Monday, May 17, 2010

A First Among Firsts

This past Saturday, out on the National Mall, Michelle Obama spoke to thousands newly minted college graduates, along with their families, and professors. Laura Bush is out and about around the nation, talking to many a gathering about her newly-published memoir. Earlier this month, Rosalyn Carter, 82, was a guest on the Daily Show. Why? She has written a new book, making the case that ending our nation's chronic mental health care crisis is 'Within Our Reach.' According to the U.S. State Department, Hillary Clinton spent just one of her days this past week conversing with President Jurelang of the Marshall Islands, Admiral Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command; the British Foreign Minister, and some harried representatives of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I suspect that Betty Ford, 92; Nancy Reagan, 88; and Barbara Bush, 84, are soldiering along, being that each of them are made of stern, steely stuff indeed and heaven knows they sure as hell had to be. Personally, I don't know how anyone manages to be married and sane at one and the same time, but being the partner of a President? uff da! What an extraordinary collection of individuals over the years have been called upon to play that part! Apart from a trio of exceptions, who married men (Tyler, Cleveland, & Wilson) who already had the job, who of them could have known that one day she would be First Lady? A fine place to learn more about these dames:
In any case, I got to thinking of Dolley Madison. Why? Well, had she not died back in July of 1849 – Imagine: This lady who'd had tea with Martha Washington lived to see the era of the steam locomotive and the Gold Rush! – Mrs. Madison would be turning 242 years old this coming Thursday. And in the last few months I wrote a book about her (Would that someone would publish it!), in part, wanting to write about her husband and their remarkable era. I was so taken with Dolley's gumption (except when it came to her horrid son from her 1st marriage, to a young Philadelphia lawyer who died of yellow fever in 1793) and her gaiety. A gifted politician and social networker she was, in her way of bringing people together, encouraging conversation between political adversaries.
Thos. Jefferson, President No. 3, chose his friend James Madison to be his Sec'y of State. Off they all went to rough, raw, barely begun Washington, D.C. Streets with no houses, so it was said, and half-done mansions, shacks, and houses with no streets. It was there and then that Mrs. Madison most astutely and famously demonstrated her social gifts, serving as White House hostess (most necessary, protocol-wise) for the widower Jefferson. In time, in large part due to cheerful Dolley and her savvy way with people, the "Great Little Madison" became President No. 4. Famously brilliant he was, but shy and puny. How was it that Washington Irving described him? "Ah poor Jemmy! He is but a withered apple-John." (January 13, 1811) Ah well, remember Dolley this week. Do check out this splendid documentary about her:
Sure Martha was the first, and Abigail the first to live in the big stone house, but really, Dolley Payne Madison was the first to embody the role of First Lady.


Caroline McAlister said...

Enjoyed reading your post because I am sitting right now one block from Dolly Madison Street in Greensboro, North Carolina. Apparently she spent part of her childhood here and attended New Garden Quaker Meeting.
Caroline McAlister
Author of
Holy Mole! and Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief

Cheryl Harness said...

Yes! Miss Dolley was born thereabouts. Don't you find her fascinating?