First Ladies in China: Jackie Onassis Kidnapped, Pat Nixon’s Coat, Lou Hoover’s Pistol & Other Tales

Betty Ford gets a dancing lesson from a group of female dancers at a performance academy in Beijing on December 3, 1975. (english.cri.cn)

Betty Ford gets a dancing lesson from a group of communist Chinese ballet students in Beijing, December 3, 1975. (english.cri.cn)

On March 19, First Lady Michelle Obama became the fifteenth American First Lady who journeyed to China, six of whom went as incumbent First Ladies. She will be there until March 26.

In telling the stories of her fourteen predecessors who have done so since 1879, the evolution of China itself from dynastic rule to national republic to communism state to socialist/open-market hybrid is revealed.

Ulysses and Julia Grant arriving at one of the many palaces where they were received in the numerous Asian nations on their world tour.

Ulysses and Julia Grant arriving at one of the many palaces where they were received in the numerous Asian nations on their world tour.

Former First Lady Julia Grant didn't mind all the fuss made over her in China.

Former First Lady Julia Grant didn’t mind all the fuss made over her in China.

The very first to enter China was the curious, witty and fussy Julia Grant in 1879, as high Victorian as they came, She was then in the midst of a grand and regal tour of the world with her hailed husband, the former President and former Union Army commander Ulysses S. Grant. Their tour took two years.’

The Grants were in China while it was still ruled by ancient dynastic primogeniture and genealogy strictly dictated one’s entire life, the highest ranks providing status and power, wealth, palaces, and servants for everything. It was this elite class that Julia Grant mixed with in China.

Julia Grant was carried through the streets of Shanghai in a sedan chair similar to this one, except with yellow silk.

Julia Grant was carried through the streets of Shanghai in a sedan chair similar to this one, except with yellow silk.

Having no point of reference for a democratically-elected leader, let alone one no longer holding elective power, the Chinese treated Julia Grant as an American Dowager Empress.

When she was honored at a regal luncheon by the Viceroy’s wife, the former First Lady was conveyed to a palace through the streets of Shanghai while sitting in a carved chair on a raised platform, shielded from the curious eyes of the Chinese peasantry by yellow silk curtains drawn around her, and carried shoulder-length by four strong men servants.

Which was fine with Mrs. Grant who was rather stout.

Not yet a First Lady, Nellie Taft decided to “run up” to China in the fall of 1901, from her home base in the Philippines, blithely exploring a land where she didn’t speak the language, entirely on her own.

Nellie Taft voyaging the Pacific with her youngest child Charlie, several months before she determined to “run up to China” from a home base in Manila. (LC)

 Nellie Taft saw this same dynastic China as Julia Grant but in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. She didn’t rank high enough to mix with the princes. She didn’t mind; her eyes were wild with wonder as she scrambled for, as she put it, “loot,” porcelain vases, embroidered silks and Russian sables at dirt cheap prices.

The day after her 1899 wedding, Lou Hoover moved with her engineer groom to Tientsin, China where he was on work assignment with the Chinese government.

Lou Hoover inspecting one of the cannons at a Chinese fort that shelled the community of Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion, 1900.

Lou Hoover inspecting one of the cannons at a Chinese fort that shelled the community of Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion, 1900. (HHPL)

 She was living there just as the Boxer Rebellion broke out, with bloody violent attacks on non-Chinese like herself. She learned to work a gun and carried it. She wasn’t harmed.

Edith Wilson three years before she went to China.

Edith Wilson three years before going to China.

Edith Roosevelt and Edith Wilson both went as tourists to China, the former twice in 1924 and 1932 and the latter in 1929.

By then, the nationalist republic movement had replaced the old dynastic rule, led by the “Father of the Chinese Republic” Sun Yat-sen. Edith Roosevelt was even entertained at the home of his son.

Edith Wilson ate too much exotic dishes and got sick to her stomach.

Eleanor Roosevelt's newspaper column regarding her unrequited wish to visit China. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper column regarding her unrequited wish to visit China. (FBI)

The one First Lady who might seemed to have surely gone to China never did. Eleanor Roosevelt was a former First Lady in 1953 when she attempted to obtain a visa to visit this culture so long perceived by Westerners as mysterious.

By then the Communist revolution led by Chairman Mao had turned this vast land into a frighteningly monolithic socialist state in 1949. The State Department forbid American citizens from traveling to China, even a former First Lady known as the “First Lady of the World.”

Pat Nixon attended a class with students at a communal school during her China tour in 1972.

Pat Nixon attended a class with students at a communal school during her China tour in 1972.

It was not until 1972, six years after Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” purging all forms of western influence on the Chinese people, that American President Richard Nixon came to China. Following the advice of leader Chou En-Lai, he brought First Lady Pat Nixon along with him.

If Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit worn in Dallas when her husband was assassinated has come to symbolize all of the events surrounding that tragedy, Pat Nixon’s bright “Chinese Red” cloth coat now symbolizes the opening of a new era in U.S.-China relations.

Pat Nixon fed a pig on a Chinese commune and startled communists by telling how she had performed the manual labor of raising pigs on a farm as a girl. (english.cri.cn)

Pat Nixon fed pigs on a Chinese commune and startled communists by telling how she had performed the manual labor of raising pigs on a farm as a girl. (english.cri.cn)

Wherever she was during her week in China, the cameras could find Pat Nixon because of her coat, seen here glimpsing a panda - which prompted a gift of them to the U.S. . (english.crn.cn)

Wherever she was during her week in China, the cameras could find Pat Nixon because of her coat, seen here glimpsing a panda – which prompted a gift of them to the U.S. . (english.crn.cn)

It was that striking visual which the world watched on live television reports, showing the first sustained glimpses of life in a land which had been closed to westerners for a quarter of a century.

With her husband closed away in meetings all day, Pat Nixon’s warm interactions with the everyday Chinese citizen in schools, factories, restaurants, farms and hospitals signaled a new understanding of the Chinese people that indelibly marked the mind of history.

When she shocked Communist officials by kicking off her high heels and spontaneously joining in a Chinese ballet school rehearsal she had come to watch on her trip to China in 1975, Betty Ford furthered this new openness by proving to the Chinese that capitalists knew how to fall in line and follow the lead.

Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush also went to China as incumbent First Ladies on official presidential visits with their husbands.

Laura Bush learned to make noodles with Chinese chefs at a restaurant in Beijing on February 21, 2002. (english.cri.cn)

Laura Bush learned to make noodles with Chinese chefs at a restaurant in Beijing on February 21, 2002. (english.cri.cn)

Nancy Reagan bargaining on souvenirs in Xi'an on April 29, 1984. (english.cri.cn)

Nancy Reagan bargaining on souvenirs in Xi’an on April 29, 1984. (english.cri.cn)

Like Lou Hoover, Barbara Bush actually lived in China.

Based in Beijing where her husband had been named Chief of the Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China, she was later shocked at how advanced the society seemed to have become by the time she visited as First Lady in 1989.

Barbara Bush attended a tea party at the Prince Gong's Mansion in Beijing on February 26, 1989. (english.cri.cn)

Barbara Bush attended a tea party at the Prince Gong’s Mansion in Beijing on February 26, 1989. (english.cri.cn)

Barbara Bush grew alarmed, however, when a dissident invited to a dinner the Bushes hosted was blocked from attending by the Chinese government and how menacingly Chinese security agents physically bullied the American reporters covering her activities and even dislocated the jaw of the White House photographer.

Hillary Clinton delivering her famous speech on women's rights in Beijing, 1995. (Getty)

Hillary Clinton delivering her famous speech on women’s rights in Beijing, 1995. (Getty)

No U.S. First Lady visiting China created more of stir than did Hillary Clinton during her 1995 trip to Beijing, to address the fourth United Nations conference on women.

In her famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech, she not only chastised the Chinese for their sterilization of women and encouragement of abortions to uphold their “one child” policy among citizens but also their government censorship of all media which questioned the party line.

On her second trip there as First Lady in 1998, she showed her support for a women’s legal clinic and the growing desire there for freedom of religion.

In her five trips to China as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton continued to call out the communist leadership on issues ranging from disputed territorial claims in the China Sea to its “new colonialism” in African nations.

In her capacity as Secretary of State, former First Lady Hillary Clinton is greeted by Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo on the grounds of Beijing's Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on Feb. 21, 2009. (foreignpolicy.com)

In her capacity as Secretary of State, former First Lady Hillary Clinton is greeted by Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo on the grounds of Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on Feb. 21, 2009, her first Chinese trip in her offifcial role. (foreignpolicy.com)

Three modern First Ladies made their first trips to China after they left the White House.

Lady Bird Johnson in 1981. (humanitiestexas.org)

Lady Bird Johnson, 1981. (humanitiestexas.org)

In 1981, Lady Bird Johnson went exploring the coastal regions, looking over archeological sites in her role as a National Geographic Society trustee.

From what can be determined of her itinerary, it was largely in the Beijing area.

During the one dozen trips to China she has made with her husband beginning in 1981, Rosalynn Carter has taken private notes of conversations between her husband and Chinese leaders, helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity, raised compassionate awareness about Chinese citizens with mental health challenges, helped monitor the new experiment of democratic voting in villages, toured regional museums and participated in ceremonies honoring the work of past Americans in the country.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter helping build a home in China with her husband through Habitat for Humanity. (sfgate.com)

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter helping build a home in China with her husband through Habitat for Humanity. (sfgate.com)

The Carters at a statue dedication and ceremony of the Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital. (china.org.cn)

The Carters at a statue dedication and ceremony of the Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital. (china.org.cn)

Despite the fact that she had left the White House almost twenty years before, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis could not escape her iconic status even in China.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis listens to her personal tour guide through Beijing's Forbidden City, October 17, 1982. (Washington Star Collection)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis listens to her personal tour guide through Beijing’s Forbidden City, October 17, 1982. (Washington Star Collection)

It may speak volumes to the power of celebrity that she was so recognizable, even though all of her famous activities during her tenure as First Lady from 1961 to 1963 had occurred during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and never reported in any news outlets there.

Yet when she made her 1982 trip to China as part of an entourage of friends of native-born architect I.M.Pei , she was instantly recognized even during a lazy Li River cruise by Chinese citizens, whispering excitedly, “Jhackee! Jhackee!”

When they learned that the world’s most famous woman was coming to their country, communist Chinese government propagandists went into a high alert frenzy, determined to separate her from her party of friends so she could be shown “special places” never seen by other non-Chinese.

The only way to get her to do this was, as she put it, to “kidnap” her.

To read the rest of how the Chinese kidnapped Jackie Onassis and greater details about the unique and untold stories of U.S. First Ladies in China with far more many photographs in the author’s three-part series on the National First Ladies Library Blog, as follows:

American First Ladies in China, A Fascinating, Untold Saga, Part I
(covers Julia Grant, Nellie Taft, Edith Roosevelt, Lou Hoover and Edith Wilson)

American First Ladies in China: A Fascinating, Untold Saga, Part 2
(covers Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan)

American First Ladies in China: A Fascinating, Untold Sage, Part 3
(covers Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton as First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State)

China's modernization is exemplified in images of Pat Nixon's visit to a children's hospital there in 1972, and one made by Hillary Clinton there in 1998. (english.cri.cn)

China’s modernization is exemplified in images of Pat Nixon’s visit to a children’s hospital there in 1972, and one made by Hillary Clinton there in 1998. (english.cri.cn)


Categories: First Ladies, The Kennedys, The Nixons

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2 replies »

  1. Very entertaining tales here. Earlier today, I rec’d some very fascinating stories on First Lady Michelle’s trip to China via The London Daily Mail…The Mail really went to town on what appears to be a very unfortunate start to this cultural tour….I admit, I am not a big fan of the Obamas, but I am very surprised and mystified as to what the H is going on here, Carl?

    • I think that ever since the LBJ years whenever a President or First Lady travels that not just the Secret Service but hotel security goes way over the top in security – and the hotel has the motivation of its reputation and hopes of being used again – so often the family members traveling are unaware of what is being done or how hotel staff are being run ragged. It is likely more a matter of the Hotel Manager than the Secret Service or a First Family member complaining. I found it interesting that the alleged complaints of staff offer no specific complaint or recall any specific incident. It may well be that the Manager is telling the staff, “so and so wants this or that…” Read between the lines here. And of course, the Daily Mail is not a newspapers but all about taking one tiny incident and making it a headline – very old-school Fleet Street Brit media tactic. I recall similar complaints about several past trips: when Betty Ford went to China with her daughter, Laura Bush went to China with her daughter and Hillary Clinton went to China with her daughter!

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