Most of their hearts belonged to daddy.
Historians ponder the influence of first ladies on their husbands, but the influence some other men had on the the wives of American presidents may have been just as important. The fathers of first ladies were a mixed bag: immigrant sandal maker (Eliza Johnson); general-store owner (Lady Bird Johnson); Denver meat packer (Mamie Eisenhower); New England riverboat inspector (Grace Coolidge); Loyalist landowner (Elizabeth Monroe); religious fanatic, preacher and Bowdoin College president (Jane Pierce). Only three (the fathers of Julia Grant, Caroline Harrison and Nancy Reagan) lived to see their little girls grow into first ladies.
How these women performed as first ladies, how they viewed their marital roles and what they became interested in later in their lives often can be directly linked to dad.
Martha Washington's father, British immigrant John Dandridge, was a tobacco and wheat planter who, legend says, introduced her to the royal court life of colonial Williamsburg.
The erudite and politically savvy Abigail Smith Adams owed much of her keen mind to her father, William Smith, a popular and liberal Massachusetts minister. A Harvard grad in theology, Smith encouraged Abby to read not only Shakespeare, Pope and Locke in his large library but also political theory.
Maryland-born Joshua Johnson was a successful exporter in London by the time his daughter, Louisa Catherine, married the dour New Englander, John Quincy Adams. But within two weeks after the wedding, the promise of inherited wealth abruptly ended as Johnson lost a large East India Co. trading ship at sea, plunging him into financial disaster.
Johnson's bankruptcy not only obligated his son-in-law, but his son-in-law's father, President John Adams, who appointed Johnson superintendent of stamps in Washington.
While the Adams family may have found Josh a thorn, Louisa adored her father and was proud of him. According to Louisa, Johnson was less than impressed with the crusty John Quincy Adams. "He always had a prejudice towards the Yankees, and insisted that they never made good husbands," she wrote.
Tennessean Joel Childress, though a man of limited educational advantages, saw to it that his daughter, Sarah Polk, and her sister, Susan, went to a private school for what it could offer them, "not only in its more comprehensive course of study, but in that deeper, keener, intellectual quickening that comes from fellowship in culture," as Sarah later wrote. Sending them off to North Carolina in 1819, Joel Childress gave his daughters each a gold coin, worth about $4.84, as a parting gift. Susan spent hers, but Sarah was already learning to be tightfisted. She kept it as a remembrance of her father. In her old age -- she died at age 71 -- spry Sarah Polk became an outspoken supporter of equal education for women.
Mary Todd Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln often joked that God was happy with one "d," but the Todds wanted two) was strongly attached to her gentle and understanding father, Robert Smith Todd. Mary was closer to him than any of his other children, and it was he who sparked and encouraged her curiosity in politics. An avid Whig, Todd had his hand in Lexington, Ky. banking, farming and manufacturing, but his lifelong interest was politics. Mary learned to use her sharp tongue to express the boldest and most unladylike of pointed political opinions, fostered by her father. When she married the poor, gangling lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, nearly all the Todds opposed it, feeling she had married far below her station. Only Robert Todd stood behind Mary's decision.
One of the toughest old birds of the first ladies' fathers was Col. Frederick Dent, Julia Grant's pater extraordinaire. An unabashed, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, Dent owned vast property in St. Louis and many slaves. He never held his tongue. Julia recalled that when someone questioned his loyalty at the polls, he "swore a blue streak at him, refused to vote, and threatened the poll guard with a caning."
During the Civil War, while his son-in-law was desecrating Dixie, Dent argued nonstop with Julia about the constitutionality of secession, and how the whole war could have been avoided. "Good Heavens! If Old Jackson had been in the White House, this never would have happened. He would have hanged a score or two of them, and the country would have been at peace. I knew we would have trouble when I voted for a man north of the Mason-Dixon line," he said.
When Ulysses Grant became president in 1869, Dent became the first father to see his daughter become first lady. And he moved himself into the White House without any hesitation. Julia Grant always deferred to her father, who had an opinion on everything, including the china (which he found "coarse" and refused to use, so Julia had to buy a new set for him). Most mornings he sat around the president's reception room, offering unsolicited advice to anybody going through. He said his Republican son-in-law "was really a staunch Democrat, but did not know it yet." Dent died at the age of 89 in the White House and his funeral services were held in the Blue Room.
Florence Mabel Kling Harding's relationship with her father was a tempestuous one. Amos Kling, one of the richest man in Marion, Ohio, was tyrannical and used to getting his own way. For his first child, he wanted a son and instead got a daughter. The feud began from the moment she could answer him back. She broke his curfews, stayed with friends when he barred her from coming home too late, climbed out her bedroom window when he forbade her to go out.
There was a practical side of Amos Kling, however. He thought it vitally important for Florence to be able to manage money and make investments, so whenever he was doing the books, he had her at his side. She became one of the best businesswomen who ever lived in the White House, personally managing Warren Harding's investments and working as the business manager of his Marion Star newspaper.
Where Florence's choice of husbands was concerned, Kling was less agreeable. He strongly opposed her marrying a local ne'er-do-well, Pete DeWolfe, and refused to attend the ceremony, assist her financially or even acknowledge the sudden wedding, which came about out of necessity. After DeWolfe abandoned Florence with a baby son born six months after the union, Kling softened and offered his daughter her old room. Equally proud, she refused, gave her son to her parents, who acted as foster parents, and hung a shingle outside her rented room, advertising piano lessons.
When she and Harding, editor of the Star, began courting, Kling was furious and did all in his power to ruin the newspaper and stop the marriage. Running into Harding one day at the local court, Kling threatened to shoot Harding's head off if he continued his engagement with his daughter. Florence and Harding ignored the edict, and Kling, in time, reconciled with them, particularly after Warren's political fortunes rose.
From the earliest she could remember, Eleanor Roosevelt was closely bonded to and influenced by her father, Elliott Roosevelt. According to Eleanor, "from all accounts I must have been . . . a less attractive baby than the average -- but to him I was a miracle from Heaven." Although a chronic alcoholic, the playboy-sportsman Roosevelt shared his father's great concern for the poor and underprivileged of New York. Her memories of him are faint but glorious: his acting as gondolier on a family trip to Venice, throwing pennies into Mount Vesuvius, riding donkeys in the countryside.
It was, however, his concern for the less fortunate that impressed Eleanor most deeply. "I was five or six when my father took me to help serve Thanksgiving dinner in one of the newsboys' clubhouses . . . My father explained that many of these ragged little boys had no homes and lived . . . in empty lots, or slept in vestibules . . . or public buildings or any place where they could be moderately warm . . . "
Eleanor was 10 years old when word came that the wasted Elliott had died. "I simply refused to believe it . . . I wept long and went to bed still weeping . . . " His memory lingered with Eleanor forever. "He called me 'Little Nell,' and I never doubted that I stood first in his heart . . . He was the center of my world . . . He dominated my life as long as he lived, and was the love of my life for many years after he died . . . With my father I was perfectly happy."
In the private quarters of the Kennedy White House, there stood a handsome kidney-shaped table used as a desk. Of all the priceless antiques Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis collected for her White House restoration, this desk was the most important piece. It had belonged to John Vernou Bouvier III, her beloved father. Although her parents had divorced when she was 11, Jacqueline and her father remained extremely close. Many of her passions and interests -- horseback riding, for one -- stemmed from his influence.
A cultivated and dashing figure in New York society, Bouvier passed on to Jacqueline tastes and an interest in art, museums, history, fine antiques, classics and French heritage. Jacqueline once recalled that one of the most thrilling moments of her young life was when Bouvier, a member of the New York Stock Exchange, took her to the gallery there.
When Jacqueline became seriously involved with then-senator Kennedy, she arranged for her father to meet him. Though a staunch Republican, Bouvier got along well with Kennedy, and he happily approved of their marriage in 1953. Four years later, while six months pregnant with their daughter Caroline, Jacqueline coped with her father's sudden death by making all of his funeral arrangements.
A native Alabamian, Thomas Jefferson Taylor was a man who owned not only cotton gins, but two general stores, over which hung a sign, "T.J. Taylor, Dealer in Everything." His wife died young, and as Taylor raised his little daughter, Lady Bird, they became inseparable, and he filled a role her mother had. "He said something to me about 'I'm so sorry you're lonesome and don't have anybody to play with. Do you want me to read to you?' It was just like he had suggested something magical. I didn't even know he could," Lady Bird said in an as-yet-unreleased oral history at the L.B.J. Library.
Her 1934 college graduation gift from him was a trip to Washington -- her first. She was too shy, however, to call the friend of a friend then living in the capital, but she met Lyndon Johnson later that summer. "Daddy and Lyndon did a good bit of talking . . . and I could sense that Lyndon was impressed with my daddy -- it was easy to be impressed with Daddy . . . Not much later, when I was saying that Lyndon wanted to marry me, he said something like, 'Hmmm, some of the best trades I ever made were in a hurry.' Trading was quite a word in the vocabulary of a businessman, a merchant and a farmer in those days." Taylor also was an indirect boon to Johnson's political future. With an advance from her inheritance, Lady Bird Johnson helped fund her husband's first campaign.
William Ryan, a Connecticut-born Irish Catholic, was an adventurer. His career varied from deckhand on a whaling ship in the Atlantic to a surveyor in the Philippines, a gold explorer in the Yukon, a metal miner in South Dakota and an engineer in Nevada. In South Dakota he married a German widow. When he was 46 his first daughter, Thelma Catherine, was born on the eve of St. Patrick's Day, 1912, in a canvas tent city where the silver miners lived. Ryan was working late into the night, and arrived back at the tent in the early morning hours. Filled with excitement and thanks he promptly hailed his little child as "St. Patrick's babe in the morn," and called Thelma "Pat" from that moment on.
When she was only 2, Will Ryan moved the family to Artesia, Calif., about 20 miles north of Los Angeles, and set up a small truck farm. In their modest house, devoid of electricity or an indoor bathroom, Pat worked alongside her father planting, watering and harvesting vegetables and fruit early in the morning before school, and after she returned home. "It was very primitive," recalled Pat Nixon, whose mother died when she was 14. "It was a hard life, that's true. I didn't know what it was not to work hard."
In the midst of the Depression, Will Ryan, who suffered from silicosis originating from his mining days, died at the age of 64. His daughter, age 18, who had nursed her father while going to school, working part-time and putting her brother through school, was left to earn a living and continue her education. At that point, she decided to drop Thelma as her name completely, and go by Patricia, in honor of her father's memory.
Betty Ford's father, William Stephenson Bloomer, was a traveling salesman selling rubber conveyor belts to factories, away from home for long periods. Her memories included his passion for fishing and fiddling with the crystal radio. She was acutely aware of his absences, and she "swore all the time I was growing up that I would never marry a man who traveled . . . in the play 'The Glass Menagerie,' the absent father is characterized as 'a telephone man who fell in love with long distances.' I've known a few men like that, and they didn't all work for the telephone company."
When she was 16, a tragic accident occurred in the garage of the Bloomer house. On a humid day, William Bloomer was working underneath his car. The engine was running, and carbon monoxide fumes were seeping out. Bloomer died. "It was rougher for everybody after that," the former first lady recalled. "Because he was gone, and we'd loved him." It wasn't until she admitted to being an alcoholic in later life that Betty Ford discovered that her father had also been one.
William Edgar Smith drove the Plains, Ga., school bus, ran a farm, worked in a store on weekends and owned an auto repair shop. The Depression hit Rosalynn Smith's family as hard as it did everyone else's, and Edgar lost his $1,000 nest egg. Though he could be a disciplinarian when Rosalynn broke his rules about crossing the street as a small child, he also provided hours of laughter and entertainment for them. She remembers his rule that she never cry, and she learned to hold back tears, at least in front of him.
In 1939, Edgar Smith fell ill and became bedridden. He called his children around him. "The time has come," he said, "to tell you that I can't get well and you're going to have to look after Mother . . . " He then explained that the greatest regret of his life was never having gone to college so "no matter what happened," Rosalynn Carter remembers, "we were to go . . . He told my mother to sell even the farm if she needed the money for our educations."
Rosalynn was devastated when her father died. "My childhood really ended at that moment . . . In a curious way, my father affected me more even after he died . . . It seemed more important than ever to do what he had expected me to do. Whenever I was faced with a decision or even a temptation, I would think about whether Daddy would like it or not. The things he had talked about when I was little loomed large in my mind."
Nancy Reagan's relationship with her natural father, Kenneth Robbins, was not close because he and Nancy's mother, Edith, had separated soon after her birth. Through her younger years, Mrs. Reagan's visits with her father were difficult since they really didn't know one another. Robbins died just nine years before his daughter became first lady.
It was her stepfather, Dr. Loyal Davis, that Mrs. Reagan considered her real father. "He would not adopt me when they were first married because my natural father was still living and he felt the choice should be mine -- something I really wanted. It was later I learned just how much he wanted that to happen."
Davis was a prominent neurosurgeon who shared his professional life with his daughter, introducing her to life in the hospital. "As I got a little older, he let me watch him operate. After a few years of letting me observe him from behind glass partitions, he realized I was not going to do something terrible, like faint. Then he let me stand in the operating room with him once, gowned and masked, and watch him operate on an elderly man. I could see and hear at close range his gentleness as he explained to the man everything he was doing. I was so proud of him."
Davis lived to see Nancy become first lady, and attend the 1981 inaugural festivities. He died after a long illness on Aug. 19, 1982. "When the call came from his doctor saying it was time for me to come to the hospital, I went to Phoenix immediately. When I entered his room, as sick as he was, he stood up as he always did until I sat down. The nurses later told me that he had insisted on getting up, putting on his robe and sitting in a chair for me. We talked, and I tried to tell him how much he had meant to me, how he had really changed my life, and how much I loved him. We were so fortunate to have had that time to talk, to share our deepest emotions and just to hold hands. When he died, he went quickly and there was no suffering.
"I believe the world is better because he lived," Nancy Reagan said. "I know I am a much better person because of him. I loved him dearly, and I will miss him all the days that are left to me."