Lincoln have been a better father had he lived? Would FDR have been a more engaged father had he not had polio? What would JFK have been like as a Dad – had he lived? There are no answers of course – but plenty of hmm questions!

Today’s world, smarmy with know-it-all intolerance for past culture, is awash with a couple of generations of child-worshiping (Kendall’s phrase) parents-as-playmates, enablers and social directors. Judging by the percentages of now-grown children who are on drugs, in jails, unfit for living in society etc., etc., this may not be the best recommendation.  Maybe our forefathers really did know better.  Perhaps “paterfamilias” is better than pater-too-familiar, after all.  But one thing remains clear. The bottom line that fatherhood is not easy. Or always fun. Or even successful. But it is always important.

FIRST DADS is a delightful summer read: quick and easy, pick-up-and-put-down-able. Thoroughly enjoyable. Full of insights and wisdom. We might even learn a few things.

FIRST DADS, by Joshua Kendall

Grand Central Publishing, 2016

  • ISBN-10: 1455551953
  • ISBN-13: 978-1455551958


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The White House Nellie Weddings


Ellen Wrenshall Grant – A White House bride in 1874. She was barely eighteen.

White House Weddings

Before Ulysses S. Grant was even born, there had been weddings in the White House. During James Madison’s administration, Dolley Madison’s widowed sister married her second husband, Thomas Todd. Some years later, James Monroe’s daughter Maria Hester married in the White House. John Adams II, son of President John Quincy Adams, married in the Blue room of the White House. He was the only Presidential son to marry in the executive mansion.

In 1842, one of President John Tyler’s daughters married  in the East Room of the White House, but thirty years would pass before another such event – and it was spectacular!

Nellie Grant’s Wedding

nellie and alge2

Nellie Grant’s Wedding was consider the “wedding of the century.” Songs were dedicate to her!

Billed as “the wedding of the century,” and reported around the world, 18-year-old Ellen Wrenshall Grant (Nellie within the family circle) was married to Englishman Algernon Sartoris.

nellie and alge

Nellie Grant and Algernon Sartoris – on a happier occasion.

Ulysses and Julia Grant were less than overjoyed.  Nellie was very young. Pretty and always lively and popular, she was little more than a schoolgirl when she made a tour of Europe. On the ship homeward she met Sartoris, a few years her senior, with a minor noble pedigree. She fell madly in love. Despite the Grants’ reservations about her youth, her general immaturity and the groom’s suspected character flaws (which became obvious in due time), the bride-to-be had her way.

On May 21, 1874, the White House was decorated for the grand event, to which 250 guests were invited.  The State Dining Room, decorated with pink and white roses and azaleas, was set for a seated breakfast for special guests. The formal rooms offered a buffet.

According to the custom of the time (rather tacky today), wedding gifts were displayed in a separate room for all to see. Opulent and expensive gifts had been pouring in for weeks – many from people the Grants had never met. But he was the President of the United States, and the country’s greatest war hero.

In the East Room, where the ceremony took place, the large window draperies were closed. In front was a raised platform, with a wedding-bell fashioned in pink roses. Four large columns draped in red, white and blue supported the girders. Flowers and potted palms were everywhere. Nellie’s wedding gown was white satin, with a six-foot train.

nellie march

The “wedding of the Century” featured songs dedicated to the bride.

The father of the bride was noticeably uncomfortable. Several witnesses remarked that he looked downward at the floor throughout the ceremony. It is also said that after the couple left on their honeymoon, he went to Nellie’s room and wept. She was his only daughter, and Grant was a family man.

Nellie Grant’s Aftermath

The Grants were right in their reservations. It would not be a happy marriage. Sartoris was a drunkard and philanderer, and despite having four children together, he and Nellie spent most of their marriage “separated.” He died in 1893. Nellie remarried in 1912, but suffered a stroke two years later, which left her paralyzed. She died in 1922.

Nell Wilson’s Wedding

Eleanor (Nell) Randolph Wilson was the third and youngest daughter of Woodrow and Ellen Wilson, and considered the “liveliest.” She was the closest to her father, the one who shared his (seldom seen) penchant for vaudeville, singing, dancing and play-acting.

The Wilson family

Woodrow and Ellen Wilson had a very close relationship with their three daughters.

When the Wilsons came to the White House in March, 1913, all three grown Wilson daughters were in residence. The middle daughter, Jessie Woodrow, would marry Francis Sayre a few months later – in the White House – in an appropriately opulent wedding. Nell was one of the bridesmaids. She had come to the White House already secretly engaged to a young man her parents knew and liked. But that romance was doomed to failure.


Widower William G. McAdoo was more than twenty years senior to his new bride, Nell Wilson.

Eleanor Randolph Wilson McAdoo. A White House bride in 1914.

Nell had met William Gibbs McAdoo, a fifty-year-old recent widower from California, twenty-six years her senior, with six children and a couple of grandchildren. He was also Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury. The “new romance” between Miss Wilson and Secretary McAdoo flew under the radar for some time, despite the fact that she was seen dancing with the older man at various White House functions. Both were avid dancers.

The President was unaware of the romance for several months, and taken by surprise when Secretary McAdoo called at the White House unannounced one evening. The somewhat embarrassed doorman clarified the situation saying, “He is calling to see Miss Nell.”

Their White House wedding on May 7, 1914, was in the Blue Room, and it was a private one, held about six months after the elaborate wedding of Jessie Wilson. First, McAdoo was a widower, and his children were less than enthusiastic about their new step-mother. Secondly, and more importantly, Ellen Wilson, the bride’s mother, was seriously ill.


Nell Wilson McAdoo – it was a small wedding, due to her mother’s serious illness – and the fact that the groom was a widower.

First Lady Ellen Wilson had embarked on a strenuous schedule when she came to the White House, and barely acknowledged her flagging energy, assuming it was due to her fifty-four years and her whirlwind of activity. But the truth was she was in the late stages of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment, then always fatal. The likelihood is that she had had the disease for years, but it had been undiagnosed, and thus untreated.

Earlier in the year she had fallen, and from then on, her health failed precipitously. She died a few months after Nell’s wedding.

Nell Wilson’s Aftermath

Like her namesake Nellie Grant, Nell Wilson’s marriage was not a happy one either. She was immediately placed in the social spotlight as cabinet wife, step-mother to a ready made family who resented her, and had a husband whose presidential-political ambitions were well known and in rivalry with her father. The McAdoos had two daughters, but eventually divorced. McAdoo would marry yet again shortly afterwards.

Nell McAdoo went on to write two books about her parents,  and served as an advisor on the film, Wilson. She retired to her home in California, and suffered a stroke and died at age 77.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995

Cross, Wilbur & Novotny, Anne – White House Weddings – David McKay Company, 1967


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Bess Truman’s First Press Conference

Formal Bess Truman

Bess Wallace Truman, the most private and reluctant First Lady of the 20th Century.

Few First Ladies were more reluctant to be in the public eye than Bess Truman.

Mrs. Truman becomes FLOTUS

Late in the afternoon of April 12, 1945, Bess Truman (1885-1982) received a phone call from her husband. There was a strange edge to his voice when he told her to get their 20-year-old daughter Margaret, call a taxi, and come at once to the White House – the back entrance. “And wear something dark,” he added. Bess Truman knew.


HST’s first inauguration was a sad and solemn event.

Within the hour the two women arrived and it was confirmed. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia earlier that afternoon. Harry S Truman, Vice President for only three months, was now President of the United States.

Quickly and quietly, the new President took the oath office administered by Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone. He felt, as he put it later, “like the moon, the stars and all the planets just fell on him.” Judging from a photograph of the event, Mrs. Truman looks as if the fallout had smothered her as well.

Eleanor Roosevelt had been urgently summoned from a speaking engagement in Washington, and was present at the private and mournful ceremony. For twelve years she had served as First Lady – but a First Lady who had made a radical departure from her predecessors.

Mrs. Roosevelt: Ex-FLOTUS

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) had been active in sociopolitical issues since she was nineteen years old, and a Junior League volunteer in one of New York City’s settlement houses on the Lower East Side. For her, social activism was her true calling.


Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady for twelve years, broke the traditional mold. She traveled, spoke, wrote and was perpetually active throughout her life.

During World War I, the young matron volunteered at a makeshift canteen at one of Washington DC’s train stations. She poured coffee and made sandwiches for departing and returning soldiers. After the War, when women’s suffrage became law of the land, Eleanor joined the League of Women Voters, and became politically active. And well known. With clout.

As the wife of the NY Governor in the late 1920s, and later as First Lady in the 1930s-40s, Eleanor Roosevelt charted a far different course than any previous political wife. The routine tea parties and receptions could be (and were) handled by others. Eleanor would be out and about, speaking in public about any number of subjects and issues that piqued her interest – or needed her political support, which she had in abundance. She served on committees. She chaired committees. She wrote a daily newspaper column. She logged thousands of air miles traveling all over the country – and even overseas. Wherever she could be of help and service, she was quick to participate.

And she gave weekly press conferences for Washington’s women journalists.

Mrs. Truman Takes Over

Becoming First Lady so suddenly and tragically was a huge blow to Bess Truman.

She had known Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, during her dozen years as Senate wife, but the acquaintance had been superficial. She sincerely admired the activist Eleanor, but she had little interest in following in her enormous footsteps. Bess was a traditionalist to the core.

Mrs. Roosevelt knew first hand what responsibilities would fall to BOTH the President and the new First Lady. In a gesture of courtesy, co-operation and sincere kindness, she offered to guide Mrs. Truman through her first press conference, and introduce her to the women of the Washington press corps. This way, she could help the midwestern Mrs. T. navigate her way through the question and answers.


Elderly Madge Gates Wallace. HST’s friends said that Truman had the “original mother-in-law from hell.” She was a difficult woman.

If speaking in public was not Mrs. Truman’s forte, answering intrusive questions about her “personal” life was positively unsettling. Bess had an old secret in her life: when she was eighteen, her alcoholic father committed suicide. Suicide, in the early twentieth century, was a scandal. (That both Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman had similar secrets was likely not shared by the two women.)

Bess’ mother, Madge Wallace, was past eighty and still living. Mrs. Wallace had always been a difficult woman. After her husband’s suicide, she became even more difficult. Bess had taken charge of the household from that time on. Even after she married Harry Truman, when both of them were in their mid-thirties, they made their home with Madge Wallace. Never approving of “Farmer Truman” from the wrong side of the tracks, Mrs. Wallace still insisted on sitting at the head of their dining room table, with her youngest son at the foot.

The Truman’s had accommodated. The older woman could not live alone – and no one else could live with her. Now that “Farmer Truman” was living in the White House, Bess’ elderly mother lived with them. And the last thing that the First Lady wanted to do, was open her past and very private life to the intrusions of public scrutiny – and have her mother scandalized and upset all over again.

The Press Conference

The uncomfortable new First Lady asked if it were possible for the women journalists to submit their questions in writing. Understanding her inexperience and anxieties, they were happy to comply, and submitted several pages of questions,.

True to her word, Mrs. Roosevelt, who knew the press corps very well, introduced the new mistress of the White House to the female reporters and columnists.


The only information the new FLOTUS Truman provided was her wedding date.

Mrs. Truman had read and returned the questionnaire that was submitted, but only one question had been answered: June 28, 1919: the date the Truman’s were married. Every other question was answered “no comment.”

Mrs. Truman was polite, but remote. The reporters could get no information from her. They had been spoiled by Mrs. Roosevelt’s active courtship of the press – and as a daily columnist, Eleanor Roosevelt was also “their colleague.”

Harry and bess2

The POTUS-FLOTUS Trumans looked happier as time went on.

Mrs. Truman was poor copy as well as uncommunicative. Her first press conference would also be her last.

The women journalists learned quickly enough, and never bothered her very much.


Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995

T     Truman, Margaret – Bess W. Truman, 1986, MacMillan


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The Jackson-Hayes-Clinton Connection

Losing a father as a boy is not unusual. Losing a father before you are born is VERY unusual.

Posthumous Children

Posthumous children, those whose fathers die before the child is born is rare – even in an age when life expectancy was low.

That three Presidents out of the forty-four men who have held the office, were posthumous children is not just rare, it is exceedingly rare. That these fatherless boys, Andrew Jackson, Rutherford Hayes and William Clinton managed to rise to the top is nothing short of amazing.

Posthumous Andy

Just weeks before Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was born, his father was killed in an accident. His mother raised him and his two older brothers in a rural area on the southwestern border between North and South Carolina. Both states still argue over the birthplace rights.

equestrial jackson

Andrew Jackson was, boy-to-man, filled with daring and bravery, to a point of rash.

Andrew grew up to be a wild boy, with little interest in schooling or discipline. At twelve or thirteen, he “enlisted” as a messenger during the Revolutionary War, since he was an excellent horseman, knew the woods and trails, and had a reckless and daring disposition. He was captured.

When the British officer demanded that the boy clean his boots, the cheeky Andy refused, and the officer slashed him with his sword, scarring his face, his hand and most importantly, his soul. Then he was imprisoned.

By fourteen, Andrew was not only completely orphaned, but completely alone, His mother and two brothers had died.

By eighteen, he had squandered whatever little money he had, and decided to “read law” – if any attorney would have him. Andrew’s reputation as barely literate and ungovernable was well known, and most attorneys disdained. That one agreed to take him on was fortuitous. That Jackson actually applied himself and learned law sufficiently to be admitted to the bar, was a near miracle.

Andrew Jackson never had the benefit of solid male influence. On the flip side, however, even though he never had children of his own, he would be a generous (albeit mostly absentee) father image to his two “adopted” sons and guardian to several wards. He was a fond and devoted uncle to his wife’s numerous nieces and nephews.

With not a soul of blood family, Andrew Jackson was happy to give whatever male-bonding he could to the cadre of young people who flocked to his banner, providing advice, guidance, financial and even fatherly support, particularly once they were grown.

Posthumous Rud

Rutherford Birchard Hayes (1822-93) lost his father shortly after his conception. His mother Sophia raised him and his older-by-two-years sister Fanny, alone.

But not quite alone. The young widow’s 18-year-old brother Sardis Birchard was available to help, and was the most fortuitous relationship in Hayes’ life.


Young Rutherford B. Hayes – long before the full beard.

Uncle Sardis became the man of the family, not only assisting financially, but providing the father-figure influence. He never married, but became a wealthy Ohio businessman and prominent citizen. Perhaps most importantly, he was completely devoted to his niece and nephew.

It was Uncle Sardis who insisted – and paid – for young Rud to attend Kenyon College, followed by Harvard Law School. (Hayes was the first President to go to a formal academic law school.). Then, he assured Hayes of a successful practice when he entrusted his many business affairs to the young attorney. It not only gave him experience, but it introduced him to other prominent citizens and potential clients.

And it was also Uncle Sardis Birchard who built the house at Spiegel Grove, and insisted that his nephew and his grown family move in with him. Then he gave them the house.

Rutherford Hayes was indeed lucky to have such a strong and devoted male figure in his life, to provide not only a father-image, but a grandfather-image to Hayes’ children. In turn, Hayes became a devoted and supportive father himself.

Posthumous Bill

William Jefferson Clinton, born William Jefferson Blythe, could have benefited from a strong male role model. His natural father died in a car accident a few months before Bill’s birth. His mother Virginia moved back to Hope, Arkansas to live with her parents.


President Bill Clinton

Unlike his posthumous POTUS predecessors, his mother remarried a few years later. It was not a happy marriage, but it lasted until his Roger Clinton Sr.,death in 1967. Virginia would marry twice more. While Roger Clinton, Sr. never formally adopted the boy, Bill began using the last name of Clinton when he was around fifteen.

That Bill Clinton was a smart boy-to-man and managed to attract mentors and get scholarships to prestigious schools, reflects more on himself than on any fatherly (or step-fatherly) influence. Virginia was not the best of influences either. A somewhat flamboyant woman, she likely provided the seeds for Clinton’s obvious penchant for the “sporting” woman. Bill Clinton’s personal charm, of course, may have been inherited. Or not.

What is interesting about the fatherless-Bill Clinton took place many years later – after he was President.

POTUSES are a small fraternity, and even the most ardent adversaries, politically, philosophically or otherwise find themselves with unique bonds. Some form strong friendships.


President Bill Clinton (#42) and President George H.W. Bush (#41) have become good friends.

After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, when George W. Bush was President, he found it advantageous to appoint his father, former-President GHW Bush and his immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, to co-chair a charitable organization established for the victim’s families.

The pairing of the former adversaries of 1992, from different parties and different backgrounds, was perhaps one of the most important relationships in Clinton’s mature life.

The elder Bush, born into a solid upper-middle class family with a strong, albeit remote, paternal influence, became a strong and accessible father himself to his five children, who by 2001, were all grown, married and parents themselves. The Bush family is a unit.

Presidents “41” and “42” bonded happily, and have continued their personal and professional relationship so much so, that the Bush sons consider Bill Clinton to be “a brother by another mother.”


Angelo, Bonnie – First Families: The Impact of the White House on their Lives – William Morrow, 2006

Gullan, Harold I. – First Fathers: The Men Who Inspired Our Presidents – John Wiley & Sons, 2004

Wead, Doug – The Raising of a President – Atria Books, 2005





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The Death of Warren Harding

harding funeral

The funeral cortège for Warren G. Harding in August, 1923.

With the possible exception of John F. Kennedy, no president’s death generated more  speculation and controversies than that of Warren G. Harding.

The President Dies

On August 2, 1923, the country was stunned when the news came over the telegraph and telephone wires: President Warren G. Harding had died in San Francisco. He had seemed the picture of health.

Within hours, however, rumors began to circulate. He had been murdered. He had committed suicide. He had been poisoned. It was his wife who killed him. The buzz was further compounded when Mrs. Harding refused to permit an autopsy.

The train draped in mourning bunting made its way back to Washington.  More than nine million people lined the tracks in respect to a man they sincerely liked. Mrs. Harding remained secluded and made no public appearances.

Warren Harding

Warren Harding was the man ‘who looked like a president.” He was the best looking POTUS up to that time.

When they returned to the White House and the body lay in state in the East Room, Florence Harding was said to have sat beside the body, murmuring “Nobody can hurt you now, Warren.”

She vacated the White House quickly, and stayed for a while at the Georgetown home of Evalyn Walsh McLean, her closest friend. Even though it was August, a huge fire was lit in the fireplace, and she began to destroy boxes and boxes of papers. She later claimed they were only personal documents.

But within weeks, indications of scandal, intrigue, malfeasance and out-and-out criminal corruption began to surface. First they dribbled out, then the floods began. Wrongdoing on a grand scale had obviously occurred on Warren Harding’s watch.

Was he murdered to keep him quiet? Was he murdered because he was complicit? And when word leaked out that Harding had fathered an illegitimate child, even more rumors circulated. Did Mrs. Harding do it out of revenge and fury?

The Hardings: A Mismatched Match

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was not a bad or corrupt man, but he was a weak one.  He was also good looking, genial, and an easy mixer with literally hundreds of friends.

The Hardings

Warren and FLorence Harding on the porch of their Marion, Ohio home.

He was twenty-five when he married Florence Kling (1860-1924) five years his senior and a divorcee. It is easy to understand her attraction to him, but harder to determine what he saw in her. She was nice enough looking, but bossy and domineering, and the obvious pursuer in whatever courtship there was. It may have been exactly what Harding’ father once said about his son: “He can’t say no to anyone.”

From the outset, it was not particularly happy. Florence (who Harding nicknamed “Duchess” for her imperious ways) developed a serious and chronic kidney ailment that necessitated the removal of a kidney in 1905. Because of the nature of her illness, the “marital” part of their marriage was curtailed. They would share a room, but not a bed.

The handsome Harding found his pleasures elsewhere, which manifested in periodic bitter and rancorous arguments. But mostly, the Harding marriage was an armed truce, bound by the Marion Star, their growing-in-influence daily newspaper – and politics.

“Doc” Sawyer

Doc sawyer

Charles “Doc” Sawyer, a homeopathic physician who became Surgeon General during the Harding Administration. He loved his uniform.

Charles Sawyer was a homeopathic doctor in mid-Ohio, and had known the Hardings for many years, both as physician and as family friend.

Sawyer had a thriving practice, which included his own sanitarium. But as a homeopathic doctor, he lacked an academic medical education, which by the late 19th century, was considered essential. Homeopaths may have been scorned by their peers, but they continued to practice.

It was “Doc” Sawyer who treated Florence during her several bouts with failing kidneys. He also treated Warren Harding for vague and various stomach ailments, which may have been exacerbated by emotional strife.

By the time Warren Harding became a U.S. Senator in 1914, “Doc” Sawyer was a permanent fixture in their life. When Harding became President in 1920, the new Commander-in-Chief inducted the sixty-year-old doctor into the Army, and promoted him to Surgeon General. The Ohio homeopath was thrilled by his new title, and took full advantage of appearing “in uniform.” The medical community was horrified at the appointment, but The Duchess insisted she literally could not live without “Doc.”

The Ailing President

candidate and Mrs.

Love of politics was the tie that bound the Hardings the tightest.

On the surface, the Presidency agreed with the affable Harding; physically, however, it was grueling. He knew, and privately admitted that he was “unfit” and unqualified for the office. Now he was learning that some of his best pals and long-time associates, appointed to relieve him from burden, were dipping sticky fingers into the public till.

nan the siren

Nan Britton began an affair with Senator Harding when she was around nineteen – and he was well past fifty. There would be a child.

Harding had put on a fashionable paunch, not uncommon to politicking and presidential entertaining. But Harding had enormous stress as well: presidential, marital, extra-marital (which now included a child), false-friends and financial problems. He developed acute insomnia, chronic indigestion and trouble breathing. He was lethargic and began complaining of chest pains.

“Doc” insisted that Harding’s symptoms were from stress, worry and too much rich food. He counseled a healthier diet, rest and relaxation. Dr. Joel T. Boone, one of the naval doctors assigned to the White House immediately recognized signs of heart problems, and he and his colleagues were alarmed. Sawyer disagreed vehemently and insisted he knew Harding longer and better: stress and diet.

The Fatal Trip

In July, 1923, to fulfill a campaign promise, to escape the growing realization that his best friends were betraying the country, and as a respite for his wife who had recently undergone another bout of kidney blockage, the Hardings took a trip to Alaska.

Harding felt horribly ill.  When he collapsed, “Doc” Sawyer said “food poisoning.” The other doctors were frantic and knew better, but the Surgeon General outranked them, and they were powerless.

A few days later, outside of San Francisco, Harding was having an early night, propped up in his special car. Florence Harding was reading aloud. Then he slumped over.

It was a heart attack. The symptoms had been there for more than a year.


Ferrell, Robt. H. – The Strange Deaths of President Harding – University of Missouri Press, 1996

Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove – McGraw Hill – 1968


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Lincoln’s General’s Wives: A Book Review

The American Civil War created powerful generals with powerful and sometimes peculiar personalities. In a remarkably intelligent and readable quadography, author Candice Shy Hooper has brought to life four interesting(ish) women who were thrust into a spotlight(ish) because of the men they married years before the spotlight glowed.  Called Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives, her subtitle …For Better and For Worse, is telling.

Lincoln’s General’s Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War – for Better and for Worse, by Candice Shy Hooper

John Charles Fremont is not a man easy to like; pugnacious, disobedient, insubordinate and being “better than his betters.” On the flip side, his courage, his daring, his vision, and his charm and good looks made him everyone’s hero. Especially Jessie Benton, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Defying her father, including long periods of personal estrangement, she fell madly in love with Fremont-the-explorer, a dozen years her senior, and eloped with him. She was smarter than he was, better educated and certainly better politically “placed,” and just as personally brave and daring – but (at least via author Hooper) not as charming or attractive. Lincoln didn’t like her, and he liked just about everyone.

Charming or not, Jessie deserved better. She adored her difficult, egocentric and philandering husband, and spent a lifetime either at his side, or at his back. He was her man, he done her wrong, but he was her god. And she, aptly described by the author, was a tigress, indeed.

Perhaps even outdoing Fremont in the egocentric Savior department, was George B. McClellan. His wife, Mary Ellen Marcy, or “Nelly,” is also a hard lady to figure or like. Author Hooper does the best she can with the dearth of first hand information about her. Few of her letters remain. His, of course, are plentiful and fraught with his sense of self-importance, predestination, and total disdain for the political powers of the time.

Nelly Marcy dodged the pursuant McClellan for several years before she finally agreed to marry him, when she was twenty-five and approaching spinsterhood. She had once been engaged briefly to McClellan’s old West Point roommate, Southern cavalier A.P. Hill, and appears to have adored him. One might conjecture that she married Little Mac because he (and her parents) wore her down.

If Jessie Fremont had her husband’s back, Nelly had his front – as a mirror image and his creation. She adds nothing at all except reassurance for her husband’s viewpoints. She basically distanced herself from disappointment or participation by a consistent detachment and preoccupation with the mundane. She is neither sympathetic nor even interesting. Not Hooper’s fault.

Ellen Ewing, wife of William T. Sherman, is a curious character. Their marriage was pseudo-incestuous, since little “Cump” was a foster-son of the Ewings from the time he was orphaned as a child.

No doubt Ellen adored her tall, lanky and good looking husband, but she had two higher loves. First and foremost, Catholicism. She was half-Catholic via her mother, but that was the half that “took.” Her health issues may have increased her dependence on the Church.  She loved her daily devotions, wore a large and prominent cross, and never ceased efforts to save her husband’s soul. He got tired of it and decided his soul was not up for grabs. The second great love of her life was her own family. The Ewings were a politically powerful Ohio family. Her Senator father had been in Polk’s cabinet; “Cump’s” brother was also a Senator. The Ewing home in Ohio would be Ellen Sherman’s home on and off for most of their lives. It was there that she returned over and over during times of stress.

Being married to Sherman was always stressful, since he was a mercurial sort, subject to depressions and fits of temperament. He loved the military, but couldn’t make a living at it until tested during the Civil War. She backed him consistently, and he became great.

When their beloved son Willy died at only eleven, it affected both Shermans to the core, and bound them tightly together in grief. Some years later, when their son Thomas entered the priesthood, it severed, or at least frayed, the bond. She was thrilled. He was devastated.

The Grants, of course, are the great Civil War love story. Plain as a post Julia Dent was devoted to her unassuming and even more devoted Ulysses. No matter how hard author Hooper tries to give Julia a mind of her own (a little), or feistiness (a little), or thought-provoking influence (a little), the bottom line is that the love between them through thick and thin (and a lot of pre-Civil War thin) was the best influence of all.

Few men who reached Grant’s heights are so dependent on the devotion of a wife. Few generals are such complete “family men.” Even fewer admit to it; Grant was the exception. Julia Grant was a genuinely nice lady. Not overly witty or intellectual. Certainly not good looking. Politically more naïve than prescient, and certainly less savvy than the aforementioned wives. Author Hooper tries to build cases for her, but the cases fall short. Nevertheless, Julia was undoubtedly the most important anything in Grant’s life, and would be until the day he died.

Ms. Hooper adds an interesting back-chapter to her quadography – tying all these ladies to the towering back-figure of Abraham Lincoln. These four women had remote or limited contact with the President, either “social” (McClellan and Grant) or supplicating (Fremont and Sherman). With the exception of Jessie Fremont (whose mutual dislike was well documented), Lincoln liked the others well enough, but they were inconsequential.

But as a conjecture (mine…) one wonders if Lincoln did not feel embarrassed for Julia, who bore the brunt of Mary Lincoln’s vitriolic temper on her worst days. He was there. He would have known. And in that same mode, one wonders if he didn’t envy Grant just a little for the gentle wind beneath his wings.

Candice Hooper has written a dandy book for those who love Civil War stories, people and nineteenth century women in general. Read it! You will enjoy it!

Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives

Kent State University Press, May, 2016

  • ISBN-10: 1606352784
  • ISBN-13: 978-1606352786
  • $26.95




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