Cormac O’Brien’s book gives brief biographies from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. After describing each woman’s background and marriage to the man who would be president, there are two or three tidbits about “what your teachers never told you.”
Some of these facts I already knew: that Abigail Fillmore (First Lady from 1850-1853) is credited with starting the White House library or that Nancy Reagan (First Lady from 1981-1989) consulted an astrologer. But other “secrets” were new to me.
Take the fascinating story of Louisa Catherine Adams’s (John Quincy’s wife, First Lady 1825-1829) trip from Russia to Paris with her son Charles Francis and a few servants. The journey took six weeks and was one of the most harrowing ever for a First Wife. At one point Louisa used her son’s toy sword to deter marching brigades from attacking her carriage in France (this being the time Napoleon was making his triumphant return). And did you know that Bess Truman (First Lady 1945-1953) sent her laundry to Kansas City for washing because she didn’t think the establishments in Washington could do a good job?
It was interesting to see how many of the wives, particularly at the beginning of the new nation, dreaded having their husbands take on the presidency. But even contemporary First Ladies had their reservations about their new role. Laura Bush was asked by reporters what her concerns were upon becoming First Lady. She replied, “It’s a major life change. I’m not particularly worried about safety. Privacy. I’m very worried about privacy.”
Because the book is set up in short chapters dedicated to each First Lady, you can spend a few minutes reading one or two entries, or a whole afternoon soaking up decades of history. Either way, pick up Secret Lives and brush up on some little-known chapters in America’s past.
Check the WRL catalog for Secret Lives of the First Ladies