On this day in 1923, Grace Coolidge became First Lady. It probably was unavoidable that Calvin came along with her. Yet, she may have been his most redeeming feature. Why would such an attractive, charming woman have married the inanimate Calvin? There was no Coolidge fortune to justify such an apparent sacrifice. The man must have had some charm that successfully eluded the public.
How do I know of Grace Coolidge’s style and appeal? I don’t think that my mother would lie to me. My mother was eight years old when Mrs. Coolidge entered the White House, but even a child could see the contrast between the battleaxe Florence Harding and the lovely Grace Coolidge. And that first impression withstood the passing decades and my mother’s maturing judgment and her Democratic politics.
My mother lived from 1914 to 1992. She was too young to remember either Mrs. Wilson, and she shared the common dread of Flo Harding. You know that she liked Grace Coolidge. Although Louise Hoover was not a common topic of conversation, my mother had one consistent comment about her: “She was a very intelligent woman.” Louise Hoover was a Stanford graduate, fluent in Latin and Chinese, and a geologist by profession; she was in China during the Boxer Rebellion and 30 years later probably regarded that as one of the happier times of her life. (At least her husband hadn’t caused and exacerbated the Uprising.)
My mother revered Eleanor Roosevelt, seeing in her a great heart and the truest form of beauty. Even the charming Grace Coolidge couldn’t compete with Eleanor. Despite her political loyalties, my mother did not like Bess Truman. Did anyone–other than Harry? (Being married to that shrew may have been good practice for dealing with a World War, the Soviet Union, Korea and Joseph McCarthy.) My mother dismissed Mamie Eisenhower as a fatuous dolt; when hearing the rumors of Eisenhower’s infidelity, my mother didn’t blame him.
Would you guess that my mother thought of Jackie Kennedy as the Second Coming of Grace Coolidge? Then you are wrong. Jackie’s breathy voice always struck my mother as phony; no one with a college degree really sounds like that. My mother surmised that Jackie was a fortune hunter, and the Onassis marriage certainly did not refute my mother’s suspicions. But my mother did like Lady Bird Johnson, finding her a gracious lady. According to my mother, Pat Nixon was entitled to some pity; if she was Plastic Pat, being married to Tricky Dick would drain anyone’s soul. Neither Betty Ford nor Rosalind Carter made much of an impression on my mom; being nice and attractive are fairly rudimentary for political wives. However, Nancy Reagan certainly stood out in an ambivalent way. My mother dressed very well herself, and she had to admit that she liked Mrs. Reagan’s sense of style; on the other hand, Nancy was perceived as the evil influence on her husband, the succubus who turned an affable Democrat into a Republican. Unlike the media, my mother did not mistake Barbara’s haute callousness for humor or honesty; my mother–the librarian–had read enough Henry James to identify a WASP dragon. My mother did not live to see Hillary Clinton become First Lady but she might have regarded her as the modern Lou Hoover: “She is a very intelligent woman.”
By the way, in case you were wondering where I got my love of history and sense of humor….