Passionate Crusaders: A Book Review

All Presidents, no matter how great, wise or popular, will have some black marks on the escutcheon. Sometimes the exigencies of politics lead to decisions that later generations will decry.

Such a decision, and such a political exigency is the case of Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II.

How Much Did FDR Know?

There are fair questions for later generations to ask: How much did President Franklin D. Roosevelt know about the ongoing “holocaust” and when did he know it? And why did he wait so long to take measures, no matter how small?

On the subject of “how much did he know” it is a reasonable assumption that he knew some of the details, but not all. Stories of atrocities began emerging in the late 1930s, but they came through private (and undocumented) channels: family members and a handful of Jewish organizations. “Wholesale deportations” were the issue then, not mass and systematic murder. It was inconceivable to most Americans that such atrocities could take place; there must be some exaggeration. It was also nearly impossible to ascertain and verify the extent of these “rumors.”

It is not that there was only a handful of truly “passionate crusaders” that troubles  the modern conscience: it was such a complete lack of American awareness-outrage-support while Hitler’s henchmen were methodically decimating millions of European Jews (and others). It was not until mid-1944 that active efforts for Jewish relief were underway.

The Art of the Possible

Roosevelt, one of the shrewdest politicians to ever occupy the White House, once remarked that “politics is the art of the possible.”  In a way, this was FDR’s situation. World War II was a war about nationalistic aggression, not a war about Jews. Winning the war would be the optimum way to help the Jews.

Anti-Semitism has been, and probably always will be a fact of life all over the world. In the 1940s, the U.S. State Department was overwhelmingly anti-Semitic, actively blocking or subverting all efforts at rescue, intervention, and accepting some of the “huddled masses.” They had plenty of company. No other country wanted them either.

Perhaps more pervasive was “non-Semitism.” Most American citizens might never consider themselves anti-Semitic, but they were content to be oblivious and unconcerned. They would not harm, but neither would they help.

The War Refuge Board

By early 1944, it was apparent at high levels that action was needed to help the incomprehensible numbers of Jews who were the victims of Hitler’s “final solution.” (It was still inconceivable as to the horrific genocide being committed.)   Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau was not only Jewish, but he was a neighbor and personal friend of FDR. Nevertheless he believed he needed to act as an American, rather than an American Jew, if he was to be taken seriously.

Angered at evidence of overt anti-Semitism and outright deceit in the State Department in suppressing growing evidence of such crime against humanity, Morganthau and a handful of other concerned citizens prepared their documents, and brought their case to FDR. The meeting lasted only twenty minutes, but the scathing indictment of the State Department could be detrimental to the reputation of the country itself. Author Voight voices her suspicions that FDR was more interested in his popularity than in the plight of the Jews in Europe, and notes that American Jews (90%) were so firmly identified with the New Deal camp, that there would be minimal “loss of votes.” But in 1944, with the threat of the State Department’s deliberate obstruction becoming a national scandal, FDR was ready to take action.

The War Refugee Board

Congress approved a special committee, removing refugee issues from the State Department’s direct oversight. The War Refugee Board was created, to include “plans, programs and measures for the rescue, transportation, maintenance and relief of the victims of oppression, and to include the establishment of havens of temporary refuge for such victims.”

The Board included the Secretaries of the Treasury, State and War and a million-dollar budget, but it was generally toothless and clawless. A case of too little-too late, it still made some substantive contributions to Jewish rescue and to the welfare of some Jews who remained ghettoed in Eastern Europe. It still managed to connect with the International Red Cross and various European underground movements, to funnel money, supplies, and hope where it could. It still isolated “bribeable” Nazis, who might turn a blind eye in return for hard cash.   And it still brought a few hundred Jews to safety in the United States.

The Most Important Contribution

By late 1944, the tide had turned, the Allies knew the war would be won and many Nazis knew they would lose. They also knew their heinous crimes against humanity would be discovered – and uncovered – with the harsh light of victory.

The WRB had undertaken a powerful “public relations” effort to make its strongest weapon the inevitability of “justice being done.” It was not an idle threat. It was a promise kept at Nuremberg.

Author Heather Voight has written a disturbing book, but it is one that should be read by all students of US government, of Judaism – and of the Holocaust. It is basically how a small group of dedicated activists (most of whom were not Jewish) managed to provide whatever assistance they could in faraway lands, over insurmountable difficulties, and with little recognition, limited resources and limited results.

It is not an easy read; Ms. Voight does not seek to entertain. It is not a book for everyone. If there is a flaw, it is that while the book is titled “Passionate Crusaders,” it is not written with passion. It is a careful documentation of the efforts of those involved, but they come across as well-meaning but bloodless. The only truly compelling chapters concern the handful of Jews who were brought to the US, and the one about Raoul Wallenberg.  It is always the personal aspects that draw the reader.

But Heather Voight has written an important book for those who seek to know more on the subject and the thoughtful and caring reader will be rewarded.

Passionate Crusaders

Heather Voight

ISBN: 0990305201

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President Garfield’s Train

 James A. Garfield, President for barely six months, was dying from an assassin’s bullet.

Garfield: The Long Hot Summer

president garfield

The 20th President, James A. Garfield.

The summer of 1881 had been one of the hottest ever remembered by Washingtonians. The temperatures soared over 90 degrees practically every day. Charles Julius Guiteau, a “disgruntled office seeker,” better classified as a bona fide lunatic, had pumped two bullets into James Garfield (1831-1881) on July 2nd. He never rose from his bed again.

Despite a primitive air-conditioning system rigged by the Navy Corps of Engineers, lowering the White House sick-room to a more comfortable 75 degrees, the poor President was suffering and miserable.

His “team of doctors” must have been trained at the “Keystone Kops School of Medicine.” Blocked by their own medico-political infighting, plus a united distrust of any form of antisepsis (as had been practiced for several years in Europe), they ran in circles making things worse probing for a bullet they could not find. Modern historians and physicians believe that had they done nothing at all, Garfield would have survived.


An artistic rendering of the President’s sickroom. Very few visitors were admitted.

As it was, infection set in.   The doctors were “ept” enough to recognize infection when they saw it, but antibiotics were a half-century in the future. They could do nothing except drain the abscesses as they arose, and pompously keep the “bad news” from the President, his family, and the general public.

By late August, President Garfield, who had been conscious throughout, and who displayed remarkably good spirits and common sense, now knew he was dying. He wanted to go back home to Ohio and die in his own bed. He also wanted to “see the old folks again.”

The doctors were united on this point. It was a 500 mile journey over the Appalachian Mountains. It would be excruciating for the sick man, and they feared he would not survive the trip.

Mrs. Garfield’s Suggestion

Lucretia Rudolph Garfield

Lucretia Garfield had spent a month in Log Branch, NJ recuperating from malaria. It was she who suggested the location, still hoping that her husband would recover.

Only a few weeks after Garfield’s inauguration on March 4, First Lady Lucretia Garfield (1832-1918) had fallen ill with a severe case of malaria. By early June, the frail woman had begun to recover. Faced with the likelihood that the summer climate would cause a relapse, she was taken to Long Branch, a seaside town in New Jersey, where they believed the “ocean breezes” would have therapeutic value.

It was beneficial. Mrs. Garfield gained strength during the month she spent at the shore. Convinced that her husband might still recover, it was she who suggested that Long Branch might be restorative. It was only 250 miles. It would take only a few hours on the train. There were no mountains to cross.

Garfield’s Journey Begins

francklyn cot1

A postcard depicting the Charles Francklyn “cottage” in Long Branch, which the industrialist put at the President’s disposal. The building burned in the 1920s.

The consensus was that the First Lady’s suggestion was a good one, and if nothing else, the poor man would be more comfortable in the cooler climate. Charles G. Francklyn, a wealthy industrialist with a luxurious “cottage” near the ocean, was happy to put the residence at the President’s disposal. The Pennsylvania Railroad was equally happy to provide the train, which included refitting the private car of the railroad’s president. Three cars were attached to the engine: the “president’s car,” a car for the Garfield family, the doctors, and key staff, and a car for baggage.

A special rubber mattress-bed was fashioned by the Navy Corps of Engineers, filled with water and suspended on long poles that could be supported by six burly men. This way, the patient could be carefully carried down the White House stairs and into a waiting wagon that would take him to the railroad station. The mattress-with-poles was suspended over a platform-like structure inside the train. Since it would not rest against a solid object, the jostling would be kept to a minimum, cushioning the suffering President from the jolting of the train.

Garfield’s Journey: The Last Mile

The one hitch in the plan was the fact that the train station nearest the Francklyn cottage was a sub-station in Elberon, a tiny borough of Long Branch. Nevertheless, it was still nearly a mile from the cottage. It would necessitate another lift from the train and onto a horse-wagon, a slow and painful walk down an unpaved stony road, and yet another lift from the wagon and into the house itself.

garfield's train track

A stereoscopic view of the Francklyn cottage, the Long Branch bluff, and the spur track that was built from the station to the door.

This time it was the railroad personnel who used ingenuity. The Pennsylvania Railroad brought in a unit of trackmen with all their tools to lay a spur track down Lincoln Avenue, right up to the cottage. And the entire town turned out to help.

Temporary right-of-way paperwork had to be completed, and signed. The road had to be leveled and graded, and carts of rubble had to be cleared away even before any track could be laid.

The workers were not ready to begin until very late in the afternoon, perhaps a good thing, since the temperature was still well into the nineties. They worked right through the night, with residents setting up refreshment tables, the Elberon Hotel sending in wagons of sandwiches, and volunteers pouring gallons of lemonade for the sweating workers. Residents with a horses and wagons volunteered to cart away the rubble. Boys who were too young for hard labor but too big to remain idle were recruited as “torch boys,” working in fifteen or twenty minute shifts holding flaming torches in the still oppressive heat to provide light for the workers.

But the effort worked. Garfield’s “train” pulled up to the Francklyn cottage. But another hitch! There was a slight incline at the very end and the train couldn’t make it.   A dozen or so of the biggest men available volunteered and physically pushed the train the last few yards to the door.

garfield marker

There is a small marker at the location where the Francklyn house used to stand.

The President died two weeks later, his funeral train retracing that last mile. Then the spur track was torn up.



  • Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
  • Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company , 1881
  • Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978
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Eleanor Roosevelt Looks In The Pot

Eleanor Roosevelt had a decade of social and political activity when her husband became New York Governor in 1928. But she still had lessons to learn.


Eleanor Roosevelt, about the time she was First Lady of New York.

Eleanor Roosevelt: The Wilderness Years

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), born to an aristocratic New York family (Theodore Roosevelt was her father’s brother), was orphaned by the time she was ten, and raised by her maternal Grandmother Hall and an assortment of live-in aunts and uncles, all of whom were a little “dotty.”

She spent the only happy three years of her youth at a finishing school in England. Once graduated at eighteen, she returned to New York, and made her obligatory “social debut.” After that”ordeal” was over, she found her true calling by volunteering (via the socially acceptable Junior League) in a settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side. She loved it!  And they loved her.

young couple

Eleanor Roosevelt was twenty when she married her 5th cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But at twenty, when she married her fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she returned to the “accepted way of life” of New York’s upper crust. She bore six children within the first ten years of her marriage. One died. She was not particularly happy. Socializing was not her forte; she wanted to be useful.

Then, when World War I finally came to American shores, she began finding some outlet for her enormous energies by volunteering at Red Cross canteens. She was happy to pour coffee and make sandwiches. She could do better, of course, but. it was a start

Eleanor Roosevelt: Politics 101

full family

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt would have five children, but “home and family” activities were never fulfilling enough for Mrs. R.

Women were finally given the constitutional right to vote in 1920, and thirty-five-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt was encouraged to join the League of Women Voters. She had never been a “suffragist” per se; never marched, never chained herself to fences, never expressed anything other than mild, or non-committal support. But now, she felt obliged to understand the essence of what she would be voting for – or against.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been involved in politics since the early days of their marriage, so of course Eleanor was familiar with its elements, and of course, her politics and his coincided. Perhaps his coincided with hers, since it would always be Eleanor who was the more “liberal” in her social and political attitudes.

But in 1922, Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio, and would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, or wearing heavy braces. His formidable mother hoped his “condition” would rescue him from the disreputable elements of politics, and he would become the “country squire.” Eleanor disagreed. So did Louis Howe, FDR’s oldest, closest, and perhaps wisest political advisor (and one of the “disreputable elements” that Sara Delano Roosevelt loathed). It would be Eleanor and Louis Howe who encouraged FDR to keep one finger on the public pulse and another in the political pie.

As part of a concerted campaign to help her husband, Eleanor began serious involvement in social organizations in New York.  She visited factories, championed labor unions, immigrant needs, educational efforts and state politics.  All this activity brought her into close relationship with Governor Alfred E. Smith, an uncultured Irishman from the Lower East Side, who was making a national name for himself.

By the time FDR ran for, and was elected Governor of New York in 1928, Eleanor Roosevelt had a long resume of her own accomplishments, and an even longer contact list of social and political resources.

Eleanor Roosevelt: The “Pot” Lesson

The new First Lady of New York was not entirely happy at the turn of events, at least as they pertained to her. She did not want to be relegated to the “social” background like other Governors’ wives, hosting tea parties and accepting bouquets from school children. She wanted substantive assignments.

The new governor agreed. He needed her to be his “eyes and ears” since he could not get out and about very much himself.

Very early in his administration, he asked “his missus” to make an inspection tour of several of the state prisons that came under his jurisdiction. They were his responsibility, and he wanted to make sure that the inmates were treated humanely, and fairly.


Eleanor Roosevelt visited hundreds of factories, mines, prisons, founderies and related places of occupation in order to get a true “feel” for what we needed.

Eleanor duly spent several days making rounds, and returned with armloads of paperwork and reports for the Governor. When they discussed her “travels,” FDR did not want to see the paperwork. He wanted her observations and “impressions.” What she saw and what she thought.

He asked her about the food. “Did you inspect the kitchens? Were they clean?   Were the prisoners getting enough to eat? Was the food nourishing? Was it reasonably tasty?” Eleanor was complimentary, and assured her husband that she toured all the kitchens. Then she produced the weekly menus that she had received from the wardens.

“But did you look in the pot, Eleanor? Did you taste the food?” he asked.  She had not, and thereby learned valuable lessons: just because the menu says “beef stew” does not mean that it is properly prepared.  She needed to look in the pot and taste it to make sure it wasn’t just cornstarch gravy and a few stray potatoes and peas.

Eleanor Roosevelt would learn to push harder to get to the essence. She would not put her trust merely in what someone told her; she would need to see for herself and draw her own conclusions. Then too, there is the lesson that even the smallest details provide great insights.

Those were lessons she never forgot, and extraordinary woman that she was, instinctively knew how to apply them in dozens of other situations.


Roosevelt, Eleanor – Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt – Harper & Bros. 1961

Cook, Blanche Wiesen – Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One 1884-1933 – Viking Press, 1992

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Hillary Rodham Clinton: On the Couch

A book review.

Dr. Alma Bond has done it agai, penning another psychological (sort of) look at a prominent woman. This time, it is Hillary Clinton, a living person, and as such, treated with kid gloves.

The Device

Dr. Bond is a literate author and psychoanalyst with a score of published books to her credit.  In this one, she has employed the same literary “device” she used with a previous book, Marilyn Monroe: On the Couch.  She uses an alter-ego in the guise of Dr. Darcy Dale, a psychoanalyst who shares her session notes with the reader. In Marilyn’s case, the device worked well. Marilyn needed a shrink to finish breakfast.

In Hillary Clinton’s case, the device is somewhat thin. Hillary Clinton, like her or not, is a very “together” woman, not to mention an intensely private one.  She doesn’t really need a shrink, particularly since as a “head person,” she doesn’t share and she doesn’t whine.

The ruse is even thinner. Hillary Clinton, “troubled” by yet another one of her husband’s liaisons, makes an appointment with Dr. Dale. This gets her in the door and on the couch, but it is never discussed again. But after forty years, Hillary is probably bored and immune to Bill’s lady friends.

The Basic Hillary

Mrs. Clinton has been on the political stage for a quarter century.  There is little to the story that the public doesn’t know. A sweet, occasionally wise mother, exhausted by her overbearing and critical husband. A common enough scenario.

And a common enough Hillary Rodham. A plain-jane-with-a-brain, anxious to please, and defiant in proclaiming her indifference to “plain.” It was, after all, the 60s. A time for bra-burning, strident and loud insistence for a woman’s right to be whoever she wanted to be.  Plain was a plus.

Hillary goes to college, opts for Yale Law School, and is bowled over by the attentions of hunky Bill Clinton, with his “aw shucks” charm and Rhodes scholar paperwork. She falls madly in love; he not so much, but then again, he was a man with a libidinous tapeworm.

Bill Clinton was the one with the political agenda, the goal and the ambition: Governor of Arkansas. Hillary, a more sophisticated Chicago girl, sort-of wanted the big law firm career and the big bucks. Clinton was her vehicle. She wanted Bill.

She follows him to Arkansas, marries him, to the dismay of her flashy-trashy mother-in-law, and becomes the family breadwinner. Arkansas pays a pittance to governors, and not everyone is Winthrop Rockefeller.

They have their ups and downs, and finally a mega-up. He is elected President of the United States, and she is now First Lady. A Public Figure. For goodly or badly. It would be another up and down eight years, and one can only guess whether or not Hillary enjoyed the White House.  Then.

The Rest of the Story

Despite author Bond’s best efforts and “Darcy Dale’s” undisguised gushy admiration, Hillary Rodham Clinton: On the Couch becomes a resume recital, most of which is well known to everyone. She also includes at least a dozen pages of bragging-on-Chelsea. That Hillary is a devoted mom who loves her daughter dearly is never in question. Chelsea Clinton has always been a nice, sensible young lady. The country wishes her well.

Hillary Clinton (the Rodham part got dropped after her First Ladydom), is, of course, a major league player in American politics, and has been for decades.  She is dissected in the media on a daily basis.  Political pundits write about her.  She has written her own books and gets big bucks for speaking about them.  The millions who love her and ballyhoo everything, know that few can hold a candle to her impressive credentials, her diligence and her work ethic. Those who don’t like her and nitpick everything (an equal number), never deny her credentials, diligence and work ethic.

But alas for Dr. Bond, whose own impressive credentials, diligence and work ethic rival Mrs. Clinton, we never really get into Hillary’s head, let alone her heart, which is really what this book purports to do.

Putting up with Bill Clinton’s extra-curricular activities as well as her own privacy vs. presidential ambition ambivalence (either one more than sufficient reason to “have her head examined”) are glossed over lightly. If she had/has any close friends, we know nothing. Early pals are shrugged off, and we suspect her “friendships” are more alliances than personal, anyway. So despite her public persona and fish bowl existence, Mrs. C. remains elusive and private, even to Dr. Dale. Good for her!

One would have liked to know if Hillary misses driving her own car. Or goofing off for a day in an old bathrobe and bunny slippers, and to hell with her hairdo. Or escaping her retinue to go window shopping at the mall or stopping for a Big Mac.  We remain clueless, but suspect that figures highly in her ambivalence.

Hillary Clinton: On the Couch serves nicely, and Hillary lovers will love the book.  Hillary bashers, if they bother to read it at all, won’t.  So what else is new?  But the fact that she is still living presents its considerable problems to an author. Perhaps Dr. Bond will choose a subject with a little time-lapse in between for her next effort.  Like Mary Lincoln or the Empress Josephine. Interesting subjects, so much easier, and Dr. Bond is a wonderful writer, with a good ear. It would give her a chance to develop her own speech patterns.  And did I mention work ethic?!  Rock on, Dr. Bond!

Hillary Clinton: On the Couch: Inside the Life and Mind of Hillary Clinton

Dr. Alma H. Bond

Bancroft Press, 2015

ISBN-13: 978-1610881647

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Kate Sprague and Roscoe Conkling: Beauty and the Boss

Some of the juiciest gossip post-Civil War centered around NY Senator Roscoe Conkling and Kate Chase Sprague. Both were married, and the liaison was the stuff of scandal!

The Beauty


Kate Chase was the pretty and very fashionable social leader in Washington. Mrs. Lincoln hated her. It was mutual.

Kate Chase Sprague (1840-1899) was one of the best known women in Washington during the Civil War years. Her father, Samuel P. Chase, former Governor of Ohio, was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. He had strong presidential ambitions himself, and maneuvered and positioned for the top post for more than a decade, happy to spend his considerable wealth on his goal and his pretty daughter. Both lucky and unlucky in love, Chase had married three times, but the young and attractive women all died before they were thirty-five, thus Kate had been educated and groomed to be his political escort and hostess.


Secretary of the Treasury Samuel P. Chase had ambitions of replacing Lincoln as President.

Kate reveled in her exalted social status, all the more since her arch-rival Mary Lincoln despised her. Displaying a penchant for fashionable and expensive clothing that far exceeded Mrs. L, she spent her father’s fortune on lavish entertaining to bolster his ambitions. Chase raised millions for the War, but Cabinet Secretaries were not paid amply, and Chase was an honest man. To continue his pursuit for the presidency in 1864, he needed an infusion of money.

The infusion came in the person of William Sprague, the young Governor of Rhode Island, who had made a fortune in textiles. Barely thirty, he was not only the “boy-governor,” but a political “general.” It is easy to understand what he saw in Miss Chase. She was very pretty, socially “ept,” and at the top of society’s pecking order. It is mind-boggling to understand what she saw in him. Short, ugly, licentious (having already fathered an illegitimate child in Europe), a hard drinker with a vile, violent and abusive temper. But he had money and was willing to spend it. Kate adored her father and bartered her marital happiness for campaign financing.

It was a bad, bad bargain.

The Boss

Political bosses have been around throughout history. Sometimes they were called “kingmakers.” Sometimes they were called prime ministers. The common thread is their enormous power-behind-the-thrones. Nothing happened without the boss’ approval.


Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was one of the most powerful political bosses post-Civil War.

Roscoe Conkling (1829-1888), a middle-class attorney from Utica, NY, was a boss who became wealthy, powerful, and a force to be reckoned with both in NY and on the national level. Interestingly enough, he was never accused of personal corruption; his wealth was considered legitimately earned, not grafted. President Grant once offered him a Supreme Court justiceship, but he declined. Nevertheless, no one in New York Republican politics could be elected dog-catcher without Conkling’s rubber stamp. And the corruption and graft on lesser levels was rampant.

By the time of the Civil War, Conkling had become powerful enough and rich enough to be elected to Congress, and later to the Senate – an election by the NY legislature, rather than by the “people.” (That would require a Constitutional amendment in the 20th century.)

The Sprague Marriage

Within a year, Kate Chase’s marriage had become extremely unhappy. Despite Sprague’s wealth, the groom’s drinking, carousing and abusive behavior had become common gossip, and most Washingtonians knew that the couple’s relationship was bitter and acrimonious. Nevertheless, they would have four children. The last two, according to gossip, might not have been Spragues.


Gov.-turned-general-turned-Senator Willaim Sprague married Kate for her social pull. She married him for his money.

Kate took whatever comfort she could from her children, but mostly from her father, who was always “first” in her life – and politics. Chase’s ambition had reached a point that Lincoln finally had to force his resignation, and in a shrewd maneuver, appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, where it was believed he could do no harm.

Meanwhile, once the Civil War ended, Sprague managed to get himself elected Senator from Rhode Island. The marriage deteriorated further, and the couple spent long periods apart. The Sprague house in posh Narragansett and the Chase estate in Georgetown literally put space between them.

Enter Conkling

Roscoe Conkling’s marriage had never been thrilling, but it had never been abusive or violent.  He merely left Mrs. Conkling behind in Utica, and remained in Washington to do as he pleased. The comparison to Sprague was polar. Conkling was urbane and sophisticated. He dressed impeccably, drove the finest carriages, and displayed meticulous manners. He was also about 6’2″, fair-haired with a “Lord Byron” style curl, and usually sported a gold-knobbed walking stick.

Conkling and Mrs. Sprague had been acquainted from their earliest days in Washington, and even prior to her marriage, Conkling was known to escort “Miss Chase” to various events.

As Kate’s marriage continued to deteriorate to a point of whispered “divorce,” Conkling and Mrs. Sprague’s liaison became closer. While neither of them were brazen, they were seen together frequently. The “romance” became an open secret – and a scandal.

The Breaking Point

In the summer 1879, while Kate and the children were vacationing in their Narragansett home, Conkling paid a visit. The story goes that he was wearing his dressing gown, breakfasting with Kate one morning, when Sprague showed up unexpectedly. He was drunk – but still grabbed a shotgun and threatened to throw Conkling (a man nearly twice his size) out of the window (or down the stairs). Then he threatened the same to Kate, and had her locked in her room.

When she managed to escape her “imprisonment,” the Spragues separated permanently. She went abroad with the children. He filed for divorce, which was granted, but she received no financial settlement. In those days, a woman involved in a scandalous affair forfeited any “right” to her husband’s ffinancial support.

Alas for the proud Kate Chase Sprague, she was left in near-bankruptcy. Her last years were spent selling butter and eggs from her Georgetown farm in order to subsist.



Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003




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Mrs. Hoover’s Bad Habit: The “Surprise Supreme”

 Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover started their marriage in China – with six servants.   They didn’t need them, but it was customary – in China.

The Mining Engineer

lou in china-2

Lou Henry Hoover, shortly after her marriage.

Both Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry were graduates of Stanford University, and degreed geologists. Even though they were the same age, he graduated three years ahead of her, and the two of them corresponded as regularly as possible, since his various jobs took him to remote locations in the world. Once Lou completed her education, the two married. By that time, Bert as his friends called him, had embarked on a hugely successful career as a mining engineer and consultant, and the two of the circumnavigated the globe, living in exotic places. It was a fascinating life.


The Hoovers spent the first ten years of their marriage traveling to exotic places. They both adapted easily to their surroundings.

Their honeymoon (and his job) was in China, and, according to Chinese custom, their house came equipped with a hierarchy of six servants.  The new Mrs. Hoover would learn early how to work with “staff.”

By the beginning of World War I (1914), the Hoovers had been living in London’s tony Mayfair section for five years, firmly involved in the smart set of wealthy London society, since Hoover was a millionaire several times over.

Entertaining on a high-level was a part of the Hoover lifestyle. Since they were wealthy, and their household included several servants, most of the “details” of hosting were done by others. All Mrs. H. needed to do was “invite” and tell the head housekeeper how many and what time – and perhaps a hint of what might be served.

Mrs. Hoover’s Bad Habit

History would paint both Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover as “aloof” or “unsociable,” but that was far from the truth. They were genial people, happy to mix with their English friends and neighbors.

Since “others” were responsible for the mundane details of entertaining (think Downton Abbey), both Hoovers were somewhat oblivious to the consternation it caused their household staff when Mr. and Mrs. Hoover, together and separately, invited people for lunch or dinner on the spur of the moment.

It was not unusual for Mrs. H. to advise the housekeeper at nine o’clock that there would be a dozen for luncheon at one. An hour or two later, after attending a meeting or making calls, she might telephone and up the count to twenty. Mr. Hoover may have extended invitations as well, and by noon, the number of guests expected could exceed thirty.

This went on so often, that the Hoover kitchens were prepared for all exigencies. The larder was always well stocked.

The Habit Continues in America


Both Hoovers adored children, and had two sons of their own. Allan (left) and Herbert, Jr. (right).

When the Hoovers returned to the U.S. in 1918, his renown as a mining consultant was dwarfed by his new-found prominence as a humanitarian on a grand scale. He and his wife had performed yeoman services providing the necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter, fuel and medical supplies – to war-torn Belgium.

Recruited by President Woodrow Wilson to “come home” and head the Food Administration, the Hoovers purchased a house in Washington, and immediately became involved in the capital’s social circles. In addition, Lou, with many interests of her own, including the nascent Girl Scouts, developed friendships and resources apart from those of her husband.

Needless to say, their “bad habit” of issuing spontaneous invitations for meals wreaked havoc with their Washington household staff. They never knew how many places to set, and despite the Hoovers’ best intentions to keep their guest lists in check, anywhere from ten to fifty extra guests might show up.

Entertaining at the White House


The formal portrait of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. She was arguably the least known of the 20th century First Ladies.

The Hoovers were one of the wealthiest couples to reside in the White House, and it was all self-earned. Herbert Hoover had been a poor farm boy, orphaned at ten. He had developed a strong sense of noblesse oblige, and quietly returned his monthly salary check to the treasury. While there was a substantial budget for presidential “entertaining,” it seldom covered those expenses in full, and Mrs. Hoover would just as quietly write a personal check for the difference.

Even though the Great Depression caught the country off guard and austerity was now the watchword, President and Mrs. Hoover believed the White House should continue to present a positive face. There would be guests for breakfasts, luncheons and dinners. And teas.  And receptions.  Often there might be two or three teas and receptions in a day.   “Company, company, company!” groused Ava Long, the head housekeeper.  But Lou Hoover, concerned that her husband’s onerous workload needed some respite, continued to invite a large group of guests that she thought might be helpful to alleviate the President’s mounting cares.

The “Surprise Supreme”

It had started innocently enough. A one o’clock luncheon was planned for Mrs. Hoover’s guests, perhaps a dozen.   By ten, the number had increased; by eleven it had increased yet again, and by noon, the kitchen was advised that forty would be coming within the hour.

Ava Long had already gone to the market, but this was far more than she expected, and there was not enough food.   She immediately instructed the kitchen staff to empty the iceboxes, collect whatever meats were available and put it all through the grinder. Then she had them prepare a basic “white sauce.”

The ground-up meat was formed into croquettes, cooked, plated and “sauced” for the luncheon guests.

The ingenuity paid off. Everyone thought the croquettes were delicious. When one guest asked for the name of this wonderful concoction, the housekeeper told her it was called “The White House Surprise Supreme.”

Nevertheless, the strain was too much for Mrs. Long, and she resigned a few months later.


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

Boller, Paul Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981

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

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




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Mrs. Madison: The Most Popular First Lady Ever

Other First Ladies have been better looking, more intellectual or talented. But no one has ever been more popular.

Everybody Knew Dolley


No First Lady has been more universally popular than Dolley Madison.

Dolley Madison (1768-1849) was arguably the best known woman in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. This was no small accomplishment, since communication had only two routes: the spoken word and the written word. Two centuries later, we can only rely on the written evidence – and there was plenty of it! And everybody had nice words for Dolley Madison.

From her early days in Philadelphia, then capital of the new nation, Dolley Payne Todd, recent widow, gained prominence helping her mother run a boarding house catering to several congressmen, one senator and Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State.

Her attractive looks and winsome smile assured her recognition in town; her natural hosting charm at the boarding table won the admiration of the country’s movers and shakers. The marriage of one of her sisters to one of President George Washington’s nephews gained her “family access” to Lady Washington’s levees, where she delighted the cream of Philly.

So well known was the young Widow Todd, that Congressman James Madison wanted to meet her. He was immediately enchanted, and within six months, the two were married. Now as Mrs. Madison, wife of a very important figure in the new nation, she began to make her own mark as a quintessential hostess and political helpmeet.

The Personal Qualities of Dolley

Good looks, a winsome smile and gracious entertaining certainly help earn a reputation for popularity, but there were other deeper, substantive qualities that endeared her to both men and women.

Dolley Madison did not pry.

Dolley admitted on more than one occasion that her “happiest” blessing was a lack of curiosity about other people’s business.  She intuitively knew the difference between “neighborly” (…and how is your dear mother?) and “nosy” (is your homely daughter still unmarried?) This is no mean virtue.

Dolley Madison did not gossip, badmouth or spread rumors.

Guests to Dolley Madison’s “Wednesday evenings” always dressed in their finest, and were on their best behavior.

She practiced the old saying: if you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing.  Nor she did not allow others to demean others in her presence. Both in Philadelphia and later in Washington, when she was at the pinnacle of society, everyone knew that an invitation to Mrs. Madison’s soirees meant that they would be on their best behavior. No one ever wished to offend their lovely hostess.

Dolley Madison never betrayed a trust.

People from all walks of life mixed and mingled at Mrs Madison’s soirees.

Both as the wife of the Secretary of State and later as First Lady, Dolley Madison was privy to knowledge of all kinds: political, personal and private. She seldom, if ever, solicited the information, but if it was shared with her in confidence, it remained with her, in confidence. And that “trust” included marital trust. Dolley did not flirt. The men adored her, but so did their wives, daughters and mothers.

Dolley Madison, Political Helpmeet

Dolley Madison was a product of her own times, and as such, took the customary womanly back seat to her brilliant husband. She dismissed all inference of political influence, saying that hers was only “politics by people.”

earliest known wh image

One of the earliest images of the White House. Washington DC was still a tiny village when the Madison’s lived there.

Her great gift was her ease in bringing people together from all walks of life, high brows and low, and those in between. Her Wednesday evening “squeezes” (so called by the sheer numbers of people who came) permitted Senators to mix with shopkeepers, generals and judges to mingle with farmers and tradesmen, and editors and clergymen to share conversation with hob-nailed rustics passing through town.  All were welcome. All went. And all were appreciative of the “Presidentess'” hospitality.

Rather than having guests introduced to her, Dolley broke tradition by standing near the door and greeting them personally. Since she was sensitive to the shy or “wallflower” type, it was her policy and practice to make sure that all strangers to town were introduced to someone with a common interest. Since she had the politician’s gift for remembering names, faces, places and pertinent details, this was not as daunting as it may sound since  country was a lot smaller!

James Madison, Proud Husband

James Madison (1751-1836), seventeen years senior and half-a-head shorter than his wife, had loved his Dolley from the start. Indications are that she many have had less enthusiasm when they married.  But she always claimed that “their hearts understood each other,” and a deep love and bond grew over the years.


President Madison was always enormously proud of his wife’s popularity.

The “Great Little Madison” (so-called because of his size and his importance in drafting the Constitution) understood both the nature and the substance of his wife’s talents, and how much they added to his personal happiness as well as to his political life.

He was enormously proud of Dolley’s popularity, and knew he could trust her discretion. For himself, he preferred the “small table” – perhaps a dozen guests, which he felt was more conducive to serious discussion. Dolley, or course, was happiest in a crowd. So they compromised and did both.

Dolley always sat at the head of the table; Madison’s secretary at the foot. This way, President Madison could sit mid-table next to guests of his own choosing, was spared serving obligations, and could concentrate on his conversation.  He relied on his tactful and uber-social wife to keep him apprised of everyone’s welfare, their comings and goings, the births and deaths, sickness and health – those personal (and non-confidential) details that everyone in town always entrusted to Mrs. M.

James Madison reveled in his Dolley and her talents, and beamed at her popularity. His own public image was always moderate at best, but Dolley… she was a star of the first magnitude!


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

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

Moore, Virginia – The Madisons: A Biography, 1979, McGraw Hill


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