Love, Marriage, and U.S. First Ladies
How would former First Ladies have fared under a media microscope?
You probably know more than you care to know about the married lives of First Ladies Hillary, Laura, and Michelle. After all, in our 24/7 news world, presidents and their spouses are constantly under a media microscope. Even before the internet, reality TV, and celebrity gossip programs, many First Ladies—Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, for example—were frequently in the news. Reporters, however, gave them some slack; they didn’t report on JFK’s frequent dalliances or FDR’s long-term affair with Eleanor’s secretary Lucy. So how do you think our former First Ladies would have fared if they had to endure today’s media scrutiny? You be the judge. Here’s a glance at six you may not know about:
A 19th Century Trophy Wife: Julia Gardiner Tyler (m.1844)
High-spirited and fun-loving Julia Gardiner initially refused widowed President John Tyler’s proposals of marriage because of their 30-year age difference. After all, thanks to her beauty and charm, at age 20, she had a long list of suitors and was already famous in society circles as “Rose of Long Island.” But after an explosion took the life of her father while the family was traveling on a Presidential excursion, Tyler comforted the grief-stricken Julia and she soon agreed to marry him. At 24, she became our 10th First Lady and the couple eventually had seven children. As First Lady, she became known for the elaborate balls held in the White House and once declared: “Nothing appears to delight the President more than…to hear people sing my praises.” Almost like royalty, Julia had a “court” of ladies in waiting made up of her sister, two cousins, and one of the President’s daughters by his first marriage, and she was often seen wearing ostrich plumes and royal purple.
Political Helpmate: Ellen Axson Wilson (m.1885)
Talented artist Ellen Axson, who once described herself as “the most unambitious of women,” grew up in Rome, Georgia, the gentle daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She met Thomas Woodrow Wilson, then a lawyer, in 1883 when he visited Rome on business. They married in 1885, had three children, and she was the consummate devoted helpmate. After Wilson became President of Princeton University, Ellen encouraged him to go on lecture tours, supported his interest in politics, and ran the household and all of the finances. Wilson was quite dependent on her and the couple exchanged some 1,400 love letters during their engagement and marriage. After he was inaugurated as the nation’s 28th President in 1913, Ellen oversaw the creation of the White House Rose Garden, and campaigned for the passage of bill to create better housing for Washington’s poor. Sadly, she was First Lady for a relatively short time. She died about 17 months after her husband became president. On the day before her death, she made her physician promise to tell Wilson “later” that she hoped he would marry again; she murmured at the end, “...take good care of my husband.”
The National Enquirer Would Have Loved Her: Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (m.1915)
A year after Ellen Axson Wilson died, Wilson—lost without a spouse—married wealthy widow Edith Bolling Galt. Galt has been described as handsome, fearless, and responsive to Wilson’s fevered sexual impulses. Whisper of the times: “What did Mrs. Galt do when the President asked her to marry him? She fell out of bed.” No matter, she became one of her husband’s closest advisers. She sat in on meetings with political leaders and foreign representatives, was privy to classified information, and shielded the president from the press and other politicians through the end of his term in 1921. When a stroke left the President partly paralyzed, she took over many routine duties and details of government. Legend has labeled her “Secret President,” “first woman to run the government,” but she did not initiate programs or make major decisions. Instead, she called it her “stewardship.”
Thanks for the Cherry Trees: Helen Herron Taft (m.1886)
At the age of 17, Helen Herron visited the White House with her parents and declared she’d like to live there one day. Often called Nellie, she was educated and outspoken—an instant match for William Howard Taft—who claimed he was attracted to intelligent women. She met the young, tall lawyer at a sledding party and they married in 1886. Helen welcomed each stage of her husband’s career as a state judge, US Solicitor General, and federal circuit judge. When he was put in charge of American civil government in the Philippines she enthusiastically handled a difficult role in Manila, and enjoyed travel to Japan and China. When Taft was elected the 27th President in 1908, she became the first presidential wife to ride alongside her husband down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day (previously only the outgoing President accompanied his successor). Two months later she suffered a stroke and was only able to receive three guests a week with the help of her sisters. It was, however, her idea to plant the first 3,000 Japanese cherry trees that encircle the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C.
She Made Her Man: Eliza McCardle Johnson (m.1827)
Eliza McCardle Johnson married Andrew Johnson when both were teenagers. Local tradition tells of the day she first saw him. He was driving a blind pony hitched to a small cart, and she said to a girl friend, “There goes my beau.” She married him within a year. While it’s not true, as so often stated, that she taught her husband how to read and write, she tutored him while he worked in a tailor shop, and even suggested that he join a local debating team to polish his oratorical skills. They were married for nearly 50 years and had five children. By the time he joined Lincoln as Vice-President in 1864, Eliza had been in ill health for many years. When Johnson succeeded Lincoln as President, Eliza settled into a second-floor room, where she read and sewed. Rarely seen in public, she still conferred daily with Johnson as a political advisor. When Johnson was impeached in 1868, she followed the trial through newspapers and kept up Johnson's morale. After his acquittal, she attended more public receptions, still protesting, “I do not like this public life at all.” Their daughter, Martha, served as hostess at most White House events.
She Never Moved In: Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison (m.1795)
Anna Symmes disregarded her father’s objections and eloped with soldier William Henry Harrison in 1795. The couple had 10 children. Years after winning fame as an Indian fighter and a hero in the War of 1812, Harrison won the election of 1840, becoming the 9th U.S. President, and Anna became First Lady at the age of 65. She didn’t travel to Washington for her husband’s inauguration (then held in early March) because she wanted to wait until the cold winter weather had passed. Unfortunately, she never lived in the White House because Harrison died of pneumonia 30 days after his inauguration, becoming the first U.S. President to die in office. But Anna Harrison was the only First Lady to have a grandson—Benjamin Harrison—who become President; he served from 1889 to 1903.
Rona Cherry has written about health and wellness for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Ladies’ Home Journal, Vegetarian Times, and many other publications. She was the editor-in-chief of several national magazines, including Fitness and Longevity. She is currently an editorial consultant with regional publications and nonprofits.