Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Secret Lives of the First Ladies

Secret Lives of the First Ladies: What Your Teachers Never Told You About The Women Of The White House by Cormac O'Brien
Published 2005 by Quirk Books
Source: loaned to me by my mom

Publisher's Summary:
Secrets Lives of the First Ladies features outrageous and uncensored profiles of all the presidents' wives.

You'll discover that Dolley Madison loved to chew tobacco. Mary Todd Lincoln was committed to an asylum, and Mamie Eisenhower never missed an episode of As the World Turns. You'll also learn why Hillary Clinton went to work for Wal-Mart (long before she started campaigning for a higher minimum wage).

Complete with biographies of every first lady, Secret Lives of the First Ladies tackles rough questions that other history books are afraid to ask: How many of these women owned slaves? Which ones were cheating on their husbands? And why did Eleanor Roosevelt serve hot dogs to the Kings and Queens of England? American history was never this much fun!

My Thoughts:
I have had this book on my shelves for a long time. Laura Bush is the last first lady included; updated versions have since been released. And then you may have noticed that it sat on my nightstand for months and months. It made an excellent nightstand book - none of the first lady's stories is more than a few pages long, perfect for reading a few minutes before you end your day. In fact, it would make a great guest room night stand choice for that same reason. O'Brien, to my way of thinking, shows very little political bias. Likewise, he pulls no punches. Of Letitia Tyler's (wife of our 7th president, John Tyler), insistence that her female slaves not work in the field but instead in the home, O'Brien says: "We can only assume that such splendid generosity downgraded their roiling hatred to simmering resentment."

Each of the chapters includes a "data" box - date of birth and death, marriage date, husband, children, years she was first lady, religion, a sound bite, and, curiously, astrological sign. O'Brien devotes a few paragraphs to each woman's early years and background, including how their courtship with their future husbands. He includes a good amount of detail about their lives as the wives of politicians and their impact as first ladies, the impression they made on those around them at the time, and their impact on their husbands. At the end of each chapter, O'Brien has included a few details about each woman that are of particular interest. Not surprisingly, the chapters on the more recent first ladies are longer, what with more information to be found on them. But, there is a surprisingly lot to be learned about the early first ladies as well.

How many of these things did you already know:

  • Helen "Nellie" Taft was responsible for the planting of the cherry trees in Potomac Park in Washington, which draws 1.5 million people to the city annually when they are in bloom.
  • Julia Tyler (John Tyler's second wife) first got the Marine band to play "Hail To The Chief" upon the president's arrival at social events. 
  • Bess Truman (wife of Harry Truman) fought to save the White House. Congress wanted to raze it and start over but Truman saved it and oversaw extensive renovations. 
  • Several of the first wives believed they were psychic and more than one of them held seances.
  • Caroline "Carrie" Harrison (wife of Benjamin Harrison) crocheted some 3,500 pairs of slippers which she donated to charity. They were color-coded to reflect their intended recipients - blue for those who had sided with the North and grey for those who had sided with the South during the Civil War.
  • Pat Nixon's (wife of Richard Nixon) real name was Thelma. Her father always called her "Pat" because she was born the day before St. Patrick's Day; only after his death did she begin calling herself Pat, and then Patricia.
While these are not, of course, full autobiographies of each lady, each of the provides a good overview of each of these women with the kinds of detail included that make readers see the real person. I definitely enjoyed this book, even if it did take me months to read it!


  1. That sounds like a great book to pick up. We hear so much about the presidents and their legacies. It's nice to get some background info on the first ladies.

  2. Have you read First Women by Kate Andersen Brower? It details the first women from Kennedy to Obama and I really enjoyed it though it did jump around a bit. It was really fascinating and I really felt like I got to know the women. This sounds interesting and like one I would very much enjoy!