William Howard Taft and Helen (from-birth Nellie) Herron were born and raised Victorians – but they had a very modern marriage.
The Early Years
Both William Howard Taft (1857-1930) and Helen Herron (1861-1943) were pedigreed Cincinnatians. He was the son of a lawyer, jurist and member of Grant’s cabinet. Her father was a law partner of eventual President Rutherford B. Hayes.
But the most important pedigree was Cincinnati itself: the Queen City, not only of Ohio, but the whole Midwest. It prided itself on its culture, influence and cosmopolitan pretensions, all of which (so they said) were much greater than that upstart, Chicago.
The story goes that they first met at a sledding part, remembered by her, forgotten by him. But he was a college fellow of eighteen, and she a fourteen-year-old adolescent. There was no connection.
Will finished top of his class at Yale, and received a law degree at Cincinnati Law School. From the start, he entered public service. A teenaged Nellie, having spent two weeks at the Hayes White House, fixed her sights firmly on the seat of power, intending to live there herself – as First Lady.
Her ambition, talents and intelligence were numerous. Her opportunities however, were zilch. If she was going to live in the White House, she would have to marry it.
Nellie came from a large family: five girls, two boys. Girls married, no matter how bright or ambitious. Boys went to college.
So poor Nellie grumbled, and tried to find her mostly unsuccessful way. Then she and a few friends started a Sunday afternoon “salon” for Cincinnati’s younger set. Salons had been a popular European activity for more than a century, and in the US, had been on the social agenda for decades.
Thus on Sunday afternoons, the Herron parlor was filled with the cream of Cincinnati youth, to enjoy tea, light refreshments and high-minded conversation. And make new friends. Will Taft came regularly.
Will was a big fellow, an easy six-footer, who weighed an even easier 250 pounds on a thin day. By this time, Nellie at 21 or 22, was medium in height, perhaps 5’4” with a nice figure. Her features were somewhat sharp, as was her tongue. But Will liked her. He liked her enough to keep coming back, and soon began escorting her to other events.
He liked her enough to propose marriage. Three times. But it was fashionable for a young lady to demur coyly, and decline. Besides, Miss Nellie needed an assured vehicle to the White House. They finally married in 1886.
The Vehicle and The Trip
Will Taft was not only a fortuitous choice, but excellent on several fronts. Aside from his pedigree, his politics (Republican) and his sharp mind (Yale does not take dummies), he had the perfect good natured disposition to balance the high-strung ambitious young woman who thrived on shepherding his career like a border collie.
When he was appointed Solicitor General by President Benjamin Harrison, she knew they were on their way! The position was sub-cabinet, and important. Plus, it gave WHT access not only to the White House (Nellie’s dream), but to Will’s dream: The Supreme Court.
The two addresses a mile apart on Pennsylvania Avenue were always at the center of the Taft marriage. Will loved the judiciary. He was suited to judgment and justice, and his mind ran to exacting detail at a slow and considered pace. And a judge’s robe covered a lot of territory. Nellie’s eyes were fixed at #1600 and never wavered. Period.
Outgoing POTUS Harrison appointed William Howard Taft to the 8th Circuit Court – a plum position giving both Will and Nellie the opportunity to come into the core of their marriage.
Judge Taft needed to travel extensively. He enjoyed it. Nellie remained in Ohio, tending to her growing family, managing the household and the budget. It was she who made sure all the political bills and contributions were paid first. If there was any skimping to be done, she skimped on herself. She proved to be a thrifty and careful manager. She also wrote her traveling justice near-daily letters, and not merely of family “business.” She included news from the several papers she subscribed to, with all the who-did-what, and who-went-where political events. And all the opinions and positions of the leading political figures, along with her own prescient commentary. And of her own activities.
Once her children were school-aged and she had time on her hands, she found a project of her own: a woman’s club devoted to music, which she had loved since childhood. She joined the club, became active, and quickly was elected its president. Then she spent five years spearheading the creation of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, including building plans, consulting architects, interviewing and engaging a maestro and musicians, planning its opening programs – and a huge amount of fund-raising on a grand scale. She succeeded magnificently. Other members of the prominent Taft family contributed mega-generously, but it was Nellie Taft who did the heavy lifting.
At 40, Will Taft loved his job, despite all the travel. He also loved his Nellie, and understood her. Where most men preferred their wives to focus on family and household, he was inordinately proud of Nellie’s newfound executive skills and her ability to juggle so many balls in the air. And he always trusted her political savvy. It was better than his.
Their marriage was working. They understood each other’s needs and temperaments. They gave each other room, encouragement and the kind of respect they both deserved. And in a time where wives were merely support personnel, Mrs. Taft was her own woman, and his fulcrum.
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