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White House - Relatives As 'first Ladies'

( Originally Published 1908 )

THE "First Ladies" of the land have included, besides the wives of the Presidents, relatives of Chief Executives such as daughters, daughters-in-law, sisters and nieces. Sometimes, because of the invalidism of a President's wife, there has been two or three "First Ladies" in one administration. For example, the first Mrs. Tyler was an invalid, as was also Mrs. Zachary Taylor and Mrs. Andrew Johnson, and the places of each of these ladies was taken by one of the relatives of the "First Lady" or by the daughter or sister of the President.

Then, too, Buchanan, was a bachelor, and the place of "First Lady" was filled by his niece, Miss Harriet Lane. Grover Cleveland also came to the White House a bachelor, and for a time his sister acted as White House Hostess.

Again, President Jefferson was a widower, as were also Jackson, Van Buren and Arthur, and hence in each of these administrations the place of "First Lady" was taken by the President's nearest relative.

Jefferson's Granddaughter Does the Honors

The wife of Thomas Jefferson was, at the time of her marriage to the great patriot, a wealthy widow, who brought to her husband a splendid estate in Virginia, at Monticello. She died some years before Jefferson was elected President of the United States, leaving him three children.

President Jefferson came to the White House, therefor, a widower. And with him, to play the role of "First Lady," came his granddaughter, a young and beautiful woman, Martha Jefferson Randolph. She was described as "the sweetest woman in Virginia, so fragile and so fond of the quiet of her own home in Albemarle, that she did not use to the fullest her opportunities of reigning in Washington during Jefferson's administration; and Mrs. Madison often supplied her place as her father's hostess."

A tribute to Miss Randolph's charms as granddaughter and hostess, is paid by the wife of Cabinet officer, Mrs. Crownishield, who, in a letter, says :

"I was at the drawing-room on Wednesday,expected to be the only one. Soon after I got in Mrs. Madison said how much we think alike both with a little blue and flowers. I had on my blue velvet and flowers on my head. Mrs. Madison a muslin dotted in silver over blue,a beautiful blue turban and feathers. I have never seen her look so well. There was a lady there I had never seen monstrous large, dressed in plain muslin, not even a piece of lace about the neck just like a little girl's frock. Neck bare, a pink turban with a black feather. All the gentlemen thought her very handsome, but Miss Randolph is the most admired—not pretty, but very accomplished. Her grandfather, Mr. Jefferson, has taken much pains in educating her. I can never get a chance to speak to her, she is so surrounded by gentlemen—for here there are half a dozen gentlemen to one young lady."

Jackson's "First Ladies."

Two young women performed the official duties during the administration of President Andrew Jackson, who entered the White House a widower, his wife having died just previous to his coming to Washington. The two young ladies in question were, first, Jackson's niece, Mrs. Donelson; and second, his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Andrew Jackson, Jr., wife of the President's adopted son and private secretary. The success of both these "First Ladies," in a social way, was immediate and complete Mrs. Andrew Jackson, Jr., is described in the chapter on "White House Brides."

Mrs. Donelson's White House life is suggested by a friend of her's, a Mrs. Ellet, who, describing a visit to the President's house, writes:

"The large parlor was scantily furnished; there was light from the chandelier, and a blazing fire in the grate; four or five ladies sewing round it; Mrs. Donelson, Mrs. Andrew Jackson, Mrs Edward Livingstone, etc. Five or six children were playing about, regardless of documents or work baskets. At the farther end of the room sat the President in his arm chair, wearing a long loose coat and smoking a long reed pipe, with a bowl of red clay; combining the dignity of the patriarch, monarch and Indian chief. Just behind was Edward Livingston, the Secretary of State, reading him a despatch from the French Minister for Foreign Affairs. The ladies glance admiringly now and then at the President, who listens, waving his pipe towards the children when they become too boisterous."

This granddaughter of President Jackson, to his enduring sorrow, died during the last year of the President's second administration. The Washington Globe printed an obituary notice, in which graceful compliment is paid to Mrs. Donelson, thus :

"This most estimable lady went to Tennessee during the summer and expected to return with her uncle on the first of October. For the most part since the beginning of this administration, Mrs. Donelson has presided at the President's Mansion ; and all who have visited it know with what amenity of manners, with what engaging and unpretending kindness, she welcomed the guests to its hospitalities. She was destined not to share the affectionate farewell greetings with which the country is prepared to salute the close of the President's residence in Washington ; with which, in all its private and social relations, she was identified."

President Van Buren's Daughter-in-Law Presides Martin Van Buren was the third President in thirty-seven years to enter the White House a widower, Mrs. Van Buren having passed away eighteen years previous to the election of Van Buren to the highest office in the land.

Now when Mr. Van Buren first came to the Executive Mansion, in 1837, Mrs. Dolly Madison was still active in Washington Society. She introduced to Mr. Van Buren a charming young lady from South Carolina, a Miss Angelica Singleton. Miss Singleton became a frequent guest at the White House, in the course of which visits she very often met the President's son and private secretary, Major Abram Van Buren. A romance followed, ending with the marriage of Miss Singleton and the Major, at the bride's South Carolina home. The President's son, immediately after the wedding, brought his bride to the White House, and from that day she presided as the nation's hostess, making her debut in the mansion at the New Year's reception of 1839. Regarding this initial appearance of the one who was to act as the "First Lady" of the White House, the Boston Post printed a paragraph reading :

"The Executive Mansion was a place of much more than usual attraction in consequence of the first appearance there of the bride of the President's son and private Secretary, Mrs. Abram Van Buren. She is represented as being of rare accomplishments, very modest, yet perfectly easy and graceful in her manners, and free and vivacious in her conversation. She was universally admired and is said to have borne the fatigue of a three hours' levee with a patience and pleasantry which must be inexhaustible to last one through so severe a trial."

Harrison and Tyler Families

President William. Henry Harrison was the first of the Chief Executives to bring to the White House an invalid wife. Because of her poor health, Mrs. Harrison was unable to perform the duties of official hostess, and her place was taken by her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Jane F. Harrison, who, at that time was "an attractive young widow," possessed of education and a high degree of refinement. With her came her two sons. Her reign had lasted only one month, however, when her father-in-law died and she retired to private life.

It is a singular coincidence that General Harrison's immediate successor, President John Tyler, should also bring to the White House an invalid wife. Mrs. Tyler's infirmities were such that she was obliged to relegate her official duties to her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Robert Tyler and to her daughter, Mrs. Letitia Tyler Semple. Informal dances were given during Mrs. Tyler's residence in the White House, the "First Lady" declaring that "because I am ill is no reason why the young people should not enjoy themselves." She passed away in the White House on the tenth of September, 1842.

When, after the period of mourning at the White House, festivities were resumed, society came to meet the new mistresses of the mansion, now officially the "First Ladies" where, until Mrs. Tyler's death, they had held that position only nominally.

President Tyler's daughter-in-law, Mrs. Robert Tyler, was very beautiful and extremely fascinating, so much so that Washington Irving perpetuated her fame in his Salmagundi, in which she figures as "Sophy Sparkle," though personally Irving often referred to her as "The Fascinating Fairlie," this name having its origin in the fact that Mrs. Tyler's maiden name was Mary Fairlie. That she was worthy the name of "Sparkle," and that she was indeed vivacious and witty, is shown in one of her own sprightly letters addressed to her sister in Philadelphia, in which young Mrs. Tyler says :

"What wonderful changes take place, my dearest M ! Here am I actually living in, and, what is more, presiding at the White House ! I look at myself, like the little old woman, and exclaim, `Can this be IF I have not had one moment to myself since my arrival, and the most extraordinary thing is that I feel as if I had been used to living here always, and receive the Cabinet Ministers, the Diplomatic Corps, the heads of the Army and Navy, etc., etc., with a facility which astonishes me. I really do possess a degree of modest assurance that surprises me more than it does any one else. I am complimented on every side ; my hidden virtues are coming out. I am considered `charmante' by the Frenchmen, `lovely' by the Americans, and `really quite nice, you know', by the English. I have had some lovely dresses made, which fit me to perfection, one a pearl colored silk that will set you crazy.

"I occupy poor General Harrison's room. The nice comfortable bedroom with its handsome furniture and curtains, its luxurious armchairs, and all its belongings, I enjoy, I believe, more than anything in the establishment. The pleasantest part of my life is when I can shut myself up here with my precious baby. The greatest trouble I anticipate is paying visits. There was a doubt at first whether I must visit in person or send cards ; but I asked Mrs. Madison's advice upon the subject, and she says, return all my visits by all means. So three days in the week I am to spend three hours a day driving from one street to another in this city of magnificent distances."

As to the other "First Lady" who presided in President Tyler's time between the death of his first wife and his marriage to the second Mrs. Tyler, namely, Mrs. Letitia Semple, the President's daughter, a description of her and the story of her life will be found in the chapter on "Daughters of the Presidents." Mrs. Semple died, December 28, 1907, in the Louise Home, in Washington, in her eighty-sixth year.

Official Ladies Under Taylor, Fillmore and Buchanan

Zachary Taylor was the third President to be welcomed to the White House with an invalid for a hearth companion. Mrs. Taylor was a Maryland girl, and for years had shared toil, dangers and hardships with her husband in war and peace.

Owing to Mrs. Taylor's illness, the official lady of the White House was the President's daughter, Mrs. Bliss, to whom Taylor always referred as "Dear Betty." She reigned until her father died in the White House, a little over a year after the Taylors came to Washington.

In the Fillmore administration the White House possessed an official lady in addition to the President's wife, in the person of his lovely daughter, Miss Abigail, who assisted her mother on all occasions private or public.

But of all the White House Ladies down to the present time, probably the most popular, with the exception of Mrs. Madison and Mrs. Cleveland, was President Buchanan's niece, Miss Harriet Lane, afterward Mrs. Harriet Lane Johnston. Buchanan, being a bachelor, brought this charming relative with him from his home in Wheatlands, Pennsylvania, and, for four years she presided at the Executive Mansion, a period that is known as one of the most brilliant, in a social way, in the history of the White House. It was Miss Harriet Lane who acted as hostess to the Prince of Wales during his stay at the White House in 1860. So exceedingly brilliant. was her reign that Jefferson Davis wrote saying that "the White House under the Administration of Buchanan approached more nearly to my idea of a Republican Court than the President's house had ever done before since the days of Washington."

One who knew her when she presided as Miss Lane, during her uncle's administration, describes the impression she made at Mr. Buchanan's Inaugural Ball, thus :

"Miss Lane is rather below the medium height, but has a fine figure, and is of that blonde type of Saxon beauty so familiar to Christendom since the multiplication of portraits of Queen Victoria. She wore a white dress trimmed with artificial flowers similar to those which ornamented her hair, and clasping her throat was a necklace of many strands of seed-pearls."

Another eye-witness at a White House reception in Buchanan's time, says :

"Miss Lane, who is the presiding grace of the White House, had her first regular reception this morning. This lady is the favorite niece of the President, and for many years has been the charm of his secluded household. She accompanied him to England and did the honors of his Diplomatic Mansion with an ease and dignity that attracted general attention.

"Miss Lane is destined to acquire a social popularity which will vie with that which Mrs. Bliss (daughter of President Taylor), left as an example seven years ago.

"The rarest hot-house plants were brought into requisition and arranged around the rooms and alcoves ; the heliotrope, violet, hyacinth and roses of the richest perfume lent their sweetness to the atmosphere, and presented altogether a scene which an Eastern princess might envy. In addition to this was the merry bewitching Miss Lane herself in all the freshness of rural health, her cheeks vying with the rose she loved, and her large blue eyes beaming with amiability and gentleness. Her person is above the medium height, well proportioned. She is a blonde, with light hair, worn perfectly plain, and with a faultless complexion, `blending the lily and the rose' and pronounced by common consent of both sexes `beautiful'."

Writing of Mrs. Harriet Lane Johnston after she left the White House and about the time she returned from England where she was received in private audience by Queen Victoria, a biographer records the fact that "Washington was at the feet of Harriet Lane Johnston. After all the years that have passed she is the one woman who has never stepped down from the social leadership she acquired as lady of the White House. She is the most regal of American women ; her presence at the most important and most formal State dinners at the White House is as much a matter of course as is that of the wife of the Vice-President. She has a large house in Washington, and entertains frequently in the season. She has a fine, erect figure, with a haughtily poised head crowned with white hair. For great occasions her toilet is always the same; black velvet and point lace, and her jewels are always pearls and diamonds."

Even as late as the Cleveland administration we find record of Mrs. Harriet Lane Johnston standing by the side of Mrs. Cleveland and receiving guests at the New Year's receptions.

Johnson's Daughter and Arthur's Sister, as Hostesses Andrew Johnson's wife, an invalid, married at a younger age than did the helpmate of any other of our Presidents. At the time of her marriage she was only fifteen, a Miss McCardle, of Tennessee. The bridegroom himself was only seventeen,and hence it may be 'added that the President who married earlier in life than any other Chief Executive before or since, was Andrew Johnson.

As an invalid, when she came with her husband to the White House, Mrs. Johnson was compelled to relinquish the mantle of "First Lady" to her daughter, Mrs. Martha Patterson. It was Mrs. Patterson who, upon her entrance to the Executive Mansion, gave out this remarkable statement :

"We are plain people from the mountains of Tennessee. I trust too much will not be expected of us."

Mrs. Patterson, however, was not so much of a stranger to White House life as her own statement implies. She had often been a visitor at the mansion as the guest of President and Mrs. Polk, though at such times she had to get permission from the principal of the school which she was then attending in Georgetown, D. C.

Concerning Mrs. Patterson, we find, in Pendel's Thirty-Six Years in the White House, this paragraph (penned in 1901) :

"Mrs. Patterson was a very nice lady and did the honors of the White House in a way acceptable to everyone with whom she was brought in contact. Her husband was at that time Senator from Tennessee, and the entire family resided at the President's Mansion. The family consisted also of a son and daughter, Mrs. Stover, with her two daughters and a son (small children) ; Robert Johnson, the oldest son of the President, then his private secretary, and Frank Johnson, the younger son. Out of that entire household there lives today only Mrs. Patterson and her son Andrew, both of whom reside in the neighborhood of Greenville, Tenn."

President Arthur, being a widower, the first widower since President Van Buren, delegated his sister, Mrs. McElroy, to act as "First Lady" during his administration. Though called with great suddenness to take up her high position, upon the death of President Garfield, Mrs. McElroy nevertheless was more than equal to the emergency, performing her duties quite as successfully as if she had had many months in which to prepare herself for the ordeal.

Mrs. McElroy became famous for her hospitality and for her graciousness in asking a great many different ladies of Washington to assist her. At some receptions she would have as many as forty ladies in the receiving line. All this time, the President's daughter, little Nellie Arthur, was, of course, too young to figure in the White House festivities in any sense officially.

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