In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I’ve got an essay on the history of the first lady memoir. (It’s already online.) Laura Bush’s Spoken from the Heart gives us 12 such books, and a few are genuinely good. I single out Lady Bird Johnson’s White House Diary for praise, but even the more prosaic examples are worth our time. In 2003, a professor named Robert Watson compiled a list of first lady biographies. Watson’s top five are no surprise: Jacqueline Kennedy (who’s been the subject of 37 biographical books), Eleanor Roosevelt (35), Hillary Rodham Clinton (27), Mary Todd Lincoln (19), Dolley Madison (16), and Abigail Adams (13). But 17 first ladies had received zero or one biographies. And while that ratio is improving—see the recent biographies of Helen Taft and Louisa Adams, both mentioned in my essay—I find it brave, and even inspiring, that these women were writing their own stories when no one else would.
One way to measure the impact of Lady Bird’s Diary—and I wasn’t able to get into this in the essay—is to look at when the first lady memoir became a distinct genre with its own history. Publishers loved to market early first lady memoirs as disposable women’s lit. (While doing the research, I posted an example of this; this post’s title, taken from a White House Diary ad, is another.) Journalists and reviewers didn’t help things. The NYTBR review of Edith Wilson’s memoir that I quote in the essay erroneously called it the first first lady memoir. At least a reader wrote in with a stern correction.
The craziest example of this came in the coverage of Lady Bird’s Diary, which kept describing it as the first such book “since the memoirs of Abigail Adams.” I’m not sure what’s worse: that this ignores several first lady books or that it invents a historical document. I emailed Edith Gelles, author of the excellent Abigail Adams: A Writing Life, and asked for her help: “Abigail’s only ‘journal,'” Gelles confirmed, “was a brief diary that she kept of her journey to England.” So what are “the memoirs of Abigail Adams”? The best theory I’ve got is that a frazzled journalist scanned the title (but not the contents) of the 1840 Letters of Mrs. Adams, The Wife of John Adams. With An Introductory Memoir By Her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams. The “memoir” is a biographical sketch written by Charles—similar in format to what he did for John Adams’s oeuvre a few years later. Nevertheless, someone said something about Abigail Adams and memoirs. A few repetitions and we ended up with Abigail Adams’s phantom autobiography.
Contrast this with today: as First Lady, Laura Bush could quote from Lady Bird’s Diary; now, as a first lady memoirist, she can explain how she “wanted to give people a sense of what life is like in the White House, even in mundane ways. . . . [That wasn’t] really a part of the other First Ladies’ memoirs that I read. ” (Of course, this comes from her cover story in the latest Ladies’ Home Journal; some things never change.) You won’t find anything like Laura’s awareness of writing in a tradition until after Lady Bird. Even though Eleanor Roosevelt wrote more than 20 books, for example, the coverage of A White House Diary never mentioned her as an antecedent.
That’s one reason I describe Eleanor as an “outlier” in my essay. But Eleanor was also an outlier in her grasp of the first lady tradition. In her syndicated newspaper column for Januray 25, 1939, she writes:
I went to bed fairly early last night and read the last installment of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson’s memoirs. I find the editor’s notes, which skip over what you feel must be interesting reading, a little disconcerting. I suppose this is done to keep more of the interest for the book, which will appear later.
 Books aren’t the only form for memoir, of course, and several first ladies wrote autobiographical essays. I’ll mention Grace Coolidge’s example—to avoid confusion as much as anything else since, in 1993, her series of essays for American Magazine (along with some unpublished material) was issued as Grace Coolidge: An Autobiography.
2 thoughts on ““Because there isn’t a woman in the country who isn’t perishing to know what it’s really like to be the wife of an American president today””
do biographies of william rufus king count?
Only if we count William Henry Harrison, too! Seriously, though, thanks for reading.