First Lady Michelle Obama has taken to Twitter to keep herself before the American public, updating them on her activities.
Jackie Kennedy went on television, conducting a black-and-white videotaped tour of the White House.
Eleanor Roosevelt made herself a national presence with a weekly Sunday night radio show.
Florence Harding did the same by becoming the first to appear in silent newsreels.
Julia Tyler, however, was the first First Lady to employ the trending technology of her era, the first incumbent in that role to pose for a photograph, capturing and preserving her real facial image forever.
For even faster and more readily-accessible dissemination, she went further by permitting an engraving of her portrait to be mass-printed for sale to the public. To top it all off, she was even the first First Lady to hire her very own press agent.
Born in 1820 on her family’s private island off the tip of Long Island, Julia Gardiner Tyler loved been seen.
And when she appeared, in any form, she never failed to put on a good show.
She was the daughter of New York state senator David Gardiner and Juliana McLachlan, an heiress whose warrior grandfather from Scotland was beheaded there in an uprising he led.
Making her social debut in May of 1835, it was Miss Gardiner’s audacious flirtatiousness which made her an immediate standout among her peers of conventional debutantes. Weeks later, her physical beauty and witty intelligence were described in a poem published in the Brooklyn Eagle, penned by an anonymous fellow with the cognomen “Romeo Ringdove,” but dubbing her “the Rose of Long Island.” The nickname stuck.
Miss Gardiner never forgot her bit of publicity and seemed determine to get some more. Four years later, she scandalized the social circles of New York’s elite families, to which her family belonged.
Her great crime was to somehow secretly arrange for her facial image and nickname to be used in an 1839 handbill advertisement, where she was posed as a model parading the cobblestones of Ninth Avenue in front of Bogert & McCamly and carrying a handbag which declares that she bought her fancy duds at the department store because, “Their Goods are Beautiful and Astonishingly Cheap.”
Although she at least followed the social custom of not having her name used in print, a drawing of a rose followed by the words “of Long Island” was printed beneath the advertisement. It was coy exhibitionism, Julia managing to appear in the most overt of public forums while barely veiling her identity by use of her public nickname.
It was the first known commercial endorsement of a prominent woman in the history of New York.
In an era when women of wealth and privilege were striving to keep their identity out of the multiplying number of “penny press” newspapers, those printed fast on cheap paper with dubious journalistic accuracy, Julia Gardiner Tyler was doing everything she could to create a public profile for herself.
Within months, her mortified parents fled from their East Hampton, Long Island manor house, taking Julia and her younger sister Margaret to Europe for several months. In August of 1840, however, the Gardiners went to Washington, the father obtaining letters of introduction to the American Ambassador to France, Lewis Cass, from the Attorney General.
While there, they were also received by President Martin Van Buren. Since the President’s surrogate First Lady, his daughter-in-law Angelica Van Buren usually spent summer with her family at their South Carolina plantation, its unlikely Julia Gardiner then met her. She would have certainly read about the 24-year old Mrs. Van Buren, however.
Months earlier, this First Lady had generated unwanted publicity by receiving guests in a formal “tableaux” format where she stood apart from the masses holding a bouquet and refusing to engage in the democratic practice of shaking hands. Angelica Van Buren had copied tis form after witnessing its use at the English and French royal courts. When the U.S. Ambassador got the Gardiners into the court of the French King in January of 1841, Julia herself got a good look at the regal procedures. She liked what she saw.
A Bavarian baron proposed marriage to Julia, as did a count in Brussels.
In Italy, Julia did not merely dare to look down into the heart of a smoldering Mount Vesuvius and kiss the ring of the “dear, old” Pope Gregory (she later converted to Catholicism).
Dressed in the white gown she had worn when presented to the French King Miss Gardiner posed for a lavish, larger-than-life size oil portrait by artist Francesco Anelli, known for finely flattering the faces of other members of New York’s wealthy families making their tours of the Continent, like the Van Rensellaers.
In an age when even most people would die without ever having their images captured in an oil or watercolor canvas or charcoal or pen drawing, the fact that Julia was intent on having her image immortalized in two portraits by the time she was 21 years old reveals as much about her uncommon degree of confidence as not only a young person but a woman as it does about her ego.
As she did in her earlier one, at the top of this article (the exact date and artist remain obscure), Julia Gardiner posed with a jeweled headband around her forehead, having already made it her personal trademark.
Such a conscientiousness about her permanent image more than suggests that the future First Lady was hip to the concept of branding herself with a signature item (think Churchill’s cigar, Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox, Tom Mix’s white rancher hat, FDR’s cigarette holder).
Upon returning to the United States in September 1841, the Gardiners went again to Washington. On January 20, 1842 they were received at the White House by President John Tyler and his two official hostesses, daughter Letitia Tyler Semple and daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler, a former actress. First Lady Letitia Tyler, paralyzed by a stroke several years earlier, was unable to undertake such a public role; nine months later, she became the first of three presidential wives to die in the White House .
Not long after Mrs. Tyler’s death, the Gardiners returned to Washington yet again, this time with a specific agenda of finding Julia and Margaret rich and powerful husbands.
After flirting with future President and bachelor James Buchanan and future President and married man Millard Fillmore, Julia Gardiner won the heart of First Son, John Tyler, Jr., who she liked because he wrote a poem about her, despite her private confession that it was awful. More disappointing was the fact that he was already married.
If she couldn’t get the son, however, the father was very interested.
Despite the fact that his wife had died just five months earlier and he was 53 years old, President Tyler was so hot for the 23 year old Julia that he not only chased her around tables but proposed marriage on February 22, 1843, at a Washington’s Birthday Ball masquerade party in the White House.
Julia put him off but they began writing love letters to each other when apart and stepped out to public events when both were in the same city. Long before gossip television shows like TMZ or magazines like Vanity Fair, there was endless public speculation around the country about the lovesick President and his debutante girlfriend. One rumor claimed that Julia would only marry Tyler if he promised to run for election in 1844 and that he would do so only if she campaigned for him among the wealthy and powerful Northern Democrats.
The gossip generated the second public depiction of Julia Gardiner’s image.
This time it was a political cartoon showing Tyler at a crossroads, paused indecisively about whether to chose the road leading him to a second term in 1844 or following his heart down the path which Julia was luring him.
In reverse of the 1839 department store advertisement, this time Julia was publicly identified as “Miss Gardiner” but her face was hidden under a bonnet.
The shocking death of her father when a naval cannon exploded during a presidential cruise in February 1844 and Tyler’s paternal comfort finally prompted Julia to secretly accept the President’s marriage proposal.
Slipping out of Washington undetected and escorted to New York City only by his son John, the President joined Julia on the morning of June 26, 1844 to elope with her in the Church of the Ascension.
Although the ceremony was witnessed by only one dozen guests sworn to secrecy, by the time the newlyweds finished their wedding breakfast at the Gardiner home, word was out.
Making their way by ferry to Jersey City, they got a naval salute in New York Harbor.
At the Philadelphia and Baltimore rail stations, shoving crowds nearly pushed a few people onto the train tracks in their obsessive determination to steal a fleeting glimpse of the new First Lady.
Those mob scenes not only flattered Julia, but inspired a few ideas. The ever-nimble minded First Lady quickly determined her new, initial identity, branding herself not merely as “Mrs. John Tyler” but officially as “The President’s Bride.”
There was only one of those.
Granting permission for a New York engraver to render a pen drawing of herself by copying the image of her Francesco Anelli oil portrait, hanging in her mother’s New York brownstone, and to then print copies of it by the thousands, for public sale in dry goods stores where monthly journals, weekly magazines and daily newspapers were sold, she instructed only that she be identified as “The President’s Bride.”
For those who might chance upon her face for sale, Julia Tyler struck a deal with her brother’s acquaintance, the New York Herald newspaper reporter F.W. Thompson. He would be granted permanent access to all of the social events she would preside over in trade for a steady stream of praiseful descriptions of her physical beauty, exquisite clothing and convivial entertainments. By the fall 1844 social season, “the President’s Bride” was bestowed with an even more commanding title by Thompson. He declared her the “lovely lady Presidentress.”
Julia Tyler gave Thompson and other reporters more than enough news to report.
She received guests in the royal style, wearing a long-trained white gown and regal peacock feathers in crown-like headpiece while seated on a regal chair on a raised platform, surrounded by a court of twelve “vestal virgins,” young women dressed alike in white.
Even outside of the White House, during the daytime, Julia Tyler was extraordinarily self-conscious about the public image which she conveyed of what she termed “my auspicious reign.” She was purposefully late for a ship christening at the Navy Yard, sure to focus the crowd’s attention on her late arrival when the ceremony could finally begin. She drove around Washington in a coach pulled by eight matching Arabian white steeds.
When the young First Lady promenaded the muddy streets of the capital with a thin Italian greyhound at the end of a leash.
Although the name of the dog, imported from the consul at Naples, remains unknown, his arrival at the side of Mrs. Tyler and presence in the White House marked the first known incident of a “First Dog” which is documented.
Although her love for the President was genuine, the twenty-something First Lady had an entirely different take on the popular culture and made no effort to hide her addiction to the dance craze of the day, the polka.
She shocked not only him but most of staid Washington by venturing onto the East Room floor and bobbing, bouncing and scandalously pressing herself against her male dance partners, mostly members of the European diplomatic corps. It made news fast and she readily granted permission for her first name to be used on sheet music for a polka named in her honor, “The Julia Waltzes.”
Newspaper publicity, an engraving copied from her oil portrait, a dance, a dog, a coach, a regal title and receiving style: Julia Gardiner Tyler used all of these venues to stand out and remain fresh in the public imagination.
There was one hot new technology, however, that completely exploded across the American popular culture the year she became First Lady, becoming the most personal and realistic form of self-expression. It was the photograph, then in its earliest form made accessible to the public, known as the daguerreotype.
Naturally, Julia Tyler had to have one made of herself.
The precise date that the First Lady posed for her first photograph by Edward Anthony in his New York studio, which had opened in early 1841, is unclear; she made several lengthy trips to Gotham during her brief tenure as “Presidentress” from June of 1844 to March of 1845. Though the process formed an image on glass, it could also be copied on paper.
In fact, the only known copy of this first photograph of a incumbent First Lady remained unknown until I first discovered it while conducting research at the Library of Congress, and then published it for the first time in my first book, First Ladies, volume 1 (1990).
Since then, Julia Tyler’s photograph has proliferated in dozens of books and hundreds of websites. By helping to make her real face famous, I feel like I capped her legacy with a flourishing finale more than a century and a half after her own efforts.
I was always somewhat bewildered, however, that her photograph had remained undiscovered for so long.
Julia Tyler viewed herself as being far more than a White House hostess. She forged her personal image and the position of First Lady into that of a genuine American celebrity, one of the first women to seek that status and to do so by branding herself and persistently keeping her name and face before the public.
So why didn’t she work at getting her photograph circulated?
The only image of Julia Tyler that was ever publicly seen until 1990 was the same one of her Anelli portrait in which she looked, to be honest, fairly fat.
Living until 1889, by which time she had re-branded herself with no less importance as “Mrs. Ex-President Tyler,” she had over four decades to get that daguerreotype printed on paper and copied by the hundreds.
Among her successors, Abigail Fillmore, Harriet Lane, Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant all granted Matthew Brady Studios permission to copy on paper the photographs he had snapped of them, and sold to the public as small carte-de-visit cards, similar in size and purpose to the later snapshot. The cards showed all these First Ladies as they really looked, full-figured and well-dressed.
In contrast, Julia Tyler donated her “fat” portrait to the White House during the Grant Administration, so it could be hung before the public forever.
The Julia Tyler in the painting barely resembles the Julia Tyler in the photograph.
Not until I shifted my twenty-first century perception of what an overtly vain nineteenth-century woman considered to be the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity did her decision make sense.
The photo revealed a truth that was far too embarrassing for Julia Tyler.
Relatively speaking, she was thin.
- Three stories of love in the White House (constitutioncenter.org)
- President Grandpa: How The Lives of First Grandkids Play Out (carlanthonyonline.com)
- DIBACCO: On the way of the Whigs (washingtontimes.com)