One first lady started the Ball rolling. Another rescued one, and yet another literally stopped the music. Two stopped a swearing-in ceremony. Another accidentally started the tradition of riding to the Capitol with her predecessor, and yet another first lady started the tradition of riding from the Capitol with the president.
Although it is the president's Inauguration Day, Jan. 20 (or, before 1937, March 4) has also been first ladies' day. First ladies have left their mark on inaugurations, and through whims, weather conditions and personality, several even began traditions.
Martha Washington was still in Virginia getting Mount Vernon in order when her husband George took his oath as the first president at Federal Hall in New York City on April 30, 1789. She missed the dance at which he did the minuet with several of the more beautiful women of Knickerbocker society. Abigail Adams was in Massachusetts getting the Peacefield House in order when her husband took his oath as the second president.
It was the flamboyantly rouged, card-playing, snuff-toting Dolley Madison who became the first first lady to witness her husband's swearing-in ceremony, in the new capital of Washington on March 4, 1809. The "Queen of Hearts" also approved the idea of an inaugural ball when approached by her friend Thomas Tingey, head of the Navy Yard. An official committee was formed through newspaper notice and tickets were sold for $4 each in the bar of the Long Hotel, where the ball was held.
President James Madison, solemnly admitted that he would rather be in bed, but he showed up with Dolley as she made her way into the overcrowded hall wearing a buff-colored velvet gown and a turban with two long bird-of-paradise feathers swaying dangerously close to low chandeliers. The dancing commenced at 7, but the first lady, a Quaker, refused to dance. Instead she egged others onto the dance floor. That was nearly impossible as the room swelled with a mob, primarily clustered around Mrs. Madison. The air was so stifling that windows were smashed to allow fresh oxygen to flow in. Dinner followed the dancing, and Dolley Madison rose to new levels of social diplomacy by strategically seating herself between the ministers of warring England and France. Not everyone enjoyed the night. John Quincy Adams noted: "The crowd was excessive, the heat oppressive, and the entertainment bad."
Rain was perhaps the most apt metaphor for Sarah Polk's husband James' 1845 inauguration. A prim and forbidding Calvinist, she refused to allow music and dancing in her home. The steady rains of March 4 turned the papier-ma che' floats into lumps of paper. There was a run on umbrellas. People standing ankle-deep in mud trying to hear Polk's low mutterings fled for shelter. It was miserable, but Sarah Polk was undaunted, carrying a paper fan with portraits of the first 12 presidents painted on it.
That night there were two balls. The first, at Carusi's Hotel, cost $10 a person. As the Polks entered the room, there was no trouble when the music and dancing were suddenly halted in deference to Sarah Polk. The second ball at the National Theatre had a huge temporary dance floor built over the orchestra seating. Baltimore shopgirls had come en masse to husband-hunt at the relatively low cost of $5 a ticket, and bands played loud polkas and waltzes. President and Mrs. Polk arrived at 10. As Sarah Polk made her way to the front, the music was again stopped and the dance floor cleared. For several minutes the Polks greeted dignitaries. The shopgirls got restless. The calls for resumption of the music began. Sarah Polk visibly tightened. To calm the crowds, the music was struck up. The first lady was not pleased. The Polks ate quickly from the supper tables behind the curtained stage and left for their new home. The wrath of "Sahara Sarah" could not change the will of shopgirls.
Franklin Pierce's 1853 inauguration was particularly miserable without his wife Jane. Just two months before the inauguration their only living child, 11-year-old Benjamin, was crushed in a train accident before their eyes. Jane Pierce, a slightly religious fanatic, believed God took Benjamin so Pierce would have no distractions as president. Then she discovered that Franklin lied to her about his supposed disinterest in gaining the nomination for and winning the presidency and, angered, she refused to come to Washington for his inauguration. Mrs. Pierce had also planned to give him a locket with strands of Benjamin's hair to wear next to his heart as he took the oath, but now she held back and turned him away. A day that should have been a hopeful beginning soured to a mournful dispirited event. The ball was canceled. That night, the new president found no servants or sleeping arrangements in the White House. He retired in the gloomy, dark mansion alone on a mattress.
Early on the morning of March 4, 1865, his second Inauguration Day, President Abraham Lincoln was signing documents in the Capitol Building. At noon he was to take the oath on the building's East Portico. He stayed late into the morning. Meanwhile, back at the White House, a parade escort was organizing to lead the way for President Lincoln in his carriage from the Executive Mansion to the Capitol. However, unknown to the paraders, he was still in the Capitol. Mary Todd Lincoln, a nervous and ambitious first lady, began fretting. She could not break protocol and leave without her husband. Word was sent that rain clouds threatened to force the ceremony indoors and ticket-holders were already filling the Capitol. Mrs. Lincoln decided to enter the closed presidential carriage and wait for the president.
At some point soon after 11 o'clock she realized that Lincoln was not going to be returning to the White House. Impulsively, she demanded that the driver speed up the street to the Capitol and forget about the parade escort or else she would miss the swearing-in. Crowds saw the carriage zooming to the hill and, assuming it was Lincoln, cheered the first lady as if she were president. This tipped off the parade marchers who quickly formed ranks and began the march up Pennsylvania Avenue. The ceremony was held outdoors as planned, and Mary Lincoln was proudly present.
The Gilded Age, dawned with the inauguration of Rutherford Hayes on March 5, 1877, and heralded a new era of "ladies of the press," a growing group of women journalists who flocked to Washington in large numbers after the Civil War. It was therefore appropriate that a woman like Lucy Webb Hayes represented their "New Woman Era." Lucy Hayes was the first college-educated president's wife and a savvy politician who refused to serve liquor in her home.
As she appeared on the inaugural stand for her husband's swearing-in ceremony, a title previously expressed only in letters and conversation became nationally circulated. Lucy Hayes, as reported by Mary Clemmer Ames, was not just a "Lady of the White House" or "Presidentess" but "the first lady of the land." Other writers picked up on it and the press thereafter began referring to presidents' wives as first ladies.
Mrs. Hayes' personal appearance also attracted great attention. Rather than dressing in the Victorian vogue of ruffled, sleeveless gowns and frizzed, puffed hair adorned with jewelry, Lucy was dressed with a high neck and long sleeves, and her black hair was tightly pulled back in a bun, as she smiled to the heavens. It was quickly labeled "Madonna" chic, and from that point on, journalists would begin to cover and report on the presence of the "first lady of the land."
First ladies have reacted in a wide range of emotions at their husbands' inaugurations. The young and ravishing Frances Folsom Cleveland, who, in 1886 at 21, married the 49-year-old bachelor President Grover Cleveland in the White House, was sad and determined when her husband lost his race in for reelection in 1888. As she departed the White House she told the staff, "Now, I want you to take good care of everything -- the furnishings, the china, the crystal, the silver. I want to see everything just as it is now when my husband and I move back in here precisely four years from today."
She did return, becoming the only first lady to serve two nonconsecutive terms. The 1893 inauguration was her day. On several occasions, in front of many people, the popular first lady happily burst into a very un-Victorian display of affection by throwing her arms around the president and kissing him in public. Frances' successor, Ida Saxton McKinley, was very different, though no less determined in accomplishing what she saw as her duty. Mrs. McKinley, a fragile epileptic, insisted nevertheless in fully participating in and witnessing all of her husband's 1897 inaugural events.
Special elevators were run for her, paths were cleared and she was always carefully watched. Everything went fine until the ball at the Pension Building. The crowds and the climbing of stairs proved to be too much, and in the middle of her grand procession with the president, the new first lady, in diamonds and a blue and silver gown, fainted. The crowds were shocked, but neither they nor the press openly discussed the epilepsy. Years later, when Mrs. McKinley's inaugural gown was sent to the Smithsonian, a wine stain was found, which she had acquired when she fell.
The snowstorm of March 4, 1909, when William Howard Taft was inaugurated, was perhaps the worst of those that have hampered the auspicious day. The ambitious Helen (Nellie) Taft, whom her husband frankly admitted wanted the White House more than he did, was beside herself in fretting that her inaugural gown would not arrive because of the stalled trains coming from New York.
She nevertheless took advantage of the day's weather when outgoing President Theodore Roosevelt decided not to ride back with Taft, as was traditionally done. "Since the ex-President was not going to ride back . . . I decided that I would," she later wrote. "No President's wife had ever done it before, but as long as precedents were being disregarded I thought it might not be too great a risk for me to disregard this one. Of course, there was objection. Some of the Inaugural Committee expressed their disapproval, but I had my way and in spite of protests took my place at my husband's side." Nellie got her gown, and started a tradition followed by nearly every first lady since then.
Even first ladies get their heads turned at inaugurations. Ellen Axson Wilson said she was "naturally the most unambitious of women and life in the White House has no attractions for me." She and her husband decided against a ball, considering it frivolous. But when Mrs. Wilson stepped out onto the East Portico of the Capitol for her husband's 1913 swearing-in ceremony, she became suddenly mesmerized by the swarming crowds beneath her. She changed her direction and headed right up to the railing, stepping onto the speaker's podium, staring. When she snapped to, Ellen returned to her appropriate seat. At the solemn moment when her husband Woodrow was taking his oath, she stood up on her chair to get a better view. Later in the evening she and her daughters ran through the rooms of their new home. Evidently she had lost her indifference.
If Nellie Taft was the woman who started riding back with her husband from the Capitol, it was the equally domineering Ohio matron, Florence Kling (Duchess) Harding, who began the tradition of riding to the Capitol with the outgoing first lady. In this case it was unfortunately President Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling Wilson, whose dislike for "Duchess" was barely hidden. Florence and Edith were drastically different. Mrs. Wilson was tight-lipped, swathed in furs and slow to reply to Mrs. Harding's bragging. Mrs. Harding had a large, blue, feathered hat, highly rouged cheeks, a velvet dog collar with a diamond sunburst around her neck to hide wrinkles, fur pieces loaded on her shoulders, pince-nez eyeglasses and tightly marcelled gray hair.
As they pulled out of the White House, Mrs. Harding wildly waved to the reporters and cameramen along the way. "They're my boys!" the former business manager of the Marion (Ohio) Star assured Edith, who treated her eccentric successor with staring silence. When their car arrived at the Capitol, following their husbands', Mrs. Harding quickly jumped out and ran up the staircase, right behind her husband. As Warren G. Harding delivered his address that day of March 4, 1921, Mrs. Harding listened carefully. Earlier she had helped him prepare the text, and strongly vetoed his planned references to America's possible consideration of a League of Nations.
Harding, as usual, obeyed the Duchess when it came to politics. It was no secret that she was the driving force behind his rise. Indeed, Mrs. Harding was the first to admit it. When the new president and first lady arrived at the North Portico of the White House after the ceremony, Florence turned to Warren and imperiously asked, "Well, Warren Harding, I got you the presidency. Now what are you going to do with it?"
Grace Coolidge and Lou Hoover were friends. They spent Herbert Hoover's March 4, 1929 Inauguration Day together giggling, gossiping and laughing. They were escorted together, rode together and sat together during the swearing-in of Charles Curtis as vice president in the Senate gallery. It was after that that things got confusing. Outside on the East Portico in the rain, the seats for guests witnessing Hoover's swearing-in filled quickly. Hoover was there. Coolidge was there. Chief Justice William Howard Taft was there. The Cabinet, the congressmen, the senators, the justices were all there. The crowds stopped cheering and stood waiting for it all to begin.
The swearing-in of a president was being delayed. Suddenly two embarrassed-looking and giggling women appeared at the back of the stand and obediently took their places with all the nation's eyes upon them. Grace Coolidge admitted, ". . . we nearly missed this part . . . I began to feel a little uneasy and finally I heard the Marine Band strike up 'Hail to the Chief' and I made a break and grabbed Mrs. Hoover saying 'Come on, I'm going.' We made a joke of it . . . Well, of course, we arrived in due season, but we should have been there before." They had gotten lost in the Capitol.
In the confusion and waiting for the tardy first ladies, Hoover's plans to have the Bible turned to the Sermon on the Mount were mixed up and it was inadvertently opened to Proverbs 29:18, which read, in part, "Where there is no vision the people perish . . ."
From her first days as first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was different. Her independence and her husband's reliance upon her were amplified throughout March 4, 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took the first of four inauguration oaths. The day before the inauguration, she and her friend, Lorena Hickok, visited the famous Saint-Gaudens statue, "Grief." They sat there silently and then Mrs. Roosevelt spoke quietly, as if she were there alone.
"In the old days when we lived here, I was much younger and not so very wise. Sometimes I'd be very unhappy and sorry for myself. When I was feeling that way . . . I'd come here alone, and sit and look at that woman. And I'd always come away somehow feeling better. And stronger. I've been here many, many times."
Early on Inauguration Day morning, Eleanor slipped unnoticed out to Connecticut Avenue to walk her own dog, and contemplate her new career, which she initially feared would inhibit her. When the Roosevelts made their way to the White House to ride to the Capitol with the Hoovers, FDR was unable to get out of the car. It was Eleanor who went forward to meet and chat with the Hoovers before all three returned to the cars and the ride to the Capitol. In the first ladies car, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Mrs. Hoover what she would miss the most. Mrs. Hoover told her the servants, the travel arrangements and having everything done for you. Eleanor vowed to herself that she would never be so dependent.
The bank holiday was declared by the time Franklin Roosevelt arrived in Washington and Mrs. Roosevelt seriously worried when she herself was low on cash and unable to get more from a bank. When she told her husband on Inauguration Day, he smiled and said it would be taken care of. "I began to realize then," she wrote, "that there were certain things one need not worry about in the White House."
After Roosevelt was sworn in and gave his speech, the large crowds went wild. The new first lady found her sudden responsibility to the people "a little terrifying. You felt that they would do anything -- if only someone would tell them what to do . . . It must be willingness to accept and share with others whatever may come and to meet the future courageously." That night Democrats enthusiastically planned their first inaugural ball since 1893. FDR let it be known, however, that he and the first lady would not be attending. Cancellations began pouring in, and the hopeful New Dealers were visibly disappointed.
To avoid disaster, Mrs. Roosevelt said that she would be coming on her own. And she did, saving the ball and becoming the only first lady to attend a ball without the president. The next morning she was running the presidential elevator for herself, and moving around heavy furniture. The staff stood back in shock. They had never known a first lady like this.
At Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1957 inaugural ceremony, a young Washington reporter of the Washington Times-Herald noted that "Mamie's lively laughter could be heard far back in the crowd . . . while Mrs. Truman sat stolidly with her gaze glued on the blimp overhead through most of the ceremony." On Jan. 20, 1961, that writer, Jacqueline Kennedy, was the undeniable star attraction at her husband's inauguration, but there were other first ladies there.
In fact, more former, present and future first ladies were gathered that day than at any other event in history. Former first ladies Edith Bolling Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower, and future first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, the new vice president's wife; Patricia Nixon, the former vice president's wife, and Betty Ford, congressional wife, were all on the inaugural swearing-in stand along with the Kennedys on the East Portico.
The night before, Mrs. Kennedy, escorted by Frank Sinatra, had made a fabulous entrance at the inaugural gala. It had been no easy task. The heavy, unrelenting snowstorm forced the Kennedy limousine to travel to the Armory, where the gala was held, by police radio instructions on a slow zigzagging route through the city's few cleared streets. Crowds gathered in the biting cold to catch a glimpse of the young Mrs. Kennedy, and the president-elect instructed the driver to "Turn on the lights so they can see Jackie." At the gala, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt even got on stage, performing with Helen Traubel and Frederick March in a reading entitled "A Moment With Lincoln."
After Mrs. Kennedy herself, her clothing was the main focus. In contrast to all the women on the inaugural stand in furs, Jacqueline wore a simple beige outfit designed by Oleg Cassini. She also wore a pillbox hat. That beige hat began a fashion immediately followed by American women.
That night Mrs. Kennedy wore a classic white ensemble, with a dramatic white cape and a misty white chiffon sheath over a silver-embroidered bodice. Although her delicate health (she had been through a serious cesarian operation just two months earlier) prevented her from being present at all four balls, the effect had already hit.
Those few days prior to the inauguration, and her appearances on Inauguration Day, were the first lady's first constant exposure to the media as a bona fide public figure. The daily attention to her clothing became unprecedented. Double-stranded pearls, bouffant hairstyles, simple sheath dresses, off-the-shoulder gowns, bulky sweaters and -- yes -- pillbox hats became the first fashion boom of the early '60s.
Rosalynn Carter was very much a part of the planning of her husband's 1977 inauguration. Jimmy Carter asked her advice on his plan to have the first family walk down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol as Thomas Jefferson had. Like Florence Harding, she was also consulted on the inaugural address, examining all past presidential addresses and making her own contribution by suggesting a reference to the American family.
Having risen very early on the morning of the inauguration, she worried about her hair being short, and she fiddled with large curlers to see if they would make a difference. In terms of appearance, however, her hair was not the focus of the media. Her ball gown was. The new first lady, for sentimental reasons, wore the gown she appeared in when her husband became governor of Georgia.
That, however, was not her secret for staying warm on the particularly cold Inauguration Day. As Mrs. Carter marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the cutting wind, she was snugly heated by a hidden pair of skirt-length thermal underwear.