This mental_floss magazine article was compiled with excerpts from Secret Lives of the First Ladies: What Your Teachers Never Told You about the Women of the White House by Cormac O'Brien.
1. The First to Throw Glass in Stone Houses: Martha Washington (First Lady, 1789-1797)
George Washington might have been America's first president, but he could never claim the title of Martha's first love. Prior to Georgie, Martha had been married to a wealthy Williamsburg plantation heir named Daniel Parke Custis, who was a scandalous 20 years her senior. While blissful for the most part, Martha and Daniel's short marriage was saddled by the antics of Custis' cantankerous father-in-law, John Custis IV, whom Martha absolutely abhorred. Shortly after Daniel died (only seven years into their marriage), she paid a not-so-friendly visit to the Williamsburg mansion that had been John's main residence and auctioned off the remainder of her father-in-law's valuable possessions. Everything, that is, except for his priceless collection of hand-blown wineglasses. Those she proceeded to smash in a spectacular act of vengeance.
2. The First to Don a Party Hat: Dolley Madison (First Lady, 1809-1817)
One thing is certain about Dolley Madison: The girl knew how to throw a party. From the moment she stepped foot in the White House, the stiff, humorless receptions of her predecessors became a thing of the past. At Dolley's affairs, people mingled, joked, laughed, and treated themselves to ice cream. Such graces were indispensable, but not only to her husband. Dolley once got two congressmen, John Eppes and Thomas Randolph, to call off their duel over a nasty political argument. When husband James died in 1836, she moved back to the capital to resume her role as First Entertainer and was even granted an honorary seat in Congress (by unanimous vote, no less). In fact, until her death in 1849, it was customary for newly inaugurated presidents to call on Dolley to receive her blessing.
3. The First to Be Suspected of Murder: Margaret Taylor (First Lady, 1849-1850)
When Zachary Taylor passed away unexpectedly in 1850, it hit his wife hard. On several occasions, Margaret, saddened to the point of hysteria, pawed the preserving ice from his corpse so that she could gaze upon his frozen face. She also did something slightly more questionable: She refused to have him embalmed. Such an unorthodox demand raised eyebrows, and a rumor quickly circulated that Margaret wanted to prevent anyone from learning that she'd poisoned her husband. Not until 1991, when historians convinced Taylor's descendants to exhume his remains, were the rumors finally put to rest.
During Abe's re-election campaign in 1864, Mary Todd Lincoln fretted—but not out of hope for her husband's success. An infamous shopoholic, Mary had run up tens of thousands of dollars in department store debt. Should Abe win, she could sit on the expenses for a while. But should he lose, the couple's transformation into ordinary citizens would leave her no option but to tell him. And, as it turned out, Mary knew all too well how Abe would react to her spending habits. When she had overspent the congressional appropriation for White House furnishings within months of moving into the mansion, it left Abe fuming. So, rather than turning to her husband for financial aid, Mary resorted to more creative tactics, such as selling off excess manure purchased for the fertilization of White House grounds and firing some of the mansion's staff.
5. The First to Walk Like a Crab: Julia Dent Grant (First Lady, 1869-1877)
Julia Dent Grant was cross-eyed her entire life. While that never stopped her from being a tomboy in her youth, or—remarkably—from developing into an accomplished equestrienne, it did lead to some embarrassing White House moments. At the galas she was fond of throwing, Julia had a habit of standing in the corner to avoid bumping into people. When she did manage to move, she did so in a noticeably sideways gait that some likened to the motion of a crab, often knocking into furniture.
6. The First to Make Fun of the President's Libido: Grace Coolidge (First Lady, 1923-1929)
Calvin and Grace Coolidge didn't have one of the more romantic marriages on White House record. Fortunately, they had a sense of humor about their love life. According to biographer Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the couple once visited a chicken farm in Maryland, where the first lady witnessed a rooster copulating with a hen. Upon asking the farmer if the rooster did that often, Grace was informed that he did it several times a day. "Tell that to the president," she responded, and the farmer did just that. "To the same hen?" Calvin inquired. "No, Mr. President," said the red-faced farmer. "Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge," said the president.
7. The First to Show No Fear: Lou Henry Hoover (First Lady, 1929-1933)
Lou Hoover wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Posted in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Lou actually joined in the action, delivering tea and other supplies to troops by bicycle. In fact, on one trip, a stray bullet flattened her tire. But even the Hoovers' residence in China wasn't safe from danger. One day, Lou was playing solitaire when a shell burst through the window in the adjoining room and nearly blew the staircase apart. When a group of witnesses rushed in to check on her safety, they saw her calmly sitting at the table with her cards. She then asked them to join her for tea. Not surprisingly, Lou's obituary mistakenly appeared in a Peking newspaper. Upon reading it, she was thrilled to discover that the editors had devoted three columns to her. "I was never so proud in my life," she quipped.
8. The First to Clean Her Clothes Long-Distance: Bess Truman (First Lady, 1945-1953)
Upon finding out that she was going to become first lady, Bess Truman had the exact same reaction as her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt: She wept. Apparently, anything that kept Bess away from her home in Independence, Mo., was cause for despair. She had been in school in Kansas City when her father committed suicide in 1903 (his drinking and debt had finally overwhelmed him), and thereafter had done everything possible to stay close to her family. Despite her attempts, Bess never got used to life in Washington; she even preferred the Laundromats back home. Upon moving to D.C., she was so unimpressed with the city's cleaning establishments that she insisted on having her laundry mailed to Kansas City for washing.
9. The First to Lose a Fiance to a Train: Nancy Reagan (First Lady, 1981-1989)
If Nancy and Ronald Reagan are known for their intensely romantic relationship, it may be because of their decidedly tragic romantic pasts. The two met when Ronald was recovering from his divorce from starlet Jane Wyman, and Nancy was coping with the loss of her fiancé, who'd been atomized by a train while crossing a railroad track. And even then, their relationship didn't get off to the most fairy-tale start. Their courtship lasted two years, during which Nancy became pregnant with their first child. Actor/friend William Holden and his wife Ardis were the only guests present at their 1952 wedding.
10. The First to Go Gray: Barbara Bush (First Lady, 1989-1993)
Barbara Bush got her trademark gray hair at quite an early age. Unfortunately, the cause was tragic. In 1953, the Bushes' first daughter, Robin, contracted leukemia. The little girl spent eight months in a New York hospital, attended by her parents, until she died. By the time of Robin's death, Bar's hair had gone gray. The change likely didn't bother her much, though; the former first lady had a great sense of humor about her appearance. A master of self-deprecating humor, she once said of her predecessor, Nancy Reagan, "As you know, we have a lot in common. She adores her husband; I adore mine. She fights drugs; I fight illiteracy. She wears a size three —so's my leg."
The article above, written by Cormac O'Brien, is reprinted with permission from the September-October 2006 issue of mental_floss magazine.
Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!
Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!