Calvin and Grace Coolidge had a unique relationship, helped in no small part by their mutually wonderful senses of humor.
When former First Lady Grace Coolidge was a widow, a reporter requested an interview. Genial by nature, Mrs. Coolidge was happy to oblige. “Tell me about your romance with Calvin Coolidge,” the reporter asked. Grace just stared at her. The blandness and reticence of Calvin Coolidge was legendary by that time. “Have you ever met my husband?” she replied with a twinkle in her eye.
Calvin Coolidge Meets Miss Grace Goodhue
Grace Goodhue (1879-1957) was a graduate of the University of Vermont, with a degree in teaching. Today, it would be called “special ed.” She taught at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was early in the twentieth century, and young Miss Goodhue boarded at the school, as was required.
Early one morning she was watering the flowers in front of the building, and happened to look up at the boarding house across the street. The upper story window was open, and there was a young man shaving. His suspenders hung at his waist, and the top of his union suit was plainly visible. His face was smeared with soapy lather. He was also wearing a derby hat.
The sight tickled her, and she laughed aloud. The young man may have heard her, for he turned to look out the window, saw the pretty girl, and did the quintessentially Coolidgesque thing: he tipped his hat and continued shaving. Grace was hysterical.
The Coolidge Courtship Begins
Not long after the shaving incident, Mr. Coolidge was formally introduced to Miss Goodhue by mutual friends. He liked her immediately, but since he was a young attorney just starting out, his funds were limited. His thrifty habits had already been instilled. Their “dates” were usually whatever was free: walks, band concerts in the park, parties with friends, and an occasional carriage ride or ice cream soda, if he felt flush.
When Coolidge introduced Grace to his family, they liked her immediately, too. Most people did. Coolidge’s grandmother said, “She’s a likely gal, you ought to marry her.” Coolidge didn’t say much – he never did – but he was giving it some thought.
The Goodhue Opposition
A similar impression on Grace’s family was not forthcoming. Coolidge’s background was fair enough: a decent family, college education, and a rising attorney. But the Goodhues loved their only daughter and wanted her to be happy. She was pretty and popular and had her pick among every young man in town. They could never see what their gregarious daughter with a wall-to-wall smile saw in such a cold clam. “You can’t get two words out of him,” her father said. Everybody said that. Calvin Coolidge was not a talker.
What Mr. Goodhue didn’t see, Grace said many years later, was that “Calvin made me laugh.”
Mrs. Goodhue was even less impressed than her husband. When Grace said she was going to marry Calvin, her mother insisted that she leave her job and spend a year at home with her, learning to be a good New England housewife. She hoped that time and distance would result in out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
She told Coolidge, “Why Grace can’t even bake bread!” Coolidge remarked in his flat twang, “I can buy bread. I want Grace.”
The Coolidges Get Married
Mrs. Goodhue’s plan did not work. Grace dutifully stayed with her mother for a while and learned to bake bread, albeit not very well, according to her husband. Calvin continued to visit her, although he was rather annoyed by the Goodhues, believing that at thirty-two and twenty-six respectively, he and Grace were old enough to know their own minds.
The Coolidge marriage would be a happy one, despite Calvin’s conventional sexist attitudes and Grace’s conventional obliviousness to them. He would be the bread-winner, she the bread-baker. She seldom pushed the boundaries, and he was right there to let her know where those boundaries were, should she get any notions. If she objected, it was never documented. She was content being Mrs. Coolidge, housewife. He was content having her be Mrs. Coolidge, housewife. Their thoroughly delightful senses of humor – his wry and deadpanned, and hers teasing and mocking – held them together for thirty years.
When Calvin Coolidge became Vice President in 1920, the prim and New England-ish, couple absolutely enchanted Washington. They were the most popular diners-out in town; everybody wanted them as their guests of honor. Washingtonians were delighted with his acerbic sense of humor, all the funnier since it was so unexpected. And they adored the personable Grace Coolidge who could talk about baseball as well as any man in the room. The Coolidges were happy to accept the invitations. “Gotta eat somewhere,” he said, noting that it would certainly be easy on his food budget, especially since they were not required to play host very often.
The Coolidge wit and humor became legendary, and, it is said, that the unnamed source for many of the stories was none other than Mrs. Coolidge.
- 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