Nellie Taft’s Lonely Dinner

 Helen Herron Taft (1861-1943) did not have a long time to enjoy wearing her stylish Edwardian gowns on the magnificent occasions she had been planning for decades.  Only three months into William Howard Taft’s presidency, she collapsed from a stroke.


Helen Herron (Nellie) Taft was only forty-eight when she suffered a severe stroke. She would recover in time, but would always be a shadow of her former cosmopolitan self.

Mrs. Taft Has Aphasia

While the stroke was not crippling, and while she would only be confined to bed for a relatively short time, the effect of the stroke was extremely serious.   Nellie’s face drooped, so she could not appear in public.  She had been left with aphasia, which made it nearly impossible for her to speak coherently, let alone sustain a conversation.  (Poor Nellie had been an outspoken and articulate woman!)  She also lost her ability to read and write.  In short, while the “receptor” part of her brain, the part that could understand everything, was intact, the “transmitter” part, the part that could communicate, was seriously impaired.  It would take the rest of Taft’s administration for her to regain the better part of her lost abilities.

Nevertheless, and despite a lack of scientific knowledge and therapy, her sisters and her daughter, and Will, too, when he could, worked with her to teach her to say a few intelligible words of greeting, and to read and write all over again.  Her stroke was all the more poignant, since Nellie had worked so hard for so long to achieve her dream: being the First Lady.  It was the pinnacle of all her ambitions, and despite everything, she was not about to relinquish any aspect of it that she could manage.  Staff members and companions would learn that if they asked simple yes/no questions, Nellie could respond with unimpaired acumen.  She could understand everything that was going on.  She just couldn’t communicate.

Nellie Taft Continues Her First Ladies Responsibilities

Nellie Taft continued to take an active part in helping to plan the important dinners and entertainments.  She chose the table colors and decorations, selected the menus, and most importantly, took a hand in the guest lists and seating arrangements.  She watched over the costs of the affairs as well, since she was accustomed to thrift, and the President’s substantial salary did not include an expense account for entertainment.  Those expenses were out of pocket.

She was the one First Lady among all of them who had wanted the role with all her heart, and she had wanted it for a very long time.  No one worked harder to achieve it.  She read, she wrote, she joined, she entertained, she subscribed, she attended, and in short she breathed politics through every pore.  She also breathed her ambition into her delightful, but more placid husband from the time the met.

nellie after stroke

Still First Lady, Nellie Taft was a frail echo of her former cosmopolitan image, and stayed active, but in the background.

Nellie’s Lonely Dinner

Major Archie Butt, Taft’s military aide, painted a poignant word-picture of Mrs. Taft who had helped plan an important state dinner that she would not be able to attend.  Instead, a small table for one was set for her, with fine linen, china and silver, and a floral centerpiece that she had selected – but it was in a room adjoining the state dining room, near a connecting door, kept slightly ajar so all the conversation could be heard.

A beautifully coiffed Nellie, dressed to the teeth in one of her gorgeous new gowns, dripping jewelry and looking like a frail copy of the elegant First Lady she had envisioned for herself, sat alone at her table, eating party food, straining to listen to the chatter of the guests, and having the kind of private thoughts no one should intrude upon.

What Nellie lost, was her hard drive.  She would continue.  She would go on.  But she would never be the same.  If she ever spoke of it to anyone, it is unknown.   Some thoughts are just too painful.


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

Butt, Archie –  Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide – 1930, Doubleday, Doran & Co.


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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6 Responses to Nellie Taft’s Lonely Dinner

  1. burgwriter says:

    Hi Feather…I really enjoyed this essay. I tried to post a comment but it got very complicated. First I clicked on Comment in the email which took me to your website. There I had to fill in my email (?) and name and after I typed my comment it popped up and said I had to sign into WordPress. When I tried to do that it didn’t recognize my password (which I may not be remembering right.)

    All that to say:

    Great essay. What a poignant scene to picture her sitting at her lonely table in all her splendor as First Lady of the nation. You are definitely in your groove.

  2. Always love the insight into the private lives of public people!

  3. Shelby says:

    Feather, You are amazing. Everything you share is a story unto itself.

  4. How little we know about the former first ladies. Each one one has a compelling history as well.
    At last someone is giving us a peep-hole into these lives. Thank you!

  5. toni says:

    this poor woman, and she was a Gemini too …they are such busy bodies. Imagine not being able to socialize or speak. sigh.

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