Andy Ochs has written an extremely unique book. It is part historical-ish, part biographical-ish, part memoir-ish, part travelogue-ish – and completely delightful!
Contracted to film C-SPAN’s First Ladies series in 2014-15, the author-cum-camera toured the country visiting the homes, birthplaces and other sites connected with America’s First Ladies, plus a few Presidential “hostesses,” a title given by historians to daughters, nieces, sisters and in-laws who substituted for widowed or bachelored Presidents. By his own admission, the author was given not only a warm welcome wherever he went, but access to dozens of rooms of memorabilia usually tucked away in vaults or behind the velvet ropes. And also, by his own admission, he had the special experiences of holding what they held and walking in precious footsteps.
If Andy Ochs was not born with the history gene, after this journey, he has had one helluva transplant!
Starting with Martha Washington and ending Volume 1 with Ida McKinley, he takes the reader on the grand tour of nifty places like Mt. Vernon, not-so-nifty but essential like the Adams birthplaces, and even some completely obscure sites (and equally obscure First Ladies) like Abigail Fillmore’s house or the property that once belonged to John and Letitia Tyler (his first wife, and the first FLOTUS who died in the White House). Who knew? In the latter case, even the present property owner hadn’t a clue. And of course we are treated to Julia Grant’s St. Louis birthplace and supposed-to-be retirement home, painted in bilious green, which supposedly was the color of the Gilded Age.
The biographical and historical part is fairly obvious and easy to understand: The old gals lived wherever they lived, and here are their furnishings or personal possessions. Anybody can go to those historic places and see their chairs or tables or piano. You can see (usually in locked cabinets), their vases or special china plates or jewelry, or even gifts they received from important visitors when they were First Ladies.
But it is the memoir-able part that makes Unusual For Their Time unique. It is the story of the filming. The personal part about filming the episode in his socks, or holding rare articles in gloved hands. Or assembling and disassembling camera equipment two or three or more times to accommodate yet another incoming tour group.
Then there are the “finding the sites” stories – some of which are not on a must-see historical site map. And he brings a smile to the readers’ faces, when he inserts a “cheap eats” paragraph citing some local oasis, particularly noted for Caesar salad and grilled cheese. Hopefully, all those local beaneries will take advantage of their moment of glory, and offer a few books for sale!
Author Ochs does more than merely entertain or educate. He makes these assorted women come alive. Some of them knew each other; most did not. But nevertheless, they shared the common bonds of girlhood, wifehood, motherhood as well as White House-hood.
Some were poor. Most were not. All had some education, and many were better educated, or from financial backgrounds that surpassed their husbands. Sometimes by a lot. All of them experienced the sorrows of life and death. Some lost parents at an early age. Some lost siblings at an early age. A huge percentage lost children – a devastating event that bonds them all. None of this, however, was “unusual for their times.”
Author Ochs selected a publisher devoted to providing an outlet and funding for veterans’ memoirs and related projects, and has generously assigned his royalties to that cause. This is certainly a bonus reason to buy the book. But in doing so, he has consigned his book to only cursory technical talents and skills. He would truly benefit from a good editor. “Formatting” is not really editing, and a knowledgeable professional to check for redundancies, basic fact-checking vs. typos, copy-tightening and even a little better writing talent might be helpful.
The author titled his book Unusual for Their Time, and perhaps a few of them were, but it is a stretch as a whole. What was usual? Were they really unusual? With very few exceptions, their pre-First Ladydom lives were as common to their times, locations and stations in life as a proverbial head cold. Ochs tries hard to give each one of those fine women a quality or experience to substantiate the unusual-ness, but it is a stretch. All women, regardless of their generation, their century and their age are individual in some way. But these gals were visible; their names were generally known during their lifetimes and are even today noted in the history books. Modern First Ladies rate books of their own. Some of those old gals rate chapters; others merely footnotes. But the crux of it all, is that we of a later generation did not have the opportunity to know them. And the truly sad part is that these lovely ladies had few opportunities to “be known.”
Andy Ochs has given us this very special chance to get to know them. Like Harry Truman, a pretty fair historian himself once said, “There is nothing new under the sun except the history we don’t know.”
Now we know them a little better.
Can’t wait for Volume II!
UNUSUAL FOR THEIR TIME: On The Road With America’s First Ladies
Author: Andrew Ochs,
Publisher: Tactical 16, April 2106