Growing up in the Washington, DC area, presidents, first ladies, politics and the Smithsonian Institution were omnipresent in my life. The main reason I chose to do this project was that I like to tell stories - especially the ones that haven't been told. This is one of the most interesting groups of women in the world. This unique sorority of ladies all have amazing lives from before, during and after their time in the White House, and I wanted to know and tell their stories.
I started reading a giant red book (about the size of a phone book) in October of 2012. I hit the road in November of 2012, just before Thanksgiving. I didn't stop reading, traveling and tracing the paths and lives of these women until late December 2013. I lived, ate, slept and breathed first ladies for a year and three months. There was a small team back in Washington, DC for the 90 - minute weekly live shows. The traveling aspect of the research, filming and video gathering was a team of one… me.
With any project of this scope you can always use more time, money and people. However, it's the fast pace and short time frame, I believe that planted all this information so firmly in my brain. I am grateful to have been the only producer traveling for this project. It allowed me to see every site and location for every first lady – Martha Washington through Michelle Obama. The material I gathered – as near as we can figure between me, c-span and the White House historical association – is the largest collection of video interviews and footage that is held in one place and covers every first lady that exists in the world.
The director of the James Monroe museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia kept mentioning Elizabeth Monroe's "hair earrings" to me. I figured they were ornamental jewelry to hang in a woman's hair. Then he handed them to me and said, "See? The earrings are woven from her hair!" I learned that in the 1700's hair jewelry was made as a gift of affection. Later in the 1800's it was made for remembrance and mourning. It was here, during this very first trip, that I knew this journey was going to be something special.
I'm writing a book called "Unusual For Their Time" as a companion to my speaking program. It allows me to tell all of my tales from the road about every location and every first lady that I do not get time for in the live presentation. I will continue to travel and learn about new first ladies that come into the White House. I will also revisit and discover more about the first ladies that I've already covered. My travels were extensive to say the least, but there's always more to learn and discover.
If you look at pictures of Lucy Hayes from when she was a young woman up through the last know picture we have of her sitting on her Spiegel Grove front porch feeding the pigeons, she looks the same – her clothes and hair unchanged. She was comfortable in her own skin and did not let the pressures of Washington and politics change her. This is not something that a lot of people involved in politics can claim. She was a transformational woman whose causes and integrity paved the way for modern day greats.
Jacqueline Kennedy is one of the smartest first ladies. Once during a campaign event, then Senator John F. Kennedy wanted to change his script and finish with a quote from a famous Shakespeare play. He leaned over to Jackie and asked her if she knew the lines. She did and quickly wrote them down for him to save the day and her husband's speech. Her televised White House tour made her the only first lady to win an Emmy award.
Nancy Reagan may be one of the funniest first ladies we have known. She often got criticized for her expensive tastes and Hollywood fashion. She turned the tables a bit and dressed up in a ridiculous outfit for a big Washington dinner to really give the press something to write about. Her "just say no" campaign scored her television and photo ops with the likes of Gary Coleman and Mr. T. It's her ability to ham it up for the camera and laugh at herself is what makes her one of our funniest first ladies.
Many people would say Jackie Kennedy here, but it's Frances Cleveland who first grabbed the publics attention being one of the youngest first ladies in American history. She is the only first lady to get married in the White House. She also started a family in the White House and young children and babies are always a crowd pleaser for the media and general public.
Edith Roosevelt not only kept track of her husband Theodore, but she raised their 6 children and all of their pets. She was intelligent, resourceful, creative, attractive and tough. After Theodore died she went on many extensive adventures of her own, even riding camels through the deserts of Egypt.
Dolley Madison's efforts and accomplishments in entertaining, charitable causes, politicking and legislation are almost unparalleled. Her influence on the White House before her husband was president, during his presidency, long after he was dead and gone are unprecedented and hold up even in today's standards. She even helped transcribe to notes of the first continental congress. During the War of 1812 she physically saved the original portrait of George Washington from being burned by the British.
I think we need to be aware of the first ladies that did things or put policies in place that are still relevant today, and not just the obvious ones we all learned about in school. Dolley Madison, Harriet Lane (Buchanan's niece), and Pat Nixon are all first ladies that left a quiet but significant mark on the country and the position of first lady.
The best cook is hard to pick as many first ladies were known for special dishes and recipes, but the worst cook was Mamie Eisenhower. Hands down. Not that she was a bad cook. She just didn't know how. Mamie was from a wealthy family and her mother told her at a very early age that if she learned how to cook, people would expect her to cook. She only knew how to make two things – fudge and mayonnaise. Ike did most of the cooking and was known for his rooftop White House cookouts.
Martha Washington was not born into the wealthiest family, but in her first marriage she married into it. Her first husband was Daniel Park Custis. Custis' father did not want his son to marry Martha because her family was of lesser standing. However, after a closed door meeting between Custis and Martha, he was convinced that there was no one better for his son than her. Custis' death left Martha a widow at 23. She was one of the wealthiest and most eligible women in Williamsburg and perhaps all of the colonies. If George Washington had never met and married Martha, America would be a lot different.
Eleanor Roosevelt was first lady for 12 years. She wrote a daily column called "My Day" every day of her life during her time in the White House. She wrote books, and traveled the world as the eyes and ears of her wheelchair-bound husband. She was the voice that told the nation about the bombing on Pearl Harbor. She started a business with her lady friends in Hyde Park, NY to teach farmers skills to make money during the off-season. Her voice, image and opinion changed the face of the first lady's office forever.
Many first ladies painted, photographed and created – Caroline Harrison, Lucretia Garfield and Jacqueline Kennedy – to name a few. However, Ellen Wilson is the first lady that had her own painting career apart and separate from her presidential husband. She even missed significant events during her husband's career to attend her own art exhibit's that she insisted be listed under her maiden name to keep it her own, and uninfluenced by her husband's name.
Lou Hoover was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University (and most likely the entire United States) with a degree in geology. She traveled the world with her husband and became fluent in over 7 different languages. She designed two different houses that the Hoovers lived in and a bassinet to hold her sons safely on ocean-liners during their many trips around the world. She created and paid for a school in the Appalachian mountains, even continuing to pay for college educations for the brightest students all out of her own pocket. She helped get American citizens out of Europe as the first world war was developing. She was a renaissance woman who understood foreign and domestic issues with a kind but firm heart.
Julia Tyler was the youngest first lady to enter the White House. Her husband John Tyler was the first vice president to be promoted to president, because of the death of William Henry Harrison. The congress and constitution didn't know how to deal with this situation, because of unclear language in the constitution. Therefore, Tyler was never paid to be president. Julia Tyler threw lavish and expensive parties during her time in the White House, and was openly criticized for it. The only problem with this criticism was that it was her personal money that she was spending.
Helen Taft is the reason we have a first ladies dress collection in the Smithsonian. Two Washington, DC socialites were at a luncheon honoring Dolley Madison when they approached the sitting first lady – Helen Taft – about their idea for a first ladies exhibit. Helen offered her inaugural gown to the exhibit and thus a tradition was born. She is also the first first lady to ride in the carriage next to her newly inaugurated husband from the capitol to the White House. It was her idea to plant cherry blossom trees along the tidal basin in Washington, DC to spruce up the muddy, swampy roadway that existed there previously. Her historical impact on the nation's capital and the way we view and remember first ladies is little known and rarely acknowledged.
Grace Coolidge is one of the most bubbly and smiley first ladies our country has ever known. This stark contrast to her presidential husband "silent cal" stands out in nearly every still and moving picture we have of her. She was a devoted wife and loving mother who was also known as the first lady of baseball. Baseball was one of grace's favorite past times and her favorite teams were the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Senators.
Jane Pierce's only remaining child – her son, Bennie – was tragically killed right before her eyes in a train derailment just outside of Andover, Massachusetts. This happened right after franklin won the presidency. Jane draped the White House, and her husband's presidency in black and gloom. This spawned many rumors of witchcraft and the supernatural that plagued most of her time in Washington, DC.
Abigail Adams was a free thinker and visionary. Her views on civil rights and women's rights were so far ahead of her time that they would be considered progressive even today. She was also very influential in her husband's political career and views. It is amazing to think that this was a woman who was born and lived in the 1700's and was only the second first lady of the united states.
The Tyler presidency produced the most children. President Tyler had 8 children with his first wife Letitia. Letitia was the first first lady to die in the White House. His second marriage to Julia Tyler produced 7 more children, bringing the total to 15. The last son of john and Julia had his last child in his 70's. That man Harrison Ruffin Tyler is still alive, in his 80's and living in his grandparent's house – Sherwood Forest – in Charles, Virgina. I have met and interviewed Harrison about how his presidential grandfather met his first lady grandmother.
Lucretia Garfield was the first wife to openly protect her children from the evils of politics. James Garfield's wildly successful front porch campaign brought tens of thousands of supporters from all over the country to the Garfield's Lawnfield estate in mentor, oh. Lucretia was very diligent about keeping the public away from her children and out of the private parts of the house. Later in life, Lucretia would use part of her widow's pension to establish the first presidential library in the Lawnfield home. The original purpose of the library was to teach her children about their presidential father.