The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant
Some years ago a friend remarked to a brand-new President’s wife (a woman of unique charm, wit, sensibility, and good grooming) that there was no phrase in our language which so sets the teeth on edge as “First Lady.”
“Oh, how true!” said that lady, after the tiniest of pauses. “I keep telling the operators at the White House not to call me that, but they just love saying ‘First Lady.’ And of course Mrs. E********* always insisted on being called that.”
According to one Ralph Geoffrey Newman, in a note to the recently published The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, “the term ‘First Lady’ became a popular one after the production of a comedy, The First Lady in the Land…December 4, 1911.” The phrase was in use, however, as early as, the Ladyhood of Mrs. Rutherford B. (“Lemonade Lucy”) Hayes.
Martha Washington contented herself with the unofficial (hence seldom omitted) title “Lady” Washington. Mrs. James Monroe took a crack at regal status, receiving guests on a dais with something suspiciously like a coronet in her tousled hair. When twenty-four-year-old Miss Julia Gardiner of Gardiners Island became the doting wife of senior citizen John Tyler, she insisted that his stately arrivals and departures be accompanied by the martial chords of “Hail to the Chief.” Mary Todd Lincoln often gave the impression that she thought she was Marie Antoinette.
It is curious that a Johnny-come-fairly-lately republic like the United States should so much want to envelop in majesty those for the most part seedy political hacks quadrennially “chosen” by the people to rule over them. As the world’s royalties take to their bicycles—or to their heels—the world’s presidents from Giscard to Leone to our own dear sovereign affect the most splendid state. I am certain that had Mr. and Mrs. Richard M. Nixon of San Clemente, California and Key Biscayne, Florida continued in residence at the White House we would by now not only have grown used to those silver trumpets that herald the approach of the President but the park in front of the White House would daily be made colorful with the changing of the guard, consisting of chosen members of the CIA and FBI in green berets, bullet-proof vests, and armed with the latest listening devices.
It would seem to be a rule of history that as the actual power of a state declines, the pageantry increases. Certainly the last days of the Byzantine empire were marked by a court protocol so elaborate and time-consuming that the arrival of the Turks must have been a great relief to everyone. Now, as our own imperial republic moves gorgeously into its terminal phase, it is pleasant and useful to contemplate two centuries of American court life, to examine those personages who have lived in the White House and borne those two simple but awful titles “The President,” “The…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.