White House Weddings
Before Ulysses S. Grant was even born, there had been weddings in the White House. During James Madison’s administration, Dolley Madison’s widowed sister married her second husband, Thomas Todd. Some years later, James Monroe’s daughter Maria Hester married in the White House. John Adams II, son of President John Quincy Adams, married in the Blue room of the White House. He was the only Presidential son to marry in the executive mansion.
In 1842, one of President John Tyler’s daughters married in the East Room of the White House, but thirty years would pass before another such event – and it was spectacular!
Nellie Grant’s Wedding
Billed as “the wedding of the century,” and reported around the world, 18-year-old Ellen Wrenshall Grant (Nellie within the family circle) was married to Englishman Algernon Sartoris.
Ulysses and Julia Grant were less than overjoyed. Nellie was very young. Pretty and always lively and popular, she was little more than a schoolgirl when she made a tour of Europe. On the ship homeward she met Sartoris, a few years her senior, with a minor noble pedigree. She fell madly in love. Despite the Grants’ reservations about her youth, her general immaturity and the groom’s suspected character flaws (which became obvious in due time), the bride-to-be had her way.
On May 21, 1874, the White House was decorated for the grand event, to which 250 guests were invited. The State Dining Room, decorated with pink and white roses and azaleas, was set for a seated breakfast for special guests. The formal rooms offered a buffet.
According to the custom of the time (rather tacky today), wedding gifts were displayed in a separate room for all to see. Opulent and expensive gifts had been pouring in for weeks – many from people the Grants had never met. But he was the President of the United States, and the country’s greatest war hero.
In the East Room, where the ceremony took place, the large window draperies were closed. In front was a raised platform, with a wedding-bell fashioned in pink roses. Four large columns draped in red, white and blue supported the girders. Flowers and potted palms were everywhere. Nellie’s wedding gown was white satin, with a six-foot train.
The father of the bride was noticeably uncomfortable. Several witnesses remarked that he looked downward at the floor throughout the ceremony. It is also said that after the couple left on their honeymoon, he went to Nellie’s room and wept. She was his only daughter, and Grant was a family man.
Nellie Grant’s Aftermath
The Grants were right in their reservations. It would not be a happy marriage. Sartoris was a drunkard and philanderer, and despite having four children together, he and Nellie spent most of their marriage “separated.” He died in 1893. Nellie remarried in 1912, but suffered a stroke two years later, which left her paralyzed. She died in 1922.
Nell Wilson’s Wedding
Eleanor (Nell) Randolph Wilson was the third and youngest daughter of Woodrow and Ellen Wilson, and considered the “liveliest.” She was the closest to her father, the one who shared his (seldom seen) penchant for vaudeville, singing, dancing and play-acting.
When the Wilsons came to the White House in March, 1913, all three grown Wilson daughters were in residence. The middle daughter, Jessie Woodrow, would marry Francis Sayre a few months later – in the White House – in an appropriately opulent wedding. Nell was one of the bridesmaids. She had come to the White House already secretly engaged to a young man her parents knew and liked. But that romance was doomed to failure.
Nell had met William Gibbs McAdoo, a fifty-year-old recent widower from California, twenty-six years her senior, with six children and a couple of grandchildren. He was also Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury. The “new romance” between Miss Wilson and Secretary McAdoo flew under the radar for some time, despite the fact that she was seen dancing with the older man at various White House functions. Both were avid dancers.
The President was unaware of the romance for several months, and taken by surprise when Secretary McAdoo called at the White House unannounced one evening. The somewhat embarrassed doorman clarified the situation saying, “He is calling to see Miss Nell.”
Their White House wedding on May 7, 1914, was in the Blue Room, and it was a private one, held about six months after the elaborate wedding of Jessie Wilson. First, McAdoo was a widower, and his children were less than enthusiastic about their new step-mother. Secondly, and more importantly, Ellen Wilson, the bride’s mother, was seriously ill.
First Lady Ellen Wilson had embarked on a strenuous schedule when she came to the White House, and barely acknowledged her flagging energy, assuming it was due to her fifty-four years and her whirlwind of activity. But the truth was she was in the late stages of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment, then always fatal. The likelihood is that she had had the disease for years, but it had been undiagnosed, and thus untreated.
Earlier in the year she had fallen, and from then on, her health failed precipitously. She died a few months after Nell’s wedding.
Nell Wilson’s Aftermath
Like her namesake Nellie Grant, Nell Wilson’s marriage was not a happy one either. She was immediately placed in the social spotlight as cabinet wife, step-mother to a ready made family who resented her, and had a husband whose presidential-political ambitions were well known and in rivalry with her father. The McAdoos had two daughters, but eventually divorced. McAdoo would marry yet again shortly afterwards.
Nell McAdoo went on to write two books about her parents, and served as an advisor on the film, Wilson. She retired to her home in California, and suffered a stroke and died at age 77.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995
Cross, Wilbur & Novotny, Anne – White House Weddings – David McKay Company, 1967