Prof. Sally McMillen’s Favorite First Lady Biographies
Mary Reynolds Babcock Professor of History Sally McMillen recommends her favorite biographies of American first ladies. McMillen’s most recent book, Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life, tells the story of a remarkable activist slighted by history.
1. Abigail Adams by Wood Holton
Abigail Adams’s well-known admonition to husband John to “remember the ladies” was written by a woman who often chafed against the limitations on her life. Here we see Abigail as a woman ahead of her time. Though without formal education, she was an avid reader. Mr. Holton’s biography reveals one of Abigail’s little-known sides, in particular the business acumen through which she ultimately ensured the Adams family’s financial security. Often without John’s knowledge, she speculated in land, currency and government bonds. Abigail Adams was certainly not perfect—demanding of her children, sharp-tongued to her servants and intolerant of foreigners. She was also a shrewd, resourceful and independent woman. Given the evidence of this sterling biography,
John Adams was a lucky man.
2. Mary Todd Lincoln by Jean H. Baker
Mary Todd Lincoln’s life was a deeply troubled one. After the Civil War, her son Robert, embarrassed by his mother’s erratic behavior and wild spending,had her committed to an asylum. Her four years in the White House had been difficult, a fact not well concealed from the American public. Her background—she had been raised in a Kentucky slave-holding family engendered suspicion, as did the fact that her brother and three half-brothers fought for the Confederacy. So too did her extravagant shopping sprees, her tendency toward spiritualism and her insistence on redecorating the White House and entertaining lavishly in the midst of the Civil War. Ms. Baker’s biography portrays a marriage that was a challenge for both Lincolns—ill-suited partners in an uneasy, at times tempestuous, relationship. When they quarreled, the First Lady threw tantrums. The president withdrew. She had known heartbreak early in life at age six she had lost her mother. She would go on to lose her beloved son Willie when he was 11 and see her husband assassinated. As a historical figure she has not been treated with great sympathy. This sensitive, impressive biography is a compelling change.
3. First Lady of the Confederacy by Joan E. Cashin
Varina Davis was likely the only First Lady to walk out on her husband’s inauguration. That was Varina–bold and independent; hardly an ideal Southern woman. During four years in the Richmond (Virginia) White House, she generated public ire because of her ambivalent feelings toward secession, lack of confidence in Confederate military success, and close ties to Northern friends and extended family. She was also too well-educated, witty, opinionated and blunt. Jefferson Davis, nearly two decades her senior, an inflexible man who demanded docile and deferential women, had picked the wrong partner. Varina would ultimately learn to submit, but her time as the Confederacy’s First Lady was to be the unhappiest of her life. After his death in 1889, Varina came into her own. She moved to New York City, where she earned a living by writing while ignoring hate mail from Southern apologists who denounced her for forsaking the South. Still, in her final years, she defended the Confederacy, and Jefferson, and left no doubt of her still-powerful Southern loyalties. Ms. Cashin’s is a historically grounded and irresistibly engaging biography of a complicated woman.
4. Edith Kermit Roosevelt by Sylvia Jukes Morris
“Mrs. Roosevelt comes a good deal nearer my ideal than I do myself,” wrote husband Theodore, acknowledging Edith, his smart, strong, elegant wife. The two had grown up as best friends, but Theodore broke her heart when he married the beautiful Alice Lee. Alice’s death from Bright’s disease led him back to Edith, whom he married two years later. Theodore was not an easy man to live with—but, as this absorbing biography shows, the couple balanced one another in personality and interests. A woman of her time, Edith was ever patient and accommodating as her husband pursued war and adventure, traveled out West, to East Africa, to Brazil, and was absent for months at a time. Embracing her role as First Lady, Edith redecorated and redesigned a shabby White House until it reflected a classical splendor. Edith lived 30 years past her husband’s death. She destroyed nearly all of her and Theodore’s personal correspondence, but thanks to diaries and private papers unearthed by Sylvia Morris, a vivid and nuanced picture emerges of this noteworthy First Lady.
5. Florence Harding by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
“Well, Warren Harding, I have got you the Presidency,” pronounced Florence Harding upon her husband’s inauguration. Florence protected Warren, tolerated his many sexual liaisons and, in the end, destroyed half their personal papers. As this lively biography proves, there is no single path to becoming First Lady. Raised by a tyrannical father, Florence was well-educated but in her late teens ran away from home and bore a child out of wedlock. She then met and married Harding, at the time the handsome publisher of the Marion (Ohio) Star, and she pushed him into politics. Nicknamed the “Duchess,” she was an imperious but a surprisingly popular First Lady. She held informal press conferences, worked with war veterans, and supported female suffrage and physical fitness. Florence also introduced jazz and radio to the White House and entertained streams of visitors. She influenced at least a handful of presidential decisions and edited her husband’s speeches. When he died, rumors circulated that Florence was responsible. Actually, responsibility lay with the couple’s homeopathic physician, who failed to see that it was not food poisoning but a heart problem that afflicted the president. Florence’s reputation, tainted after the unfolding of more Harding-administration scandals, plummeted after her death.
This absorbing saga—richly evocative of its political era—is a resurrection of sorts. This piece first appeared May 1, 2015, in the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Five Best’ column, which features reading recommendations of experts from wide-ranging fields.