The Lincolns and the Actors

Everyone knows about Abraham Lincoln’s brief run-in with John Wilkes Booth, but  other Lincolns had life and death incidents involving theater folks.

Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth

The assassination

One of dozens of etched interpretations of the Lincoln Assassination in Ford’s Theatre.

John Wilkes Booth came from a well regarded family of dramatic actors. His father Junius Brutus Booth appeared in leading roles about the time Lincoln was born. His famous older brother Edwin was the matinee idol of his time. Another brother, Junius Brutus (the younger) had also made a solid name for himself on stage. John Wilkes slipped easily into the family business, blessed with good looks, athletic agility and a fair amount of talent.


Lincoln’s assassin: John Wilkes Booth. Boo-hiss.

By the time John W. was out of his teens, his career was on the rise. He was already playing leading roles, including a performance with his two illustrious brothers in Julius Caesar. Then came the Civil War.

His family were Marylanders, and strong Unionists.  For reasons known only to himself, John Wilkes Booth was a racist and ardent Confederate sympathizer. He laid all the South’s misery at Lincoln’s feet, blaming him for anything and everything. He began plotting to kidnap the President and hold him for enormous ransom. He attracted various cohorts, mostly hangers-on, but  he was undoubtedly the leader.

Once Lee surrendered, the plot abruptly switched from kidnap to murder, and on April 14, in a theater that Booth knew well, murder it was.

Robert Lincoln and the Actor

Robert Lincoln

Robert Lincoln was just 21 when his father was killed. A year earlier, his life was saved by an actor.

Robert Lincoln was only 21 when his father was assassinated. Months earlier, once he finished Harvard, he became a captain on General Grant’s staff in Petersburg. He became acquainted with another young officer, Adam Badeau, who would later record the experience Robert had told him.

Returning to the White House from college, Robert was standing at the train station when the train began to move. He lost his footing and slipped into a narrow space between the platform and the car body.  According to Robert Lincoln, it was Edwin Booth who grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back to his feet, saving him from serious injury or worse. Lincoln recognized the famous actor and thanked him for his efforts. Booth did not know the young man’s identity until more than a year later.


Actor Edwin Booth was a famous theatrical star prior to the Civil War. He managed to redeem the “family theatrical honor” in subsequent years.

Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was a well known performer. His photograph was in the newspapers. His cartes d’visite were readily available. Robert likely had attended one of his performances. When Robert looked into the face attached to the arm that had pulled him from danger, he recognized it at once, but other than Robert’s profuse expression of gratitude, there is no record of further conversation or contact.

Edwin Booth sank into a deep depression after the Lincoln assassination. He was devastated not only by the deed, but by the fact that his brother had done it, and had forever sullied the family’s good name. He feared he would never be able to appear on stage again.

It is said, however, that when Edwin Booth learned that the young man he saved from certain injury or death was the son of the murdered sixteenth president, it helped to ease his depression, and he triumphantly returned to the stage.

Years later, Robert Lincoln verified the account of the incident in a letter to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine. 

Mary Lincoln and the Actress

mary in mourning

The widow Mary Lincoln.

Mary Lincoln had always loved the theater. She attended performances in Lexington, KY as a young girl, and during her years in Springfield, IL, a theatrical show was an occasion for a night out. In Washington, the Lincolns were regulars at the theater. After Lincoln’s assassination the former First Lady never set foot in one again.

For her remaining seventeen widowed years, Mary was mostly a wanderer, going from spa to spa, climate to climate, to try to find respite for her various physical, emotional and psychosomatic ills.


The Divine Sarah Bernhardt. She had a flair for the dramatic onstage and in life.

1880 found Mary living in France, in a residence-hotel. Her health was now seriously declining. In her early sixties, her eyesight was deteriorating, likely from cataracts. Then she fell and hurt her back. One cannot be sure of the exact damage, but indications point to a possible fracture. It was time to go home. The Widow Lincoln packed up the sixty-odd crates and trunks of her life and booked passage on the Amerique.

During those seventeen years of Mary Lincoln’s widowhood, the name of Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) had blazed across Europe as one of the finest dramatic actresses in the world. In 1880 she was at the height of her fame, and was coming to the United States for a grand theatrical tour.  The great star and the frail widow were on the same ship.

In the memoirs Mlle. Bernhardt wrote later… as turbulent weather rocked the slippery deck, she was near a staircase and spied a small elderly woman swathed in mourning clothes who was swaying and about to lose her footing and tumble down the long flight. In an instant she reached out and grabbed the woman’s clothing and prevented the fall.

Mrs. Lincoln never mentioned the incident (as far as can be documented) and perhaps never knew the identity of her rescuer, but she murmured that she was the widow of Abraham Lincoln. Sarah Bernhardt wrote in her memoirs, that she realized that she had done “the only service she ought not have done.”  Mary Lincoln was the one person in the world whose “rescue” was not a favor, and that perhaps death would have been kinder for the tragic Widow Lincoln.


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

Skinner, Cornelia Otis – Madame Sarah – Houghton Mifflin, 1966

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Wilmer McLean: A Plague on Both His Houses

Wilmer McLean is one of those oddities of the Civil War, where truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.


Wilmer McLean, an unlikely Virginia grocer whose houses bookended the Civil War.

Wilmer McLean was a Virginia wholesale grocer, who at age 39 married a well-to-do widow with two children and a moderate plantation some twenty miles from Washington. The property was close to the Washington and Richmond rail lines and there was a nice creek to provide water. The town was called Manassas, and the creek was called Bull Run.

Ft. Sumter surrendered in April, 1861 and the Civil War began in semi-earnest. McLean was 47, and his family had increased. He had been a Major in the Virginia militia, but now was too old for active duty.

First Bull Run (N), First Manassas (S)

For three months, armies of both the Union and the Confederacy had been amassing and training. Both sides were prodded by the newspapers and politicians to fight. Both sides believed a single skirmish with a handful of casualties would suffice; cooler heads would prevail and appropriate steps taken to resolve the unresolveable issues.


The McLean house in Manassas, where a Union shell exploded in the kitchen and landed in General Beauregard’s dinner.

All signs pointed to the area around Manassas as the battlefield. General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, the acknowledged victor of Ft. Sumter, was head honcho for the Confederacy. He commandeered the McLean property as his HQ, made arrangements to compensate the grocer (in Confederate scrip) and moved in. The McLeans moved out.

As the General and his staff were enjoying dinner in the detached front-yard kitchen,  a freak Union shell came through the chimney, landing in Beauregard’s dinner. The Civil War now began in real-earnest.

It was not a skirmish. It was a horror story of casualties that portended even greater horror stories.

After the battle, the McLean house became a hospital. McLean returned alone some weeks later, having become a sugar purveyor (or privateer) for the Confederate Army. It was six months before his family could return to their barely habitable home.

Second Bull Run (N), Second Manassas (S)

One year later, in exactly the same location another mega-battle was fought. The North called it Bull Run, after the creek; the South called it Manassas after the town. Once again, McLean’s property was in the middle of a battlefield.


The McLean house in Appomattox Court House, where General Lee formally surrendered to General Grant.

McLean called it quits and decided to move as far from danger as he could. He put the property up for sale (which was a long time coming), and found a nice house-with-land more than a hundred miles to the southwest, in a town called Appomattox Court House. In the middle of nowhere. Out of harm’s way.

McLean continued to maintain his sugar purveying, since he was near the rail lines. He was happy to mind his own business, take care of his property and his family – out of harm’s way.

Harm’s Way Follows McLean

Some people are born with a magnet that draws ill fortune, and so it was with Wilmer McLean. He was content in his new surroundings, making pleasant acquaintances among his neighbors, and bothering no one.

But the fortunes of the Civil War had been exhausted by April, 1865. Petersburg, a city of railroad crossings only twenty miles from Richmond, had been besieged for months. The Confederate army was dwindling from casualties, desertion and starvation.  In a last ditch effort, General Robert E. Lee slipped out of the Union stranglehold, and marched to the southwest to join General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina.

The Union army, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, outnumbering its foes about four-to-one, was right on it tail.

They finally met not far from the McLean property, at a small clearing called Sailor’s Creek. Valiant to the end, the Rebels were surrounded by overwhelming forces. General Lee had little choice.  He swallowed the bitter pill, sent word to General Grant and sent his aide, Col. Charles Marshall, to find a suitable place to conduct the momentous business.


An artist’s rendering of the surrender formalities that took place in McLean’s front parlor.

Appomattox Court House was the closest village in the area. The story goes that Col. Marshall stopped Wilmer McLean, the first person he met, and asked about a suitable location for the meeting of the Great Generals. He reluctantly offered the front parlor in his own comfortably furnished house. The offer was accepted.

McLean’s House Ransacked

The meeting between General Grant and General Lee was historic and for the ages, and has been commemorated many times in many ways. But poor Wilmer McLean’s moment in the sun – the unlikely coincidence of his houses involved in both the opening and the closing of the Civil War, was once again covered in gloom clouds.


Soldiers lined the road for miles, stacking their weapons. Then they were formally paroled, and were free to return to their homes.


The table where the surrender document was signed.

Realizing the importance of the occasion, Union officers (some of very high rank) ransacked the McLean house. According to historian Shelby Foote, “something like pandemonium set in.” Everything that could be taken as souvenirs was taken – but not without “paying for it.” Union soldiers were not looting or stealing per se. They thrust US money, and even gold coins into McLean’s hands, even though he did not want the money. He wanted his furniture and his household goods. Nevertheless, money was thrown on the floor, and Union soldiers walked off with tables and chairs and ink stands, and even his little daughter’s rag doll.


Wilmer McLean as an elderly man.

They cut the cushions from his chairs, and tore strips of upholstery from his sofas. Fence rails were cut down as souvenirs.

The armies had trampled his house and land at Bull Run, and now they had done the same in Appomattox Court House. Once again, the McLean house was unfit for living.

A year later, Wilmer McLean put the “surrender house” up for sale, but there were no takers. Having lost everything, including his source of income, he defaulted on his taxes, moved away and the place was sold at public auction in 1869. Records show that in 1872 he voted for Ulysses S. Grant, and had taken a position in Washington as an agent for the Internal Revenue Service.


Henig, Gerald S. & Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts – Stackpole Books, 2001

Meet Wilmer McLean – One of the Civil War’s First and Last Victims



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Ellen Wilson’s Great Sadness


Ellen Axson Wilson, the first wife of Woodrow Wilson.

Ellen Axson came from a family prone to severe melancholy.

Ellen Axson: Family Caretaker

Ellen Axson (1860-1914), was born in Georgia, just as the Civil War was beginning. From earliest childhood, she showed a decided talent for art, but family obligations were demanding of her time and energies.

Young Ellen

Ellen Axson was only twenty when she became the caretaker of her family.

Her father, Samuel Edward Axson, was a Presbyterian minister who fought a lifelong battle with melancholia, to a point of requiring hospital care. When Ellen’s mother died, Ellen was twenty, and her father lapsed into a severe depression, and died in a sanitarium.

She was the eldest of four, widespread in ages. Her brother Stockton was six years younger; her brother Eddie, sixteen years younger with a pronounced stammer; and her baby sister Margaret was newborn, and indirectly responsible for her mother’s early death.

Ellen had hoped to teach art, once her high-school education was finished, but now further education or career was out of the question. Family needs came first.

She married Woodrow Wilson when she was twenty-five. From the beginning, they had agreed that Eddie would live with them permanently. Stockton would join them on his vacations from school.

Growing Up Wilson

From the first, the new couple never had an empty house. Because the age-gaps in her own family were not conducive to sibling “playmates”, Ellen and Woodrow had their three daughters within five years.

Eddie Axson was also a constant, and in the loving and stable Wilson home, his stammer abated. In addition, he began displaying his own talented hands and gift for mechanics.  By the time he was twelve, he could take-apart, fix and put-back practically anything. He graduated from Princeton University, studied further at MIT, and eventually became superintendent of a mining company in Georgia. In 1906, he had married and had a small baby. By that time, Woodrow Wilson had become President of Princeton University.


Dr. Stockton Axson, Ellen’s brilliant younger brother, who inherited the family genetic trait of severe depression.

Ellen’s other brother, Stockton Axson had received several advanced degrees, and was teaching English at Princeton University. He also had been in and out of various hospitals with the same clinical depressions that had afflicted his father.

Eddie Axson: The Tragedy

The young Edward Axson seems to have been spared the Axson melancholy gene of his father and brother, and, to a lesser extent, by both Ellen and Margaret.

Happy with his position at the Franklin Gold Mines and his growing family, in the summer of 1905, Eddie took his wife and year-old son on a day-outing. Here is where the story becomes conflicted. Some sources say, there was an accident on a ferry crossing the Etowah River; some sources say that the horses on the carriage Eddie was driving were spooked and plunged into the river. Whatever the exact specifics, the upshot was the same. Despite his valiant effort to save his family, Eddie Axson, his wife and baby son were all drowned. He was only thirty-one.

Ellen Wilson: The Abyss


When Eddie Axson drowned along with his young family, he was only thirty-one. Exact details have always been sketchy and conflicting.

Ellen Wilson, the sister-mother, was next of kin, and notified first. It fell to her to notify the rest of the family, to make the funeral arrangements, and to dispose of whatever needed to be disposed of.


Ellen Wilson was comfortable within her family circle, surrounded by those she loved.

Ellen had never been a woman who sparkled in society. Her wit and charm was considered, rather than spontaneous. She was happy to let Woodrow go “solo” on those occasions, where he could shine. She was content to bask in his love and her happy family life. Ellen may have even suspected her family “disposition,” but she fought it continuously, especially since Woodrow Wilson possessed an emotional neediness of his own, and she was needed “to rest him,” as he put it.

At one point, In a letter to a friend, Ellen mentioned being deeply distressed about the death of a mutual friend, remarking that “but for Woodrow’s sake” she mustn’t show it. She continued confessing that if she were the least bit sky-blue, he immediately became blue-black, and all her resources were needed to care for him “feeling her pain,” as it were.

Eddie’s untimely and horrific death plunged Ellen into a blue-black of her own – but not until whatever needed to be done was done.

The Blue-Black

Losing Eddie was like losing her own son. Responsibilities concluded, Ellen slipped quietly into her own world, and it was a silent world. There were no tears, no outpouring. No weeping or wailing.

According to her daughter Nell (Eleanor Wilson McAdoo) in her later memoir about her parents, Ellen barely talked at all. When asked if she want to go on a carriage ride, she might nod and go. But she did not engage or converse. She was in her own blue-blacks, and it needed to run its course.


A rare photograph of Ellen and Woodrow Wilson – together.

For the first time in her life, even her beloved artwork did not comfort her. Her easel was empty for a long time.

Woodrow was beside himself with worry – and his own neediness. He required comforting as well, and his wife was unable to comfort him. Ellen was unreachable and beyond comfort. She needed all her resources to heal her own wounds.

It took several months for Ellen’s deep pain to begin to subside, and for her to climb out of the abyss of grief. But she did, and in many ways, it would be her art that proved to be her greatest comfort and outlet.

Unlike Jane Pierce or Mary Lincoln, other First Ladies who succumbed to the devastation of their losses, Ellen was able to pick up the tatters and mend. She painted when she had time, and with her own children grown, her time was becoming her own. She entertained graciously and often, especially once Woodrow Wilson became New Jersey Governor. She became First Lady. And through all of it, including her own growing reputation in the art word, she was first and foremost Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.


McAdoo, Eleanor Wilson – The Woodrow Wilsons – Macmillan Co. 1937

Miller, Kristie – Ellen and Edith – University Press of Kansas, 2010

Saunders, Frances W. – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina, 1985







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Lincoln’s First General: Winfield Scott


General Winfield Scott, about the time of the Civil War. He had been in the U.S. Army for more than a half-century.

When Abraham Lincoln was a small child, Winfield Scott was already a military commander of stature.

Winfield Scott, Virginian

Winfield Scott (1786-1866) was born near Petersburg, Virginia to a family of gentry. He attended the College of William and Mary, and read law sufficiently to pass the Virginia bar. He did not enjoy the practice of law, never pursued it, and instead was commissioned as an officer in the US Army in 1808 – before Lincoln was born – and remained for the next fifty-three years.

winfield scott 1812

Young Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812.

Scott was a natural soldier, with a commanding presence at 6’5″ and well over 200 pounds. His leadership skills, the ability to understand maps and terrain, and a strong sense of strategic and tactical thinking earned promotions and high command.

During the War of 1812, he saw service in Canada and upstate New York, and at twenty-seven, had risen to Brigadier General. At this point he recognized the insufficiency of state militias, and became a lifelong advocate of a full-time professional and well-disciplined army.

Following a tour of military inspections in Europe, he wrote the first US manual for military procedures and regulations. His strict adherence to regulations and policies, plus his penchant for formal pomp and ceremony earned him the nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers.”

Scott And Lincoln: The Wars

young lincoln illus

Abraham Lincoln was around 23 at the time of the Black Hawk War.

In 1832, the Black Hawk War was skirmishing in the Midwest, with General Winfield Scott in command. Lincoln was twenty-three, recently moved to New Salem, Illinois and enlisted with a robust bunch of fellows who signed up, almost as a lark. He saw no action, fired no shots, but he was “elected” captain by his peers. Lincoln’s few weeks in the “army” we’re pivotal however. It was said that few “elections” were as personally gratifying to him. He also met John Todd Stewart of Springfield, who suggested that the lanky fellow might profit by reading law. He took the advice.

young winfield scott

General Winfield Scott was in his mid-late forties during the Black Hawk War.

By 1841, despite an up-and-down career, Winfield Scott, was the Commanding General of the entire US Army. He took a strong interest in West Point, updated army manuals and  patterned the military after the benchmark European models  following the Napoleonic Wars.

Abraham Lincoln was a struggling attorney in Springfield, IL, whose Whig political aspirations were routinely thwarted – until 1846. In a gentleman’s agreement of office-rotation, he was elected to a term in Congress.

The term coincided with the War with Mexico, which the new Congressman did not support – but nobody was listening to the first-term Midwesterner.


The earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken a few years before his election to Congress.

Scott, of course, was a General of note, winning battles against huge odds, employing tactical maneuvers that made headlines, and a rare compliment from the Duke of Wellington that declared him “the greatest living general.”

Zachary Taylor, another General of note, became the Whig candidate for president in 1848, possibly because he seemed more “manageable” than the imperious Scott. Scott, however, remained General in Chief.

Abraham Lincoln was not re-elected to Congress, returned to Springfield, and practiced law.

Scott and Lincoln: 1852

In 1852, the fractious imploding Whigs, little more than an amalgam of sectional bedfellows, finally turned to Winfield Scott, after 50 ballots.

Abraham Lincoln, a lifelong Whig campaigned for General Scott wholeheartedly, traveling across Illinois, making speeches and writing the appropriate letters. Scott was trounced, and the Whigs never recovered from the loss, or fielded another candidate.

Lincoln and Scott: The Civil War

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Fort Sumter was already being besieged in Charleston Harbor, and General Scott, at 75, was still the Commanding General of the Army.

old winfield scott

General Winfield Scott was past seventy-five when the Civil War began. Obese and gouty, and some say approaching senility.

By this time, Scott was aware of the tall fellow from Illinois. Scott was taller, by an inch, but outweighed Lincoln by more than 100 pounds. He was obese and gouty and could no longer mount a horse. The younger generation mocked him as “Old Fat and Feeble.”

Lincoln had great respect for the older man, had campaigned for him in 1852, and understood his own lack of knowledge about the military. General Scott knew just about everything.

President Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was fifty-two when he was inaugurated President in 1961.

In April, 1861, South Carolina fired the opening shots of the Civil War, and Winfield Scott, provided two important suggestions. First and foremost, realizing that he should retire, he recommended that Col. Robert E. Lee of Virginia be made the Commanding General. Lincoln took the suggestion, and an offer was made. Lee declined once Virginia seceded.

The second suggestion was Scott’s long-range “Anaconda Plan.” Knowing that the South had neither resources, manufacturing, economy, infrastructure and manpower to wage war indefinitely, his plan was to form a naval blockade along the Eastern coast, along the Gulf Coast, and through the inland rivers all the way to the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederate states in two, and strangling it into submission.

It was not a popular strategy. Northern diehards preferred the frontal assault, crying “On to Richmond!” The North, in a circuitous way, did both.

General Scott, had outlived his time and effectiveness, and retired to West Point. His mind, however, was unimpaired, and he continued to follow the events and the seemingly endless round of Commanding Generals that Lincoln appointed over the next three years.

General Henry Halleck

General Henry Halleck was put in charge of the Army after the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.

Lincoln visited him West Point in June, 1862. Some research indicates they discussed reinforcing McClellan’s army on the Peninsula (at the expense of protecting Washington). Other sources suggest he was looking for another Commanding General, and Scott recommended Henry Halleck this time.


The pivotal year of 1863-64 was momentous for General Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln had found his general.

It would be the last meeting between Lincoln and Scott.  By 1864, Lincoln had grown in confidence – and he had also found his Commanding General.

Scott died in 1866, a year after Lincoln’s assassination. During his retirement he had written his memoirs and sent a copy to General Ulysses S. Grant, inscribing it “from the oldest general to the greatest general.”


Henig, Gerald S. & Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts – Stackpole Books, 2001





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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


Posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Nifty History People | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment