This is a sad story with a delayed happier ending.
Nellie: Discovering the Ambition
Helen (Nellie) Herron (1861-1943) was smart as a whip, and as ambitious as Caesar. She had the ambition to want things, and the ambition to work for them. But she also had a yin-yang nature that was deeply rooted in the womanly conventions of the 1870s, designed to keep the smart and ambitious woman in check.
When she was in her mid-teens,the Herron family spent time in the White House visiting close friends, President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes. Nellie was more than entranced. She was inspired. Here was where she wanted to live. As First Lady.
Since she couldn’t counter the mid 1870s, she realized that if the White House on her long-range horizon, she would have to marry it.
Nellie: Marrying the Ambition
At twenty five, Helen Herron married William Howard Taft, four years her senior. They had courted pleasantly for three years, and she conventionally said “no” three times. Then she said “yes.” Taft was a big, gentle teddy bear who sincerely loved the savvy young woman with a sharp wit – and tongue. More importantly, he had impeccable credentials with an arrow pointing toward high office in Washington.
Like the Herron, the Tafts were from Cincinnati with eastern antecedents. Will’s father was a widely respected attorney, and cabinet secretary during the Grant Administration. Will was first in his class at Yale, returned to Cincinnati to study law, passed the bar easily, and had begun a career in public service. Republican public service.
The only snag was that Will was appointed to the bench at a young age, and loved being a judge. His highest ambition was a seat on the Supreme Court. Nellie assiduously devoted most of her enormous energies to channel those judicial ambitions to a better address on Pennsylvania Avenue. She read all the newspapers, knew all the players and the issues, and made sure they attended all the see-and-be-seen events. She was happy to skimp on her own personal comforts to fund political dues.
Nellie: The Hubris of Ambition
The old saying is to be careful what you wish for. Nellie wished and it came true, largely in part to her encouragement, her channeling, and the fact that Will Taft sincerely wanted to please his wife.
In 1909, William Howard Taft became President. Nellie was now First Lady with a long agenda of FLOTUS activities – well within the “conventional” purview of 1909 First Ladydom: Social activities, cultural activities, educational activities.
But only a few weeks into the Taft Administration, on a party-cruise down the Potomac, Nellie fainted. But it was not a faint. It was a serious stroke that left her with aphasia.
Aphasia is a condition resulting from a blood clot in the brain that impairs the patient’s ability to speak coherently and to read and write. It also can cause the face to droop on one side. But her physical health was not impaired. There was no crippling.
More of a Sad Story
Taft was devastated. Aside from truly loving his wife, he had counted on her considerable political savvy in a job he never really wanted. Now she couldn’t help.
Even sadder than her new limitations, her “transmitter” functions were damaged, but her “receptor” functions were intact. Nellie could understand everything. Her memory was only slightly impaired. If you asked yes/no questions, she could nod with proper response. But she could not elaborate on the answer. She improved, albeit with some residual speech impediment. She could, at least in part, make several of the traditional FLOTUS decisions – but she could not appear in public.
Her daughter took a year off from Bryn Mawr College to help. Her three sisters rotated long visits to help. The President spent hours with her whenever he could.
Several months later, another less-severe stroke forced her to refocus her ambition: on her health, like it or not. Politics now became secondary.
It took the entire Taft term to regain most of her lost abilities.
Nellie: Recollection of Full Years
Of course she was deeply depressed. She got what she wanted and could not enjoy it. She understood everything, but she could not communicate publicly. It was agonizing for her to help arrange a state dinner or receptions that she could not attend. She was also politically shrewd enough to understand that her husband was destined to be a one-term President, and she worried about their post-Presidential finances. Yale University came to their rescue with a Chair of Law for Taft. They moved to New Haven CT, which she loathed. She was bored.
In part to help combat her mother’s depression, her daughter suggested that Nellie write her memoirs. No other First Lady had done that – at least so far as anyone knew. (Julia Grant had written hers some twenty years earlier, but they had not been published.)
Nellie dictated her experiences to her daughter, who crafted them into a nice, albeit not exciting, book. She focused on her childhood and youth. On her marriage, family and travels. But mostly on her happiest five years in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th Century, when Taft was its Governor-General. Nellie was First Lady there. The four years she spent in the White House was a briefer chapter, mostly devoted to table settings, menus and guest lists. She had wanted to do so much more.
Nevertheless, in 1914 Recollection of Full Years, by Mrs. William Howard Taft, was published by Dodd, Mead to modest success.
Nellie lived to be 83, with a quiet, but interesting and reasonably active life.
She saw her husband appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, his greatest ambition. She saw her children married and very successful. She saw her daughter become Dean at Bryn Mawr College. She saw several grandchildren.
And perhaps most importantly, a long line of politically distinguished Ohio Tafts still look back to their matriarch with pride.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era – 2005, William Morrow
Ross, Ishbel – An American Family: The Tafts – 1964, World Publishing
Taft, Mrs. William Howard – Recollections of a Full Life – Dodd, Mead, 1914