First Lady Nellie Taft and the CSO

Helen Herron Taft had two passions in her life. First and foremost was politics. Then came music.

Nellie Taft: Musician and Politician

young nellie

One of the earliest photographs of Helen Herron, called Nellie from birth.

Piano lessons was practically a given in most nineteenth century middle-class families. Of course, then as now, not all children were musically inclined – or interested. Helen Herron  Taft (Nellie from birth), of Cincinnati, Ohio, was one of those little girls with some noticeable talents – and interest, but it became obvious that while she played nicely, she was not a Clara Schumann. So she focused on playing her best, enjoying music sincerely, and channeling her passion for politics.

The passion for politics surfaced when she was fifteen, and then-Governor Rutherford B. Hayes was elected Republican President. An Ohioan like her own family, Hayes was also a law partner and good friend of her father. Nellie’s social-climbing mother was also a good friend of Lucy Hayes.

Thus when the Hayes went to live in the White House, the Herrons were invited to visit for a week or so. Nellie was enchanted. And determined to “reign” in the White House herself one day.

She announced to her father that she wanted to go to law school and be a lawyer like him. He replied gently that he had no doubt that she would excel in her studies, but she would never be able to earn a living. Then he continued, stating that she would need to make a living, since no man would want to marry a woman lawyer.

He had a point. Then. So Nellie focused her energies on marrying a man who would be her vehicle to the White House. She found one in William Howard Taft, a big teddy-bear of a fellow with a distinguished legal pedigree, Yale education, and the stuff that would get him ahead.

Mrs. Taft: The First Ten Years

When the Tafts married in 1886, it fell to Nellie to channel her political drive into her more placid husband. He had discovered the judicial side of the law, and would forever prefer the “bench” to the nitty-gritty of politics. Nellie nitty and grittied with the best of them, made sure she kept up with the see-and-be-seens, who-is-important, what’s-going-ons, and all the other undercurrents of political life.


Nellie Taft with baby Helen and toddler Robert, about the time her husband was Solicitor General.

When WHT was appointed Solicitor General by President Benjamin Harrison, Nellie was thrilled beyond belief! They would live in Washington, where everything was happening! She packed up the house and their two small children, and left for the capital city with a smile on her face.

Four years later, an appreciative but defeated President Harrison appointed Taft as Circuit Judge. It was an important position, and Taft was thrilled. They moved back to Cincinnati.

By now, Robert and Helen were old enough to be in school. Nellie Taft (1861-1943) had some time on her hands and needed an outlet.

Nellie Taft: Back to Music


Mrs. Taft liked nothing better than being in the midst of activity.

She found her outlet in a small woman’s club devoted to music. Woman’s Clubs had become immensely popular after the Civil War, and ladies from all walks of life were joining eagerly. It afforded them purposes and vehicles to advance their own educations, abilities and interests. Their menfolks were generally approving as well. Woman’s Clubs were devoted to charity. No one could be against charity!

Nellie became active in the club, and was soon elected its President. What would be their goal? Cincinnati had been the Queen City of the Midwest for decades – even when Chicago was a small trading post. Their residents were proud of their culture, their educational opportunities, and all the important people who were happy to visit their city. But they did not have a symphony orchestra.

Nellie at work

Her dedicated hard work for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra paid off during her seven years as its driving force.

Nellie’s club undertook to remedy that oversight. It was a monumental task, requiring fund-raising, awareness drives, more fund-raising, choosing venues and locations, building a concert hall, still more fund-raising, finding a maestro of reputation, finding musicians of superlative skills, determining a schedule and programs, and on-going fund-raising drives. In short, it was a job for men to manage, but she held that position for seven years. “I found, at last, a practical method for expressing and making use of my love and knowledge of music,” she said.

Nellie Taft: Executive

With little more than pen and ink, time on her hands and a well-developed list of prominent people to contact, Mrs. Taft began to lay the foundation for one of the finest symphony orchestras in the country, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, then as now, the “CSO.”


The Cincinnati Music Hall, home of the CSO.

Of course she had help, notably the prominent Taft family. WHT’s eldest brother, Charles Phelps Taft, the owner of an important Midwest newspaper, had married the daughter of a bona fide millionaire. Charley and Annie Taft adored Will, and spent their lifetime helping promote his political career. They also understood and admired Will’s ambitious and extremely intelligent wife. The Taft family was happy to sign on as heavy-duty contributors to the CSO from the start.


One of the early programs from the CSO – 1895.

But while Annie Taft gets the credit for writing large checks (a vital contribution!) it was Nellie Taft who made the contacts, attended meetings, wrote the letters, followed-up on vague commitments and otherwise moved the “idea” of the CSO into actual reality. Becoming pregnant again with the third Taft child notwithstanding, she never let the mundane interfere with the great dreams.

Her husband was deeply proud of his wife, and enthusiastic about her project. They had always exchanged daily letters when apart, and his letters to her are filled with his encouragement and pride in her abilities.

By the time President McKinley appointed WHT to a diplomatic position in the Philippines, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had become a reality. It still exists today, and is considered one of the finest in the world.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era – 2005, William Morrow

Taft, Wm. Howard Mrs. – Recollections of a Full Life – Dodd, Mead – 1914




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Abraham Lincoln and His Father-in-Law

Abraham Lincoln never had a chance to spend serious time with Robert Smith Todd, his father-in-law, but there was a solid bond nevertheless.

Miss Mary Todd, Bride

When Abraham Lincoln married Miss Mary Todd, he was nearly thirty-three. She was just shy of twenty-four.

young mary lincoln

Considered the first photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln, taken shortly after her marriage.

Mary had been living in Springfield, IL with her married sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards for nearly five years. During those years, her contact with her father was limited to affectionate letters. Mary had become “superfluous” in the Todd house. Once her education was complete, there was little to keep her occupied and socially happy in Lexington, KY, particularly since her father, Robert S. Todd and his second wife had eight more small Todds vying for attention. The six Todd siblings from her father’s first marriage were never comfortable with their stepmother. Thus the invitation for Mary to come to Springfield and live with the Edwards’ was more than welcome – by all involved.


Betsy Humphreys Todd, Mary Lincoln’s step-mother. It had always been a strained relationship.

Ninian Edwards, Jr., Mary’s brother-in-law, was not only a lawyer, he was the son of Illinois’ first Governor, and thus one of the leading citizens of the town. His wife (Mary’s sister) came with a Lexington pedigree, as a daughter of one of Kentucky’s upper-crust.

Elizabeth’s intention from the start, was to bring her three younger full-sisters to Springfield, launch them socially, have them marry prominent men, and create a Todd-filled society in the new state capital. She would accomplish this goal, although Abraham Lincoln did not fit into Mrs. Edwards’ plans for her sister: neither pedigree nor money.

The courtship between Mary and Abraham Lincoln was not a smooth one, and even with 150 years of historical lock-picking, the details of the on-again, off-again romance still remain murky. But in November, 1842, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd married – in the living room of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards.

Neither set of parents attended.

Abraham Lincoln, Groom


The earliest photograph known of Abraham Lincoln, taken shortly after his marriage.

At thirty two, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, trying to make a go of his modest practice.

An early venture in New Salem, a small village not far from Springfield, left Lincoln with debts that would take him years to repay. Part of the opposition of his marriage to Miss Todd by her Edwards’ family was Lincoln’s obvious poverty. Mary was accustomed to having nice things; Lincoln could not afford to give them to her.

lincoln house 4

The Lincoln house at 8th and Jackson Sts., Springfield, IL. The second story was added by the Lincolns several years after their marriage.

Shortly after new Mrs. Lincoln had their first child, who Mary insisted on naming Robert Todd Lincoln, the struggling attorney managed to purchase a small house, the only one they would ever own.

Robert Todd visits the Newlyweds


Robert Smith Todd, Mary Lincoln’s father.

Robert Smith Todd of Lexington, KY was a prosperous lawyer, state legislator and businessman, with varied financial interests.

Mary had been devoted to her father, always seeking his attention and affection, but the older “paterfamilias,” while dutiful to his parental responsibilities, never appears to have been a particularly affectionate father figure to any of his numerous offspring. Mary may have been the exception.

When Mary married, Robert Todd did an extraordinary thing – for him. He came to visit the newlyweds and his grandson-namesake. He had not come to visit his three other Springfield-based daughters when they married. All indications are that he liked and respected Abraham Lincoln, and would even remark that he believed Lincoln would be a better husband than Mary would be a wife.

He asked Lincoln to represent him in collecting a small debt owed to him in Illinois. The amount was trifling, and Todd indicated that if Lincoln were successful, he could keep the amount as his “fee.” Perhaps he instinctively knew that his son-in-law was proud, and the older man had tactfully found a way to provide some “paternal” assistance.  Todd also purchased several acres in Springfield and gave it to the young couple, along with a promise of $200 per year, as long as he lived – which was only six years. By that time, Lincoln’s law practice was becoming more successful.

Todd also put his daughter on a private “allowance” and arranged for her to receive $120 a year “for herself.” $10 a month in the 1840s was a considerable amount of “pin money,” considering that the rental on their house was $100 per year.

The Lexington Visit

TODD House

The town house of Robert S. Todd in Lexington, KY. The Lincolns and their two sons, Robert and Eddie visited there en route to Congressman Lincoln’s term in Washington.

In 1847, Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress, and decided to take Mary and their two little boys along to Washington. Robert was four, and little Eddie, still a toddler. En route, they made a prolonged visit the Todds in Lexington. It was the first time Mary had visited her family since she left to live in Springfield.


A portrait of Robert Smith Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s father-in-law.

According to those family members living there, it was a successful visit on all fronts, despite a crowded house with little privacy or room for the lanky new congressman to stretch out. The Todd half-siblings seemed to like their new brother-in-law, which included a few Todds – much closer to Robert’s age than to his parents. Once again, Mary’s father was able to reassess his son-in-law, and found the new “congressman” very much to his liking. While their actual conversations or time spent together has never been documented, it appears that Lincoln warmed to his father-in-law. He seems certainly to have had more in common with the elder Todd than he ever did with his own father.

Mary also made her peace with the stepmother she did not care for. Once Mary was a wife and mother in her own right, her relationship with the Second Mrs. Robert Todd would improve.

Sadly for all involved however, Robert Smith Todd died in 1849. He was only 58.


Berry, Stephen – House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided by War – Houghton Mifflin, 2007

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

Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995

Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage – Ballantine Books, 2008




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Martha Washington: The White House Portrait

The huge portrait of Martha Washington that balances the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of her husband, was painted more than seventy five years after her death.


The full-length portrait of Martha Washington that hangs in the White House East Room.

White House Portraits

Before photography had advanced sufficiently to achieve artistic popularity, a portrait was the only way a person’s likeness could be preserved for posterity. The accuracy of that likeness, of course, was completely dependent on the talents of the artist.

Most early presidents provided their own White House furniture, although many pieces were accumulated for the formal downstairs rooms. This also included art. Few early presidents had many portraits painted, let alone specifically for the house itself.  First Lady portraits, if there were any, were reserved for their families and heirs.

dolley saved gw

The famous George Washington portrait “saved” by Dolley Madison in 1812.

The most famous of the early White House portraits is the one attributed (and occasionally questioned) to Gilbert Stuart, acknowledged as one of America’s premier portraitist of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. What is definitely unquestioned, is the fact that this was the portrait rescued by Dolley Madison just prior to the burning of Washington in 1812.

It is an heroic painting, in the sense that it is literally larger than life. During Madison’s presidency, it was hung in the state dining room. Following the rebuilding of the White House, it was placed next to the fireplace in the great East Room.

The Hayes Contribution

Eliphalet Andrews

Eliphalet Frazier Andrews, an Ohio artist, had become good friends with President and First Lady Hayes.

After the Civil War, Rutherford B. Hayes, lawyer, Union general and Republican congressman, was elected governor of Ohio. His fellow Ohioan, Eliphalet Frazier Andrews (1837-1902), was engaged to paint the portrait of the popular governor. Andrews and Hayes became good friends.

Once Rutherford Hayes became president is 1877, via a fractious and most likely corrupt election, both the President and the First Lady were dedicated to maintaining an irreproachable image. Mrs. Hayes, the first FLOTUS to have had the benefit of higher education (Wesleyan Female Seminary), loved history. She also loved art.

Lucy Hayes (1831-89) suggested that the White House acquire portraits of former presidents, and efforts were made to solicit “donations” from family descendants. The response was not overwhelming. The families generally wished to retain possession. As a compromise of sort, it was decided that copies of the original portraits would be made. Copying art was a fairly popular medium, and some copies were indeed excellent. Some copy-artists were in great demand.

Eliphalet Andrews, the Ohio artist with a solid reputation as a copyist and artist, would copy portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Johnson specifically for the White House.

It was Mrs. Hayes who decided that our first First Lady should also be immortalized for the White House. Gilbert Stuart had painted a portrait of Martha Washington in her older years, but it was merely a “head and shoulders” image. The new First Lady wanted a portrait to balance the famous George Washington.  Andrews was summoned.

His thought (perhaps with influence from Lucy Hayes) was not to portray Lady Washington as an elderly woman, a la Stuart. But earlier portraits of a younger Martha left a great deal to be desired. Andrews had a big challenge.

Re-creating Martha


The best, and best-known portrait of Martha Washington was painted by Gilbert Stuart when she was in her mid-sixties.

Drawing heavily on the Stuart portrait of Lady Washington in 1796, when she was sixty five, the artist and First Lady determined that they wanted to portray her about ten years younger, when she was about to become the first First Lady. This would not be a “copied” portrait. There was little to copy other than her aging face, but it was a Victorian age, romanticized and elaborate, and liberties were part of that effort.

official portrait

First Lady Hoover placed George and Martha flanking the East Room fireplace, where they have hung ever since.

Martha Washington is indeed larger than life, in a full body portrait. The head does resemble the Stuart portrait; Andrews was a skilled copyist.  And it does appear that a decade was “removed.” The rest, however was all Victorian imagination. Her gown would never have existed in Lady Washington’s time. Nor would the style of the background chair.

This heroic sized portrait of Martha Washington is the only portrait paid for by federal funds. Subsequent President and First Lady portraits have been privately subscribed.

It would fall to First Lady Lou Hoover some fifty years later, to have George and Martha flanking the East Room fireplace, where they remain to this day.

Another portrait courtesy of Mrs. Hayes

First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes was the darling of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, a group militantly dedicated to prohibiting the sale and use of liquor. Mrs. Hayes never formally joined the group, although her personal inclinations tended to echo their cause, albeit not militantly. She is credited (maybe, maybe not) with banning spirits in the White House during the Hayes administration. Whether or not it was her influence, the bottom line was that the executive mansion was definitely dry.

Scarlet Lucy

The “heroic” Lucy Hayes was the first First Lady portrait painted expressly for the White House. FLOTUS portraits are now a tradition.

As the Hayes administration was ending, the WCTU wanted to honor her, and asked what type of gift she would like to have. She suggested that her portrait be painted and donated to the White House. It would be the first portrait of a First Lady specifically commissioned for that purpose, and a tradition that continues to this day.

Eliphalet Andrews was not the artist of choice.  Lucy Hayes’ portrait was done by Daniel Huntington, one of the foremost portraitists in the country. It is also an heroic piece, over seven feet high.

Lucy was five foot three.


Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories from the First Ladies Closet’– Koehler Books, 2016


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Ida McKinley: Congressional Invalid

Ida McKinley had suffered through one of the worst years anyone could imagine. The trauma would be permanent.

anniversary photo

William and Ida McKinley were a devoted, loving couple, despite Ida’s serious – and severe – health issues.

The McKinleys Move to Washington

little katie-mckinley

Little Katie McKinley. The child died before her fourth birthday, and her picture was never far from Ida’s view.

Losing both their small children, and having his young wife’s health permanently impaired by phlebitis and “unnameable” epileptic seizures all in the space of a year was traumatic to William McKinley (1843-1901). Ida’s profound depression combined with uncontrollable fears and hysterical outbreaks was difficult to bear for a man who dearly loved his increasingly frail wife.

Believing that a change of scenery would be beneficial, McKinley ran for a Congressional seat in 1876 – and won. He sold their dear house, with its sad, sad memories. Since housekeeping was much too taxing for Ida, both physically and emotionally, they took residence rooms at the Ebbitt House Hotel in Washington, DC.  A full-time nurse-maid was engaged. At only thirty, Ida could not be left alone. When they needed to return to Ohio, they stayed with her family in Canton.

McKinley served as a popular and well-respected congressman for fourteen years. His ability to make friends easily would never fail him. His colleagues knew little of his home-life, save that Ida McKinley (1847-1907) was a semi-invalid who suffered from some kind of nervous condition. Their private social life was limited to a handful of select friends.

William McKinley Adapts to Ida’s Condition

Most people today would classify William McKinley as a major league enabler. He denied Ida nothing that was in his power to give, whether it was material or emotional. Most of their contemporaries who knew them considered Ida a major league cross to bear. Both estimates are generally accurate.

McKinley gave up everything in the way of personal pleasures to devote himself to his wife. He seldom went to the fraternal organizations he had loved. He gave up his one recreation – horseback riding – to be with Ida. If he wasn’t in his office or on the floor of Congress, he was home. He took special care to let her know if he might be detained; any deviation from a strict schedule made her hysterical with fear. He had learned that if Ida was not assuaged immediately, it could result in some of her worst symptoms.


When Ida was up to it, McKinley enjoyed taking her for carriage rides or to the theatre. He was always proud of her petite and attractive appearance.

McKinley had developed a unique method of controlling his own response to her “fainting spells,” responding with such nonchalance that he actually controlled the responses of  witnesses to an episode. If she were standing, she might fall; if seated, her face would freeze in a grotesque mask. If she were eating, she would dribble. Since an attack would be preceded by a few seconds of a strange hissing noise, the always-alert McKinley would throw his handkerchief or napkin over her face to a) shield her from embarrassment and b) shield onlookers from shock. Remarks about these “handkerchief” episodes turned up  in the diaries or letters of their contemporaries.

While it may have been a peculiar and unsettling experience, in its own way it accomplished exactly what McKinley intended: Ida was spared humiliation. When she recovered after a minute or two, she merely removed the handkerchief, blotted her lips and continued as if nothing extraordinary had happened. Those in her company were also spared their own embarrassment. Even more important, they could take their cue from McKinley himself. He had handled those situations so casually that his friends were grateful to follow his lead.

Ida’s medical conditions had spawned a petulant, jealous and strangulating personality disorder. Her world had become increasingly small, centering entirely on herself, her husband and their life together. Her demands were usually petty and insignificant, but they were immediately indulged by her husband.

young wm mik

Congressman William McKinley – R-Ohio.

She had some fine qualities, however. She maintained her delicate and petite looks, and  her husband was always proud of her appearance. If she liked you, she could be caring and generous. Ida was also was sincerely sympathetic to those who were ill or bereaved, and often sent flowers or other tokens – sometimes even to strangers. She had a small circle of friends, mostly wives of McKinley’s colleagues, who were kind to her.  Mainly because they loved him.

Treating Ida

During those years William McKinley served in Congress, Ida’s on-again, off-again health issues were his major concern.  He spared no expense in finding doctors who might be able to help his unfortunate wife, and went so far as to take her to New York and Philadelphia, where it was said, the “best doctors in the country” practiced their profession.

Phlebitis is a medical condition of blood clots, usually in the knee.  It was serious then, and could be fatal.  It is still serious today but it can be treated effectively.  In the 1870s, the only treatment available was rest, elevation, compresses, and a cane if needed.  And pain medication, also if needed.  Ida needed both from time to time.

Epilepsy has been known since Biblical times, but it always bore a stigma.  The doctors who were consulted by the McKinleys no doubt recognized Ida’s affliction immediately, but would never call it by its “rightful name”, sparing her humiliation by couching it in terms like “a nervous condition,” or “fainting spells.”  Again, no treatment other than very rigid adherence to routine (no surprises), and powerful opiates – when and if necessary.

When Ida was up to it, the McKinleys socialized in very controlled environments. When she was not up to it, they stayed in their rooms.  Sometimes they sat in the dark for hours, since the light bothered the frail woman, who had grown to depend completely on her husband.


Young Ida McKinley – the “prettiest girl in Canton, Ohio.”

For twenty years Congressman William McKinley danced devoted attendance on his wife, who was always “the prettiest girl in Canton, Ohio” in his eyes, and who he still loved deeply.


  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
  • Leech, Margaret – In the Days of McKinley – Harper & Brothers, 1959
  • Morgan, H. Wayne – William McKinley and His America – Syracuse University Press, 1964



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Alice Hathaway Lee: The First Mrs. TR

alice's mom

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt: Suitor

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

Teenaged TR

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

as children

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

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

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

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

Alice: The Sweet Wife

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

alicehathaway roosevelt l

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

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

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

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

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

The Horrible February

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

baby lee roosevelt

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

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

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

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

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

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

alice roosevelt

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

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

Later, Later and Much Later

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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Grace Coolidge in the Kitchen

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


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

The Coolidge Proposal

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

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

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

She did.

The Goodhue Objection:


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping House Circa 1905

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


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

young coolidges2

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

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

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

Grace knits

Grace could knit, sew and crochet with fair skills…

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

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

Biscuits and Pies

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

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


…But cooking was never her strong suit!

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

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

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

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

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

Point made. No offense taken.


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


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William Howard Taft and the Bathtub(s)


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

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

WHT: The Big Guy

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

young will

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

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

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

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


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

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

Taft’s Road to Washington

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


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

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

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

Taft In the Philippines

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

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


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

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

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

Taft Expands in the White House

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

Taft easily won the 1908 election.


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

Helen Herron Taft

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

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

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

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

“Tubby” and Tubs


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

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

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


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

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