The Coolidge Presidency saw two important “entertainment” milestones: one very small, and one very large.
The Small Milestone
Calvin Coolidge (1872-1932) was the first president to receive a budget allowance for entertaining. Previously, with few exceptions, all dinners, luncheons, teas, receptions and related social gatherings were paid for by the President. Personally.
The thrifty Coolidge made ample us of his new largesse, and was said to have hosted more social functions than any previous President. It is further said that he began holding breakfast “meetings” – since this way he could charge his own ham and eggs to the budget. Maybe.
The Large Milestone
The Coolidge Administration (oddly enough considering their reserved personalities) was plunked right into the heart of the Roaring Twenties and the catapulting phenomenon of pop culture as we know it today.
Movie and vaudeville stars, radio personalities, writers, musicians and recording artists, sports figures and assorted others of varying notoriety, from hero to crackpot, dominated the headlines and found their way to the White House to shake hands with the President.
The quiet Coolidge was always glad to shake hands and pose for a photo with Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin or Babe Ruth. He believed it “warmed up his public image.” Sometimes they were invited to lunch or dinner.
Mrs. Coolidge: Hostess
No one was more important at a White House dinner party than the pretty Mrs. Coolidge. In her mid-forties, she still had her youthful energy, and was a snappy dresser to boot!
Grace Coolidge (1879-1957) had graduated from the University of Vermont, and before her marriage, had taught for some time at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. Personable and outgoing, she was the one who kept the table conversation going. Between “hello” and “goodbye,” Coolidge seldom participated.
Thus it would fall to the First Lady to see the film, know the words to the song, hear the broadcast, read the book or magazine article, and know every ball player’s batting average. She asked the good questions and her easy smile charmed them all.
Nevertheless, despite his wife’s outgoing nature and despite the fact that he loved her dearly, Calvin Coolidge was extremely sexist. He believed a woman’s place was two steps behind her husband, ergo, the First Lady was not permitted to make any statements on the record, except perhaps “Thank you for the flowers.”
If Grace objected to her position or background role, she never let it be known. She was happy to be First Lady, Mrs. Coolidge, housewife.
The Press Conference
One of the activities permitted to First Ladies of course, was hosting “ladies” luncheons and teas, i.e. for the wives of senators and congressmen and visiting businessmen, and even occasional women’s groups.
As part of her official duties, she frequently took them on a tour of the White House or its grounds, commented on its history, and invited them to tea.
But the 1920s was a time that changed public mores forever. Women not only voted, but they enjoyed the opportunities of gainful employment. Journalism was one avenue that had been open to women for some time. Practically every town newspaper had a “woman’s” or “society” editor to report on the meetings and special events for women. And dozens of women’s magazines, such as Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, had been around for decades.
On one occasion, some of the women reporters in Washington asked Mrs. Coolidge if they might interview her. The First Lady charmingly said that she did not grant interviews, but she would be happy to take them on a tour of the White House. The reporters were delighted to accept.
Mrs. C. spent a pleasant hour escorting them around the Executive Mansion, but when it was time for the journalists to depart, they still clamored for a “few words” they might use as a quote. Grace knew her husband – the President – would not be pleased if she spoke “on the record,” but she did not wish to disappoint the women of the press either.
So she drew on her past experience at the Clarke School, and gave them a three-minute speech – on the record. In sign language.
- 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