The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Julia Grant couldn’t find a publisher for her memoir. Michelle Obama got paid millions for hers.

Memoirs by first ladies often outsell those of their husbands. But that wasn’t the case in 1899.

Former first ladies Julia Grant and Michelle Obama. (Photos by Matthew Brady/Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress; Matt McClain/The Washington Post) (Matthew Brady; Matt McClain/Matthew Brady/Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress; Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

When former first lady Julia Grant finished her memoir in 1899, with the help of one Mark Twain, she couldn’t find a publisher for it.

“My book, on which I have built so many castles, is by the critics pronounced too near, too close to the private life of [her husband], and I thought this was just what was wanted. You can well imagine my great disappointment and sorrow,” the widow of Ulysses S. Grant wrote in a letter to a friend.

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Times, to put it mildly, have changed.

On Tuesday, former first lady Michelle Obama kicks off the release of her new memoir “Becoming” with a sold-out arena book tour featuring Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon. She and her husband, Barack Obama, commanded a joint book deal reportedly worth more than $65 million.

“Becoming” by former first lady Michelle Obama presents a candid account of her life. Here’s what else she’s been up to since leaving the White House. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

But according to presidential historian Craig Fehrman, every first lady memoir has been a bestseller — many even outsold their husbands’ books.

For eight years, Michelle Obama watched every word. In her memoir, she’s done with that.

After Grant’s failed effort (which was finally released in 1975), Helen Taft became the first first lady to publish a memoir, “Recollections of Full Years,” in 1914. The New York Sun described it as “bright, witty, delightfully entertaining reminiscences,” in a three-sentence review.

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Two decades later, Edith Wilson’s memoir got a longer review, but was derided for its focus on the former first lady’s clothing and social calendar. For the historian curious about the rumors she had secretly become the “first woman president” after Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, one would find only “meager pickings,” one reviewer wrote.

Feminist icon Eleanor Roosevelt wrote not one but four memoirs, spanning from the beginning of her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency to the year before her death in 1962. In contrast to Grant and Wilson, Roosevelt’s autobiographies dealt almost entirely with world affairs and her personal life hardly at all.

Nearly every evening of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, first lady Lady Bird Johnson dictated an account of the day into a tape recorder. By 1969, she’d amassed a nearly two-million word transcript, which she then culled into a memoir.

“It’s like cutting one of your darlings,” she told The Washington Post in 1970. The final 300,000-word edit was well-received, and outsold her husband’s “flat” memoir published a few years later.

With the exception of Pat Nixon, every first lady since has published a memoir. Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter both outsold their husbands, according to Fehrman.

But none of these books, whether they be focused on world affairs or domestic life, prepared readers for the release of first lady Nancy Reagan’s 1989 memoir “My Turn” — nicknamed “My Burn” for its harsh treatment of Ronald Reagan’s staff — and just about everyone with whom Nancy Reagan came into contact.

The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn said in a scathing review: “I read her book in one weekend and by the time I finished it Sunday night my shoulders and neck were practically in spasm. This is a very angry person.”

She went on: “She is furious with [former chief of staff and Treasury secretary] Don Regan. She is also mad at [former Secretary of State] Al Haig, Jimmy Carter, Jerry Ford, John Sears, Mike Deaver, Ed Meese, David Stockman, Bill Safire, Raisa Gorbachev, Stu Spencer, Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Goldwater, Joan Didion, me (I was looking for astrologer Joan Quigley in the index, I swear!), my husband [Post executive editor Ben Bradlee], her husband, her stepfather, Fritz Mondale, Geraldine Ferraro, John Poindexter, Ollie North, George Bush, the doctors on television, the press, her stepchildren Maureen and Michael and her daughter Patti. I'm sure I left some people out, but you get the point.”

The bad vibes didn’t stop, and perhaps propelled, sales. “My Turn” spent more than three months on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Obama is now poised to occupy that same spot on that list alongside other first ladies, though Reagan differed in one pointed way — she skipped the book tour.

Correction: A previous version of this article said Beyoncé Knowles-Carter was a scheduled guest on Michelle Obama’s book tour. She is not.

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