On the surface, there were only superficial commonalities between FLOTUS Grace Coolidge and her successor Lou Henry Hoover.
The FLOTUS Sorority
Many historians refer to the position of First Lady as a sorority. There are only a few dozen FLOTUSES across the generations, yet so many similarities to bind them. Many knew their predecessors and/or successors. Many were prominent women before they became FLOTUS.
Martha Washington and Abigail Adams became acquainted at the outset of Washington’s presidency, and AA famously wrote that she and MW “lived in habits of intimacy and Friendship.”
Dolley Madison, of course, knew just about everyone between Lady Washington and Sarah Polk.
The twenty-year close friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft was not overly embraced by their wives, who always remained pleasant, but cool.
In modern times, Eleanor Roosevelt could claim close kinship with one (Aunt Edith Roosevelt), and pleasant association with more than fifty years of FLOTUSes, fore and aft.
But real “friendship” is another story.
The Superficial Stuff…
Both Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957) and Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944) were raised middle class. Grace was an only child; Lou had a younger sister by eight years, so in many ways, Lou was the “only.”
They looked nothing alike. Grace, perhaps 5’3”, dark, attractive and feminine, even as a child; Lou about 5’9,” fair complected, nice looking enough, and athletic.
Their upbringings were different. Iowa-born, Lou’s family moved to California (still the Wild West) when she was a child, thus she considered herself “western,” with the expansive western outlook and opportunities to grow – even for women. Grace was a Vermont New Englander, in a smaller environment, tied tighter to tradition than to exposure.
Both girls enjoyed good educations in the 1890s. Both were smart, but Lou was smarter. She liked the tough subjects (math and science) and excelled at them. Grace was humanities all the way.
Lou attended a two-year “normal” school (teachers’ college), and taught the tough subjects for a year. Then she enrolled at Stanford University, and became the first woman in the country to receive a degree in geology, definitely a man’s career. Grace went to the University of Vermont in Burlington and lived at home. She too became a teacher, but was directed into mastering sign language and teaching the deaf, or “special ed” today.
Both were personable and outgoing, and made friends easily. They both joined sororities. Grace became a founding member of UVT’s chapter of Pi Beta Phi and remained active in their affairs for the rest of her life. When Lou went to Stanford, she joined Kappa Kappa Gamma, and lived in the sorority house.
Nothing could be more polar opposite than Mrs. Coolidge and Mrs. Hoover.
Lou Hoover began married life in exotic China, with six servants, circumnavigated the world twice (with two children!), and translated and co-authored a Renaissance treatise on mining from the Latin – all before she was forty. Then the wealthy (self-made) Hoovers moved to an upscale London home, and remained there until WWI. Once they discovered humanitarianism on a grand scale, they became true career partners, each gravitating to what he/she did best.
Grace Coolidge, once married, became a traditional middle-class New England housewife and mother of two. She was active in her church, and, as the US inched toward involvement in WWI, she joined the Red Cross.
The Paths Intersect
In late 1920, Calvin Coolidge became the unlikely Republican Vice President to the equally surprising President Warren Harding. By that time Herbert Hoover was very well known, and became Secretary of Commerce.
It is common for “official families” (POTUS/VP/Cabinet members) to have numerous social occasions to meet, greet and interact. Mrs. Coolidge and Mrs. Hoover had a pleasant acquaintance, but once Harding died and Coolidge became President, the acquaintance deepened into a real friendship.
Their public personae were always different. FLOTUS Grace was stylish, warm-hearted, and extremely traditional in performing her duties. She also had a personality that endeared herself to just about everyone. Most people liked her immensely. FLOTUS-to-be Lou was a doer, an activist, and somewhat reticent outside her own circles.
While Mrs. Coolidge was busy with her White House entertaining, meeting, greeting and enchanting all the visiting celebrities, Mrs. Hoover was immersing her activism into the Girl Scouts, where she became its National President. She and also participated in the National Amateur Athletic Federation, where she espoused physical education for women.
But the friendship between the two women had indeed become a real friendship. FLOTUS Coolidge was happy to support the Girl Scouts, and assumed its Honorary Presidency, a title always traditionally offered (and accepted) by First Ladies.
Bleeding Heart and Lily
Today it is considered an archaic affectation when correspondents assume “pen” names with each other. But for centuries, such disinclination to use “real” names when corresponding was practically the norm.
Lou Hoover was “Bleeding Heart”; Grace Coolidge was “Lily”. Their flowering correspondence began around 1923, as a proper-but-cordial exchange. Once FLOTUS Hoover assumed the position, the correspondence deepened and became far more intimate. It lasted until Lou Hoover’s death in 1944. Different in their styles and personalities, they nevertheless found commonalities of their characters, and appreciated and enjoyed the ties that bound them together.
By 1930, the two women wrote and exchanged original poetry on Easter. The poetry was nice, but the ending was better… Grace wrote, “adding my deep appreciation of your loving thoughts of me…To you, my love—I have the honor to be, sincerely your friend, Grace Coolidge.’”
The Hoover Presidential Site holds more several file folders containing warm and even affectionate letters between the two women, now housed in the Herbert Hoover Archives.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961, Harper Perennial, 1992
Foster, Feather Schwartz – The First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower, An Intimate Portrait of the Women Who Shaped America – Sourcebooks, 2011
Pryor, Dr. Helen B. – Lou Henry Hoover: Gallant First Lady – Dodd Mead, 1969