Source: Collier’s Weekly
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “The Lady of the White House”
Date of publication: 28 September 1901
Volume number: 27
Issue number: 26
|“The Lady of the White House.” Collier’s Weekly 28 Sept. 1901 v27n26: p. 17.|
|Edith Roosevelt; White House.|
|Chester A. Arthur; Frances Folsom Cleveland; Lucretia Garfield; Julia Dent Grant; Benjamin Harrison; Caroline Scott Harrison; Mary Saunders Harrison; Alice Roosevelt Longworth; Mary Harrison McKee; Ida McKinley; Edith Roosevelt; Theodore Roosevelt; George Washington.|
|The article below is accompanied on the same page by photographs of the following First Ladies: Julia Dent Grant, Lucy Hayes, Lucretia Garfield, Frances Folsom Cleveland, Ida McKinley, and Edith Roosevelt.|
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
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.