Miriam Judd’s letters recall the ‘fundamentally lonely’ life as a congressional wife

November 11, 2013

The Judd family on the Bill Herson Radio Show “Coffee to Congress.” Mary Lou Judd Carpenter stands on the left; seated are her parents, Rep. Walter Judd and wife, Miriam, and radio host Bill Herson (right) in 1947. (Courtesy Mary Lou Judd Carpenter)

There’s a tendency to romanticize political families: The dedicated politician, the supportive spouse, the good-natured kids – always the epitome of the All-American family. More often than not, they say they wouldn’t change a thing.

But would they? An unvarnished look at life as a congressional family comes in “Miriam’s Words: The Personal Price of a Public Life,” the collected writings of Miriam Judd, wife of Rep. Walter Judd, a physican who served in Congress from 1943 to 1963.

“He was never there,” said their daughter, Mary Lou Judd Carpenter. “I asked her, ‘Did you have any regrets about marrying Dad?’ – and she said, ‘No, because I only got 2 percent of his time, but that was so powerful it was worth it.’ But the other 98 percent of the time it was hard for her. . . .He was too committed to following his vision for the needs of the world, and they didn’t start at home.”

That honesty, like so much history, comes 19 years after both parents died. Carpenter, 79, collected her mother’s 2,000 letters and private writings, then edited them into a book partly to preserve the family story and partly to show “the deep human impact and cost of being in the public eye.”

HANDOUT IMAGE: Mary Lou Judd Carpenter with a portrait of her father, Rep. Walter Judd, that hangs at The Fund for American Studies. (Adam Shapiro)
Mary Lou Judd Carpenter with a portrait of her father, Rep. Walter Judd, that hangs at The Fund for American Studies. (Adam Shapiro)

Her mother was a prolific and elegant correspondent, sending letters almost daily to family and friends. Carpenter shared some of the more poignant passages during a reading last week at the Fund for American Studies in Dupont Circle.

Born in 1904, the deeply religious Miriam thought she would be a missionary doctor’s wife when she married Judd in 1932 and moved to China. But the young doctor , alarmed by the growing influence of Communism, returned to the United States and successfully ran for Congress from Minnesota in 1942. He became an influential conservative leader – he landed on the short list to become Richard Nixon’s running mate on the 1960 presidential ticket, and keynoted the RNC convention that year.

During her 20 years in Washington, Miriam threw her life into her three children and volunteer work, especially with the YWCA and Republican women’s groups. There were embassy parties, travel and a seat at Jackie Kennedy’s famous 1961 state dinner for Pakistan at Mount Vernon.

But in a private letter (apparently never sent) to her husband, she wrote: “Now I have at last I have acknowledged to myself that life with you will always be fundamentally lonely. There will be joys in it, and satisfactions and achievements, but the hidden spring that feeds and nourishes it will be a steady, quiet stream of aloneness.” It’s hard to tell whether Miriam Judd was a congressional wife who happened to suffer from depression, or was depressed because she was a congressional wife.

If life in Washington was hard on her mother, it was almost as difficult for Carpenter and her two younger sisters. They seldom saw their father, but were expected to be perfect and never embarrass him. And yet . . .he was so busy that he missed Carpenter’s high school graduation.

But his wife, as always, forgave him. In a 1988 poem she read at her husband’s 90th birthday, Miriam quoted two lines from the poet Sara Teasdale then concluded:

“Deep pride in family, friends; fierce love of life.

These among others will I hold forever within my heart,

your always grateful wife.”

The collection of her writings is in the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard.

This item originally misidentified the author of two lines of poetry as Miriam Judd; the lines originally quoted are by the poet Sara Teasdale. It has been updated.

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