Behind every great man, so the saying goes, there is a great woman. And, at the White House, behind many great women there has often been an astrologer. Or a medium. Nancy Reagan was certainly not the first first lady to turn to the spiritual world for some sort of guidance, as a paging through history books and memoirs confirms.
Julia Tyler, for one, believed that she had the gift of extrasensory perception, but she did not share her mother's devotion to se'ances and astrology. Nevertheless, at Sherwood Forest, her Virginia estate just outside Williamsburg, Julia Tyler sponsored an evening of "levitation, magnetic powers and the conjuring up of spirits from the great beyond." Though the spirits didn't channel through Julia, her seamstress slave indeed made the table rise. The first lady's sister wrote their mother, "Instead of being terrified, I was very glad I witnessed what is without doubt the magnetic influence of the body -- and not supernatural agency ..."
It was in ESP, however, that Julia Tyler believed her spiritual strengths were to be found. In fact, in 1862, when her husband was in Richmond attending a Confederate conference, Julia became hysterical as she clearly envisioned him choking and dying. She rushed to his side, only to find him in excellent condition. Two days later he was dead, under the circumstances exactly envisioned by Julia -- who had told several people of her dream before it came true.
But it was Mary Todd Lincoln, whose son Willie died in the White House in 1862, who became the most famous consultant of mediums and astrologers to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Even before she got to the White House, Mrs. Lincoln had been in regular contact with mediums and astrological chart readers in Chicago and Springfield, Ill. She invited the famous Colchester of Georgetown to hold seances in the Red Room, and President Lincoln, legend has it, joined his wife for one session. More often, however, the first lady went to Georgetown to join a "circle" at the salon of Nettie Colburn Maynard and Cranston Laurie, both of whom were successful enough in their attempts to bring Willie back to Mary that she consulted them regularly. It was Laurie who told the first lady that certain members of the Cabinet were enemies and should be replaced. To the politically keen Mary Todd that could only mean the hated Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and Secretary of State William Seward.
Although Mrs. Lincoln held Ouiji boards, horoscopes and spiritualism in high regard, she dismissed premonitory dreams. When President Lincoln told her of his frightening dream in which he foresaw an East Room funeral and that he was to be killed by an assassin, the first lady replied, "I am glad I don't believe in dreams, or I should be in terror from this time forth."
On April 14, 1865, when Julia Grant, the general's wife and later first lady, sent her regrets to Mary Lincoln's invitation to join her and the president at Ford's Theatre, it was not only because the two women were archrivals. Julia Grant had a premonitory feeling that frantically obsessed her to get out of town with the general.
Edith Wilson also acted upon her intrigue with the occult. On an August night just 2 1/2 years after she left the White House, she was overcome with the feeling of "something ominous ... hanging over us" because an old servant who came to see her suddenly returned to the mansion. She went to sleep only to be awoken by newsboys shouting the news of President Harding's death.
Edith Wilson and Florence Harding had little in common, but they did share the same Washington fortuneteller. In fact, in the early '20s, anyone who was anybody had his limousine pull up to the unpretentious town house on R Street NW, between 16th and 17th streets. It was the home of Madame Marcia Champney, crystal ball reader, clairvoyant, tarot card and horoscope reader to the capital's rich and powerful. On most Thursdays, Pierce-Arrows with shade-drawn windows could be seen lining up, as Supreme Court justices, congressmen, Senate wives and socialites awaited their appointments.
One of Marcia's first customers was Mrs. Norman Galt, widow of the jewelry store owner. In 1909, she told Mrs. Galt that she would one day be in the White House. When Edith Galt became Mrs. Woodrow Wilson in 1915, she continued to consult Marcia, having her sneaked in discreetly through the south entrance.
In February 1920, when Evalyn McLean, owner of The Washington Post and the Hope Diamond, brought her friend the wife of Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio to see Marcia, the astrologer read through Florence Harding's charts. She called Mrs. Harding "a child of Destiny." Florence Harding, who never made a move without first consulting her horoscope, prepared for her monthly by a Columbus "seeress," came to trust implicitly in Marcia. When she brought the information on Warren Harding, Marcia said he had "many clandestine love affairs," would be elected president but not live to the end of his term and would die by "sudden, violent or peculiar death." Florence promised that if Warren were elected, Marcia would be made the official White House astrologer, and brought in through the front door, not the back, as Edith Wilson had done.
At the deadlocked June convention, when it looked bad for Harding, Florence phoned Marcia, who told her to keep Harding in the fight. Marcia had given Florence the code name "Jupiter," so they could remain discreetly in touch. To reporters, Florence said destiny was "kissed on my brow," but added, "If my husband is elected I can see but one word hanging over his head, 'Tragedy! Tragedy!' " Mrs. Harding, however, was extremely displeased when one newspaper quoted Marcia as admitting that she had been consulted by Florence. Through the summer of 1920, an angry Mrs. Harding kept her distance but after Harding won the election, and the publicity faded, the two women were in daily contact.
When "Jupiter," now first lady, had her Secret Service agent fetch Marcia for White House readings -- now with the addition of a crystal ball -- Madame was still brought in by the side entrance, through the West Wing. When the president's schedule called for him to make public appearances outside the White House, or to appear at an in-house event, "Jupiter" first consulted Marcia. On several occasions, when Mrs. Harding was told the president was in danger, she ordered a rescheduling, or actually arranged for him to leave the mansion for a safer haven.
Carl Sferrazza Anthony is the author of two forthcoming books by Morrow, "Ladies First: A Saga of Power of the President's Wives" and "Duchess: The Life of First Lady Florence Harding and Her Friendship With Evalyn McLean."