No one wanted to be First Lady more than Helen Herron Taft!
The Root of Nellie Taft’s Ambition
Nellie Taft (1861-1943) had her eye on the White House from her teens. Her family was prominent in Cincinnati, Ohio, and her father was a law partner and good friend of Governor (and later President) Rutherford B . Hayes.
When the Hayes’ celebrated their Silver Wedding Anniversary in the White House, the hosted a party for friends and family. The Herrons we invited to stay at the Executive Mansion as their guests. Nellie was around fifteen at the time, and it was a seminal experience for her.
She was a bright girl and recognized from the start that the White House was the seat of power, and came with all the trappings. While Nellie was not a greedy person by nature, and her tastes would always remain moderate, she did like the power part. And she understood it better than most.
Since her own family’s finances and attitudes were such that education was reserved for her brothers, she also realized quickly that if she were ever to achieve anything, she would have to marry well. Very well.
Nellie Herron Marries Well. Very Well.
When she was in her early twenties, she met William Howard Taft, a young attorney who had recently graduated first in his class at Yale. His family was even more prominent in Cincinnati than hers; Taft’s father had served in President Grant’s cabinet.
Will sincerely was attracted to and sincerely liked the young Miss Herron, whose sharp tongue matched her sharp features. The big man with a sweet disposition had been raised with strong female influences in his life, and expected to marry the same kind of woman. He did.
Nellie’s marriage to Will Taft was the route she had planned to get to the White House. Taft’s political ambitions always tended toward the bench; he was a jurist by disposition, and the Supreme Court was at the top of his list.
From the start, she would be the bookkeeper in the family. As Will rose in his profession, it was Nellie who made sure the party dues were paid, the good causes subscribed to and supported, the people who needed to be entertained were Taft guests, and all advantage would be taken at the see-and-be-seen-occasions. If any skimping was to be done, she tended to skimp on herself. Taft’s salary was always considered reasonably comfortable, but it was far from affluent – especially considering all the “political dues” that needed paying.
Nellie Taft: Money is No Object.
In 1908, William Howard Taft was elected President. His salary was a munificent $75,000 per year – more than five times his annual salary had ever been before.
Will Taft, the mountain of a man with the heart of a teddy bear, loved his wife dearly, and knew he never would have achieved the presidency without his wife’s constant eye on the target. She would no longer need to skimp. It was he who insisted she treat herself to a nifty new wardrobe, money being no object. He would proudly tell his military aide, Major Archie Butt, how much he loved “to see his wife well dressed.”
Helen Herron Taft, at forty-eight, was a fine looking woman. She was around 5’4” tall, and had a svelte figure, perhaps 135 pounds. Not too thin, not too fat. If anyone was going to do justice to the glam of Edwardian styles (think early episodes of Downton Abbey), it was Mrs. Taft. She was a knockout!
The elegant new gowns she chose for her brand new life reflected the elegance of her new address. The high-necked collar adorned with jewels, the long sleeves dripping intricate beadwork, the lace, the silks and the fashionable slim lines had been made popular by the slender and graceful Alexandra, Queen Consort of King Edward VII of England. They suited the new First Lady to a tee, and it would be one nifty Nellie who posed for the formal photographs.
Not since Dolley Madison had appeared in a buff velvet gown a hundred years earlier, had the time, the place, the fashion and the woman come together so perfectly.
The Bad, Sad News
Nellie Taft‘s days as gorgeous model for the First Lady role did not last long. Only a few months into Taft’s term, Nellie had a stroke, which resulted in aphasia. While she was not paralyzed, she lost her ability to read, write and speak coherently. Her mouth drooped. She could not communicate or make public appearances. She was only forty-eight, and it would take the next four years before she could regain the better part of her faculties.
Nellie Taft is a big what-if among First Ladies. She had the dream, the goal, the desire, and the ability make a substantial impact, but a moment’s collapse destroyed everything.
Nevertheless, she did manage to contribute. She was the first First Lady to donate her inaugural gown to the Smithsonian Institution. Various items of clothing and accessories that had belonged to First Ladies had been donated previously – mostly by the families of the particular First Lady. But Nellie donated her own gown, and it the basis of what is arguably the most popular and ongoing exhibit in our country’s premier museum.
- Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era – 2005, William Morrow
- Graddy, Lisa Kathleen and Pastan, Amy – The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection – Smithsonian Books, Washington DC 2014
- Ross, Ishbel – An American Family: The Tafts – 1964, World Publishing