A Brief History
On April 17, 2018, the United States mourns the loss of former First Lady of the United States and mother of the 43rd President, Barbara (née Pierce) Bush, who died surrounded by family in Houston, Texas at the age of 92. Only one other woman has had the honor of serving as First Lady and also being the mother of a President, and that other fortunate woman was Abigail Adams, wife of second President John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams, our 6th President. Former President George H. W. Bush, the grieving widower, is now almost 94 years old, so far the longest lived man to have been President, surpassing Gerald Ford who died at 93.
Surprisingly, despite her advanced age, Barbara Bush (a descendant of former President Franklin Pierce) was not the longest lived First Lady. That distinction goes to Bess Truman, who died at the age of 97 in 1982. Barbara Bush had suffered from COPD and congestive heart failure as well as Graves Disease for over a decade before her passing. Barbara was the wife of George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States and was the mother of 6 children, 5 of which survive her passing. (The other died at the age of 3 years from leukemia.)
Another long lived former First Lady was Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson (née Taylor), the widow of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Lady Bird died in 2007 at the age of 94, 34 years after her husband!
For a variety of reasons, some First Ladies are more memorable than others. Sometimes because of their tragic circumstances or because of their activism. First Lady Nancy Reagan (née Davis) had been a Hollywood actress before becoming First Lady in 1981. She also lived to the age of 94, dying in 2016, almost 12 years after her husband, Ronald Reagan, died.
Hillary Clinton (née Rodham), is unique among First Ladies for having a considerable political career after serving as First Lady. She has been a US Senator, US Secretary of State, and the Democratic nominee for President in 2016. With a JD from Yale (Doctor of Law), Clinton was the most educated First Lady until Michelle Obama matched that achievement in 2009, also with a JD (Juris Doctor), but from Harvard. Our current First Lady has the distinction of being from Slovenia, having moved to New York in 1996 and becoming a naturalized US citizen, the first ever to serve as First Lady. She speaks several languages and was a major fashion model prior to marrying our current President, Donald Trump, in 2005. (Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, had been born in England in 1775, prior to the establishment of the United States.)
Sadly, Martha Jefferson died 18 years before her husband, Thomas Jefferson, became the 3rd President of the United States, and thus never got to serve as First Lady. Jefferson’s daughter filled the role of First Lady during his presidency. The wife of Martin Van Buren also died 18 years before her husband became President, and like Jefferson, Van Buren’s daughter filled the role of First Lady. Letitia Tyler (née Christian) had the misfortune of having a stroke while First Lady, becoming the first First Lady to die in the White House in 1842. At first, President Tyler’s daughter in law took over duties as First Lady, but then Tyler remarried while still serving as President, to Julia Gardiner Tyler. Caroline Harrison, wife of President Benjamin Harrison, also died in the White House in 1892.
James Buchanan, our 15th President, never married and had his niece, Harriet Lane, serve as First Lady. As the only US President to never marry, historians have speculated that Buchanan may have been asexual or even homosexual, or that he was voluntarily celibate. In fact, Buchanan had courted and intended to marry a girl who died suddenly after she broke off the engagement with Buchanan. (The reason for the broken engagement is not known for sure, but may be due to rumors of Buchanan marrying her for her family’s wealth or that he was involved with other women.)
Dorothea “Dolley” Madison (née Payne), wife of 4th President James Madison, has the honor of being the first American to ever respond to a telegram! Like Martha Washington (née Dandridge) before her, Dolley was a widow when she married the man who would become President of the United States. The spelling of her nickname is debated, and her having been a slaveholder somewhat tarnishes her legacy. Although she lived to the age of 81, Madison was an alcoholic and was troubled by various medical problems. A World War II Liberty ship was named in her honor.
Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel (née Donelson Robards), died after he was elected President but before he was sworn in. Jackson’s niece and then daughter in law served as his First Lady. Donelson was tormented by rumors of her being legally still married to the man that she had separated from, but not divorced, when she married Jackson. The nasty smears against his wife infuriated the mercurial Jackson.
You might think that the youngest men ever to be inaugurated as President would be accompanied by the youngest First Ladies ever, but that distinction goes to Frances Cleveland (née Folsom), who was 21 years old when she married President Grover Cleveland in the White House in 1886. Incredibly, the rumor at that time was that President Cleveland would marry Frances’s mother, a recent widow!
Margaret Taylor (née Smith) wife of 12th President Zachary Taylor, refused to act as hostess and First Lady of the US while her husband served as President, leaving those duties to her daughter, Mary Bliss. “Peggy” Taylor was somewhat of a recluse, and was a semi-invalid, living upstairs at the White House and seldom seen.
Mary Lincoln (née Todd), held séances in the White House, and Nancy Reagan (née Davis) was said to have consulted astrologers in order to give her doddering husband advice! Speaking of giving her husband advice, Edith Wilson (née Bolling) is believed to have acted as the de facto President while President Woodrow Wilson suffered the effects of a stroke in 1919, a situation that continued until Wilson left office in 1921! Edith was Wilson’s second wife, married in 1915. Wilson’s first wife, First Lady Ellen Wilson (née Axson) died in 1914 while Wilson was in his first term.
Of course, there are many other fascinating facts about the many wonderful women that have served as First Lady of the United States, and someday, perhaps soon, we will be writing about the fascinating facts about the First Gentleman of the United States!
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite first lady? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
O’Brien, Cormac. Secret Lives of the First Ladies: Strange Stories and Shocking Trivia From Inside the White House. Quirk Books, 2017.
Swain, Susan. First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. PublicAffairs, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Lawrence Jackson of United States First Lady Michelle Obama with former First Ladies Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, and Rosalynn Carter during the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, on 25 April 2013, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.