Helen Herron Taft was not destined to fully enjoy her days as First Lady, but the Tafts would celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in grand style.
Nellie’s Ambition, and an Anniversary Precedent
Helen Herron (1861-1943) was an Ohioan whose parents were close friends of Rutherford and Lucy Hayes, who in 1877, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in the White House. The party was private one, for family and friends. The Herrons, including teenaged Nellie, were invited.
She was intoxicated by the White House, perhaps most of all by the realization that the Executive Mansion was the seat of power. Nellie was convinced that she might be mistress of the White House herself. It was a dream that would never be extinguished, and which became more of a life-design rather than “dream.”
When she married Republican attorney William Howard Taft (1857-1930), she had consciously selected a man with the personal gifts and ability that could achieve her goal. Taft’s goal was to become a justice on the Supreme Court, but Nellie had a one-track mind, and preferred a better address.
Mrs. Taft was the “politician in the family,” according to her husband – and to just about everyone else. Her ambition was never a secret. She envisioned herself as First Lady, and had a well-planned agenda for what she would accomplish in that role, socially, artistically and intellectually.
The Short-Lived Paradise
Less than three months after Taft’s inauguration as President in 1909, First Lady Helen Herron Taft collapsed from a stroke. She was only forty-eight.
While she was not paralyzed, she suffered from aphasia, and was unable to speak properly, nor read or write. Her mouth drooped, making it impossible for her to appear in public. The saddest part of all, was that while the “transmitter” part of her brain was impaired, the “receptor” part was intact. Nellie understood everything that was going on. She just could not participate.
For a depressing year and a half, she worked tirelessly to regain some of her lost abilities. Taft, who loved his wife dearly, wanted to do something nice for her; something to give her whatever pleasure he could from her White House experience.
The Silver Anniversary Party Decision
June, 1911 was the Tafts’ Silver Anniversary, and then, as now, an occasion for a party. Part of the reason for the party (aside from the Hayes’ precedent), was that it could be “private;” something Mrs. Taft could attend.
Like the Hayes example, the party began as an affair for family and close friends. Both Tafts came from large, tight-knit families, each with several siblings-with-spouses and grown nieces and nephews. Then of course, as social and political animals for a quarter century, they had acquired many friends from all parts of the country.
There was, as there usually is with grand plans, an “oops moment.” Only a month before the party, Nellie suffered a relapse. While it was not as serious as her first stroke, it set her recovery back considerably, and perhaps most importantly, made her fully aware that her health must be her main focus. First Ladydom and politics would have to take a back seat.
But the party plans proceeded on schedule.
The Growing and Growing and Growing Guest List
It did not start out to be a mega-“do.” Just a nice afternoon garden party at the White House for family and close friends. But somehow the “private” party began to take on a life of its own, particularly as regards the guest list.
A president’s cabinet is his “official family.” They must be invited. Taft’s beloved Supreme Court justices must be invited. Congressional leadership must be invited. Perhaps all congressmen and senators. The list began to grow.
Both Tafts came from prominent Ohio families with deep roots. The entire Ohio state political hierarchy must be invited, including the Governor, past Governors and past leadership – regardless of party. And if the Ohio Governor was invited, then all governors must be invited. It would be tacky otherwise.
Military brass and high ranking administrative executives must be invited. The diplomatic corps must be invited, from all countries. And one cannot invite a foreign ambassador to such a gathering without inviting his monarch or head of state. The list now included a huge number of people that the Tafts had never met, nor were likely to meet, but who must be invited anyway. The party list was growing like Topsy, with a life of its own.
All told, more than eight thousand invitations were issued, and that does not include spouses. A full five thousand (and some counts were higher) persons actually attended.
The Hall of Silver, or The Silver Haul
It is commonly accepted today for a host to request “no gifts,” or perhaps a charitable donation. The Tafts made no such requests, however. Since a 25th Anniversary is traditionally a “silver” one, gifts of silver began pouring in like the output of the Comstock Lode.
There were hundreds (literally!) of silver trays, punch bowls, tea-sets, urns, serving pieces, platters, candle sticks and candelabra of all shapes – and price tags. There was jewelry for Mrs. T. There were pens and inkwells for President T. There were desk sets, olive forks, pickle forks, card cases, vanity sets and goblets. Many were monogrammed or specifically engraved presentation pieces. All was of the finest quality, since it was a “personal” present to the President of the United States. And because it was a “personal” present, the Tafts got to keep their silver-haul.
It was also traditional, in those days, for gifts to be displayed publicly. Rooms were put aside in the White House, with tables set to dazzle visitors and tourists who came to gape at the brightness of the stash.
It had become a very tacky situation, particularly since much was “re-gifted” at a later date. Few objects were ever used by the Tafts personally, and quite a bit was sold during World War I – for war bonds. That’s what they said, anyway.
Even so. Tacky.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – Nellie Taft: First Lady of the Ragtime Age – William Morrow, 2005
Taft, Wm. Howard Mrs. – Recollections of a Full Life – Dodd, Mead – 1914