This Presidents Day article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.
Uncle John puts on his top hat and tails to get the gilded dish on White House weddings.
THE FIRST WEDDING
The dish: President James Madison was only the third president to occupy the White House and the first president to hold a wedding there. The bride was Lucy Payne, the sister of First Lady Dolley Madison; it was Lucy’s second time at the altar. Lucy was a widow who accepted the proposal of Supreme Court Justice Thomas Todd. The 1812 ceremony wasn’t as grand as later White House weddings, but the event was carried off with typical aplomb by Mrs. Madison, perhaps the most consummate Washington hostess of all the First ladies.
Some deep dish: Guests at the wedding were treated to a pinch of snuff from Dolley’s own snuffbox. The First Lady loved her habit and very generously shared it with her company. A-choo!
THE MOST EXCLUSIVE WEDDING
The dish: In 1820 James Monroe was the first president to see his daughter marry in the White House- but he sure got a lot of grief for it. Held in what is now known as the Blue Room, the wedding was an elegant, candlelit affair that honored a young, romantic couple. The bride was a shy, seventeen-year-old poet, Maria Monroe; the groom was her handsome cousin, Samuel Gouverneur, a presidential secretary. So why did the ceremony generate so much criticism?
Thought Maria and Samuel were the stars of the show, they didn’t get to run it- Eliza wouldn’t let them. Eliza was Maria’s older sister and the acting First Lady because Mrs. Monroe was often very ill. Eliza had been educated with royals in France and she considered her presidential family too elevated to entertain mere Washington society. Over Maria’s objections Eliza pared down the guest list until not even members of the president’s cabinet received an invitation. An offended Washington, DC, considered itself thoroughly snubbed.
Some deep dish: Maria and Samuel wanted to smooth things over. They planned to attend balls held in their honor where everyone could celebrate. Their first ball was hosted by Commodore Stephen Decatur, a beloved naval hero. Unfortunately he was killed in a duel the very next day and Washington went into mourning over Decatur’s demise. All partying ended, and the capital continued to resent the Monroe wedding and the newlyweds. For their part, Samuel and Maria resented Eliza for dominating their big days, and the sisters became estranged.
THE MOST AWKWARD WEDDING
Brothers George, Charles, and John Adams
The dish: The only president to see his son married in the White House was John Quincy Adams. But he was unhappy because this was a wedding he’d done his best to prevent. First Lady Louisa Adams couldn’t enjoy herself because she was sure that the groom, her son John, “looked quite sick.” The source of all this angst? It was John’s bride, Mary Catherine Hellen, a nineteenth-century femme fatale who took the Adams family by storm.
It all started when the First Lady invited her lively niece to live with her at the White House. Mary’s beautiful and flirtatious personality soon captured the attentions of all three of the president’s sons. First Mary snared the heart of her cousin Charles. They were an item until Mary met her cousin George and she forgot all about Charles. Mary and George were engaged (though President Adams didn’t approve and was doing his best to break it up) when cousin John arrived to the White House after being expelled from school. George was soon forgotten and then Mary and John became a hot item. Mama Louisa was forced to spruce up the Blue Room and let the pair marry for fear the couple would cause a scandal.
Some deep dish: Neither Charles nor George attended their brother’s wedding. Mama Louisa took to her sick bed after the whole ordeal. Sensitive, poetic George plunged into a depression, took up drinking, and died less than two years later. The cause was said to be accidental drowning. But some whispered it was suicide and blamed fickle Mary.
THE MAY-DECEMBER WEDDING
The dish: She was twenty-one and gorgeous. He was fair, fat, and well past forty. But their union caught the public fancy. Everyone knew that the president doted on the daughter of his former law partner, and rumors had been circulated about their engagement for months. When President Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom in 1886, happy crowds filled the White House grounds. Sounds of music coming from the Blue Room told the public that John Philip Sousa was leading the Marine Band in the wedding march.
President Cleveland and Frances tried to keep the wedding as simple and private as possible. There were no attendants, and guests reported their amazement at Frances’ ability to manage a dress with a 15-foot train all by herself. (It was her first triumph as one of America’s most popular First Ladies.) When the short wedding was over the White House crowds heard a twenty-one gun salute from a local navy yard, and church bells rang throughout Washington.
The deep dish: Trying to protect his bride from publicity, President Cleveland released no public photos. But he couldn’t protect Frances during the honeymoon. Newsmen staked out the presidential honeymoon cottage and watched it with spyglasses. The horrified president railed to the newspapers about immoral journalistic standards. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
THE MOST CROWDED WEDDING
The dish: President Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest daughter Alice was beautiful, witty, spirited, and adored by the American public. Over Pop’s presidential protests, Alice managed to smoke, drive fast cars, and travel without a chaperone -and it didn’t hurt her popularity one bit. Admiring Americans sang songs such as “Alice Blue Gown” in her honor. European royalty gave her gifts. The world worshiped “Princess” Alice, and she gracefully allowed them the privilege. When Roosevelt announced that his daughter would marry Ohio congressman Nicholas Longworth at the White House, Alice watched the “loot” pour in. She received everything from a hand-crafted teak chest containing jewels and furs from the dowager empress of China to a barrel of popcorn from the U.S. citizens.
Despite the president’s announcement that he planned a small family affair, demands for invitations poured in. When the wedding day came on February 17, 1906, the ballroom-sized East Room couldn’t hold all the guests. One woman even fainted in the crush of bodies. A staff of 101 -including policemen, maids, and butlers- was barely adequate to handle the crowd. Meanwhile, thousands of people gathered outside the White House in celebration of America’s greatest wedding.
Some deep dish: The bride soon discovered that her new husband was both an alcoholic and a playboy. She would have divorced him, but felt that would hurt her father’s political chances of staying in the White House. According to Alice’s family, her marriage was as great a failure as the wedding had been a fabulous success.
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.
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