The Courtship of Bess and Harry Truman

President and Mrs. Truman. Nobody would have thought they’d make it so far!

Bess Wallace and Harry Truman courted (sort of) for nearly thirty years.

Little Boy Harry and Little Girl Bess:

Writing of his courtship many years after his marriage, Harry Truman said he first fell in love with Bess Wallace when they were five – in little-kid dancing school.

Young Harry Truman from the wrong side of the tracks.

Farm boy Harry S Truman (1884-1972) was born and raised in Lamar, MO,  just outside Independence, not far from Kansas City. While his family were far from poverty-stricken, they were farmers, on the poorer side of the economic scale. Harry was the eldest of three, and from the start, was expected to do farm chores as well as keep up with his school work.

Not so Elizabeth Virginia Wallace (1885-1982). She was the oldest of four born to David and Madge Wallace, but the pedigree of privilege came from her maternal grandparents. Grandpa Gates was the owner of a prosperous flour mill. Considered wealthy, they lived in a fine house on the finest street in Independence, MO. Madge Gates had married David Wallace over her parents’ objections.

Little Bess Wallace – from the better side of the tracks.

Lamar and Independence are not far in distance, and many schooling and related activities were combined. Bess and Harry were the same age, and in the same public school class through high school, but that acquaintanceship was generally superficial, partly because of their youth, and mostly because of the huge gap in their social status. Harry was farmer; Bess was city-swell.

Bess and Harry: Reacquainted

When Bess was eighteen, any hopes she may have had for college or business school were dashed when her father committed suicide. The Wallace marriage had been unhappy for many years; David Wallace was an alcoholic who could never maintain a job for long. Madge Wallace was a difficult woman who could never quite face the truth.

In the early 20th century, suicide was a scandalous stigma. The Wallaces claimed the ubiquitous “business reversals” and moved away for a year to let things die down. When they moved back, they lived with the elderly Gateses. Perhaps realizing that she needed to take charge, Bess stayed home to manage the household and get her three younger brothers educated and out of a toxic environment as soon as possible – for their own good.

Meanwhile, Harry having lost his father, had a farm to run, a mother to support, and two younger siblings to help raise. College was out of the question for young Mr. Truman.

Several years passed before he met up with Miss Wallace again.

The story goes that Harry was in Independence visiting relatives, and one of them mentioned a pie plate that needed to be returned to Mrs. Wallace. Harry volunteered to be the messenger-of-return.

Madge Wallace, Bess’ “difficult” mother – even when she lived in the White House.

Showing up at Bess’ door, pie-plate in hand, was the start of their mature relationship. By that time, both were in their twenties. He was still poor. Bess was still considered well-to-do, thanks to the large house and the Gates’ inheritance.

Their early courtship was sporadic, since Harry had responsibilities at home and very little money. Nevertheless, whenever he came to call, Bess was happy to see him.  Alas, Mrs. Wallace was not thrilled by the attentions of “Farmer Truman,” believing he was well beneath the Wallace social level. Bess did not care. She liked Harry.

For the next decade, they kept company, and talked about marriage – when he could afford it. Problem was, he couldn’t afford it.

Bess, Harry and World War I

Captain Harry Truman, the unlikely soldier.

When World War I finally came to US shores, Harry Truman was 33 years old and extremely nearsighted. He was obviously deferrable. But he wanted very much to serve, and volunteered. Bess may have agreed with her mother on that issue: he had to be nuts! But she made no objection, and even suggested that they marry prior to his going “over there.”

Harry said absolutely not! He might be killed and she would be a widow. Or worse: he might be seriously injured and she would be saddled with an invalid. She agreed to wait.

So he took her photograph, became Captain Harry, served commendably, wasn’t killed or wounded and came home.

By this time, they were both well into their thirties, and if they were going to get married and have a family, they had better get cracking!

Bess, Harry, and Mrs. Wallace

The new Mr. and Mrs. Harry Truman on their wedding day.

Madge Wallace never changed her opinion about Harry Truman – even when he was in the White House. To her, he was always Farmer Truman, not nearly good enough for her daughter.

According to the Trumans’ daughter, when her parents were ready to set the date, they had their first and only big row. Margaret Truman never knew the details, and her parents never discussed them, but their daughter surmised that it was likely because Harry wanted a place of their own. Bess insisted they live with her mother. Madge Wallace could not live alone – and no one other than Bess could live with her.

Margaret concluded that Harry must have loved Bess very deeply. He bought the package.

They were married on June 28, 1919. Mrs. Wallace moved into a smaller room, and the newlyweds took over the large bedroom. Nevertheless, it would always be Mrs. Wallace’s house. Bess had her childhood girlfriends who came to play bridge periodically. Harry went to one of the local hotels one night a week for a poker game with the guys. The Trumans never invited friends to the house. If they socialized, it was “out.”

According to his friends, Truman had “the original mother-in-law from hell.” But the Truman marriage was solid.

Sources:

Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies from Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower – Sourcebooks, 2011

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

Truman, Margaret – Harry S Truman – 1972, William Morrow

http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=34

http://www.trumanlibrary.org/bwt-bio.htm

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Harding and Taft: Making An Old Man Happy

Every so often, dreams do come true. Even in politics

Ex-President Taft: A Public Career

William Howard Taft (1857-1932) spent his entire life in public service: as judge, as Solicitor General, as Governor of the Philippines, as Cabinet member and as President – the only job he claimed to have disliked.

When he retired from the presidency in 1913, he was at loose ends, both personally and financially. The prominent Taft family of Cincinnati, Ohio had always encouraged its favorite son/brother – even to a point of augmenting his pre-presidential salary, which was comfortable, but never opulent.

First Lady Helen Herron Taft shortly after Taft’s election.

In the nineteenth century, public servants, particularly those at a higher level (like a judge), were expected to contribute not only to the party that elected them, but to all the worthwhile civic causes: to wit, the old soldiers’ home, the opera house, the new library. They were also expected to attend all the see-and-be-seen events.

Mrs. Taft’s health curtailed most of her abilities to function publicly during Taft’s administration.

In 1913, there was no presidential pension, and “suitable” post-presidential paying jobs were limited. Taft still had a young son to be educated and a wife to care for. Nellie Taft, at 48, was only First Lady for a few months when she had a severe stroke. While she recovered substantially, incidents and relapses forced her to completely refocus her enormous energies on her health. Taft needed the paying job.

WHT: The Interim Years

Taft’s beloved Yale, the family Alma mater, came to his rescue with the offer of a chair of law. “Judge” Taft was eminently qualified. A professorship at Yale was eminently suitable.  The position was prestigious; the work flexible and easy, and he sincerely enjoyed working with the young students. Taft also had plenty of time for the many speaking engagements that were coming his way. He was amazed that organizations paid $200 or more plus expenses, just to have him eat a chicken dinner and speak for an hour!

In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson appointed Taft to the National War Labor Relations Board.  The two men had gotten along well, and the new part-time position did not interfere with his Yale responsibilities.

It also allowed the Tafts to spend more time in Washington. Mrs. Taft disliked being cooped up in Connecticut, and missed her friends and activities in the capital.

The Harding Connection

Warren Harding (1860-1923) was also an Ohioan, but from central Ohio, and from an undistinguished family. As publisher of the Marion Star, he had gravitated easily into politics, mainly as a popular speaker at various organizations around the state.

Senator Warren G. Harding, the man who looked like a president.

Blessed with the politician’s “glad hand” at the meet-and-greets, he was elected to the Ohio State Legislature, and served a term as Lt. Governor.

His personal connection with Taft-as-President had been casual and limited, even though as a former Lt. Governor, Harding had been invited to the massive gala 25th Wedding Anniversary party the Tafts hosted in 1911. (Since 8000 invitations were issued, the guest list was obviously not select.)

Harding repaid the courtesy by making a nominating speech for Taft’s re-election at the 1912 Republican convention. Taft won the party’s nomination, but lost the election big time!

WHT: Unrequited Love

Not long after William Howard Taft received his law degree, he was appointed to the bench and found his one true love. Being a judge suited his temperament, his disposition, his intellectual leanings and perhaps his outsized girth. A judge’s robe covers a lot of territory. The more he progressed in his career, the more he loved the bench, and his greatest ambition (which was never a secret) was an appointment to the Supreme Court.

Young William Howard Taft became a judge early in his career, and never wavered in his love of the bench.

President Theodore Roosevelt offered him the post three times, and three times he declined – all for substantive reasons. It was a painful decision each time.

Even more privately painful was the odd coincidence that in his single four-year term, Taft appointed six justices to the Court – the most of any one-term president. In essence, he was handing over his lifelong dream to others – including the plum post of Chief Justice.

His chances were slipping away.

Meanwhile Harding…

Handsome Warren Harding had made a solid name for himself throughout Ohio as a popular guest speaker. He loved “bloviating” as he called it, and was happy to help boost Republican colleagues in their election efforts.

Those benevolent chickens came to roost when Harding was elected to the US Senate in 1914.

He went to Washington and glad-handed and bloviated and boosted – this time on a national level. By 1920, while the country at large did not know the small-town newspaper publisher, Republican bigwigs did. He was everybody’s second or third or fourth choice for the nomination. He won that fairly easily.

Women voted for the first time, and liked his easy style and good looks. Harding won the presidency very easily.

WHT: Happy At Last

Not long after his election, Harding invited ex-President Taft for a chat. The conversation covered many subjects, and eventually came around to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice and Mrs. William Howard Taft. He was a happy man.

Harding admitted being aware of Taft’s desire for the bench; Taft, the always-honest man, admitted his lifelong dream, which by then was an open secret. But he also admitted that as a former President, he could only accept the position of Chief Justice. Three of the sitting justices had been his own appointments – including the Chief Justice himself.

Harding was understanding, but non-committal.

But Chief Justice Edward D. White was in failing health. Within the year, he died, and the seat was vacant. It would be a very short vacancy. President Harding made Taft  joyous by nominating him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was well past sixty, and had nearly given up all hope of his dream job. The Senate confirmed him unanimously the following day.  To this day, he is still the only man to serve as both President and Chief Justice.  It is said that Taft’s last ten years were his happiest.

Sources:

David J. Danelski and Artemus Ward, editors – The Chief Justice: Importance & Influence – University of Michigan Press, 2016

Ross, Ishbel – An American Family: The Tafts – World Publishing, 1964

http://law.jrank.org/pages/10668/Taft-William-Howard.html

https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/williamhowardtaft

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Edith Roosevelt: Raising Eagles

Edith Carow Roosevelt was a mother of six when she became First Lady in 1901.

The Roosevelt Family of the White House. (l to r): Quentin, TR, Ted, Archie, Alice, Kermit, Edith and Ethel.

The “Other” Mrs. Roosevelt

Over the past seventy-five years or more, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt has eclipsed the name of the “other” Mrs Roosevelt, her aunt-by-marriage: Uncle Theodore’s wife Edith. In her own time, however, Edith Roosevelt (1861-1948) was considered perfect; the First Lady who never made a mistake. It could not have been easy for a polar opposite of always-exuberant Theodore.

Edith: Wife and Mother

Edith Roosevelt was always one to shun the spotlight.

Edith and Theodore Roosevelt had six children when they arrived at the White House in September, 1901 following the tragic assassination of popular William McKinley. Alice was seventeen, and Theodore’s daughter by his first wife who had died in childbirth. Ted was fourteen, and Kermit, about to turn twelve. Both spent the better part of their White House years in boarding school/college. Ethel was ten, Archie seven, and Quentin not quite four.

From the start of their marriage, Edith was the quiet ruler of the household. She managed their Long Island home at Sagamore Hill, bore, raised, supervised and disciplined their children, handled the finances, and even managed  her “seventh” child, Theodore, himself. Nevertheless, with all her behind-the-scenes responsibilities, she still found time to romp, play, ride, swim and inspect the myriad treasures that find their way into a little boy’s pocket, and enjoy family life thoroughly.

Mrs. TR managed to have some time and place for herself.

Her participation in “fun” once led little Archie to say, “When Mother was a little girl, she must have been a little boy.”

Edith Roosevelt seldom gets sufficient credit for being a “single mother” for a huge portion of their lives. TR, man of a zillion interests and three distinct “careers” (politics, writing and natural history) was frequently away tending to said “careers.” Each year, he spent at least a month hunting, camping or exploring. It would fall to Edith to shuttle the family back and forth between Washington and Sagamore Hill, along with their pets and hundreds of books.

They were permissive parents, in the sense that all their children were given a free hand to be creative, to explore, to try, to achieve (or flop), to make their own friends, choose their own interests and build their own lives. If Edith Roosevelt had qualms or fears for her children, she summed it up in her always-cool way. “I raised my children to be eagles, not sparrows.”

White House Eagle-Raising

First Lady Edith Roosevelt.

Despite Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential demands, he was a devoted father, and part-time playmate. He terminated important appointments in order to keep a promised appointment with Archie and Quentin. He was indulgent with boy-stuff, although he periodically needed to step in and pull POTUS rank. Wipe off the mustaches they drew on famous paintings. No throwing snowballs from the White House roof. But it was Edith, the full-time mother, whose frown, or “now, boys” would have the same effect on the children as it did on their father: They would immediately stop whatever they were doing that gave her pause.

The famous John Singer Sargent portrait of President TR.

Schoolwork was expected to be completed on time. Grades were expected to be up to their individual snuffs. Their behavior in the company of anyone – from menial staff to foreign ambassadors – would be impeccable, no exceptions.

But their annual summer vacations at Sagamore Hill was where they all romped and explored, jumped out of the barn window and whatever else they devised.

The Roosevelt home at Sagamore Hill.

At home, Father and Mother were just that: Father and Mother. One time an aide assigned to the First Family at Sagamore Hill was searching for the President who could not be found. Finding six-year-old Quentin, he asked if he knew where the President was. Quentin is said to have replied, “I don’t know about the President, but Father is taking a bath.”

The Eagles Leave the Nest

TR had become President at only 42; when he retired he was just 50. Too young. He was born to be active, and not stay put.

When World War I erupted in Europe in 1914, TR was eager to participate. He was an ardent internationalist, and had always promoted his vision of the US as a world power. He preached preparedness as a means of strength – and a deterrent to war. In 1914, most Americans did not want to be a world power, and had no desire to fight with anybody.

The four Roosevelt sons were eager to prove their “eagleness.”

But TR’s idealism was genetic. The Eagles itched to prove themselves and their “eagleness.”

In 1915, Ted and Archie had enlisted in a pre-ROTC-style military program in Plattsburgh, NY, and excelled. They both signed on with the American Expeditionary Force, Kermit volunteered with the British Army in what is today Iran, and Quentin, only nineteen, volunteered with the US Army Air Service.

Kermit was their only son who escaped serious injury, although his internal demons were lifelong. Both Ted and Archie were severely wounded, leaving permanent infirmities. Quentin lost his life at twenty.

All were decorated for valor.

Mother Eagle

A rare photograph of Edith and Theodore Roosevelt in their middle years. TR was only 60 when he died.

Theodore Roosevelt died at only 60, Edith at 87, outlived him by nearly thirty years.

Quentin had died decades earlier.

Ted Jr. became a Brigadier General in the Army Reserves, and won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor on D-Day. He died shortly after of a heart attack. He was 57.

Kermit pursued various international business and literary interests, but never overcame the alcoholism and depression that he battled throughout his adulthood. He joined the Army during World War II, and was stationed in Alaska when he took his own life. Edith was told it was a heart attack. He was 55.

Archie, despite WWI injuries that were considered permanently disabling, re-enlisted, and served in Australia, where he was injured again. He came home.

The Mother Eagle had outlived three of her eaglets.

Sources:

Hagedorn, Hermann – The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill – Macmillan, 1954

Morris, Sylvia Jukes – Edith Kermit Roosevelt – Coward McCann, 1980

http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=26

https://www.nps.gov/sahi/index.htm

https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/first-ladies/edithroosevelt

 

 

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The Tragedies of General James Longstreet

General James G. Longstreet

James G. Longstreet’s reputation has been a controversial yo-yo for more than 150 years.

Pete.

James G. Longstreet (1821-1904) was nicknamed Pete in infancy, and it stuck throughout his long life. Born in SC to a large family of Dutch lineage, he showed sufficient promise to warrant a better education than his parents could provide.

At nine, he was sent to live with relatives in Georgia, where they believed he would thrive more academically. Pete thrived, certainly in the sense of a happy childhood. When his own family moved to Louisiana, he chose to remain with his adoptive relative.

Academically alas, he was not the scholar his parents had hoped. Nevertheless he was accepted into West Point’s class of 1842, where he graduated in the bottom quarter of his class. His demerits were on a par with his academics.

A West Point Academic Aside

“Pete” Longstreet as a young officer.

In the early to mid 19th century, West Point classes were small. A class of 50-60 was the norm. Family social status was important. Military acumen was important. Discipline was important. Academics, perhaps could be more flexible. A gentleman’s “C”.

Some cadets had all the elements in abundance, like Robert E. Lee and George McClellan, who ranked at the top of their respective classes. But academics was not always necessary to future military achievement. Thomas J. Jackson (the future “Stonewall”) was practically dead last when he entered (the year Longstreet graduated), but worked tirelessly to finish mid-range.

Both George Pickett and George Custer were the cellar dwellers of their respective classes. Ulysses S. Grant was also undistinguished, except for his horsemanship.

Ergo, academics alone do not a good soldier make.

The Mexican Crucible

The Longstreets and the Grants would be friends for nearly forty years.

Pete Longstreet’s first assignment post graduation was to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, not far from some distant cousins, the Dents. A year later, Longstreet’s underclass pal, Ulysses “Sam” Grant was posted there as well, and eventually married the eldest Dent daughter.

But before that could happen, the War with Mexico thrust West Point classmates and alumni together, tempering in battle the talents that presaged the Civil War fifteen years later. They were all American soldiers then. Some bonds of camaraderie could withstand the strains that would follow. Some could not.

Shortly after the war Pete married Maria Louise Garland, the daughter of his commanding officer. They would be married for 40 years and have 10 children together, five living to adulthood. About that time, his pal Sam Grant married Julia Dent. Pete Longstreet is said to have been a groomsman.

Longstreet’s First Tragedy: a Private Agony

Louise Garland Longstreet and two of their children.

By 1858, Pete Longstreet was a Major with a distinguished service record. By June 1861, the born and raised Southerner made the not-terribly-hard choice of allegiance to the Confederacy. He was quickly promoted to Brigadier General, then to Major General, and eventually Lieutenant General.  Many have considered him one of the South’s best commanders. He was assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia, and accordingly Louise and the children moved to Richmond.

There were five small Longstreets in 1862, along with an epidemic of scarlet fever. General Longstreet was notified that his children were afflicted and raced home. He was barely in time to kiss one-year-old Mary Anne and four-year-old James, Jr. before they died. A week later, 11-year-old Augustus succumbed. Only 13-year old Garland survived.

The parents were devastated. It is said that General Longstreet was never the same. He had gone from being an outgoing and social man to a serious “Gloomy Pete.”

Longstreet’s Second Tragedy: Gettysburg

General Robert E. Lee. He would be a military icon.

The three-day Battle of Gettysburg took place early in July,1863, only weeks after the accidental friendly-fire death of Stonewall Jackson. Longstreet was now Robert E. Lee’s Old War Horse: the one he would come to depend on most.

Battle is battle, and General Longstreet was always in the thick of it.

Gettysburg was unplanned. The Northern and Southern armies literally bumped into each other. The audacious Lee saw it as an opportunity; the cautious Longstreet was hesitant. He shared his concerns with his commander, who acknowledged their validity, but overruled him.

Longstreet’s good friend, General George Pickett.

“Almost” does not count in battle, and the futility of Pickett’s Charge on the third day, despite the valor, was nothing less than a disaster. Longstreet had argued hard against it, foreseeing the catastrophe that awaited. He could not even issue a verbal command to advance. He merely nodded sadly.

Longstreet’s tragedy was not the battle itself. It came long after the war had ended and he wrote his memoirs. He dared to criticize General Lee’s decisions at Gettysburg. General Lee was revered. Old Pete was expendable. The South frowned.

Longstreet’s Third Tragedy: Grant

The General as a civilian after the Civil War.

Pete Longstreet and Sam Grant had been friends since West Point. They had been at Jefferson Barracks together.  They were in Mexico together. Longstreet attended Grant’s wedding. Being “enemies” during the Civil War did not sever the friendship. Many old friends-turned-foes rekindled their old affections. But this old friendship was at the highest level.

After the War, Longstreet and his family moved to New Orleans to rebuild their lives. He entered the private sector to mediocre success. His “citizenship” was reinstated in 1868, the same year Ulysses S. Grant was elected President.

Longstreet registered to vote as a Republican (anathema to the South), voted for his pal Grant, and went to Washington to attend the inauguration.

Elderly General Longstreet

Always a strong believer in old Pete’s abilities, President Grant appointed him surveyor of Customs in New Orleans shortly after he assumed office. Reinstatement and assignment to high military office in the United States Army would follow. In later years, diplomatic posts followed as well.

This apostasy was more than the South could bear. They would acknowledge his valor. They would acknowledge his military excellence.

But they would never forgive him.

Sources:

Botkin, B.A. (ed.) – A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends and Folklore – Promontory Press, 1960

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

https://www.civilwar.org/learn/biographies/james-longstreet

http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/james-longstreet

 

 

 

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FLOTUS Ellen Wilson: American Impressionist

A statue of Ellen Axson Wilson in her hometown of Rome, Georgia.

While many First Ladies displayed some artistic gifts, Ellen Wilson was arguably the most talented.

Ellen Axson: Child to Woman

Ellen Axson Wilson (1860-1914) was bookended by war: Born just as the American Civil War was about to start, dying just as Europe was about to explode into World War I. She was  Georgian born and raised, and displayed artistic talents at an early age.

Young Ellen Axson

By the time she was in high school, her abilities were readily acknowledged. A teacher who attended the Paris Exposition one summer, brought along some of her students’ art projects for judging. Ellen’s freestyle drawing won a prize. Back in Rome, Georgia, she was becoming well known.

One of Ellen Wilson’s paintings

In Victorian times, women artists, no matter how gifted, were generally considered Sunday painters. Hobbyists. Their opportunities for earning a living at art were very few. Ellen Axson had hoped to continue her studies, and become an art teacher, but when her mother died, Ellen was twenty and her family needed her at home.

She married Woodrow Wilson in 1885, and as expected, her art became her hobby – when she had time to spare. Woodrow’s meager professor’s salary, a kid brother she was raising, three children in five years, and a rotating assortment of Woodrows, Wilsons and Axsons as long-term houseguests assured that time for serious art would be nil.

Nearly two decades would pass before “EAW,” as she would sometimes sign her paintings, would be able to pick up her palette with any regularity.

EAW: The Art Colony Summers

Ellen Axson Wilson, the talented artist

By the beginning of the 20th Century, when Ellen’s daughters were coming to maturity, women artists were beginning to be taken more seriously. Rosa Bonheur and Berthe Morrisette in Paris, and even Mary Cassatt of Philadelphia, were become well known artists. They received commissions. Their works hung in galleries.

With more time on her hands, once Woodrow Wilson achieved academic success at Princeton, and her children did not need her constant attention, Ellen could unpack her easel and paints again, and find some uncrowded hours for herself and her art.

In 1905, personal tragedy descended on Mrs. Wilson. The brother she had raised from earliest childhood, his wife and baby son all died in a drowning accident. She was devastated, and sank into a severe depression. As she slowly recovered from her great loss, she found solace and comfort in her art.

Ellen Wilson and her daughters, painted by Robert Vonnoh, one of the master American impressionists.

Lyme, Connecticut is not that far from Princeton, New Jersey. A small summer art colony had formed there where area artists could spend a few weeks painting or sculpting at the Lyme Summer School of Art, sponsored by the Art Students’ League (which Ellen Axson had briefly attended prior to her marriage). More importantly, artists met each other as peers. They worked together; critiqued each other’s projects; compared techniques. They formed friendships and pooled resources. It was ideal for Mrs. Wilson, both professionally and in spirit.

Noted American Impressionist Childe Hassam spent time in the art colony in Lyme. So did Robert and Bessie Vonnoh, a husband-and-wife duo of exceptional skills.

Ellen Wilson’s talents were far superior to just those of a “Sunday” painter.

In 1910, Ellen Wilson and her daughters began staying at Florence Griswold’s Boarding House (now the Florence Griswold Museum); Woodrow, now NJ Governor, came up from Princeton on weekends. Margaret, Jessie and Nell Wilson, now young ladies, formed their own friendships and activities, allowing their mother the time to work and have discussions with her own set.

EAW: The Artist

By Ellen Wilson

Ellen had worked in several media early in her marriage. She had oils. She sketched. She drew portraits in artist-crayon (displayed at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace in Staunton, VA). She even constructed a clay model of the home they were building in Princeton.

But the mature Ellen, the “EAW” of the artist colony, found her milieu in water colors. She found her subject in nature. Mostly florals and landscapes. She also found increasing confidence in her abilities, especially when her peers considered her “a peer,” and judged her work as worthy.

Another painting by Ellen Wilson

As the Governor’s wife, Ellen acquired an agent, and submitted some of her work for “blind” competitions. (This meant that the identity of the artist would be unknown to the judges.)  She not only entered, but won awards. By the time Woodrow Wilson was elected President, Mrs. Wilson was considered a serious artist in her own right. Her work was hung in galleries and museums, and she had a one woman show in Philadelphia.

EAW: The First Lady

First Lady Ellen Wilson

In 1913 she became First Lady. Now Ellen Wilson was now inundated with dozens of public responsibilities as well as personal ones – the weddings of two of her daughters.  Her time for to art was limited once again.  She also changed her summer artist colony visit from Lyme, CT to Cornish, NH, which had the reputation of “hosting” some of the most prominent artists of the early twentieth century. With such notables as Augustus Saint Gaudens, Maxfield Parrish, Daniel Chester French and Frederic Remington, the colony was well known to American artists. President Wilson was happy to bring his talented wife to the Harlakenden House, one of the finest homes in the area, where once again, she could work alongside her peers.

It was the only summer that First Lady Wilson spent there; she died the following year.

Ellen did not live long enough to produce any more than a modest body of work, but even today, her fine artistry has been rediscovered, and judged much better than somewhat.

Sources:

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

https://florencegriswoldmuseum.org/

http://www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org/ellen-exhibition

http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=28

 

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Saying Goodbye to FDR

The unfinished portrait of FDR.

Death is always private, but the death of a world figure becomes a public event.

President Roosevelt’s Health

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April, 1945, the world was stunned. He had been US president for twelve years, just recently inaugurated to an unprecedented fourth term.

Television was still experimental, and newsreels and photographs of the President were always carefully staged. Few Americans were aware that FDR had been crippled by polio for nearly twenty-five years, and could not walk without braces, a cane and the arm of a strong man to steady him.

There was a noticeable decline in FDR at Yalta.

Even fewer noticed his visible decline during the past year. The strain of WWII had taken a huge toll. He had lost weight. His face looked drained and haggard. When he returned from his recent meeting in Yalta, he was seated while addressing Congress – something he had never done before. They were all aware of FDR’s disabilities, but this was different. And worrisome.

FDR’s “Little White House” in Warm Springs, GA

They did not know about his dangerously high blood pressure, and his heart condition. His doctors were alarmed and insisted on immediate rest. As usual, FDR pooh-poohed, but agreed to some down time.

FDR: Warm Springs

Young FDR prior to being stricken with polio.

At 39, Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken with polio, and spent the better part of a decade vainly trying to find a remedy to restore strength to his withered legs. In the 1920s, the most promising treatments demanded warm water exercise therapy.

A rare photograph of FDR showing his withered legs.

In 1924, FDR discovered the buoyant waters in Warm Springs, a depressed rural town about an hour from Atlanta, whose only attribute was a spring of water that maintained its soothing temperature year round. It seemed so beneficial, that Roosevelt purchased the area in 1926, turning it into a viable treatment center for polio patients.

The well-known photo of FDR and another polio patient.

Roosevelt loved Warm Springs and all its residents, whether they were “polios,” local residents or part of the medical therapy team. With his infectious optimism and political gifts of remembering names and faces and all their pertinent information, that love was returned.

Even as President, he periodically came to his “Little White House” to refresh his body and spirit. After Yalta, when his doctors counseled rest, this is where he came.

The President Dies

It was almost fitting that death would come for FDR at Warm Springs. The Little White House was small cottage. It could easily fit inside the White House in Washington a dozen times. He had gone there accompanied by his valet, secretary, two cousins, a few friends, his doctors and personal staff. Most were lodged nearby. He was sitting for a portrait when he complained of a violent headache and collapsed. It was a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.

Headlines all over the world brought the news.

Word was secretly sent to Washington. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been at a speaking engagement, and Vice President Truman were urgently summoned to the White House. Both feared the worst.

Within hours, telephone and telegraph wires had spread the sorrowful news across the country. Cables were sent abroad to heads of state and to the Armed Forces. Mrs. Roosevelt personally wired her sons serving overseas. Then she flew to Georgia to accompany the President’s body back to the capital. By the time she returned to Washington, the White House had been flooded with condolences from all over the world.

The Private Goodbyes, The Public Goodbyes

Warm Springs residents, both patients and locals, were devastated, perhaps more than any other American citizens. They not only lost a President they deeply admired, they lost a dear friend. They knew him in a way no one else did. He was one of them. They saw him in his bathing suit, in the water, his withered legs in view. They alone understood the limitations he had to face, and they alone understood the nearly impossible heights he had reached despite everything.

Graham Jackson, a Warm Springs resident, had frequently entertained at The Little White House.

The following day a funeral cortège lined up outside the Little White House. In front of Georgia Hall, all the residents, on crutches, canes and in wheelchairs turned out to pay their final respects as the hearse and its entourage slowly made its way along the route the President always drove whenever he vacated the premises. Usually everyone waved and smiled. But this time, children and adults sobbed uncontrollably.

Graham Jackson, a local resident played a sorrowful Going Home on his accordion. He had entertained FDR and the other patients dozens of times over the past two decades. The aging Negro had tears running down his cheeks.

The funeral train.

By the time the casket was lifted onto the train to Washington, black-bordered headlines proclaimed the sad news. Flags everywhere flew at half-staff. Houses of worship were filled as prayerful eulogies were offered. Shops and stores were closed. Schools were closed. Congress adjourned.

It is more than 700 miles between Warm Springs, Georgia and Washington, DC. About a 12-hour drive. But the train carrying the President’s body chugged very slowly. All along the way, day and night, people lined up along the tracks, heads bared and bowed, sobbing as if they had lost their best friend. Some even placed pennies on the track to let the funeral train run over it as a souvenir.

The FDR home at Hyde Park, NY

As Commander-in-Chief, FDR was a casualty of war, like the thousands of American servicemen who had already died, and would continue to die before the War ended. His casket laid in state both at the White House, and later at Congress, as people from all stations in life came to pay their respects. . Representatives from every state – and even from foreign countries came to march in his funeral procession along with thousands of military personnel.

A small private funeral was held at Hyde Park, the place where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born, and the place he loved best.

He had been a part of the American family.

Sources:

Bishop, Jim – FDR’s Last Year – Wm.. Morrow, 1974

Gallagher, Hugh – FDR’s Splendid Deception – Dodd, Mead, 1984

https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/franklindroosevelt

https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/roosevelts_little_white_house.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-zucker/april-12th-the-day-we-los_b_9657572.html

 

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Mrs. Adams Goes to Paris

Source: Mrs. Adams Goes to Paris

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