The Lady of the White House
THERE ARE four ladies, and four only, in the world
that Mrs. Roosevelt is under any official obligation to call upon—Mrs.
Grant, Mrs. Garfield, Mrs. Cleveland, and Mrs. McKinley. These four
ladies, as former mistresses of the White House, are expected, if
they should visit Washington, to call immediately at the White House,
before making any other visit whatever, and in the case of Mrs.
Grant, who lives in Washington, she is expected to call, with the
same promptness, upon the incoming lady of the White House, and
that incoming lady must lose no time in returning this ceremonious
visit. Other women—the sisters and daughters of Presidents—have
presided over the White House, but the status of the wife of the
President is very different from that of any other lady of his family
who may preside over his official home. It is a status regulated
by a simple but inexorable law, not only of etiquette, but of custom,
and no woman has yet been in the White House who has ever broken
the unwritten laws which govern her position. There is probably
no situation easier to fill, as far as mere technical observance
goes, than that of the wife of the President of the United States.
She has a set of simple, official duties, as hostess of the White
House, to perform. If she is ill, or feels unable to perform them,
she is readily excused.
Mrs. Roosevelt will be at no trouble
to know what to do coming into the White House. Everything required
of her is formulated in advance. She and the President will wear
mourning for six months, as if they had lost a member of their own
immediate family. Their writing-paper and cards—the latter being
little used by either—will have a regulation mourning border. The
White House coachmen and footmen will wear mourning liveries. There
will be no formal entertaining or receiving of any sort.
After this period of strict mourning
the official entertaining will begin, and the routine of the White
House will go on as it has done for generations. A few changes creep
in, but they are unimportant, and are merely slight concessions
to alterations in manners. Mrs. Benjamin Harrison brought about
a change in the nature of a reform, by simply courtesying [sic],
instead of shaking hands, with the thousands of persons who attend
the White House receptions. Custom still prescribes that the President
shall suffer the torture of shaking hands with every American citizen
who offers. Mrs. Cleveland was the last President’s wife who underwent
the handshaking ordeal. Her right hand, subject to this incessant
handshaking, grew perceptibly larger than her left hand. When Mrs.
Harrison came in, she adopted the plan of carrying a fan in one
hand and a bouquet in the other, and so had no hand left free, and
a courteous bow took the place of the crushing handshake. Mrs. McKinley
was the only lady of the White House who received sitting in a chair.
It must never be forgotten that
the personal bearing, manners and appearance of a President are
of the greatest importance. There was a President—a good, though
not a great, man—who continually offended the susceptibilities of
the public by wearing an alpaca coat in public, and by many other
harmless but unpleasing breaches of the strict code which the people
have laid down for their President. It is a singular instance of
the survival of General Washington’s traditions, that the people
will excuse readily any excess of ceremony and even exclusiveness
in a President or his wife, but they will never overlook anything
approaching demagogism. The President of the United States and his
wife are held to a rigid account of their manners. They may form
and plan and move heaven and earth for another four years in the
White House, but anything looking like playing to the gallery spells
ruin to them. President Arthur, one of the best Presidents of modern
times, became unquestionably the most popular by the exquisite propriety
of everything that pertained to him, from his annual messages to
Congress down to the cut of his servants’ liveries and the freshness
of the flower in his bottonhole [sic].
Mrs. Roosevelt will enter the White
House with the advantage of knowing something of Washington life.
During the time that Mr. Roosevelt was Civil Service Commissioner,
and, afterward, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Mrs. Roosevelt
spent her winters in Washington. They lived, during Mr. Roosevelt’s
last official term, at 1810 N Street, directly facing the side entrance
of the British Embassy, which is on the corner of Connecticut Avenue
and N Street. She was not, however, much seen in society. The care
of her family of small children, and of her young stepdaughter,
Miss Alice Lee Roosevelt, to whom she has been a devoted mother,
took up most of her time. Their home was a modest one, and they
did little entertaining.
THINGS THAT MUST BE LEFT UNDONE
While the things that Mrs. Roosevelt
must do are few in number and simple, the things she must not do
are many and, sometimes, real deprivations. But as all etiquette
is really common sense applied to small things, these restrictions
in effect make her position far easier in the end. She can attend
few private entertainments—so few, that it practically shuts her
out of general society. Mrs. Harrison, during her stay in the White
House, went to not more than half a dozen private parties. Mrs.
Cleveland scarcely exceeded that number. Mrs. McKinley never went
to any. The official dinners given by the Cabinet officers to the
President and his wife are necessarily dull, being made up of the
same small and intimate circle, meeting on that occasion in the
most ceremonious manner. Mrs. Roosevelt is prohibited by custom,
as the President is, from entering the house of any ambassador or
envoy whatever, such premises being, technically, foreign ground.
If she goes to the theatre, she must sit in a lower box. She may
go to one ball in the year—the annual charity ball—when, if disposed,
she may walk through two or three quadrilles. But if she should
venture to dance a round dance, it would mean a cataclysm. So would
it be if she were to appear in a carriage sitting anywhere else
than in the left-hand corner of the back seat if the President is
with her, or the right-hand corner if he is not with her.
DIPLOMACY FOR THE FIRST LADY
Mrs. Roosevelt cannot pay general
visits. She cannot give dancing parties. The daughter of the President
may invite her young friends and have dancing. Mrs. McKee and Mrs.
Russell Harrison did it during President Harrison’s incumbency.
But the invitations must be informal and not in the name of the
President or his wife. Mrs. Roosevelt should learn the politics
of every member of the Senate and House, so as to distribute her
personal civilities, such as invitations to receive, etc., among
the two great parties. This matter, however, can be settled by the
army officer in charge of public buildings and grounds.
Mrs. Roosevelt will enter upon a position
of imposing dignity and great dulness [sic]. It will leave
her ample time for the attention to her children and household which
she has been accustomed to giving, and for reading and study. If
she observes the laws which custom and etiquette have established,
she may reckon upon being secure from unfavorable comment, and that
she will do this and prove a graceful and acceptable lady of the
White House no one in this whole country doubts.