The Year of Four First Ladies: 1860-1861

Two First Ladies born in a year is unusual; three is rare. Four is extraordinary.

Four First Ladies Are Born   

Between 1860 and 1861, four little girls were born who eventually would marry men who became Unites States Presidents. One was from Georgia, one a New Yorker, and two Ohioans.

Their backgrounds were remarkably similar: middle class, moderately educated (no college girls!), with sufficient financial and/or other disappointments in their younger years to give them a sense of responsibility.

All welcomed the role of First Lady, but the Presidency would literally kill two, permanently damage one, and totally delight the other.

 

Ellen Axson: The Velvet Glove

EllenWilson

Ellen Axson, the woman who would become the first Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.

In May, 1860, Ellen Axson would be the first First Lady born in the Deep South. This eldest child of a Presbyterian minister made her appearance in Savannah, Georgia just as the Civil War was about to begin. By twenty, she assumed complete responsibility for her family, caring for her two younger brothers, an infant sister (which had resulted in her mother’s early death) and a chronically depressed father who died shortly afterwards. Early on, she demonstrated a decided talent for art and considered becoming an art teacher, but those hopes ended with responsibilities at home.

At twenty-five she married Woodrow Wilson, a young scholar about to embark on an academic career. He rose quickly in his profession, while Ellen’s life centered on raising their three daughters, plus an assortment of relatives as long-term houseguests in the Professor’s household. It would fall to Ellen to manage the house, the family, the budget, the “guests” and most off all, the brilliant-but-difficult Woodrow. He never gave a speech or prepared a lecture series without his wife’s unusually sagacious input. As he advanced, those insights plus her ability to moderate Wilson’s demanding nature would become essential.

When Ellen Wilson became First Lady in March, 1913, she came with a secret she didn’t even know herself. She was already seriously ill with Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment, then always fatal. For a year, she remained obvious to her flagging energy, capably handled the traditional First Lady duties. She also became actively involved in slum clearance projects, designed the Rose Garden and planned White House weddings for two daughters. And she was always available for the care and comfort of Woodrow Wilson.

Ellen Wilson died in the White House. She was only fifty-four.

Florence Kling: The Duchess

Florence Kling, also born in 1860, was the daughter of a wealthy but tyrannical Marion, Ohio businessman. Headstrong as girl-to-woman, her early elopement failed. When Florence met Warren G. Harding, she was eking out a meager living teaching piano, rather than return to her father’s house.

Since she was considered domineering and imperious, Harding nicknamed her “Duchess” – and it stuck. Harding was a newspaper publisher, thus a prominent citizen in Marion, with time and opportunity for political involvement. With no Harding children born to the couple, Florence began helping out on the Marion Star as circulation manager.

The Duchess

Florence Kling DeWolfe, the woman who would become Mrs. Warren G. Harding

The Duchess was a keen political observer, with a sharp finger on the public pulse and the Ohio politicians who surrounded Harding (because he looked like a man who should be president) grew to respect her savvy. She was in her glory.

As a popular U.S. Senator between 1914-20, Harding made little impression on his peers or the Ohio electorate other than his geniality and diligence in answering his mail. It would be a lack of viable candidates, post-World War I apathy, and the amendment giving women the vote that brought him to the public eye. Most politicians considered Florence Harding the “power behind the throne.”

The scandals and misjudgments of the Harding Presidency did not surface until both Hardings were in their graves. He died first, having been in office for only thirty months. She died less than a year later at only sixty-three. Neither completed what would have been a “normal” term in office.

Helen Herron: The Wannabee Lady

Helen Herron, born in 1861 in Cincinnati, Ohio, wanted to be First Lady from the time she was fifteen years old and spent a fortnight at the White House. Nicknamed Nellie, from birth, she was determined to become First Lady herself.

Family finances (or lack thereof) precluded college for the bright girl. She was expected to marry, raise a family and take her proper place in society. She had other ideas – or at least the location for that place in society.

Nellie Taft

Helen Herron (Nellie), the woman who would become Mrs. William Howard Taft.

William Howard Taft, a huge teddy-bear of a Yale graduate and rising young attorney, seemed to fit her requirements. His pedigree was excellent, and his possibilities were endless via his own considerable abilities.

But if Will Taft would be her vehicle, Nellie would be the pilot of their course. She was the “politician in the family,” according to her husband, and she assiduously shepherded him away from his own lifelong dream: a seat on the Supreme Court. For nearly twenty years Nellie skimped and saved, paying political expenses first. She joined, contributed, attended, hosted and maneuvered to keep her husband a) in the spotlight, and b) on the target. Her wish came true when President Theodore Roosevelt supported Taft as his chosen successor.

Only four months into the Taft Presidency, Nellie Taft suffered a severe stroke that impaired her ability to read, write and speak. She would spend the rest of the Taft Administration learning how to communicate again. Her health had become the most important priority.

William H. Taft would realize his dream a decade later, becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Nellie’s life would be a quiet and private one until her death at eighty-two.

Edith Carow: The Dee-Lighted Lady

Edith Carow, born August, 1861, was a New Yorker from a good family with failing finances. Fortunately for her, her best friend was Corinne Roosevelt who lived nearby. The Roosevelts were a wealthy and warmhearted bunch, happy to include her in their family outings.

Little Edie literally grew up with Theodore Roosevelt, three years her senior. Many people expected them to marry some day. They did – but not as expected. He went away to Harvard, met the beautiful Alice Lee, and married her instead. Three years later, Alice died in childbirth, and Theodore went off to become a cowboy. Two years passed before they met again by chance, and life began for Edith.

wh edith

Edith Kermit Carow, the woman who would become Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt.

TR had opted for a political life from the start – and the electorate loved him. Many politicians feared him, but they could never hate him – his charm and exuberance were far too infectious!

Roosevelt was only forty-two and vice president when President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Edith and Theodore moved into the White House with six children between four and sixteen, a menagerie of ponies, dogs, frogs and a snake, cartloads of books and trunks, and enough energy to power the country, which they did.

Edith Roosevelt was a “cool” woman, shunning photographers and reporters and keeping a very safe distance from politics. Nevertheless, she knew everybody, was gracious to everybody, and provided the steady and surprisingly intellectual companionship her rambunctious husband and family needed.

She lived to be eighty-seven with a lifetime of some of the greatest memories in the world: blessed with good health, an exciting life, married to the man she had always loved.

Sources:

  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era – 2005, William Morrow
  • Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President – William Morrow, 1998
  • Morris, Sylvia Jukes – Edith Kermit Roosevelt – Coward McCann, 1980
  • Saunders, Frances W. – Ellen Axson Wilson – University of North Carolina Press – 1985

 

 

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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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One Response to The Year of Four First Ladies: 1860-1861

  1. awax1217 says:

    Teddy Roosevelt is the tops. He gave us the National Park System and therefore gave many Americans a place to go and see nature up close and personal and for a price that was reasonable. I never understood the Disney concept of a hundred dollars a ticket per person, when the National Parks are under ten dollars per. Autorobots and plastic versus nature and its beauty, I choose nature.

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