The Chicago Tribune reports that two weeks from this coming Saturday, the White House will be the scene of a birthday party for First Lady Michelle Obama, who will turn 50 years old the day before, having been born on January 17, 1964. Invitations were sent out by email from the White House to family members and friends of the First Couple.
The party is being called “Snacks & Sips & Dancing & Dessert,” but despite the landmark occasion of the First Lady reaching the half-century mark. The paper reports that the email told guests to “wear comfortable shoes, practice their dance moves and eat before they come.”
The festivities will be modest compared to those celebrated in the White House by the relatively few First Ladies who celebrated their birthdays during the time their husbands were president. Based on the scant documentation chronicling birthday celebrations of previous First Ladies in the White House, Mrs. Obama’s will be unusual in that it will not provide dinner. Also differentiating it is the fact that it will not be “official” or in any way public, but rather considered a private event. An important distinction about Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party is the fact that it is not being used to raise money for any organization.
No personal event has been more frequently celebrated by First Families than birthdays. It was the annual birthday of another White House resident born in January however, which turned the celebration into one shared with the public and used as a charity fundraiser.
Presidents and First Ladies before Franklin D. Roosevelt began his presidency in 1933 had marked their annual birthday with formal dinners with friends and family.
On occasion, an organization would ask if they could come present a President with a cake, and pose for a publicity photograph. Unless the birthday took place in the most bitter weeks of winter, the presentation was almost always conducted on the White House lawn, demarking it was an official event.
With FDR, however, the Presidential Birthday became a large, national event.
For eleven years, from 1934 to 1945 (since his presidency began at a time when Inauguration Day was still held on March 4, rather than January 20, his 1933 birthday took place a month and a week before he became President), “The President’s Birthday” was used as the annual fundraising drive for the March of Dimes in its fight against infantile paralysis.
Dwight Eisenhower’s annual October birthday was similarly used, but as a fundraiser for the National Republican Committee. The three annual May birthdays of his immediate successor John F. Kennedy was used likewise, for the Democratic National Committee. These set a pattern that has waxed and waned but persisted in some form since.
Until the mid-20th century, most Americans considered a birthday party to be a prerogative of children, often less a matter of stroking a juvenile ego than a quiet celebration that they child had survived some years towards maturity in a society where infantile and child death was so prevalent.
Among adults, only the elite class had the privilege of time to plan a party for themselves or an adult family member or friend, and the discretionary wealth to spend on what many saw as a needless and extravagant expense.
Newspaper reports of adult birthday parties began to multiply in the Gilded Age, with stories detailing the floral decorations, gifts of jewelry in precious metals and gems, the endless Victorian food feasts and the music, often provided by live orchestras in the mansions of robber barons.
In the White House, the first known birthday parties for a First Lady were hosted for Ida McKinley at the turn-of-the-century.
Ida McKinley’s 50th birthday party, on June 8, 1897, was actually two events, a lavish private dinner officially hosted by the Vice President and his wife, Garret and Jennie Hobart, and then a smaller event in the executive mansion for visiting relatives held some time later.
Among the gifts she received were an expensive diamond jewelry set, presented by the President – the cost of which was withheld from the press. This First Lady was a well-known and rather early proponent of birthday parties for adults, often sending gifts to mark the special day for friends and families.
And Ida McKinley had her cake and ate it it. At the First Lady’s 50th birthday party hosted by the Hobarts, she and the guests were served a rich vanilla cake with butterscotch filling, covered not with the familiar buttercream but rather royal icing, with flowers tinted in her favorite shades of pale blue and dark purple.
Rather than let the uneaten cake remain at the Hobart house on Lafayette Square, she had it boxed up so she could take it away with her in the presidential mansion and, presumably, feast from it for several more days.
In 1921, Florence Harding’s August 15, 1860 birthday was celebrated belatedly at a large gathering of Senate wives and other social friends in Washington, the party hosted by her confidante, heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean at her massive estate “Friendship.”
It’s unclear what might have occurred in subsequent years, in terms of this First Lady’s birthday celebrations since in 1922 there were massive strikes and Mrs. Harding fell ill at the time of her birthday.
By the following year, she was still living in the White House but as a widow, her husband having died on August 2, in San Francisco.
Still, anything other than perhaps a small, private family dinner and gift of jewelry from a spouse, the celebration of one’s personal birthday was viewed by the elite class as rather unseemly. Certainly, Eleanor Roosevelt found it ostentatious.
For Mrs. Roosevelt’s 50th birthday party on October 11, 1934, her first as First Lady, a baker posed for publicity photographs as he was decorated a cake that was sent to her. There was no follow-up to the news story and picture, however, and it is unknown whether the White House accepted the cake or if it was enjoyed by the First Family.
More typical of Mrs. Roosevelt, the cake was likely donated to a hospital where many patients could enjoy it. For a birthday gift, President Roosevelt apologized for his rather uninspiring gift of a check – and she promptly donated the money to charity.
In contrast, Eleanor Roosevelt was the central figure at the annual “President’s Birthday” fundraiser events, joined by movie stars on stage as she cut into the multi-tiered and regal confections.
Not until her 70th birthday in 1954, when she was no longer First Lady did Eleanor Roosevelt permit her birthday to be publicly acknowledged, used as an occasion to raise funds for the United Nations Association.
In contrast, Mamie Eisenhower celebrated her birthday publicly every year she was First Lady. Her November birthday parties became larger with each of the passing eight years of the Eisenhower Administration.
The birthday parties of this First Lady was always a massive gala event, usually a luncheon and they were hosted by a variety of organizations which used them as fundraisers, from the Washington Women’s Press Club to the National Federation of Republican Women.
Speculation has it that Michelle Obama has hoped to have her favorite performer Beyonce entertain at her 50th birthday party in the White House, but Mamie Eisenhower always had a roster of Broadway and Hollywood stars perform at her events, from Ethel Merman to Red Skelton to Mahalia Jackson.
As an article on carlanthonyonline.com from November 2012 details, there is also evidence that the widely-publicized annual First Lady Birthday Parties of the 1950s was a factor which helped popularize the idea of American adults celebrating their birthdays, coinciding with the manufacturing and sale of birthday party products for adults produced by her close friend Joyce Hallmark and the head of the nation’s largest greeting card and novelty manufacturer.
Mamie Eisenhower’s birthday parties became such a part of Fifties Pop Culture popular culture that CBS-TV even produced and aired a 1956 gala for her on national television, “To Mamie With Love” (five months after the fact but in the year of the President’s re-election campaign, perhaps without coincidence). In the opening sequence of this year’s C-Span episode on Mamie Eisenhower during its First Ladies series, some singers and dancers in the opening sequence can be seen.
Since Mamie Eisenhower, three First Ladies have had “public” birthday parties, yet all of them were tied to a holiday which was also being celebrated in the White House.
Born just before midnight on March 16, 1912 to an Irish-American father who declared that his baby daughter Thelma Catherine Ryan was his “St. Patrick’s Day babe in the morning,” Pat Nixon would acquiesce to having a cake rolled out and having “Happy Birthday” sung to her at several St. Patrick’s Day formal events hosted in the White House when her husband was President.
Her most famous birthday was her last one in the White House. Returning to the U.S. from a visit to Venezuela and Brazil on March 16, 1974, Mrs. Nixon’s birthday was marked with cake, champagne and a giant card made for her by the women press corps which had accompanied her to cover the goodwill diplomacy trip, depicting the First Lady as Carmen Miranda with a headdress of fruit.
The party landed in Nashville, Tennessee where they were scheduled to join up with President Nixon who was scheduled to make an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry.
It was on stage there that Pat Nixon opened her arms towards him and he turned around and away from her – to dash to the piano and play “Happy Birthday” to his wife. The entire audience joined in as she took a seat next to him.
Nancy Reagan, born on July 5, 1921, marked her milestone 60th birthday during her first year as First Lady. Rather than return to their Santa Barbara Ranch in California as they often did at that time of the summer, the President and Mrs. Reagan instead stayed in Washington.
The First Lady’s birthday was celebrated as a brief component of the White House Independence Day party for staff and military on the South Lawn. The bigger celebration was held at nearby Woodlawn Plantation in Virginia where a closely-knit group of long-term friends who had come in from southern California, gathered around Nancy Reagan to mark her birthday a day early, as she blew out candles on a large tri-colored birthday cake.
For Hillary Clinton, her eight White House birthday parties were almost always celebrated at parties in conjunction with Halloween which falls four days later.
The event was almost always marked by a large costume party held in the East Room.
One year, she and the President went as country singers, another time as 1950s teenagers and a third time as former President and First Lady James and Dolley Madison.
Hillary Clinton’s 50th birthday party in 1997, however, was celebrated at both the White House and in her hometown of Chicago.
The day in Chicago was a blowout, beginning with an appearance by the First Lady and her mother on television and continuing with a visit to her childhood home in the suburb Park Ridge, and her childhood church, high school and the auditorium where she first heard Martin Luther King speak.
There was a ceremony at a local park which was dedicated in her name and then a forum conducted by this author about her growing up in the city, held at the Chicago Historical Society.
The day was capped off by a mammoth birthday party at the Chicago Cultural Center.
In contrast, it appears that the anticipated White House birthday party of Michelle Obama a week from Saturday will be especially personal in one distinct way.
Guests are being encouraged to be ready to dance – for among First Ladies few have more openly enjoyed cutting a rug than her, be in a waltz or a Dougie. One can read further and see images of First Ladies dancing at another story on this website, from the spring of 2011.