Five Best Books on First Ladies

From a Wall Street Journal story by Rebecca Boggs Roberts headlined “Five Best: Books on First Ladies”:

Martha Washington

By Patricia Brady (2005)

1. Go ahead and judge this book by its cover. Instead of a dowdy matron in a lace cap, Patricia Brady’s biography of Martha Washington begins with a painting that used age-regression technology to imagine her as young and alluring woman in a stylish gown. From that unconventional introduction, Ms. Brady expands into a nuanced and thoroughly researched portrait of our first first lady. This Martha is smart, captivating, independent and even a little sexy.

The Washingtons’ marriage comes through as affectionate and surprisingly equal—Martha never seems to have fallen for the heroic mystique the rest of the nation created around her husband. By focusing on Martha’s happy domestic life, Ms. Brady makes George more accessible, too. “To write only of high points and great deeds is to ignore most of human life and the things that give the greatest joy,” Ms. Brady writes. “Whether riding around the fields to check on the progress of a new strain of barley for George or Martha’s knitting stockings and hemming hankies for her grandchildren.”

A Perfect Union
By Catherine Allgor (2006)

2. Dolley Madison regularly ranks among America’s favorite first ladies. But as Catherine Allgor so capably describes, her reputation was not merely a result of her renowned sociability. Yes, she was lively when James was dull, and diplomatic when he was bristly. But she was also an incredibly adept politician who understood the value of a well-curated public image. “There was Dolley herself,” Ms. Allgor explains, “and then there was ‘Mrs. Madison.’ ”

The public Mrs. Madison was famous for her kindness, easy social manners and open invitations. Dolley pitched her public persona perfectly, and created the role of first lady as a social power. “During her husband’s administration, Dolley emerged as arguably the most famous and loved person in the United States. George Washington was dead, and the rest of the official men identified too closely with one party or the other to inspire universal admiration. In these partisan times, perhaps only a woman could have emerged as a national symbol, a charismatic figure.”

My Memoir
By Edith Bolling Wilson (1938)

3. These days we expect a first lady’s memoir to hit the shelves within a year or two of leaving office. But the first first lady to publish her memoir was Edith Wilson. And it wasn’t right after her husband left office in 1921. Instead, Edith claimed, she watched other political players publish their own accounts of the Wilson years, and grew so incensed by their self-serving revisionist history that she started her own version of events on a train, writing in an indignant frenzy.

Edith’s frank, even snarky depiction of the World War I era earned both praise and criticism at the time, but everyone in politics read it. One review claimed that “in Washington one must read it to participate in the discussion that is carried on in every circle, from the taxicab driver in the street, to the drawing room of the elite.” More than 80 years later, the book is still extremely readable, if somewhat unreliable in its facts. Edith’s witty observations and occasionally unflattering details, sometimes directed at herself, are never aimed at her husband. He remains heroic in all circumstances.

No Ordinary Time

By Doris Kearns Goodwin (1994)

4. There are many excellent books about Eleanor Roosevelt’s life. “No Ordinary Time” is actually a joint biography of Franklin and Eleanor, focused on the window of time from the outbreak of World War II to FDR’s death in 1945. By alternating between the two major players, Doris Kearns Goodwin elevates Eleanor to Franklin’s level of significance and underscores how separate their lives and political roles were at the time.

Their stories take place on parallel tracks, coming together only briefly between their travels in different directions. Eleanor used these rare overlaps to push her husband to be more liberal, more focused on domestic needs, more radical on civil rights. While the president urged unity and wartime sacrifice, Eleanor recognized their limits. “The nation cannot expect the colored people to feel that the U.S. is worth defending,” she told a group of church women after Pearl Harbor, “if they continue to be treated as they are treated now.” Ms. Goodwin argues that this distribution of labor worked for both of the Roosevelts. Eleanor served Franklin’s agenda by spurring him to greater boldness and testing public opinion. He served hers by giving her a global platform for her causes and ambitions.

Lady Bird Johnson
By Julia Sweig (2021)

5. After the glamorous and modern Jackie Kennedy, many Americans dismissed Lady Bird Johnson as an old-fashioned throwback. But Lady Bird was used to being underestimated. She turned the East Wing of the White House into a professional operation, taking on her own policy initiatives and social causes. She was her husband’s most trusted adviser, using her political shrewdness to temper his worst impulses.

But credit was hard to come by. Her best-known effort, a bold environmentalism, was reduced to merely pretty flowers. “I’ll never forgive Lyndon’s boys for turning my environmental agenda into a beautification project,” she said. “But I went ahead and talked about wildflowers so as not to scare anybody, because I knew if the people came to love wildflowers they’d have to eventually care about the land that grew ’em.” One of the reasons she did not receive the credit she deserved is because she constantly played down her own role. At the end of 1968, as her time as first lady was drawing to a close, she wrote in her diary, “I came very late and timorously to the uses of power. I really turned aside from it, half knowing what could be done with the leverage of the White House.” It is clear from Julia Sweig’s book that this was not quite true.

Rebecca Boggs Roberts is the author of ‘Untold Power:The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson.’


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