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Nellie Taft

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  • Ram Lau
    Saw the presentation of the author of the book last night on C- SPAN s BookTV. Nellie Taft was the first very progressive First Lady, setting many precedents
    Message 1 of 1 , May 23, 2005
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      Saw the presentation of the author of the book last night on C-
      SPAN's BookTV. Nellie Taft was the first very progressive First
      Lady, setting many precedents for her future successors like Eleanor
      Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton.


      And more biographical details of her:


      Helen "Nellie" Herron Taft

      Born: June 2, 1861 (also reported as January 2nd and September 2nd;
      but June 2nd is the most likely) - Cincinnati, Ohio

      Died: May 22, 1943

      Father: John Williamson Herron (a law partner of Rutherford B.
      Hayes at one time)

      Mother: Harriet Collens Herron

      Ancestry: English

      Siblings: Nellie was one of eleven children – five boys and six
      girls – one of whom was named Lucy Hayes Herron

      Physical Description: Fairly tall (5'7") with brown hair and gray-
      blue eyes. Her features were long and sometimes referred to
      unkindly as rather "horsey", but she carried herself well, with good
      posture. She felt unattractive and often bemoaned her lack of
      beauty, especially since her mother was a known beauty. She
      appeared rather frumpy in her day clothes, but stunning in her
      evening clothes. She had immense dignity and appeared regal in her
      White House gowns.

      Religion: Episcopalian

      Education: She attended Miss Nourse's school in Cincinnati with one
      of her sisters where she met Fanny Taft, her future husband's only
      sister. Her greatest love was music. It was a love that lasted all
      her life. She spoke of it as being the core of her life. It was
      certainly the core of her education. In 1877, when she was sixteen,
      she was invited, along with her family to the White House for a two-
      week visit. First Lady Lucy Hayes wanted to have her namesake, Lucy
      Hayes Herron, christened in the White House. Once there, Nellie
      decided she wanted to live there herself and kept that ambition in
      mind. She later attended Miami University where she studied German,
      literature, history and the sciences. After she graduated, she
      studied music at the University of Cincinnati. She even thought
      about becoming a lawyer. While she did not pursue the law, it did
      teach her an appreciation of logic, to present her ideas in a clear
      and forthright manner and to enjoy the give and take of politics.
      Eventually, she was made her debut, started a literary salon and
      would teach at two schools. She found teaching difficult but
      rewarding – the girl students weren't a problem, but the boy
      students were formidable. It was at one of her literary meetings
      that she met her future husband, William Howard Taft.

      Husband: William Howard Taft (1857 – 1930)

      Courtship and Marriage: The relationship between Nellie and William
      Howard Taft was not love at first sight. Nellie had a great deal of
      insecurity and found it difficult to socialize with men. Her
      standards for a future husband were high, especially since she
      wanted the White House to be a part of that future. By 1884, they
      were seriously courting, but it was not a smooth romance. Nellie
      was often sharp, uncertain and critical, and William Howard was
      often too laid back and bland. She felt that he did not take her
      seriously, but he pleaded that that was not the case. Nellie and
      her future mother-in-law, Louise Lorrey Taft, had a lot in common:
      they were both goads to their more accepting husbands, ambitious,
      strong-willed and intellectually challenging women. With her
      marriage to Taft, Nellie would find both public acceptance and
      intellectual freedom. It wasn't until 1885 that Nellie accepted
      Taft's proposal. They were able to joke with each other – he often
      joked that the first requirement of a successful husband was
      obedience. They married in Cincinnati on June 19, 1886.

      Age at marriage: 25 years, 186 days

      Personality: Strong willed, extremely interested in politics,
      Nellie often chafed at the restrictions that faced women in the 19th
      century. She was often impatient with her husband, goading him
      onward and upward. He noted that he needed that goading. With a
      keen interest in music, flowers and beauty, Nellie Taft especially
      loved that arts, flowers and fabrics of the Far East. Her keen mind
      made traveling a delight, and she would seek out all the cultural
      and musical centers wherever she went. For all her firmness and
      energy, Nellie was often insecure and uncertain. Highly strung,
      Nellie would worry about details, thereby earning the
      nickname "Nervous Nellie". Nellie's sharp judgment of character
      proved to be an asset to her less demanding husband. While more
      ambitious than her husband, he was more than willing to be driven.


      1. Robert Alphonso Taft (1889 – 1953)

      2. Helen Taft Manning (1891 – 1987)

      3. Charles Phelps Taft (1897 – 1983)

      Years Before the White House (1886 – 1909): After an extensive
      honeymoon in Europe, the Tafts returned to Cincinnati where Nellie
      designed and built a home in one of the city's finer suburbs
      (neighborhoods?). She was, to a large degree, discontented and felt
      that her husband should aim higher than his job as a U.S. Judge on
      the Ohio Supreme Court. In 1890, her wish was granted when
      President Benjamin Harrison appointed Taft United States Solicitor
      General. They moved to Washington, found living quarters on Dupont
      Circle and met the Theodore Roosevelts, who would play a big part in
      their lives. Nellie loved life in the Capitol, but that life ended
      with Harrison's defeat in 1892. They moved back to Cincinnati when
      Taft was elected as Judge to the U.S. Circuit Court. In Cincinnati
      Nellie became involved in the formation of a women's group to
      improve the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. This provided a respite
      that partly satisfied her restless ambition. She eagerly encouraged
      her husband to accept President McKinley's appointment of
      Commissioner to the Philippines. After visiting China and Japan,
      which impressed Nellie with their beauty, color and climate, she
      joined her husband in Manila. Her four years there gave her an
      opportunity to explore the country, to observe the culture (which
      she loved) and to broaden her horizons. When typhus threatened, she
      had cows brought in so fresh milk would be available. She opened
      the palace to any and all, and insisted that all of her family learn
      Spanish. When Taft was sent to the Vatican to negotiate the
      transfer of church lands to the state, Nellie went with him and had
      an audience with Pope Leo XIII. In 1904, the Taft's moved back to
      Washington when Taft was appointed Secretary of War in Theodore
      Roosevelt's cabinet. Nellie hated being a mere Cabinet officer's
      wife, answerable to the standoffish Edith Roosevelt, whom she
      disliked. In 1908, when Roosevelt offered his support in the
      upcoming convention, he asked the Tafts which position they wanted:
      President or Chief Justice. Taft chose the latter, but Nellie chose
      the Presidency, and Taft's choice was overruled. Nellie campaigned
      so vigorously for her husband that President Roosevelt called her
      into his office to rebuke her on her unwomanly behavior. She never
      forgave him. With Taft's 1908 election, Nellie's greatest ambition
      was fulfilled – she would be mistress of the White House. Breaking
      with tradition, the Taft's spent the night before the inauguration
      as guests of the Roosevelts in the White House.

      First Lady (1909 – 1913): With a few vital exceptions, Nellie Taft's
      role as First Lady was a disappointment, particularly to Nellie
      herself. She had been so nervous about doing the job well that she
      overworked herself. She took on too many projects at once, in
      addition to which her youngest son spent time in the hospital. A
      collapse was inevitable. In mid May 1909, Nellie Taft had a major
      stoke while on the presidential yacht. Her left side was paralyzed,
      and she fell to the deck. The press was given little information
      about the illness. Within a few days, an effort was made by both
      Nellie and the White House staff to downplay her condition. She was
      seen on occasion, but didn't attend receptions or dinners for over a
      year. Her daughter and sisters from Cincinnati took over her duties
      until she was able to resume them. The stroke left Nellie unable to
      speak. With her husband's patient help and her determined effort,
      Nellie gained her speech, but spoke with hesitation. She walked
      only with difficulty. With her determination, drive and ambition,
      she was back in control by 1911, when she celebrated her twenty-
      fifth wedding anniversary. More than half of her time as First Lady
      was spent recovering her speech and trying to overcome the physical
      damage incurred by the stroke.

      Even so, Nellie Taft was able to accomplish several things, one of
      which was the planning of Washington Drive. Nellie was concerned
      that people had no place to go to listen to music or to walk in good
      weather. So she imported 2,000 cherry trees and planted them in the
      Washington basin. When the trees died, she enlisted the help of
      Japanese businessmen and others to replace them. She bought
      automobiles for the White House to replace its outdated carriages.
      She had a large bathtub installed in the White House, when the
      existing one proved too small for her 350-pound husband. Under her
      direction, the staff began wearing matching uniforms. She made it
      easier for African Americans to find positions at the White House
      and hired a female housekeeper, Elizabeth Jaffray, who remained in
      the position until Calvin Coolidge's term. She oversaw the house
      cleaning and took an interest in the day-to-day details of running
      the house. She used a Social Secretary, until she decided she could
      perform those duties herself. Nellie Taft broke a long-standing
      inaugural tradition. Until Taft's inauguration, the outgoing
      president would drive with the newly inaugurated president from the
      Capitol to the White House, then continue on his way. Since
      outgoing President Roosevelt had to go directly to Union Station
      from the Capitol, Nellie decided to ride to their new home, the
      White House, with her husband. Since that time, every first lady
      has done the same. In 1912, the Republican Party was split between
      Roosevelt and Taft. The split nearly broke Nellie's heart and, long
      before the actual election, she began packing up to leave. She was
      the first First Lady to attend the convention. While she kept her
      head up, she knew that the split vote in the Republican Party would
      result in the election of the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.
      No one left the White House with more regrets than Helen Taft.

      Later Years (1913 – 1943): Between 1913 and 1921, William Howard
      Taft found fulfillment in teaching law at Yale University, while
      Nellie traveled. One major outcome from her stroke was the
      discovery that her husband didn't need her constant prodding and
      that she didn't have to always be in charge. Their marriage became
      stronger in many ways after Nellie's stroke, because she learned
      that she didn't have to worry constantly and that her husband had
      ambitions of his own. In 1921, after the death of Chief Justice
      White, President Warren G. Harding appointed William Howard Taft to
      the position, thus fulfilling Taft's greatest wish. Nellie was
      overjoyed to be back in Washington, where she gave help, advice and
      suggestions to Mrs. Harding and Mrs. Coolidge. In 1914, she became
      the first First Lady to publish her autobiography, "Recollections of
      Full Years". It was a remarkable book, as much for what it didn't
      reveal, as for what it did reveal. Nellie grieved for Taft after
      his death in 1930, but her life continued at a whirlwind pace with
      trips to Europe, with visits to and from her grandchildren and with
      watching her son Robert's successful career as Senator from Ohio.
      She never lost her love of politics. Nellie Taft died on May 22,

      Age at Death: 81 years, 11 months

      Burial: Arlington Cemetery – the first First Lady to be buried in
      Arlington Cemetery. She was the only First Lady buried in Arlington
      until Jackie Kennedy Onassis was buried beside JFK in 1994.

      Legacy: If it hadn't been for the stroke in 1909, Nellie Taft's
      legacy would probably have been more extensive. She did leave a
      legacy of a real political helpmate, a partner. She was an advisor,
      a mentor, a prodder and, in some cases, a critic. Nellie was always
      more prone to chastise than to praise. She proved to be an asset to
      her sometimes too easygoing husband's career. Nellie Taft's life,
      in some ways, was a tragedy – a tragedy of a woman with drive,
      intelligence, ambition and will power, who was burdened by the
      underlying insecurity of her own doubts and with society's
      limitations on women. She was lucky enough to choose a husband who
      not only admired and respected her talents, but also acknowledged
      his dependence on them. He gave her the freedom to explore her
      abilities and to criticize, bolster and support him when he needed
      it. They loved each other, but, more than that, they needed each

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