Season 2: Episode 9: Were the First Ladies just wives?
With the First Ladies Man
Kelsie Eckert 0:05
The Remedial Herstory Project is a nonprofit working to get women's history into the K to 12 curriculum to help us meet our goal. We produce media lesson plans, and so much more. Check it out on our website, www.remedial history.com. The Remedial Herstory Project is funded through grants and by listeners like you. Please head over to patreon.com and become a supporter of the Remedial Herstory Project. YouTube can help us reform education and allow women to be seen heard and complicated. In particular funds from patrons added from here on out will help us launch a crash course YouTube channel on women's history. We will be producing short 10 minute videos that educators can play in their classes telling women's history from era to era for both us and world history. Let's make herstory together.
Brooke Sullivan 0:55
Kelsie Eckert 0:56
Brooke Sullivan 0:57
Want to tell everyone what's happening in today's episode?
Kelsie Eckert 0:59
In this episode, we are going to be talking to Andrew Och, the First Lady's Man about the first ladies who were in power or whatever their role, whatever power of the first lady at the turn of the century in the early 1900s.
Hello and welcome to Remedial Herstory: the other 50%. The podcast that explores what happened to the women in history class. Now here's your host, Kelsie Brook Eckert and her partner in crime, Brooke Neva Sullivan.
Kelsie Eckert 1:35
In this episode, we are going to be asking one question, which is, were these first ladies just wives? Or was their role much bigger and their power much bigger than we traditionally have shown them to be in the classroom? So, were first ladies just wives and to join us in answering this question we've invited Andrew Och, the First Lady's Man to come on our show again. So let us start by having him introduce himself.
Andrew Och 2:05
My name is Andrew Och. I'm the First Lady's man and I call myself the First Lady's Man because I had the good fortune of being a series producer for the C span White House Historical Association television series, called First Lady's influence in image and for that series with seven bags of gear cup, you know, with a camera a couple microphones and some lights. I pinballed across the United States go into every library, church schools, cemetery, birthplace, train station. You name it for every first lady from Martha Washington to then Michelle Obama. My studies now continue up to and through Dr. Jill Biden. And I just I came out of the backside of this project just like the Rain Man of First Lady's, and everyone just wants to know more and more and more, and it's so much fun and wonderful people like you and groups like yours. Make this adventure that's much more fun. So let's, let's dig into some first ladies.
Kelsie Eckert 3:00
This podcast is sponsored by our patrons. Patrons get access to behind the scenes, regular rhp gear, bonus episodes, insights into our research lesson plans before everybody else and more. Brooke, read off these awesome people.
Brooke Sullivan 3:16
Thank you to Jeff, Barbara, Christian, Kent, Jamie, Jenna, Nancy, Megan, Leah, Mark, Nicole, and Sarah, Alicia and Katya.
Kelsie Eckert 3:26
Do you know what is so awesome about this particular group of people?
Brooke Sullivan 3:30
Kelsie Eckert 3:30
That very few of them are actually educators. These are bad ass people who care so much about equitable and inclusive education that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is.
Brooke Sullivan 3:42
Kelsie Eckert 3:43
Brooke Sullivan 3:44
Kelsie Eckert 3:44
Yeah, so cool. You too can become a patron of the Remedial Herstory Project by heading over to www.patreon.com and becoming a sponsor of the Remedial Herstory Project for just $5 a month. That's it. That's one latte. But I mean,
Brooke Sullivan 4:02
But I mean it's, it's one of something but it's cheap. And you get all that stuff!
Kelsie Eckert 4:07
All that stuff. You too can give up one latte for 1000s of children and women.
Brooke Sullivan 4:14
You could also buy condoms for more than you could perhaps you could reduce reproduction for less than that.
Kelsie Eckert 4:25
Brooke most importantly, instead of lamenting that women's history isn't being taught in high school or that they didn't know these women. These people are putting their money where their mouth is and they are getting it in to the curriculum by funding us.
Brooke Sullivan 4:39
It's awesome. And they believe women's stories are important. Yes, thank you.
Kelsie Eckert 4:43
Duh. Thanks, patrons. We love you.
Brooke Sullivan 4:46
We do love you
Kelsie Eckert 4:49
Now these first few ladies are really interesting because they are in the office at the time when the United States is pretty dramatically expanding it's global influence, and they are hosting more dignitaries from around the world. And I'm just feel like this is a really fascinating time to be a First Lady. So without further ado, can you tell us about these women?
Andrew Och 5:17
Funny. It's a great question when you said, you know, you know, would you like to talk about lesser known women of modern times, we'll call it because it's the, the, the, the 20th and 21st century, you know, the 1900s, on through the 2000s. And and I started out speaking about these women before anyone asked me to speak about these women, because I got questions about Hillary Clinton. And I got questions about Nancy Reagan, and Jacqueline Kennedy and Martha Washington, and the ones that you would suspect the ones that we think we know so much about, or we think we know everything about, and those questions are going to come whether I talk about them or not. And so I start talking about these women that you wouldn't think to ask about, or you wouldn't already know about or think that you know, about, because maybe you don't even know their names, you know, and that's valid, that's understandable. And then at the end of my speech, someone would always raise their hand say, you didn't say anything about Jacqueline Kennedy? And I'd say, well, because I knew you would. And people would always laugh. And they'd say, Well, you're right. Someone is gonna ask about Jacqueline Kenny. Somebody is gonna ask about Nancy Reagan, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, you know, Nancy, the modern ones, that we all know that the big the big 10 I call them are the big 20. But you know, one thing that I always do when I speak about this next First Lady, is I'll say to the crowd, I'll say when I say Roosevelt, you say.
Kelsie Eckert 6:39
Andrew Och 6:42
It's so great. And that's what I'll say, Well, you're right, but you're wrong, because there is another Roosevelt. And it's Edith Roosevelt, its Theodore Roosevelt's wife. And here's the crazy thing. She is as quietly influential in so many ways, as her counterpart, Eleanor Roosevelt becomes later on, more publicly into everyone. Now, the interesting thing is that she's such a transitional woman, because she's taking us from the Victorian age, to the modern age that we know now, we're going from the 1800s, to the 1900s. She's the first, First Lady of the 20th century. She's got some Victorian elements to her style, to her demeanor. But she's got a modern way of looking at things in a modern way of looking at the world. And one thing that she has to deal with, which is very important, is the safety of her children. And she's got a large family, she's got six kids, seven, if you include Theodore, which I do, because he was just a big kid that she had to wrangle. But she jumps into the White House after an assassination, you know, people back in the day, the White House was more of a revolving door, you could walk onto the lawn. Secret Service wasn't as as defined or developed. And, and it was just so much more than people's house. And that's how these people got close to these presidents and stuff. And and coming from the McKinley administration, where there were no children, to an active Roosevelt administration, where there's six children and every animal under the sun, they were fascinating to the American public. So, what Edith Roosevelt taught me was how modern first ladies would deal with the public and the safety of their families. Because we also have to remember, these women, for the most part, 90 to 95% of these women are mothers, or grandmothers, and they are raising children in the public eye on the world stage in front of the White House, you know, in front of the TV cameras now and things like that. So, keeping all this in mind, Mrs. Roosevelt hired a a cosmopolitan, well known photographer, to take a bunch of pictures of the kids holding various pets in different places on the lawn, in different outfits and all this stuff. And she would kind of leak these to the press, and to the magazines. Every time we the people got itchy for a story on this active crazy wild family that we wanted to know about. And she would put these out, and it's really fascinating to see in the beginning of the 19. I mean, these are the 1901 1902,3,4 you know, single digit 1900s, not, not modern times at all. And she figured out a way to manipulate the press in a way that would keep her family safe, but keep the public happy with their access to this family. Now this expands also even into the structure of the White House. We all know what the White House looks like. It's on the back of money. It's on, you know, every news broadcast. And we know when they walk across the backlawn. He knows what it looks like, when you look at the White House and you'll never look at it again differently after hearing this. You are looking at Edith Roosevelt's White House. She created the East Wing and the West Wing. She created an office branch which was the West Wing where business would be done, an East Wing where socializing and a state dining room will be done. Because the middle part the section that that was built off of the original structure of the White House, that was the family residence, she needed room for these people. And other first ladies with large families were not able to get that kind of money out of Congress to expand and they didn't see the need. But as they were moving forward to the 1900s it's also gave her a chance to get it back to that classic, almost almost a Roman style architecture and interior design that maybe the Adams' would have recognized that they had they walked in because that that, that how gosh, I can't remember the name now escapes me. Not revivalist not Republican. That would make sense but something with an R was a classic not Roman, but the style of the day. It wasn't it wasn't Victorian, whatever came after that is what it started out as it started out as that classic the pillars and stuff was not Spartan. And not Quaker, but the design and everything it wasn't all the gold and all the filigree and and all of the the Tiffany windows and things that went in during the and chandeliers and things that went into the Victorian age, it was just a much more classic style. I know it I know I say it in in the Roosevelt chapter of my book I'm stumbling on
Kelsie Eckert 11:20
Is it Romanesque architecture or
Andrew Och 11:23
It is but there's another there's another name for it if I didn't and a
Kelsie Eckert 11:26
Andrew Och 11:28
No, I know it's gonna drive me nuts. But that's that's why she's so important. You know, and, and she was such such a, you know, after she was done taking care of her children, and she had children that were in the military, and that died in wars and Foreign Service. I mean, she was not without struggle, not without strife, not without pain. She's Theodore Roosevelt's second wife, Roosevelt's first wife, Alice died giving birth to their first and only child, Alice. So, the oldest of those six children is a stepchild to Edith, but she raised her as her own, certainly. And she's just a remarkable woman that after Theodore Roosevelt was gone after he had died. And the children had grown the surviving sort of era, she gets a passport and she travels around the world. There's fantastic pictures of her riding camels in Egypt. She was also she didn't go into the jungles of the Amazon with Theodore Roosevelt. But she was down in South America, when he went on his river of downpour. She's just an incredibly remarkable woman. And she's responsible for the modern day footprint of the White House, and how these children are sort of she sort of led the blaze the trail for how to keep children a little bit private, a little bit safe, and a little bit protected in the public eye. And yet, you know, nine 9.99999 times when I say Roosevelt, people will say Eleanor, and Edith gets forgotten because Theodore is such a huge, huge character. But that doesn't mean she's not a big character itself. Just a remarkable and remarkable woman.
Kelsie Eckert 13:01
It sounds it and I was forgetting the name of his first wife. But there's that's a really powerful story that the PBS documentary talks about where she she dies in childbirth, right? His mother dies, also. Correct?
Andrew Och 13:17
The same day. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he was he was not with her when she died. He was not with her for the birth of her daughter. He was out being Theodore Roosevelt. I think he was doing something political at the time, and was called out of town and she was going to give birth or maybe she gave birth a little earlier than expected. Who knows? There's a lot of first ladies that actually we'll talk about one coming up in a minute. I don't want to spoil too much that die of kidney disease, I think kidney disease, sometimes surrounding pregnancy and other things in those early, mid mid to late 1800s on up where I it's it's strange that that that more than one first lady dies of Bright's disease, which is a kidney disease. And that's what Theodore Roosevelt's first wife Alice died of, as well.
Kelsie Eckert 14:03
I know that initially, he sends his daughter who's the product of that birth. To live with like a sister to be raised. Does Edith Roosevelt eventually raise that other daughter, or is she raised by another sister?
Andrew Och 14:21
No, no, she did. She did become her her mother or stepmother or whatever. Alice was quite a character. Alice liked to drink booze and drive fast cars and smoke cigarettes and hang out in nightclubs and places around Washington DC. She was not afraid of having her picture taken on the camera. She was a real she was a real pistol. But But Roosevelt was so distraught by the death of his wife, it goes back even further. Edith Roosevelt or Edith Carow is her name Edith Kermit Carow. She was a friend of the Roosevelts they live together in New York City kind of next to each other. It hasn't been proven true and it hasn't been proven false. But there is a picture of Lincoln President Lincoln's funeral procession going through New York City, and in what is in all likelihood, the window of the Roosevelt's home. They know that where they live, young Theodore and Edith Carow are looking out the window. They're in there if you zoom in, but but no one's been able to really definitively say with 100% certainty that it is or it isn't. But the bottom line is, they were childhood friends. And then they they dated for a while, before Roosevelt before Theodore went off to Harvard. And no one knows where I haven't read or it hasn't been revealed to me why they broke up, or why they stopped seeing each other. But Roosevelt went off to Harvard, fell in love with this woman, Alice got married, had the got she got pregnant, had the baby died in childbirth. And then Roosevelt took off and went to the west to become a rancher. And he left Alice to be raised by his sister because he couldn't stand the fact that his daughter was named Alice. And it was the name of his dead wife and too much sorrow, whatever. So he basically kind of ran out on her as a child, but left her with a family member. And then later on, he comes back and what rekindle that flame between Edith and Theodore I it's not written or known I, not, to me anyway, of what got them back together. But they got back together, figured out, you know, that they had loved each other all along, got married and had five more kids. And when they came to DC as the new president, and moved all those kids into the White House, Alice certainly came with them and was present in Washington, DC. And Alice Roosevelt goes on to live a very, very productive and active public life. And is, is quite a quite a figure and an known character herself throughout her entire life.
Kelsie Eckert 16:53
The next lady that you have on your list, here is Helen Taft. What, tell us her story.
Andrew Och 16:59
Yeah, here's your story. Her name is Helen Taft. And a lot of people don't know that. You know that William Taft. I mean, of course, he had a wife. I mean, most all of them did. Not all of them, of course. But Helen Taft is so significant to the First Lady's story. What is the first thing you think of it as an item, something you can hold, or touch? Or when you when you hear the word First Lady, what's the first thing you think of?
Kelsie Eckert 17:25
Oh, I feel, gown probably I think
Andrew Och 17:29
That's the number one answer.
Kelsie Eckert 17:30
Andrew Och 17:31
If we're playing Family Feud. I know I put you on the spot. People listening to the interview, they can't see. Your face was like, oh, boy, what's he doing to me? Gown. Gown and dresses. And there's a good reason for that, because of the Smithsonian Institute's, you know, first lady's display in the American History Museum. Now, a harder question, one that you probably couldn't answer, at least not before today or right now is who donated the first gown? And I answered this, I asked this question, and people have all kinds of Martha Washington, a financier. She's number one. Why wouldn't she be? That's wrong. Dolly Madison, a fashionista? Great answer wrong. Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt. All of these great, great answers. No, the first, First Lady to donate a dress to the Smithsonian Institute's collection is Helen Taft. And she gives them her inaugural gown. There's a two two very prominent and forward thinking. Accomplished Women are going to put together the first, First Lady's exhibit in the Smithsonian, and to raise money or raise awareness or just celebrate the whole thing. They're throwing a luncheon in the honor of Dolly Madison, Dolly Madison, not alive at the time. But this was in the 1919 10-11 area. And Helen Taft is the sitting First Lady. And of course, she's at this luncheon with all these other women, the society women and these these these these women of great thought and forward thinking, and they said, "Mrs. Taft, you're the sitting First Lady, we have to have something from you to put in this." And she gave them her dress. And she could have given them anything she could have given them a hat she could've given them gloves, a family bible, a letter, a school book, shoes, jewelry, China, anything, anything in the world, but she gave this dress and now moving backwards in time and up to current day. I don't think Jill Biden has given her dress yet. But Melania Trump's is certainly there. Michelle Obama's certainly there. We have a dress, either inaugural or otherwise to represent every single First Lady of the United States. And in 99.9% of the rooms I speak in 98% of the time, the the first answer out of people's mouths are dresses, gowns, inaugural gowns as the first thing and this is the world over. People come from around the world to think now the crazy thing about Helen Taff becoming First Lady is she was so influential and this gives you an idea of how influential these women are not just after their husbands become president. Before in their careers in their lives in their professional lives, their personal lives. William H. Taft wanted to be a judge and he was a judge in Ohio. All he wanted to be was a judge. He wanted to be supreme court justice and a judge in the supreme all he wanted. Well, he struck a deal with McKinley, that he would go over to the Philippines and be governor of the Philippines for a while straighten out the mess that was going on over there, come home and get a seat in the Supreme Court. Well, while McKinley died, McKinley was assassinated, and so went, Taft's Supreme Court nomination, and he went to Roosevelt, it was basically like, hey, you know, I had this deal with Willie, I was gonna be a Supreme Court justice and Roosevelt's like, I don't know what you're talking about. He's like, Come on, dude. Be cool. I want to be a judge. He's like, No, I can't, you know, it's not gonna happen. So then Roosevelt that says, he's not gonna run for another term, a third term as president, because he was he was he was promoted into his first term from Vice President under McKinley, into the presidency. And then he ran him on his own, and he wasn't gonna run again. And so the Republican Party said, Taft, you got to be the guy. He's like, I don't want to I don't really want to be the guy. I just want to be a judge. And Mrs. Taft was like, no, no, no, you're going to be president. We came to Washington, DC, so you can be president. We were governor of the Philippines so you can be president. And here's why. Mrs. Taft when she was a young girl named Helen Herron, Nellie was her nickname. She was sent off to spring break or summer break, or some kind of, you know, holiday vacation in school off to see her father's law partner for that. But you know, your parents send you to summer camp, or go stay with your aunt and uncle for a weekend or go live with your grandparents for the summer and you know, get out of our hair. It's kind of like that. So they said, well, you're gonna go live with your father's former law partner. He lives in Washington, DC. He happens to be President Rutherford B. Hayes, and he lives in the White House. So, Young Nellie, Taft, as a teenager is walking around the White House at Spring Break going like, I can get used to this. I want to come back here. I want to live here someday. This is fantastic. And she realizes her dreams and marries a man who maybe didn't want to be president, but became president. And the funny thing is halfway, maybe a quarter of the way through the election, Roosevelt decides Theodore Roosevelt decides that he does want to run and they're like, well, no, Willie's our guy now. So you can't run. He goes, Oh, yeah, I can. I'm Theodore Roosevelt. I can do whatever I want. So He forms the bull moose party runs, and loses eventually. But it's during this whole exchange that Roosevelt decides he's not going to ride in the carriage on the way back from the Capitol, to the White House, after the inauguration, and who's sitting there to take that empty seat? And as it's been sitting in it ever since, was a first lady was Helen Taft, of course, she wanted to ride in that carriage. She's also the first of only two women. Two First Lady's not women to First Lady's to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. And any president, military member President, as you know, Commander in Chief, and his wife can be buried in there. So it makes sense because they did love Washington, DC so much. I should mention also, Taft does become supreme court justice. He's the only president to become a Supreme Court justice after the White House, which is an interesting little tidbit. But they love Washington. They love politics. They love the Supreme Court. And they love the White House. And so that's where they stayed forever. And they're the first president and first lady to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. So another First Lady, oh, she also almost forgot, she planted the first cherry blossom tree. And there's a great story behind that. But people come from around the world to Washington, DC, to see the cherry blossoms there's a parade. There's a festival I've played in bands that have played the festival, you know, it's just it's part of DC. It's part of our culture here. And it's because Mrs. Taft had seen all these cherry blossoms when she was over in the Philippines along these Riverside parks, and she gets to DC and it's a bit of a swamp. And the title basin is just a mess. It's a dirt road and, and not much improvement has been done to it. So she decided she's going to plant these trees down there and beautify it, which she does. And some of those original cherry blossom trees are still there. As you're standing on the roof, at the title basin and looking directly across the Jefferson Memorial, you look to your left and you can see the Washington Monument right in there where the oldest and first trees were buried were planted. So you know so many First Lady firsts for this first lady and one of the iconic images of Washington DC the cherry blossoms and the image the thing the item most people associate with First Lady's their dresses, all because of Helen Taft, who is a woman that we would not name typically, if we were naming 5,10,15,20 First Lady's. So very, very important woman with so much so, so much influence and contribution not only to the White House and her husband's life in administration, but to our modern world in our nation's capital.
Kelsie Eckert 24:59
Yeah. I have been I've been to her gravesite in Arlington. It's
Andrew Och 25:03
Kelsie Eckert 25:04
Yeah, it's a beautiful spot, kind of like on the hill. To the right. Yeah,
Andrew Och 25:09
Yeah yeah. You know exactly where it is.
Kelsie Eckert 25:10
Yeah. Yeah. Oh my gosh. Well, she's just incredible. And I, I, you know, I have never actually been to DC during the cherry blossom time period. So I need to come down and see them in bloom.
Andrew Och 25:23
Yeah, you need to be here, like last week or now is, but you know, there's, that's a good thing. They've been coming back for, you know, over 100 years now. So they'll they'll, they'll be here next year, and the year after
Kelsie Eckert 25:35
The next person. Well, you've got a dual, which is very similar to the Roosevelt situation with Allison, Edith, you've got now Ellen and another Edith Wilson.
Andrew Och 25:46
Correct. And Ellen Wilson is the is the third and hopefully final First Lady to die in the White House. And she died of Bright's disease, a kidney disease that she was an older woman at the time. So this did not surround childbirth, so I can't make that correlation. But um, she she was not in the White House very long. She and Wilson had three daughters. She was the first lady of Princeton University, as as Woodrow Wilson was, was president and living in the Prospect House there. And something very, very interesting about Ellen Wilson. Well two things really, the rose garden in the White House where we see presidents entertain all kinds of foreign dignitaries, all kinds of special events, press conferences and things go on. That rose garden is there because of Ellen Wilson, she planted the first rose garden at the White House. And this was because at the Prospect House in New Jersey, they had a beautiful garden, and you could see it out of the every window of the back of the house, especially Wilson's office, and their bedroom, and the children's bedroom upstairs, and the dining room and the back parlor and things like that. And that garden is still there today in Princeton at the Prospect House, Mrs. Wilson wanted as beautiful view for her husband and her family as they had at the Prospect House. So she took the White House Gardener by train up to Princeton, showed him the garden and brought him back down to DC to lay it out and put it out there. Sadly, she died before it was completed and in full bloom and things like that. But she knew that it was it was being done. She was an artist. She was extremely talented artists, and for a woman in the in the late 1800s. Into the early 1900s. Well, no, no, it would have been before she was married, they were they were married, I would I would have to look at the date. But but just judging by when they were in the White House, she would have been she would have been married in the late 1800s. So a woman in the late 1800s. She had her own career, she had a she had an art career, she had art exhibits, under her own name that she did not want to be associated with her husband. She wanted to make her own her own name for herself and she did primarily landscapes, and still life with flowers and fruit bowls and things like that. But very, very accomplished. They've got a wonderful collection of our art at the Wilson Museum in Stanton, Virginia, which is a beautiful, beautiful little town in the mountains, which I recommend getting to highly, lots of neat little boutiques and antique stores in a nice little Main Street and stuff and a nice museum there. And they do a nice job representing the president and both of his wives. But but just to know that even a first lady that we don't remember, because when you think of Wilson, if you think of Wilson's wives, you think of Edith Wilson, his second wife, who was there for the long hall in the White House, and made more of a mark, I'll tell you why in just a moment. But, Ellen Wilson should not be discredited because even if you don't know who Ellen Wilson is, even if you don't know who Edith Wilson is, even if you don't know who half of these first ladies are, you probably know what the Rose Garden is, because you hear about it on the news all the time, and you see it. So, we have Ellen Wilson to thank for that. She also was very concerned about the poor, and minorities and the slums when she was in the White House. And one of the things that Wilson did in her name was to finish a to finish a bill make sure that a bill got through Congress that was providing a better better living conditions, environment and and, and inner city resources for for poor and minority folks in Washington DC. And you know, that's just another thing that we don't think of people as being maybe that that culturally sensitive around those times, you know, we think of these as all sort of modern inventions of civil rights and, and equality and things like that. But there were people thinking about it. You go back to even even Abigail Adams said that slavery was wrong. She knew from the very beginning and had very strong opinions about women and people of color and different religions and things like that. So, there was these broad minded and forward thinking people all along, they were just in, you know, severe minority at the time. But Ellen Wilson was very concerned about the poor and less fortunate. And there was a congressional act and law enacted in her name for that. So, um, you know, definitely when you think of Wilson, you know, think think of think of more than just Edith and Wilson, his oldest daughter, Margaret, and Ellen would have been Margaret's mother, Margaret sat in as the official White House hostess in between his two wives. And that's another important thing to remember is that, you know, these women, these first ladies, they, they don't have to be the wife. I mean, there's no law. These women are not elected. These women are not paid. There is no job description. There is no law in place that says the wife of the president has to be the first lady. She doesn't. She can bow completely out if she wanted to. And Wilson, Woodrow Wilson, President Wilson is the last most recent and a modern day President that had a woman who was not his wife, as a first lady or official White House hostess for a period of time until he married his second wife Eden, which makes Edith very important because she comes in as the last second wife of a modern day President that we would have seen this happen to be because his wife died in the White House. Now Edith...
Kelsie Eckert 31:28
How long like is he in that singledom period? And how does dating as a president?
Andrew Och 31:36
Great question. Such a great question. It's so it's not very long. I you know, it's it's it's less than a year, before he meets Edith Bolling Galt was her name and she was a widow as he was a widower. And the story of why she came to Washington DC is so great. I tell it in great detail in the books of course, but the teaser is basically she was from a very small town Wytheville, Virginia. If you go down 83, here in my neck of the woods, kind of Wytheville right off to the right hand side as you're going south, probably about halfway through Virginia. It's a neat little town. But um, Mr. Mr. Bolling, Edith's father was on the wrong side of the Civil War. He was a very prominent and wealthy man in a Confederate world and the union won and he lost everything. So, they moved above the store that he owned, and they had two grandmas and probably 10,15 some kids living in a one bedroom house above this general store type of place, almost like what we would call a strip mall. And, and in this small town, an older man had taken a shine to to Edith Wilson thought her quite lovely. And Mr. And Mrs. Bolling did not like the man. So they sent Edith, young Edith off to Washington, DC to the big city to go stay with her sister for the summer, who had moved to the big city for job and husbands and life and opportunity. And she fell in love with a jeweler while she was there. Mr. Galt, who was a very successful society jeweler, they fell in love with married. Galt died, right around the same time that Ellen Wilson died. And I guess they kind of traveled in the same circles or some friend of Edith or friend of Woodrow said, I got this lady you should meet and they did in a very quiet, elegant ceremony at a friend's house in Washington DC, got married and then announced that they were married and this was the new First Lady and she moved in. But here's the thing. Edith Wilson had no children. Wilson's children were all grown and all Edith Wilson did was folks you get highly highly intelligent woman very very in tune with politics very embedded in planted in Washington DC and the big city and the political world around her and she was Wilson's right hand man right hand woman. She was his confidon. They in the evenings they would collect all the papers from the day all the briefing papers and all the things and put them in this carrying case it's still in their Georgetown, their Georgetown, Washington DC home, it's like a it's like something you would expect to see on a desk like a file cabinet like a small file cabinet with a handle on top wooden with with metal poles on the the handles a beautiful piece. And they would take all the papers and stick them in there and then go upstairs to the residence and pull the papers out and lay him on the floor and put them out and then prioritize them. So Mrs. Wilson was a prized aware involved engaged in top secret information during wartime. I mean like she did she all of these women have this access when they go to bed, when they close the bedroom door. Whether they're back in the day sleeping in two beds right next to each other or sleeping in one big bed together, they are in the bedroom married to and sleeping with arguably the most powerful man in the world. When you get home, your husband says, How was your day honey? And you tell him when I get home, Heather asks me how was your day I say, Oh, I did this fantastic interview tonight. The Herstory, folks, they're great. They're fantastic. We, they promoted me and Instagram and they're fantastic. Well, when when a president comes home, and his wife says, How was your day they say well, Russia's at it again. Iran is a real pain in the neck. The economy's in the toilet or everything's going great. And man, you're not going to believe what's gonna happen with rockets and NASA. I mean, they just have access to all this information. Martha Washington was there during the planning and execution and wintering encampments of the Revolutionary War. These women are in these rooms and in the situation, Rosalynn Carter was in nearly every cabinet and committee meeting that happened in the in the Carter White House at the request of her husband, Ida McKinley did this for William McKinley back in Ohio when he was governor. It just it's just it comes with the territory, Bess Truman, for World War Two was in on decisions about dropping the bombs. She's in the room. She's part of these conversations. We know this stuff happen. Nancy Reagan planning you know, Reagan's schedules and all the things especially after the assassination attempt. So Edith Wilson is in on all of this during very, very crucial times period, wartime she is there when Woodrow Wilson suffers a stroke, a debilitating stroke. He ducks out of the public eye for about six months. And this is so crazy that in the 19 teens, that they could tell the American public and the American government, President Wilson is tired. He needs to rest. President is a hard job and everyone says, Okay, that makes sense. And so nothing got through the bedroom door to get to Woodrow Wilson who was incapacitated. He could not he could not move. He could not talk he could not function. Nothing saw into that bedroom that didn't go through Edith Wilson first. There are documents at the Wilson Library where he assigned things now she says she's doing this at the at the request of the President and on his behalf. But he was incapacitated. It's in her handwriting. She signed diplomatic appointments. She told people what they could and couldn't talk about in Turkey at the time because there was some more time hubbub going on over there. And in one of the most significant letters I read, it said the President's plan this is from from the President's doctor, to a cabinet or administration member. The President's plan to retire does not please Mrs. Wilson, we have to come up with a different plan. She wouldn't let him retire, she thought if he retired, he would give up, he would die. She wanted to give him something to live for. And it worked. He survived. He did not go to Congress. And and I mean, they staged interviews, and release things to the press during these six months as if Wilson had done it himself. And it just didn't happen. It was Edith Wilson orchestrating all this and like a good political wife, like the you know, the series, The Good Wife or a political, you know, the quintessential political wife, especially at the beginning of the 20th century. She says it was all done with Wilson's knowledge. And all she's doing in her long life. She long outlived her husband is this granddom of Washington, DC and the Democratic Party. She she all she did was preserve and, and, and and promote her husband's legacy and her husband's work and said that he was involved in all took no credit for herself or anything. But we know that she was doing it. We know. So she's she's she's actually the first unofficial female president.
Kelsie Eckert 39:00
Would you agree with the analysis that maybe one of the reasons the League of Nations was unsuccessful was just because of his stroke? And he wasn't able to go and like advocate for that? Or do you think she really was or do you think it was just like not a popular piece of legislation at that moment? Because of isolation and isolationism?
Andrew Och 39:24
You you you would have to think that that his stroke had an effect on that. How profound I don't know, that's not my area of expertise. But I mean, you know, if, if, if even back then I mean, like now if we don't see a president for 24 hours, like walk across the lawn to the helicopter, go, you know, on vacation, playing basketball or getting a Hawaiian ice or, you know, slushy or taking his kids to McDonald's or riding bikes or jogging or walking his dog, we go crazy. Back then a president could disappear for six months, but still, he's got to be in the room for stuff like that and significant moves like that. So I think that probably did suffer a little bit because of that, for sure. I don't see how it couldn't.
Kelsie Eckert 40:04
Wow, she's incredible. So she lives into into the 20s. To see all the later women come around.
Andrew Och 40:12
She lived into the 60s she actually there's a great story. So so when she when she when Edith Wilson left the White House with Woodrow Wilson and moved into this beautiful Georgetown townhouse brownstone, she took some chairs with her, and their Elizabeth Monroe chairs, Jacqueline Kennedy came along, years and years and years later, but Edith Wilson is still alive. And I was told this story by by Edith Wilson's great nephew, who was there when this happened. This is the kind of access I had during this time. It's ridiculous. I even say I say it out loud. I can't believe it. I talked to a man that was in the room when Mrs. Wilson had Mrs. Kennedy the sitting First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, over to the house and room where I was standing in for breakfast for brunch. So, Jacqueline Kennedy was was restoring the White House at the time. And I guess someone had told her, hey, you know, there's some Monroe chairs over in the Wilson house, you might want to try and get. So, she goes over to the house and says, basically, you know, I hear you've got some chairs that may belong to the White House. And she goes, Oh, I you know, I took some of our furniture and stuff with us sure. She said, Well, I hear that they're blue monroe chairs. Yes, yes. Yes, they are. Are they these chairs that were sitting in? Why? Yes. Yes, they are. They're beautiful, aren't they? Well, can I have them back? Can I take them to the White House? No, you can't I, they came with me. And they're staying with me. And this is before the White House was established as a National Historic Landmark. And that the artifacts in there, you know, I mean, now, people get in trouble. They take stuff from the White House, you used to not get in trouble and people didn't really care. You know, China sets disappeared, sculptures, all kinds of things. They're like, hey, it was a gift to me. Now, if it's, you know, over 20 bucks or something, you know, they can't keep it in ridiculous. In fact, the Bush 43 library in Dallas, is the whole lobby, it's beautiful, beautiful. It's the newest, greatest, you know, one in the fleet, you know, so the next one, the Obamas, after that'll be that much better as everyone one up each other. But if you walk into the lobby of where the information desk in the center of the the museum and library is there in Dallas, it's lined the walls of this beautiful white marble, granite are lined with these cases. And in the cases are all these gifts of state, these sculptures, these these necklaces, these of just just the opulence and the wealth of these, that these foreign leaders come and give these presents to these first ladies and presidents and they can't keep them and we own them. And the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States federal government owns these things that belong to We The People, and they're they're on display because they were technically given to the Bush's but they're not allowed to keep them or have them. So they're just holding them for us. And they're there and but they're there. They're there. They're amazing. They're made I saw a Nativity scene with camels and carriages and stage just I mean, I couldn't even I couldn't even begin to put a price on it there. I mean, you can go you can go to the to the Wilson house in Georgetown today and see the Elizabeth Monroe chairs sitting there because they're because they never went back to the White House because they belong to the Wilson house. You know, possession is nine tenths of the law. It's how there's, there's an original best Truman White House portrait in the Truman house in Independence, Missouri because best Truman took it with her when she left. Lady Bird Johnson tried to get that back from Mrs. Truman called her on the phone. And Mrs. Truman said no, it's a picture of me. It's in my house and its staying there. And Mrs. Truman lived to be 98 years old, the longest living First Lady, and there's her painting and her grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel told me that story as we were standing in his grandmother's living room, looking at the original White House painting. So, if you go to the White House, or you go to the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, and you see a portrait of Mrs. Truman of best Truman, know that it is a replica painted by the original artist, because Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson had to hire the artist to repaint the thing because Mrs. Truman wouldn't give it back. Oh, great. Love Mrs. Truman for that.
Kelsie Eckert 44:24
Oh, that's too funny. Oh my gosh, it's interesting because for them this is like part of the legacy you know, and part of the privilege of being doing all that service for our country.
Andrew Och 44:35
Yeah. And I agree with that, I'm not saying they should be able to take you know, big stuff or expensive stuff and where do you draw the line, but hey, man, if a lady wants to take her own painting out of there, or a couple chairs, I'm okay with it.
Kelsie Eckert 44:48
So the next person on our list is Grace Coolidge
Andrew Och 44:52
Going kind of long, and I'm long winded and I'll try and I'll try and wrap up these last two kind of kind of quickly. But but but Grace Coolidge is, is it's just a wonderful human being. And a lot of people don't think of Calvin Coolidge even as a president. He's not one of the big ones that people typically talk about or remember certainly has his fans in his place. But even less than is the wife because she's not the elected official. We don't remember the wives as much as we named the presidents and things like that. Grace Coolidge went to the University of Vermont, and she studied education for the deaf, and the blind, more specifically, the deaf, and this is in the late 1800s. So, this woman was so forward thinking, especially in education, that she focused her attention and her learning and her teaching on a special needs group. And that's just takes a unique person. It takes a very unique person. She met Calvin Coolidge there. He's from Plymouth Notch, Vermont, and she's from the big city. She's from Burlington. She's a cosmopolitan girl, and he's a farm boy. Well, after college, and after law school, they both found themselves in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was teaching at the Clark School for the Deaf. And he was renting a room in the dormer, of the Clarke School for the Deaf, because he was working as a law clerk for one of his relatives, just kind of getting his his feet wet in law. And the two of them is almost like star crossed lovers saw each other across the courtyard and decided to start a courtship and that lasted a lifetime. And, and, and, and they were they were a perfect match. One was one was silent and gruff, and all business and Grace was all smiles and fashion. She was known as the First Lady of baseball. It was her favorite sport. She was a she was a scorekeeper for the men's baseball team at the University of Vermont. And she loved going to opening day and the American League would give her these beautiful it's also one of my favorite fashion periods for First Lady's the Empire period. She was a little old to be a flapper at the time and and dress a little more age appropriate but still that empire that that post flapper roaring 20s vibe is just such a great era for fashion of all different kinds of men, women, dresses, hats, jewelry, clutches, purses, wraps, the the worst shoes, and Mrs. Coolidge, Grace Coolidge was was easily one of our and will always be one of our best dressed First Ladies. She was just always dressed to the nines. And the American baseball league would give her these little clutch purses with a little gold charm in it and the gold charm would give her access to American League baseball games for free, she could go to any game she wanted for free and she was one of their biggest fans, and just between just the fun loving style of her the love she had in her heart for her family and animals. And that that special person that it takes to do something that most people don't do or wasn't popular, difficult to do. She had Helen Keller is a guest to the White House. There's tons of pictures online. It's a beautiful moment and Helen Keller has her her hands on Grace's mouth because she's reading her lips with her hands because Helen Keller deaf and blind was of great interest to Mrs. Coolidge given her past with with working at the Clark School for the Deaf, but a truly selfless person that just wanted to make the world around her a better place and, and help people less fortunate than her.
Kelsie Eckert 48:32
That seems like a funky relationship because the Coolidge is are very conservative and Helen Keller is socialist and in a lot of ways. So that's it's interesting that they despite those sort of political differences, were able to bond over this charitable and wonderful work that she's doing.
Andrew Och 48:53
But remarkable back in the day that people could have their own separate opinions and politics and still be friends, isn't it?
Kelsie Eckert 49:00
Andrew Och 49:03
We can we could, we could take a page we could take a page but you know, if you if you believe so passionately about something as human as education or education for someone with what was seen at the time as as as a disability or labeled as a disability, or something that certainly in the in the early 1900s people there was not a lot of access to education for people with special and different needs. So if you have that in your heart, you can set certain other political views and things that maybe aren't as important aside to have a friend and make some progress.
Kelsie Eckert 49:39
So the next person you have on your list here is Hoover.
Andrew Och 49:45
Yeah, Lou Hoover. I you know, it's it's funny. A lot of people may remember the Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue. Well, this is this is a girl named Lou. Lou is not short for Louise. She, her name is Lou Henry Hoover. I've held her college degree from Stanford. Her father wanted a son and got a daughter and named her Lou, and raised her to shoot guns and bows and arrows and trips to the deserts of California, looking for lizards and flowers and writing essays. But, Lou is one of my favorite humans I think, in reading her essays and thinking about the things that she thought about in the places that she goes, she's a self made her along with her husband self made. multimillionaire they're the first administration. Washington didn't take a salary. But it's the first modern day or the first administration after Washington, not to take a salary, because they didn't need it. They didn't want it. And they did more philanthropy and more good for people that most people will never hear about or know about during their world travels. They were in China during the Boxer Rebellion. They were in Australia mining for gold. They did work with Pewter in London around the time of World War One. And they use their own money to get us citizens and ambassadors and diplomats and they're more importantly, their families out of Europe because they were there. They knew what was going down in World War One, and they had no expectation of getting paid back for this. And when when government couldn't move fast enough, they took and privatize their own money to get these people out of there into safe houses and get them proper transportation and get them back to the United States where it would be safe. And this This lasted all throughout their lives. And one of the greatest stories of the Hoover's is they Well, they bought their own summer White House. They bought a huge stretch of land in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, beautiful Hoover, the Hoover's and their two sons and said it was one of the most beautiful views and places they'd seen the world over. And they've been around the world probably 10 times in that in by that time. So they bought this house and they built it. It's one of the one of the two houses that Lou designed with no architecture degree, just just just a knowledge and a can-do attitude. She helped draw off the plans for it and design some some very special features in windows and porches and other things. She spoke Lou Hoover spoke seven different languages. Most of them self taught any of these places. She went live, she learned the language, picked it up. She's the first woman in America to graduate with a geology degree. That's where she met her husband. And that's what took them on at Stanford. They met at Stanford University, and traveled around the world together in precious metals and gems. They were both geologists from from Stanford University. And she's the first known woman to graduate with a geology degree in from Stanford, certainly, and in all likelihood, the United States. So they find themselves at Rapidan camp in the Shenandoah Valley on the President's birthday, and a little boy wanders into camp, and he's got a cage and in the cage, he's got an a possum, and he's giving this to the President for his birthday meal. Says, This is what we do in these parts. Mr. President, we heard you birthday. Here's your dinner. He's like, Oh, wow. I'm sure he said something like well, and you know, the two sons are probably like geeze louise that probably possums like the sharp teeth and hissing and the rat tail and everything. So they probably said, Oh, well, we already cooked dinner tonight, but we'll eat him tomorrow. You know, maybe let him out the back door I always imagined or something like that. But in any event, Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Hoover rather, says where do you go to school? I said, Oh, we don't have a school. She goes Oh, so do your parents teach you how to read writing is no no school no homeschooling, no teaching. We don't read. We don't write we don't know. So once again, the Hoover's take their own money. They build a school. Then they staff the school pay for the salaries of the teachers. Then the students with aptitude and the desire and the ability to go on Mrs. Hoover paid for their college educations. We know this, because when Mrs. Hoover died in her desk, they found in one of her drawers, a box and in the box. Were some checks that some of these children who were then young adults, tried to pay Mrs. Hoover back for the college education she provided them and she refused to cash the checks.
Kelsie Eckert 54:10
That is fascinating.
Andrew Och 54:13
I've told this story before publicly and I've cried because it's just it's selfless. The Hoover's came from nothing. President Herbert Hoover is the second orphan president to be elected in America. The first is Andrew Jackson. Hoover went to Stanford University. One because he was smart. Two, because he moved in with an uncle, family member. They lived in California and you could get a free education if you were in state. You could get the free college in California even back then. So he went there because he had no money. And Mrs. Hoover went there because that's where her family had moved from Iowa. Again, it's kind of like the Coolidge's strangely enough. I forget where where Lou Hoover was born in Iowa but but Herbert Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa. His childhood home is there his birth home his boyhood home, is there on the grounds of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Museum. And Lu Hoover was born somewhere in Iowa as well. Hoover went to California for the college education and to stay with an uncle because he was an orphan. Lou Hoover moved there with her family because your father was trying to get into banking or part of the gold rush or some such. Were going there for fame and fortune or whatever you go to California for maybe just because he liked the weather, I don't know. But they ended up in California. They end up at the same school, they end up in geology class together. Hoover proposed to her via telegram while he was in Australia, mining gold, took a steamer ship back, got married, they had a two day honeymoon, hopped on a steamer, went back to Australia to start working and start mining gold. Their collections from around the world are beautiful, but they never forgot where they came from. And they were taking care of people from from from their entire lives, their entire lives. And all we remember the Hoover's for is Herbert Hoover was there during the Great Depression and didn't get elected to a second term because he couldn't solve the greatest depression in the country's economic history. No one could they were the perfect people at the perfect place just in the wrong time.
Kelsie Eckert 56:11
Yeah, because I mean, Hoovervilles, right? They name all these little slums after him. That's sort of like an insult. And it's fascinating that story, because the takeaway that I had from that is he doesn't, you know, he doesn't see that it's the government's role to bail the economy out. And he's doing like, not a lot. You know, you by contrast to Roosevelt, who comes next and
Andrew Och 56:37
Right, right, right, right, right, right.
Kelsie Eckert 56:38
But yet, the story that you just told is this, like very human, very generous version of this couple.
Andrew Och 56:45
There are more than two sides to every story. And if you go back, and that was what was so incredible about this whole experience is that I got to read, and see and hold and walk and touch these people's lives. I'm grateful for it. I know that, that no one, no one that I've found has done what I've done. And I don't say that in a boastful way. Because it wasn't my idea. It was CSPAN idea, the White House Historical Association idea, I was at the right place at the right time, not like Uber. And I got to know these women, in a way they made me the first Lady's Man. I didn't set out, I didn't go to college to be a history major. I didn't go to college to be a women's studies or an American history or a first aid expert. I was in my a latter part of my television career even when I got this job. It wasn't even like the first thing that I went running for. It's just, it sounded interesting. It sounded like a bunch of people that we don't know a whole heck of a lot about, especially before the White House, you know, growing up, we know what they did is First Lady's documented. And we know what a lot of them went on to do afterwards, to a certain extent, but we didn't know the whole story. We didn't get the beginning to these stories of what made these women what turned these women into into girlfriends and wives of these men who would become president. And then even after I sign on the project, I had no idea, no idea how influential all of these women were in their husbands lives. It's not just Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, Jacqueline Kennedy. It's it's all of them in one way, shape, or form. And then an administration that if you know anything about them, you know the bad things because of the Depression, to find out that the Hoover's saved the lives at their own expense of of hundreds of US citizens. And they're credited. At one point in time, Belgium was the only place in the world that had a statue of an American president outside of the US, because Hoover kept the Belgian lace industry alive during World War One. It just the stuff that they did in other play, I mean, we just we weren't over informed like we are today. We didn't have the technology, the communication, the documentation, the preservation, the mass communication, the telecommunication, the recording, elements and technology that we have today. So, you just you didn't commonly know these things, and you hear something like Oh, yeah, Hooverville Hooverville, depression, what a jerk. He didn't bail out the whole country. And maybe that's not the entire story. There's some truth, you know that the truth lies somewhere within he probably could have or should have done things differently. I'm not a Great Depression scholar or a Hoover scholar. I'm a First Lady scholars, and I know a heck of a lot about Lou Hoover. But but, you know, there's there's definitely more than meets the eye to all of these women.
Kelsie Eckert 59:42
I am so grateful for Andrews expertise and his passion. And I just think it's really powerful to learn about these women from somebody who cares so much about sharing and ensuring that their legacies endure through time. I also think that this is really powerful for us to provide anecdotes in our classrooms to improve the way that we teach about these presidencies to include, you know, this is a presidency. And with that comes a cabinet and a team and that team includes the First Lady is vital to that team, these powerful women, I just think he does such a good job. And repeatedly, you know, makes very clear that this is not an elected position that these women sometimes didn't even sign up for this and yet they do it anyway, which is kind of the service that women are always doing. So, I'm so grateful to Andrew for coming on. And I just feel like we all have gained so much knowledge about these about these powerful and interesting women in the US history. So thank you again.
Thanks so much for listening to Remedial Herstory: the other 50%. Please subscribe, rate and review wherever you listen to your podcasts to bring more voices to the conversation. We really appreciate that effort. Until next time.
Andrew Och is an Award Winning television producer who has traveled the world in search of provocative stories and adventures. In 2012, He began an historical journey as he traversed America for over a year documenting the lives of every First Lady of the United States for the C-SPAN series *First Ladies: Influence And Image.* The series aired in 2013 to great acclaim and helped reveal the untold stories behind the ladies of the White House.