With hourly reminders on TV and in print that we are about to choose the 41st family to occupy the White House, two books about presidential wives are especially timely. Diana Dixon Healy, a free-lance writer, has done a once-over-lightly book, "America's First Ladies, Private Lives of the Presidential Wives." The more thorough approach, "Presidential Wives" comes from Paul F. Boller, a popular historian, whose "Presidential Anecdotes and Presidential Campaigns" gave political speakers enough anecdotes for a lifetime.
I suppose it is possible to know more than you want to know about First Ladies, but both of these books are remarkably fresh even to those of us who collect White House anecdotes as a hobby. Both are written as chronological accounts beginning with Martha and ending with Nancy. I found no shopworn material. Both have enough lively and little-known facts to keep the trivial pursuit players busy.
Category: First Ladies:
*Where did the term "First Lady" originate, anyway?
With a newswoman, Mary Clemmer Ames. As she was covering the inaugural address of Rutherford B. Hayes, she got carried away watching Lucy Hayes' face closely. "It looks out from the bands of smooth dark hair with that tender light in the eyes which we have come to associate with the Madonna. I have never seen such a face reign in the White House. . . . I wonder what the world of Vanity Fair will do with it? Will it frizz that hair? Powder that face? Draw those sweet, fine lines away with pride? Hide John Wesley's discipline out of sight, as it poses and minces before 'the first lady of the land'?"
So there it was, and it has been applied to every Mrs. President since, although many First Ladies shuddered at the title.
"Jacqueline Kennedy thought it made her sound like a saddle horse," Healy points out, and asks, "What about the eventual 'First Gentleman'? Will he and the country stand for it?"
*Name the most scholarly First Lady.
Lou Hoover was a real intellectual, a major in geology at Stanford, as well as an athlete. She could speak Chinese as well as five other languages, and once, just for the fun of it, joined her husband in translating a 16th-Century work on metallurgy by Georgius Agricola from Latin to English. Yet she was fastidious enough to require that all butlers and footmen at the White House had to be the same height.
*Which First Lady sought the vision of astrologers?
Florence Harding consulted Madam Marcia, a popular Washington astrologer, who told her that her husband would not live out his term. Also, he "was sympathetic, kindly . . . perplexed over financial affairs," and involved "in many clandestine love affairs" as well as being "inclined to recurrent moods of melancholia."
Boller says Harding had two affairs going on at the same time, both ladies from his hometown of Marion, Ohio.
*What First Lady suffered an incurable malady?
Ida McKinley had epilepsy and to ease her embarrassment, the President would seat himself next to her at dinner parties and simply hold a napkin in front of her face if an attack came on. The public tended to minimize this illness as President McKinley had.
*Who was married in the White House?
Frances Folsom Cleveland, younger by 22 years than Grover. She had two children born in the White House. Widower President John Tyler met his second wife, Julia, over a card table in the White House, fell instantly in love, and married her, though she was 30 years younger. They were married in New York, not the White House.
*Which wives had the greatest influence on their husbands.
Five, according to Boller, Abigail Adams, ardent supporter of the American Revolution, unflagging letter-writer whose husband said "her affectionate participation and cheering encouragement" was his "unfailing support." Her son, also a President, said, "She gave the lie to every libel on her sex that was ever written."
Eleanor Roosevelt, catalyst of ideas during the Depression, was "arms and legs" for a crippled husband. Bess Truman "wanted to be brought in on everything," Lady Bird Johnson's advice was constantly sought by L. B. J. on the big decisions of whether to run or resign, how to handle certain issues, ways to frame speeches, and Rosalynn Carter was a constant partner in politics as a wife of a President, as she had been as wife of a governor.
Healy adds Nancy Reagan to the list of most-influential wives. Mrs. Reagan's unyielding devotion to her husband earned her the nickname "Dragon Lady" when her efforts to protect the convalescing President were perceived by many as too confining.
*Two women were called "queen." Who were they?
Dolley Madison was called "Queen of Washington City" while James Madison was secretary of state. She presided over White House dinners for the widower President Jefferson, earning the respect of many for her impeccable taste. Jacqueline Kennedy was called Queen of America during her trip to India.